Note from the Underground

Betsy Andrews


Working Notes:

As a poet, I'm so intensely enamored of craft that the line can become my taskmaster, both beloved and despised. When I began the piece herein, I intended it as a poem, endstopped and enjambed and all. But there were so many stories converging—an autobiographical story, an ancient mythological story, the stories of numerous industries (the industry of patriarchy, the industry of meat, the industry of religion, the industry of death), the story of the archetypal presence in the day-to-day—that the messy horde of them resisted the line's enclosure. The mob had a mind of its own, came to quorum instead in the alchemical vessel of the very tall tale. So, it was that a choice made itself.

My father was a lying drunk. My father's name was Sin. He chased my mother with a tire iron about the yawning frontyard. Then he invented escape. As helpless in his absence as presence, my mother stood in the same yard and wept when the floodwaters rose. The neighborhood gossip, Tiresias, unzipped her cornstalk ears. She tossed her lit cigarette at the garden snakes fucking and pronounced herself a bard. She sat on her porch across the street and composed the epic of my parents' frontyard which she sang in verses just brief enough for the neighbors, in passing, in learn how to hum. It was the din of the rain falling in squalls; sprung rhythm of maelstroms unravelled. This is how I became acquainted with some of my pastoral cycle. I learned to chant these slaughtering idylls from the bard across the way. I was there in the midst of foul weather. But I remember nothing I was not retold. These recollections are potsherds, fragments of sunken relief dredged up and presented with someone else's commentary, as if behind glass.

My memory is a museum of pieces of dubious provenience. The story I'll tell is 5000 years old and is nothing if not debatable. How am I to tell it, then? How about:

She ate me?

She ate me all the way back.
She ate me all the way back into childhood, all the way back through birth. She ate me back through conception. Back through my parents' wedding before The Vietnam War. Back to my father falling on a bloodied Korean slope (shrapnel fucking his thigh where metal will seep from his skin in the shower forty-eight years hence). She ate me before my mother's birth between The World Wars. She ate me before The French-Indian War, The Spanish-American War, The Sino-Japanese War, The Franco-Prussian War. She ate me before The Ten Years' War, The Boer War, The Crimean War, The War of 1812. She ate me before The Seminole Wars, The Opium War, The Peninsular War. She ate me before The Seven Years' War, The First and Second Silesian Wars, The Great Northern War, Queen Anne's War, King William's War, King Philip's War, and The War of Devolution. She ate me before The Thirty Years' War, The Wars of Religion, The Wars of the Roses, The Hussite Wars, and The Hundred Years' War. She ate me before The Punic Wars, The Sacred Wars, The Samnite Wars, The Messanian Wars, The Macedonian Wars, The Mithridatic Wars. She ate me before The Peloponnesian Wars, The Corinthian War, and The Trojan War. She ate me before The War Against Hyksos, The War Against Palestine, The War Against Arcadia, The War Against Thessalia, and The War Against Babylon. She ate me back into Ur.

Er. Utterance before argument. Er. The advent of war.

It was not entirely erotic. Entirely. It was grave.

She ate me, but I buried myself. I had buried myself before. Locking the bathroom door as a girl and crouching down in the shower, my hands cusping my face and my face urged at the tiles, I'd dream my dream of the grotto. From Latin for "crypt," from Greek for "vault," and in feminine form, "to hide." Grotto, speleo-aqueous myth of safety as in drip hole, gravity spring, lily pool, lost river.

"The possible use of limestone caves as shelters from the effects of nuclear weapons has received considerable attention in the past few years," 1 in the juvenile water of the grotto whispers the blind cave fish.

Sin drew the living room blinds. Tiresias pressed her ear to the ground, discerning the clatter of hooves. Sin sat on the couch in his shorts and chained my mother, for his children's digestion, to the dissembling line of his industrial tongue. He stunned and stuck and scalded and scraped her. He split her along the backbone. While her head and her hocks and her skin were removed, we milled in the lairage wild-eyed, waiting for our turns. Picture the herd slunk from the mother, pushing and bumping about:

Suddenly, at one end of the herd, a huge thrust forward. The first maddened layer crushes the next which crushes the next, and so on. A wave of compression washes the herd. But the herd is still milling in random directions. The wave that started crisply, decomposes, becomes disorganized. By the time it reaches the opposite end of the pen, the pattern's a mess.

The same thing happens to a wave of sound. Close to the source of sound, the compressions are patterns of tightly packed molecules. But the molecules have no direction in mind. They simply mill about. The compressions untighten as the wave of sound travels so that meaning near-grazes our ears. When the pattern is totally thronged by the milling, the herd hears nothing at all. 2

I woke to my own furious bleating. "Kill her," I said. I thought this would preserve us. "Kill her." And, "Kill her." And, "Kill her." My siblings fidgeted deafened and dumb. My mother was processed and canned. That night my father, laid drunk up in couvade, gave birth to much of me.

