this, that, and the Other

identity, alterity, and everything in between

Month: January, 2011

Holding the Door Open for (Gendered) Persons OR: Heidegger Reads the Tao

What appears to us as natural is probably only the habitual of a long-standing habit, which has forgotten the unfamiliar from which it came. That familiar had once, however, attacked the human as an alienating thing, and had astonished thinking.—Martin Heidegger, trans. Salome Voegelin, Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes

People have gender—I recognize this. There is clearly a biological difference as well as a societal world of difference. Perhaps one day we will see a world where gender is not a rift, a trauma, a psychological wound—however, as long as the world looks the way it does gender will inevitably be tied up with a complicated and messy history. Social issues like gender-roles are just as much objects as the laptop I am typing at, they may be different sorts of objects, but they have a structure and meaning(s) and a history just like anything else. However withdrawn or subterranean gender issues are they pervade our personal histories, they run alongside us, provide a background, a “condition of possibility” (to steal a Kantian/post-Kantian phrase)—its an object-world we are in and have to see through to see anything at all. Gender-roles are always already existing, we are existing them—the key is to step back and see what we are living out, already doing, and figure out if what we are doing is healthy. The trick is to see what is truly alienating in what seems natural.

I was raised in a conservative Christian home and thus, like many, was taught to hold the door open for women, purchase meals, etc. Then, like many, I recognized the alienation in these acts—sure, I was doing them out of a charitable impulse, but that does not mean it doesn’t reciprocate hostility. Even segregation is an ostensible “charitable” act from a certain perspective. I learned about appropriating the other, acts which reduce individuals to our prior conceptions and interpretations of them, which is, in short, the beginning of totalitarianism. Suffice to say I stopped holding doors open for women because after all I didn’t hold doors open for men and I wasn’t about to treat roughly half the populace like they didn’t have the capacity to push two pounds. But I found this standpoint frustrating and at times insulting—I moved from the Law of “always do such-and-such for women” to “NEVER do such-and-such for women.” I swapped out one sort of oppression for another. I moved from closet-oppression to fear—not much of an improvement.

I found myself approaching doors with a terrifying trepidation every time a woman was behind me, thinking things like, “If so-and-so behind me were a man, would I hold the door open? Shit. I just assumed masculinity to be the standard by which I judge situations. Alright, how about if the person behind me was a homosexual… SHIT. I just made the assumption that hypothetical male ‘A’ in my first hypothetical-situation was heterosexual. Wait—why is it that a male homosexual was the first kind of homosexual to come to mind? Why didn’t I think of a lesbian first? I probably have repressed lesbian fantasies, that’s why. I didn’t even think about if the woman behind me could be a lesbian… it’s just because she has long hair isn’t it… you think all lesbians have shaved heads and don’t wear make-up, don’t you, Josh?! Damn it, I am such a misogynistic pig…” etc etc. Of course by this point she has already opened the door for herself while I stand around with a blank albeit slightly confused look on my face.

I then determined there was only one way out—I would hold the door open for every person behind me always ever. Ever. Well, aside from being a hassle I eventually found that, although some people found me to be nice, quite a few were offended and most were quite apathetic. I didn’t exactly wear a sign around my neck that said “I hold doors open regardless of gender, creed, class, and sexual orientation,” and the kind of people who took offense still took offense.

Conclusion? None. Really. Gender is ridiculously complicated and impossible to fit into a legalistic, metaphysical mold—we should all know this by now. The best conclusion I have is to be aware of what you are doing and how alienating, bizarre, and telling our actions are when we take a step back. We never truly escape our backgrounds but we can become more aware of them and do our best to correct things that are offensive and hostile. We will always be “within” a gender-role; however, we should give up our notions of what people “ought” to be as regards gender and project it into/onto every situation. As the Tao Te Ching (19) says, “Give up sainthood, renounce wisdom, and it will be a hundred times better for everyone […] it is more important to […] cast off selfishness and temper desire.” In other words, I stopped caring about the way I should always act as regards the door situation—I now simply try to read the situation and do what seems appropriate. Sometimes things turn out fine. Sometimes they don’t and I’m sorry. Sometimes I assume someone is a feminist-sort based upon their looks and they either are or they aren’t and I feel like an ass either way (the ole “they dress like a MAN ergo…” oppressive-logic). I figure it must be best to give up my desire, see things from another perspective, and get over myself.

Ever desireless one can see the mystery. Ever desiring one can see the manifestations. These two spring from the same source, but differ in name. This appears as darkness. Darkness within darkness. The gate to all mystery.—Tao Te Ching (1)

all love is language is love OR: ‘Untitled’

It’s been awhile since I dared to write an erotic poem–they tend to be derivative at best and prudish at worst. But, hey, I felt one was in order. For some reason my erotic poems are always more concerned with hermeneutics than a particular person, somehow the act of love embodying the responsibility of self to other, humility (every act of love is self-denial), and yet, paradoxically, appropriation of the other and a sort of inescapable masturbatory solipsism (every act of love is an attempt to subvert the other). I am fascinated by how we traverse, fill-in, and elide this gap, usually through fantasy which is to say interpretation (hermeneutics). Suffice to say this poem–which is not my best in my mind: vague traces of Ammons, cummings, Creeley, Ferlinghetti throughout–was concerned with how we find the self in the other, other in the self, traverse the fantasy, speak meaning, interpret and deconstruct, which is, of course, all a highfalutin way of saying make love.

