Anstruther Press, 2015
38 Joe Shuster Way, Apt. 1228
Toronto, ON, M6K 0A5
2015, 15 pp., $10.00, 9780994814647
It’s a poem, but specifically it’s a dream someone else is having. Not the one who wrote it but the one reading. It’s appropriate to establish distances, distinctions. Nothing about the word “confessional” escapes being a problem.
What happens in, or is a result of, the dream is something you’re not supposed to talk about. What kind of thing? Imagine a professional setting. Everything you can’t say there. Those things, the kind regulated by shame rather than law. Shame is composed of all the residues of sin, even if most of us don’t call it that. It’s the flesh that’s made to wear the weight of shame.
Well, poetry is still a kind of professional setting. If you feel the need to say something inappropriate someone might call it a confession to signify it isn’t something usually said out of the bounds of the private.
Someone is dreaming in a poem and so I’m dreaming because I’m reading a poem about needing to pee. It’s a search for a toilet that looks like salvation. Maybe needing to pee dreams are about salvation. If this seems wrong maybe we’ve been thinking wrongly about salvation. Isn’t salvation from the needs of the flesh to begin with? Having urgently to pee is a need of the flesh and finding a solution is a kind of salvation. But it’s a dream, so the question is also about being awake.
Am I sure I’m awake?
I don’t know, do something, check, I say.
Like what, I say?
I don’t know, like pee a little, see if I’m on a seat, I say.
Really, can I do that?
Live a little, I say.
[“Dream in radical disclosure”]
Reading the dreaming, I tense. Anxiety isn’t an ignorance of plot but having a pretty good idea what comes next because we’ve lived through the experience before. Tension is expectation and preparation for crisis.
Sometimes when I get up at night to use the toilet I close my eyes and think oh no, oh no, aren’t I in a bed? It’s one of those private things that must have variations from person to person. Who is that voice saying “live a little,” these duelling Is. In the dialogue, it’s not clear who the awake one is. I catch myself repeating the same process during wakefulness. Who’s answering whom?
The fact we convince ourselves most of the time that we are awake seems incredible. It is incredible, but it’s an old trick, so it doesn’t seem that way.
Well I’m not awake, I say.
But now I’m awake, I say.
Now you tell me.
[“Dream in radical disclosure”]
It’s a crisis poem if the subject provokes a crisis, like if you just convinced yourself you were awake when it wasn’t true. Awake turns out to have not been awake the way we’d like awake to be. Now there is also wetness in a bed, which is not the appropriate container. It’s a definite rupture in how things are supposed to work and reveals consciousness as a kind of joke. Both voices are I and neither one is lying.
Who is you and who is yourself and why aren’t they the same?
When I believe I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing it’s not really an accident. Belief makes it a joke: thinking I’m saved, in the pleasure of relief, I wake up in a wet bed. We’re supposed to grow out of it, the barrier between awake and not awake is supposed to become entirely solid, but we retain the ability to convince ourselves otherwise.
It’s never possible to completely trust that barrier, our proof of being awake, and this is a reasonable anxiety. A human life is bracketed by periods during which bodily control cannot be counted on. Then there’s the memory of the sensation of wetness itself, how it terribly goes from warm to cold, knowing (at least as a child) you’ll have to tell someone, the mess to clean up.
For such a minor crisis it’s funny how it lingers and how we act like it never happens once we are adults.
Shame can be neutralized by the candour of speaking of it out loud, though utterances can also be judged. Those things we’re not supposed to talk about are best to talk about but be careful who you talk about them to. It’s one way for poetry to join in with laughing at how ridiculous we are, though I’d only say it, in person, around someone I trust. A disclosure is radical when it moves from private to public.
The poet writes disclosure, not a confession. The difference is important. I confess something I did which I already know carries a measure of guilt, but I disclose information that would otherwise be kept private. It’s the state of privacy that makes it a disclosure.
How safe are the spaces for saying?
Shame a primary regulatory mechanism of pleasure. It feels so good to be undone from the persistent maintenance of a controlled body. A dream in which the bed becomes wet is a pleasure-seeking dream. One I convinces the other it’s okay to do what feels good. It’s only a crisis in dealing with the aftermath of pleasure. Shame is essentially a way of pointing to the residues of pleasure and saying: see, now look.So, what if I liked it?
Then the release.
The most intense sense of release.
The pressure is less, I’m so grateful for finding this place.
Things feel so good now.
It’s pathetic that things don’t always feel this good.
[“Dream in radical disclosure”]
It’s another layer to the joke how pathetic it really is that things don’t always feel this good. As a delivery mechanism poetry’s dependent on pleasure and perhaps this causes the fraught relationship with shame. It’s such a relief to feel my own mouth form words in a small act of diffusion.
