Here’s what’s really troubling me: how to be of use, and not to use.
In January, I hurt someone. Or I pissed them off. I cannot determine what to do. I do not know how to react. I hosted a gathering at my place. (Just look for the trail of olive oil from entrance to welcome mat: thank you, native clumsiness). I like to host – the impulse to bring other people together, but also one of control – setting, menu. Another chance to ask questions.
(If I’m honest about poetry and its relationship to truth, it’s that I think the genre is, to a certain extent, safe, insofar as it’s obscure and grounded in emotional rather than factual veracity. So yes, even when writing a poem that “feels risky” – a pretty overused phrase – there still exists an understanding that, for the few people that do read a poem, I can demur, aver. Artistic license and all that. But also: the language itself provides an evasion, but a structure, a system of controls, rules of logic that can serve as its own rhetoric – the language itself is both argument and evidence – and a musical, intuitive logic that marries to emotion either more effectively or less, illumination or illusion, depending on whom you ask).
As I sliced flatbread and arranged chocolate walnuts into a leaf-shaped dish in my kitchen, I listened, mentally noted, perpetually giving myself a pass, perhaps arrogant, that I’m entitled to absorb and, later, cannibalize. Material, material. Evangelical, expatriate, elite, tell me, who you are.
At work on a long and winding essay about running in Almaty (the generating of which, consistent and unchanging is much like, well, my running in Almaty), I told one of the guests that he was in it, as character and theme. “The good and the bad,” I said. (I’d known him two weeks). Later, he wrote to me and thanked me both for the party, and then said a. that he was uncomfortable with being referenced in my work; and b. that he thought it best to “put some distance between us.”
I paced. I deleted the paragraph. Mind, this essay is unfinished, unsubmitted, and unpublished, and it’s also a project that obsesses and absorbs me. I immediately excised any mention of him, and cried, and raged. Because he is someone I admire. Someone more deserving of resisting classification than me.
I’m afraid of hurting anyone. Of being “wrong.” Of presuming. This is not the place to discuss this, is it?
When I was in my twenties, full of ideas about my own damage, I traveled to St. Petersburg for a month, as research for my thesis, and spent the first two weeks wandering palaces and canals and writing pulse-slowing fragments about fishermen, smoke, and my own damage.
I moved from a babushka-manned apartment to a room with a family; the son, R., and I became friends. He was eighteen, lanky, with a scrubbed face, a passion for Eminem and Tupac. I couldn’t tell you much about the Winter Palace beyond the malachite room, but his smell – Drakkar – and the shape and gleam of his white high-tops as he sprawled on the ledge of the huge graffitied windows of the staircase and blew smoke rings and swore that he would find a way to evade the army draft – that, I remember.
In the city’s outskirts, prostrate on the big dirty beach, we shared greasy potato-stuffed piroshki and warm beer and played durak. “Why are you here?” he asked.
Maybe I was lulled by the sun, the dough, or nervous about sounding like an ambulating grant proposal. “You,” I said. I remember his expression as he raised himself on his elbows. Contempt. Disgust. And, I think, pain.
“Am I the Russian? Am I the Russian boy?” he said. He spit into the sand, and his intonation, his pitch and timbre, reminded me of nothing so much as Julia Stiles’ voice in Ten Things I Hate About You: “Am I a bet? Am I a stupid bet?”
That I’m trying to be glib here indicates how uncomfortable and ashamed that episode still makes me.
Because perhaps I’m a hypocrite. The Apollanian sees the future lines of his research…has no difficulty writing a clear project. Not so the Dionysian, who knows only the direction he wants to go out into the unknown; he has no idea what he’s going to find there and how he’s going to find it…defining the unknown…is a contradiction in absurdum. A great deal of self-conscious thinking must precede a Dionysian’s observations.
On the way home from teaching a translation workshop at Ablai Khan – we’re beginning with Abai – I stopped for tea at one of the Turkish pide-rias. As I sat, one of the students, a girl with the kind of irresistably open face, all enthusiasm and emotion, whose shoulders you want to shake and shield, who spoke about Akhmatova’s “I Wrung My Hands” with fervor and zero textual evidence – saw me through the window and ran in. “May I join you? I hate to eat alone.” I girded myself into operation mode: what set of questions? But she wouldn’t have it.
