Why write narrative when you could be the next guest on the Jerry Springer show!
I met someone whose tattoo had been sliced out of his arm, leaving a jagged scar in place of the name of city he was born. I understood the urge, to inject a place under your skin, only to have it removed like a second stomach or a wart. Lately, I've been thinking a lot about place. If you ask me where Iím from, I can answer in a lot of different ways, none of which would tell the whole story, or even manufacture the kind of sense I would want to live with. I could show you the scar on my leg and point to an intersection, or trace the scar angling up from the first phalange on my index finger, pointing out the parking lot where the Streetsville liquor store used to be. I could tell you about strip malls, or stock yards, or franchised donut shops that remind me of Dresden the morning after, draw you a map of the territory in the fine sprinkling of ash collecting on a Formica counter. I could tell you about the derelict cornfields that used to be where that donut shop is now, or the first place I lived in St.-Henri, show you the abandoned granary that burned to the ground seven years ago and has since been replaced by industrial trailers. Or maybe the building I lived in itself, which is sealed off now. I might point out the remains of a much older structure, a series of barn-board sheds. I would go to one of those sheds each afternoon to write. The pick-up-sticks anatomy of that place inspired local kids into acts of arson. I donít know if it was my own narrative tendencies or the steady supply of thirteen year olds with zippos, but it was the first part of the building they chose to tear down.
I should tell you, before we go any further, that the scar is really on my pointer finger. You should know this story is not particularly reliable and, as a friend told me once while I was staring absently at a menu, the map is not the territory.
Somehow, during the months I spent in that shed, writing what would become jacks: a gothic gospel, the smell of the packing plant my father took me to as a girl infiltrated the barn-boards. The plant was on his delivery route, and I used to stop off at the stock yards to pet the shit-stained flanks of cows as they were herded into slaughter. St-Henri reeks of my childhood and the Streetsville liquor store is as organized as a monthís supply of birth control pills, the bins of national and international wines formatted on the principle of a 28-day dial, the kind that comes complete with seven sugary pills to remind you of the color red. When I think of all the places that have come to dereliction, I understand myself in terms of the word tenacious. I know it is only my thinking that makes it so. I donít know if they hand out birth control pills to fourteen year olds anymore, the kind that remind me of a flattened representation of a monthly agenda or a rolodex with a daily regimen of business cards. I do know that the smell of those stockyard cows do not belong in this essay. Nor does the way they kill cows in the Eastern Townships, which is much more and much less personal.
I also think its important to tell you, before I go any further, that I am not a vegetarian.
On my friendís farm, the breeders have names like Sophia or, out of earshot, are called after her daughters-in-law. The cows she will slaughter and wrap herself are named after beige-toned bureaucratic dociers. When I first met the woman who owns this farm, I asked about the cows and was given the names of the breeders and the bull, the others implied by a slurred ellipsis or existing as the space-off to her story. I persisted, asking about one of the cows sheíd passed over. "T-2306? Or do you mean that one?" she asked, pointing to Sophia, "theyíre sisters." A little later that day, she promised to save that cowís thigh-bone for my dog.
The cows exist in terms of place. The cows of the stockyard and the cows of the townships farm are the same breed, indistinguishable, except for their deformation in terms of place. Even their smells are different. Sophia and T-2306 are twin sisters, born on the same day, from the same uterus.
If I were to write about T-2306, I would want something of that tension to come through. The format of the place infiltrating something which might be appalled identity. Or perhaps by identity I mean body-as-place. If I were a photographer, I might take a long-exposure photograph, the kind that effaces her body if it implies movement, if her body-as-place shifts in relation to geographical setting. The immobile objects and landscape would exist in the picture as perfect solids. It would be an unremarkable photo, except for the way you could see right through the cow to everything behind it. Except for the way the picture would be taken as daylight gave way to dark, and something of that lumen would gather the hide together into the appearance of a bruise.
The length of exposure is an interesting way for me to begin to think about length in narrative. As I am given to understand the technique, if you lengthen the time that the shutter is open, the camera slowly tucks whatever light there is into an objectís surfaces. Iíve seen night photos taken with a long exposure, the light isnít reflected off the surfaces of an object so much as collected there, staining the fabric. The light appears to be a dirty liquid, seething up from under. The implications fascinate me, the way that pulling sight long can deform what is there, or ways of seeing it.
