March 2015

Mairead Case

features

Birdland

“Dear Susan Sontag,” writes Kathy Acker in Great Expectations, “Would you please read my books and make me famous?” My copy, which my friend Katija gave me wrapped in Cookie Mueller’s advice columns, is soggy with pink highlighter. I read it first on a long bus ride home, fuzzy after a party. That summer I wore kohl and pool blue eyeshadow to work every day, so by nighttime the colors would melt into half-rings on my cheeks. I don’t separate the book from that memory.

I wasn’t sure whether Acker really wrote that letter to Sontag, like actually mailed it, though I thought she probably did. I certainly wanted her to, and anyway maybe it didn’t matter. Authors are not always protagonists and first person doesn’t guarantee intimacy, but sometimes Acker lights a match. She taught me that sometimes, a character speaks and so defies time and space. A character -- a person -- disrupts. The social-political energy is what changes, not the physical space or the characters. This is a kind of magical thinking, to me, or at least it’s different than the change I want as an activist. In that world, Cinderella-quick change usually just means somebody gets whiplash. (Though Antigone almost succeeded, and if Rahm Emmanuel shuts down the Homan Square black site tomorrow, I’ll gladly eat crow.)

But as a reader, as a writer, I love and believe Acker’s direct question to power. Before Great Expectations I’d never heard a woman writer ask for visibility so clearly, and without shame. Later, and again, re-reading Acker’s question in that soggy pink square, sometimes I think she’s being loud, or hilarious, or desperate, but never ever insincere. All other refrains that have earwormed me like this are either from “Four Quartets” (“Love is itself unmoving, / Only the cause and end of movement,”) or children’s books (“Harold needed a moon for a walk in the moonlight”). It always helps, hearing Acker say “Make me famous?” because that question is very different than “Am I good enough?” which is, ultimately, boring.

“Does free will exist?” asks Mark Magill in BOMB Magazine. “What else is this about?” replies Acker (the questionnaire was handwritten, but for Acker that’s speaking). “I’m no superstar shit and never will be. If anything, I’m what happens after death, which is writing.” It’s not clear whether death is writing or she will be. I am what.

Acker, again in Great Expectations: “They found the means of making the forms of all objects similar. If everything was rendered” -- given, provided -- “in the same terms, it became possible to paint”—to paint! leopard, ruby, blackwork, boxing tape—“the interactions between them. These interactions become so much more interesting than that which was being portrayed that the concepts of portraiture and therefore of reality were undermined or transferred.” I loved reading Great Expectations on a bus moving from stop to stop because it made my body, my droopy summer hair feel like narrative. It made me think of the grain and smear of four-color processing, of Suzette, nude in Mouly and Spiegelman’s RAW, who runs down the staircase too quickly and separates herself into CMYK. Of Yayoi Kusama, drawing dots so she can stay calm. Work in a room. Kurt, telling Courtney her zit is a beauty mark. The elevator buttons in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, which include white, black, “Up and Out,” and gold. (My favorite character in that book is Miss Tibbs, who was the President’s nanny before she became Vice President.) The boy in Patti Smith’s “Birdland.” He looks up and sees the stars’ points slip before he sees his dead father. Next his eyes turn into suns, then opals.

This month I wrote academic papers and a lecture on anti-racist community publishing, edited, read Djuna Barnes for Daviel Shy and Stephanie Acosta, baked peanut butter sweetheart cookies with kids for their dad. All this is reading and right now, it all seems fixed. Please read my books and make me famous. Here, these are cookies they did not turn into pizza! Only in Patti Smith’s song do the stars slip, like “someone spread butter on [their] fine points.” Looking up at the stars used to frighten me -- dead lights, cold -- but I’m doing better. Joshua said there’s one cluster named Bernice’s hair, after a woman who promised Aphrodite she’d cut it off if her husband Ptolemy came home safe. And he did. I dreamed Bernice kept it cropped and they grew old together, she and Ptolemy. At night they sit happily on the porch, drinking beers and looking up. “I did that for you,” she goes, running a livery hand over her scalp, and he nods and says, “I know. Thanks, honey.”

Sometimes on white nights, instead of stars I look at my friends’ paintings or read their poems. This is not the same as telephone calls. It’s more like holding up a lighter. Prayers of the faithful. Fixed points. Last night, re-reading Carrie Lorig’s NODS, I got a text from my might-as-well-be-my-brother: “Adorno: For tenderness between people is nothing other than awareness of the possibility of relations without purpose, a solace still glimpsed by those embroiled in purposes; a legacy of old privileges promising a privilege-free condition.”

Sometimes I tease my brother for being a grouch, but then he pitchforks me for cuteness so finally he’s one of my dearest reading companions. I reply with Moten: “be together but not at the same time. / forget the contemporary scene and / broken image. the corner is not the same / as being cornered. it’s the other way. / be the other way to bring it around.” (Here too: Stevie Hanley’s art, which is often placed in, or shaped around corners. When I first saw it I didn’t know if it was watching me or offering shelter. This too is tenderness, sometimes.) By then it was really late so I ordered Adorno from the library, ate some licorice, and finally, finally fell asleep.

Mairead Case (@maireadcase) is a writer in Colorado, where she is also an English and Creative Writing PhD student at the University of Denver, a Writing Consultant at St. Francis Center, and, through Hoist Point Writing, a poetry teacher at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. Her book See You in the Morning comes out from featherproof in September 2015.