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a conversation between what is broken

 

(Originally Published in Entropy, Summer 2018)

i have spent my whole life waiting for crisis. i have built so much of my perception of time around endings. i have felt for so long the pull of death beneath the surface of my world.

i’ve been trying to figure out for a while now where this trepidation, this anxiety—the universal acid that burns through everything1—has come from and just recently i think i’ve begun to work it out.

When i was 13 my dad told me he was going to die.

This was one of my first endings.

 

*

 

i remember the kitchen the kitchen of the house where you used to live remember with mum and sister and me where we were rarely happy mostly moon blue something is coming something lurking i can tell by your hands nervous and by mum eyes familiar-strange who has been telling me this will be important for the past week but has said nothing more.

And the revealing:

you are telling me that you are going to die that your bones dry-stone strong are breaking now your insides are being gutted fish counter-top splayed by a cancer that won’t stop till its tentacles have wrapped themselves across every inch inside of your fleece-warm body. This kitchen holds many blue memories murmurs many conversations never had haughty plates on shelves never used though this perhaps is the bluest and your hands in your hair before it perished and my hands on your hands sitting on your legs before they withered and the crying and the breaking and the crying and the hands

 

*

 

i think this memory is where it begins. i think this moment in my mum’s kitchen is where i started to build my life around crisis. Real or imagined. From this moment at the age of 13 till my dad’s death when i was 18 I was waiting for death, i could feel it’s pull beneath the surface of our lives. Tentacles gloaming beneath the ice in the darkness. Death pulling at my sense of who i was at exactly the time when we first begin to sense our/selves, our “I” splitting into fragments, explore painfully and dramatically where we figure in the worlds we find ourselves in. Realise how broken we are.

Yet this closeness to death, when my life was only really beginning, has also given me an intimacy with it, which i’m not sure was shared by my friends growing up, or even is shared by them now as we enter our late twenties and early thirties. A gothic impulse that to a generation brought up to seek out universal happiness seems absurd. For many years after my dad’s death i suffered an extreme feeling of loneliness, of a darkness that separated me from my world and the people within it.

my dad dying in the hospice:

another ending.

 

*

 

i remember watching his last gulping breaths, seeing that body, that body collapsing devastatingly and forever, annihilated before my eyes, that body that had brought me and my own tiny body into this world, that body that man who had defined so much of who i was.

To see his body die, to watch the final glimmers of life leave him, though holding lots of trauma, is also one of the moments i have felt most alive. How beautiful it was to watch my dad die.

 

*

 

A potent beauty.

 

*

 

For years after people were so shocked for me if i tried to talk about the hospice. After a while this made me stop trying to talk about it because when i did i felt so much shame. Like it was perverse that i would feel this contradictory feeling about it- the beauty and the terror. It was my trauma, my experience, yet i was protecting others who were too shocked to deal with my attempt to reckon with it.

 

*

 

It is only now, 8 years later, that I have begun to refuse to feel shame or to be silent about it, only now that i have begun to talk about how terrible and beautiful it was to watch my dad die.

 

*

 

Terrible. Antonym Terrific. Their roots in French, Latin and Proto Indo-European meaning to shiver. To shiver through fear. To shiver through ecstasy. To surge from this. To feel alive. To tremor and to tremble.

 

*

 

Eileen Myles writes about something similar in Afterglow (Grove Press: 2017), about this beautiful richness in watching something die; in her case her dog. & i remember both times being with my mum in the vets when we had family pets put down- our cat Tommy and our dog Scamp—and that surging feeling; the beauty and the terror. The feeling of their tiny bodies going limp, cradled in my lap, these bodies that were as small as i had been when i had first encountered them, when my own tiny body had violently burst into this world. These bodies that we had projected so much of our love upon. Scamp died two months before my dad, and i remember that it felt at the time like a test-run for what was to follow. An impending crisis: the end.

