Loneliness has long been deemed an epidemic in our society, yet relatively little attention has been bestowed it in research. As part of an artistic installation, we seek to create the world’s longest letter by compiling entries written by individuals like you about your frustrations, hopes, and experiences with isolation–connecting lonely people through art in the process.
“There were moments when I could feel my hope for the future bloom like a firework and shine through the evening. A firework does not last, however. I got used to the quiet–or rather, I got used to the sounds I would usually tune out. In March, I saw my neighborhood in daylight on a weekday for the first time in months. I promised I would keep a diary. I wrote to you instead.”
With your permission, your letters will be archived as both a record of the COVID-19 era and a crucial source of academic data for a poorly understood phenomenon.
“I saw other neighborhoods sing from their windows I saw a neighborhood of one sing “Moon River.” Both made me think of you. Both made me cry.”
And yes, we will be breaking the Guinness World Record letter length of 290 meters–three football fields or almost 1,000 sheets of A4 paper–together.
“I guess I’m telling you this because it is easier than telling you directly how it feels. At once to be by myself is to feel as though nothing stands in my way. Soon after, I feel like the bowl that cracked and then split in half maybe a week after everything stopped–still the same pattern, no longer holding together.”
8 years of life expectancy are lost as the direct impact of loneliness. 54% of Americans say they feel that no one knows them well. 49% of Britons age 65+ consider their TV or their pet their main source of company.
When we think of our experience of time, time moves slower when we are alone. There were days that I became more conscious of time because I wasted it. I spent a great deal of time not writing and not working. When we are alone, it becomes much easier to procrastinate. I delayed writing my letter. Not because I didn’t know what I’d say, but because there seemed not enough time to say it. By the time I wrote my letter, quarantine (or at least the first real quarantine of my life) was over and I was working again. I had to reflect and recreate the feeling of apart-ness I felt. I wrote to loneliness the way I wrote to many people—friends, collaborators, my lover. I see no point in writing a letter if not to be honest in my feelings or to discuss something previously unexplored—to expand on a remark in class or something said during a phone call. I wrote and spoke more than usual because this was the time, in some ways, to have the conversations I’d been putting off.
Loneliness has no postal address; it’s a fairly universal state. So what better way to address it than to speak to the world? When we speak to loneliness, we are speaking to a deep part of ourselves. Perhaps we experience it because we look into ourselves and find something lacking, or perhaps we find something we want to share and no one to share it with. Loneliness is a place of no-place, a heart without a center, moving on without walls.
The Vision: A room covered in over 1,000 feet of handwritten and scanned letters about loneliness, with the ceiling and floor covered in large mirrors that create the illusion of letters on loneliness stretching into eternity.
Sources: Italicized text taken from the Dear Loneliness Project website. Text in quotation marks is taken from my submission to the project, which was cataloged as entry number 85. Non-italicized text and text outside of quotation marks is original to this piece.
If Paris, A Poem, is a modernist representation of the French city at the height of early modernism, Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris is its postmodern sibling. Less ornate and reflexively flashy, this small work presents three days in Paris, documented by a narrator-observer trying to remain neutral as he describes the world around him. Observations come and go; collections of detail that would be window-dressing in a novel become the whole of the text: the list of busses repeats itself as they circle through their journeys (though frequently, our observer notes, not quite on schedule), brand names on bags, interesting hats and those nameless people sheltered under them walk back and forth as the observer picks up and drops the pattern of the day. The observer-narrator occupies the realm of the spy in real life, or a more realistic detective story—seeing the changes of the neighborhood; picking up on the pattern of a day without explosions or grand events. What makes these notes intriguing is that nothing happens on these days. These notes represent a foundation for a fiction that never quite emerges.
My intention in the pages that follow was to describe the rest instead: that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance. What happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds. (Perec, 3).
