Against Metaphor

BY LORA MASLENITSYNA

It’s Tuesday, 12:27AM. The palm trees bend over backward to let the wind sweep past their stalks. There is an ocean of rain seeping in from under the front door. Outside my window, a tree topples over onto its side. The wind weaves through its naked roots. While the wind howls and the rain pounds at my door, I crave the steam that emanates off a warm bowl. The fluidity of vapor, sweet as breath and just as quick to dart away, glazes over my intentions. The clouds’ furrowed brow hangs low enough for me to cover its face with my palms. I am a few sharp words and a stretched lapel away from condensation. I take in a shallow breath.

I’ve been in bed since 10:30PM, hoping that if I gave myself a wider window of opportunity to fall asleep, I’d be on my way to a slightly less bruised expectation of morning. Nevertheless, I’m still wide awake. Here in my dorm room in Tokyo, sleeplessness clings to me like a stray dog that followed me home off the street. I never asked for it, but for whatever reason, it took a liking to me. Now, it won’t leave my side. Whenever I try to fall asleep, it nudges its cold nose under the covers with me. I might as well feed it while it’s here. I throw off my blanket and pull on a pair of leggings and a sweatshirt. I head out to clear my head at the only place that’s still open in my residential nook of Shinjuku: the sento, or the bath house.

The sento glows with the kind of heat only a well-cared for home emanates. A television hung over a small table hums the NHK network. The sound of running water babbles through two noren-covered entrances. Before I enter the bath, I undress and head to the showers to wash myself. I pass an elderly woman on her way back to the changing rooms. She smiles and strides past me, wearing nothing but a towel wrapped around her head. So good, so far, I think to myself. At least the other women are still smiling, so I haven’t muddled the customary practices.

Unlike restaurants in Tokyo, where old men have turned adjacent counter seats to face me and watch me eat, all the other women in the sento are enjoying their own experience. The middle-aged woman to the left of me scrubs under her arms. Meanwhile, another girl I think I recognize from the university pushes her back up against the jets. I take care to properly clean my body, then step into the steaming water. While I settle in against the bar jutting out from the center of the pool, a woman painted with red imprints from apparently full elastic-supported clothing leans against the jets behind me. Her left hand holds on to the bar just centimeters away from my cheek. It stays there for the entire time I spend in the bath. I’ll take this proximity over an old man’s sustained stare any day.

I admit that I feel more comfortable sharing the bath with all of the other women, rather than bathing by myself. Taking a bath on my own never felt quite as satisfying as the physical relationship I share in the sento. This, of course, is not a new concept in Japan. Here, “skinship” (skin + kinship) is as much of a health benefit as the water of the baths, itself. In the United States, where I grew up, this idea attaches itself almost exclusively to the relationship between a mother and her newborn child. What about the relationship between myself and my own body? Haven’t I fought through enough beauty standards and patriarchal preferences? My existence is pluralistic. It’s time I respect myself by confronting my progressions.

In the bath, I look at the body of the woman next to me. Then, I look at mine. The same red elastic marks span across my chest. Her skin wrinkles in the same places that mine folds. Not a single woman in this place has perfectly groomed hair or a belly as flat as a board. Perhaps in a society where the distinctions between sex and gender could be less rigid, bodies would move comfortably and without unnecessary embarrassments. Since that is not the society we live in today, my choices limit to a space that makes concessions to appearances. Books and films and so the people I intertwine with tell me that my self separates from the shell of my body. Before I “blossomed into a young woman,” my naïve flesh longed to disengage. I discarded my body as a home. Placed into metaphor and kept at a distance from my self, my body metamorphoses. I call my body a “temple” or sometimes, a “dump,” compartmentalizing my flesh and mind. My self has no immediate reality. I do not ground into my own body. I’m sick and tired of binaries that restrict me. I want to clearly assess my form and movements.

I think about another phrase I hear and repeat just as often: “You are more than just a body.” In an effort to throw off objectification, I separate from my body. Where I step away from sexual objectification, I cast my body away entirely. I tell myself I am more, that the self is its own environment. This more elevates itself above my body. I objectify my own ecology. If I continue to treat my body like a shell, my self can never really be tangible. I will continue to let others act as sieves for my memory. I will hold my empathetic potential and emotional intelligence at a distance.

This storm reminds me that I am wild and undisciplined (like everyone else). I bark when I can speak. The mottled sounds fling out from underneath my nails and pores. I lunge when I can stand still. But, my wildness is not a weakness. It is content within the form of my body. This form guides me. Without my body, I could have no self. The storm is also a form, but I deceive myself with romance and drama by not centering myself within its context. To live in metaphor is to deceive myself. My body is not rain, nor wind. It is muscle and sweat. My stomach is not a tumultuous whirlpool of fear or anticipation. It is acid and tissue. My palms are not curtains. They are sinew and flesh. I align my back against the plane of honesty.

In the morning, I call my mama. She advises me to actively level myself during this storm. The drama of the wind and rain is almost too romantic to resist, but it is a deceiving setting. Mama warns me against seeking out any sweeping emotional declarations, tonight. She tells me that honesty rests at 2pm on a Thursday, mulling under a thin veil of sweat and the taste of coffee in the corners of lips.

So, I turn my face to the window and listen to the wind and rain. They are exactly what they appear to be. They are not the currents of romance and drama come to sweep me away. It would be wrong for me to project a larger symbolic meaning onto their being. If I can focus on hearing my own breath and feeling the curve of my spine, then I can hear the honesty that permeates this setting. I lay on my back with my palms against the floor. I never fall too deeply asleep. The small of my back gently planes in parallel to the carpet.

Lora Maslenitsyna studies Humanities at Soka University of America. Her writing has been published by Litro Magazine and The Commonline Journal, as well as other zines. Her translations have been featured by ODALISQUE Magazine.

INAUGURAL SPEECH ERASURE

BY JERROD SCHWARZ

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Jerrod Schwarz is an MFA graduate of the University of Tampa. He is also the managing poetry editor of Driftwood Press. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Cultured Vultures, HOOT, The Fem, and many others. His first small collection titled The Crop was published by Rinky Dink Press in 2016.

From the Cover of the Village Voice’s Queer Issue

by Isabella David

 

It was the summer of 2008 when I posed for the cover of The Village Voice’s Queer Issue. Gay marriage would not be legalized in the state of New York for another three years. Not even a decade ago, but it was a different time. Even though gay marriage wasn’t legal, I felt that living in a big city exempted me from worrying about narrow-minded provincialism.

I didn’t realize provincialism is a state of mind not an actual state of the union.

I thought I didn’t need to compute how the law or how some small-minded people still felt about gay marriage when I agreed to pose for the cover. What I computed was the honor it would be to pose for an iconic paper like the Voice—a paper I hoped one day to write for, although that’s fast becoming more of a pipe dream due to budget cuts than the idea of a chubby, pasty theater actress like myself modeling.

Not least of all, I computed how talented the crew for the shoot was: Virginia Bradley regularly styles for Vogue. Nikola Tamindzic, our photographer, had been recently profiled in The New York Times. I happily agreed to his concept, involving me and the beautiful Julia Standefer, clasping each other in an almost passionate embrace.