 

the way her fingers opened along
      her—no—her fingers
    opening, slowly along my body, less
              a touch than
                           countless and
                           endless distances:
                 distance of eyes,face,mouth,tongue
          of biting and holding
                     and biting,

and the distance of hands—
                        many,
                               small
                             open
                    hands. and fingers. and

                             —no—

                      we touched
                and distance was imagination
          was buried and dead was ages past was
                then, yesterday, was what she
            didn’t wear and why she didn’t
                            and why you didn’t seem
                                         to care

      that was then, yesterday,
             but here with you beside me,
touching, and the distances, all
                    equal and beautiful, and everything,
            today, everything
                          touching,
                 there is no distance,
         nothing closed today, everything
                                open because
                                we are open—

                      well—
       at the least,
               a sound of her,
                      and something,
            somewhere,
        opening, slowly,
                                        open.

what they say

Something about an “event” causes some sort of rift, a break that, consciously or not, shifts or awakens us to something else, something emerging underneath (sinister? gracious?). Suffice to say a host of creative energy has sort of burst out of me given many shifting events–change of place, job, relationships, car, college, etc–and now I find myself rolling my own cigarettes and wearing burgundy skinny jeans. And I also find an insatiable love for new poets, new ideas. So I actually have quite a few poems I am working on at the moment, some perhaps not worthwhile, but hopefully this one is. I decided to take a step back and look at the passing of objects–relationships and abstractions being equally objects–and the “contingency” of death and touching, relating and mis-relating, these being two expressions of the phenomenon of passing itself. Hopefully this doesn’t come off as a relativistic read of death and birth being two sides of the same coin, but rather a more complex look at how these are the same coin when looking from the right angle–and how sometimes they aren’t. Or: things happen; sometimes they don’t.

 

what they say

 

It is true what they say

about dying, it’s always

happening, we envelop

ourselves in it like a big

warm blanket—keeps us

warm. I don’t think about

death so much, although

I’ve killed friendships and

certainly a plant or two in

the name of salads and

countless spring rolls; I’ve

killed silence and brought

certain death with chatter

and telephone rings to

climaxes of movies, plays,

discussions, acts of love;

and I have sprayed so

many ants dead dead

dead (killed mice too, lunging

from cupboards, bottoms

of kitchen sinks, and once

or twice a silverfish or two

on a couch or wet towel).

And, I suppose, I’ve even

died slowly as I killed the

punch-lines of terrible jokes,

each death tangent or cross

-ing or penetrating, each

thing in its place becoming

out of place, each in its time

out of time, asymmetric

disunities somehow clenched

hand in hand on their mutual

and isolate passing down

rivers of time, place, or

imagination. It is also true

though that things somehow

touch, shatter, elide, avoid

even and at times break or

make love; enough to know

things pass together; enough

to know we are one of these.

 

 

Untitled

This poem is me processing (poem as process? process as poem?) through some stuff and a reflection more on working-through rather than what I am working-through specifically. Been reading more Robert Creeley and WC Williams, concerning myself with esoteric images but not in an Eliot or Pound anti-American disparaging way (hopefully), but with more of a Whitman flair. Perhaps this makes it bad Hart Crane.

Untitled

having come a
little farther

this morning,
sunrise, and
        thinking,

thinking; at times
I was certain of

motion, consist
-ency of step,

(and a sound
        of steps
                down flights of
                countless
        stairs, and
rain on
roof
-tops):    you

are not the
one beside me

in the night, not
the rain

‘Untitled’ Prose-Poem

Not sure if this is a poem, a memoir, or part of some sort of poetic-novella. Time will tell. At the very least it is an attempt to process sexuality from a clear standpoint by looking back and taking up distant but psychically significant events. Hope it achieves something.

I.

Every time I say the word fuck I am reminded of being two years old trying on my brothers’ hand-me-down shoes that never did quite fit: for weeks I’d trip and fall, although I knew how to walk perfectly well even swim and without floaties or dad’s help—I once even swam through the deep-end despite his countless and excessive warnings against it.

When my sister-in-law called my brother dipshit at the thanksgiving dinner table I watched my mother flinch, reel and flinch. That was childhood for me. Ass, cunt, cock, balls, shit, all of it the greatest and most unforgivable sin right behind, as I discovered years later, smoke on my breath, cigarettes. She wouldn’t let us say butt even, and once, and this is God’s honest truth, she blushed when saying fanny. Secrets of the body that need not be heard or spoken, adult things, grown-up words, curse words—so for the whole of my adolescent life parts of me were without names, unspoken things, hidden recesses or protrusions of language, spontaneous junior high erections at the end of Sunday school, just waiting for your father to come pick you up—who would certainly never be caught dead with the word erection on his lips let alone a son whose horniness cannot contain itself even when faced by the prophet Daniel knee-bent praying for the hand of God in his den of flannel-graph lions.

I worked up the courage by the age of twelve, although, of course I already knew by now the workings of the sexual organism, its functions, disjecta, it still felt, even at that age, a necessary rite of passage to ask, Father, where do babies come from? And it began as it should with “when a man loves a woman,” etc, etc. Oddly enough it wasn’t until I was much older, watching a 1970s film, I got a clear and perfect image of a naked woman—certainly I had seen pictures and statues but for the first time I saw the female sexuality I was not supposed to say, never to invoke, the act of it half-rape, half raw pleasure, and also for the first time the obscurity and fuzzily drawn shape of the word fuck came into brilliant focus and years of unintelligible half-heard conversations and graffiti markings and shushed exclamations and things whispered into upturned ears came back into mind.

And somewhere, far away in the farthest back part of my memory, behind those conversations and whisperings and even behind how my brother made me feel when he tore up the love poem or the look on my first love’s face when I left and said “have a good night anyway,” an inkling of a dream of Grace Kelly, unbuttoning her tightly-wound dress, slowly inching closer, asking in the faintest of tones, “Darling, would you like a leg or a breast?”