Readings — From the October 2019 issue

Rumors

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From Fear of Description, a book of narrative poetry published this month by Penguin.

For some months now I’ve been returning to this one night from late 2016. We were at Kristen’s. She had received this jigsaw puzzle as a housewarming gift and had enlisted me and Ariel to help her finish. It wasn’t the traditional picture of a waterfall or dew-drenched fawn. In fact there was no figuration at all—just a gradient that swept between a tropic green and a hospital blue. It was a week after she had moved into her new place. I was excited to see the house. She had saved up for almost two decades to buy it. The first home I’d ever entered owned by a friend. Property is the syntax of the reddening horizon. There we were, splashed on just this or that side of thirty, surgically reassembling a color so cool it was really closer to a cry than a hue. She hadn’t yet completely unpacked the blank room we sat at the end of, and it was cavernous—a kitchen that bled seamlessly into a living room. What would she hang on the walls, she wondered, a spidery beat lilting from the laptop on the floor. The lamplight looked smaller than it had in her old place—it didn’t quite reach all the way to the ceiling. I sipped my Sazerac and felt symphonic, like a smooth, dumb stone over which cool water rolls. I listened intently to the playlist as it flowed by. The music was so cool and I hated it so much, and I noted how sweet it felt to hate cool music; it was the beginning of the end of our youth, a tipping point I’ve marked at least once a month for the past seven years, and it feels real each time because in fact so far it always is. A siren went by outside. It was November. An enormous pile of books stood teetering against the wall as Kristen’s cat batted the blinds. We were making no progress on the puzzle. I love to dance, but I hate games—I love to hate them. These rainy-day exercises people use to be together when they have nothing to say to one another. Why can’t we just talk or not talk? Was it even raining? No, the stars were out. The only games I like negate competition. I wonder what I mean by that. “I think a piece is loose—see how it wobbles?” Kristen laid her hands flat on the puzzle and shifted them minutely back and forth, tectonically, and the surface rippled. She took a rip off her tiny bong and passed it to me over the table. She and Ariel have a bond that runs on its own idiom, but we’ve all three built a harmony of shit-talking these last years that I’ve come to cherish. We share a sense of premature nostalgia—that a moment always ends too early, a gold thread spun from the straw of what’s already happened stitching the future into the present tense. Kristen grew up on a farm in Wisconsin and is the only person I know who seems genuinely energized by living in Brooklyn these days. We were neighbors in Iowa City, but we didn’t really properly meet until we both moved east. She was designing books and I was working at a bookstore. The first time we hung out I found her on the street in front of the bar where we were meeting, on her phone, yelling at someone about a font. She saw me, smiled, held her finger up, turned around, and continued yelling. Ariel held cardboard shards up to the light to determine the precise shade of blue or green so we could place them accurately inside the lily pad this crooked puzzle was beginning to resemble; then looking more and more, as the evening wore on, like a reflection of selfhood itself—Narcissus staring through the pieces of the pond—a surface soft as planetary id that no one who names himself “one” could love. Were I it, I’d do what it did. Outside, distant music echoed off the street. I squinted and tried to make my eyeballs, awash with pleasure but not industry, articulate the difference between “aqua” and “teal.” Even in the moment it seemed like a pretty tidy parable for going insane. But maybe that’s the industry of heaven, getting over its wall so your reflection can speak to you directly. At one point I realized we were all staring at our hands. We were in no shape for this game, but we went on. It was November, but what “it” was we could no longer say. The air was getting chill, not quite freezing over, and somewhere to the west of us a wave of rage was washing up on the machinery of the season. Ariel pushed a bright little knob of blue perfectly into its hollow. I paused the playlist I loved to hate and in its stead put on Rumours. As “Second Hand News” started up, a cozy silence settled in between us, and a creaturely interruption spilled across the room. We worked for a while and made no progress. Ariel and I have known each other a bit longer. We first met at a Labor Day barbecue about seven years ago in Iowa City, and I asked her about her writing, trying to make small talk. She looked past me over my shoulder, and her face flattened and rescheduled itself into a glyph that said, in the universal language of inward narration, “Now I am dealing with a moron.” It’s not uncommon for writers to assume you’re an idiot if you’re friendly. So I didn’t attempt conversation with her again for another couple of years. She now claims to have no memory of this interaction, and I have no memory of when we picked up the thread from there, but we gradually followed it into the present tense. She’s prone to excessive narrativization, an affliction and a gift. “I love spreading rumors about myself,” she said tonight as we walked up her frozen street. Back at Kristen’s house, staring into this oceanic jigsaw piece, I wondered how or if my friends would recount this evening to one another at some later date: who would remember things correctly as they happened, and what we would all get wrong, if we would ever verify it accurately among one another, being our only witnesses, before we slowly melted down to be sipped up by worms, the whole scene as we remembered or forgot it blown away and buried in the architecture of our dust. This is the only game I can get behind: What do you run from in writing? A sentence turns to you in the starlight and stares into you with an amiable cruelty that only art achieves. I’m delaying my point. After what seemed like a long time Kristen cut through the music and said that, back home on her family’s farm in Wisconsin, something was wrong with the chickens: they had developed a taste for insulation. “A taste for insulation?” I said. Yes. One day in September when her mother opened the latch to feed the chickens as she always did, she noticed that their mood had shifted. They swarmed around with an unprecedented dark enthusiasm and started pecking at the coop’s outer edge. They were going after the pink fluff that lined the structure, the stuff that kept them warm. Never going back again. I recognized my life plotted in dim shapes on the other side of the high and naked ceiling. An alien geometry installed itself along the surface of an ink so vast and silent that I remembered a poem I’d never written with it, and pitch-black words streamed through me. It was almost artless. Ariel said, “Are you serious?” Yes,

pink fiberglass leaked
between the warped wooden beams
and they ate it all

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