What I didn’t compute was any negative consequences that shoot might mean for my career, not least of which was the effect the heat would have on me. It was my very first official modeling gig. Julia was an old pro and radiated coolness, her makeup pearlescent throughout the shoot.

Me on the other hand?

At one point, I literally collapsed from the 95 degree heat. It didn’t help that the statuesque Julia was so much taller, I had to wear 5 inch heels under a long, black wool John Galliano gown in order for my lips to parallel her lips. She stood barefoot in the photographer’s living room. A mattress stood on end, providing our backdrop.

I could sense her discomfort, and we had to stop periodically to let her exhale and relax. The concept was cinematic in scope, different from a regular modeling shoot. It was part of why I’d been selected. At that point, I’d been a crazy New York city theater actress for two years. I didn’t see anything too wildly difficult in holding a lovely Julia close to me, pretending passion.  I’d played drug addicts, housewives, victims of abuse, even murderers. I’d played a lot of parts that weren’t me, and what with the glamorous gown I had on, apart from the heat, I was having a lot of fun playing this one.

However, when we took individual shots, I found it challenging to look into the camera without flinching.  Julia on the other hand sent the crew into ohs and ahs of admiration when she posed. She simply stood there, yet there was so much more to it: she radiated confidence, ease, glamor, beauty, innocence. It was a lesson to me: there was an art to modeling. The evening ended with shots on the street in another Galliano get-up. When I didn’t have to look at the camera, I was happily lost in the character I’d created. When asked to look into the lens, I resembled a deer in headlights. All in all, it was a very satisfying night: I learned a lot and made several new friends.

A month later the cover came out. I probably broke several laws, emptying one of those ubiquitous, red Village bins that pepper New York. The image Nikola crafted showed all of the character-building with none of the painful 5 hours of labor that had gone into creating it. (At one point we had to break, so the hair stylist could run to the bodega for orange juice. I’d fainted from the combination of the heat and the sheer heaviness of that wool gown.) I was blown away by the artistry of illusion and by the team effort that went into one picture. To say I am proud of that image is to understate it.

Naturally, it took pride of place in my burgeoning “book”—model speak for the book of 9×12  pictures models used to carry around with them before iPads started taking over.

I don’t have to tell you that I’m not a lesbian, because my sexual orientation shouldn’t matter in the context of character-acting, but it did. I fell in love with my husband all over again when I found out he’d experienced 15 minutes of fame in the ‘90s, working as a peer counselor who went around to high schools talking about gay rights. Later when he was interviewed for the “straight athletes” chapter in Jocks: True Stories of America’s Gay Athletes by Dan Woog, Woog marveled that my husband never once prefaced a comment with “not that I’m gay.” The excuse is an apology. And what is there to apologize for? What does a person’s sexual orientation matter or say about their worth as a human being? Nothing. Nothing whatsoever.

And when it’s a matter of art, shouldn’t it matter even less? Obviously, this is still not the case, as many people objected to Matt Bomer being cast as Christian Grey. Why, because a BDSM-obsessed billionaire turned Prince Charming is a realistic concept to begin with? It’s about the character you’re playing.

Personally, I thought The Voice cover was beautiful, powerful, and expressed sapphic love in a sweet, respectful and unusually non-exploitative fashion. I didn’t realize yet my concept of the New York modeling world was tinted with the lens of the New York theater scene. I didn’t see myself as a commodity, branding herself with a carefully crafted image, but as an artist trying to learn and experience as much as she could. I didn’t realize clients would see the image as provocative, and I still wonder why they did, when so many modeling shots feature half-naked bodies or heavily pouting expressions. Julia and I were fully clothed in couture, gazing at each other, not even quite kissing.

In fact, when one bridal designer reached the picture in my book, her reaction could be described as nothing less than apoplectic. Her eyes widened with almost comic horror, bulging out of her head, and then she shut my book with a snap, practically shoving it into my stomach and asked me to leave the casting.

I remember as I stumbled out of the hotel room, I saw all around me long, white gowns lovingly laid out on the beds and couches of the suite. I remember thinking they were the mirror opposite of the long black gown I wore in that shot she’d found so offensive. And I remember wondering why was heterosexual love sanctified and homosexual love treated as less than worthy?

It made me see marriage as a sort of benediction of hypocrisy. I won’t say I made a Dax Shepherd/ Kristin Bell/ Angelina Jolie/ Brad Pitt level promise never to marry until gay marriage was legal, but I did feel as if I’d seen the curtain pulled back on the other side of the 40 billion dollar wedding industry in a time when gay marriage was universally illegal, and what I saw was a lot less pretty and sweet than that cover that had so offended.

Needless to say I did not get that job. I’m sad to admit I thought about removing the picture from my portfolio, but ultimately, I decided I didn’t want to work with people who viewed art or sexuality through a distorted lens of their own neuroses.

When I married my husband four years later, I chose a white dress, but it was short and plain and only cost a couple hundred dollars. I could wear it again and again and planned to. Best of all, we got married at city hall.

There were plenty of gay couples in attendance that day, waiting in line with us. I thought back to that hot night in the Lower East Side when I stood for five hours in a black wool gown, and I thought of how I had unwittingly been standing for more than a modeling shot. I had stood up for the world I want to live in, where sexual orientation is just a choice and doesn’t define a person.

Best of all, I’m glad to see times are changing, how differently that picture is already viewed. In fact, even the conservative wedding industry is showing signs of change: this season’s Say Yes to the Dress included several episodes with same-sex brides, shopping together.

Sometimes I can’t believe how much has changed from the bad old days when my husband had his life threatened for daring to speak up for gay rights to only eight years ago when I lost work for posing for the Queer Issue to now when in a lot of mainstream media orientation is viewed more like a couture touch for a character: something to put on or take off, depending on the sweet soul’s choice of the individual person.

There’s still a long way to go as has been shown by the recent ridiculous bathroom controversy, as ridiculous as finding an image of two women hugging offensive, not to mention any individual who agrees with Donald Trump. Still, I think the strides that have been made in less than a decade are inspiring.

 

 

 

Isabella David is an actor and author of The Voices of Women, shortlisted for the 2015 International Venture Award. She’s also an editor at Easy Street—a books and culture off-shoot of The Lascaux Review. Other work has appeared in Tampa Review, 100 Word Story, Adbusters, Hello Giggles, and elsewhere. When not working on her first novel, she mothers a menagerie of animals and children, who are all almost (as in not at all) potty-trained.

IDENTITY

BY JAMIE LOWENSTEIN

 

Artist’s Statement: 

Changing the format of a poem from visual (reading) to visual (video) and auditory (spoken word) stretched my imagination and forced me to rely on intuition, friends, and my theatre training. My poetry writing tends to start with a small idea or phrase, and then goes onwards with no clear direction in mind, mixing metaphors, and ending eventually when there is not much steam left to go on. In my everyday life, I tend to have more direction with the same result- stopping when I run out of steam. In this case, I had already completed this step because the poem, which acted as the foundation, was already written. The small idea, identity and identifiers/labels, had coal thrown on its fire, and the steam powered it on for 5 pages. I finished the poem, reflected on its exploration of how one identity for an entire person is minimizing because people are inherently intersectional–“i am at the intersection of all my identities”–and set the poem to rest. So, how did I find a way to further explore a piece that I felt was finished?

