A matter of surprise

“For myself I am neither ‘jealous’, nor ‘inquisitive’, nor ‘hunchbacked’, nor ‘a civil servant’. It is often a matter of surprise that the invalid or cripple can put up with himself. The reason is that such people are not for themselves deformed or at death’s door. Until the final coma, the dying man is inhabited by a consciousness, he is all that he sees, and enjoys this much of an outlet. Consciousness can never objectify itself into invalid-consciousness or cripple-consciousness, and even if the old man complains of his age or the cripple of his deformity, they can do so only by comparing themselves with others, or seeing themselves through the eyes of others…”

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Phenomenology of Perception”

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Around two weeks ago, two things happened that I didn’t expect.  I went to the funeral of a dear friend.  Norman was a phenomenally curious and wise man, and while I was trying to pull myself together to write a eulogy, I was reminded of his blogs.  One of them, “A body’s in trouble: some resources on the lived body in philosophy and the arts”, was in a way a parallel to the journey I’m on with this blog, though it’s much more a reference point, containing some key resources and insightful juxtapositions.  This is where I found the astounding Merleau-Ponty quote above.

Is it a surprise that I can put up with myself?  Do I have a hunchbacked-consciousness?  Do I know myself only through the (imagined) eyes of others?

maurice merleau-ponty smoking

I know almost nothing of the life and physicality of Merleau-Ponty.  Here he is smoking.  The phrasing of the quote is intriguingly ambiguous.  He says he is neither ‘jealous’, nor ‘inquisitive’, nor ‘hunchbacked’.  That these words are held in quote marks seems to me to potentially imply that he is these things, yet is not defined by them.  Consciousness is consciousness, shaped not by itself, but by its position in the world, in relationship.

At the funeral, I had the sense that my friend was not in the coffin, or in heaven, or anywhere else but in the bodies of his family and friends.  It was as if, without the central consciousness, his core of being, all that was left was the reflections, resonances, seeds, which we held in us.

The day after, I was offered admission to a PhD program, with scholarship – my proposal was titled “Disabling Poetics: Bodily Otherness and the Saying of Poetry”.  I’m planning to write a thesis and a series of poems which will “attempt to outline the mechanisms through which poetry can generate a productive, bodily encounter with the Other”, drawing on the ideas of Emmanuel Levinas and Tobin Siebers, and the work of a few of my favourite poets.  I suspect that poetry is uniquely placed to incorporate (pun intended) the consciousness that arises from unusual bodies.  We’ll see.

I’ll be writing in the context of a community of friends, poets and thinkers that have come before me, and are around me now.  Perhaps they are my others and I am theirs.  Which makes this richly complex and unpredictable.  So, I don’t know what will come out of this, though I’m certainly looking forward to the privilege.  Here’s where you’ll find sporadic updates and minor insights…

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captured whispers – puppetry and poetry collaborations

CAPTURED WHISPERS EFLYERIn 2013, I travelled to Ireland to perform “Ambiguous Mirrors“. Very soon, on Sunday 17th May at 5pm, at Thousand Pound Bend, I’ll be performing this piece to a Melbourne audience. This short performance is very personal to me. It meditates on grief, family and genetic inheritance. And the puppetry adds another, profound layer – evoking deep emotion and a sense of the uncanny.

The night also features four other puppetry-poetry collaborations – Lia Incognita with Beth McMahon & Michael Bevitt; Barry Dickins with Rod Primrose; Jennifer Harrison with Victoria Osborne; and Terry Jaensch with Eliza-Jane Gilchrist. This should be very special. If you can make it, please join us – details on the flyer above.  Bookings essential and available here.

I also have a number of poetry readings in May, so please check the Readings & Performances tab for more info.

Andy Jackson (Vic) 1

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Southerly Journal: four more excursions into poetry & bodies

Last month, I was the guest blogger for Southerly Journal.  For those of you who missed it, I made various attempts at hacking through the dense undergrowth around poetry, form, embodiment and otherness (as is my wont).  I won’t reproduce the posts here, but here are some teasers and the links…  Thanks to Tessa Lunney and David Brooks at Southerly for their support and kind words.

