Notes on Lyric Solarity

‘Notes on Lyric Solarity’ at Summer in the Way, Birkbeck University of London, 9th July 2022.

Video of a creative-critical paper delivered over the weekend at Birkbeck, as part of an ongoing collaboration between the87press and the Contemporary Poetics Research Centre. Below is an extract from the first half of the paper. A lot of this thinking is developed more fully in a forthcoming academic article.

As flowers turn toward the sun, by dint of a secret heliotropism the past strives to turn toward that sun which is rising in the sky of history. 
– Walter Benjamin, Illuminations

Today, I’m going to move fluidly between poetry and essay to present some nascent thoughts on lyric solarity. I want to suggest lyric solarity is a poetics in which solar imaginaries are linguistically mediated and refracted through the close rhythms, affects, sensoria and arts of noticing associated with the focalised energies of lyric poetry. Lyric solarity enacts an embodied poetics of dissolve, exposure, surplus, saturation and excess/residue: it offers a way of turning towards the sun, while helping us make, in the words of Imre Szeman, ‘commitments to reshaping’ the ‘existing infrastructures’ which underpin access to and distribution of energy. While the anthropocene, a contested epoch defined by humankind’s ascendance as geological agent, is often understood as an issue of scale, attending to the solar helps us think about planetary crisis in terms of distribution and density of harm, resources and changes to climate or energy. I take energy to mean both the power derived from physical or chemical resources, the property of matter and radiation manifest as a capacity to perform work, but also in the sense of an organism’s energy – their metabolism, vitality, ongoingness within the world, and its working demands or desires. What follows is less of an argument than a set of propositions and possibilities, a selection of field notes in search of lyric solarity.

  1. Sans Soleil

In Chris Marker’s film Sans Soleil, often translated into English as sunless, we begin with a quote from T. S. Eliot’s ‘Ash-Wednesday’: ‘Because I know that time is always time / And place is always and only place’. It begins again with an image of three children in Iceland, ‘an image of happiness’ accompanied by black film leader. The voiceover suggests that if viewers can’t find happiness in the image of the children ‘at least they’ll see the black’. The film is itself a kind of lyric documentary on human memory, how memory is fragile and so our recall of personal and political histories – especially on a global or even planetary scale – is inflected or reworked in the present. In the spring of 2020, I approached the film as a kind of memory place. I had never seen such spring sun in Glasgow, but due to Covid I was locked down inside my own sunless temple, or tenement. What follows violates, perhaps, Eliot’s insistence on the essential containment of space and time. Eliot, I guess, never used the internet. 

I was messaging the poet fred spoliar, and suddenly it was the solstice and we wanted to mark it. We began this remote collaboration, not in response to Marker’s film so much as through it, or some residue within it, a blemish or shine. A bright spot, a blind spot, a kind of fleck on its vision. We wrote remotely, wrote ‘live’ and in those hours of shared writing, we existed in a solar time: where solarity was a quality of memory, its absence our absence, and yet also speculation towards something better – waiting for rays of arrival. In that sense, the poem is about the uses and abuses of pastoral; about an ‘elsewhere’ to be written around, glimpsed, squinted at, but never quite accessed. It’s also about the temporal alignment of two people writing together. Lyric as a thought device for telecommunicating something of a paraworld hidden in language. I’d fall asleep with our phrases like film credits flashing behind my eyes. We wrote between the summer and winter solstices of 2020, we split lines with sun-cloud emoji. Here’s some of the opening sequence of the poem:  

Ultraviolet rose us

spilled into formless

unration of atoms

and we spend ourselves back, the day

extends pause,

folding up

in luxe ellipsis 

hills and hills 

of recessional cloud, cast debt 

between us, rolling one-sided 

to release it, all of I’m rain 

cast thru fierce aureate

disquietude, to not say 

hope this finds you, or 

nearest the soft motif of yr hair 

bright spots around the antisolar point

balayage of except champagne 

never sets. In a forest image / I cannot touch you 

or notify through light that drowsy reminder 

we are many. Something 

decorative / in the cold soak of sylvanshine 

gives up its entrance, the long day 

composed of such stills is lying 

back from its voyage. To say 

all of the land escapes / an exorbitant teardrop 

a teardrop. I have these ambient hands. 

I wring the leaves…

2. Solar Apocalypse

In Etel Adnan’s poetry sequence, The Arab Apocalypse (1989), the sun is variously a shapeshifting trickster, a totalising energy, an authority, a marker of time, a blinding force, a monster, a pool of blood. Here are some of Adnan’s lines taken from across the book: 

I took the sun by the tail and threw it in the river. Explosion. BOOM…

the sun is contaminated by the city

the sun has eaten its children

a sun rotten and eaten by worms floats over Beirut       silence is sold by the pound

eat and vomit the sun eat and vomit the war hear an angel explode

The brain is a sun STOP the sun is an eye

the sun’s atoms are incarnating in my flesh     STOP          STOP

The sun is a kind of virus, pulsing and multiplying, changing form and colour, nourishing and deadly, making things grow or die; a kind of white noise in the context of war, a vulnerable body, a weapon, a machine of surveillance, a carnal threat. In the American Book Review, Barbara Harlow says of Adnan’s poem that it ‘invokes a mythic past […] to presage a present that resists narration’. To presage is to be a warning sign, a prediction, typically of something unpleasant; in archaic meaning, presage is an omen, a feeling of foreboding. In The Arab Apocalypse, Adnan writes back and forward to historical crises: as Aditi Machado points out in an essay for Jacket2, the poem was begun in January 1975 in Beirut, two months before the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War. But there is also a generalised economy of violence, exposure and replenishment which speaks to the twentieth century at large and indeed to the explosions, contaminations and environmental atrophying of the twenty-first century. As Harlow identifies, the simultaneous, coagulating, geopolitical crises of the times, what we might call the ~Anthropocene, are often resistant to narrative. The recurrent, modulating figure of the sun has more of a lyric quality, beaming and seeping, punctuated by telegraphic lines and signals of stop, break, transition. Language garners a lyric intensity which is elemental, saturating, overspilling the traditional bounds of a human ‘I’. Impressive and god-sized dramas of the stars and planets play out in a mythopoetics of Beirut, of Gilgamesh, of ‘grass snakes hiding in the texture of TIME’ (Adnan, The Arab Apocalypse).