Whether or not Perec succeeded in his text comes down to intention. Is just observing enough or does it need to form a narrative—or at least some structure through which a reader can find connection between one piece and another? Is this connection necessary for meaning? Or art? Wayne Koestenbaum writes in his new book, Figure it Out, “These notes won’t be literature until I shape, frame, or contextualize their stammering” (43). With what level of intervention do notes become a publishable text? This is a fundamental question of the writing life—the development need of the author moving from notation to creation. Perec’s text forces these questions, which do not often register in the mind of the reader. We are used to seeing the filled-in text, the created and redesigned “room” of a work. To take Perec at his word, we can believe that we are seeing the raw ability, the raw material of a text. Consider the notebooks of another writer, the materials that became Death in Venice, for example. These are the elements to be built upon, the grain of a story, but they are not the story itself. Or Mann’s memoir on the writing of his Doctor Faustus, The Story of a Novel, in which the author gives an accounting of the writing of the work that many considered a crowning masterwork in a lifetime of masterworks. In this way, my friend and I have argued over The Original of Laura, or Nabokov’s recently published dream journal, or—to continue in another way with the same author—the proto-Lolita stories published after Nabokov’s death. In what way do these qualify (or fail to qualify) as texts? Does the fact that they are published and carry the name of the author make them texts instead of notes?
The word “raw” keeps entering my thoughts. This is not because I am writing this at a kitchen counter with the elements of my dinner lined up beside me, or because I keep thinking of intent as something that “cooks” the notes into a text, boils it down or bakes it until it rises. Or that I am wondering about the period that follows after cooking but before the text is consumed by the reader. I genuinely struggle with the idea that something is done, in that the spirit of revision—to cook it down a little while longer, to add another spice—is always there, sometimes to my detriment. I have been writing these notes since March, at this kitchen counter that looks out on a well-traveled street, where, the weekend before the Fourth of July, three cars are parked in an accidental pattern of red, white, and blue. I am distracted by a Mister Softee ice cream truck coasting up to the red traffic light as a reminder that (theoretically) quarantine is relaxed and we can pretend things are normal in the city. I think it would be naïve to suggest that this context has nothing to do with my thinking; just as it would be true to say that it means everything.
It makes sense that this reader could lose themselves in contrasting the experience of reading Mirrlees and Perec. Mirrlees has movement, a journey through the city; Perec is static—at first look. The narrator-observer has a space, but he doesn’t stay anchored. He moves about in the limitations he has set for himself like leopard in a cage. These movements can seem so small as to be unnoticeable as a reader glides through the pages of this short volume. After a morning and early afternoon, the mid-afternoon observer breaks from the fragmented document of the day’s work. This is the first time that the observer-narrator moves into a conscious acknowledgement of narration and the place of the narrating voice; an interior self, explaining the existence of his work. Consciously or not, the narration of the observer seems to come from Philip Marlowe, or the now-forgotten American radio drama about an insurance investigator, Johnny Dollar, whose case files were recounted as an expense account. The details are reported with unsentimental importance.
Later on, I went to the Tabac Saint-Sulpice. I went up to the second floor, a sad room, rather cold, occupied only by a quintet of bridge players, four of whom were in the middle of playing three clubs. I went back down and installed myself at the table I had occupied this morning. I ate a pair of sausages and drank a glass of Bourgueil. (18)
These details mark the beginning of a new phase in the work, one in which the narrator-observer calls attention to himself and speaks the declarative I. No longer is there the feeling, as David Foster Wallace put it, of being a giant, revolving eyeball in the center of things, trying to see and record as much as possible. The five paragraphs that follow speak to the continuation of this mode of narration. Just as soon as we begin to find the rhythm of this detective-novel prose, we return to the fragmented, one-line style of the earlier notes. At this point, I thought of a fiction editor once writing “Details! Details! Details!” on a friend’s short story, which they had gone out of their way to make as minimalist and spare as they could. It seems as though these notes are the little details—the references left out of other works. (Just as Perec wrote a novel in which there was no “E,” he also wrote a tale in which “E” was the only vowel. Waste not, want not.)
The interruption of “(fatigue)” on page 24 recalls the fact of the narrator-observer, particularly that the “(fatigue)” seems to signify the potential for absence and the force of authorial/editorial direction. That is to say, the note-taking in and of itself is no longer enough. A break occurs as the mind is worn down by the details of recording details. Breezy as the text may seem in its accounting, the act of observing, noting, observing again and placing down is exhausting. Like keeping a diary as a New Year’s Resolution, it seems as if the experiment could end here in a loss of attention. The narrator-observer rallies on, even though one can sense each section growing slightly shorter as the narrator-observer balances between what has already been noted (and can be noted again) and what has not been noted before.
