WELCOME UP FOR AIR
(after Julie Curtiss, and the Procédé of Raymond Roussel)
After two months at the beach, you’ve come up for some air.
A monk up a beech couldn’t save you with a prayer, you tell your stylist, Wash the summer sand out of my hair.
Aprés sandy balayage and bangs you’re no longer a winsome doe, caught like a sty in the listless eye of a hunter’s hide: BANG-BANG!
You could duck down under goose down for the rest of the day with a bowl of bang-bang chicken, but ballet it to the butcher’s, where headless ducks look walleyed in the window, so you buy a turkey for the oven instead.
It isn’t thanksgiving, but if you need a turnkey for your coven let me know, says the pocked, smarmy doorman of your building when you mention expecting company.
You’re a hair’s-breath away from the stink of his salami sub, about to slap his boot off the chair, but a rent-controlled sub-sublet means you keep your hands pocketed.
Back in your apartment, you submarine your foot into a stocking, sub your stocking into a hand-me-down knee-high, begin vacuuming in a catsuit.
Feminism doesn’t exist in a vacuum, you said to your BFF who once called your look, Marvelicious – Black Panther meets Black cat – or are your bluffing?
In the mirror’s reflection, you’re re-imagining your animalism, running a high hand over your faux coir noir, having made mince-meat of last summer’s self-professed cool cats.
How many were high on heroin, mirrors of last century’s sexual politics, before you became the author of your own anime, a heroine paragliding off the bluff’s edge of the patriarchy?
You poly-flic your cigarette into the ash-tray at the memory of hedging your bets on cigarette-boats with hedge-funders who confessed to always suing or being sued.
A pescatarian, you’d live on sushi if you could, so why are you basting such a big bird? asked your stylist, Su Shi, this morning, as she transformed you from ashen into the sort of knock-out in highlights who flew on Learjets.
At the Butcher’s, you watched the window-leering check their watches, awaiting their turn to buy the butt of a duck or a hare, hanging her head by a hide-less doe, as if in mourning.
Home from the nexus between ducking and hiding, you’re feeling back in the saddle, throwing a dinner-party for friends, to help celebrate your new-found expressionism in the city again.
Expressionist or neo-surrealist? you ask, looking at your lounging self in the mirror, under a throw on the settee, surfing the web for recipes, when a din in your apartment starts up: a man wailing as if from a hiding.
You go from startled to surly when you see me, looking like a wounded whale, or worse, a hip surfer, or worse again, the sort of creep who’d break in to try to catch you in his web, before stealing a braid of your sandy hair.
You’re about to scream, better yet, abrade and hip-check me out the door – when you notice I’m shoeless and wobbly as an undercooked crêpe – a spine of not steal, but slumped as if writing verse on a toilet.
You’re not to be toyed with, not for a hundred dares or cookies, but still you’re feeling less than a champ, as you watch me stepping gently, barefoot, out of the painting in the corner, still drying on an easel.
Set not in the gents, but the ladies, the painting shows a man’s brown brogues poking out beneath the bathroom’s stall doors – in between pink kitten heels and another’s green pumps – subversive of Duchamp’s urinal – in its feminine slant.
You’re in all the way, pumping me for information, asking what I’m doing, not just in your apartment, but the painting (titled ‘Drain’): am I contributing to the dynamic debate around genders and bathrooms? or am I just a rogue hiding to stall his capture, a champion heel crowing his famed magnitude?
It’s not like such stories don’t exist… for ex: before the Cro -Magnon man you dated this past summer could put dynamite under you with a line like, ‘I want to paint your portrait’, you’d already recast yourself as a forex trader and him as a sub-sub slapper (blue-lipped and dead by Draino), because nobody gets off on retrograde male fantasy anymore.
Except a male fantasist, you say (Touché!), like the sort who after giving you a tulip, touched your tush (slap!), then cast you to the curb outside his beach shack, saying, You could’ve hung your hat here forever and made some real dough, if you weren’t such a donut – the grade-A egg sucker.
Checkmate, you said when you nutted him in his low-calorie dough balls, shaking your stuff into the tall grass of the beach dunes to find a new lover lying prostrate as if on a luge.
