By December 2000, I’d become ambitious for my little e-mail publication and was promising readers that if they printed the installments and kept them in a notebook, eventually they’d have a book-length anthology. And it did come true that by the time her editor pooped out, “She Is Still Burning” resembled a book. Following is the third chapter, with many more to come …
SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
3 December 2000
Am pausing in the midst of a whomper of a translation contract to send greetings to you, along with a piece by Jane Picard, “Gestures of War and Lament.”
Jane says that this piece is “like experiencing a car crash in slow motion,” a description which fits my experience of reading it the first time. Like the front-seat passenger in a car headed straight over the embankment, the reader feels zero control over her fate. “Who, what, where, when, why” are questions that belong to some other universe, the only remaining question being “is this thing going to kill me?”
I am happy to report that “Gestures of War and Lament” did not kill me on first reading. And on second and third readings, it did leave me with the memory of many stunningly beautiful lines. I still would be at a loss to describe what it is about (the last 7000 years of history?), and I still don’t understand how it does what it does … but that’s ok. The major point is to feel it.
When asked for a bio, Jane replied, just use this quote from Gertrude Stein instead: “And that is all there is to good writing, putting down on the paper words which dance and weep and make love and fight and kiss and perform miracles.”
If I don’t get out the fourth installment of She Is Still Burning before winter solstice (owing to aforementioned whomper translation), please accept my solstice wishes a little ahead of time. May you happily ignore the commercial/political/religious onslaught; may your hearth fires burn brightly; may your friends be sweet with you; may the fire of the stars blaze in your heart.
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada
GESTURES OF WAR AND LAMENT
by Jane Picard
Okay, so people have killed with less cruelty. I hate being human. I never want to reach out. I’ll just paste myself into the next day. My arms thrown out to the sky, palms skyward, my eyes rolled to the top of my head. Guess who I am. The trick of truth, you say. Everyone wants to see the mystery, that’s why they keep it in front of their eyes forever and ever amen. She’s the mystical zero. You can never find her. She remains unseen except by word of mouth. She’s not easily persuaded. She says that standing for hours looking out on highways is heroic enough. You listen closely enough, you’ll hear the seed inside the pear split open. Then you know it’s ready to fall. She’s fallen under the spell of hot tar and emotion. She sways. She trembles. Her thighs shudder. I hold my head against them, they are the universe, I listen for any human sound. Her eyes scan my body like a finger reading text. What have you got there, she asks. Nothing, I say. Oh, then you must be a girl. The dream begins to insert itself here. The crow trapped in the attic beating its wings against the window was torn to bits by the cat.
How do you tell someone who admires you that they have no qualities that endear them to you? You say other things. You say you’re not really that generous. Tell her anything you don’t really mean. You prefer the one who surrounds herself with darkness, whose spirit was slain but who insists on staying alive anyway to bear witness. You can’t imagine what we see, she says, speaking for herself. We see an awful lot. She says, we know the smell of blood, the crack of bone. We know about going home when the lights are all out. Give me a stand-in for sex with you. My own body is not enough. It remembers too much, anticipates all my next moves. She puts her hand out like a wire. I’m picking up now, and it all looks bad. Ambition. Minds like ghost towns with rooms for redemption. I’m breaking her sentences down now: ‘rooms,’ ‘redemption.’ For every toxin there is an antidote. In a forest in the south of France a man dies ingesting a poison mushroom. He falls, his hand coming to rest on the antidote not eight feet away. I watch as her gestures decay. They grow smaller and smaller. They stabilize. This is normal, beyond offense, she says, reducing everything to its most ineffective. Wrapped in satin, in black lace and in blonde. There’s enough dynamite in this package to blow your head apart.
She says, I feel like I want to call someone. But she has no friends. They all stopped speaking to her after she dumped that can of gasoline on her head and couldn’t find a match. But it was water, she said. I trembled, I got the point. Women. Incendiary rituals. It’s a tradition, we have always burned. I take her into my arms. You misheard, I whisper. It’s incandescence of the mind. “Oh,” she said. “We’re lost now,” she said. Whether we stand naked in desert or forest. The tree and I are one. You and the horse are one. No more. No amount of Zen will bring them back. It was over after the paintings on the cave walls. Why always a sacrifice, the bit between the teeth? A gift. Change the terms of exchange. Make it an accident of such force it throws the mind clear. Split in terms of longevity, grace. If I have to choose between love and this, I move to articulation. “Let love find me this time,” she says. I’ve taken it between my teeth and I am running. I am getting it all down and I am moving thunderously. For every woman dead I will kill a man in my mind’s eye, I will make his every life hell. I will make every woman he loves be a lover of women who have learned to say no. These are bleak, metal-sounding things. Industrial. This is tragedy. Has it gone far enough yet? How far is irretrievable anyway? The heart bears scars, cauterized with pity. She says some will refuse to feel pity. And some will refuse to feel.
“Myth is the dilemma of his alchemy.
He cleaves the breast of his wet nurse whose milk
was his being.