“May I ask,” she said. “Don’t you want children?” and then. “May I ask,” she said, “Don’t you miss home?” About America, poetry, my own pre-fab autobiographical sketch – sure. But this? God, she put me on edge. She pissed me off. I longed for the safety of the podium. Why wasn’t I more intimidating?
From a distance, we could have been sisters, with our shoulder-length thick hair, big jaws. I recognized, too, her mode of ingratiating herself, a persistent ingenuousness that masked interrogation. I longed for the known transaction, with its pre-set boundaries: teacher/student, writer/subject.
It is important to keep reminding oneself that the part of man’s nervous system that deals with social behavior is designed according to the principle of negative feedback. That is, one is completely unaware of the fact that there is a system of controls as long as the program is followed. (Hall)
She pushed a plate toward me. “So you do not like to talk about yourself.” Then she nodded at a booth across from us, where a lean man with green-tinted Ray-Bans sipped tea. “He is my professor,” she said, “but I would never ask to join him. May I ask,” she added. “What is your religion?”
Love, for you, is like a religion./ It’s terrifying. /No one will ever want to sleep with you. (Richard Silken, the youth are clamoring for you).
The very quality I have always thought of myself as having, an advantage, a non-self, a blankness, a curiosity as defining personal characteristic, is not serving. Must/I think of everything/as earned. (Creeley).
In love, as a writer, as an expat, as a human being.
Love – the peculiar cocktail of lust and hope first freeing himself of the binding and preset schedules that determine the rate at which transactions must process – has made me. Like the first ecstatic weeks in a new place, the initiation phases of my relationships have filled with something that registers, temporarily, as fullness, inhabitation – not man-as-god, certainly, but an apprehension of the submission of the self. But then.
“She is the voyeur of herself,” Roxane Gay writes in her review of Green Girl, that the character’s “performance, at times, stands in place of her identity. The green girl also does one thing and feels another because ‘the passivity of the green girl masquerades as politeness.’”
The distinction between not judging others and being too fearful to ever make judgements of your own. A void. Is a complete suspension in preferences symptom that I am wonderfully open to new conditions, or that I never had anything to begin with? Shouldn’t this displacement throw into sharp relief one’s “real” self?
Like Olga in Chekhov’s wonderful story “The Darling.” passionate about theater, lumber, foot-and-mouth disease, homework…based on whoever she marries, I wonder if my tastes, for morose indie-rock, arugula, meat, private displays of affection, whatever, are just composites of the preferences of those I have loved, parasitism or flexibility.
The Asthtanga studio in Almaty, housed in another anonymous brown building near the Opera House contains a small room, incense, fuschia and gold Buddha hangings, and Sergey, whom my guide spoke of with respect that bordered on the reverent.
In another instance of rigidity, or the negative feedback principle, I’d become obsessed, as the January temperatures sank and my forefingers sported two matching cold cuts, pussing, like fish lips – the studio, the studio. In DC, I’d gone to vinyasa classes (“practiced” always struck me as pretentious…), and that airless room on Wisconsin Avenue had led me serendipitously to the ever-graceful Togzhan, my first Kazakh friend. Almaty has seen a boom in studios since independence – it straddles, as I’ve said, vestiges of Soviet spartanism and the fixtures of (bougie?) contemporary upper-middle class luxe. To Sergey, then, biceped and blueeyedboy, striding through the parked mats.
In Asthanga, the same sequence is followed daily, and Sergey’s role to adjust rather than cue. I had no idea, really, what I was doing, and became aware of a discomfort rising redly as I mimicked my friend.
Was it because I was too busy observing him to sufficiently get into the space of my practice? Or that I’d granted myself a little ego at my (very limited) mastery of certain Vinyasa postures?
