I dared not say in my letter that on the first day we would go to the dead.
—Hélène Cixous, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing
I look for the dead woman. The woman in ways of dying. In 1998, that woman was my sister, [belonging to me in a time when someone was taking everything.] She was a girl quantified by everything. And called me by my birth name as I called hers; language having no meaning. Language having no meaning until being used. Or—she was not there until I called her name, as I was not there until she called mine. I was seldom there after she died.
I kissed her face when she died—finally, in all ways one can die. My lips on my dead. My weeping on my dead. She had existed in a mold of light, beautiful but damned. She had existed. There was after, after all.
After, I was yearly the dying girl; palpitating organ, skittering wire—the way I mourned. I was occupied—mourning filling out the shape of my body. Also, I occupied my senses; smelled for her in salvaged clothes, pencil wood, the safe necks of stuffed animals.
The way I mourned. My way of trying, too, to die. But I came back, continuously arrived to the spot in the closet where I raveled for the act—the sister in me curling toward the sister in me. But I was never taken. Somewhere was the idiot refusal to do it. To be dead.
What a boon, the negotiation—to want to be dead. The poison on the salt lick, desertion in the desire. What it wrests in the poet; that darkness closer to a body that is closer to her; the instinctive pitch to write toward that darkness. The poetry at the cusp, between safety and danger, between this body’s control and that. There, too, being a jar in which everything is preserved.
Large hands whose nails are anything but clean. The punctum [the detail, partial object] has a power of expansion. While remaining a detail, it fills the whole picture.
—Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
At such a time when I would be interrupted by a neighbor who is dying.
He leans into the doorframe, onto his bed, across his sofa; absolutely the wreck of his self. If I will walk the dog. If I will run this errand, that. If I will take with me the blood-speckled page of personal contacts. Please. At such a time when I am writing.
“But you are here,” he seems to say, gesturing his dying, “won’t you—?” His death has nothing to do with poetry. Does not find verse unless verse finds its way to his body’s waste.
Before, I knew him to be a pearl of a girl; crass, too; imposing of his political opinions; spiteful when it came to gossip. Now, his body diminishes what was in frame. Now, he thinks I am too kind to refuse a dying man. “I can do this,” I have said, “only this.” After which I cannot write. His body diminishes poetry. His body is the referent of the sorrow I want to retch.
His dying reaches me through Melvin Dixon’s Love’s Instruments, Tory Dent’s HIV, Mon Amor. How the dying talks:
Thin blood. Sore lungs.
Mouth dry. Mind gone
Six months? Three weeks?
Can’t eat. No air.
It waits. For me.
Sweet heart. Don’t stop.
Breath in. Breathe out.
[Melvin Dixon, “Heartbeats”]
How Dent makes me know:
I knew that one day I might look back at this interval as when I was better off.
[Tory Dent, “Fourteen Days in Quarantine”]
Mine. Mine neighbor. I say his name to make him, to make him here. And though the skin of his flanks is sunken and his muscle slack; though his chapped lips melt into his furred teeth under a minor constellation of lesions. He is here. And I am close to the dying body that is close to mine, curling toward it.
I say his name; as he is.
In French, one should think twice before speaking of l’etre-la. Entrapped in being, we shall always have to come out.
—Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
I malingered—set into mornings while the whole of Paris slept. I would write, which was the reason in its entirety. Being there. Being there to write. Also, I was reminding my self of my body, of belonging in one, wresting my self from the multiple iterations of not being, thoughts of how I could not be. After all, I had nearly—
Paris was the way out. A notation of my arrival, my refusal to do it, to be dead. Dear self I had saved. Being with its clear, chemically-fine, chemically fine transfigurations.
Of fruit from the market on Rue Lepic. Of veal from the butcher on Rue Tholoze. Of my observational silence. Of my few French phrases.
To say Bonjour. Bon soir. Bonne nuit. Je voudrais—. Pardon. S’il vous plait. Au revoir.
Of the landing spikes interned outside my windows. Keeping bird or bird at bay. How I told myself that I could resist what would bury me. How I let the French say it with the light of Montmartre Cemetery being pure enough to push out. And the bar owner that expected me to have tea each morning. Likely, expected me to be there. Bonjour Monsieur, je voudrais un tea. …Oui, merci. That being enough to make me there, place me in my body settling into the far right of the café tables. And waiting for the full teacup, saucer, teaspoon, cubed sugar. It was simple. My having arrived; bonjour absolutely being: I am here.
I am here.
He is here.
She, too, whether she utters from the fabric of a grave or the graphs of my memory. Here. Impressing upon you the presence of.