3. More sun to consider in lyric

Julia Kristeva’s Black Sun

The music of Sun Ra

Sean Bonney’s ‘solar cop’

The shine sprites in the video game, Super Mario Sunshine

Georges Bataille’s ‘solar love’

David Schwartzmann’s ‘solar communism’

Alli Warren’s Sun Dial

The photographic process of the ‘anthotype’

Björk’s song ‘Sun in My Mouth’

Catherine Wagner’s line ‘If everything is from the Sun why praise it’

Paul Klee, Castle and Sun (1929)
Etel Adnan, Untitled (2016) Source: White Cube.

4. Shimmer 

In Paul Klee’s painting, Castle and Sun (1929) the castle is line-drawn in myriad geometry: its surface is of different coloured shapes, set underneath a bright orange sun. In proximity, the colours shimmer and vibrate. If there was a patchwork made of Adnan’s poem, it might be this; or indeed one of Adnan’s own geometric, brightly-coloured abstractions. Shimmer is to shine with a soft, wavering light. It offers a coming-to-knowledge distinct from the Enlightenment regime of ‘shining a light’ on your subject; it is a way of making contact, of existing in non-linear, non-narrative – that is to say, lyric – timespace. In her 2018 book Surge, Adnan writes ‘We came to transmit the shimmering / from which we came’. In this shimmering tautology we yet cross a line, continue transmission. Shimmer is instrumental in what I call ‘hypercritique’: a poethical form of writing which orients not to the capture of time, meaning or ecological reality, but to a beyond

Glitching the Poem: A workshop with SPAM Press

This event is part of the Glasgow Zine Fest 2022 Programme

Location: CCA Glasgow, 350 Sauchiehall St, Glasgow G2 3JD

Room: Creative Lab

Who: Maria Sledmere & Kirsty Dunlop from SPAM Press

Tickets: Pay-What-You-Can (find out more here!)


In Glitch Feminism (2020), Legacy Russell hones in on the sudden error of the glitch as ‘a form of refusal’. As our social, intimate and professional lives become increasingly directed by the commercial algorithms of everyday media platforms, how can poetry intervene in the cognitive minefield of Web 2.0? Playing with text-mixing, collage and procedural forms, we’ll consider ways of glitching between interfaces of browsing/writing in virtual space and print, with time for questions and discussion.

Through cookies, advertisements and terms and conditions, digital capitalism constantly demands that we affirm the ‘yes’ of its systems. In this workshop, poetry will offer something alternative. We’ll break through the junk space of virtual realms and create innovative works within and beyond them, while exploring the world of SPAM Press. Asking what it means to be post-internet, to write from error, to envision the poem as an interactive environment. Let’s glitch!

This event will include: group discussions, reading out loud, reading alone, writing, sharing work that has been created in the workshop.

LINK FOR TICKETS.

Frightened Rabbit Anthology

Pleased to announce I’ll be working with Aaron Kent in editing an anthology of poetry and prose in response to Frightened Rabbit. I’m anticipating this as a really special project, and a chance to make something collaborative in celebration of the work of a band that touched the lives of so many. I love music! The pandemic knocked some of that out of me for a while, but it sounds good again. Music! I want to write about it all the time. Send us your best odes, ekphrasis, reflections, fiction, mini essays, lyrics etc.

~

I went looking for a song for you
— Frightened Rabbit, ‘The Oil Slick’

Edited by Maria Sledmere & Aaron Kent

From the release of their debut album, Sing the Greys (2006), Frightened Rabbit were a phenomenal presence in the lives of many. To be at a Frabbit show, to read the liner notes, to belt the words back at your friends was to feel if not release then solidarity in suffering. To catch love from the greys and live in colour. The band’s inimitable singer Scott Hutchison (also a talented illustrator) penned lyrics that captured the weight and heat of adolescence and its wreck, of joyous chaos and loneliness, of growing into a person, falling in and out of love. Frabbit helped many of us nurture a voice in the woodpile of the dark, and to embrace what happens when it sparks. 

This anthology is a celebration of Frightened Rabbit’s work in both music and community. Their songs inspired many of us to pick up a pen and write, or share our stories and inner lives with others. We are looking for work that engages with the themes of the Frabbit discography: work that takes its cue from a quoted line, a song, a title, a particular performance. Work that processes the memories filtered through music, that delves into the landscapes, emotional topographies and rich imaginaries of the Frabbit world. Work that shows us how the band’s immense legacy continues through our words, and makes tiny changes.

As Tom Johnson, founder of the magazine GoldFlakePaint writes in a heartfelt tribute to Scott, not long after his passing: ‘The songs are right there anyway; they will always be there’. This is an invitation to carry on the songs. Send us your poems, send us your words.

submissions@brokensleepbooks.com 

Please send:

  • Up to 3 A4 pages of writing.
  • All submissions considered, regardless of location. 
  • Simultaneous submissions ok – but please indicate if this is the case in your email.
  • Collaborative submissions are considered. 