With your fingers entangled in the glossy hair of the new wife of the local billionaire (soon to be dead from prostate cancer), you lunged into a new life minus the doom.
How nice for once to have someone else pay the bill in the ion-enriched air overseen by a crusty maître d’ who served you platters of crustaceans straight from the ocean before walking into the dunes.
Oh, shin-splints! The small price you had to pay for your split-steps, daily runs, oiled up, tanned and cruising with Ivy alma mater.
You made your lover a brooch from your split-ends entwined with ivy hedera, before becoming her prized personal trainer – your morning squats on the beach giving you both buns of steel even a squatter could hang a chandelier off.
‘One should catch a new train every day of their life,’ ‘an old friend once told you between bites of brioche and sips of shandy, sitting in the old squat you once shared, entrance through the prised window, since the front door was blocked by boxes full of expired pastries.
Even though you’re back in the comforts of home (unpacked and snacking on Ding Dongs and brie), you’re still pasted by the summer, not to mention still toe-jammed by my shoeless stepping-out on you, so you shoo me back into your painting, leaving you alone to await the doorbell like a doe-eyed prized boxer.
3. ‘PIECE OF THE PIE’
Ding-Dong buzzes the intercom, and up come your guests, on a gust of wind, snaking in through your door: bare- footed, stilettoed, and pumped as method actors in a silent film.
They’re smoking Gauloises, sighing and standing vogue-still, frozen toed, glossy haired, breezy as bears – but underneath: buzzing like meth heads.
When you compliment them on being smoking one of them gets breathy, stands knock-kneed, looks vaguely galled (why?).
‘Because you think you’re the bee’s knees, after a summer getting down with other pals; we don’t need you to come down to our level, plying us with your mince meat… you can talk to the hand’: nails gnarled and glossed in front of your face, roughed up and filled in, flaming pink polish and ethyl methacrylate.
There’s a rough blankness to their faces, ‘Are we even your friends anymore?’, glosses a standoffish Ethyl Merman wannabe, stealing the plot from a late night downtown musical comedy gone down in flames.
She pretends to be a palm-reader, mocks you as a comely muse, before giving you a wild clapping hand, as if applauding the awful review of your performance in the morning papers.
You begin to bite your own nails, feel like a plodding mourner paying full-price for your own funeral, when a car’s beeping coincides with the beeping oven.
An upside down pyramid of sound – car / oven / coven – reminds you of the doorman, as if everything’s a word game.
You’d be game to play if you weren’t tearing up, so busy whirling around the kitchen, peering into the middle of the oven, basting the turkey one last time before turning it on its behind and letting it sit in its own steam.
Behind an upturned collar, standing right behind you is your oldest friend, looking like a steam-drunk turncoat, a bastion of a dyad combined: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
You close, then open your eyes, come to understand the binary at play: at the tip of her hand, the nails of a jackal, the power to flay the hide of someone alive.
Could someone give me a hand? You ask, when dinner is ready to be hurled onto the table.
Instead of help, one of your guests mounts the piano stool and by the grand din of her hands creates a cross of la campanella scatted by Ella Fitzgerald (études de Paganini meets ‘Mr. Paganini’).
One ninny pees and relieves a stool into the toilet as if she’s camping under the stars and not under a chandelier – a 21st century image akin to a saviour on the cross (a helluva herald) which brings a mountie in leather to enter on a motorbike, called by your cross landlord who threatens to kick you out of your rent-controlled apartment… unless someone pours him a glass of champagne?
No one wants to relive the class wars of a shameful, painfully poor past, land of lorded castles surrounded by sham water-features and painful pick-axe wielding armies, that get their kicks by lobbing burning vats of oil via catapults, anything to expose the bone beneath the meat.
Everyone sits to watch the dinner’s meat being served: turkey enough to feed the masses, served next to a leg of lamb, a giant lobster, a sliced salmon, all picked down to the bone (with a side dish for the cat).
