School Spirit

Ariana Reines’s new moon report

View of Notre-Dame cathedral and its garden. Photo: Wikipedia.

for Timea Szell

“Jabès and Semprún both said that language was their only homeland [....] Why is it so difficult to be alive to what happens?” - Paul B. Preciado, An Apartment on Uranus


The first time I heard a mourning dove

I thought it was an owl

The first bunny I ever saw

Was hidden in a bed

I think it was a bed of “Impatiens

A word shaped like my grandmother’s hands

But is there such a thing as a bed of “Impatiens

Or else it was it a bed of pansies

The sound of the owl had a smell, I thought

I mean I thought that what I smelled

When the mourning dove moaned

Which I thought was an owl

Was the scent of the sound


I am only trying to tell you how I know what I know

It wasn’t until I was among the hedgerows

Outside Notre-Dame on a school trip in the April of my maybe

Sixteenth year I realized what I was breathing in did not come from a bird

It was the first time outside my grandmother’s garden that scent

Had ever hit me. But here I was in France and none of the birds were moaning

The smell was naked. Without sound. It came, I realized, from a plant

That was growing in the ground. It had a bright, astringent, almost androgenic

Odor, to be precise it was something between a fragrance and an odor

It was slightly animal, almost spunk, but fresh and green. It gave me a feeling

I’ll call “The Earth.” It made me think of my grandmother’s accent

And the shape of her thumb in pruning shears, and the way she would whistle

To wake me up, and that she kept her bedroom window open all year round

And the shape of her bunions that she got in the War, which rhymed

With her thumb in the pruning shears, and frozen grapes, and orange koi

In the pond she had made in the Japanese garden she had made

To console herself over the murder of her husband her mother and father

The death of one brother and the disappearance of another and the suicide

Of her sister-in-law and the deportation to his death of that sister-in-law’s

Little boy.

                   Can sound have scent? Does it matter that Notre-Dame burned?

Does it matter that my grandmother is dead? Does it matter that her husband burned?

Does it matter that my mother went mad but wasn’t totally wrong? 

Does it matter that I can no longer look at her?

Does it matter that the fragrance or odor of boxwood is stronger, I will never know why

When growing in anything but American soil? I took my mask off and put my face in lilac

Yesterday. Breonna Taylor was still murdered yesterday. Ahmaud Arbery was murdered

Inside a tensile invisible textile which includes, woven through it everywhere

The raw nerve of my complicity.

Does it matter for the poem that the song

Is divided from the bird as the scent of the bush

Disdains its own burning, or that certain ancient

Fragrance does not, just cannot, does not know how

Anymore, to push up from this ground?

THE OTHER NIGHT on the informational superwebs I talked about the lengths I had to go to in order to take my education.

First my father tried to withdraw my enrollment from the college of my choice. Then my Holocaust-survivor grandmother cosigned private loans in my name, using the only remaining asset she could put forward as collateral—the apartment she lived in. Then, when my mother and brother became homeless my sophomore year, I hostessed in two restaurants and worked in the campus writing center and let myself be photographed getting fucked in the ass for cash, etc. I gave my mother my bed and me and my brother slept, though I have no memory of sleep from those days, on the floor. I remember cooking us Goya rice and beans. I remember when my food for the day was a box of Just Right. I remember shoplifting. I got addicted to it. I pursued a double major, won many prizes, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, graduated Summa Cum Laude, would struggle mightily to find a decent job, would try graduate school, would drop out after a violent incident led to my brother’s psychiatric hospitalization and a general escalation in the torment of those I loved best made me despair over the effete abstractions I was expected by some of my professors to bandy about.

I had been a lazy student until the millennium, when my mom was first evicted. When the shit hit the fan I guess I had no choice but to become brilliant. It was as though circumstances had conspired to push me hard into literature. It was like being embossed. It was like being pressed into the shape of something sacramental, something holy and redeemable, a coin made of suffering that was only good in some secret way, or in a secret place. In an invisible economy.

I remember vividly what Joyce did to me, what the sonnets of Louise Labé did to me, how they burned into me. I remember Marie de France and I remember Brecht. I remember Chaucer unwinding in me like a vine, some living, literal, Jack-and-the-Beanstalk conduit to another world, a netherworld, a side-world, a different English, the rudiments of my English, a memory palace built by someone else but that eerily felt like a place I had been before, an living edifice teeming with others, something gothic built by billions, into which I had run like a migrant mother trembling over her child in a church. Oh, punish me for that last, excessive metaphor. Punish me for the blood in that metaphor, to which I would not and do not declare myself entitled. I remember Celan. I remember Montaigne. I remember Proust. I remember Vallejo. I remember Jabes. I remember Rankine. I remember Villon. I remember Violi. I remember Howe.

I had found myself in a mostly disused world, but its docents were shamans. It had taken all hell breaking loose for me to really discover this place, for me to comprehend that art is a phenomenon of burning flesh and fire, that it is a lot more than the allure of the merely artistic, the apparently beautiful. I do not think I could have managed my way into the house of language by sheer force of will, and the siren call of beauty alone would not have done it either. I had to be forced.

I am saying this because Gemini names language and the acquisition of language, writing and the betrayals of writing and also all the fun of it: friendship and intellection, siblingood and medicine, learning by imitation, loquacity, silence. And of course because Gemini invokes the Hermetic—what signifies beyond your capacity to understand it, what appears closed—sealed, what persists as if by magic, what persists by literal magic, the role of language in our transformation, the substance of our transformation as language itself. I am saying this stuff because school is about to be out and the iniquities of school have needed to change for a long time. I am saying this stuff now because I have learned that in the last decade or so the absurd things I had to do in order to get through school are now even more common. Nobody should have to sell ass to learn Chaucer. Nobody should go into debt to become a poet. I guess if you want to learn how to operate a supercollider or manipulate statistics, by all means, go to school. But the way we teach and acquire the practice and experience of the arts has got to change.

I remember graduation day. My grandmother flew up from Florida. She was in a wheelchair. My mother, by now pretty crazed and living in the roach-infested apartment I had abandoned for her use during my Junior year, was also there. My brother came too. After the ceremony we went to Starbucks. Starbucks was what we could afford. I remember writing in my notebook while crying as I sat with my family. I remember writing down what my mother was saying verbatim. It was something about mass surveillance and men’s rights groups. The year was 2002.

Ariana Reines’s free/donation-based online poetry project continues for Gemini season as THE JOE BRAINARD BRAIN TRUST. Email for more info.