Like day and night they are related by their
(Djuna Barnes, Nightwood)
Somewhere in the streets of London a big-boned woman carrying a torch guides an omnibus through dense fog. She says that while she is moving she is capable of great emotion. She’s a highly charged particle. In some alley, a woman in black lace, in blonde, is gathered all up against the wall. A man is giving it to her, he’s sticking it to her. “You’re in my blood,” she says to him. The brick tears away at the base of her spine. “They never send me away, baby,” he says. “They have to kill me to turn me loose.” She pales, grows dark, goes out.
He devours his children, she says. They locked him up, transformed him, turned him loose. Now he chronicles his days. A solitary instrument of vision. He says: I am what they have made me. “Myth is the dilemma of his alchemy,” she says. A combination of diverse elements. “He cleaves the breast of the wet nurse whose milk was his being.” He lives out the dream again and again, grows fat on it. She suckles him, he cuts himself free. “Like day and night they are related by their division.”
He says, if you want to make poetry get a knife. No accidents. An accumulation of accurate scientific observations. Make of it what you will, she says. Some will see armies marching, ribbons, victory. I see a woman running for her life, her hair on fire. She puts her hand out like a wire. They made it up there in Laos under the Pepsi sign. Bodies fall in Newark, in L.A., in small coastal towns. Say it in Swahili, drugs for guns. In Nicaragua, El Salvador. Say it in your mother’s tongue before it’s torn out. Don’t lie to us. We’re moving, incendiary, negative tendencies. We’re making all the connections.
“I pierce, I resume, I inspect, I cling to,
I unseal my dead life.”
Calamities sing in my blood. Messages can be taken one of two ways. They have tentacles, strong jaws, parts that stick out, jab at the underside. Faites votre jeu. Make your move, go for broke. Make your mark on bone or concrete. I came back to myself, she says, at about three o’clock in the morning. I woke up from a dream that I left you and was staying in some strange hotel room in Switzerland. In telling you, I leave out the important parts about the brass key, the mirror that told me I was beautiful again. About how I was bloodied in hand and heel, fighting against the will of another living thing, trying to stay alive. Anticipation of love. Failure to communicate is failure to thrive. “I pierce, I resume, I inspect, I cling to, I unseal my dead life.” I prick my finger, make words for you in the sand.
“Mother stands for comfort.”
“Now the body has become indecent and evil
because we live in an indecent and evil world.”
In this painting a young woman stands by a small body of water. Her fan-shaped hand rests on her naked belly. In the background a child is rowing a boat toward her. His small hands gather up the oars. In the dream the boat capsizes before nostalgia can set in. A defense mechanism aborts sentimentality. She scrawled a triangle on a napkin, thinking that said it all. In the second panel she rests legless upon an altar. A lambent sphere with all the details of recrimination going on inside. A tank stalled in desert sand. Burned-out hulls of bodies clutching I.D. cards, and one natural disaster after another. My 80-year-old grandmother, born in 1876, spent the last years of her life talking late-night with Johnny Carson. She forgot my name but remembered the last thing he said to her: “Mother stands for comfort.”
This is the last panel of the triptych. She’s large here. Her sassy thighs fill the canvas. Small figures in saffron robes kneel in the foreground. Her heaving arms are raised, her hand out like a wire. She says, “now the body has become indecent and evil because we live in an indecent and evil world.” Suddenly, in the dream, her legs go off like bombs scattering flesh and adoration for miles.
” … those dead girls who, beyond the distress of
their limbs, are waiting.”
I did what any evolved soul would do under torture, she said, I shot mind out of body. I hear the voices of “those dead girls who, beyond the distress of their limbs, are waiting” to see what I’ll do next. She imagines they are counting on her to pull them free. She dreams she’s sleeping next to the great stones, wakes up in the dream to write it all down. Someone hands her three bones dipped in blood and a skin. Ritual. Then, enlightenment. She wakes up. Remembers nothing. She bleeds. It all floated back, she says, foreign pleasure. Stones connected by a network of white filaments. A pattern with something missing. Stones like push-pins on a map connected by a solid red line. A trail of death, with no redemption. Something is missing.
“It is with my breath, my breath and my hand
that I’ve always made my body whole.”
An old woman told me that the news of your death would cross a body of water. First the dream in which I rose up to follow you but then fell back. The transatlantic call. The definition before the world. Mother. Grief. Rupture. What did you do then, she asked? I did sex for a week without stopping. An effort to keep the mind in the body when the heart is blown apart. Death, then rapture. “It is with my breath,” I said, “my breath and my hand that I’ve always made my body whole.” I dream again and again that I’m there in that house. That I’m coming back to fix the things that were broken. That I’m trying to tell you something. This is a dream, I say, we can be honest. I’m piercing the surface of silence and you are only one form of desire. I say these words at the risk of my life before I can swallow them. In the heat of sex somehow I could hold onto you. Grief translated into the pleasure of tongues. You put your hand out like a wire. A lament. Because you died skinless and bitter that love could not bend itself to your desire.
“An angel is looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling wreckage on wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”
– Walter Benjamin