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1. Normal Land: Poetry, Disability and Solidarity (by way of Ian Dury and Quippings)

The more I immersed myself in poetry – reading it, writing it, performing it – the more I began to feel that poetry derived its power from the bodily experience of solidarity. The Macquarie Dictionary defines solidarity as “union or fellowship arising from common responsibilities and interests” or “community of interests, feelings, purposes”.7 Solidarity is complex, especially because what is “common” is not always obvious. Solidarity can be latent, persisting underneath our social reality, in our biology and chemistry and physical interdependence. Something needs to unearth and activate it, some experience or event which prompts us to recognise that our lives are inextricably connected.

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2. Poetic Tourism & Deforming Form: India, Ghazals & Otherness

I’ve suggested elsewhere that we encounter poems as physical objects, textual bodies which have their own particular shape and energy, as a result of the subjectivity embedded in them14. Each poem is a mix of order and chaos, of expectation and surprise. On the page, and as sound, poems are instances of particularity, where precise detail catches our attention and where form refers back to cultural norms. And, in my experience, the ghazal is a particularly heightened example of this. There is a “normal” ghazal, just as we have a certain image of a “normal body”, and it is in the ways in which we depart from this norm that intrigue and frisson occurs. Of course, relatively normal bodies and formal ghazals, too, have their own undeniable, disruptive energies.

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3. Poetic Epigenetics: Bodily memory, silence & community

What my body is and what it isn’t seems like a pretty straightforward distinction. But perhaps “my body” as a phrase isn’t quite right – it assumes certainty and singularity, yet if we look closer, in spite of the continuity and stability we feel in our bodies, we might detect numerous possibilities, even multiplicity.

Certainly, when I look back at what I’ve written over the years, I can see the inflections and energies of other poets and writers. They course through my body and writing as disturbance and affirmation. And I can’t imagine who I am without recalling them. Think of this as poetic epigenetics.

kindergarten

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4. “Becoming-Marfan”: Poetry, Genetics & (Auto)Biography

Becoming proliferates in the soil of the complex instability of each body. The writer mines the multiplicity of their body in order that their writing becomes truly creative and viscerally connective. The writing implies not just one writer and one reader, but many others. Deleuze asserts, “[h]ealth as literature, as writing, consists in inventing a people that is missing”.15 Reading this kind of writing involves a kind of recognition, a sense that the reader’s own intuitions and bodily stirrings have been acknowledged, and even encouraged. The lone reader, sensing other hypothetical readers, suspects the existence of a community she might belong to, or come to belong to. In fact, she creates it by affectively engaging with the text and her own multiplicity.

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launch of “Immune Systems”

Yes, another book.  I’m humbled and excited to announce the imminent release of “Immune Systems” through Transit Lounge.  “Immune Systems” is the result of two trips to India, and a lot of percolating.  The first half is kind of verse novella on the uncanny and fraught world of medical tourism.  The second half is a suite of ghazals on travel, desire, estrangement and (yes) bodies.  For some insight into the process, check the posts here.

The launch is on Tuesday 17th March at 6pm (for a 6.30pm start) at Collected Works Bookshop, Nicholas Building, 1/37 Swanston St, Melbourne.  The book will be launched by the multi-talented poet and artist Luke Beesley.  I would love to see you there.

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Thanks to Transit Lounge publisher Barry Scott for his faith in the poems; and to Anjum Hasan and Ali Alizadeh for these generous quotes:

‘Andy Jackson has made a most delicately probing poetry out of the detritus of urban India. This is a humane and moving book.’
−Anjum Hasan.
‘Andy Jackson writes exceptionally well about India. But, as though unsatisfied with merely writing about one of the world’s most wonderfully complex social scenes, Jackson is drawn to the country’s medical system. This focus perfectly suits his terrific poetic gift for fusing the clinical with the affective. The poems in Immune Systems are succinct and absolutely engaging expressions of a humanity caught between the demands of the body and the vagrancy of the mind.’ – Ali Alizadeh
There’s a Facebook event set up for the launch if you’re that way inclined.  If you can’t make it and would like to buy a copy, you can order it through Transit Lounge or of course drop into Collected Works any time after the launch.
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the ambivalence of being reviewed

