The Argonauts

I finally got a copy of The Argonauts from the NYPL last week. I read it in three days feeling underwhelmed. Autotheory? Is this it? Hey I came up with “autotheory” too, in 2007. I wrote a college admissions essay for the University of Chicago’s creative prompt that was a surrealist tour of a dying man’s hospital room narrated in the first person which, when met with underwhelming acclaim by my AP Literature and US History teachers (“too dark”), I turned into a metaphorical review of my favorite philosophers and critical theorists. “See that misspelling of ‘fantasy’?” I asked my teacher, pointing out the ‘ph.’ “That’s because it’s Freud.” The teachers loved this, my disdain thickened. Though it is nice to be loved. In retrospect I guess this is the phase I’m in with blogging right now.

I expected autotheory to be like that. Now that I’ve read the book, I still don’t think autotheory needs its own name, but it was nice to read. It’s like blogging or annotating. Here’s what I lived, here’s what I read, here’s what I thought. Being alive to the interpretive possibilities of the world and the worldly possibilities of texts. The best parts of the book aren’t its conceptual framework anyway, or the other way the book was billed, as a story by a woman whose partner is trans. What was that, SEO? This book is about motherhood. The trans part is practically incidental. It’s a mirror to the queer body of the pregnant and postpartum mother.

I keep coming back to the part in the book where Nelson, quoting some other theorist (I’ll have to look up whom) says being an artist is about playing with the body of your mother. I think it was phrased that way too, never “your mother’s body.” May be something to ponder. Or is that just a French to English translation issue?

I think about playing with the bodies of mothers all the time. It’s the part of my relationship with my mother I feel most deprived of. The other things– her love, her criticism, her advice– are all abstract concepts. They don’t need to exist in time. But touching my mother’s body, seeing it, that feels like something I don’t have. That’s always the thing that guts me when I watch family shows like Gilmore Girls or (today) The Skinny. The way mothers and daughters own each other’s bodies, scooping their heads into each others’ laps, rubbing shoulders with one hand, kissing cheeks. And I wonder if I would love myself more if I could do that to my mother and had it done to me. Maybe it feels so powerful to me only because I left home when I was a young teenager. Maybe mothers’ bodies are more powerful when you’re a child, and if your relationship is ended by death or estrangement that power never attenuates.

I have to return the book tomorrow so here are some excerpts I particularly liked:

One problem with lyrical waxing, as Snediker has it, is that it often signals (or occasions) an infatuation with overarching concepts or figures that can run roughshod over the specificities of the situation at hand…Such accusations would not come as a surprise to many writers, especially to those who have attempted to pay homage, in their writing, to a beloved. Wayne Koestenbaum tells an instructive story on this account: “Some psycho girlfriend of mine (decades ago!) answered a long rhapsodic letter I’d written her with this terse, humiliating rebuff: ‘Next time, write to me.’…”

Nelson 46. Reminded me of L. Nelson also adds that this has something to do with Derrida’s The Post Card if you (I) want future reading.

We ought to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, and a feeling of by, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue or a feeling of cold.

Nelson 54, quoting William James. I didn’t realize Sedgwick’s “Cybernetic Fold” essay had such strong precedent in the other James sibling.

One time I thought she was trying to make me come lay her– flirting to herself at sink– lay back on huge bed that filled most of the room, dress up around her hips, big slash of hair, scars of operations, pancreas, belly wounds, abortions, appendix, stitching of incisions pulling down in the fat like hideous thick zippers– ragged long lips between her legs– What, even, smell of asshole? I was cold– later revolted a little, not much– seemed perhaps a good idea to try– know the Monster of the Beginning Womb– Perhaps– that way. Would she care? She needs a lover…

When I read this passage now, I feel only moved and inspired. “What, even smell of asshole?” –this is the sound of Ginsberg cajoling himself as far out onto the ledge as he can go, even if it means pressing into the speculative, the fictive. Beyond the “Monster of the Beginning Womb” to the mother’s anus, which he leans into and sniffs. Not in the service of abjection, but in pursuit of the limits of generosity. She needs a lover– am I that name?

Nelson 56, quoting Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish.”

When it comes to my own writing, if I insist that there is a persona or a performativity at work, I don’t mean to say that I’m not myself in my writing, or that my writing somehow isn’t me. I’m with Eileen Myles–“My dirty secret has always been that it’s of course about me.” Lately, however, I have felt myself awash in a fresh irony. After a lifetime of experimenting with the personal made public, each day that passes I watch myself grown more alienated from social media, the most rampant arena for such activity. Instantaneous, noncalibrated, digital self-revelation is one of my greatest nightmares. I feel quite certain that my character is too weak to withstand the temptations and pressures that would come with hoisting it onto the stages of Facebook, and truly amazed by the fact that so many others– or all others, so it seems– bear it so easily.

Nelson 60-61.

