December 2011

Elizabeth Bachner

features

Self-Elegy

I was walking with one of my favorite friends. We’d just seen a mostly-feel-good movie with a surprise ending, where one of the characters gets hit by a car and her body flies up into the air at a certain angle, and there’s a very particular sound, a sort of a pop. We were strolling along, talking about that movie, when suddenly -- on that section of 12th street by the skateboarders -- a car hit a pigeon, and its body flew at that same angle as the woman’s body in the movie, and there was the exact same pop-sound, and then there was the pigeon-body on the sunny street in exactly the same position as the corpse in the movie. It was hard to articulate, but we both saw it. Synchronicity is a weird thing. At home, I was reading Jagger by Marc Spitz, and remembering a Saturday or Sunday that my boyfriend and I spent walking in the park. It was the late-1990s, I think. We were inventing a fantasy TV show where cameras followed Mick Jagger all around, and he made little craggy-faced Spinal Tap-ish comments in his Mick Jagger accent, and then we went home to make nachos, and we turned on the TV, and there was a documentary on, Being Mick, and it was the exact show we’d just invented. It’s ten or twelve years later now, and everyone is in a reality show, and Mick Jagger seems less far away. There are celebrities everywhere, there are bums, there are stubbled celebrity bums, there are real bodies on the street, there are fake bodies in the movies, they’re all the same bodies, there aren’t any boundaries anymore between the real and the unreal. It makes reading complicated, it makes everything complicated.

Last night I heard of the self-elegy for the first time. I was at a panel discussion about Mahmoud Darwish’s beautiful In the Presence of Absence, a book he wrote when he knew he was going to die soon. It’s in prose blocks but inescapably lyrical. It’s in the second person. One of the panelists said, it’s like Darwish is talking to himself, and we’re hearing it. And he was right, it is like that. But it’s also like we are Mahmoud Darwish, or he is us, and that’s why we can hear -- why we can’t not-hear -- all of his thoughts, the rhythm of them, even the ones that rupture our own insides, that interrupt or remake our own heartbeats. In the beginning he splits himself into the poet, “You,” us, and into the “I” who will die, who will go to “a rendezvous I have postponed more than once with a death I had once promised a glass of wine in a poem” -- except, actually he never splits himself at all.  

According to Darwish’s translator, the poet Sinan Antoon, the self-elegy is an ancient genre, dating to pre-Islamic times. In the Presence of Absence begins with an epigraph from self-elegist Malik Ibn al-Rayb al Tamimi, who died of a snakebite in 676, ironically on his way home from helping to quell a rebellion. I think most of my favorite poets have been self-elegists, self-elegists and satirists (in the ancient sense of the word, people who compose magical songs with the power to curse you), so it’s sad I came to learning about these genres so late. They help with figuring out what to say to enemies of good writing, the kinds of people who ask questions like, “Is it poetry, or prose? Is it a novel, or is it a series of themed short-stories? Is it autobiography, or fiction?” Darwish specified that In the Presence of Absence was not a work of ordinary verse or ordinary prose, but a text.

It’s amazing, after all these years of world-changing texts, of beautiful and grotesque and transformational writing, that anyone asks those enemy-of-good-writing questions at all anymore, but they do. Now that I know about ancient self-elegies, I can find more of them. Now, more than ever, I wish I could fluently read Arabic and Hebrew. I’m reading Sinan Antoon’s translator’s notes and imagining myself, myself just the way I am only different, reading Darwish in Arabic. The shapes of the words are different, differently beautiful, than anything I’m used to. I’d be reading backwards. In Arabic, the word that means “sea” also means poetic meter. Its middle letter looks like ocean.

How would I be if I could write, or even read, in a different language? It was around that time, around ten or twelve years ago, around the debut of Being Mick, that my writing started coming out in the second person, not in a nice way, but like a girl taunting herself from inside, all insinuating, or sometimes like a grieving lover, lonely as hell, calling out to someone who wasn’t there. I hadn’t heard of the genres of self-elegy or of satire, and that makes me think about which other ancient genres are out there, known by everyone, that I’ll learn about in ten years or twelve years, that will help me answer questions I can’t answer now. And it makes me wonder whether maybe I don’t even yet speak or read in the right language.

“All beginnings are invisible: we learn to see little by little. In this way the book is made,” wrote the self-elegist Edmond Jabès, or maybe he didn’t write that, maybe his character, Yukel, jotted it down in a notebook. And maybe Jabès wasn’t a self-elegist at all, maybe he was just an elegist for his own books, or maybe the books were elegies for themselves, without Jabès being a self-elegist at all, and maybe Yukel was the self-elegist, or maybe -- or, definitely -- the books are now elegies for Yukel. I am learning. I’m reading the first line again of In the Presence of Absence: “I scatter you before me line by line with a mastery I possessed only in beginnings.”

A week or two after the pigeon-death, my friend and I were walking near Times Square at two or three in the morning, heading to a 24-hour diner, talking about the strangeness of all the people around and the strange buildings and the strange weather, and about magical thinking, about how you tell what’s a coincidence and what’s too weird to be a coincidence. The thing about the pigeon death is, what did it really mean? What could it have meant? Why would the universe, such as it is, make a strange parallel between a death in a movie and a dead pigeon, in our imaginations or in reality? And why would we think it was significant, even if it really happened? And if there was some big message in it, what exactly was the message? For some reason, I wasn’t thinking about any of that on the walk near Times Square, but I’m thinking about it now. In the movie, the death makes another character decide not to die. Neither me nor my friend was deciding about dying, so I think it’s probably not about that. Also, neither of us is a pigeon, I guess. It was a message about birds, or it was a message about death, or it was a message about synchronicity itself, or it was a message about messages, or it was a message about our friendship, or it was a message about movies, or it was a message about the city, about cars, about 12th street, about the inner or outer workings of reality, or it wasn’t a message.

Darwish: “You are you, and more… You are you, and less… You are almost you… You are you and not you at the same time.”

Gertrude Stein wrote, when she was trying to explain writing, or maybe when she was trying to explain not-explaining writing: “The question of repetition is very important. It is important because there is no such thing as repetition.” I suddenly understand that this is not just wordplay, which is terrifying.

I am learning to see little by little.