Being a writer involves intense and maddening dichotomies. The work of writing requires isolation and withdrawal from the world, a retreat into obsession, both in the act of writing and in the months and years of deep imaginative work while the book takes mental shape. It is a job for an introvert. The process of publishing requires a schizoid opposite, as the work that has been nurtured in the safe, protected space of the computer (or the notebook or the typewritten page) is turned into a commodity…  The sensation of handling stacks of printed galleys of my book was at once deeply satisfying and strangely terrifying. To see the book become more than one – to see it become multiple, reproduced – that was very weird…  And then, with the reviews, comes a different experience: what was produced in seclusion had become subject to public scrutiny…  What surprised me most was how excruciating it was to be reviewed at all. It was an extension of the weirdness and ambivalence that came with seeing my book in print, for sale….

 – Kirsten Tranter, “Go, Little Book“, Overland, Summer 2014.

I read this fascinating essay by Tranter in the wake of reading a few short reviews of my book “the thin bridge“, and it seemed to make some sense of the swirl of enigmatic and contrary feelings I’d experienced. Reading reviews, I found myself scanning the page for negative words and impressions. I read implied criticism into ambiguity, a nonplussed tone into what was actually mere description. I swelled at the unambiguous praise and felt the reviewer must be insightful; they really “got it”. I read these reviews a second time, carefully, expecting both condemnation and celebration. Somewhere in my nerves, I was a genius and a fraud, and I just knew the review would uncover either or both of these truths. It’s analagous to standing naked in front of a doctor, or a mirror. Awkward, heightened, nowhere to hide. But the thing is, is there any “truth” to be found there? Doesn’t it depend on what we’re looking for?

signing the thin bridge

Hundreds of scientific studies from around the world confirm our negativity bias: while a good day has no lasting effect on the following day, a bad day carries over. We process negative data faster and more thoroughly than positive data, and they affect us longer. Socially, we invest more in avoiding a bad reputation than in building a good one. Emotionally, we go to greater lengths to avoid a bad mood than to experience a good one…  People – even babies as young as six months old – are quick to spot an angry face in a crowd, but slower to pick out a happy one; in fact, no matter how many smiles we see in that crowd, we will always spot the angry face first.

– Jacob Burak, “Outlook: Gloomy“, Aeon, 4 Sept 2014

The human mind generally – the writer’s mind, certainly – latches quickly and strongly onto anything that can possibly be considered threatening. For those of us who are physically different, this default position is even more fraught and complicated. A glance from a stranger can feel like judgement, a stare can feel personal.

How can we writers counter our negativity bias? The answer is to give up seeking the singular answer, the definitive resolution to the old question, “what am I worth?”, or “what is this writing worth?”. As Kirsten Tranter says, “for every reaction there was an equal and opposite reaction… The image of reproducibility I’d seen in those stacks of printed books, all identical, the mass of them, was a mirage. The book meant something different, lived a different life, for every reader.”  My book is even more multiple and un-pin-down-able than I am.

Writers have to keep ourselves grounded in whatever ways work for us. For me, a regular workshop with trusted friends and writers helps me recognise my blind spots, but can also re-energise my own creative compass. When I get rejections from journals, I send the poems back out somewhere else. And I also think it’s important to remind myself of my achievements (on my own terms/goals) – they’re easily forgotten or overshadowed. And all this is not at all about “positive thinking” – it’s realism, a combination of techniques aimed at ensuring that what has objectively happened is subjectively felt, and can therefore build momentum.

Above all, I want to make sure I’m investing energy not just in writing, but in life itself, in the people I love, in place and cause and spirit. And if all else fails, there’s always the sky. To gaze openly at the sky is to remind ourselves that clouds are ambiguous; weather, unpredictable and changeable. And we are part of all this.

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PS. Here’s the reviews so far. Feel free to look them up and see things in them I didn’t see.