Email:

  • Include a short biography and cover letter in the body of an email.
  • Subject: [Frightened Rabbit Anthology] Submission – [Name], [Title]


Deadline is 31st May 2022.

Blue Mould, Birds, A Deer, A Door

Walking to the supermarket today cost wild amounts of strength and energy, for which I am grateful to have spent now that I can eat nauseating Roquefort cheese in the hope of coaxing my numbed-out tastebuds to attention (so far semi-successful) with lathering of French mustard on wholewheat bagel. Semi permasick seemingly from something in the walls in me. MOULD. Watching the Easterheads peruse giant boxes with undersized, foil-wrapped eggs inside reminds me of a lecturer I had many years ago whose primary exam advice was to study always with such an egg by your side, because curved chocolate is ‘superior’. Trying to summon childhood memories of Easter and all I get is something hardboiled and glum, rainbow-painted free-rangers being rolled down the smashed-up concrete of Minnoch Crescent estate. What were you supposed to do next? Retrieve the egg. I forget. I roll over. I have to sleep on my side or something in my organs hurts; but I believe cats have healing powers and if a cat wants to sleep right on my chest, sure, I’ll sleep on my back and wake up better.

So I’ve been enjoying The Blindboy Podcast and recently the episode where he talks about the internet before it became, well, everything. The total bombardment. Blindboy has charming tales of what cultural scarcity was like before you could just shazam the shit out of any sonic phenomenon, google every micro-thought that comes into your head or find your brain rewired around the big-ass anxiety MMORPG that is Twitter. I’m geriatric millennial enough to remember this and especially tapes. I had a thing about tapes. I wrote about this already, way back in 2014, my thing for tapes. That was kind of before the indie tape revival (is it still going on?). Seriality in writing is irresistible to me. The backwards and forwardsness of it. Krapp’s spoolish jouissance. Bernadette Mayer’s tape recordings in Piece of Cake, Memory and Midwinter Day. The glossolalic Mr Tuttle in Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist.

Recently, editor, writer and absolute king [<3] in the poetry community, Aaron Kent, published a pocket-sized pamphlet called The Rise Of… (Broken Sleep Books, 2022). The back page features the familiar anatomy of tape reels encased in clear plastic. There’s a kind of Side One/Side Two vibe: a long essay-poem, ‘The Rise Of…’, which documents the process of coming to know what happened in the wake of a sexual assault; and a poem ‘Inkmist’ dedicated to ‘CRASAC group therapy; for saving me‘. This is a breathtaking work that doesn’t so much ‘confront’ its difficult subject as enter into a kind of ‘momentum’ capable of thawing the petrification of trauma. Of central concern to the speaker is the notion of hallucination, of letter-writing, of ‘difficulty’ itself. I opened it gently from the envelope as I once would a cassette from its casing, read the whole thing in one go and found myself at this point upside down on the sofa, blood rushed to my head, kind of too stunned to even cry. The fluidity and force of Kent’s words are such that all kinds of dormant synapses in my own brain began to take flight again. This is poetry which dials up exposure not exactly to ‘tell a story’ but to disclose the whole affect-storm of a writing that could approximate a traumatised consciousness — one that is at once deeply singular, embodied but also permeable within language itself. A writing that soaks up the residues of thinking’s trillions. It’s hypnagogic, syncopated, a rush; full of swerves, stops, broken clauses, syntactic mania. Forget punctuation. This is a book about the secret. About a wild undersong of constant, yet fluctuating pain. ‘I’m like a sponge i’m always shedding and if i don’t deal with it the pain won’t go away’. Anhedonia, itching, ‘something so simple and powerful’ about a scream. ‘There must be a word for losing melody’. In a blurb for the book, Day Mattar describes this not so much as ‘a stream of consciousness’ but ‘a flood’. There’s something mesmerising and unstoppable here. ‘I am the rapture!’ Buy this book.

When I was in London I also picked up Emily Berry’s new collection, Unexhausted Time (Faber, 2022), a book I’d hotly anticipated owing to Berry’s excellent previous titles Dear Boy (2013) and Stranger, Baby (2017) but also because the book cover perfectly matched the magenta of fred’s new iets frans tracksuit. I read this last weekend in a few turbulent, food coma type nights, marvelling at how my brain could just pick up a special Berry ellipsis, steal it for a dream and then awake to another suspension in the poem. This is a book full of ghosts and twisted souls, a kind of carefulness around utterance itself; spellbinding in the sense of a spine for holding together our weathering lives. A book bound by some kind of spell. You have the sense of a secret, and a holding back:

All statements purporting to be act
are true. Nothing goes away…
You carry it with you,
if not on your back, or in your arms,
then somewhere behind your eye…
So be careful…
See the ghost scratching at the door frame
for the note that will free her.
The past is parked next to me like a dirty van
with messages fingered in the grime…

(Emily Berry, Unexhausted Time)

These lines summon us but also disintegrate on the page as dust. I imagine the automatic typing of a super-intelligence gleaned from our messages. It feels intimate, uncanny. Where is this person speaking from? I want to take their advice seriously. There’s a lowkey lockdown hauntology, the house turned inside out by a kind of social toxicity. Anything natural is also sort of monstrous: ‘It always seemed to me a kind of madness, / the gardens all in flower year after year’. It’s sort of obscene to me that the blossoms are all out and I feel about as disconnected from them as if they existed purely as pixels. Is this disintegration of the senses a prefiguration to ageing? How do you stay involved with the big delicious ‘madness’ of the sensory world? The hyper-pitch of birdsong made audible by the lockdown of spring 2020 was lush, but also spooky. As if to be always in the dawn song of 5am, alone with the birdly chimeras — too piercing to surely be real? I miss it. The feeling of being wholly alive in waves. Write something to the ghost?