 

*

 

It is a feeling so rich and dark and intimate. To be there when death is in a room. To feel so close to death you can almost taste it.

 

*

 

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror2

 

*

 

The beauty and terror of these experiences. This intimacy with death has helped me begin to break from expecting crises over the past couple of years, to break from those tentacles looming beneath the surface, that acidic anxiety, and to see this beauty and terror as a part of me. To seek out darkness as much as the light. To realise how one holds no real meaning or form without the other.

 

*

 

i remember last winter a conversation i had with a friend who said the thing that terrifies me most is the thought that my parents could die tomorrow. i remember telling her then, and thinking now, to not cling to that fear or to be paralysed by it, how whatever happens you’ll work it out, you’ll come to know beauty and terror and wrap them around yourself. To feel that tremor. That shiver.

 

*

 

i do not cling to people the way i used to. Hold them, cherish them, love them—yes—but not with the same desperate grasp as before. My dad’s death changed everything.

This feeling i’ve grown use to of being very dark and close to death, so that it has almost a physical presence in a room that i can wrap around myself. It’s made me give less of a shit about endings and closure, made me more aware how illusory these things are, as even in death my relationship to my dad is constantly changing. One ending leading to many openings.

 

*

 

there was a constant recurring and beginning there was a marked direction in the direction of being in the present although naturally I had been accustomed to past present and future, and why, because the composition forming around me was a prolonged present3

 

*

 

Building my life around crisis has imprisoned me for so long. Has taken me away from the prolonged present. Paralysed by waiting for endings. Paralysed by waiting for a perfect tense. My most recent reckoning with death is with my grandma, who turned 93 in the winter and whose body is finally catching up with her age. After a long life she is finally dying. Someone very important to me recently said that at least i had the opportunity to make the most of the time I have left with her. They are right. i will make the most of this presentness i have left with her. i refuse now to live trapped in machinations of the past or acidic anxieties of the future.

 

*

 

So much of what I have been thinking about and working through with endings has to do with the kind of writing i’ve been reading, and the kind of writing i’ve been attempting. A refusal of closure, a refusal of endings, a refusal of linear plot, from the sentence level outwards, and a holding in place of how broken we all are, and that collaging these fragments needn’t always be to strive for some illusory sense of wholeness.

 

*

 

i want to write to refuse closure. i want to write with and from fragments. i want to write from the beauty and the terror.

 

 

II.

 

imagine a country where literature is considered a beginning not an end4 said the incredible and deeply-missed Ursula K. Le Guin. Openings and un/ending networks. Language as a means and not an end.

 

*

 

In a recent interview with Eimar Mcbride, Viv Albertine talked about how she wished broken men were more written about. Her point related specifically to Mcbride’s colossal achievements in The Lesser Bohemians but all i could think was:

who isn’t broken?

 

*

 

 

The “I’s” that i sensed more consciously splitting at the age of 13, for myself as well as my friends, only shattered the illusion of wholeness some felt for the memory of a halcyon early childhood. i had felt broken for a long time before that.

 

*

 

I can’t fall apart because i’ve never fallen together (5) 

 

 

*

 

To see brokenness not as something to be fixed but as something kaleidoscopic, teeming with potential. To see brokenness and not look for closure rather infinite openings capillaries atoms stars bursting into new spaces. A virus splitting strands of itself inside and out.

 

*

 

i consider myself well and truly broken by this world. Both through the macro- monstrosities of colonialism and patriarchy, and my ancestry and present play within these—all the things i must learn and unlearn—as well as through personal traumas. i think the most toxic people that i know are white men who live under the illusion, that they have somehow progressed to a plateau of wholeness, which makes them blind to the unlearning, the unspooling, they (and i) must continue for the rest of our lives.