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strangers and the responsibilities of being strange

Most of us in the West feel increasingly isolated from each other, monads with our heads craned towards our smart-phones, or wandering the aisles half-conscious. The proliferation of both social media and cafes is part of the same dynamic – we long for human contact, yet we’re nervous about stepping outside our comfortable circle.

chennai mall

Talking to strangers is unsettling, in both senses – a little frightening and potentially liberating. That goes for all of us, but for those of us who are visibly different, whose bodies are obviously non-conformist, the approach of a stranger carries some peculiarly acute dilemmas.

I want to mention just two examples, and dwell for a moment in the gulf between them.

Late last year, at the local organic grocery, my partner and I were placing the last few items in our basket. Pumpkin, kipflers, silverbeet, most likely. It’s a narrow shop; you have to breathe in or walk sideways to pass people in the aisles. As we were leaving, a woman approached me with a vague smile on her face, her posture leaning slightly towards me. “Hello..”

I used to run a cafe, and I’m visibly memorable, so I assumed she recognised me; I smiled and said hi in return. She asked me how I was going, suggesting things must be pretty difficult. She told me she had a friend who specialised in alternative treatment, and that her own back pain was greatly relieved by visiting her. Oh, ok. She didn’t know me. It was going to be one of those “unsolicited charity conversations”.

I was in a reasonably optimistic mood and felt ok about being open with her. People rarely talk about embodiment, so perhaps this was a chance to share my own version of being human, and move pleasantly onwards. I told her I have Marfan Syndrome, which for me has meant an unusual shape, but actually no pain, luckily and gladly, and smiling while I said how ironic it is.

“Oh, you must have pain”, she said.

“Um, no, not really, no more than anyone, probably less, actually”.

This went back and forth for a while. I kept telling her my experience. She kept insisting she could help me with the problem I didn’t have.

Eventually the pointlessness of it ate away at my resolve. I was polite, direct, with perhaps just a hint of impatience. “I’m sorry, I really have to go, I’m really fine, OK?”.

She was stunned, almost mortified. “Ughh, I was only trying to be helpful!”. I’m reminded that my body seems to raise all sorts of questions that “demand” answers, and that fundamentalism is not limited to religion.

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Fast-forward to just a few weeks ago. I’m in the middle of a busy period, wrestling with a thesis and other obligations, rushing into the local supermarket to pick up a few essentials. I only notice my own low-level stress when the little girl in the pink princess outfit cuts me off, running obliviously through the aisles – “Daddy! Look at me!” – and I’m instantly irritated. I try to avoid them, head down another aisle. Of course, being tired, I become indecisive and end up staring at a wall of condiments, unsure.

Suddenly, there’s “Dad” at my side. “Uh… hi…”, he says, casually but nervously, “my daughter was just asking me about your back, and I told her it’s better to ask than to stare, so I’m sorry to bother you, but is it ok if I ask you?”.

At these moments, a certain texture of solidity in my body comes up against a fluid world. I’m face to face with my own reluctance to engage, but underneath there is a way of being that accepts, even relishes, interconnection and the blurring of boundaries. Decision time, in a split second.

I tell them both, as simply as I can – yes, this is my spine, it’s just more curved than straight, and I’m healthy. Everyone has different shaped bodies. The little princess smiles, shyly looks down at her feet, then around the store. She’s obviously happy to meet someone unusual, but just as obviously awkward and a bit bored now.

Dad tells me they’ve asked other people before, and apparently she likes to hug people goodbye. Sure, why not? So, a hug and a brief chat later, we go our separate ways. Through the aisles and towards the checkout, with a slight crack in normality.

For a long time, though I wouldn’t have said it this way, I deeply resented my body and the kind of attention it attracted (and continues to attract). I wanted to be invisible, to move through the world with the anonymity I imagined everyone else had. Peoples’ eyes were like the rays of a harsh summer sun, the intensity magnified through the glass of my own discomfort. They burnt and hurt.

And nothing on earth consumes a man more quickly than the passion of resentment.

Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Ecce Homo’

I have come gradually, fitfully, with some reluctance, to a realisation that this is the life and the body I have. Autonomy and self-determination is a mythical horizon. The love and support that I have been given over the years is evidence of that – without it, I would still be rushing back to the shadows, wishing for the impossible. In the face of the current neoliberal economy and consumerist culture, in spite of my own self-doubt and fragility, I want to build the connections that nourish myself and others. I want this life.