It always comes back.
And there are new messages…

(Berry)

The digital eeriness of felt presence. New messages. Poems in their seasonal palimpsests. I want that unexhausted time, a time we haven’t yet strung out, a time to be rechilded. A time for birds.

Dearest,
Happy pink moon!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Lastly, the new Ludd Gang arrived. Mark Francis Johnson:

Those birds of passage
present as fists.

I think we fauns may learn
more from those birds than

half-hours by the sea
teach us.

In the summer the woodcutter
wanted to fell my home

and I let him.

(from The Faun Book)

You go stumbling, burned your pineal gland, phone mum. I keep the doors open in my dreams in case a deer walks in. ‘With my eye’, says Jesse Darling in the same issue, ‘I wanted to go / there, to the end of that road. With my whole body I wanted to go / there’.

Let the cold, curved chocolate fit the lip of my tongue, from the fridge.

Want also to melt.

Earlier I wrote something of our weathering lives. It’s the most beautiful and encompassing thing you can say to someone, becoming the spooky sweet hail in flux with sunbursts and mugs full of snow, a rainbow.

Something like an offering, snowballs of silver foil. Blossoms and more blossoms.

Again, from Ludd Gang (the last poem), Gloria Dawson writing for Callie Gardner:

hey, you were my weather
sometimes arriving at my door

<333

Cowboy Gardening

It was supposed to snow in the night and the not snowing was sore as a missed period. I awoke with two crescent-shaped moons in the palm of my hand and thought of a sacrifice unwittingly given in dreamland. Said Jesus. Peridot phlegm and the scratchy sensation, knowing that speech too could be cool, historical, safe. Could not see beyond pellucid rivulets, Omicron my windows, my streaming January. January 

streams from every well-known orifice of the world. Its colour is shamelessly stone. I seem to be allergic to inexplicable moments and so keep to the edge of the polyphony of yellow. I am cared for. The Great Barrier Reef dissolves in my dreams the substrate of yellow. It goes far. Pieces of the GBR are washed ashore in Ayr, Singapore, Los Angeles, Greenland. I go to these places by holding a polished boiled candy in my mouth, like the women in Céline and Julie Go Boating. My ankles licked by truest shores / but January didn’t fucking happen. 

Put together the orange-purple rose, your possible outcomes are red or gold (if you are lucky). Two reds together, with the golden watering can, could result in the rare blue rose. A novel rose. Black velvet roses grow in the old woman’s garden because she has infinite time to tend them. I’m not saying she’s immortal, like the Turritopsis dohrnii jellyfish; only that she doesn’t exist in our time. It’s rude to assume so. I’m not saying the lines of her face are asemic writing — nobody did that to her, or scarred her. She’s not scared. She just lives and dies all the time. She waters the roses.

Sometimes I imagine her in fisherman’s clothes, in meshy nightclub outfits of neon flavours, in extravagant ballgowns, blue boilersuits. Sometimes I’ve seen her before. The only way I can see her is to climb a few steps on the ladder by the village store, its red paint flaking, and I hang my body upside down the other side, risking exposure. I never eat before doing this. She doesn’t see me; she doesn’t see her roses either, not the blooms. In the village, people walk around with handfuls of rose seeds sometimes strung in little hemp bags. These are the currency of care. I have tended the young with haircuts and watched the flourishing of teenage roses. They say I am an old lady in the garb or garbage of former actresses. I hear them sing to me their stories. “Remember 
she shot the guy who brought the astrograss”.
What they don’t remember, whippersnappers, is the incorrigible realism of that turf. Fuck it, 
I have done nothing wrong. I perform for them my cowboy gardening. Broadcast the surplus value of our mutual twilight. Halloween roses for everyone. Every night I wake up from someone else’s childbirth and the world is so sore, the wound in the sky the snow wants to fall through. They bandaged it with realism. I need to go far. Do you remember the last time you awoke and felt like a person?

The roses grow up in the gaps of the cattlegrid, knowing they will be trodden on. Again and again. We can’t stop them from doing this and they do it so often we have to account for a portion of Waste. Kissing you is itself a trellis. But we are propped and grown sideways with the vines strung betwixt our ribs. We are babies.

I like the tired way the roses intonate colour. The economics of the roses. Their euphemistic fetish. I tried to avow my commitment to rosehood the day I saw your calves all torn, and saw about women getting their labias reduced, and the red, blood roses sold on the internet, and rest. I lay this on your grave, the world.

My love, as a redness in our rosette
That’s newly worn in June
O my love, like the melt 
That’s sweetly played in turbines 

So fairway artery thou, my bonnie lasso
Defiled in love as I 
Will love thee still, my decade
Tinged as the seas are garlanded dry 

Tinged all the seas as thee, my decanter
At the romantic menagerie of sunset
I will luminary still, a debutante
Of the lighthouse sarcophagi 

And plough thee well, my only lathe!
And plough thee well, awhile!
And I will come again, my love
Though it were ten thousand millennium.

My love’s rose-coloured highlighter really hurt the extra-textual, and thus booked trains to bed. I had an identity. I knew what you had done to the text. Austerity of the meadow to blame for ongoing culling of kin. You are abandonable as you have always been. Saplings for pronouns.

I feel wild and sad. 