In a class I’m currently taking, we spend a lot of time discussing media as a form of performance, and how this type of performance, in a Warholian way, either is or is not a reflection of our truth. So, my first idea was to film myself looking in the mirror in order to turn a private moment of performance public. Publicizing intimacy normalizes it, and allows an audience to feel personally understood. Next I thought of writing my identity labels on my body. Originally I wanted them to circle my neck like a noose, and then up onto my face like a tool of asphyxiation. However, I ultimately decided against that idea because of simple practicality and the worry of breaking out even more–maybe “vain” should have been a title in that list. In any case, I now had a new idea to further my work: the inability to change how others perceive you visually i.e. based on skin color, acne, etc.

With this idea in mind, I mapped out what the camera would be showing the audience for each beat of the poem, bringing out images in the poem more clearly and concretely. Once I had planned each beat, I knew I could not do this project myself. I am not a drawing artist, and I couldn’t pan around my own body. I reached out to 2 friends of mine who do have these talents, and they were extremely helpful, doing their best to help me achieve my vision. The process mirrored my theatre work, meaning that it was collaborative. I gave Ray a lot of liberty to draw the pictures however she wanted, which ended up with a beautiful result going down my spine. The filming went a similar way. Jen apologized for her shaky hands and not getting the timing exactly right, but I assured her that all small flaws could be embraced because the poem is not about being perfect, but rather about falling apart at the seams. The video both adds to this idea, but also contrasts it: showing me free of labels in the end, no longer dictated by the text of the poem. The last shot is very similar to the first because the text mirrors itself, but at the end the “i” words do not make me blink because I am controlling my own identity and what you see of me when.

The audio experience of the poem–my harsh assonance and stabbing pronunciations, contrasted with the Chopin piece–are used to further the contrast of the visual with the text. My voice reflects the uncontrollable spiral of self-doubt and the overwhelming power of others’ impressions. However, self-doubt is often internal. The most seemingly stable, happy person can be torn apart internally. And that is the function of the song- to reflect the external performance of someone struggling to come to terms with their identities’ intersections.

 

Jamie Lowenstein is a poet and actor based in New York City currently at Pace University in its International Performance Ensemble. He’s interested in diverse stories, especially within the queer community.

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BY JACKLYN JANEKSELA

 

Science claims the bilingual to be of two characters, of two people.  The shift doesn’t happen consciously, at least not that I’ve noticed; however, I am certain that I do not express myself in the same way between the two languages.  That means my voice changes, my vocabulary varies, and the rate at which I speak fluctuates.  And then something occurs to me, perhaps the shift indicates something more sinister happening inside of me –after all, my late paternal grandmother was schizophrenic.  I worry –in both languages.

 

Saying that I always knew I’d marry someone who didn’t speak my native tongue would be presumptuous, it would indicate that I have some soothsaying gene and somehow seized or, at least, pre-determined my destiny.  And it was sort of like that, actually.  From early on, even before I even understood the concept of languages, I created my own sounds –tucked in the back of my childhood closet.  Peeking out from the closet to admire my all white canopy bed, I pretended to be a defiant princess hiding from her parents, my stuffed animals –my servants and friends with whom I spoke.  No alphabet or any real pattern to my language, but it was not from this world –that much I knew.  And when I first heard words like South America and Africa and Europe, I was certain I was conjuring an ancestor –if not from my heritage, from any number of them.

 

My husband has heard this story several times, but never in my native tongue.  It’s much less fantastical in his language, but I paint him a picture that satisfies the rules of his language while mine are ignored.   I am so aware of how it sounds when I speak it.  And I know there are details that are tossed aside or poorly articulated, whereas others go unnoticed.  How strange to talk about childhood in a language with which I was not born speaking.


Being married in a second language means other things, things I might not share with my husband.  Things like I can really tune out of a conversation much easier –I daydream often during movies or in small talk at gatherings that are in his language.

Things like I can pretend to not understand, as in that word is not part of my second-language vocabulary, so I can get him to speak to me more often because he’s quite reserved.

Things like I can challenge his use of his own language by referring to grammar rules and thus discuss the nuances between our languages but I really mean us.

Things like I can laugh at the strangeness of idioms that are equally as strange as those in my own language, but I secretly think his are more absurd.

Things like I hate arguing in his language because I get all flustered and things never come out they way I want them, too –it’s hard enough to argue in one’s native tongue.

But there are cooler things that happen.  Like I have sex in a second language, we have taboo conversations right in front of other people who don’t speak his native tongue, and we talk about art and life in his language which makes it all sound quixotic.

My life in a second language isn’t any stranger than anyone else’s –of that I’m quite certain.  Those who teeter between the two begin to notice slight changes that snowball into other things, beasts perhaps.  Like many times I cannot recall a word in my own language and to compensate, I covert the second-language word into a word that suits my language.  Sometimes this works, but when it doesn’t work, it really doesn’t work.  Like when I hear myself speaking my native-tongue I become self-conscious.  I can feel and hear each and every saliva string.  Like sometimes I’m not sure in which language I responded or in which language I was listening –yes, that is real.  Like I feel more natural speaking in my second-language to animals and children.  It’s like my language isn’t made for soft things.  Like I use my first language when I want to feel more me or conjure some ancestors with whom I haven’t spoken to in a while.  And when I need comfort from so many years removed from my country.

I remember important words like bones, blood, all types of illnesses in his language because life.

It’s not easy to navigate dreams under the influence of two languages, I choose silent dreams.

My cat speaks his language and doesn’t respond to mine.

I talk to myself in both languages.

Learning a third language is influenced by my second language more than my native tongue.

My third language accent is affected by the second language.

When I see someone that needs help, I use my first language to facilitate the situation.

I still don’t know some basic words in my husband’s language and verb conjugation is a real struggle.

The flexibility of my husband’s language makes life easy.

When I fill out forms in my native language, some of his language creeps in there.

So what happens when I try to be nostalgic in his language when I’d prefer mine?  I adapt.  And because of this I become a better writer.  No, not a better in the grammatical sense or even the publishing sense, but I have more fun with language.  Because I don’t take it so seriously, I see the humor in life, in words, in playing with words.  I might say something like the house of my mother instead of my mother’s house; it rolls around and takes it’s time to make a point and I like that.  I might say the way in which my father looked at me rather than how he looked at me; the reader gets to take a small journey through his eyes rather than feel my experience.  These small nuances elevate my ideas of language, of me, of my art.  And I am in awe of the process.  It’s like becoming a child all over again.  Where I sit beneath my canopy bed and wait for the night’s coming so I can watch the shadows play on the walls that are covered with rosebudded-paper; I am for sleep, I have sleep, I am full of sleep.

 

 

 

 

jacklyn janeksela is a wolf and a raven, a cluster of stars, &  a direct descent of the divine feminine.  jacklyn janeksela can be found @ Thought CatalogLuna MagazineTalking BookThree Point PressDumDum MagazineVisceral BrooklynAnti-Heroin ChicPublic PoolReality Hands, Mannequin HausVelvet-TailRequited Journal, The Feminist WireWord For/WordLiterary Orphans,& Lavender Review.  she is in a post-punk band called the velblouds. her baby @ femalefilet.  more art @ artmugre & a clip.  her first book, fitting a witch//hexing the stitch, will be born in 2017 (The Operating System).  she is an energy.  find her @ hermetic hare for herbal astrological readings. 