So, I think that being strange carries a kind of responsibility. There is no prescription, but I would suggest two guiding principles – openness to the unpredictability of the encounter, and respect for the particular embodied subjectivity of the other person. These principles go both ways of course.

For those of you who are strange and are often approached by strangers, I can’t tell you how to respond, though. We all have to find our own way of dealing with this “responsibility”, whether it be a repertoir of answers or a reserve of attitude that we draw on. Each body is unique, and each person makes their way through difference with their own temperament and aspirations. After all, we are more than what makes others stare at us.

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For some other thoughtful and useful perspectives, try Carly Findlay’s blog post, Carly’s guest blogger Bailey, and Haley Morris-Cafiero’s provocative photography project.

Feel free to suggest other links or your own suggestions or insights – I’d love to see them.

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“blog hop” and a few photos

A while back, I was invited into a fiendish scheme called a “blog hop” by the rather brilliant poet/playwright/storyteller Emilie Collyer.  She’s the author of “Your Looking Eyes”, a beautiful book of poems with accompanying visuals on the experience of looking.  She’s also the writer of “Once Were Pirates”, at this year’s Melbourne Fringe Festival.  Her blog is here – go on, dive in…

So, what’s this blog hop?  First, it’s the answers to these questions:

1) What’s your writing process, and how does it work?

I’m not a “sit down at the desk like it’s a job” disciplined poet.  I tend to find the best poems are elusive; they require wrangling, but they also come more as an overflow out of an immersed life.  Which means, my writing process is inconsistent and sporadic and mercurial.  I do my first drafts by hand in journals (unlined pages with a blue fine-lined ballpoint, if you want to know).  I then redraft on a word processor; usually, around ten drafts or sittings, although now I’m finding I’m doing less editing, allowing the poem to have a few loose threads.

2) Why do you write what you write?

There’s more to it than this, but I write poetry because I have an unusual body – I want to recognise the value of difference, and I want to connect with others, so that the borders between us are blurred a little.

3) How do you think your work differs from that of others writing in your genre?

I try to resist thinking of myself as special; I’m not.  No-one is entirely unique.  My writing is a composite of so many people who influence me and a whole lot of intangible things.  But if pressed, I’d have to say “see 2) above”.

4) What are you working on at the moment?

I’m writing a series of poems called “Marfan Lives”, portrait poems of people who have (or are speculated to have had) Marfan Syndrome, the genetic condition I have.  This involves either research or interviews, so it’s different from my usual writing process, but it’s exciting to explore other lives/subjectivities – to try to find something within myself that resonates with each person, while respecting that at the same time I can’t presume to fully know them.

I’m also putting the final touches on a book called “Immune Systems” – poetry on medical tourism in India, as well as a suite of ghazals.  This should be out in the first half of 2015.

 

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The other aspect of the “blog hop” is to pass the baton – and I’m tagging one of my favourite poets, Peter Davis.  He writes strikingly haunting poetry which is both deeply intuitive and philosophical.  He’s also a flute-playing busker, whose meditations can be found at “Words on the Wire”, here.

These photos, by the way, are from the recent launch of “the thin bridge” – a limited-edition book of poems from Whitmore Press.  Photos by the gracious Di Cousens.

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the thin bridge – book launch

In 2013, I was surprised and honoured to be announced the winner of the annual Whitmore Press Manuscript Prize. This coming Friday September 5th, the resulting collection – “the thin bridge” – will be officially launched.

If you’re in Melbourne, please come along to Collected Works Bookshop, Nicholas Building, 1st floor, 37 Swanston Street – arrive at 6pm for a 6.30pm start. Prof Kevin Brophy will do the honours of breaking the literary bottle against the hull of these poems (UPDATE – Kevin’s insightful and wry launch speech is now available on the brilliant ecopoetics site Plumwood Mountain).  If you can’t make it, copies of the book are available from the publisher (note there are only 200 copies, each one signed and numbered).