When the details of the text start to add up, there is a realization that this third day is a national holiday. It seems as if this accounting of the details would add up to the event or spectacle of a holiday. When the holiday occurs on the third day, it is almost pointless and uninteresting by comparison to the odd details collected in the lead-up. There is the possibility that this has something with that lingering “(fatigue)” described by the author. The enthusiasm of the first day is waning, and this is the shortest section of the text. This is not meant as a criticism. Just as the focus on the text is on “that which has no importance,” it makes sense that the text would begin to fade out in the face of a disruption. Yet, at the same time, the fact that the holiday seems not to change too much what is noted seems to speak to larger issues about the way we experience life.
From the Translator’s Afterword:
An American sitting in the same cafés that Perec haunts in this short work, moreover, would undoubtably take note of very different details of his or her surroundings. Reading through Perec’s Attempt makes one realize the degree to which our perception of the world is formulated through categories, genres, and classifications, many of them specific to the cultures we come from. What remains outside these categories, going by this Attempt, seems to be sparce indeed. For all we know, these are in fact automatons walking about the place Saint-Sulpice—the items everyone holds in their hands seem almost to have more presence than the people holding them. (52)
To have read this text three times in quarantine was to have a security blanket of sorts. An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris is a connection to life in a city beyond incident, before the world stood still. And yet, it’s also a text about a place in Paris that continues on, just as it continued on after the destruction of World War II, just as it was a city of revolutions and survived those revolutions. The world has stood still before, just as Perec’s narrator-observer theoretically stands still.
It was as I was writing the above remarks that I began to wonder how the landscape had changed. Would I be able to recognize the “exhausted” landscape of Perec’s notes by using them as a map? What was my conception of the place without actually getting to see it? The European Union was getting ready to ban Americans from entering its borders due to COVID-19 concerns, and I have a job and don’t have money enough to jet-set to Paris. And so I looked at Google Maps. I saw, in three dimensions, the fountain sketched out by Perec, completed in 1848. I saw the café at which Perec locates himself (not Les Deux Magots, the home away from home for writers of the generation before Perec’s) in a street-view photograph. Because of a fair or some other event going on when the pictures of the café were taken, I couldn’t see a view of the fountain from the relative position of the café tables. Judging from the photos I saw, it still looks like a well-traveled area, with someone always coming and going as other people look, see, notice, or perhaps, pretend not to notice.
Recently I recorded an excerpt from The Book of Monelle by Marcel Schwob early last week and I have uploaded it to YouTube with some improvised music in the background. As with most things, it’s best experienced with headphones.
I chose this section of the book because I truly enjoyed Schwob’s work and can see its influences across so many other works, especially those of Jean Cocteau. This little fable about two girls—one of whom lives in a mirror—is my personal favorite from the book, which is an astonishing collection of perverse fairy tales. Schwob went on to have a major influence on many surrealists and Dadaists and all sorts of -ist artists.
Falling after Appolinaire; before cummings [sic] and Eliot, Hope Mirrlees represents the tale of a particular kind of Modernist writer. There should be much more attention given to her works after Faber’s republication of her 1920 masterful poetic experimentation, Paris: A Poem, for its 100th anniversary this past week.
Mirrlees is one of the many Modernist writers overshadowed and “lost” between one generation and another. Most of her work is out of print and hard to come by, even in specialized collections. (Even the biography Hope-in-the-Mist by Michael Swanwick is out of print and almost impossible to come by.) She is not included in almost any anthology of Modernist poetry—not even anthologies focused solely on women writers of the period. When one of her novels was reprinted in a series of fantasy rediscoveries by Lin Carter, he stated that the publisher could find no proof that the author was still living. Like Jean Rhys, she was still alive, off the radar; unlike Rhys, she was deeply unamused and did not enjoy the level of resurgence. Apart from Lud-in-the-Mist, no lost novels came back in print and no new novels were led by the hand to completion. A small volume of poetry, Moods and Tensions, arrived in 1976. Mirrlees died in 1978.
Like most modern readers, I came to Mirrlees through her association with Virginia Woolf. In addition to her career as a writer, Woolf and her husband, Leonard, were commercial publishers and creators of the Hogarth Press. Woolf read manuscripts and set type for the publications—work Leonard believed would be therapeutic for her. (He was unable to set type due to a hand tremor.) One of the reasons the Woolfs turned down the chance to publish Joyce’s Ulysses was the difficulty of printing the book. (Virginia also expressed her reservations about the quality of the book). Woolf typeset both Paris: A Poem and the first UK edition of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in the early years of the press.