Disclosing, like intense feeling, leaves us vulnerable and prone to reactions we cannot predict. Peeing in a bed is a disruption that reminds me the body I thought was an individual, sealed, controlled being turns out to be a leaking, messy, porous thing subject to failures of control produced by tricks of its own machinery. Neither conscious nor physical barriers are entirely trustworthy.
Anne Carson, in the essay “Dirt and Desire,” 1 writes of bodies as leaky containers. It feels good to read because our bodies do leak, even if we prefer not to think of them doing so. Some of us faint at the sight of blood. Most of us want to vomit when we encounter vomit. Urine, anywhere other than a toilet, is read as a sign of an unclean space. These encounters with the interior made exterior are signs something is amiss and cause distress.
The idea that we’re closed and contained individuals, which allows for self-agency, has had implications for gender. Men, short one distinct kind of leaking, haven’t traditionally liked leaky things. About classical thinkers like Aristotle and Plato, Carson writes: “… it becomes possible to differentiate woman from man not only as wet from dry but as the unbounded from the bounded, as content from form, as polluted from pure.”
Residues of this framing remain. Messiness is still not a virtue. A leaky body, like a sick body, is not a body to be trusted. To admit to wetting a bed, like admitting to mental illness like admitting to emotional turmoil, is still to be rendered suspicious. Once you’re suspicious, the ones who suspect you are just waiting to be proven right.
The notion of leakage requires a barrier. What keeps the form of the body bounded is the skin of the body, the hair on the skin. We’d prefer not to mention the bacterial colonies and microscopic insects, invisible but there, or how what we see is even more surface than skin, image, perception: a reading. Bodies have both literal and metaphorical layers, psychic and physical.
To strip away a layer is to expose the layers underneath to a greater intensity of touch. Reading is a kind of touch and my level of resistance varies. If a touch is intense enough it asks if the barrier will hold. In the poem someone is losing layers and I, with the words in my mouth, feel more exposed, the barrier as more tentative. It’s like opening and being written into, the skin flayed like pages of a book.
For in the shower every drop of water is felt.
I am exposed and experience it as an intrusion.
Hair is an extra layer of skin, a means not to feel.
Being now so naked I sense my modesty even with clothes on.
How oddly these private, intimate things we do with our bodies become wrapped in the conditions of gender. My father shaved his face in the open but my mother shaved out of sight. It has something to do with witnessing the construction of the body as image. These things are disclosures because bodies read as female are asked to not ruin the magic by showing how the trick is performed.
To make the body produce the image of hairlessness requires the removal of a barrier leaving it more vulnerable. Even the drops of water become intrusive: wetness is the touch of water on skin, breaking against the surface made more sensitive. The poem moves through various methods of removing hair, none of them as ideal as the images of hairlessness received suggest. Fact grates against perfection.
“The guilt of imperfection weights me down.
I sense that my body is in the wrong.
It should be crystal clear.”
It’s how the skin feels, how it is altered, that’s made the drama. How the body resists attempts at being managed into pure image, like a physical manifestation of that other I who can convince of awake when dreaming.
The drops of water in the shower are the wetness that impacts the exposed skin with physical force, denying it the insensitivity of image. Wetness in these poems is the point of rupture and contact between bodies as images and bodies as physical and therefore messy things.
In the same essay, Anne Carson describes “a deep and abiding mistrust of ‘the wet’ in virtue of its ability to transform and deform,” that this suspicion is assigned to those read as female. It’s so hard to maintain boundaries when someone is ignoring them, altering them, questioning them. Sometimes confessional poetry is an accusation levelled to signify the presence of pollution in an otherwise austere arena, of “the wet.” Ideas are so dry.
Someone who tolerates a state of wetness is compromised. One of Elena Ferrante’s characters2 sits in her wet swimsuit after a day at the beach, resisting attempts to be changed out of it. Her negligence of wetness and refusal to make herself dry are the signal of distress, of her mental state disturbed by a love affair. The speaker of the disclosure poem removes the bedding and gets right back into bed, unbothered. There’s no sign of distress.
Except wetness, like wakefulness, isn’t what it seems, and what it appears to be is broken apart in another poem, the common image undone.
Collectively immersed in water, there is a wetness,
but still each hair, taken separate, is solid.
Solids dissolve, do not let water pass through them.
It is the division between strands then, which is wet,
and creates the illusion of drench.
[“The pragmatism of a girl entering a room drying her hands
the eroticism of a girl drying her hair, head bent”]
It’s the word illusion that arrests my reading, the visual of many hairs carrying collectively a cloud of wetness. The word for cloud like the word for wet is an illusion the sensation of wetness disrupts. What appears singular is composed of the multiple, full of divisions. We say her hair is wet, binding the plurality with grammar. The pragmatism of English simplifies things, but not without losses.