Some quotes about “the thin bridge” from two fine poets I admire –

From Libby Hart – “At once fragile and “super strength”, these poems weave, knit and braid silence and song—words spoken and unspoken that flourish into breath, muscle and flesh, into ‘strange and beautiful bodies’ to house endurance and desire in, as well as the ‘intimate and ordinary’.”

From Barry Hill – “Out of a stigmatizable body, Andy Jackson offers us a book of beautifully made poems—burning nerves forensically handled. They issue from a fraught compassion and self-regard, and a resistance to mechanical measures of the interior.”

Andy Jackson cover low res

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free-verse bodies

I might not put up many posts this year.  Not because I’m not thinking and writing, but because I am!  I’ve enrolled in a postgraduate diploma (effectively an Honours year) in creative writing at the University of Melbourne – dipping my toes into a short thesis.  Mine is tentatively titled “Free-Verse Bodies”.  I’m exploring how bodies that are visibly different or disabled express themselves in poetry.  In my research proposal, I wrote:

The essay considers poetry to be both deeply subjective and communal; it uses voice, rhythm and silence to communicate and to carry affect. This view of poetry is then combined with the insights of disability theorists to argue that the expression of bodily difference in poetry is a potent tool for breaking down the assumed rigid boundaries separating the self from the other, while respecting the particularity of bodies.

Of course, I’m interested in your thoughts, and I might well post now and then, to let you all know how I’m going, but forgive me if I’m a little quiet…  except for the tapping of keys…

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thirsty for water

When I was young, I swam competitively, but gave it up after spinal surgery at age 12.  A long time out of the water would have meant a long time clawing my way back to form, and I really wasn’t passionate enough about it.  What I was ambivalent about, of course, was the training, not the water (or even the competition, to be honest).  The water was always a magical and transformative place, a place within this world that somehow also transcended it.  Swimming, I could leave my mundane and awkward embodiment behind, and completely enter into my body and its potential.

Last year, I went for a “Salamander” with artists and activists Petra Kuppers and Neil Marcus, in Berkeley California.  I wholeheartedly recommend you reading Petra’s book “The Scar of Visibility“, the book they wrote together “Cripple Poetics: A Love Story“, as well as taking what opportunity you can to see their performances and videos (maybe start here, with Neil’s brilliant “Disabled Country“).  Anyway, the Salamander.  They describe it best on the site dedicated to documenting some of the outcomes of this project.

Salamander is a community performance project. We use underwater photography, dry performance workshops, creative writing, clay work and video to go under, to find our disabled beauty emerging from the deep, the wild aesthetic of water, deforming ourselves through sleek unhinged control.
Since May 2013, disabled people and their allies from around the world have climbed into pools and oceans with us, and we float together, enjoying complicated freedom, companionship and adventure. And we give ourselves to the pressures the waters exert on us.
There is little instruction in Salamander swims: the water is the director, the choreographer, as we twist freely in gravity, trusting each other, exploring the integrity of our bodies. We also chat while we are in the water, and explore the easy flow of communication in the fluid medium of supportive water. The emphasis is on play and process.

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andy joel neil and petra

Here’s the poem I wrote soon after the swim (with a little re-writing, as I can’t help myself…!).

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Salamander

Berkeley, California

with Petra Kuppers and Neil Marcus

Squint into this, I would have

said to myself, knowing the key

ingredients and their venom.

A public swimming pool.

A camera.  This body.  I don’t need

to spell it out.  Prose says it’s all there,

always fizzing in the marrow.

The enjambment between us proves

everything blue, all water.  This

is a series of dances

we invent as we go, each

the length of a full breath.

One body passes over me, another

winds around my torso, sinuous,

amphibious, tender, muscular,

substantial.  Deep animal

play, human mind turned

against itself and for the new human,

submerged in the way we move

together fluidly, or bump

against bone with apologies and

laughter, then dive down again

into the depths where thresholds

blur and the future

opens like lungs…

Clouds move in as I climb out

and become singular again,

rubbing the towel against my body,

but leaving a few drops behind.

I know two things –

it’s too cold to stay here all day

and the world is thirsty for water.

~

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Life keeps hurtling forward.  Memories can feel distant.  But though we leave the water, we carry it always inside us.  I want to remember this.

~

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