Mirrlees represents for me as well the value of digital archives in modern research. In the early days of the Google Books digitalization efforts (before I read Ursula K Le Guin’s open letter) I found a middling PDF copy of the text, scanned in from a university collection. At the time, this was the only ready way to access the poem. This was, for a time, the only way of accessing so many texts I would later study—Carl Van Vechten’s music criticism and essays, Gertrude Stein’s operas and cyclical poems, the first versions Marianne Moore’s work: gilded and ornate before the editorial scissors came out, Victorian pulp and early African American writers of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. If one lived in the suburban Waste Land and there were only limited libraries nearby, these scans opened up new possibilities otherwise denied. There was the thrill of excavation, of finding and interpreting a new tongue in engaging with these works for the first time.
The poem presents its sensibilities from the start: “I want a holophrase.” Moving from such a term—the declaration of an idea in a single word (ie: “Bed” for “I want to go to bed”)—the poem represents a day in a city as a single work, much as Joyce or William Carlos Williams would attempt in coming decades. Associations on the holophrase abound, from the holograph—a document entirely in the author’s own hand, both a term and an object the literary Mirrlees would be familiar with—to the hollow-phrase, where there is a distillation and accounting of words and their meanings. (Thinking as well of the phrase to come in another Eliot work: The Hollow Men.) The writer of the poem sends forth a melody of images and sounds; a conjunction of people and statues, as if witnessed on speeding transit. We would see, later, the incorporation of advertisements (what else has more hollow phrases and holophrases at the same time?) placed against literary references, the making of scrap into the foundation of a monument, like an outsider artwork.
I am reminded of a remark recorded in Some Contemporary Novelists (Women) by R. Brimley Johnson (1920), one of the few works referencing Mirrlees at length:
“Life,” says Miss Mirrlees, “is like a blind and limitless expanse of sky, for ever dividing into tiny drops of circumstances that rain down, thick and fast, on the just and unjust alike. Art is like the dauntless, plastic force that builds up stubborn, amorphous substance cell by cell, into the frail geometry of a shell.” (213)
These remarks were made in conjunction with her first novel, Madeline: One of Love’s Jansenists, published the year before Paris. I keep these words in mind as I follow along in the poem and its interpretations.
Moving through Paris, having made the way through the Metro, our speaker-guide tours through the Louvre. There is a litany of masterworks, an abbreviated catalog:
In the Louvre
The Pieta of Avignon,
Mantegna’s Seven Deadly Sins,
Noticeably absent in the list is, of course, the Mona Lisa—arguably the imagistic holophrase of the museum for most, if not the representation of fine art more generally in popular consciousness. In 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen. It was returned in 1914 and went from being a painting hanging on the wall (albeit a respected one) to becoming the highly guarded, highly mythologized image we associate with it. (“LA “JOCONDE” EST RETROUBEEE” the headline of Le Petit Parisien declared.) The theft, removal, or destruction of the Mona Lisa was, after all, a commonplace idea among the more radicalized modernists and several Dadaists and Surrealists (including Apollinaire) were interviewed in conjunction with the theft. Consider too the variations on rewriting and reworking the image, including Marcel Duchamp’s L. H. O. O. Q. of 1919, drawing a moustache on the image, perhaps the most recognizable of the vandalized reconfigurations of the Da Vinci image. Mirrlees’s poem is, by this absence of reference, both working in tandem with the artistic sentiment of wanting to destroy the past while at the same time calling constant reference to it.
From Vanished Smile by R. A. Scotti:
“When the Mona Lisa slipped out of her frames, she seemed to change from a missing masterpiece to a missing person. She came alive in the popular imagination. The public felt her loss as emotionally as an abduction or a kidnapping. Captivated by her mystery and romance, crowds gathered outside the Louvre each day, awaiting word from the prisonlike fortress that had failed to keep her safe.” (40)
Of course, no artwork is forever safe. It has an upkeep; it has to be retouched and met with again and again to fight off the decay of time. This is just to keep the object itself, not to mention the difficulty of maintaining the object’s safety. Returning to Mirrlees’s vision, we can pick up the theme of the disappearance-over-time, the movement of the poem’s narrator away from these locations and associations:
The Louvre is melting into mist
It will soon be transparent
And through it will glimmer the mysterious island
gardens of the Place du Carrousel. (14)
And on the next page another signifier of Paris is removed from glory, turned into a hollow representation:
The Eiffel Tower is two dimensional
Etched on thick white paper (15)
Against the sky and the natural world, the structure (then the largest man-made structure in the world) becomes a sketch, just as images turn in memory from full movies into flashes; snips of the past to reassemble. Man, the future, the plastic world holds only as the “frail shell” described by Mirrlees. Even in moments of glory, as Mirrlees would probably qualify the Louvre, there are to be found the most unfortunate things:
But behind the ramparts of the Louvre
Freud has dredged the river and, grinning horribly,
waves his garbage in a glare of electricity. (21)
(I keep thinking of the small world of Bloomsbury. A literary scene, just like the later music scenes of the 1970s and 1980s, is so small when you view it through time!) Freud was being published by the Hogarth press in editions by James Stratchy, relative of Lytton Stratchey, biographer, who was once engaged to Virginia Woolf. The view of Freud as dredging up nastiness recalls the vulgarity saddled upon him by H. P. Lovecraft in letters. The undercurrent, the repressed, the darkness under the surface, becomes dredged up and put on display in the second sun of the electric light, the perpetual noon harnessed to make the modern world.