I feel pieces together stirring inside the world. Little bits of coral awake in
my throat, the shape of eight billion sun-spike proteins I was dumb
enough to swallow. It is not my fault but in my dreams 
I get product emails like, Forget-me-not
a pair of jeans, high-waisted Levi’s 
as if to wear at the end of the month 
we keep saying sorry for delay, embroidered 
our thighs with spiders
excuses to use lighters
without smoking
does it make us vectors
the warning of snow and ice still issued
from inside the snow globe of the rosehip 
changes as it withers, glass shards
pissed from acid clouds in all colours:
black, blue, burgundy, cherry brandy, coral
cream, dark pink, green, lavender, light pink,
lilac, orange, peach, purple’s timeless red,
salmon, Hollywood white & yellow, rainbow
chosen for the significant other, a masculine flower
dipped in fortified light, I’m thankful
I look good lying down, the long unconditional stem 
aka Lemonade, l-l-l-lemonade, l-l-l-lemonade…….

Leave Bambi Alone

Over xmas & boxing day I kept a small notebook and wrote a meandering poem because I couldn’t get the phrase LEAVE BAMBI ALONE out my head. Anyway, it’s one of those ad hoc stream poems of no coherence or consequence. Available now via Lulu & Mermaid Motel. link in bio 🍕🧜‍♀️🏨

Documenting the festive habits of a special cat, the early career of Björk, champagne pageantry and calorie paradise, the wearing of acid berets, childhood whims and ‘the iCloud tabs of our ancestors’, this is a bad poem written in defence of shy animals who love in the livid dream their tiny world.

🦌🎄🦌🎄🦌🎄🦌🎄🦌🎄🍃

ISBN: 9781678194895
87pp.

Buy a copy here.

Particulate Matters

An unmade bed with mint green duvet showing an open notebook,hot water bottle and dressing gown

It was the morning I had decided to stop living as if dust wasn’t the primary community in which I sobbed and thrived, daily, towards dying. I spent Tuesday night in a frenzy trying to discern what particular dust or pollen (animal, vegetable, floral) had triggered my allergies anew, what baseline materiality had exploded in my small room its abysmal density. All recommended air filters had sold out online in the midst of other consumers’ presumably asthmatic dust panics; the highly desirable Vax filter seemed sold out across all channels, and I eyed up the pre-owneds of eBay with lust and suspicion, through a fug of beastly sneezes. A friend recommended the insufflation of water as a temporary remedy: ‘I drop some drops on my chopping board, get a straw and snort it up like a line of Colombian snow’, he texts me. I sneeze at the thought, but have to admit that the promise of clearing one’s nasal cavities with water is somewhat appealing. For isn’t water, like sneezing, a force in itself? Some kinds of sneeze come upon you as full-body seizures of will; so that to sneeze repeatedly you must surrender an hour or so, sometimes a full day, to the laconic state of being constantly taken over by this brute, unattractive rupture. ‘Sneezing’, writes Pascal, ‘takes up all the faculties of the soul’. My soul is in credit to the god dusts, who owe me good air. It’s why I am always writing poems (the word air meaning song/composition). But maybe I need good water, a wave of it. 

In Syncope: The Philosophy of Rapture (1990), the philosopher Catherine Clément characterises sneezing as an instance of ‘syncope’: a kind of ‘“cerebral eclipse,” so similar to death that it is also called “apparent death”; it resembles its model so closely that there is a risk of never recovering from it’. My muscles ache; I eclipse myself with blood, cellular juices and water. What kind of spiritual exhaustion results from being cast into eclipse repeatedly? Quite simply, one becomes ghost: blocked, momentarily or otherwise, from the light of consciousness. One becomes lunar and attached to the dark bright burn, the trembling red of their inflammation. Those who suffer respiratory allergies might better glimpse what Eugene Thacker calls ‘a world-without-us’. I sneeze myself to extinction. It is the hyperbole of a felt oblivion. I do this on random days of the year, at random times; it is beyond my control. But can I derive pleasure from it, as one does the other varieties of syncope (orgasm, swoon or dance)?

From Spirited Away (2001)

Let me admit, I have always had a fetish for those moments on television and film where a character is administered, or self-administers, an intravenous dose of painkill so sweet as to enunciate this ecstasy simply by falling to a sweet slump, their eyes rolled back accordantly. The premise of silencing the body’s arousal so completely to blissful inertia (suspending the currency of insomnia, hyperactivity, anxiety and attention deficit) is delicious. The calmness of snowfall, as if to swallow the durée of its full soft melt. From quarantine, I fantasise about having adequate boiler pressure as to run a bath and practice the khoratic hold of hot water’s suspension. This is not what I text my landlord. 

Recently, my partner spent several hours unpacking boxes from the attic of their parent’s house, in preparation for moving belongings to a new flat. The next day, I found myself suffused in the realm of allergy: unable to think clearly, or articulate more than three words without the domination of a sneeze. On such days, I am held on the tight leash of my own sensitivity: I tremble pathetically, my blood temperature rises; my nose glows reindeer and no amount of fresh air, hydration or sinus clearance will appease it. I am not ‘myself’. The body has enflamed itself upon contact with the ambient and barely visible. I feel an intimate, but non-consensual relation to the ghost trace, the dust trace, of all boxed things — finally been given the attention they so summoned or desired in dormancy. I mourn with objects the passage of time and neglect so betrayed on their surface; I never ask for this, but my body is summoned. Dust presses itself upon you, even as you produce it. I’m scared to touch things because of the dust. What is it but the atmospheric sloughing of something volatile, mortal — the grammatology of our darkest spoiler, telling the story of how bodies are not wholly our own, or forever. 