Swiping Left on the Hangout: A Conversation with Felix Bernstein

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“I wonder if one person out of 8,000,000 is thinking of me.”—Frank O’Hara

 

For decades, experimental poetry, underground performance, and the art world have made for the (un)likeliest of bedfellows, even if the power imbalance becomes increasingly discomfiting. In his manifold creative practice, Felix Bernstein has traversed these intersecting spheres lustily; slicing through the various, porous borders of the cultural continent in an attempt to lay bare the psychosexual strictures on contemporary aesthetic production. In this conversation, we found ourselves continually returning to formats—from the social media feed to the personal essay to the “About Me” section of dating apps—as the pride and the pitfalls of our generation’s libidinal economy.

—Joseph Pomp 

 

Joseph Pomp: What I find compelling about your writing is that the distance between you the critic and your subjects is often fluctuating. At times, you offer very insider-y takes on certain sub-subcultures, and other times you step back and do some big-picture diagnosing.

 

Felix Bernstein: I tend to distance myself from the pool of references around me, until I get pent up and write about it. Mostly this is out of anxiety and impatience, but I think it has allowed me to link up with people who hate the artists or art institutions I’m discussing, and even with people who hate me. Sometimes this is because people like to read anything flippant: it’s clickbait. The click-baited might not be a sustained readership, but it was the most immediate readership I got. Then there are cynics playing the “game” in New York, who have competing interests with institutions or wanted to protect themselves from critique. And also some of the people I’ve critiqued get excited to be enraged—so they can seem iconoclastic on Twitter, and so on.

 

JP: Are you mourning for a pre-Internet viewing culture? In this vertiginous climate, do you see a light at the end of the tunnel?

 

FB: I’m not in mourning, at all. My optimism is that I still desire and, to a certain extent, seek out, and get surprised by, stuff. I’m not surprised by anything theoretically determined to be “better than,” i.e., less neoliberal, more queer, more mutable, more radical, more avant-garde, more relation, more anti-relational/cruel. A kind of tragic irony is that the tastemakers and people boosting artists in theory or writing listicles online don’t really believe that they can be surprised by anything anymore. They are lying; they see tastemaking as a job, or a way to inevitably promote themselves, or keep up with appearances. The same goes with those who “hate” everything, which is simply the reverse mode of taste-making. As Baudrillard had it, “Reversibility has nothing to do with reciprocity.”

 

JP: So do you think there’s a danger in continually putting the present down, especially through the lens of the past?

 

FB: Yes, but also, putting it down in favor of the future. I’m constantly asked, or seeing panels about, the future of poetry and art, film and video, and art and digital processes, as well as on the topic of millennial, gay, and queer, because people feel run down by their disciplinary bureaucracies. They think holding yet another symposium will help. The idea that suddenly queer, gay, poetry, art, film, and performance are being “commodified” depends on an ahistorical fallacy about untainted origins—it’s a very tricky question, but the answer implied is, “things are becoming more commercial, we have to come up with alternatives to mainstream, really fast,” which is a market-driven mode of thought. These symposiums feed off of the labor of outliers—the queer-art-academic-critical-party is so monotonous, it requires unpaid interns, emerging artists, and struggling students, to continually throw some idiosyncratic jouissance to the gallery or panel, and then be discarded.

 

And with all critical evaluation and comparative analysis of the present art there is the danger of what might best be called aesthetic decisionism—the sort of mythical, grand, allegorical proclamations about paradigms that Foucault made all the time. But there’s also the farce of the compulsory claim that artists today are the “new” version of past icons: “This novelist is the James Joyce (or Artaud or Schneemann, etc.) of today.” This is the Vice blurbing industry. There is also the problem of what is effectively transgressive in a suburban high school does not so much matter in the art world. Or what is replicated by the formal charisma of “Joyce” or “Schneemann” today is not the same as it was then… as when Lena Dunham writes that a radical queer poet is “that weird girl in high school who was always writing in her diary.” Often this comparison arises, since high school presents the fantasy of belonging to a clique and table, or else being different as a brand (the loner who wears hot topic; the one who critiques the hot-topic anarchist for being a poser; or the one like me, who critiques the critic of hot topic for their claims of exemption from complicity), so there is a continual inclusivity.  Chris Campanioni’s treatment of names and cliques in his writing (see The Death of Art) really tackles the ironies inherent in these problems, which are really hard to confront, because often disheartening. Extending, however ridiculously, the high school metaphor; just as the same mall has a shirt for the jock, cheerleader, hipster, and loner; so too Amazon recommends books by an “experimental artist,” “experimental cultural critic,” “experimental poet,” with indifference to micro-distinctions…. or the fact that in these worlds we all hate each other.

 

JP: Academia also sometimes engenders these types of facile, trans-historical comparisons. Do you see that a result of its territorial nature?

 

FB: I think it comes from an impulse to try to be the mythmaker—to seem as prophetic as William Blake, even though you are merely his biographer (to seem as dangerous as Jack Smith even though you are merely performing for an MFA board of esteemed critics…or perhaps, on a Bravo TV show). The myth-making poets are making ontological proclamations, but if you’re a cultural critic, you can’t really do that, but you can have a hand in changing the canon. It’s such an impotent and limited thing to be a critic in the sense that any change to the canon is going to be ephemeral, and few dissertations will sell well (if they even make it to publication). I’m confused by the desire to convert one’s niche into a Renaissance portfolio. Everyone on Tinder is a dilettante, which is the sort of sensibility that the liberal arts college produces. People aren’t satisfied with what they’re doing, or rather they always want to do more. People have a hard time accepting a vocation, or a disciplinary constraint. Hybridity, a fetish of today’s marketplace, is a way around that. But it is its own disciplinary constraint. I think I am constrained by it, for sure.

 

JP: Would you say that there’s something campy about this conception of hybridity?

 

FB: There’s something, not necessarily campy, but annoying about it. I’ve annoyed people, too, by doing similar stuff—writing critically about a museum and then performing in a museum.

 

JP: It seems like the dilettantism propagated by social media comes from those networks’ obsession with celebrity.  Everyone is striving for some glimmer of fame.

 

FB: Yes, but there’s also a striving for recognition of having good taste. I remember when “liking” Fight Club or Pulp Fiction on Facebook signified that. It was enough. I like to be alone, but in public, like going to the movies. It’s hard to really be alone on social media. Though, sometimes my YouTube videos get only 200 views but that’s not really alone. The other way in which people try to cash in on the fabrication of persona at the level of social media is to treat themselves as readymade objects. Showing up to events as a club kid is increasingly being considered art. Curators are sometimes like club promoters; they just want people to show up.