We were feeding on hard-shelled, trap-doored things: augers and miters and lightning whelks, spindles and turrids and helmets; horse conchs and dogwinkles; mouthdrills and neptunes and clives.

I was going him one for one with the cocktail; a choking wash of an audible note poured from a giant, irregular jug. Inky-mouthed, my father dumped his boxcar eyes on me and spoke a hollow meander. The body of his speech was dominion, the limbs of which were gifts to me. Then, atavism buckling him under, he belly crawled into darkness. He had drunk his alluvial fill.

Thus he lay till the morning of the day appointed for his inhumation. The oven was being heated for the baking of the funeral meal when he awoke, climbed out of his coffin and walked downstairs, where he was found by the horrified cook, standing before the kitchen fire, complaining that he 'felt the cold.' 3

Deboned ham, he lived for years after out of spite for my skilled accretion of matter from out of his pinwheeling arms. To me, he had made these gifts: the me of power and wickedness, of plundering cities, of rebel lands; the me of strife and judgement, of quiver and standard and sword and club and silence and running and fear. He made me the me of consternation, of deceit and dismay and lament. He made me the me of kindling fire and the piling of burning coals. He made me the me of righteousness, of triumph and travel and beer. He made me the me of the art of speed. He made me the me of the making of plans. He made me the me of godship and forthright speech and deceitful speech and grandiloquent speech and divinity. He made me the feeding pen.

Once I was so much of me, and he was a mummy of displaced vigor, he gathered himself in his goatskins and prophesied the epoch of his own replenishment. Sin developed an invasion theory. He called it Revelations. He sat me on a scarlet beast and poured me a cup of abominations. He attempted to swallow me whole.

By then I was known for Clouds Of Which Were Called My Breasts and, of course, for my Wondrous Vulva.

I was called Lady of Myriad Offices: Queen of Heaven, Lady of Victory, Light of the World, Leader of Hosts, Creator of People, Guide of Humanity, Mother of Fruitful Breast. I was called Goddess of Goddesses, River of Life, Shepherdess of Lands, Bestower of Strength, Framer of All Decrees. I was called Opener of the Womb. I was called Lady of Date Palms.

I was called Forgiver of Sin.

He had called me the Whore of Babylon. He had called me the Mother of Harlots.

I called myself Bereft of Forgiveness. I called myself Indigestible.

That was before my chthonian striptease when flutes and facets and flowstones were cleft. When squeezing, scrambling, chimneying, jamming, rappelling myself into caveat, she ate me, which was as natural as a logarithm. It was her due.

Tiresias' slumlord husband, having made of his property a catafalque and leased his tenants to incandescence, was arrested amidst the cremains. Tiresias packed her plucked feathers and eloped with eight billion flightless confessors. I was left, big toes tied together, legging the walls of the impermeable gist. What was I to make of all this bruised and cutting matter? of the evisceration bequeathed me by pall-bearing parents? (My mother had selected my casket from an overnight catalogue while sipping a cup of coffee and sitting in a comfortable chair. 4 My father had won first prize from the Académie de France for inventing a clawed forceps for pinching my corpse's nipples to assure that I was dead. 5)

I refused to play their thanatomime. I left them intoning Vade in Pacem. I took to speech.

I spoke blank verse. I spoke canzone. I spoke tanka and terza rima. I spoke bouts rimés and rondeau and renga. I spoke eclogue, epithalamium, madrigal, limerick, lune. I spoke senryu, sestina and satire. I spoke calligram, cento and ode. Ottava rima, projective verse, quatrain, ballade, epistle, the blues. I spoke ghazal. I spoke her to sonnets.

But she ate me; she furrowed my heart. Inside the asylum of her ear, my language was rendered offal.

I had played awhile at cultic prostitute, at sheepfold, at castrate, at the loosening of hair. The suspect was an effigy who moonlighted mowing the yawning frontyard. He laid me in the lilies unmoored from Tiresias' abandoned bed. He promised me strings and pulleys and bells. But when I touched him, the webbing between my fingers grew opaque with loss of blood. The mirror he held to my mouth clouded a phrase of silver sulfide of which the text was ennui.

So I buried myself, and she ate me.

The causal meaning of my descent has puzzled somatic scholars. Scholars have been inclined to dismiss as mere excuse my stated reasons: bull-like passion, raw desire, libido, ego, gestalt. 6 The god gets antediluvean kinged. The god gets hold of her leaking hair, and the god gets to wager a bet with the Huns: if he lops off her head and commands her to run, in how many steps will she crumble? The god gets the power of conjugation. The god gets declamation. He gets flashes of lightning, fits and wind. The god gets to steep in the rift.

