This past weekend, I and four others were ordained at my Zen temple and received among other things a new name and lineage. The names come in pairs; by convention the first part is meant to reflect some aspect of one’s present self, and the second a future aspiration. Fuba 風馬 reads “wind-horse”; I’d never thought of myself as all that equine, but I guess I did turn into a leggy girl with a mane. I have hope it’s going to sit better than whatever nervous small animal I used to evoke.
Jien 自圓 in English would be “self-circle”; the en is the same as in ensō. I haven’t yet talked it over with the teacher who gave it to me, but I fancy it points toward integration and wholeness, a highly incomplete project from this current vista point. Falling rocks next n miles.
Along with the name I received lineage papers tracing a line of dharma transmission from the historical Buddha down a historical chain with plenty of fiction in it (Nagarjuna, Bodhidharma, Huineng, Dōgen, onward), to Shunryu Suzuki and Sojun, who passed away a few days after the depth of my gender quandary finally became visible to me, and so to my present teacher and so to me. Since the document is a wholly patriarchal affair (as far as anyone knows, with the possible exception of Prajnatara) until we ladies get involved at bottom, a second paper was given with a compilation of women ancestors from history and myth arranged not in a line but in a circle, since whatever notion of ancestorship is in play, it’s not like the one by which titles and property are passed from father to son. More contemporaneous that way, it feels like.
Playing catch-up as I have with the recent crop of trans novels, I’m struck by how many of them are also concerned with ancestry, and the need to posit or rewrite a lineage. Casey Plett’s Little Fish does this in the most literal way, by having the trans protagonist discover that her grandfather may have been trans as well, and while the knowledge doesn’t inspire or comfort in any way—so scant and equivocal, it barely counts as knowledge—it does provide a lightweight supporting structure for what is otherwise a catalog of present-day hardship. Jeanne Thornton’s Summer Fun makes ancestry out of fandom, orienting the present-day narrator back toward a Brian Wilson-like figure whose life, at least in fabulation, is given a trans arc. It’s this notion of ancestry I’m drawn to; the books I keep on my shelves and the records I held onto after streaming ate the world are, more or less, the forebears I most recognize, and naturally I have my own way of reading them.
My trans friends who have read The Warm South think of it as a novel about Keats as a trans woman. (They also say, how could you have written that book and not known?) Obviously knowledge in general has a funny status here, but it’s true that I poured as much of myself into the character as I was able, whether or not I understood it, and also true that the attested Keats’s relation to the feminine, the Diana of Endymion or the agonizing love object of the short lyrics, is a tangle of identification and distance that is all too familiar to me, and one of the things that originally drew me in. To think of femininity as a home country from which one has been inexplicably banished invites all kinds of confusion into one’s relations with individual women. As Thornton tells it, placing her young musician protagonist in a young woman’s room:
Mona is already asleep. Her room’s arranged neatly for her, the laundry all in its hamper, the outsize desk tidied… one red candle flickers on the bookcase full of notebooks she has filled. You snuff the candle, drink your milkshake, and take your khakis and striped, reeking performance shirt off. At first you never knew where to put it—on the floor is unacceptable, in her hamper is unacceptable; your horrible androgen sweat will invade and corrupt everything she owns. You’ve settled for folding it on the cot Mona’s parents have installed in the room, by way of keeping up appearances, and taking it with you when you come and go. Slowly you’ve been training yourself to imagine that her belongings won’t crack when you look at them.
One use of the epistolary style is that the second person in English places no default gender on the addressee. Third-person narration, I’ve been discovering lately, tends to get defeated by the epistemological closet of egg mode, in which “she” is unearned, a future teleology imposed too soon, but “he” feels like the repetition of an old lie. How do you describe such a state? And who’d want to imagine their ancestors into it? It feels ghoulish, like the posthumous Mormon baptisms; yet you have to go looking, even though it’s a state that could never dare speak its name because it had no name to speak. At most you’re looking for an affect, the nameless “certain sensation” of Wittgenstein’s private-language speculation, that he imagines marked by a cryptic “S” in a diary. As the observable trace of this fugitive sensation, you might expect corporeal revulsion? Objectless yearning? A sense of metaphysical bad faith, a wrong fit running down to the core?
