A Thing with Feathers: Part 68 October 2019
My first experience of performing “it” was with my sister, dressing up in my grandparents’ old WWII coats—seemingly untouched—pretending to be the X family, visiting their Stone Court living room at random intervals, before dematerialising. We’d act as though we had no idea who Suzanne—our grandmother—was referring to when she said You just missed Mr and Mrs X! Sometimes we’d change roles and clothes—Mr and/or Mrs X. Were they married? The switch was tolerated good-humouredly anyway, like going to pantos. The most Suzanne ever said was, aren’t you supposed to be Mr X? All I said back was who’s Mr X? All I recognised were Suzanne’s white evening gowns.
In Greek myth Thanatos, the god of death, was said to be as beautiful as Eros. Death could be like having a love arrow shot in you—but what do you focus on? What’s it like? It was one day after a Christmas service, at 12—walking onto the village green, the woods on the outskirts of Mayfield—when I could admit my doubling, my sense of mediumship in a body that—like my birthname—was dying, and would be resurrected.
You’re writing this now in York—a ghost town, Victorian houses repurposed into posh but affordable Pizza Express restaurants—a week or so after firing your grandmother into the night sky via seven fireworks. You’ll return to Australia. You can re-enter the D&D campaign.
As your mum insisted on lighting the fuse, you all stand back in the field and watch the rockets catch, whoosh and trail away, briefly suspended in mid-air. The sound recedes, the light changes colour, blue then green, until it’s indistinguishable from the specks on the backdrop. One of the first Christian apologists—defending his faith from an early theological dispute about whether Jesus was all body, or a spirit in human form, invalidating Their death—said that he was a believer “because it was absurd”—a suspension of time, of the life/death binary.
The rocket explodes into ash. It’s a proper rocket, like a Guy Fawkes celebration. Mum almost sets herself on fire fleeing the blast radius, and afterwards a piece of nose-cone lands on my sister’s head, without injury.
In York, writing this in a Pizza Express, there’s a copy of Eros the Bittersweet and Men in the Off Hours by Anne Carson next to you. The essay that concludes the latter, ‘Dirt and Desire: Female Pollution in Antiquity’, describes the rhetoric of organising Woman as a social unit. “In myth,” Carson says, “woman’s boundaries are pliant, porous, mutable. Her power to control them is inadequate … she suffers metamorphoses.” Hippocrates and Aristotle scientifically define Woman in terms of wetness: “the wet is that which is not bounded by any boundary of its own but can readily be bounded.” Plato philosophises that creation is like a mother: it “takes its form and activation from whatever shape enters it.” There’s a torrent of poeticisms and rationales to justify patriarchy: natural causes are equivocated with abstract nouns, underlined by Homeric myth, supported by the recollection of conflict with foreign powers that never existed—a sunken city of circles, dead-ends and vertigo. Everything is a metaphor, or boundary, in this world-view: conception is a carpenter chiselling a bed out of a block of wood, a woman is transformed into a cow—which is the most lascivious of animals, hence “cow” as a gendered insult—not because of a god’s lust, but because of her inherent mutability. Moisture hinders intelligence, summer dampens men’s libido, that wetness comes about because of a foetus’s tendency to lean to the left. It’s a world where everything is inescapably connected: the rocks, rivers, trees, animals alive with voices shouting, jeering, gabbling, explaining slowly, jabbering in tongues and interrupting.
In the last section, Carson translates and analyses Sappho:
He seems to me equal to gods that man
whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking
and lovely laughing—oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
is left in me
no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
And cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead—or almost
I seem to me.
A marriage is happening, Carson says. The bride is veiled, a representation of the marriage between Cthonie—the unbounded universe—and Zeus, who gave order to everything by draping a veil depicting the seasons, sun/moon, arable land, sea and underworld over her, delineating the edges of a map that still kindles and chars in the noon-heat. Sappho’s witness narrator is a nympheutria—like a bridesmaid, representing chastity—struck dumb by the bride. This part of the marriage ceremony is called the anakalypteria, the unveiling. As Carson says: “It is not the material boundaries of a bridal veil that fall open … Sappho has constructed her poem as a play upon the ritual formalities of the unveiling … so to bend its ritual meaning onto herself with an irony of reference as sharp a ray of light”.
Carson suggests the poem details a triangular, erotic dynamic: the bride revealed to the groom, but also the bridesmaid, the narrator of the poem. A redirection occurs, like train tracks clanking, a blind spot evident. The ritual breaking down in its crux. I’m reading that phrase, “to bend its ritual meaning onto herself” and I’m ecstatic, vertiginous. It reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s love letters to Sue Gilbert, her sister-in-law:
I have but one thought, Susie, this afternoon of June, and that of you, and I have one prayer, only; dear Susie, that is for you. That you and I in hand as we e’en do in heart, might ramble away as children, among the woods and fields, and forget these many years, and these sorrowing cares, and each become a child again—I would it were so, Susie, and when I look around me and find myself alone, I sigh for you again; little sigh, and vain sigh, which will not bring you home.
In Eros the Bittersweet, on the subject of Velázquez’s Las Meninas and its similarity to Sappho’s poem, Carson writes:
This is a painting of Velázquez painting the king and queen of Spain. But the king and queen aren’t part of the picture … There are many people, including Velázquez,
in the painting … and all are gazing steadily
out at someone beyond the picture frame … we notice
a mirror at the back of the room. Whose are these faces?
These are the king and queen of Spain … They seem to be standing precisely
where we are standing as we gaze
into the painting at their reflection
where are we? For that matter who
standing at a blind spot