Let’s start with where I want to go. I don’t know where I want to go but it’s definitely not here. I’ve just quit smoking for the second time in my life and everything’s just one undifferentiated mass; I don’t know where I want to go, but it doesn’t matter. I just know that staying here means I can’t sleep — that I’m lucid even when I’m dreaming, that I can’t grasp on to the patterned strands of thought that nicotine makes so effortless. That I’m languid and consumptive and paradoxically, I can’t remember how to breathe.
God, I fucking hate this. It’s so much easier to feel desperate for what you want than it is to deal with losing it forever. Because I do know what I want: I want a cigarette, simple enough. But I’m frustrated because I know that if I have one, I’ll just want more. And I do want more, all the time. I want a job with a fair wage that I don’t hate 60% of the day, I want more time to read and write that doesn’t require other kinds of sacrifice, I want friends who want to protect me when they don’t even know how to protect themselves, I want a lover who will challenge me and keep me like a pet even if those things are contradictory. Being-hated might mean always already losing what I want. But if that’s the case, then I’m not sure how to mourn it either.
I probably shouldn’t go here, but my dad used to be a heavy smoker. I’m a real daddy’s girl — talk to him every week, feel close to him, even dated people more than a little like him. For me, smoking is some fucked up way to hang on to an allegorical center that means I can mourn an infantilizing relationship with my father even while I’m actively rebelling against it. Because even if the rhetoric of the nuclear family’s unconditional love is bullshit, when you’re a teen who hates herself, who feels hated by her peers, you’ll take whatever you can get — even with the strings attached. Being-hated can be so consuming that you can’t afford to lose anything, so instead, you fill in the emptiness by clinging to, materializing mourning. I smoke.
It’s 2012 and my dad loves Abstract Expressionism, but I’ve bullied him into coming to the Damien Hirst retrospective at the Tate anyway. He’s striding ahead, fidgety and affronted. I’m hanging back, lurking between installations from Hirst’s iconic Natural History series, which showcases animals enshrined in greenish-blue vitrines, each bordered with a stark white frame. I like Hirst’s work — it’s the kind of bad art that pushes at how much it can get away with. But something feels too cavalier about seeing the entire series contained in a space, something about these animals, looming in their vaults. Them, I mean, I think, not us.
It’s 2012 and I’m sneaking a cigarette in the backyard of my parents’ house. To me, a cigarette is an ashy microcosm of embalmed metaphors and transference — a displaced tomb with which I can commemorate my father at the same time I can flick a lighter and watch him burn. It has value in its triteness, just like these installations, each framed animal nothing but a rudimentary gesturing towards the possibility of preservation, longevity, even immortality. The idea of utopia might seem honorable when painted with the medical cleanliness that characterizes Hirst’s conceptual project, but it is this very high-mindedness that also seems to delight in excusing the nastiness of getting there in the first place. I mean, a lot of guinea pigs and bunnies had to die before we found whichever cure.
A piece entitled Mother and Child (Divided) sits in the center of the room, two cow corpses that have been sliced lengthways, nose to tail, each half mounted in separate tanks. I tiptoe sulkily, one foot in front of the other in the small space between the two. I can feel my father’s anxiety about not knowing my exact location stretch across the gallery — even from 100 feet away — so I stop abruptly, resisting his parental pull. These vitrines feel like caricatures, band-aids stuck childishly on the face of death. They’re weighted with a gravitas that feels too extravagant for taxidermied animals, yet remain overly severe in their insistence that there be some payoff in being designated ‘art’.
Walking between the two tanks, I pause along the section of glass protecting the mother cow’s stomach. I’m hungry, so I get an egg sandwich out of my bag, take a sloppy bite and smudge my lipstick deliberately as I wipe my lower lip. I do it again, just to prove I can.
As Hirst says about his formaldehyde zoo, “if you say something twice, it’s pretty convincing. It’s more convincing than if you say it once.” And sure, death here — serialized — might be natural. It could even be declared beautiful. But these installations mean death has been recast as being so aggressively redemptive that it can be interpreted as a process within which you barely experience loss. If you slice something in half and see its insides, you’ll feel as though you know it better. Natural History projects a false sense of emotional insurance that emerges in exploratory segmentation, repetition. According to Hirst, any man, woman or beast might enter an artificial heaven, glowing an alien blue. And like any idealistically smooth transition from death to ecstasy that we might desire, this work can only be a joke at our expense.