Kafka, of course. Cao Xueqin, worth his own post. The Rilke files. Kurt Cobain, already addressed by the internet but rawest, I think, in the barely coherent B-sides (I got a dick, dick, hear my fucking hate / I got my titillate spayed). Elliott Smith didn’t wear it on his sleeve in the same way, but the best songs, each a delicate wound (And I feel pretty / Pretty enough for you / I felt so ugly before / I didn’t know what to do), all sound to me like a lost girl looking for home. At minimum what you can say about all these is that they have the trick of speaking to everyone in a way that feels entirely private, a whisper for you alone; and others on my shelf don’t do it. It’s nowhere in Joyce; the cross-dressing cabaret of “Circe” and HCE’s “buckgoat paps… soft ones for orphans” are play-of-signifiers fun, but I don’t find myself in them any more than in a drag show. David Foster Wallace often reads like a man who hated being a man, but his gender-bending yields only a gallery of grotesques. Hemingway is a locked box; whatever was going on in The Garden of Eden and whatever Gloria had to contend with, it’s silent in the rest of the prose. T.S. Eliot has an early twinge—why does Prufrock find life as a man so impossible? why the fear and yearning when “The Waste Land” speaks as Marie (“In the mountains, there you feel free”)?—but in the end, old Tiresias with wrinkled female dugs takes the price of his vision to be collaboration with tradition and authority, and the later poetry, though it does many things, ceases to do that.
When I light a candle on November 20 it’s the lost girls I think of. If we can’t say who might or might not number among them, that’s part of the point. God knows what anyone might have done in a different time; God knows finding oneself in this way isn’t sufficient condition for happiness. I have no illusions about illuminating any particular path for the spirits. Sometimes a gesture has to make do, when it’s not possible to find the word.
Caleb Crain’s glosses and responses to Auden’s “In Praise of Limestone” have been with me this week, as Auden himself keeps popping up from day to day, because he’s in everyone’s memoir from Samuel R. Delany to Maria Tallchief, because I have this new habit of mumbling “Lullaby” to myself in bars, because I was over at someone’s house and saw Goodbye to Berlin on the shelf, and I remember everyone forwarding around “September 1, 1939” in September 2001, and couldn’t have said at the time how off that was. The nineties had their shame, but in hindsight, especially after the decade we’ve all just lived through, it’s clearer that the thirties were low and dishonest in a different way.
What stays with me from “In Praise of Limestone” is the voice that Auden gives to limestone’s opposite numbers, those tempters toward other modes of life, because those are the temptations I’ve always been prone to. We hear contrary calls from granite and gravel, lastly the ocean:
I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing;
That is how I shall set you free. There is no love;
There are only the various envies, all of them sad.
You can go on for a long time believing that, or taking it as the ideal you morally ought to believe in, even if you don’t quite know how your life could express it. To listen seriously to the voice of the ocean—if not by doing what Hart Crane did, and leaping from the deck—is to commit an act of self-burial deeper than anything in Auden’s geology, and place a stone at the grave mouth that can never be rolled away. So you suppose.
We came back to the East Bay a decade ago. For a long time, whenever I looked at San Francisco across the water, I would have Eliot’s “Unreal City” on my lips, very much with Eliot’s own sourness: phantoms of capital half hidden in the marine layer, towers destined to fall, unless they’d been illusion all along, livestreamed out of a billionaire’s playpen. These days the unreality is still there but the towers no longer matter. It’s about what goes on underneath, in their lee, or across the water in Oakland. Going through Pride not as a spectator but as part of the show (the parades are for tourists, I was told, your job is to go dancing), I got enough late education to ask myself if I had come home, finally, in a way that I’d never thought home could encompass; and if it still seemed unreal the next morning, it was in the way of something you find yourself loving so fiercely that you can’t trust in its permanence. Isherwood’s Berlin or Delany’s East Village, seen through the glass of memory, were places of suffering and danger where, nonetheless, power structures were indifferent in just the right way for life to emerge, and show itself to be the way of life we needed.
If I feel it to be fleeting, and therefore precious, it’s possible that I’m confusing my personal situation with social history, and reading too much of a private awakening—necessarily brief, because past the end of youth—into a cultural moment. But Auden and Isherwood saw well enough what it would mean to step into the light, and how the backlash would crest; and even when you can’t make out the whole shape of a coming catastrophe, you might well feel that you’re living in an idyll, and count the hours.