I believe that there is a more explicit representation of the two-dimensionality in the Eiffel Tower in the narrow strip falling through two pages like Alice down the rabbit hole: “Thereisnolilyofthevalley.” Spelled out one letter at a time, this cumulative effect of letters building into language reworks and plays with the linear experience of words—learning them, seeing and knowing them, expecting them to run one way and find them running in another direction. In the same way, there were the earlier pronouncements of the run-together “Messieuretdames” of men and women as a single phrase. Through everything, there is the meeting point of the beautiful and the grotesque, the crash of sound on paper. I am reminded of my favorite piece of Modernist correspondence I’ve ever come across, a letter from Dorothy Richardson to Bryher estimated to be from around 1924. The letter includes many typographical marks that suggests the author was less than sober at the time of composition; yet I wonder if perhaps these mistakes in spelling and spacing so that “literary style will change completely” led to actual changes in the way writing was written, as Stein might phrase it.
And Mirrlees did change her literary style. One of the recurrent remarks, borne out by reading her later work, is that nothing she wrote followed in the stylistic footsteps of Paris, just as she never wrote another novel after Lud-in-the-Mist, and just as she published one biography before her death. Like Djuna Barnes, she turned to the world of poetry and published less and less. Unlike Barnes, she had money enough to keep her in comfort for the rest of her life.
She went back to older forms of poetry and writing in a style removing itself more from Modernist experimentation. As time progresses, it becomes harder to find information about her. While nothing else in Mirrlees resembles the structure and form of Paris: A Poem, there are moments where one can see the glint of connections—themes flashing in the sunlight.
And in my ears the eerie voice still sings.
Then under the electric light
I saw a sallow vitreous heap
Of sodden, trodden, frost-nipped willow leaves…
Or were they just an insect’s fallen wings?
(from “Et in Arcadia Ego,”)
Or in her exploration of listening in and overhearing from her essay, “Listening in to the Past”
Do you like listening in? No. But I am very fond of a kaleidoscope. Indeed, it surprises me that this taste is not universal, for a kaleidoscope is the prettiest toy ever invented, and the most entertaining of all the thieves of time. It is a beautiful word, too, and sounds like the name of one of the Muses. However, I do not think the toy was known to the Greeks. If it had been, Plato would surely have founded upon it a cosmographical myth.
In Collected Poems, the editor, Sandeep Parmar does a wonderful job scraping together the kaleidoscope of the author’s life, giving due respect to an author who seems to have constantly stepped away from public view. (I have heard that Parmar is at work on a full biography of Mirrlees and I cannot wait to read it.) A conversion to Catholicism forced a move in her poetic style—leading to her refusal to allow Paris: A Poem to be reprinted in the 1940s over content she now viewed as blasphemous. (These passages would be changed or removed altogether when she allowed a republication of the work in an academic journal at the end of her life.) Her close—some rumor romantic, some label merely intense—relationship with classical scholar Jane Ellen Harrison, and Harrison’s death nearly fifty years before Mirrlees’ own, might explain the move to more traditional forms and the move of classical themes, works, and references to the forefront of the poetry.