 

JP: Like Klaus Biesenbach and MoMA PS1 …

 

FB: Right, but everyone also attempts to think they are better, which they might be, but the traps are all laid out for you, no matter what, if you are a museum curator. Thanks to this particular marketplace, there are people who are recognized and are in good standing as artists who have made maybe one work. And I think it’s the MFA mentality, because sometimes people in MFA programs make one video, or write one poem, and otherwise just spend three years making sure everyone likes it. Every inch you go forward as an artist, you have to check that everyone’s okay with it. I imagine this is what it would be like to be in an overpriced kindergarten, all the ambitious prodding and observation from authority figures. Same with PhD programs, a million apologias before arriving at an appropriate, airtight thesis—“To be or not to be” becoming, “What else should I say, All apologies,” / “What else should I write, I don’t have the right,” so you have all the Kurt Cobain self-flagellation without any of the grunge and beauty.

 

On the flip side, are those who go full speed ahead, run before they can walk, which is attractive but they can “run out” of steam fast, or else get stigmatized for, paradoxically, having “too much” vision. But the inch-by-inch mode is very odd to me, as a hysteric. I need to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. I also find being critiqued in private continually until you feel you can go public, because now you are exempt from critique (you have affiliated with just the right cultural critics) is a trap. It’s like having the blurbs for your book coming from so many institutional heavyweights that one can’t really comment, without feeling like they are trespassing an institutional sanction.

 

JP: That’s the price one pays for taking a very academic approach to art making. To zoom out a bit, how much do you think academia, or a degree, matters to artists? You suggest that the contemporary, perfunctory “artist’s statement…only appears to be counter-academic,” as if there are hidden, sublimated, allegiances therein (“The Irreproachable Essay,” Texte Zur Kunst, Fall 2016).

 

FB: The artist’s statement is ubiquitous to every bureaucratic facet of the arts and humanities. Even just using Tinder, you have to prove that you can write about yourself.  Why is that valued so highly? I don’t know. People want to move away from standardized testing, and they think the most radical thing you could do is this humanistic recuperation of—the multitalented. This comes with all the dilemmas outlined in Alice Miller’s Drama of the Gifted Child. This epistemologically aware notion of the self (as cultural juggler) is something you need to display to get into college, but now you need it in the art world too. Nowadays, obviously there’s a turn against this kind of personal statement. A hip gallery won’t even have one. And that’s another reason for the turn to poetry, because people think poetry diffuses formal rigidity. This is a fantasy, and inevitably a letdown as Ben Lerner suggests in The Hatred of Poetry.

 

JP: Considering that art schools now offer MFA degrees in New Genres, which uncannily include writing, as if that is an emerging, promising ‘new’ medium, do you think the art world’s appropriation of poetry is in any way affecting poets?

 

FB: I think that the emulation of any form, as presented by a professor who is looking over your shoulder, is tricky. For instance, if you watch a crumby old tape of a Jack Smith performance you might attempt to imitate the “ephemeral” retro nature in a way that suits the pre-approved look of what you are seeing. Or you try and make something for the PS1 Book Fair that looks like an ephemeral zine. It’s always when the ephemeral is grasped that the canon is doing its work, and this is very easy to do with poetry and performance, a double take; which I think Broodthaers satirized when he turned Mallarmé into an austere art object, with the words blacked out. This is the issue now, fetishizing something for being obscure at the very moment that it’s no longer obscure, for instance, clicking fetish on Pornhub. But what happens when you receive your fetish under the label “fetish,” is you are just buying hardware, the whips and chains not the psychic danger. This is similar to what it might mean to buy an overpriced chapbook. James Franco can collect all the props, the degrees, the small press publications, but he will never appear psychically tormented. Broodthaers was very conscious of how the museum was archiving all of these things and by now it’s commonplace to critique this sort of approach. But it remains an interesting and important critique to consider the limitations of the platforms we all use. What can’t you post on Instagram (and not just porn), what can’t be consumed in that way? Even a video over one minute is hard to disseminate over apps, which trim how durational a vision can be—and it’s why people no longer have the patience to go to avant-garde films. Even the people I studied “experimental” film with don’t watch film anymore, unless pressed to do so by some sort of event or retrospective, or by peer pressure. However, this is an injunction to enjoy someone’s fetish, i.e., a screening of the B-side of a random experimental artist (when the audience doesn’t even know the A-side).

 

JP: Right, people are so overwhelmed by the onslaught of short attention-span media at this moment that they have all but abandoned their aesthetic criteria of judgment.

 

FB: The other problem is that, at the level of the gallery, to suddenly flip and show a James Benning film, forces the work to be read as interesting only by nature of its opposition to social media. It becomes the tortoise. And just another tab to scroll through, much like watching films on Ubuweb. The point being, you can walk in and out; take a picture; leave. Taking a picture of a picture is the best way to file the labor of decipherment away for later. On the other hand, taking a picture of the person taking a picture of the picture, like what we are doing now, can be a cogent way of deciphering, but has only a very transient merit—since it feeds off of the futility of its own perspectival impotence, its complicity with the act of consumption it attempts to outdo.

 

 

Joseph Pomp is a cultural critic whose writings on international film have appeared in edited volumes and publications including The Brooklyn Rail, Film Quarterly, and Senses of Cinema. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Comparative Literature and Critical Media Practice at Harvard University.

 

Felix Bernstein is a writer, performer, and video artist, as well as the author of Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry (Insert Blanc Press, 2015) and a collection of poems, Burn Book (Nightboat Books, 2016). His opera Bieber Bathos Elegy, in collaboration with Gabe Rubin, premiered at the Whitney Museum in January 2016. His book on contemporary queer avant-gardes, written with philosopher Kyoo Lee, is forthcoming.

American Ground

BY NKOSI NKULULEKO

American Ground

On the 4th of July, half of faces are concealed by flags,
for, on most days, we are only this much American.
In New York, tourists are in awe of our disturbed aesthetic:

young teens in a park coaxing smoke from their mouths,
a man not watching his child in a playground, long enough
for there to no longer be a child, but in its place, a vacancy

on ground, surrounded by other children, American enough
to almost be his & for this, we’re so close but, yet, quite foreign
from another. Yes, the distance between us is what makes us

American. It’s a patriotic form of surrender, to sing an anthem
we’ve learned until we pack the little we actually own, & flee.

 

American Ground

“I want to be human above the body”
-Terrance Hayes

After light, when the morning fog swells the streets of Oxford,
before the city wakes with noise, tourists recalling false histories,
I am in the dim light of a tavern, with a glass of translucent blood.

I often do not pray; bleed into the morning air with only faith.
I know that the dead are collected in the shade of our bodies,
that there’s a kind of mark, left behind where we once resided.

I see the dead I once knew, surrounding the shadow that trails me.
The dead knows their kind. We have a different scent to us,
& it burns the eyes, what we carry; resembling arrogance,

a whiff of flesh attached to the human that invents loneliness
as a tactic for becoming a god & aren’t we always so far from it?

Some talk to the sky when asking for forgiveness. I ride American-
Airlines back home, hearing nothing but rushed wind on the outside.

 

Nkosi Nkululeko, the 2016 NYC Youth Poet Laureate, is a Callaloo Fellow. He has been nominated for the American Voices Award, Independent Best American Poetry and Pushcart Prize. His work is currently published in No Token, Rose Red Review, Hobart, and elsewhere. He lives in Harlem, New York. You can reach Nkosi at musicmannkosi@gmail.com.