Nobody has a bone to pick with nobody after a feed like that, and yet one person’s non-stop lob-tailing, like a fish flapping on the table, prompts the request for them ‘to be a lamb and go outside and slalom-run a ski-slope if you’ve that much energy’.
Who knows (or knew) how bawdy a dinner-party could get, though with at least one guest on the lamb, the premature quest to dash was inevitable, while others just lope around the room, shooting the bull, waiting for dessert to be served, perhaps a flap-jack, or a slice of hair-pie with a dash of cream, chirps a guest in the corner, no louder than a bird.
It’s agreed that you’ve matured, that you deserve your own piece of the proverbial pie, or at least a tweet from a higher power – #No-euphemisms-allowed, #Only-puns – for not serving up hash with Slurpees, for giving everyone a chance to feel at home.
And yet, none refuse the offer when, upon a silver platter, your puny shrunken head is tagged and brought in, full of soup, which they now greedily slurp, to the professional verb of successful socialites everywhere, the chanting of OM.
4. ‘STATES OF MIND’
P.U! exclaim the nuns (when did they arrive?), pew-kneed, headful of bad habits dipped into their bowls, sucking on bars of soap up their sleeves, or is it, down their socks?
‘Do we really need to tell you there’s an a-habitual smell coming from this heady bouillabaise, like bowling shoes?’
They boo your best attempt to offer yourself up, dissing the bright red bow on the ling you finished yourself, now bobbing in what was meant to be a metaphorical and consumptive offering of your soul for their enlightenment.
Out of the blue, bright light (like green mint) shines euphorically upon them, so they pull up their bobby socks, take off their rings (no longer married to God) and pull their heads up with a sole in their mouth, just in time to step out of the dining room and into the elevator.
‘Heads up!’, you tell them, ‘don’t look down at the offal of dogs, the hell of gators eating the limbs of your life below, but keep your soul on the prize of where we’re being lifted, a place far from limbo, where your nails and hair never stop growing, like descendants of the undead.’
A decent ant-swarm flies around your heads in the elevator, an awful, if bright, cloud-like, miasma, so best to get low into limbo posture, and call it a state of mind.
Somebody asks how this me as Ma routine, never mind playing possum, is supposed to get you through and over, beyond and across the borders of States and countries, so you might fly high above the social and political climate that’s gone toxic as old vermin.
Doors open and you lead the exodus through the dirt of a wormhole, cross your heart and pray that what you’ll see will unite everyone in being and yonderous rooftop space, something to stop the pall that calls for you nonstop, the parking bills that ding your car, a deadening-fog climbing in your head that’s left you dry-eyed and mateless.
And, for sure, the rooftop you’ve arrived at is a place where nobody feels like dirt or prey, where the light shines through dry ice, with parks and hor d’oeuvres, far away from the shadows of the old buildings made of Roman dung you once dug, where not stars but burnt-out planes worm their arcs across the hoar-frosted globe.
You could be starring in a bildungsroman, but you’re feeling age-less, digging the globular cluster sparkling above you, in this midnight hour when you’re finally allowed to whorishly devour all the sushi… but then again what if you yourself are the sushi, a walking maki-roll in skin-tight leathers – love at first bite gone wrong, because your food’s been spiked and now you’re seeing a tray of seaweed-wrapped severed fingers instead of fish and rice.
There’s no severance for food-poisoning here, and you’re feeling finked, between sleeping and waking, rolling and sticking, your forehead to the floor, which is whirling, thanks to the hourly dervishes, like waiters in the weeds at a fancy restaurant, serving champagne on a Friday night.
What a sham pain can be, or pleasure, so you rest your antsy-ness, ease your foot off the floor, slow your four heads down from spinning, spill a sun-downer down your bib, fan your face, see yourself in the sky, feeling fried, fantasising a magic knight in armor crewing his way towards you on a cracking steed.
Despite the arm-twisting cracks of your crew, laughing at you, there really is someone or something magi-like coming your way, as if through a desert’s beach of shells, washed up on an island’s shelf, a sandstorm, though less Biblical, gliding in robes that would trip up the fans of the living at the feet of the dead.
