no mourning

A Valediction Forbidding Mourning

My swirling wants. Your frozen lips.
The grammar turned and attacked me.
Themes, written under duress.
Emptiness of the notations.

They gave me a drug that slowed the healing of wounds.

I want you to see this before I leave:
the experience of repetition as death
the failure of criticism to locate the pain
the poster in the bus that said:
my bleeding is under control.

A red plant in a cemetery of plastic wreaths.

A last attempt: the language is a dialect called metaphor.
These images go unglossed: hair, glacier, flashlight.
When I think of a landscape I am thinking of a time.
When I talk of taking a trip I mean forever.
I could say: those mountains have a meaning
but further than that I could not say.

To do something very common, in my own way.

— Adrienne Rich, 1970

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goin’ for myself

When I was a kid, I really envied my older sister’s music collection. It was mostly LPs and 8-tracks, plus several cherished cassettes (tape was still a fairly new format). I was especially fond of three of the cassettes: the Partridge Family’s Greatest Hits, which I now have on CD and still love; Meet the Brady Bunch, which contained what I now recognize as the worst version of “American Pie” ever recorded, but also featured a very fine “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo”; and Dennis Coffey’s Goin’ for Myself. I can’t remember any of the songs on that last one. I only remember the cover.

Yes, it’s pretty hilarious now. But for some reason, it really fascinated me at the time. Maybe it was the pink shirt or the audacity of those pants (what is that fabric?!), or the carefully cultivated facial hair or the groovy aviators. Those are all pretty stunning. But I think what really grabbed me was the setting: there he is, in the middle of nowhere, with just his sheet music and his guitar. There’s nobody around for miles. He might even be stranded — he could starve to death out there. But does Dennis Coffey give a fuck? No. Because he’s goin’ for himself now. He looks totally serene and relaxed, almost as if he knows a secret we should all hope to find out someday.

It’s a picture of freedom.

That cassette popped into my mind last week. I had a “rejection letter” of sorts, for a small post I had written about the short film The Sea Is All I Know (I ended up posting it here on my own blog instead). I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the post myself, but I was happy enough with it, and it did what I wanted it to do: it captured the mood of the film and gave it a little publicity. I wasn’t blown away by the film, so I didn’t want to spend a lot of time and energy talking it up — but I didn’t want to pick it apart, either, because I respect what it’s trying to do (and it’s a pretty good debut effort for the writer-producer-director). I also didn’t want to give too much away, because it’s a 28-minute film that relies on visual imagery and strong emotions; there’s not much of a plot, nor any character development to speak of, and those things are pretty much beside the point anyway.

But I’m not sure why I’m explaining all that now — I guess because I don’t want to seem bitter or cranky. I do want to get this across: I did not explain myself when I got the rejection email (which scolded me for not covering “themes” and “motifs” and for not providing a “synopsis” — college flashbacks, anyone?). Instead, my gut reaction was “take it or leave it,” and that’s what I told the editor to do. I felt, with a clarity and force that I don’t often feel about my writing, that the post was fine just the way it was — mine just the way it was — and that “publication” was not worth the revision and formalization and snootification that was requested.

“Worth” is a tricky term when you’re writing for the internet. It’s sometimes hard to feel that your writing is worth anything at all, because a lot of writers don’t get one penny for their online words. My friend Dorothy Snarker will be the first to tell you that we can’t continue to let this happen — that if we write for free, we shouldn’t expect to be respected — and she’s right about that. So when I do write for free (which is almost never these days), I expect to at least get the payment of leaving my words intact. If you’re not going to give me a check, you should give my voice free rein, even when it goes down the “wrong” road. (This is why I’m not mad at the Huffington Post, for the most part — it gives writers a vast platform for no pay but also with few restrictions and often no editing, for better or for worse). When your words aren’t worth money, your time and effort become even more valuable, and your instincts become sacred.

So when I told the editor that no, I wouldn’t be discussing themes or motifs and wouldn’t be putting one more second into a handful of paragraphs that simultaneously mean not very much and a whole lot to me, Dennis Coffey’s visage floated into my mind’s eye. I realized I was goin’ for myself.

I hope I’ll do that some more in 2012. It’s the sort of resolution that resists definition, because it’s about wearing your garish pink shirt while you play your guitar in a goddamn pasture, if that’s what you want to do. It’s about the kind of serenity and confidence that come from listening only to your own voice, whether you’re singing sweetly or croaking and clanging. It’s the only thing Dennis Coffey and I can really claim as our own.

P.S. Just to be clear, I am not talking about Both Karman Kregloe and Sarah Warn were always more than happy to let my words speak for themselves, and they defended me from overzealous editors more than once. (And they even paid me!)

P.P.S. I don’t mean to imply that editing is always bad. There’s nothing better than a good editor. I wish I’d had one handy to remind me to make this particular point.

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a small film about big things

When it comes to difficult subjects, showing can be so much better than telling. Wrapping a tough topic in film or fiction can soften the blow and ease an audience into confronting something painful or repellent. Some artists go even further, shaping a subject until it’s not just cushioned, but reconfigured. And then the audience gets something even better: transformation.

The Sea Is All I Know, a short film by lesbian filmmaker Jordan Bayne, is transformative as a whole (if not at every turn). I’m reluctant to say that it’s "about" assisted suicide, because it’s really about love, sacrifice, nature, god — a lot of things at once. (It’s much less "about" assisted suicide than, say, the heavy-handed Million Dollar Baby.) And despite encompassing so many vast subjects, the film is stripped-down and quiet, imparting the stillness of death even as it captures the shock of loss.

Melissa Leo and Peter Gerety play the estranged parents of a terminally ill adult daughter. That’s pretty much all you should know about the plot. The facts of the film don’t matter half as much as the feelings: the worlds of pain that Leo holds in her dark eyes as her thoughts turn inward; the helplessness that washes over Gerety as he stares out at the susurrous sea. In the hands of such gifted actors, these muted moments do more to convey the heightened pitch of the situation than any sob or scream ever could.

Writer-producer-director Jordan Bayne intentionally kept the film’s universe small, peeling away layers and background until she was left with the truth of her story. In a Q&A session after the screening I attended, Bayne noted that she never thought she had a feature film on her hands. That might be her real gift: the ability to sound out the borders of her landscape. The film never strays far from the anguished atmosphere that its characters are breathing in and buckling under. But the goal isn’t claustrophobia — just clarity.

Bayne made the film for Leo, and that’s the other key to The Sea Is All I Know. An Oscar winner at the top of her game can be trusted with such potentially heavy material — trusted to take us into the depths of what she’s experiencing, yet protect us from getting too overwhelmed to make sense of it. Even when the dialogue gets a little clunky, Leo doesn’t disappoint. She’s marvelous — a marvel.

But Leo’s virtuosity won’t help you reach any conclusions about the tough subjects in this film, though I did walk away with the reassurance that love can give me the courage to transform one moment of life into the next. And knowing that is probably knowing everything.

Jordan Bayne and Melissa Leo
Photo: Carme Boixadera

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