When we say a body has an interior and an exterior, by what illusion is it held together? There is a photo of the poet Lorca kneeling at a reflecting pool, one hand dipping through the reflection of his own image, penetrating it. We dwell on the surfaces of the bodies we speak of inhabiting, relating even to ourselves mostly through image. Puncturing that illusion is profound.
To speak of the interior of a body creates a contained space with an exterior surface that we perceive as unified. I look at you and ignore the gaps, compose the disparities into someone I think I understand. By breaking one image apart the poem shows the trick by which others are made.
It’s all about surface.
To do with connecting the inner and outer planes
of body, while also destructing
the flatness of skin.
Surface can mean that which is obvious,
or that which is not obvious at all.
Disclosure is a moment of threat, a possible collision of unasked-for information conflicting with the metaphors transmitted by surfaces. It’s a disrupting of that flatness of skin, so these occurrences of conflict are regulated and minimized. Keeping the inner and outer planes separated is easier.
Residues of the body leaking into containers that are not appropriate create problems for this separation. They are themselves a kind of disclosure. Literally and figuratively we leave pieces of ourselves all over the place.
In one of the fragments, Sappho laments the lack of a garment to cover her daughter’s head3, which in her culture was a marker of decency as it is in some cultures now. Hair was something that needed to be contained. The last words of the fragment are “terribly leaked away.” What can’t be bounded has a way of getting lost, in more ways than one.
But I find hair everywhere.
In new books.
In the drains of my room.
[“Dream in radical disclosure”]
No accident that the wetting-the-bed-poem is also a hair poem. Like the act of writing itself, they are stories of errant residues. I’m so often shocked by what words come out of me, and I know that some are involuntary. The thing about writing is to make it look like it came out orderly, on purpose. Isn’t messy writing still seen as shameful? Like leaving hair all over the place. So much cleaning is required to make it appear otherwise.
Books are a formal (appropriate) container for the results of writing. Bounded, all those words that came from failures of control are subjected to control and appear entirely correct. Form grants things their formality. But there’s so much going on in the interiors of the thing we call self that I am not aware of and do not control. What happens on the inner plane influences dramatically the outer.
Huge flanks of skin are flayed and folded
outward so the back is an open book,
things run out, escape,
the skin’s pink inner tint is wings.
[“Beings not being”]
Skin flayed like the pages of a book in a poem whose title pluralizes the word the Enlightenment philosophers used to conceptualize existence as singular. There’s play in how beings negates being. It’s a light refusal of a game often taken too seriously.
Boundaries are both literal and metaphorical, but the body’s barriers are constructed to allow transgressions. Things flow in and out, pausing along their way for varying lengths of time. Against the fact of porousness belief is a stabilizing mechanism; one thing it can do is make the illusion that we’re masters of a complex series of autonomous functions named a body into a certainty. When I want to invoke a sureness of self I use the word solid. This body is and is not what I believe.
My body is a microcosm of the world I live in.
There is no fantasy involved.
“The growth of my golden hair is a sign
that the little men are mining and allowing me
to sample the wealth my body creates.
And now, too adult to believe in truth,
I still maintain my creation myth.
Or create the circumstances for this belief.
[“Beings not being”]
Dreams sometimes produce the uncanny not as background to consciousness but in their consciously projected images. A radical disclosure that I recognize as part of me appears which I did not previously know was there. The unconscious that’s only separated from consciousness by metaphor finds a gap in the barrier. A leak occurs. The residue is called a dream, or a poem, but the stain left is not reducible to the remembered images of the dream itself.
The foundations of any belief are more than part accident; perhaps accident plus experience plus explanation, which makes for a joke it feels right to believe in. Creating the circumstances for those beliefs to occur is a continual process. How to undo them, making room for new beliefs, often requires looking at something familiar long enough for it to become disruptive again, to create new circumstances.
What a strange, wonderful poem “Beings not being” is. Without disdain or malice, but with a kind of lightness it calls all kinds of things into question. The supposedly childish, imaginative, version is more accurate than the one an adult might call truth. It’s adult to be ashamed of bodily accidents, too, and to cover up rather than delight in the tricks we’re capable of playing on ourselves.
A poem that discloses something we’d rather not talk about works as a psychic leak, a pleasure to produce that is also at least part accident. One way to puncture the shame of a belief that could make writing about wetting a bed ridiculous is to use the permissibility of the space of poetry to talk about what’s not speakable in other venues. To say the private publicly for its own sake, not out of any need to confess.
Aaron Boothby is a poet from California now living in Montréal. Work has been published in Vallum, Axolotl, Whiskey Island, and others while a chapbook titled Reperspirations, Exhalations, Wrapt Inflections was published in 2016 with Anstruther Press. Tweets appear @ellipticalnight and a website can be found here.