She looks down and sees her bottom jaw resting on the ground by her feet. Carefully, she picks it up to assess the extent of the ruin but it is clear: her mandible has entirely detached itself from her head and now sits quietly in the palms of her shaking hands. It half-smiles at her, just as it had done so many times before at handsome strangers and bad jokes.
As if newly erupted from the grip of the ivory bone, her teeth form a sparkling semi-circular row. She studies the teeth, noticing that, where they are not laced with blood and saliva, they are obscenely white, almost iridescent. With claret edges, her teeth look like menstruating pearls. They look delicate and indestructible.
She begins to run and so does the blood: it trickles through the gaps in her fingers, collecting in the crease of her elbow before dripping onto the pavement, leaving a trail behind her. The blood is gooey and viscous, and though it looks too dark to be fresh it keeps on flowing. A mess of bloody saliva pours from her jawless mouth, down her neck and settles in a sticky pool on her chest. When she tries to spit out the taste of rusty nails and panic, she discovers that she has no tongue.
The unfamiliar residential street is curiously busy for 3 a.m. and she knows a lot of the people that she passes. She stops to ask everyone she sees to help her to put her jaw back in place. She is met with bemused faces. She screams and shouts and begs but no sound emerges from her, just the occasional crimson gurgle. She looks pleadingly at the passers-by then looks down at the jaw in her hands, motions fitting the jaw back to her head and then looks back at her potential saviour, praying they’ll understand. They look at her with pity and faux-guilt, apologise and say things like, “Sorry, dear, I’m in a rush,” “I’m not a dentist, unfortunately,” and “Oh, I don’t really want to get involved.”
The fact that she can’t properly communicate to ask for help, or even find out what has happened to her, frightens her and causes her far more distress than the fact that her jaw has fallen off. She tries to communicate using her eyes; she is certain that her eyes must surely convey the horror, confusion and desperate need to be helped that she cannot speak aloud. But no: she is ignored and unsaved. Tears tumble down her cheeks, over her top lip and straight down to her chest to mingle with the rest of the mess of fluid. She tries to spit again and grows frustrated upon remembering that she can’t. She runs out of tears and sits under the glow of a streetlamp, with her bloody, perfect jaw beside her, and hopes for somebody to throw her a tissue at least.
Sometimes she wanders about the strange town for hours, begging for help through her eyes, frenzied, covered in blood and clutching her jaw in her hands, rocking it slightly as if it were an injured bird. Sometimes she gives up after a few minutes and resigns herself to living a life of silence, with only her bottom jaw for company. Sometimes she smashes her jaw against an orange brick wall, sometimes repeatedly, hundreds of times, but it always stays whole. Nobody ever helps. She no longer believes that someone will eventually come along and fix her because nobody ever has before, and she knows that if she expects nothing, she will never be disappointed, only ever pleasantly surprised. She remains mute and hungry and ugly and cries and cries and cries, but she never dies. She is, after all, built of the same matter as her jaw: she is delicate and indestructible.
On monmouth street, the devil lingers
smells the blood of things to come
fingers dipped in black magic
cigarettes and hashish on a double decker bus at midnight
feeling muscles pulled tight from dancing for hours
they left their bloody conscience by the door, it stuck, it did not close
well at all
wanting sex and drugs and and end of time
condom wrappers litter festival floor like signets
her father invited different women each weekend to sample
his sorrow and she
climbed down drain pipes to go where all
kids without structure hang
an empty playground with burnt spoons and plastic needles
the boys there, let her be, they liked their meat less
one year she read eighteen plays of marlow and
three anais nin, the latter had her wet and thirsting
but the bathroom door possessed no lock
wax your legs, but not your crotch, the feminists at
night-school implored, she was one of them but not
able to summon the desire to behave well
where do night birds go when they want to devour?
Different to everyone here and the same
a pulse urging movement, willing escape
fucking strangers without pronounceable names
tight buttocks, red hose, patent shoes, broken heals
against radiators leaving stripes down her thighs
such is the transpose and yield of hormones
one day you’ll look back & regret will not be what you see
sleeping on fur coats in the dressing room at 23.00pm
platinum hair on your lapel, can you survive her
blistering disregard or is it what you want?
