I went to hear the mystic speak.
He uttered desolation — and a gale began
that swept the landscape clean.
A tree with barbed-wire branches
laced its leaves together above a banquet table
built like stonehenge, set for eight hundred
with a dinner of dirt
The mystic stomped the ground twice with his gnarled staff
and stood, complete.
From the audience a storyteller rose to sing —
a drowning melody. Baobab trees grew tall
and filled with cockatoos and peacocks,
the air pungent with their color.
Vines crept across my face and toes.
More vines consumed the banquet
and the banquet table.
The storyteller’s final liquid notes fell in a shimmer,
and she stood, complete.
An old and wizened woman took the mystic’s staff
and planted it in a corner of her garden
where it bloomed into a quiet elm.
[written by alice isak in august, 1990]
* * *
A couple summers when I was in college, I worked as an intern in the PR department of a large insurance company. My assigned tasks were interesting enough (they certainly beat flipping burgers!) and also left me plenty of unstructured time to do my own thing, all while looking hard-at-work massaging the language of a brochure or low-priority press release.
My own thing generally consisted of banging out poems on a massive electric typewriter.
Astoundingly, a pack of those poems has survived. I came across them recently, in the process of looking for an old photo. “The Faithful” was always my favorite of the pieces, the one I thought about from time to time before I realized any of them were still in my possession. Even without remembering the specifics of its verses, I remembered the feeling I had writing it — a feeling I touched again, after many years without, when I wrote the first piece for this blog that seemed to capture my own voice, my true voice, and not some mere parroting to please another person.
Written just over two years ago, “The heart that I hold tightly within my chest, tightly holds me back” not only echoes the same inner writerly feeling for me, but also reflects a continuation of many of the same images and themes from this piece typewriter-clacked-out almost 25 years earlier: the fantastical landscapes; the conflicting world views of men (and their few female “helpmates”) and women, expressed through the incompatibility of their languages; storytelling as song, as abundance or perhaps overabundance, as a form of speaking incomprehensible to all but the select.
One key difference: the later piece does not share the earlier poem’s hopeful belief in a peaceful resolution to this conflict. If I were to write “The Faithful” today, I suspect my grizzled crone would plant the mystic’s staff right through his foot, later to be watered with his tears and his teeth.
* * *
While I don’t often look back over my own writing — I have carted old journals around with me since 1994 and rarely read a one of ’em — juvenalia carry a certain unique interest. Like poring over baby photos of a loved one, looking for any foreshadowing of the lines and curves we know so well in the adult’s weathered, elastic face.
Maintaining a blog over time invites a similar navel-gazing inquiry into one’s own tropes and obsessions, particularly because of the writing’s immediacy — each post crafted in speed and urgency, with rarely the lengthy revisions or outside editor’s eye that can bring such themes to the forefront of one’s attention. While I have only written here with regularity for the past two years, the fraughtness of this time in my personal life has made for lots of urgent writing and little in the way of forethought.
Not until after I had written and rewritten the same pattern countless times, for instance, did I notice all the doppelgangers and dead women:
The drowned woman with my face. The prisoner sealed in a windowless room who grants forgiveness to “the living.” The prophetess whose lover passes the screams of murder victims into her along with his ejaculate. The decayed-yet-reanimated corpse who goes by my name. Zombie Snow White. “I feel maggots moving in my cunt.”
And on and on.
In the earliest blog appearance of this trope, I am myself the possibly-dead woman, and my shadow twin a fecund monster threatening to break out from her foetid cage in the basement to ravish me. (Which, at the time I wrote it, sounded like the best date I’d been invited on in years!)
Revisiting all those posts just now, I am prompted to wonder: if one of my narrative voices ever lives long enough to reach “grizzled crone” status, perhaps her best plan — instead of sticking around long enough to plant anything — would be to smash out as many of the mystic’s teeth as she can in one blow, then grab her toothy bounty and flee to someone else’s blog.
To someone else’s life story.
* * *
Oops, that sounded a bit dire, didn’t it — my apologies!
Really, everything is going fine. Compared to any other point in the past five years, it is going spectacularly. It’s going like life, is perhaps the best way I can put it: with good days and bad days, enjoying an abundance of Facebook and a modicum of pizza, in the company of many great friends and the occasional shitty boss.