 

*

 

i want to write this brokenness. i want to rupture the expectation of endings. i want to write away from the anticipation of the full stop from every beginning on the top-left to the linear progression down to the bottom-right. i want my writing to reflect a life lived in fragments. Fragments of the past, shards of the future and a collaging of this in the present. i want my writing to be a mosaic, or what Terry Tempest Williams calls a conversation between what is broken.6 

 

*

 

i’m not interested in piecing these fragments into an illusory wholeness. i’m interested in seeing these fragments as possibility. As openings. As pathways. A virus splitting strands of itself inside and out. Each strand born of another, mutating ad infinitum. A continuous tense.

 

*

 

A lot of incredible feminist writing from the 70s and 80s writes from this kind of mosaic, from this kind of fragmentariness. It has frustrated me reading re-publications of such work and seeing how editors speak about how through piecing together a fragmentary style these writers were searching for a means to find wholeness. Michelle Cliff’s No telephone to heaven (1987) is one of the most devastating and powerful examples of this mosaic ’80s feminist writing. In a re-publication of this work the theme identified as most important is “the need to become whole” (Plume: 1996). Cliff is not around anymore to challenge this but my reading, and the readings of many of my better-informed friends, would criticise this summation and see it as a misinterpretation of Cliff’s project.

 

*

 

i’m not interested in piecing these fragments into an illusory wholeness. To achieve some sort of closure. Like Gloria Anazaldúa’s shifting, amorphous, complex betweenness in her seminal Borderlands (Aunt Lute Books: 1987), rejecting the attempt to smooth over, to fix, to seek out cohesiveness through form.

 

*

 

Ocean Vuong recently wrote:

 

a book made entirely out of unbridged fractures feels most faithful to the physical and psychological displacement I experience as a human being. I’m interested in a novel that consciously rejects the notion that something has to be whole in order to tell a complete story.7

 

i attempt to write my own writing from an awareness of my privilege as white and male, and to take upon the linearity and ‘resolvedness’ of the white male canonical tradition would be to write a lie, a lie that is neo-colonial in its intention. Vuong continues:  when one arrives at the page through colonized, plundered, and erased histories and diasporas, to write a smooth and cohesive novel is to ultimately write a lie. i am conscious to reject the reproduction of the white male canon’s smoothing out of difference, of its ‘civilizing’ project, aware as i am too that nothing transcends the social, not even the once-sacred ‘imagination’, something which Claudia Rankine’s anthological project The Racial Imaginary8, alongside her other seminal work, has so powerfully explored over the past few years.

 

*

 

In writing from this brokenness i am trying to question colonial legacies of domination and annihilation and my own role within these structures.

So fuck endings. Fuck bildungsromans. Fuck smooth and cohesive novels. These constructs of patriarchy and colonialism. If we are going to try and make this world better we have to dream it first, and one way we can dream is through writing, so i’m with Vuong, with Anzaldúa, with McBride, with Stein, with Cliff and with Rankine, and say fuck linear sentences, fuck progressive plots, our lives and selves and bodies are built from fragments that find no endings, no closure, no resolution and I want to be true to that in what i write.

 

*

 

i want to see brokenness not as something to be fixed but as something kaleidoscopic. To see brokenness and not look for closure but rather infinite openings capillaries atoms stars bursting into new spaces. A virus splitting strands of itself inside and out. Ad infinitum.

 

A continuous tense

 

Notes: 

1 Timothy Morton, Waiting and Anxiety in “After the End of the World,” CCCB Exhibition Barcelona 2017. 

2 Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours (New Directions: 1941). 

3 Gertrude Stein, “Composition as Explanation” lecture at Cambridge Literary Club (Published by Hogarth Press: 1925). 

4 Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Operating Instructions” in Words are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books 2000-2016 (Small Beer Press: 2016).  

5 Deborah Levy, Things I Don’t Want to Know (Penguin: 2014).  

6 Terry Tempest Williams, Finding Beauty in a Broken World (Pantheon: 2008).  

7 Ocean Vuong, 2017 interview in Literary Hub.

The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind (Fence: 2016), edited by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, Max King CAP.