You pull down the shade and pull off the shelf, the largest bibliography you can find, where you read about, then see, rising up from the glade, as if summoned from a trumpeting mort, Noppera-bō , ghosts from Japan who, when they aren’t busy being beautiful, take pleasure in erasing their own faces…
Boo! tea-full cups of fright for you! boo-hoo!
Who amongst us would boo a God to their face – thumb a nose at Apollo or Orpheus, ape hollow feelings of self-misery, or, for a fee, promise repentence, if only God would smile down… when others are so much more screwed than us?
With any luck, this Winter won’t be a repeat of last – screwed to your computer, wasting time in virtual meetings, or e-racing your avatar against colleagues on a console.
Still up on the roof-garden, done with getting wasted (‘have a tar-sticky toke’, you’re offered, no thanks), it’s easy to forget, to erase memories, but remember someone, somewhere is always playing at Eurydice in the basement.
Laying (or is it lying?) on a Freudian’s e-couch made you wonder if others with better bandwidth were getting better therapy, or if it was just you getting taken for a ride: Your id is dicy: he said, picking up on your penchant for word slippage, as you stared into his pimped, book-decorated, backdrop.
The band of friends you’re with backed you into a wall before dropping out of school, most being frauds, pimply kids trying to couch their desire for a better life in a new language such as that heard at your father’s lobster bar, or was it, tasted in an old language at your mother’s ice cream parlour?
‘I don’t know about you,’ someone says, ‘but I just want a life-coach sometimes, to stop me screaming at the idea of being lost in our own personal space, the travails of a cold atmosphere so terrible for our hair (never mind our skin), the party lore of medusa-like tendrils, complexion green as a mint julep.’
If you’re ever to be locked-down again, you’d prefer to be in the Med (anywhere but the USA) so keep looking up at the sky, watching planes overhead, a conditioned complex drilled into you by the travel industry.
In dusty trees, you’d con a blue-tit to share her nest like an inn, pursue complex plans, happy to never have to stuff your bag into another plane’s overhead, happy to be stuck in the virtual, plastic frame of Zoom, looking in at other pandemics.
A drone zooms past to see who’s viral, and who’s plastered, and napping out back in the buff (snapping selfies while sunning themselves): That’s not me, I’ve been framed! appears in the chat, pandering to the anemic.
You snap back into it, with bonhomie on this rooftop space, though you’re one dare away from accepting a bon-bon eating homie’s invitation for the two of you to travel, on a calligraphed invitation on buff-colored 100gsm paper to join the mile-high club, before the overhead demands you sit back in your seats, the night fluttering as it threatens sun rise.
‘No thank you,’ you say, to the tune of Ravel’s Boléro, eyes a-flutter more than the steward’s before you: ‘I don’t want to buy Rolos, or a bolo tie, or eye cream, Fluffer-Nutter, or 100 grams of make-up, I just want to silently contemplate a whirled future lying under geraniums.’
It’s in this world few tour that you find yourself a visionary, sighing lenten-ly, fasting from chocolate and stew alike, masked off against germ animals like the kind that are now everywhere, including the surface of the air that surrounds your various paintings – portraits – hung all along the wall.
Fission-like, you separate your mind from your head, the poor traits your guests exhibit are no reflection on you: one, an over-bearing air-head, another a malcontent, out-twerked by a vaudevillian at what’s become a roof-top audition, though you’re unsure for what part, or for what play.
As your guests begin to leave, you’re left to reflect on their villainous attitudes, which frankly, makes you happy to be left alone, auditing the un-shore in the distance, another sky’s blue moon.
6. ‘SNAIL TRAILS’
Leaves fall and the rooftop becomes a space of self-governed platitudes, where you’re assured time for quiet reflection, hill lain, the chance to whirl and moon over the stars that have come out of the blue.
If a bit blue in your lifetime, you’re now every bit content to complete this world-building template by yourself, to live like a reclusive celebrity, mooning the world, a star without the need for an audience.