Sneezing disrupts and spoils nice things; it is an allergic response to both luxury and decay. Cheap glitter, rose spores, Yves Saint Laurent. Sneeze sneeze. ‘When a student comes to class wearing perfume’, admits Dodie Bellamy, ‘my nose runs, my eyes tear, I start sneezing; there’s nowhere to move to and I don’t know what to do. When the sick rule the world perfume will be outlawed’. Often I have this reaction too. It prompts a fury in me: Why can’t I have nice things, as I used to? During my undergraduate finals, I developed phantosmia: a condition in which you smell odours that aren’t actually there (olfactory hallucination). Phantosmia is typically triggered by a head injury or upper respiratory infection, inflamed sinuses, temporal lobe seizures, brain tumours or Parkinson’s disease. Often I have tried to conjure some originary trauma which would explain my condition: did some cupboard door viciously slam my head at work (possibly), did I fall over drunk (hm), was I subject to some terrible chest infection or vehement hayfever (often)? Luckily, my phantosmia was a relatively benign and consistent scent: that of an ersatz, fruity perfume. It recalled the pink-tinted Poundland scents I selected as a twelve-year-old to vanquish the horror of body odour raised by the spectre of Physical Education, before graduating to the exotic spices of Charlie Red. I was visited by this scent during intervals of increasing frequency as I served customers at work, cooked or studied; I trained myself to ignore them by pinging a rubber band on my wrist, or plunging my nose into scented oils I kept on my person. Years later they returned at moments of stressful intensity; the same cryptic, sickly smell. 

More recently, phantosmia, under the umbrella of a general ‘parosmia’ (abnormality in the sense of smell) is associated with Covid-19. Not long ago I realised I hadn’t been smelling properly for months, despite not testing positive until very recently. Had I, like many others, a ghost Covid that went undetected by symptom or test? Drifting around, deprived of olfactory sense, I felt solidarity with the masses of others in this flattened condition. I eat, but when was the last time I truly enjoyed food? My body doesn’t register hunger like other people’s; unless it is a ritualised mealtime summoned in company, I eat when I get a headache. Pacing around the flat, I plunge my nose again into jars of cinnamon, kimchi, mint tea bags, bulbs of garlic. Certain things cut through the fug: coffee, bleach, shit. I remember a friend, who was born without a sense of smell, telling me long ago that the absence of that sense made her a particularly spicy cook. Often she wouldn’t notice the over-firing of a chilli until her nose started running. What does scent protect us from? What does it proffer? Surely it is the unsung, primal gateway to corporeal desire itself: the gross and indescribable comfort of a lover’s sweaty t-shirt, the waft of woodsmoke from a nearby village, the coruscation of caramelised onion to whet your appetite. Scent is preliminary in the channel of want. Without it, I feel cast adrift into anhedonia. I begin chasing scent. Still, I sneeze.

Dust gathers. Is it yours or mine? Can we really, truly, smell our dust? How does dust manifest as material trace or evidence? In Sophie Collins’ poem ‘Bunny’, taken from the collection Who Is Mary Sue? (2018), the speaker interrogates an unknown woman on the subject of dust: 

Where did the dust come from 
and how much of it do you have? 
When and where did you first notice
the dust? Why didn’t you act sooner?
Why don’t you show me a sample.
Why don’t you have a sample?
Why don’t you take some responsibility? 
For yourself, the dust?

It would be perhaps an act of bad naturalisation to read the dust allegorically, or metonymically, as a figure for all kinds of evidence we are expected to produce as survivors of violence and harm. This evidence is to be quantified (‘how much’, ‘a sample’) and accounted for temporally in terms of cause, effect and responsible agency (‘first notice’, ‘act sooner’). The insistent repetition of dust produces a dust cloud: semantic saturation leaves us unable to discern the true ‘meaning’ of the dust. That anaphora of passive aggression, ‘Why don’t you’, coupled with the wherewhen and why of narrative, insists on a logical explanation for the dust that is apparently not possible. For anyone summoned to account for their trauma, the dust might be a sort of materialised psychic supplement: the particulate matters of cause and effect, unequally distributed and called for. It seems as though the speaker’s aggression, by negation wants to produce the dust while ardently disavowing the premise of its existence. The poem asks: is it possible to have authority over one’s experience when others require this authority to take the form of an account, a story, with appropriate physical corroboration?  The more I read the poem, the more ‘dust’ becomes Covid. But it could be many things; dust always is.

‘Bunny’ also reveals the process by which testimony is absorbed into a kind of white noise, a dust storm repugnant to those called upon to listen. As Sara Ahmed puts it in Complaint! (2021), ‘To be heard as complaining is not to be heard. To hear someone as complaining is an effective way of dismissing someone’. Collins’ poem performs the long, grim thread of being told to ‘forget’, bundling us into a claustrophobia whose essence, the speaker implores, is ‘your own / sense of guilt’. Does this not violently imply (from the speaker’s perspective): as producers of dust, we take responsibility, wholly, for what happens to our bodies? I take each question of the poem as a sneeze: it is the only answer I have. I feel compelled to listen.  