I began these thoughts by saying that Mirrlees represents a particular kind of Modernist writer—a woman who creates something astonishing and interesting who disappears. But more than this, she is a writer who changes gears, who finds different voices. When I have read people who are dismissive of her work (and there are quite a few up until the last decade or so), I think about the program set out in Joanna Russ’s fantastic exploration of misogyny in criticism, How to Suppress Women’s Writing, particularly the belittling tone that the woman writer only managed to create one good work. (This is an extremely common remark made against Mirrlees.) There is, I am certain, more to be found in the few works that are available to us now, and yet more to discover in the works out-of-hand.
There’s a lot ofpressure on at moments like this to account for and justify the use of time. Since so many of us are either working from home or not working at all, describing the ways we pass our days takes on new meaning. I remember the second week that I was working from home: I was still waking up at five in the morning, I was still making coffee first thing, I was still checking email every ten or twenty minutes throughout the day. Even though I did not have to make the commute, I was still acting as though I did. It wasn’t until the second week that I felt fatigue set in and I wondered what I was expecting to happen. Shorting myself on sleep had become such a habit that even when it wasn’t necessary I still forced myself to keep up the old routine. This was no longer a time of business as usual.
I’ve been thinking a lot about time and the way that the days pass quickly when the sun is out and the way the days slow down when there are clouds. I’ve been thinking about the little notebook that I have next to my laptop where I’ve been recording what I’ve been doing with my time working from home. I’ve been thinking about the canvas bag filled with print-out drafts of projects that I haven’t looked at yet. I’ve been thinking about the time it takes to sleep through the night and the time it takes to drive from A to B, and how that time mirrors the interim between waking and sleeping. I’ve been thinking about faces and trying to remember and describe the faces that I would see everyday at the library, especially the faces of the many people experiencing homelessness and poverty. I’ve been thinking about how time passes when you have nowhere to go, especially when the one place you had is now closed to you. I’ve been thinking about the people I would see whose names I don’t remember.
I have projects to work on, both as a librarian and as a writer. I have dishes to clean and soups to cook and cats to feed. I have emails to answer. (The emails are the one thing that never stops.) Days on the calendar seem to have lost specificity. We usually experience time as a progression of days, weeks, months, years, decades, and centuries (if we live long enough). Breaking things down into the day to day has helped with managing stress but it has also led to difficulty imagining what comes next. What will summer look like? Much less fall? And another winter–the time of year when I usually become ill anyway. I think a lot about how seasons change by increments that I can see out of my window in a way that I have not experienced before, if only because I have never been able to look out of my kitchen window in the daytime, during the work week. Everything that I notice as something new comes with an unfortunate realization: what I am witnessing for the first time is only available to me because of the disruption going on in the world.
The phrase “I’ve been meaning to…” has come out of my mouth more often than I thought it would. Books that I’ve been meaning to read have gathered themselves in impressive piles around my desk and, slowly, they’re actually being addressed. I find myself less inclined to make excuses or think about getting to something at some (intentionally vague) later date. If not now, when? is a pretty frequent thought. If anything has surprised me, I think that it’s the fact that we all seem to be inhabiting the same mind-space as Lucy Ellmann’s narrator in Ducks, Newburyport (which I’ll admit I’ve been meaning to read to completion as I’ve enjoyed all the other works of hers I’ve encountered). This has forced an engagement with the voice in the head, the documentary narrator we put over our processing of our conscious experience. It has also forced an acknowledgement of the unconscious self and the feelings that are usually bottled in by travel, office work, and the face to face. I’m sure that most of us who have animals in our kinship network have been talking to these animals far more than usual.
Between emails this morning I read a recent interview with Lydia Davis, the wonderful writer/translator, and thought about the use of words, specifically the right word, at this moment. If not now, when? There’s the much-retold story about Mark Twain looking out at an audience (I imagine with cigar ready to ash at just the right moment) saying, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Reading Davis always brings a new level of awareness to my own reading and writing, forcing me to address problems and ideas I had not been previously aware of. (For example, thinking about how I’m writing this right now, I’m conscious of the number of times that I’ve used the letter “I” to place myself as writer and speaker, and the awareness of being yet another “I” addressing a mythic, nebulous reader or readership.) There’s a technical mastery to the craft in her work that astonishes me precisely because you don’t need to be looking for the technique in order to enjoy it. More than anything, I suppose that this moment I’m looking for the right words to explain this time, to explain what I’m doing in this time, and to explain how everything and nothing can be happening at the same time.
By 2017 I had been performing in drag for seven years. I performed a few times a year, usually at fundraisers. Like so many other young people, I used drag as a safe space to experiment with my gender identity and sexuality–both of which are still complicated. I created a character called “Madame Alexis,” named, of course, after the fabulous bitch of the Dynasty soap opera.