Dear Highlights

BY PAUL FERRELL

Dear Highlights Magazine,

Regarding your June 2009 installment of Goofus and Gallant in which Goofus says, “It’s okay, we’ll stay in the shallow end.” And then you write, “Gallant only swims when the lifeguard is watching.”

You’re making a judgement call here and I think it’s way out of line. Do you want to build men out of boys or are you trying to teach children to blindly defer to authority? Are you trying to raise a nation of dullards bred to confuse fear with comfort? Are you trying to breed a nation of grown-up babies free of risk and reward? Lately I’ve found myself afraid of these young people as I watch them grow up to be the cop that shoots me or the neighbor that bores me to death.

Be honest with yourself. If you were shoved out of a bar bathroom by some big, hairy ball of negative energy … I mean, puts the palm of his hand on your face and pushes you out of the bathroom because his lady friend is regurgitating in the men’s toilet … who would you want by your side?

Gallant says, “It’s okay, let’s just leave.” Goofus knocks him out with a punch and laughs as the doorman drags his body out through the back. We would boast that we always carried bail money. Where there was bail, there was laughter. Goofus has a wife and a child now.

When I was a child I fell from a tree while picking berries. I got up and walked away believing I had some peculiar strength that no one else knew. The place could be on fire and I would still step on another person to follow you in there because I can’t leave that feeling alone.

I live in a suburb up north now and yesterday I was thinking about dressing as a pirate for Halloween. But then I thought, who wants to eat all that candy? I never feel the need for a costume in a place like that because it’s the one time of the year when you are whatever you say you are and they have to believe you.

Yesterday, I was contemplating my front lawn. I was wondering if I should deal with it now or if I should deal with it ever again. “Embrace the chaos,” I tell my co-workers as the day begins to panic. Sometimes the rainstorms come and I stand in the middle of the street, drenched and climbing atop the wreckage. The hectic assault of ambitious termites building more wreckage for me to climb and call my own. From the peak of this mess I can spot the cool of its service animal.

The enemy is a clang-bang of some sort of manufacturing device within a blue garage across the street. I don’t know what they’re working on in there, but I don’t think that it hates me because it doesn’t keep me up at night.

 

Paul Ferrell is a poet/comic living in Champaign, Illinois. His poems have appeared in Sonic Boom and Jet Fuel Review. He posts garble poem images on Twitter under the name memoryagent.

IMMIGRANT STORIES

BY ROI ANKORI-KARLINSKY

In 2016, an Israeli citizen can’t say anything against military occupation without incurring the wrath of his or her neighbors. This sometimes leads to violence, or in the case of one of my friends – public homophobic shaming. Organizations of former soldiers telling truth are branded as traitors, organizations of diplomacy and reconciliation are banned or defunded, and their members are often threatened with death.

Right now, in 2016, to suggest that a child, born and raised to Palestinian parents, is not inherently bloodthirsty is blasphemous. Right now, suggesting problem-solving could involve tools other than American-sold arms is libel. In 2016 Israel, books about Arab and Israeli lovers are banned from schools. It’s not hard to see where this goes.

Israeli society has always struggled to process complex identities, from discrimination against Sephardic Jews, to the ghettos in which we place Ethiopian Jews, to the East-African refugees we hold in desert prisons. Now this pattern of denial involves any criticism, even one coming from within the hegemonic classes. Difference of opinion is rationalized away by branding people as infiltrators, back-stabbers, foreigners. Our country has turned into a toddler covering her ears screaming over any noise that isn’t shrill.

This isn’t unique to Israel. My adopted country of America, though it is a country founded on common ideals rather than ethnicity, still fails to allow and celebrate the intricate identities that make up its people. Everywhere in the world people scratch their heads trying to place the immigrant or refugee where he or she truly belongs, knowing full-well that every single person on the planet is a product of some diaspora.

As a person straddling two national identities at a time when both of my countries are fighting to erase the idea of multinational or multicultural people, I feel compelled to capture my own experience of that erasure. In my case, being a white Ashkenazi Jew, this is usually subtle and mostly harmless. Sure, it can chip away at my sense of stability, but it isn’t violent, unless I happen to voice an anti-occupation opinion with the wrong crowd. But in the case of some, Eritreans or Mizrahim, Palestinians, it can lead to a lynching. And on the streets of America, this dynamic is drawn in the form of white chalk, outlining the body of Michael brown rotting in the August asphalt.

The points here are personal, not political. I’m trying to use my own experiences to convey the sense of deadlock with which I wake up every day. In the States, this manifests as struggle, as trying to stay true to a sense of self that can’t comfortably exist in any one camp; in the States I live trying be an ally, trying to work on my own misconceptions and racisms. It’s a struggle but it’s manageable.

Back home, this is existential. Again, I’m not making a political point, this is not intended to be a soapbox of some kind. This is selfish. This is a means to preserve the moment when Israel’s long path towards self-destruction began to accelerate. Like I said, we’ve never been good at incorporating people who resist our Ashkenazi European narrative. We’ve been on the path to ethnic cleansing for a long time. This moment of pre-civil-war is nothing new: it’s simply that narrative starting to unravel. And like any unravelling, it involves destruction. I have no hope. I only hope to be alive to tell my grandchildren that I belonged to a state that no longer exists.

* * *

When I was seven Jerusalem exploded. That’s not very surprising. After all, Jerusalem has been burned down, blown up, and handed over from one pillaging army to the next for millennia. You could say it’s a city meant for murder. But still, there are stops and starts to the killings, ebbs and flows. Massacre, like everything else, is seasonal in the Middle East.

So it goes with the Second Intifada. Jerusalem exploded. Buses burned around my neighborhood, rocks and Molotov cocktails shattered flesh and glass. Acquaintances and family friends died. Older kids I looked up to left the city in their IDF greens. After five years, the guns and tanks didn’t work, so we built a big gray wall, burned olive trees, siphoned off water, kidnapped more people, broke up families. That seemed to do the trick, though I don’t think it’s ever quite going to work – demoralizing millions of people.

This is selfish: I’m giving reasons for things that boil down to chance, trying to pick at why I’m here, where I’m going, why go in the first place. Anything goes back to the fact that I’m a man born and mostly raised in Israel, who has lived in the U.S. for a long time now, and I’m always going back and forth. This reality has created an inner rift, a widening cliff between one self and the other, and in the balancing act I’ve become a tightrope walker.

The immigrant and her child are always fighting to find this balance. We all buy into the idea of belonging to some place or another, so we trick ourselves into thinking authenticity is somewhere on that rope, hanging over the internal abyss. I’m far from being unique in any of these symptoms. Yeah, the whole world is a massive web of bodies moving there and back again. Refugees, deserters, and colonizers are the names of the game. Upheaval is a constant, older than my masochistic Jerusalem.

Maybe in my silly attempt to put my experiences to words – and squeeze some sense out of them in the process – I’ll be sharing something other fractured people can recognize and use. Probably not. In any case, that’s not my intent, just a side dish. My main focus is myself. Selfish.