I get the query fever. I get the conjectural choke.

The god gets oolites and porthole and spongework.

I get to peter out.

In the factory of piracy, god becomes god exponentially. I become boil-in-bag. The fatal hemmorhage of me out of me onto an areal map of the god: I am displaced into ambience; the god oxidizes and dilates. The god is blisteringly explicable. I go wrinkled and clot like jelly while the conduits of the graduate crawlspaces hook and barb their own lips. Once every 20,000 stitches, they publish a rattle elucidating civil war and embalment; I am painted as pale as putty and petrified like marble.

The bookkeepers take to my carcass like germs. They digest me into the emergent naturalness of that improving stalagmite, the god. With the use of this technology, the bookkeepers patent the concept of 'freshness.' My rind for the fruitful media.

The morticians of the media feign post mortem inspection. My survival, assumed to be a chronic rash, is expurgated from the thin skin.

But I live. I live to bury myself. I buried myself, and she ate me.

It may seem paradoxical, but at the mouth of the dissolving solution was the fact that, in my depotentiation, I had begun to be decorated by features that did the most toward making me interesting to the average consumer in the age of space exploration. 7 I had been fashioned, for instance, with wingspan and tiny mythic hands for roosting, armed with light explosives, beneath the eaves of the uncooperative. Through the benevolence of chemical manufacturing concerns, I'd been given an eerie dripping sound, the seepage of fluids, and manifest changes in odor, flavor and appearance. I was steam-jacketed, coagulated, and encased. I wore like condensation the impervious rock of the crown, the anklets, the epaulets, the girdle, the napkin, the national brassiere.

How did I coil clean in the patriotic wake? Like an ant with a slipknot sucking its midriff after the hoopla of threading a shell. No one was paying attention. First I dreamt I was an old bull-cow with horns, knocked on the head, head rent like a pod releasing, who nevertheless, as the shackle embraced her, leapt and went running down Rte 17, who was shot in the back and dragged by a tractor back to be quartered and plucked. When I awoke, I went to the oak trees and began to root at their faults. If I'm to be a stuck pig, I thought, liken my final supper to a sumptuous mould.

It was the me my father neglected to feign to give. It was the me of my own escape, the wild boar at the bars. The capybara, the kangaroo, the camel, alpaca, the moose. The antelope, the reindeer, guanaco, vicuña, the yak. I rumbled amidst the exotic meats, a pilgrim on a bender for genesis. Numerous eminences and depressions later, swirling like tea in a cup, I tripped off my stirrups and creepthed upon the earth, the me of the lump, so that when the goats of the underground breathed through my ears at a trillionth a watt per square meter, I heard them as trumpets wielding a knife, my ears bloated like eggs.

I scraped the many facets of my body off the pulpit, sorted and filed my serrated edges, and took to the beckoning maw. The goats of the underground waggled their beards. I straddled the glamorous threshold. I was sandwiched between slices of contaminated hide; lamp, hard hat, chin strap, sling, coveralls, knee pads, grapple. My wholesomeness was immediately sniffed at, the nostrils of judgement flying. I reeked of formaldehyde, hubris and want. Barred as I was at the gates of immersion by fossils who chewed at my sutures, there I swelled, an acquisitive cloud, resoundingly willing to bargain because:

My ear had become a compass; on the guillotine thump of the goat song, I could navigate the azimuth of a note. It was the cavel of the muscle that cinched and gave about her mouth. It was the augury of the slap and the swallow of her heart. It was a fracture screwing its mantical smoke screen up her throat. It was Cassandra in her stomach, the thousand-petal sibyl of her scalp; it was the soothsaying foci of the curve of her palms, her fingertips the Chaldeans, her elbows twisting weathercocks, her breasts portentous gyres, her legs long scrolls of omen, and her cunt prophetic ziggurat, repeating and repeating a clause of joint and parting. It was the structure of the tragic and the anti-tragic fusing. It was the future, and I craved it like a robber craves a crypt.

Sarcophagus, a tin vault containing two essential pieces, sacro meaning "flesh" in Greek, and phagus meaning "eater." But from flesh to eater we travel thousands of miles through the dross. At seven hungry borders bribe the seven crooked cops.

I offered up bravura, and the greedy bones bit in. I left them nibbling the image I'd assembled in the mirror. The goats and I grew rubber souled and sloshed into the vibrant air. Beyond the vestibule, the atmosphere was profligate with battle. Draperies and canopies and columns fell apart. Across the continents of spore and bug, an oracle came warning. I heard prediction sweeping with her tongue across her teeth.