Alexis was my feminine side, a path I could travel down when I needed to escape the identity of maleness that most people acknowledged. She was the cabaret girl side of my life; the entertainer putting on a show. She was a mask and a good one. “I look in the mirror and can’t see my face looking back at me,” I wrote in an essay for my WGS class. Alexis was a piece of me, but I began to feel that even though Alexis was and is important, she was pushing me into the same situation as my day-to-day life as James. There was a social acknowledgement of my male self in my daily life. There was the social acknowledgement of my female self as Alexis when she would appear in drag shows, cabarets, fundraisers, happenings, and the odd drunken party.
It was in the aftermath of the death of David Bowie that I began to feel as if Alexis wasn’t enough. I wanted to pay tribute, but I wanted to be rawer, to be stripped down, to tone down the makeup, to show an inner self to the world. I thought about the Andy Warhol-style wig that I had bought earlier that year, the Patti Smith tie, the black hat, heels, and corduroy trousers. “Drella” was the pet name Lou Reed and John Cale had invented for Warhol, a combination of Dracula and Cinderella. The contrast between darkness and light was exactly right in the moment and I claimed that name as my own. I pieced myself together as a kind of meld of the masculine and the feminine. And what better way to say I love you to our favorite sexual alien than “Life on Mars?”
I have never been comfortable performing in public, either as a speaker or singer. I use the makeup and costume of flashy outfits, wigs, makeup, not only to grab the attentions of the curious but also to feel more like a performer. If I look and feel like a performer I feel more assured of myself. Criticism is less real. It wasn’t me that someone was hissing at, it was the character. For those who think that I’ve been a confident or self-assured person, I assure you that what you witnessed was a lot of stage craft. The night that I played Drella for the first time was also the first time I have ever come close to performing as myself, in my own style, in my own voice.
At this moment, I’m quarantined in my apartment along with many other people my age. I decided that if I was going to survive, I was going to have to push myself in a different way, to challenge myself to put something new out into the world. We all feel vulnerable and scared, so why not try expressing that in a different way?
“Surrender” was originally recorded by the band Suicide in the 1980s. I had been listening to the song on repeat for a week or so before everything started to collapse. I thought to myself that this was what falling in love feels like–vulnerable, somewhat uncertain, but being willing to give yourself over to someone. I recorded the song in one day, the vocals in one take each, on GarageBand on my tablet. My red wig came out from its hiding place in the sock drawer, and I took the cover photo as I assembled the last minor edits. There are things about the song that I want to redo, and perhaps I’ll record a second, neater version of it. But we’re all feeling a little rough around the edges, so in a way, I think this fits.
I can’t tell when or if I’ll ever record or perform as Drella again. These things take time and the right movement of the spirit. This is a space and a moment where I feel willing to take the risk.
This past year I tried to break away from what I’d been reading; while there are a few authors who are old favorites on this list, most of the works listed here came across my way by total chance. I’ll probably be working on a few pieces about my top favorites, but any of these books should be considered as very rewarding and entertaining works. The featured image is of The Ambrose J. and Vivian T. Seagrave Museum of 20th Century American Art by Matthew Kirkpatrick because I think of all the novels that I read this year, this was the most consistently entertaining and experimental and I’ve thought about it almost every day since I read it, especially when I walk into a museum space. (This could also be said for House of Leaves, but many more people have read House of Leaves already.)
The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Drager
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
A Bigger Picture by David Hockney
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach by Roshanak Kheshti
Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith
Empty Chairs by Liu Xia
The Left Bank Gang, The Last Musketeer, O Josephine!, and I Killed Adolf Hitler by Jason
Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman
In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri
Book of Hours by Kevin Young
The Last of the Duchess by Lady Caroline Blackwood
Full Moon of Women: 29 Word Portraits of Notable Women from Different Times & Places + 1 Void of Course by Ursule Molinaro
House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski
Why Art? by Eleanor Davis
Aug 9 – Fog by Kathryn Scanlan
Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra
The Ambrose J and Vivian T Segrave Museum of 20th Century American Art by Matthew Kirkpatrick
The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright by Jean Nathan
Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe
1919 by Eve L Ewing
They Can’t Kill us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib
Invasive Species by Marwa Helal
The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt
Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury and The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
Who Killed my Father? by Edouard Louis
Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls
Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky
Tell me How it Ends and The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli
I was in a North Carolina Bookstore when I saw a thin pamphlet sticking out between two thicker volumes. Simple stitching, a black thread down the center. I Dated Graham Greene. Lucy Ellmann centered on my attentions as I had been waiting—waiting—on a copy of Ducks, Newburyport (the title like a lost Marx Brothers routine) to make its way into my hands. No bookstore I had gone to had it in stock, and it seemed none would carry the volume unless it won the Booker. (This changed of course when it jumped to the shortlist, with no one wanting to repeat the delay of last year’s Milkman into American reader’s hands.) It seemed fitting to find this small book about the author’s life in bookstores by chance, published for Independent Bookstore Day. It also seemed fitting to spend a moment on the author’s shorter work, given that the first comment often made by reviewers is the massive page count of Ducks, Newburyport.