For a long time it didn’t occur to me to read “Lullaby” as a political poem. Charlie Altieri’s seminar room didn’t encourage that kind of thing, and my own understanding of love was that it was a conduit out of the world, like death, and never led back in. The idea that an encounter in a midnight room could be classed as solidarity is just what the voice of the ocean is meant to drown out (there is no love); of course I came upon ideas of that sort in grad school, and of course I tossed them aside. Fantasies for children, I thought, and if they incorporated relations not fit for children’s ears, that was the most childish thing of all. But “Lullaby” is another late thirties poem, and it knows what’s happening outside the window, on the street, across the water; the fashionable madmen of the day are evoked not in order to be immediately dismissed, but because their presence makes the midnight encounter so much more urgent. In my arms till break of day let the living creature lie: that much and no farther. Mortals don’t get to ask for more. Or if they do, it’s only with the most provisional benediction, such as ends the poem, and perhaps the grace and cunning to keep that picture in your heart when you find you have to go it alone.
I dreamt I was dating Samuel R. Delany. We went hiking through a ruined city, because of course that’s what you do on a date with him, and I asked him what he’d like to be called.
“As you know,” he said, “most of my intimates in any context call me ‘Chip.’ However, in consideration of our unique relation, I would like you to call me ‘Boo.’”
I guess this has been some sort of penetration testing backed by a dictionary file, and not an Oulipo attempt to communicate, but it was still a nice little story. Steely morning, tall pines waving, dark. Thinking of seacliffs. No one’s on your frequency when you age backward.
Another little story: the summer I was nineteen, late, drunk in the grocery with my friend M., we bought a pair of handcuffs that came as part of some “Li’l Bandit” costume ensemble (in July? Why was it there?), and I wore the handcuffs all night, and at the end of the night composed a mass email in the person of Isaiah, crying out in the wilderness about how handcuffs didn’t help. Things had gotten so weird after that many years in outer space.
That was the summer I walked around humming Candy says / I’ve come to hate my body / And all that it requires, and honest to God I didn’t even know who the song was about.
It’s like King Haggard and the unicorns. Isn’t it enough that there’s beauty in the world? Who needs to possess it all?
I dyed my hair magenta and ordered some fishnets. Yes I did. A serious moment.
From our yard we can see the pink triangle on Twin Peaks, a bit hazy but still—it’s a very large triangle. J. has an uneasy feeling, Silence=Death in mind.
Is my passion perfect? / No, do it once again. That your reward for doing it right would be permission to stop.
It’s so good to see you so much happier now, says my visiting mom. Of course that’s the impression one wants to give, and it’s not even wrong, to the extent any of this is commensurable. I asked J. about it and she said, well, you smile much more now. It’s part of how your presentation changed.
My mom mentioned that. And also that apparently I no longer dissociate and stare off into space all the time.
J. was quiet a moment, then said, yes. But when you used to do that, it was because you were writing.
Are you condemned to do this? Still a good question, all these years on.
Sidewalk sage plant glutted on rain, blown out to a mad plump hemisphere, purple-flowered.
Astrud Gilberto singing “Fly Me To the Moon” makes me think of “All Summer in a Day,” convinces me that I got into the sun for an hour, once, and the greed of wanting more than that.
und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt
Elaine Scarry: “Physical pain, then, is an intentional state without an intentional object... if the sun is too bright for a woman’s eyes, she moves into the shade, and as she does, her eyes again fill with seeable objects rather than aversive sensation... the less there is an object for the state and only the state itself, the more it will approach the condition of pain.” I remember reading that and thinking, okay, but what about pleasure? A naive question, especially from someone who never found pleasure in the world anyhow, who was always turning away from it, forgetting it, forswearing it. Who lacked patience to see the other souls there.
Fitti nel limo dicon: “Tristi fummo
ne l’aere dolce che dal sol s’allegra,
portando dentro accidïoso fummo:
or ci attristiam ne la belletta negra.”
“Der Gedanke an den Selbstmord ist ein starkes Trostmittel,” writes Fritz in Beyond Good and Evil; “mit ihm kommt man gut über manche böse Nacht hinweg.” Just so. Patchy old security blanket, clutched at whenever things got bad, worried over, wept into, worn through. And now no longer available, for political reasons; because there’s a whole whispering gallery who’d love the chance to say, we knew this thing was never going to work out, who’d love me as a statistic to immiserate others. No one wants to hear that it would have been worth it even so. For an hour in the sun.