Disaster is a sexed up promise, and I would leach the lodestone from my psyche for a hit. As it happened, there were sledgehammers, forceps, aspirators, clamps. She vandalled questions from inside herself and wore them like a lab coat. In the autopsy of accusation, stones of gall and truth. I hemmorhaged quietude, certitude, poise, balance, clarity, safety, circumspection, humor, confidence, ken. The floor was slick with my giving way. The goats of the underground donned mourning suit and veil. There was to be a feast. Bacterium shuffled in.

I'd come in making choice and cut, a bundle of nerve and muscle. I was sawed and reapportioned, matter rendered moot. Leg, loin, blade, rump, topside, sirloin, brisket, chuck, ribs and clod and sticking. We fucked alot, so fucking was a thing that I had left, but in the gut room zero gravity, the gesture lost its heft. I took on strangle, lockjaw, blackleg, taint. She was back-flood and breakdown; she was lethal. I was hooked.

Bacon: a feature in a limestone cave that bleeds in colored streaks. The name suggests both kill and cure, the double helix tourniquet that binds the human palate. She was starving, and she loathed and longed for being in my meat as when the slaughterhouse employee says,

Stick that bitch. I grabbed her and flipped her over. She looked up at me. It was like she was saying, "Yeah, I know it's your job, do it." That was the first time I ever looked into a live hog's eyes. And I stuck her. And she bled, 8

and he means that it is intimate, more intimate than family, more intimate than war. Despite the husbandry of scholars, we were not sisters, were not enemies, not aspects of one self. We were lovers which means bloodthirst, which means eaten and to eat. It is desire carves the wild body into savor and into spoil. It is desire and disgust, that is. But the dissection of the lover into delicious and grotesque is plastic surgery through metaphor after the metonymic accident of lust. It is a reconstruction full of mercilessness and mercy all at once.

Hung up, I turned the green of badness and of newness. But when you're eaten raw and rotten, you sicken those who eat. Rumor has it Sin became my out; but family matters less to him than dirt beneath his thumbnails. The truth is that she spit me up. The siren she's remembered for was bellyache, not birth. She ate me; I was hard to eat. I bolted from her stomach, her feral burden sprung.

Above us, kingships moved upstream, regions weakened under struggle. Surpluses were stored and spent, craftsmen fashioned temples, independent cities rose; mosaics, altars, frescoes; cosmogony appeared and faltered, priests were fed and housed and crucified; sheep were bred and shorn and slaughtered, society collapsed. Below you, she was doubled with the loss of too rich a meal. I came up flopping wet and naked and, in some sense I was healed, of the rigor mortis Sin had put me in, the hunger of the daughter.

So, who is eaten, then? Who is eater? Bad blood fills the stomach with a host of famished stowaways. And my memories are ships adrift and whirled in the eddy. The log books streak and bleed and run, and hard-shelled, trap-doored things—the murex and the triton and the gemtop and the cone—make meals upon the pages, growing plump, in turn, to make a meal for a scoundrel faking at god. I said nothing is not debatable. Tiresias long sailed from here, her cruiseship sunk and done, I tell stories that she dictates from the hulls of former living. But the bowline of her narrative in my mouth's a fraying twist. And Tiresias a suburbanite of the artifice of up-and-up, this turn of gossip from the underground is mine to rip and knot.

I know one more yarn, and it is this:

The warrior pin inks his face a feast of luscious coil. At death, he meets a hungry hag who feeds upon his facial labyrinth. Sated, she strokes his eyes and gives him the gift of the vision of the spirits. In this way, he can navigate the landscape of the dead. If his face is smooth and left untouched, if he has no mark of carving, like a vulture she eats his eyes and picks his sockets empty. He's left to wander in forever, blinded like Tiresias in the myth.

I said she ate me, though she was no hag, and I am not a warrior. These winding sheets I give you as a gift from past the border between self and dissolution, between semblance and disorder, between want and what's leftover, between killing and the cure is the tale of simply sitting through the pains of being dressed by life, for life and life some more. For the lifting of the skin from bone is cursive to the examined body's page where we write scripts for useful ruptures fed on ardor and on rage.


1 George W. Moore and Brother G. Nicholas. Speleology: The Study of Caves. Boston: D.C. Heath and Company. 1964.


2 Sara Stein. The Science Book. New York: Workman Publishing. 1979.

3 Kenneth V. Iserson, M.D. Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies? Tucson: Galen Press, Ltd. 1994.

4 Robert T. Hatch. What Happens When You Die From Your Last Breath to the First Spadeful. New York: Carol Publishing Group. 1995.

5 Iserson.

6 Sylvia Brinton Perera. Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women. Toronto: Inner City Books. 1981.

7 Moore and Nicholas.

8 Gail A. Eisnitz. Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect and Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. 1997.

Issue Two
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