A microcosm, in this limited setting, of Hall’s rupture preceding an awareness of the control systems. I could laugh and face-plant onto the mat that smelled of my SmartWooled feet. Sergey’s very hands seemed to exude an inner light (did I just write that sentence?) as he adjusted my spine and tugged one unwilling hand to another behind my thigh. Said my friend, after: “There’s no yoga in posture without prana.”
(Non-sequitur: A screenplay is necessary about this man, the nefarious founder of Lululemon, Ayn Rand devotee and coiner of phrases such as sweat is fat crying. I’m seeing L. Ron Hubbard plus Tim Robbins plus Russell Crowe plus Glenn Beck).
Mindfulness aims to facilitate an awareness of time in order to set conditions for the extemporaneousness that breed pleasure, creativity, closeness.
Reiterated: the distinction between observation and passivity. In writing, the necessity of the humility in ritual – just show up at the desk, etc. Just go abroad and experience.
At a certain point, though, rupture is necessary in order to face the cheats and the shortcuts. I think I know the difference between typing and writing. I think I also have a convenient amnesia about how much typing was required to produce what I would be satisfied to call writing.
As I sat in the easy pose, the one I know, cross-legged, palms outstretched, for the closing prayer, Sergey pressed his palms to my sacrum. My heart, elevated. This, too, I had been doing “wrong” because of confidence in my certainty.
Sergey: “First, you need to learn how to breathe.”
A contact, trained as a social scientist, with extensive regional experience, considered the question of hybridity (in this case, ethnic and cultural) in Kazakhstan. “It’s sad,” he said. In the eighties and nineties, Kazakhstan would have been the place to observe hybridity’s authentic, and genuine, projection, but now, he suggested, the carpet is unraveling, or being unraveled, in an attempt to arrive at a singular identity.
Kazakhstan is home to over 140 ethnic and 17 religious groups. Civil peace and interethnic harmony remains a key value for us. Peace and accord, intercultural and inter-religious dialogue in our multi-ethnic country has been recognized as a global model. The Kazakhstan’s People’s Assembly has become a unique Eurasian model of intercultural dialogue.
That this singularity is captioned or tweeted as “multiethnic” is a logical inconsistency I’m still struggling, beetle-in-mud-like, to understand – it registers as Orwellian doublespeak, along with all the obsession with the phrase “intercultural communication” I hear reiterated at my universities.
(I suspect it’s a non-conceptual concept that, in exploration, can only be grounded in the old show-don’t-tell: perhaps vignettes, a focus on the actual and the particular of people, landscape, square, labor, is, for this writer, the only methodology for grounding abstraction upon abstraction in particulars).
My attention veered inexorably back to the specific, to the tangible, to what was generally considered, by everyone I knew then and for that matter have known since, the peripheral.
Confession: Dame Didion leaves me cold (she’s always Moore’s woman-in-gallery-with-the-great-handbag, and I’m sneezing into an old tissue and trying to discreetly empty pistachio shells from my CVS satchel), but yes:
I tried, with a kind of hopeless late-adolescent energy, to buy some temporary visa into the world of ideas, to forge for myself a mind that could deal with the abstract. In short I tried to think. I failed.
Is it the grandiosity of the solo traveler to see resonance in the outer, to read externals as mystical cues of an internal quandary?
My body, its resilience, another certainty I tether myself to, and my body as testament to a capacity to be-all-to-everyone. Thus, unsure exactly if I am Western-“healthy”, devil-may-care, self-destructive, sensual, decadent, pleasure-seeking or denying, in this new place, unknown, I spend too much time maintaining the illusion of commitment to polarities that cancel one another out.
On the one hand, a Parliament Aqua Blue (“oy, krebkiy, for men,” sniff my gal-pals at the local bread-and-kefir, and wave a pack of scented slims my way) habit that’s hovering at pack-a-day (“at these prices.” says another expatriate I meet, a droll Scotsman, “it’s a crime not to smoke”), on the other dutiful running, the mat. I am thirty-three. At some point, a choice must be made, until my body, that hedgehog, makes its own choices.
This is difficult to write.