* * *

There was a party a few months ago in Boston. I was there. My friends were there. I was sitting on a red couch with a girl named Molly. She asked me where I’m from. I answered. She straightened up a little and twirled a curl of her brown hair. “How did you end up here?” I told her I flew on an airplane. She giggled. “You know what I mean. What was it like?”

My dad’s best friend died trapped inside a combat plane. My mom’s cousin burned alive in his tank. His last words were yelps and coughs. My uncle shot a thirteen-year-old in Southern Lebanon and my best friend used a girl as a human shield in Gaza.

She looked down and touched my knee with a painted nail. “That’s so interesting.” She said. She smiled. “Amazing.” She said. Then she grew serious the way American girls grow serious to show empathy. “Do you miss it?”

I thought about my friend Omri dismantling bombs outside malls, about my cousin aiming an M-16 at a woman and taking away her husband. I thought about the melted remains of the number 18 bus outside my house, and Monopoly in bomb shelters. Yes, I miss it.

* * *

Jerusalem is damp in the winter. The pink-white stones grow dank and their chiseled protrusions radiate cold from the sidewalks. The bars, hidden in nooks and cobblestoned alleys, cool and cave-like in the summers, turn into true caves in the winter. People sit in circles huddled around electric radiators, hands to the middle wanting a fire. The radiators hum and harmonize with the normal hubbub of the bars, so the places vibrate like an out of tune church organ.

Some bar names are straightforward, “The Barrel” or “The Soup.” Others cater to the self-proclaimed artists of the city, “The Record” and “The Video.” Some are punny, like “The Slow Moishe,” and others are named after their mobster-like owners. Point is, you know what you’re getting into.

Michal, Maya, Asif and I sat at a bar. Asif had recently gotten a discharge for medical problems. Maya and Michal were still in their greens. I had a beer.

Asif flicked the table. “So, asshole, you gonna stay or ditch?”

I shrugged.

“You just gotta decide what you are.” Maya said. “You do the Army or you betray, simple as that.”

“Is it?”

Michal flipped her black hair out of her brown eyes. “I don’t think so, Maya. Nothing is simple with this guy.” She meant me. “He’s stuck in a cycle of self-pity and indecision.”

I smiled and blew her a kiss. Michal is my best friend.

“Look, man.” Asif said, all nasal dismissal. “We all put some fluids into being here, you can’t just hop in and out like the American you are. Make a decision.”

“That’s what my grandma said, word for word.”

“She’s right then.” Maya said. “But I don’t think it’s so hard, Roiki. You’re not a real Israeli anyway. You don’t know anything about this place and you’re too much of a woman to change that. Go back to your bleached-asshole American friends.”

I felt like disagreeing but I finished my beer instead. Michal blew me a kiss. We leaned forward, putting our hands to the radiator.

* * *

I used to play bar shows in Jerusalem with a violinist. It lasted a few months. We never got money for it but the drinks were free. The violinist was named Moon and she was a tightrope walker who bookmarked her Bible with tabs of acid. She was beautiful. I never grew the nerves to tell her that, so we played bar shows in Jerusalem. She didn’t do the Army. She worked with Holocaust survivors, helping them put on theatre productions. She wrote poetry with them and talked to them when nobody else would. My other friends called her a deserter.

Her parents spoke English at home so her Hebrew was dotted with words like “dude” and “for fuck’s sake.” She could weave between the two languages, selves, whatever, with more ease than most people feel around their families. She laughed when she farted and talked about both Bialik and the Velvet Underground when she smoked. She was a textbook Hippie but she believed in the Scriptures and could play a fiddle like an Irish festival performer. Being with her was like reading a good book: I was breathless and absorbed, and when she left I had to blink myself back into the world, unsure of where I had just been and where I was now.

We lost touch. I’m not sure how, but at some point, after a few more years of my back and forth, her number got lost and we never met up again. I think she was in India recently, I remember somebody said. I’m not sure. With her it felt easy. Nothing feels easy but with her it was. I guess it makes sense. She was a professional tightrope walker.

* * *

Last summer, three Jews were killed in the West Bank. The Israeli government lied and said they were kidnapped. The IDF embarked on a three-week pillage-and-burn campaign in the West Bank, intended to eradicate Hamas operatives in the Bank. The operation was called, “Brothers, Return.”

Hamas sent rockets into Israel. They careened into cities and open fields, mostly missing their marks but still maiming and killing those who couldn’t make it to shelters. Israelis were glued to TV screens, muttering “dirty Arabs” under their breath, frustrated that CNN wasn’t wholly on their side.

The IDF blew up Gaza. Two thousand gone. Children buried under rubble, torn to bits by shell fragments. People felt bad, but the rockets kept coming, what else could we do? Most people praised Bibi for his restraint and “proportional response.” Some called for less restraint, some wanted to “flatten Gaza.” Some voices on the Left said retaliation wasn’t necessary. Those voices were bloodied on the streets of Tel-Aviv.

I was in Vermont. The people around me were Americans and Europeans. White. They didn’t care. When they did they sounded like Molly. My dad Skyped with stories of a third Intifada in Jerusalem. My uncle never left the shelter. My friend Tamir was sleeping in the mud on the border. My friend Baha’s family was burning in Gaza, his friends were kidnapped in Nablus. I was in Vermont.

Like other Israelis, I was glued to a screen. I didn’t eat. I didn’t sleep. I remembered being seven. I wondered if I should buy a plane ticket back. Leave school, leave the U.S. Finally grow those balls Maya and others said I lacked. Conversations around me were about courses and kisses. My friends gurgled in their throats trying to pronounce “hummus.” They laughed. They got high. I smiled but thought of the bodies.

* * *

Sometimes I think about what I hear from people back home (“let’s carpet bomb Gaza”, “a good Arab is a dead Arab”) and it reminds me of Donald Trump and the swaths of angry white people at his coattails. To hear the Trump crowd talk, you’d think the Second Coming was a coming, it was right around the bend, we only have to be willing to bleed for it. Those evangelists sound like the settlers back home: if enough olive trees are painted with guts we’ll finally reach salvation. The humanist friends with whom I tend to surround myself are always pretentiously amused with this rhetoric: Jesus was a pacifist, how can those rabid, vile people use his name like this?

Jesus said, “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” In one sense, he was just repeating what others have said since people could speak and attempt to resolve cave-fights. In a stronger sense, he was being a Jew: “This is the meaning of the Law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets.”

Jesus was a Jewish Messiah. The title means blood. His sayings, his actions, his Judaism, all led to a revolt he planned against the Temple elite and the Roman rule of Palestine. He wanted a return to certain aspects of Judaism, a return to a “purer” Judaism. He called for upheaval. Jerusalem draws those upheaval types to her like flies to syrup, like racists to Trump. So, of course, Jesus went to Jerusalem. He went to Jerusalem – like so many others before and since – armed with swords and a following of fanatics at his robe-tail.

Soon after his death other Jewish Messiahs came to Jerusalem. Thirty years later the pressure cooker popped the pot and the revolution finally came. But Palestina has always been a blip on the map, always at the mercy of the bigger, stronger neighbors to the East and West. We like to pretend otherwise, that this is a fight between Palestinians and Israelis, a family feud. We ignore the fact that America funds both sides, that Iran and Russia and the EU are involved, that this world can no longer contain the simple loyalties we wish it did. Anyway, the Romans retaliated, razing the country down to its pink-stone foundations. People were flayed, crucified, and beheaded in the streets; Jerusalem drank blood and grinned as babies burned to char. History shrugs at shit like that.