Sitting cross legged eating tinned asparagus as he
jacks off to henry & june, the part where uma thurman
and her incredible triangular breasts, reach
lighting up blunts on promenade des anglais
grinding hips in la croix des gardes after the gates are locked
no protection, you’re already ruined thrice over
with someone who leaves you before they’ve begun
your grandmother is jarring jam from fallen fruit and she accuses you
of stealing her cigarette money which you did not do
you were out in the garden playing in the faraway tree
eating scabs and letting the neighbor undo your shoes
they fall like birds wings without bird into pond
once you drove your bike into that water and leaches
left their love kisses on your arms
like that boy who fed you clafoutis, calisson and cough candy
when you ran a fever and he sucked on your flat bosom
like starving tight rope walker
running down le suquet in search of brown eyed kids
to buy alcohol and pastille du mineur, danging white legs
and tanned toes into dirty water
one said; You are too flat chested I like them bustier
you smiled in relief, punched their thin arms and ran off
secretly desiring the older sister who stood silhouetted against
setting sun, darkness of her skin reflecting thrashing waves
like she had been born from the urgent depths
her lips large and angry with her age, gauloises yellowing
hardly smoked just flung from painted finger to finger
you longed to reach underneath her blouse, to
black lace, brown skin, white lines
on her dressing table, saints, glaring disapproval
she liked boys with mopeds, tight jeans, long hair
no matter how hard you tried you could not
interest her apathique boredom into desire
instead punishing yourself, with last minute trains to other cities
necking at le grand rex, with sour tasting boys
who supplied black smokes and soft necks
in the darkness of raspoutine snorting on her thigh
leading to empty windows and
the feel of late summer on clammy nude skin
he tells you to close the curtains, watching as you
turn, slender and warm, toward him and away
mother at la main bleue, her own lithe figure
sharpening history, walking into rooms without
locks, a family legacy.
In tenerrife they say without a tan, stand outside
too young for adults, too mature for boys
an urgent pulse, the stage a bouquet of bodies
a turkish man gives me a rose, says I remind him of
sissy spacek, I lend
a blushing danish girl my last pesos, she
returns an hour later and shares a lemon ice
her long tongue licking it between smiles
it’s midnight and the buses run by the half
in earls court where whores and rich men
laugh, knives on board better to walk
he’s holding me up, he’s holding me down
we create a child, we lose ourselves in curling throng
when I see him again, it’s ten years later
his black eyes have bags underneath, he looks like he’s
been carrying grief for the children of pont des invalides
to battersea bridge with green birds no longer there when
it was cold and her art in the water lost
nobody but I believed it happened
je n’ai jamais voulu être blessé. Je voulais être aimé. Violemment.
now she has a child and I ache to hold
onto that time with
Do you see her?
She is buried by her own regard beneath Stolichnaya soaked tree out back
fingers bound with whispering, her mouth artless in its appetite for deception
she’s yours if you’ll have her, the gaudy paint washed off, she’s quite the peach
stretching her capacities like yawning olive tree, aching to unburden heavy fruit
Do you see her?
Or just her famine, dripping from exposure?
To sore things and empty eyes, voting their dislike in shards
She hasn’t the mercy of your mother nor the muscles of your brother
Hers is a hungry abstaining of will and transfer
If she could she’d eat the pink
But illusion renders her welcome and like the rest
She settles in for the long haul, a bag of peanuts and a fat lip
You promised her sanctuary, a place that has never existed
Except in gilded books and crevices of time
Where he left her be and she grew into something golden
Even as the light didn’t get in.
Do you see her?
She is shining until it’s all used up
Then someone else will take over
And the lint of her swept up
Will be recycled for another audience, another era
Thinking they’re the first
To witness such a thing.
(Photo by Ruth Marie Westwood, 2020.)
Again the telephone rings
Shrill and haunting
I would rip you from the wall
Hurl you where I could not retrieve
And break every electronic component
If it meant
I could not be found
Always I have desired to be found
Saved from emptiness
Saved from myself
And the loneliness that shouldn’t be inside
But remains despite this
And to spite me
And now when I am hunted
I turn inside like a wolf eating innards
Dropped in the pond on a cold day
Left to freeze without it
I want nothing of you
I want nothing of all of you
Except to be allowed to vanish
Except to be allowed to return
Not this time
But when I can finally see
That my loneliness is cured
That I am captured
That I am free.
What I wouldn’t say out loud;
At a dinner party, when the conversation turns to
matters of personal identity and the such.
That I live in a country where
self-confidence is in the very water alongside Chlorine
And possibly many pissed out Pharmacuticals
I don’t know how they import it or how they bottled it
in the first place
but everyone takes a long swig
and grows up self-important and rarely doubting
A la the internalized cheerleader
I must therefore hail
from an island of thorns
because I didn’t get inoculated against
the sumptuous barbs
my skin punctures at the slightest retort
I bled easily even after I cauterized the wound.