Except, if you’ll forgive us – us – who, though looking clueless as temps plating up soup with a fork , have been with you always, not merely stepped out of a painting on your wall to watch you orbit the kneaded dough of the universe, but to sonically render your audio-essence, to sell the bright sounds of night like a crooner, delivering the voiced-over story of you (for iambic purpose, a high-flying pro, filing her nails on an intergalactic gondola) to be shown on yet another new platform.
Euphoria comes and goes like a doe (a deer, a female deer), leaving you formless and la-la-ing into the profile of space, absorbing its transporting, verse-like language of canned coughing (or lactic upset), projecting not quite like last century’s black & white TV nor this century’s HiFi VR.
In the history of art, we haven’t yet been cuffed by the high court, nor had our house tee-peed by hard-core fans before the big game, but still, we’re purring primordially in hope to better describe, and so to understand you, who stands grandly in front of us, like someone pump-primed for giving happiness to those who’ve accepted voluntary redundancy and yet now languish like wannabe high-fliers to anyone they gauge will listen.
Seeing you standing under the pouring rain, raven-haired and mortal (no one is perfect), you’ll forgive us for wanting to make out with you, even if we’re teary and done with dancing, no longer in our prime, even if our prime was an ordinary enough story of tennis-courting affairs of a grand-slammed heart: love felt, love lost.
Though we wanted a deep-ended connection, we can feel our attentions have been rebutted (slammed love-love in both sets), and turned into a silent rave, leaving us on our own wearing headphones, busy hands in the air, a tear in time and felt, the same our tent is made out of – letting in light and rain and shade.
Collapsing before billowing, our bivouac takes off in the wind, not unlike our head, feeling both conned and ECT’d, pill-light as if filled with foam, a proper cold increasing a tension between winning and being deterred, without a SIM card for a phone, in this late season of falling leaves.
Could a lapse in Winter be the reason you and me (make it we) were never daring enough to share a pillow, to be light-hearted while necking in a va-va-voom shack, or were we just unable to face the hotel bill or the nosy clerk, who refused our request for a mere hour to get horizontal, due to his fright of eyes in the sky.
You part your hair in the middle to give a horizon to the snails that now crawl out of the fecund Earth, up your neck, your face, erasing your mouth, your nose, until they take their rightful place over your eyes.
Everything about your part in this story surprises us, where snail-mail never makes it, where noses go out of joint for some simulated slight, where we’re now tourists to the flying plaice that have been eyeing a tree above the water, as if having lost their taste for the sea.
You offer us the ur-prize: tilt your head onto your shoulder, en plein air, just chilling out, as if having smoked a joint, which if you didn’t pass our way would have been worse than refusing to let us kiss your snail trails, which are, in this strange world, really seeing us and our slow-way of lighting a match, as we prepare to go to sleep.
We could have been match-made by an algorithm, pre-paired, both of us partial to catching a chill, slowing even light down, until we’re left with meteor trains (shooting stars), that have now slithered up my own eyes, in a barbaric, corny B-movie, the result of having spent too much time looking at you, or is it, a portrait of you.
A film over our corneas clouds our vision, and soon we’re dancing to the all-go rhythm of an electric-barbershop quartet, in a time we don’t even recognise (of cowboys, meat-eaters, on a shooting spree galloping after a train), which is inevitable in this day and age, where we’re all poor, trait of the deserving, gone without dessert or a pot to piss in, prone to foibles, due to constantly moving faster than the speeding light beams we’re desperate to catch.
Travelling with you, on this shooting star, above this desert, you tell us of a beaming despot who once tried to cadge you, with moving fables, to knock you up over corn-dogs and quarts of moonshine, till he fell prone in effort under the table, like a carnivorous cat at your feet, confessing undying love… and we (pee-ons that we are) go weak at the core, knees knocking as if we’ve just climbed to the zenith of a mountain.
Before the air goes thin, before I can pronounce him disgusting, a paean of praise is knocked-out by the band, who I paid in advance, with hopes to cajole you back downstairs, for a chat, where your multiple feats can be properly rewarded, where a compress can be applied to your barking dogs, where the moon shines on my own paintings of xenia, of still-life: welcoming platters of split fruit, mousse-dash of quivering cream, crusty bread, liqueur and honey still warm from the comb gleaned from a cliff.