Seventy years later, the Jews did it again. Another Jewish Messiah by the name of Bar Kochva led another doomed revolt. Pregnant women were raped and drowned. The hills of Judea were crowned with the crucified. Flies got fat off the stuff.

Rabbi Akiva, the other famous Jew credited with formulating the Golden Rule, was flayed to the flesh by the Romans. He too was a soldier in Bar Kochva’s army. You could say he was the military’s chief rabbi.

People in Jerusalem are upset when I get like this. Fatalistic, nihilistic, they say. A bummer. Their stories of Scripture gloss over the gore and focus on the hope. Hope for what, I always wonder. Bar Kochva is a hero-figure in Israel. You’re a bummer, they repeat.

I get a kick out of seeing the repetitions in history. Every piece of music needs a good refrain, so why not the past? After all, we love that shit, need to know what to hum when we walk home. It just so happens that Jerusalem’s refrain is slaughter.

People in America are upset for other reasons. The Golden Rule is about love and fellowship, they say. How could Jews and Arabs break it, dismiss their own faiths, so easily? Their noses reach high enough that I see their snot-laden nostril hairs. Judging by their tone, you’d think Americans mistake foreigners for toddlers.

At this point I could remind them that the Golden Rule was never meant for gentiles, or that the people spouting it were religious fanatics that would make ISIS look like a hodgepodge of college student activists.

Instead I smile. The Golden Rule lacks a basic understanding of human beings. “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” That is all nice and rainbows if everybody wants the same thing. It just so happens that we live in a world of S&M, a world where what some people want done unto them makes others gag, a world where some people get off on gagging. A world where Jerusalem is one of the hottest dungeons around.

* * *

A few weeks ago the IDF’s chief rabbi married my cousin in front of a cave in the Judea Mountains. Before the glass was broken and the kiss was kissed, the rabbi prayed for the building of the Third Temple and the salvation of the Jewish Nation. I thought of Akiva and the flies growing fat in Bab-el-Wad.

The week before the wedding Jewish fanatics burned a baby alive in Nablus. The week before they burned the Church of Fish and Loaves on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. For years they had been practicing on mosques and Palestinian olive groves. This year they reached the big leagues, human flesh. Their goal is simple: restore the Third Temple; eradicate the impurities in the land; bring back the Messiah. It’s a familiar tune.

The politicians condemned their acts, promised justice. The next day millions of shekels flowed to the settlements and the IDF shot down three Palestinian teenagers. The next day Bibi got on the podium to oppose international diplomacy. He said the Jewish Nation was finally home and our sovereignty could not be questioned. It’s a familiar tune.

When people evoke the Golden Rule, let them remember we live in a land where soldiers are memorialized for a suicide known as self-sacrifice. A land where shaheedim are celebrated for their strap-on bombs. A land where every street corner is corner-stoned with plaques of martyrdom and murder. This isn’t a breaking of faith, it’s fulfillment. This isn’t terror, it’s sexual slaughter. S&M. It’s what we hum when we walk home.

 

Roi Ankori-Karlinsky is an Israeli-American straddling two national identities with limited success. He studies and plays music, and is also working towards a degree in evolutionary biology at Bennington College. Like a lot of people, books and stories have always been there for him, which is why he tries to huff as many as he can. He loves avocados and is a hopeful pessimist.

 

THE LIMITS OF EMPATHY

BY JONATHAN MARCANTONI

Anonymous Crime Scene Photo

The body lies on its back, covered in a white sheet turned cream by the street lamp, which we do not see. The sheet covers the body in such a way as to appear, at a distance, like a rolling hill, stretching across the trash-strewn sidewalk before collapsing, in narrow valleys and sharp inclines, upon the cement. The illuminated corpse is not attended to by medics, or shocked crowds. There is no weeping mother. More noticeably, there is no face. The sheathed corpse could be in black and white were it not for the graffiti, a massive S swallowing a P, both in blood red that in the dim afterglow of the streetlight appears maroon, and the fact that these are clearly Latin letters indicates we must be in Europe or the Americas. The buildings themselves are made of brick and stone and from what we can see are in good condition, the graffiti covering only the metallic doors that shop owners use overnight, and so we must be in a business district.

How the mind wanders, trying to pinpoint the exact location of this event? Paris? Brussels? Berlin? Rome? New York City? And why is this body left alone by authorities and ignored by the public? Could there be greater carnage we are not privileged to see? Was this a terrorist attack? And if it is a terrorist attack, and in a white city no doubt, of a white country run by white people, there is no question that the media is eating this up. How many other victims are there? Ten, twenty? In Nigeria there were a multitude; nobody cared. Many more in Pakistan, Thailand, Indonesia; nobody cared, and they cared even less when worse happened on the streets of Raqqa and Baghdad.

How this body, alone on a street, lacks just enough details, just enough concrete emotions, to allow you, the viewer, to fill in whatever blanks reside in our soul.

Is our soul made of the enraged screams for justice that permeate the void of social media? Is our soul one that feeds on shaming strangers on the other side of the world, across oceans reaching back to our native shores, crossing our state’s lines and inhabiting our very neighborhood? Could we tell these people to their faces how much we despise them for caring about this body and not one that looks different than they do? That speaks another language? Follows a different religion? What makes this body so special, anyway?

There will be a wave of text filling our screens, disparate voices speaking the same words, words like euro-centric white supremacist misogynistic privilege; that is what this body so artfully represents. The absence of mourning does not make it an object of pity but of superiority, for it is the body of all bodies, singular and dominant, oppressive in how it mocks the millions of others who die with faces naked in the sun.

This body divides us into the tribes of yesterday, tribes of color and class, along lines the enlightened masses of Internet cowardice would like to believe we have transcended as a species so we can enter an age of harmony.

But is harmony human nature? Or nature at all? Sharks do not cry for a safe zone when another shark steals their food, and when a lion loses a fight it does not seek out a therapist. Nature is cold, ordered, so ordered that when the order is disrupted nature lashes out to reclaim the stability it was always meant to harbor. Nature is, above all, encompassing, unquestionable, uncomfortable.

Mankind is not prepared to face the futility of the reality that this body, and all dead bodies, have no ethnicity and no labels, they are merely flesh and bone destined to rot, be ravaged, swallowed up, forgotten.

This body, which we claim to care so much about, was in fact a human being unrelated to us, with a life, a job, a family, and a name, which this body will never speak again. This body, which demands silence, which demands the dignity of the rest of unconsciousness, receives only the noise of all the agendas on our screens, blinding us all to our inevitable fate; this world wide culture that values shame and judgment over empathy and understanding, the silence that necessitates both.

Jonathan Marcantoni is a Puerto Rican educator and author based in Colorado. He is co-founder of the YouNiversity Project which mentors aspiring authors. His love of surrealism and experimentation led to his portrait style, pictured here, and used in his forthcoming novel Tristiana (Floricanto Press, 2016). You can follow him on Twitter @Marcantoni1984 or visit his website jonathanmarcantoni.com.