Necessarily, this has caused some
people don’t get how
someone can hate themselves
be a painted sin eater
for all insult
until that gobstopper of internalized anguish
turns on them and it feels like
it’s always been about hating the self
Such a natural elegant process of self harm
looking back in the mirror
wishing she could erase
the very DNA, the very face of her.
Now I have a second sight
for bullshit and fakes
and often I’m told; Give me a chance you never know!
But O I do
and I stay away from the saturating crowd
as they live their camera-ready lives
to the fizz and hiss of the insta-bulb
wondering if I will ever
feel differently or if this
deep phlegmy cough
will inhabit my very soul and become
a new lingua of self loathing.
Sometimes I see girls who
could have been me, but grew up
in a different world where
presumably they were inoculated against
self-hate at an early age and given a healthy dose
of worth and manifest ego
they seem like an identical twin who
was raised on grass instead of hay
in the sun instead of snow
and even though they still possess
the abhorant figure of myself
with her squinting mash of ancestral sabotage
I find I like aspects of them
as they flourish weed-like
there is a shadow
if I had grown up just like them
and taken my Happy Pills along with my self deception
what would I have gained?
What would I have lost?
I might resemble them but
I suspect, I would be nothing like them
except in the cracked glass of us
broken and repaired many times
until they can stand no more
Give me back to the century
Where emotion rained hard
On the blessed shoulders of mortals
With not long to live
And in their reckless squander
A divinity of purpose
Feel it all before the raging blaze
Search the very foundation of self
For magnificent adrenaline
Surging cosmos in franetic energy
Furthering simplicity of day
I follow the trodden path
Tapering to our end
With potence of resin risen from stone
Breaking its balm on thunderstorm
If I do one thing
One thing at all
May it be everything
To discover my core
Welded on the bright of this quick life
Ushering me near, its damaged flame
That I might behold you
As you step from earth
Encrusted with star jewels
The planitary alignment
A sword wound
Carved in my fate
We may only have together
Or life time
In the wandering of us
Beneath mortal skin
A magnetic pull
Brings us to our circumference
Behold the power of two
As they blaze into this long dream
The only part of them
And just yesterday
I stood behind you when you did not know
And felt, in the shimmering silence of proximity
An answer, I had been asking
Why you stirred in me a maelstrom
How an unknown could
Capture this woman
As if they were a fisherman
In search of a whale
Who did not know he was searched for
Or even led
To his fate
As you are my last doorway
For afterward there will be
No you and no me
We are bound to see the end of ourselves together
It is written in my veins
Activated when I saw you
As clear as diving bell
Will warn the unwary
Of collision and oxygen
I liked when I said
I needed nothing
It is already in motion
My sustaining because you exist
And I breathe your name
And the smell of you gathered furtively
In each step made
Nearer to your guarded heart
If someone asked me
How did this happen?
I’d know no adequate response
For who would believe in self driven things
Or the recognition of one
Become mistress of my heart
Yes, all those things are lovely, but it’s boring when all is said and done at the end of the day eventually in the final analysis after all—indecision can be a like standing in the middle of field of lilacs and sometimes we simply say too much. Speaking of lilacs and sometimes, I don’t do well on the fly, too little meaning caught in too many words, with “do” and “fly” being the operatives here, deep down undercover with fake mustaches and mirrored aviators for obfuscation. We all know “well” well enough, or so I tell myself, to hold the sentence together with minimal disambiguation. The sentence—life, with no possibility of parole, unless you’ve got a little imagination. We all step away sometimes, needing to, receding to or from or for with grimy presumptions of stiff finality all around, creeping up the walls like rot till they seem darker than the corners and we can’t remember how or why we serve the question, but we do. Insistent on the peculiar merits of placement, I seem predisposed to point to the energy and the process like it’s blame I’m placing, not credit, clinging to rhizomatic enthusiasms rooted in contexts so specific and references so obscure that the truth can’t go unnoticed. The truth. What is this appetite for absolutes? Strip that away, and what—the positive qualities of illusion suggesting that the walls and corners aren’t in fact closing in, that they simply have spirit? Having seen it done and having done it, I strain to model myself on something definitive, over and over, ever and ever, ever stepping away to return all over, mumbling mawkish mantras like Destroy, and piece it back together but this time with gold at the seams. Kintsugi, yes? and how appealing, no, how improving, with an orange-juicer twist drop of idealism plus the pulp. Each answer is formed of countless questions, as variegated as the languages with which we pose them, so thus I ask: Do we spill because we break or does our spilling do the breaking because we get too full?