I’m staring at his trousers has he opens his flies and that’s when I see something I’ve never seen again in all my life: a kind of threshed ringed beast, cork-screwed and blood-filled and raw, a pink sausage ending in a cone-shaped knob. At this moment I see my father’s prick as if it were skinless, as if my eyes had the power to see right through the flesh. I see something anatomically separate. It’s as if I see a superimposed and scaled-down version of the shiny cosh that he brought back from the slaughterhouse and puzzlingly places on his bedside table.

Nelson 65, quoting Herve Guibert. Also realized something while typing this: the myth of the skinless man doesn’t horrify out of identification (ouch! the pain!). It horrifies because the skin protects us, the viewer, from something overwhelmingly intimate. Skin is there to protect other people, not its wearer.

I couldn’t help but think of Nan Goldin’s 1986 “visual diary,” The Ballad of Sexual Dependency

Nelson 98. Just jotting the phrase “visual diary” down here for my project on diaries. I have seen this series at the Guggenheim but don’t know anything about how Goldin talks about it.

A day or two after my love pronouncement…I sent you the passage from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.” Just as the Argo‘s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase “I love you,” its meaning must be renewed by each use, as “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.”

Nelson 5. I ship it.


Quick thought on the case study model in art and politics

Had a long close reading “Court and Spark” with a young poet online. I’m thinking of pitching something to the Fader on reading Joni Mitchell songs. After, I watched a YouTube video splicing Amelia Earhart footage with a live performance of the song by Joni in 1979. Thought about how “the personal is political” is a basic conflation of life for art. What makes self expressive art work, particularly pop music, is the extrapolation of one person’s experience to human experience as a whole. In other words, the case study model. Whereas “the personal is political” mistakes politics for case study. You can wash your hair for Egypt in art, but not in politics. Maybe some of this conflation is due to the basic goal of politics to be together with others, to speak and understand across constituencies, representatives, and their electorate seamlessly. Because if politics were successful and we became one, you could wash your hair for Egypt.


The summer after my third year of college we took the CAPITOL LTD from Chicago to DC by way of WV. Just passing through.
The mountains there are mostly not mountains.
With the exception of a stripe of Alleghenies, West Virginia is soft
a dimple of water.
Maps know this and name their non-mountain mountains knoll, knob, and other nouns so soft they whisper their first offerings.
The ground is mild
–except for a row of Appalachian rock–
so the terrain map looks like a feline spine
where the fur begins to go in one direction
and darkens the animal’s coloring in streaks.
Everywhere else,
it’s yoga town.
The rolling hills downward dog their lawns
into the base of a river, gluteus up,
and the bridges there are lovely too.
The most famous, the New River Gorge Bridge,
caps off ‘Corridor L’ in West Virginia’s highway system,
a designation that evokes the hallway of a spooky, looming manor
with a terminal doorknob that gleams forbiddingly in fisheye.
But it is beautiful.

It was the strangest thing.
As I sat in my snack car
warming the bench for more serious eaters at my plastic table
I became overwhelmed with a deep sadness.
The landscape was beautiful and I did not feel alone.
It was the presence that bothered me. So much beauty!
I did not feel bodypressed by the sublime.
It was because (I didn’t figure this out for years)
I now knew all the world’s beauty was already in it
and West Virginia, its proof.


I’m struggling with the ending. I have another half to this poem that I can’t figure out how to pull off because it’s about my fear of aliens which is a bizarre subject shift. I think it could be great and human and a little pop-y if I could just figure it out. Basically, whenever I worry about alien invasion I think about West Virginia and how all the beauty and pain of the world has already been factored into it– West Virginia’s the proof– the converse of which is, nothing really terrible can happen because all the pain is already in the world…or something? Or maybe it’s because WV is a protective talisman. Anyway there’s something about equivalence between great beauty and great pain.

An onion

The insecure academician wanted his brush with history
so he historicized. The fauna, the fungal toe, Hepatitis B (In 1959
that affliction was publicly still a mystery)
transmitted through a shared utensil.
The critics and the artists and the academicians deigned
to print on the skin of history.
History, like tattoo, is superficial but permanent.
Strange the room full of them, the academics,
groping at what they think is an elephant in a room so dark it bleeds
and actually manhandling, say, an onion.

Readers of Playboy on the midi, August 1970

The miniskirt is doomed– unless American women, with the support and help of men, refuse to wear the so-called midi fashions and continue to wear short skirts as a gesture of opposition to the designers, the fashion industry and the fashion publications that would defeminize women and make them pay through the nose for the privilege of looking ugly.

-Phyllis Tweed, Girls/Guys Against More Skirt (GAMS), Box 386, New York, New York 10022

Now that the 1970s are back and the midi with it, I found this complaint against grandmotherly fashion mostly contemporary…except the parts that weren’t. I wonder if Phyllis’s version of women against the fashion industry is an earlier version of today’s real/fat women against the fashion industry. The other notable difference: no rhetoric about “empowerment.” Does the mini skirt empower against the corporate homosexual shibboleth that is the fashion industry or what? Is this a cult of domesticity for women who want to fuck? Anyway good luck to you, Phyllis of GAMS. I hope you’ve had a good 45 years.