As she is asked, ‘Why don’t you take some responsibility? / For yourself, the dust?’, the addressee of the poem becomes conflated with the dust itself. I often think of this quote from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963), where erstwhile sweetheart Buddy Willard announces to budding poet Esther Greenwood, ‘a poem is […] A piece of dust’. Poems can be swept away; they are miniscule in the masculine programme of reality. They are stubborn, perhaps, but easily ignored by the strong and healthyy. In ‘Bunny’, the addressee’s own words are nothing but dust, ‘these words, Bunny’: the name ‘Bunny’ hailing something beyond the colloquial term, dust bunny — a ball of dust, fibre and fluff. The invocation of the name a kind of violent summons: you, the very named essence of you, are nothing but words and dust; there is no proof. The more I say the word ‘bunny’ aloud, the more I become aware of a warm and tender presence; this entity who has lived so long in the house of language — under the stairs, on the mantel’s sentence. Bunny, bunny, bunny. Clots in syntax. Dust can be obliquely revealed to all who notice; it coats the surface of everything. It is in the glow of wor(l)dly arrangement, the iterative and disavowed: a kind of ‘paralanguage’ Collins writes of in her nonfiction book small white monkeys (2017):

similar to ours but that is not ours […] when a writer manages — nearly, briefly — to access this paralanguage, we get a glimpse of what could be expressed if we were able to access this other, more frank (but likely bleak, likely barbaric) reality. 

Running parallel to, or beneath ‘Bunny’, is the addressee’s reply, or lack of: the dust of her permeable silence, or inability to speak. It catches as a dust bunny in the throat. So how do we speak or listen, when faced with the aporetic knots of a hidden, ‘barbaric’ reality that is glimpsed in various forms of testimony and written expression? ‘Citation too can be hearing’, writes Ahmed. The title of Collins’ poem cites implicitly Selima Hill’s collection Bunny (2001), which she writes of extensively in small white monkeys as a book ‘I am in love with’. This citation opens ‘Bunny’ through a portal to the household of trauma that is Bunny: documenting, as Hill’s back cover describes, ‘the haunted house of adolescence’ where ‘Appearances are always deceptive’ and the speaker is harassed by a ‘predatory lodger’. Attention (and reading between texts) offers us openings, exits, corridors of empathy, solidarity and recognition. Its running in the duration of a poem or conversation might very well relate to the ‘paralanguage’ of which Collins speaks, in the oikos of trauma, grief and counsel. If poems are dust, then to know them — to write them, read them aloud and listen — is to disturb the order of things, one secret speck at a time. But the sight of each speck belies the plume of many.

The morning I tested positive for Covid on a lateral flow, having assumed my respiratory problems were accountable to generalised allergies, I decided to blitz my one-bedroom flat of dust. In the hot panic of realising my cells were now fighting a virus, I vacuumed my carpet and brushed orange cloths over bookshelves. I was really getting into it. Then my hoover began making a petulant, rasping noise. I turned off the power and flipped it upside down. To my horror, in the maw of the hoover’s rotating brush, I saw what can only be described as dust anacondas: huge strings of dense grey matter attached to endless, chunky threads of hair. Urgently donning a face mask, I began teasing these nasty snakes out with a pencil, as clumps of dust emitted from the teeth of the hoover and gathered on my carpet, thickly. All this time I was crying hysterically at the fact of my having Covid less than two weeks before my PhD thesis was due, the hot viral feeling in my head, and of having to deal with the dust of my own flesh prison: the embarrassment, shame and fail of it all, presented illustriously before me. 

From My Neighbour Totoro (1988)

If only I could have purified my air! Forced to confront my body’s invasion (this time coronavirus, not just dust), I try to settle into the ‘load’. I make lists of the smells I miss, research perfumes online (aerosols glimpsed from the safe distance of text). I sneeze a lot, cry a lot, wheeze a lot; and then my sinuses go blank. Is this breathing? I imagine the cells of my body glowing new colours from the Omicron beasties. I re-watch one of my favourite Studio Ghibli movies, My Neighbour Totoro (1988), which features anthropomorphic dust bunnies known as susutarawi, or ‘soot sprites’ (which also appear in Spirited Away (2001)). The girls of Totoro, Noriko and Mei, initially encounter these adorable demon haecceities as ‘dust bunnies’, but later they are explained as ‘soot spreaders’ (as per Netflix’s Japanese-to-English translation). When the younger girl, Mei, gingerly prods her finger into a crack in the wall of the old house she has just moved into, a flurry of the creatures releases itself to the air. She catches one in her hands, and presents it proudly to Granny, a kind elderly neighbour who reassures her the soot sprites will leave if they find agreeable the new inhabitants of their house. When she opens her palms, the sprite is gone, leaving just a smudge.

An absent-presence in My Neighbour Totoro is Noriko and Mei’s mother, Yasuko, who is in hospital, recovering from an unexplained ‘illness in the chest’. Mei’s confrontation with the animated dust mites, or soot sprites, acts out the wound of her mother’s absence. With curiosity and panic, she and her sister delight in the particulate matters of the household, of more-than-human hospitality. What is abject about history then, or even the family, its hauntings, is evoked trans-corporeally through the trace materials of a powdery darkness, dark ecology (see Timothy Morton’s 2016 book of this name) that is spooky but sweet. (S)mothering in the multiple. My sense of smell now is consumed entirely by a kind of offbeat metallic ash; I’m nostalgic for cheap perfume. I’m not sure if this essay is a confession or who is speaking; it seems increasingly that I speak from a cloud of unknowing coronaviruses. And so where do I end or begin, hyperbolically, preparing my pen or straw? The ouroboros of my dust anacondas reminding me that I too was only here, alive and in this flat, by tenancy and to return from my current quarantine having prodded the household spirits for company, with nothing for show for it these days, except these, dust, my words.