I’m just tired of feeling split, is all. I’m tired of dragging these two selves around with me through every decision, like babysitting a pair of strong-willed twins hellbent on killing each other.
It’s hard to say when the split happened. Set in motion as a child — a strategy to survive in my parents’ house — and splintered completely apart during the summer of the rapes. Then those fractures ossified during the 25 years the trauma lingered before I could name it and someone finally helped me recover.
I am recovering still, though I do not wish to underplay the huge progress represented by my ability to remain aware of both parts simultaneously. Even if I still struggle to remain both/and and no longer either/or. Even if deciding between their interests each day often makes me feel heavy, like my chest has filled with water and my bones turned into lead.
And what are the two halves I feel split between? One feels her feelings deeply, listens hard to her friends with compassion and empathy, and believes her calling in the world is as a storyteller and healer. The other focuses on her professional choices, always pays her bills on time, would eat a dinner of dirt and lemons without blinking an eye — and thinks writing, while a charming hobby, is perhaps not worth her time. (I’ll give you three guesses who’s been most ascendant since last December. If you have been following my blog for any length of time, you shouldn’t need more than one.)
Of course, I really am both. Or perhaps I mean, both parts really are made from me.
I’d like to feel whole now, please.
* * *
When I came across the packet of poems that included “The Faithful,” I was looking for old photos of myself. Pictures of the child who was such a fearless Peaceful Warrior before I split. “Clean code,” if you will — a template source for rebuilding my present self.
Going backwards is the best strategy for healing I have yet found: reaching back to meet myself as I was before this or that event occurred.
The poems were not the only unexpected piece of writing I found. I also uncovered an essay written in tribute to my father at roughly the same point in time, in which I praise him for “curing me of the disease of my lofty ideas,” all of which turned out to be only so much “nonsense.”
Apparently the mystic was blowing his desolation pretty darn hard, back in 1990.
* * *
I sometimes find it easier to see the themes in a friend’s work than those that keep presenting themselves so insistently in my own. One of the perks of knowing an artist over most of your lifetime is that you get to watch the tropes in their work grow, evolve, repeat, expand over decades — and yet somehow remain true to the same voice.
Now, did you happen to pause on the image that I opened this post with? Bridget Benton’s massive encaustic piece titled, “Pollen: Self Portrait at the Tree of Knowledge”? If you didn’t look closely, now might be a good time to scroll back up.
[Don’t worry about rushing — I’ll wait until you’re back.]
. . .
. . .
[Okay, everybody with me again? Alrighty then, let’s wrap this up with a bang…or perhaps a hopeful whisper.]
Benton’s work† often involves houses, birds, matchsticks, found objects — and also (as in “Pollen”) bodies, self-portraiture, the act of writing. Ideas resonant within my own work as well. What I particularly love about this piece (in addition to the whimsical placement of the typewriter!) — what I particularly love is the construction of the work itself.
Lemme show you what I mean through these two shots of the work in progress:
“Pollen” is fully modular, each slat a piece created separately but with an eye to the whole yet to come. The top arrangement reflects how the work was hung in exhibition, while the bottom shows another possible path, one in which the woman becomes split and the second typewriter and the hands at work come together at the center.
As I take this artwork in — as I see in it both what the artist has put in and what meaning I have brought myself — I see baobab trees, raucous with color, and growing vines framing a storyteller’s voluptuous and unashamed body. I see the mechanisms of language and logic with her too, tools for an utterance both clear and embodied.
I see hope for a maiden’s passion, for a crone’s planted tree. For a female form that owns its flesh and its voice entire.
A woman simultaneously split and made whole. In her words and in her body, complete.
I see reason to keep writing.
# # #
What recurring images and ideas do you find in your own work? Anything that has surprised you, taught you? What ghosts haunts your writing?
“Deconstruction of the Poet as a Young Stenographer” is part of an ongoing memory project.
Additional installments can be found here.
† If you’re interested, you can find more of Bridget Benton’s artwork represented on this blog, often accompanying posts I found very difficult — or very exciting! — to publish. Or, yknow, you can go straight to the source and check out her website.