Everything has to go somewhere (that’s definitive-infinitive); there’s action in the outpouring, but I could see it working either way, or both, finding a comfortably uncertain trajectory regardless, whether of containment or release, a course, of course, if you will, running roughly from vulnerability to repair and so on, with voice, agency, embodiment, and destruction all packed in and cozy snuggled between. And so on, and back again. Till it breaks again and I’m back here on the fly again, going nowhere till it feels too right to not be the wrong words for a story.
I had a rough day, she said, barely holding back tears and looking smaller and more defeated than she’d ever permitted herself to look. A hug and kiss were proffered as preludes to a word or two of unconvincing edification as I, draped in coat and bags, walked out the door and down the hallway to the elevator and another hallway to the parking garage so I could warm up the cold little car with rust spots on the hood and drive cautiously through heavy nighttime snow already covering the highway despite evening weeknight traffic to a hotel way out west of the city where there was a meeting of the old white minds that I had to endure the following day. The following day arrived and I woke up from an uncomfortable half-sleep with the outlines of a migraine that would gradually color itself complete as I tried to take notes and look like I gave a shit in a windowless conference room thick with recirculated air and coffee breath, wanting only the essentials of sleep, hydration, and a proper breakfast. The rest—freedom, love, pain—would have to wait.
Originally published on Art & Insolence.
I wanted to learn more about a Russian’s perspective on World War II, The Great Patriotic War, or according to some, simply THE WAR. Since paper turned out to be even more revisionist than memory, I asked around for those who may have lived through it. My friend Ivan’s grandmother spoke a bit of English and he arranged for me to meet her at her house on Tuesday. Her face was a mashing of slate and limestone, she had a button for one eye. She might have had hair, but it was hidden under a musty-green bonnet.
Her apartment was an antique apocalypse, strewn about were books, kettles, chair legs, mummified jars of pickled mysteries, numerous floral patterns creating an eclectic field of colorful dust-bunnies. Great booming closets and mirrored shelves lined every wall, housing dead photographs of even deader relatives. She navigated it well. In the kitchen she sat me in a chair with a flat piece of plywood nailed to two of the broken legs. I gingerly sat and took out my notebook.
“Tea?” she asked.
“With milk and sugar, please.”
She bustled about the dusty sink, taking tea from a tin and setting on an old kettle.
“So, how old were you during the war?” I said.
She didn’t turn. “Wait,” she said.
I waited, looking out the window through a mess of dead plants at the people walking past. It was summer in Saint Petersburg, finally. Outside people wore T-shirts and shorts with a desperateness that only comes in a place where summer is born a dead-leaf. The old woman came and sat across from me, placing a mug of plain black tea on my notebook.
“So, I am collecting stories from the war, from people who were alive and—”
“Uh—no thank you,” I said, nervously. “So, I thought maybe we could start with the Siege of Leningrad, Ivan said you were a child when it happened?”
She looked out the window, then down at my notebook and untouched tea.
“You want to talk about the siege, but you don’t want bread?” she asked. She stood up and took a half-load of bread from a squirrely spot in a dirty cabinet. She cut a chunk and put it on a plate with some butter and a slice of cheese. I waited.
“Thank you,” I told her after she placed it beside my tea.
I took a bite.
“I remember going with my mother to bring bread to her sister,” she waved in a direction out of the window. “She lived not far from here. My mother would bring me with bread–we were more fortunate. She lived on the top floor of her building and people used to sleep in her stairwell, sleep until they died and there was no one to take them away, so they moved them into the windows. They put them there one on top of the other until there was no light in her building. Her children had died. I didn’t know them very well, but they died. My aunt too, one day. In her building she died because she wouldn’t eat, and they put her in one of the windows, too. I remember the darkness in the stairwell and I remember my mother didn’t cry.”
I didn’t write anything down as she spoke. She looked out of her window through the plants and sunshine. Her face suddenly went dark and she scowled at a woman passing.
“Her,” she said.
I looked. It was a young woman, she was wearing a light summer dress and she looked happy.
“She is a whore,” the she said. “She has been sleeping with the Jew who lives just there.” She pointed at a window, two floors up and across.
“He’s married,” she said ominously.
“Oh,” I managed, and with nothing else to say, I took a bite of my bread.