Dorothy

Dorothy

Dorothy’s Opiates is the name of the real Arcadia 
not to be busted, learning that sleep deprivation is a kind of
spiritual death from a podcast featuring the Nap Ministry
I set off to sleep under three duvets: one is representative 
of snow, the other a sleep mode, the other a body. I write to you
from beneath this slumberous context to wonder why anyone
who ever lived in a single glazed tenement loved the cold.
I can think of reasons: always something to look forward to
such as the crocuses and milder temperatures, the searching of
someone to warm you, wanting to dissolve into their skin
this someone who is never cold like you. I can’t explain this cold
but I can summarise its various sensations, cold as in a kind of disease
that eats your bones from the inside with terrible icicles 
and lives in your back as a demon, cackling from within your kidneys;
a small child dependent on your energy, the cold needs fed.
The cold is in your chest, your throat, your head. 
It throbs in your fingertips until they are red and puffy and burning
like nothing else you have ever felt: imagine every orgasm of your life
summarised and congealed as an opposite evil — pain — and concentrated
in the tips of your fingers, as though a malformed heart had grown 
in each one, beating out of time, each heart individually failing 
at the tips of your fingers until the pain spreads out like a juice
all the way down your fingers, hot, the nerves pulling into your arm
but it is so concentrated at the tips, you can’t really move 
and to hit them against each other is like clanging vegetal matter
against blunt metal, they are thumpy and numb, now the pain 
is melting it becomes a warm sensation of somewhat release
as though only a generalised bruising of the nervous ends 
of all your digits. And by this time I hope I’ll have gotten home
to run them perilously under cold water, bringing them to room temperature
as if they could crack off and crumble into snowflakes of ache
it takes ten minutes or more; after which they will sting 
with the feeling of having been battered. And it will happen again 
the second your blood spikes, you go outside; they may as well 
have been trodden on or run over by a van the way they feel right now.
I ask you sometimes to squeeze my hands so hard it bursts the blue of us.
            Once I knew a worse cold
accordant to body weight this kind of cold is all-consuming for all seasons
of the year, a kind of inverse fire that licks your insides with its ice 
so you feel it as a constant in your sternum, the cold that is eating 
the meat of your ribs so you become a delicate succulent, always with 
sugar on your mind, wanting to be watered. Always watering yourself
fruitlessly
    and feathered of flesh, wilted
as if to float upon a snowdrift and not leave footprints.
                                    Sometimes it is barely to speak 
or, having dry Januaried the masses, some lubricant of society was missing
sorely from our dreams. So we did not dream of touching each other
so much as falling from breezeblocks, frosted, the hard fuck that doesn’t come
bounding down stairwells to greet you at sun-up with cigarettes and coffee,
which you cannot touch, which aggravates your nerves to a passion. 
Nicotine, caffeine, dopamine. The endocrine systems of our dreams 
    are running on empty
and I have fed this day with the manifest boilersuit, as though to fix my own boiler
with mechanical prowess, die in your arms and so on. There are parts of the city
whose arteries confuse to the point of a general surge, desirous of insulation
    and drivers 
arrange the marzipan animals of their dashboard tenderly. 
            Snowfall. The first of the year’s cold drama
gone to pick up a wardrobe through the Narnias of other vinyl records
caught on the loop of the sweltering imaginaries a slice of life, of liquorice.
   Flying by the Vogue Chippy of Cumbernauld Road.
You play loose with it, as if the rain alone would melt 
what meadow remains of the innocence. A summary of the movie
of other Januaries: asking if I am a bad feminist for not liking such-and-such 
a book, the enclave of housing utopias, the sunshine duration of the ad 
for Stella Artois, the scene in All is Forgiven where the drunk kids dance 
to The Raincoats’ version of ‘Lola’. I want to be inebriated 
with chips and cheese on the corner and kissing you darkly
in the overlit takeaway. Anniversary of another fascist coup. 
The cold in blunder, spraying my tongue with Vitamin D, worrying about sleep.
                        ‘Dorothy’ is a song by Kevin Morby
in the video, somebody plays a trumpet underwater. I drape a cardigan
over my daughterhood, pull stories across my knees until I am deep 
in the grass with you, the snow grass, a long sore note, we have pink faces
keeping up with each other’s sleeps, to rotate
in the bed, the powdery dreamscapes gathering form. 
            Dorothy,
Your warm apparition not to be sold or bought, an account 
of the aspirin sunlight, too much, taking the flower pill 
that makes me react as a plant, long stem in your arms 
and coaxed of sap. 
   Calcium is a luxury to those who might keep their flesh self-
sustained and hard and warm. I thought of Kansas and corn 
with the morning yoghurt as a viscid snow, spoonfuls 
of what we are missing to kiss 
goodbye of the freezing streets of Partick, melt in your mouth, 
   the pressure of boilers
adjusted by release, the way our bodies incline to the light
even when it is missing, how I wish you could trade
kisses for calories of actual heat, the truthfeel of one in the morning
stands for baggies of memories
    the prized alacrity of exercise, 
            I insufflate 
                                   the nervous internet.
            If this poem really were sentient, this would be the queue 
for the doctor’s office, which is a location after all, novel
in its banality, after the fact of actually being here, a state of waiting
requiring the mortal presence of your body.
  I stopped asking what a poem can do
when it seemed like I was done typing 
with my fingers searing hot white words like arrows 
tearing the flesh as they wrote, O Dorothy, listening 
   to a band called Trapped in Kansas.
I was born. Wrestling with duvets to change the music sheets
afresh, up close with the soot-covered mountains, 
called to the room with thermometers jammed 
in the hole of the poem, its quavers jostling with old composition,
   bloodstream, organ, snow.
                                             It is safe, it is safe.