Thankfully, I am not bound to a single snapshot, because I want to examine (and re-examine), lit (et relire), bed (and embed), these surfaces, under-pinning the impoverished look of St-Henri, for instance, with the reek of a west-end Toronto slaughter house, twenty years distant in time, and 600 kilometers away. I want the space-off of the shed I started writing jacks in to be that terrifying plant. God: What is that? What is it? The dingy white towers next to the stockyards are organized vertically, even though, as everybody knows, cows are organized horizontallythey are grazers, right? So, between the slaughterhouse and the packing plant some terrible deformation of what it means to be a cow occurs, the axis of cowness undergoes a grotesque skew. How do you even fit the word "cow" in a building that tall? What could a building with elevators possibly have to do with a cow? When I was a girl, I wasnít afraid of the men with electrical prods, or the smell of shit and death. But I was terrified by those vertical towers. I knew they embodied a cold and impersonal force. If I called out to the men prodding the cows, for instance, I could get them to talk to me, stop what they were doing for a while. I doubted my presence could effect a pause when it came to anything in or about those buildings. It wasnít so much that I didnít exist, as it was that in their terms, I could not possibly exist. I lacked the relevance to insist my own axis likewise undergo some miraculous Holstein shift from x to y. The plant excluded all terms but those present in its formula. If I had Goëdal for a companion on those walks through the slaughterhouse, they might have made another kind of sense. As it is, the memory refuses my attempts at sense-making, and continues to fascinate me twenty years later. The shed I came to narrative in has been torn down, and the vertical granary -- the one that existed at the place where Beaudoin stutters to a stop at rue St-Ambroise, the one that once implied the axial-shift undergone by a field of wheat -- burned to the ground one winter night as I watched. These places have a grammar that I am only now beginning to grapple with (or make-up).
I should probably confess that Iíve apprehended a similar syntax in unfamiliar restaurants. Once, a maitre-D unfolded my body like a table cloth, the surface tension flattening and lengthening my body to the skin of water, it delineated a lumen that precisely. Sensing some terrifying grammar, I found that the only punctuation legible to me were the round bottoms of oven-warmed plates pressing into my back like a series of medieval cups. The kind 17th century doctors heat with candles before placing in rows on either side of the spine, creating a series of tiny vacuums to draw the suspected impurity up from under. I find restaurants inscrutable. I mean, who would think to spell the word "spent" on a plate in a diagonal line of cutlery? But god, the relief to discover there was a silent means to signal an impending departure.
What happens in the meantime? As your liminal-linen body hosts a series of plates? And yes, physically, the body is a place that can, with some effort, be occupied by one's self, or by others.
I am not at a restaurant. If I close my eyes, I lose my boundaries, the air is tepid against my skin, no rough frisson strokes this surface. I am not sensitive enough to maintain a secure sense of where I end and something other begins. That requires a leperís perpetual gaze to the extremities. If I were to close my eyes and begin typing by rote, you would have to remind me: Where are my arms just now? my fingers...
I am only sure of the tips. As they pad against the keys. One of my fingers describes an unstable arch. Iíve pulled a tendon with this incessant tapping. It must be a very tiny tendon, the kind of thing you might extract from the haunch of a bisected frog. Eyes closed, I am the stoop of shoulders, the curve of a sore finger, and a series of insensitive pads Iíve developed as a result of my obsessive predilection for narrative -- long narrative.
This is where I am today, and not at a restaurant packing plant. I am at the place the scar on my index finger describes, an intersection between place and the body. Writing narrative affords me a lateral way in which to think about the body, about place, about the body in place, about the body as place. In Hush, written very much like those long-exposures I talked of earlier, the women exist in terms of placea narrative focus that, on the surface, would deny movement. But writing against the vertical axis, implying it, even as I choose to write on the horizontal plane, I can let a particular image accrete to itself all sorts of other resonancesnot just in the way a particular image occurs in relation to her-body, Roseís body, Loralieís body, but how it recurs, in relation to other events or objects or the place itself.
Plot is a term that I hear twice, I hear the English plot and the français plotte, or cuntso it is a gendering of narrative. I am not about plot. But am about this other form of plotting in narrative. Of telling a story that unfolds at the level of language, where the words I use recur over the length of the narrative. The repetition becomes skewed, and what it touches, likewise becomes communicable. It isnít mood, or even sensibility Iím aiming at, though thatís what descriptive words are employed for a lot of the time. No, what is here is as convoluted as the vaginal tract of a snail, and though yes, snailís plottes are bundled relatively small, they do possess immense surfaces to play on.
I should admit Iíve forgotten the word for a word that is descriptive.
Where am I going next? I want you to imagine a picture taken with a very long exposure. No. I want you to imagine you think of the phrase "glory-hole" every time you hear the word exposure, and then I want you to imagine a picture taken with a very long exposure. A picture taken on a night at the circus. The temporal trace of the antics of acrobats and Dahlmer-clowns rendered in fly-wheels of color. Are you sufficiently distracted? Good. Because until a moment ago I was holding a Polaroid in my hand. It was a very old picture, or else, someone has gone to a lot of trouble to make it look that way. The edges are black from fingering. If I was going to show you the picture, evidently, I changed my mind, because while you were looking at the circus-shot, I slipped the picture into my pocket and lit a cigarette.
I think you should know that I am familiar with the practical applications of luting agents.
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