I run the tip of my dirty finger over the curve of one of the cow’s kidneys, tilting my head so my eyes unfocus, notice that I’ve left a faint smear of mayo on the glass. Just at the moment, my dad calls, “where are you, are you done with this nonsense yet?”
“Yea, hang on,” I respond, skipping forward as though I’m still in sixth grade. “Sorry, I thought I’d lost something.” A stray butterfly with a torn wing, escaped from the In and Out of Love installation next door — a gallery full of hundreds of trapped butterflies — falls to the floor in front of me and dies.
Smoking still feels like breathing. I remember vaguely that at some other time in history, a daughter straying meant that her father would have to plunge his most treasured weapon deep into her heart. Death was paradoxically a way for him to give his daughter life, a second time over.
I can’t shake this sense that when you’re hated, something you desire really does entirely depart. And in this gallery, faced with all of Hirst’s careless death, I feel like I’m the only person who doesn’t want to neutralize mourning.
I think my dad’s right. Maybe this show does suck after all.
I’m at City Lights Books for a reading that Alli Warren’s giving in honor of Elaine Kahn’s new book, Women In Public. Elaine is a Pisces, and it’s her birthday, so Alli tells the audience about how it’s Pisces season, something we were talking about a few days earlier on Gchat. “It’s past-lives-return time,” I remember typing at her. Serious business, so we make serious promises. We say, “no to only vacationing in intensity” in 2015. I always keep the promises I make on Gchat because Gchat doesn’t lie.
Alli reads older poems that feel like a reckoning — heavier with nostalgia, but slippery with a renewed embarrassment. I’m sitting with my head in my hand, a little dizzy because an old lover-turned-ex is in the room, and I’m wondering, does mourning discount the possibility of thinking about about a future beyond the reality of our loss?
There is a gigantic noise outside. Claire texts me, “I think Alli Warren just crashed a car with her words.” It’s true. The cops come and stand around the steaming wreckage. No one’s hurt but it doesn’t matter. “Who’s that?” some random dude next to Claire asks. She laughs, “That was Alli Warren,” she says. The thing about mourning is that there’s just no going home any longer.
Alli Warren’s latest chapbook is titled Don’t Go Home With Your Heart On. I’m turning this title under and over my tongue, thinking about how until very recently, I didn’t really believe that I was going to live past thirty. But at the ripe old age of twenty-six, I’m trying to come to terms with how to. I know I can’t go home if that unconditional familial safety means having to be something I’m not. And yet, my history of being-hated means I’m not brave enough to really want what’s coming either. I roll the title around in my mouth again. Is it possible to weave the remembered pain of being-hated into a life that obstinately continues, that you’re forced to continue living? Don’t go.
Peggy Phelan writes in Mourning Sex: Performing Public Memories that, “memories are not bodies, yet as they form they might help us grip our grief.” Alli’s poems in this chapbook might be fragmented, but the contour of every word feels material, feels slick and whole as it rubs up against what’s next to it — sometimes a syllable, sometimes a billow of air, even someone else’s ear. “To accumulate and swallow/ the aesthetic and edible/ echo of the world,” she writes. These poems are soundscapes that have yet to be joined to narration even if they feel instinctively legible. Rather than defamiliarizing daily sounds (boring), Warren’s verse is instead teased out of intimate inner voices, layered and constantly revising themselves in the wake of faltering desire — individual and collective, cohesive and contradictory. “Not so much fearless/ but contingent/ but I repeat myself/ but please repeat yourself” — the poems in Don’t Go Home With Your Heart On consistently mourn a previous dream, an ebbing utopia. They’re dynamic, “motivated by the desire to retouch, revise, re-interpret how one has lost, is lost.”