Much of the criticism (in the sense of both analysis and the discussion of faults) I’d read of Ellmann’s work strikes me as short-sighted—a hot take cribbed from the same Cliff’s Notes. Instead of seeing how others categorize her, here we see a glimpse into how an author sees herself through the lens of what should be a natural partner in her profession: a bookstore. Instead, the author pushes expectations to the side: “Bookstores scare me. So do books.” What follows is a 16 page analysis of the difference between the Platonic ideal of a bookstore and the reality of the physical space itself. Ellmann lists—bullet-point style—the many faults that can stress out the bookstore visitor, from “Amnesia, trying to remember all the books I meant to seek out” to “Geriatric affronts, when they don’t have the children’s books I remember.”
Through the text, Ellmann crafts the titles of books into the structure of her narrative. The Collector. Some of these are surface-level connections, while others suggest something deeper—an ironic meaning that can be understood only if you’ve read the reference. One can pull the list of books like yarn from a sweater to make the syllabus of a personal and sentimental education, gathering texts in the haphazard way of a lifetime’s reading material. Passionate Minds. These are moments that shape the text into the realm of prose-poetry:
Shakespeare & Co. in Paris—I sat on a couch there one summer when I was about twenty, waiting to be picked up by some literary type. A Sentimental Journey. Nothing happened. This surprised me, but I think I only sat there about ten minutes. Maybe it takes an hour.
There is something in these moments reminiscent of Gertrude Stein (let’s skip the ever-present Joyce references—even if Shakespeare & Co. does seem to invite them). The text is made of small sections—ideas, memories, moments, feelings, provocations, the ubiquitous and the unique—circling and adding to each other. The style of Ducks, Newburyport is visible here as it is in Ellmann’s other works: the humor, the lists, and the sense that all of these items counted out before you are what go into the making of a life. All of these pieces of Ellmann’s text work towards a joke, towards the boom-crash of the drum and cymbals of Portnoy’s Complaint (referenced on page 11). It is here that the movement of the essay moves beyond the cheap laugh of Philip Roth into the humor of Anne Carson—to make multiple layers of meaning gather together in a reflection of both the writer and the reader.
Walking through the language of Ellmann’s works as I make my way through Mimi, her previous novel and the only other one easily available in America, I could see how other readers make the obvious connection between her father’s work and her own. (Her father makes a fleeting cameo in the essay.) I picked up a copy of Thinking About Women by Mary Ellmann (the author’s mother, born in Newburyport) and saw a very different direction. The lists, the experimental structure, and above all they playfulness of the text exists there too. That it seems the Ellmann family has given English letters so much of substance is remarkable. Discovering Lucy Ellmann’s work, wandering through a bookshop, has brought one of the rarest delights into my reading life—an experimenter who can be a storyteller of equal power. The Divine Comedy.
I’ll be out of town this weekend, but here’s an interview I did with the blog of the Northeastern Popular Culture Association (NEPCA) to promote their new publication, Pop Culture Matters. “Tackling the Femme” is one of Twenty Nine delicious chapters available for purchase here.
We are very excited that this has come to fruition and are excited to share it with our community. We encourage you to check it out, and if possible, request your institutional libraries to purchase a copy.
Also, keep an eye out in the weeks to come for interviews with many of the authors included in this volume.
Here is the book’s description and also the table of contents.
“We immerse ourselves daily in expressions of popular culture—YouTube videos, hip hop music, movies, adverts, greeting cards, videogames, and comics, to name just a few possibilities—and far too often we pay only scant critical attention to them. The…