I am afraid, and “coping” – a word I loathe almost as much as “self-care” and the associated isn’t-it-tough slogan book – in strange ways. Ashamed regarding overt gestures of comfort-seeking – I am tri-cultural, I don’t need that shit – much as the blocked poet turns to erasure or translation, my legs and arms and torso have become vehicles for an emptying-out, I think, a flattening. My little ipod tells me I have covered more than two hundred and fifty miles since the New Year. Unfamiliar divots in my hips. The promise of running beyond mind, outrunning thought, or perhaps emotions too mundane – propels me to rid my frame of – not fat, but, subconsciously, I think, identifying features, signifiers, or an uncomfortable contention with correct femininity, as projected on my flesh.
Mimicry in nature is legion. In fact, nature is full of examples of species preyed upon by others who have developed camouflage or other features to outwit the predator. This in turn pushes the compensatory capacity to penetrate camouflage. (Hall)
Imitation is the sincerest form. Where’s the difference?
Evasion extends to a discomfort with presenting information about myself to others (except you, apparently) and inappropriate, exaggerated emotional displays.
I don’t call home enough or answer emails. I draft long letters to acquaintances I barely know.
I crave the non-company of loners at at interchangeable city spots, the pharmacy, the corner, park at dusk, university stairwell, a pub where old men of oil wear checked Western shirts and pick their teeth with olive-spears.
I avoid my mother, but in the Kasteev gallery, I weep when I come across a painting of a woman and say, out loud, I know, I know, that’s his mother, and keep weeping when the heavy-bosomed gallerinas take me by the arm and insist I return, soon, to see the live butterfly display.
In the halal/lagman restaurant in Green Bazaar’s underground, I watch the patriarch slice a triangle of meat into a stained copper pot of plov; his daughter, the waitress, waiting silently at his elbow to deliver it. Devotion.
In the same restaurant, a man wonders in and chooses a prayer mat, goes through his ritual, impervious to the patrons, around him, forking cabbage into their mouths. Here, devotion to parent, god, not the hollows of a body or a “project.”
What the fuck am I doing? James Wright: I have wasted my life.
Almaty the basin, and beyond – the Kazakhstan I will explore by train in the summer months, the mountains sometimes visible. Mucor, garbage, says my Russian teacher, it collects here. “Aren’t you afraid to be alone,” asks my student. “No,” I say, too quickly. But I want to be known as much as I want to know.
The mountains, smogged, are there, to lift foot towards and never reach, and there their appeal. And when I am most disgusted with the city – no, myself in the city, the way a neighbor’s apartment will darken and the curtains pulled shut when another resident loses his key and knocks furiously at the facade – these unexplained gestures of tenderness that register to me as love, and why I return to “my places” – the Uzbek bread-seller with eyes bleeding brown into blue and hazel, really extraordinary peepers, who remembers me and presses the still-warm round into my hands, Ali of the dried fruits and nuts, his detailed instructions on soaking dried figs until they are clean, really clean – most of all, my old men in the park, who gather in the morning to drink beer and conspire about – who knows – my favorite with a gold grille that trumps a nineties Nelly, who fist-pumps me when I run by and, yesterday, presented me with a wrapped chocolate.
As I write this, I notice that these romances that sustain me exist within a designated transaction. Perhaps the way out is through. If I can turn the gimlet eye sufficiently on myself, and interrogate my own systems, than I will feel comfortable passing some sort of judgement on others. But is it like children, a creative process, where you never feel ready? In some ways, poetry is both what I find inviting and excoriating, entitled to, because it is obscure, “rarified,” elusive. But even if this holds true, it’s not sufficient reason to keep writing it.
This is why it feels necessary to do this. Or is this the “wrong” form, am I revealing old habits of mind. Is everything about this blog tone-deaf – the length, the lack of images, absence of lists, the need to ground what I say with the quotations of others?
Poetry is what is lost in translation. Oh, Frost, your favorite missundazstood quote.
On our steppe, there is neither human nor divine justice. – (Abay)
People spend their lives managing their inputs. (Hall).
Next time, a promise to lighten up: a photo series of dumplings (#Praying Manti!)