I’m at the beach with Alli. We’re both Scorpios. It’s beautiful. I can’t see past the horizon but I’m remembering all the things that are driven by the tenor of this bottomless wanting we share as we wade through the shallow silt: for lovers, for better lives, for jobs, to be better people, better thinkers. “Call it decision call it acrobatic embrace,” Alli writes. Don’t Go Home With Your Heart On is a collection of curative sparks from the precipice of hopelessness and failure, but it forces us to watch them hit the tarmac, too, and fade. The thing about being young, being-hated, is that you can have dreams that are so frightening and unique that the only way they can exist is to be entirely dissociated from reality.
A little girl walks up to us, a single tear on her cheek. “Have you seen my orange shovel,” she whines, “it was right there.” “No, sweetie, I’m sorry,” I say, “but god, I know.”
Like the tide, the rhythms of these poems always have more than one center. More than one word in a line could be my anchor at the same time as the weight of these anchoring words are always shifting. Like performance, paradoxically characterized as being stubbornly material as much as it is necessarily ephemeral, these anchoring words also feel like a series of vanishing points from which desires and losses trail and linger. Peggy Phelan writes in Mourning Sex that she wants less to “describe and preserve performances, than to enact and mimic the losses that beat away within them.” Similarly, it’s hard to tell what is staying and going in these poems. Hard to tell what are the outlines of an item, perhaps trivial and already lost — “inflated love object”, and what is the urgency of a painfully material, perhaps political issue at hand — “who gets to eat.” Alli pulls upon this differential tension like a ligament, forming parallel walls between conceptual complexities that can’t ever meet. And the space between these becomes one wherein any imaginary, escapist utopia could remain untainted. A space wherein our dreams of a better world and the difficulty of picturing how it might exist cross clumsily over each other, into an audible reality.
The little girl walks away, still looking for her shovel. Alli turns to me with a wry smile, saying, “that’s how it all starts. First it’s a shovel, then it’s a whole person… He said he was coming back, you know.”
Alli and I leave the beach wet and sore from sunburn and go to a tiki bar where we drink beverages full of artificial flavoring, surrounded by fake palm trees and torches. It’s fancy and silly and true to the spirit of our day-long-vacation all at once, an approximation of a ridiculous heaven that no one actually desires. The bar is called “Forbidden Island”. I remember my favorite line from Don’t Go Home With Your Heart On: “What’s that song/ love lift us up where we belong/ I ate the pill/ and the pill was real.” I’m realizing that knowing death and clinging to mourning, means that daring to imagine any kind of heaven becomes a matter of belief. These are poems that are courageous because they are sustained by a utopic lie, but as Phelan writes, “there is a hole in the delicate tissue of faith which takes at least two to sustain.” Alli Warren’s poems sustain me. And as much as I hate to admit it, my impossible desire for more: for a better world, to be a better person, perhaps it could sustain her and her poems, too.
Alli tells me she’s going to write me a poem with a line in it that goes “I’ve got legs!”, something I say often, because even though I live in California now, my dad never taught me how to drive. It’s true, though, I’ve got legs, and perhaps I could go someplace, even if I don’t know where.
I’m home from the beach and I’m watching my favorite piece by performance artist Kate Gilmore, Between a Hard Place (2008). In it, she wears a pretty black dress and pointed yellow heels. Slowly, painstakingly, frustratingly, she smashes through a grey wall, climbing through the hole she’s made only to meet another wall, which she then smashes through, climbing through the hole she’s made only to meet another wall, which she climbs through. The camera cuts out her head, there’s only swinging brown hair, a collage of audible gasps and whimpers in the background as she labors to make a path. I don’t know what Kate Gilmore desires, or what she is looking for in her methodical destruction. But I do know she reaches a back wall that looks like a door, one you can see when you peer at it through the holes she’s left behind. Yellow and warm and welcoming, the wall is colored beautifully; a dead-end hope of heaven. She trails her hand down it and turns away. It’s immovable.
I remember reading Alli Warren writing “The sun sets slowly/ on the levelers/ where nomads love/ & build no hedges/ so the window disappears/ or someone opens it.” I get up from writing this, put two palms flat against the nearest surface.
Right now I can’t imagine heaven; but I kiss it. I kiss the wall.