We’ll come up for air, I wait for you to say, to invite me to discuss pronouns or the price of an ounce of braised peas – but instead I hear: Well combed-up fore-hair – though I still (in life at least) have no quiff, despite being a plotter of split freight, mustache groomed with hair-cream, quiver of arrows on my back, gruffly bred and liquored, lying heinie-side up, at the bottom of this hillside combe – where I can just make out the endearing sound of Honey: a word gleamed, not from your mouth, but a glyph.
NOTE ON THE POEM:
Many of the images described in the poem come after paintings by Julie Curtiss. Two Curtiss motifs, in particular, are treated in the poem: hair (of women, in cowboy boots, in bathrooms, on beaches, fingernails like daggers, with snails for eyes,); and food (turkey, salmon, sushi, ducks hanging in a butcher’s window). Images of Curtiss’s work can be seen at the gallery websites of Anton Kern (‘Wildlife’, 2019; ‘Square One’, 2020), and White Cube (‘Monads and Dyads, 2021), as well as in the publications: The Dinner Party (Spheres Project, 2019), Square One (Anton Kern Gallery, 2020), and Monads and Dyads (White Cube, 2021). Sub-sections of the poem are titled after Curtiss’s works: ‘No Place Like Home (2017)’; ‘Drain,’ (2020’); ‘Another Piece of Pie,’ (2017); ‘States of Mind’ (2021); ‘Interstice’ (2020); ‘Snail Trails’ (2020). Other paintings referenced include: ‘Chinatown’ (2018), ‘The House Maiden’ (2019), ‘L’entre-acte’ (2019), ‘Food for Thought’ (2018), ‘Entrée’ (2017), ‘Smoking Turkey’ (2016), ‘Honey Moon’ (2017), ‘The Mirror’ (2019), and ‘Comb Through’ (2019). The poem’s final image references refers to Philostratus’s Imagines, specifically section 26. Xenia.
In 1935, in a collection of autobiographical writings published two years after his death, Raymond Roussel explains ‘the way in which I wrote certain of my books’:
‘It involved, a very special procéde. And it seems to me that it is my duty to reveal this method, for I have the sense that writers in the future may perhaps be able to exploit it fruitfully.’ (How I Wrote Certain of My Books, ed. Trevor Winkfield, trans and introduced by John Ashbery. New York: Exact Change, Revised Ed, 2005. Originally published in France as Comment j’ai écrit certains de mes livres, 1935).
In the essay, Roussel tells how he progressed his literary works by puns – sound-dependent, word-sequence linked and varied by substituted letters: ‘[words] considered in relation to meanings other than their initial meanings supplied me with a further creation.’ The general gist of plotting for Roussel meant he began with one phrase and ended with an almost identical phrase (homophonic, homonymic), with a very different meaning.
I have only loosely followed Roussel’s procédé, progressing the poem, not from beginning to end, but line-by-line via the punning of select words (or some sort of linguistic distortions). Some puns look back to the previous line, some look forward to the next. If this method has not been exploited fruitfully, the fault is mine – though I am happy to blame Roussel. In revealing my own method, I invite the reader to imagine not only the punning that takes place, but the potential for other punning which might take this poem into new directions. If this is not exploited fruitfully, the blame lies with the reader, who also may like to blame Roussel.
See Mark Ford’s Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams (New York: Cornell UP, 2000) for a critical biography of Roussel. See also Ford’s masterful bi-lingual edition New Impressions of Africa (Princeton UP, 2011), which presents Roussel’s long poem, Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique, in both French and English.
Though Roussel was largely derided in his lifetime, the Surrealists tried to adopt him, but he didn’t have much time for the Surrealists, whom he found ‘a little obscure’.
A lid-full of cure
Anthony Caleshu’s fifth book of poems, Xenia etc, is due out in Spring 2023 from Shearsman. As with the poems in this issue, the book aims to jump from the ekphrastic tradition into the contemporary condition. He is Professor of Poetry at University of Plymouth, where he directs the MA Creative Writing, and publishes the small poetry press, Periplum.