A couple of summers ago I visited a friend in another city. His girlfriend was moving in, and they had made a large bookshelf together, with boards from the lumberyard and bricks, which was kind of in fashion—you stack the bricks four or five high against a wall, then lay down a board, then repeat until you get a grand and precarious structure—and they were deciding how to arrange their books on it. She was hesitant about combining their books. He was enthused. Their books got very mixed up. My friend and his girlfriend were tender with each other as this happened. Between the two of them, they owned many things I wanted to read. At one point in the afternoon, my friend picked a large edition of collected poems, hardcover, very recognizable, up off the floor and said, “I should get rid of this.”
I knew what he meant because I owned this book too. In the beginning, it gave me pleasure, but for several years it had sat undisturbed on my shelf in its alphabetical position, in a cloud of difficult emotions that manifested as dust along the tops of its pages. Other books I owned were dusty too, but the dust on this book was meaningful.
The author of this book was wealthy, and his poems were violent and badly written. I had always been aware of this. What changed was my attitude about it. I had thought the violence meant the poems were honest. Wealth is violent. What’s wrong with showing it. That kind of thing.
Later I realized honesty is facts but also an action. A choice to extend the truth in some direction, like a path or a building. I had only just begun the long and ongoing process of considering this.
When I first read the book I felt relief. Here, finally, was the bad guy, the powerful misogynist who had put me in the cage I’d been living in. I hadn’t always thought of it as a cage. But here he was, my jailer. His honesty was the same kind children have, thoughts bubbling over spontaneously as they occurred to him. Power, when you have enough of it, dissolves shame totally I guess. Or shame is irrelevant when you know you will be cared for. And he lied in the same way children lie, transparently. My naked emperor. He was ugly-cute. A twisted little fountain.
I’d been hanging out with all these dishevelled princes. Men who were famous, wealthy writers by birthright but had fucked up the money part, or the fame, or both. I liked to ask them questions about their art. They liked simply to sit with a glass of alcohol and their glowing thoughts. I had crushes on them, or they had crushes on me; it was hard to tell the difference, because I was still in my long phase of learning to distinguish between my self and my surroundings, that will end when I die. They were trying to realize their full potential. I was trying to write my first book and become a prince, too. It was impossible. I felt tight in the chest and masturbated six times a day hard against the floor. I thought that’s what crush meant. I lived in a bachelor. I had just this tiny patch of floor space to writhe around in. I was unemployed and running out of money. My pants ripped. No wonder. I couldn’t afford to replace them. This was my art. To be zipped up tight inside a life that didn’t really contain me.
The emperor’s poems explained something. Young women had blank brains until men filled them. A full brain was a ruined one. Men were ruined. He believed this, or it was satire, or both. The emperor had money and was fully aware of the history and present of economic imperialism, and did not let this stop him from continuing it over dinner. He liked to eat as well as possible. He had money and an everlasting sex drive that was almost certainly a fiction, but one so transparent you could see straight through, and this was honest also. He had a limited lexicon of unimpressive rhymes and was not afraid to use them until they ran out completely. Then he started again. He was wealthy. He never ran out. He invited women out for drinks and pictured them in the throes of death or orgasm, which were the same. To be opposite his gaze was to live in a cage. I couldn’t stop staring. It didn’t matter if the poems were satire. They explained my world to me.
The emperor and I had some things in common. One of these was luck. There were differences of degree and in the combinations of factors that made up our respective lucks. But like his life, my life, in a rich country, in a white body, was upheld and made possible by violence.
It was complicated. One minute I was in the cage the poems made. The next, I was looking in from outside, at that small space containing most of the rest of the world. There were these two positions to choose from, or was it a choice. I’d been given what I’d been given. The poems were the honest poems. Was there anything to decide. I spent a lot of time wondering.
About the bad writing. At the time when I liked this book I had read a lot, but not enough. The bad writing excited me in a way I couldn’t explain. I got a little glimpse of what Ariana Reines says, that “literature can be more than good.” I hadn’t heard of Ariana Reines yet, but I was hungry for her, or maybe deficient is the word, like a person can get for a vitamin. In my condition I did something perverse. I went looking for Ariana’s idea—an intervention against the notion that women who write honestly about their real lives write badly, and therefore should not be read—in the work of this poet who wrote badly from a position of enormous power.
Anyway, I read the book and got excited. My excitement was intellectual and sexual. Then I put it on my shelf and did not think about it very much for a long time until, one day in the real world, the racist violence that happens every day, most everywhere, in ways both unique and endlessly repetitive, was met by powerful protests in Ferguson. People who did not normally think about this violence were forced to consider it. The writer, who is by now so old it’s crazy he still gets verbs after his name, considered it. Then he published another badly written poem.
People sometimes behave as if words and actions occur in separate realms. They don’t. One definition of power is words becoming action, the condition of there being no gap between saying something and causing it to happen. To speak out of turn, to describe real events from a place of ignorance, can be violence—the same violence that enabled the ignorance to flourish in the first place. A loop. This is what the poem did.
What I had to decide was not complicated and had never been. It is embarrassing to revisit. It was huge in my private life and tiny in the world, though these are not separate realms either.
The same afternoon: I tell my friend that I think he should keep the book.
I say this with a weird degree of emphasis, because inside me a voice is bubbling up, oh no you don’t keep it keep it keep it cheater keep it. This is not a word I would normally use about my friend. It is just what has popped into my head.
My friend is taken aback. I begin to explain. The course of action I am defending does not make logical sense, and therefore cannot be supported by a coherent argument, only fragments of ideas that I have heard or read or invented, interspersed with anecdotes and emotions. But he listens—I make him listen—because each one is important.
When you have eaten a drug, if it is an official drug with packaging, you should keep the packaging. If it turns out you are poisoned, people will know what from. If you are eating a plant from the forest, keep one of its leaves.
When you have made a mistake, like confusing violence for honesty, you should not erase the record of that mistake until you have set it right. Setting literature right will take possibly forever.
I remember once when my friend and I were younger, and he spent the night in my bachelor apartment, which I lived in because it was cheap and he visited for the same reason. We stayed up, listening to music and falling asleep, but not really, him on the tiny floor space and me in the bed, and he looked at my bookshelf, which had fewer things on it then, and was probably not the same shelf, and he teased me for owning a book by a woman poet I was interested in, whose work he said was terrible.
I believed him. He was wrong. I kept the book and my shame about it for years, until my shame dissolved and the book didn’t. This was lucky. I ask my friend if he remembers this. He doesn’t. He is genuinely sorry and ashamed. It is hard for him to imagine ever not having been interested in this woman poet—famous, canonical, dead, believed by many people to have been abused by her husband, whose poems overflow with a strange, violent energy a lot of men poets I used to know really seemed to love.
I remember a phase in my life after this when I listened attentively to what men thought I should read. The badly written hardcover was one of the books men recommended, and I agreed with them. I bought it with my own money.
I like my friend deeply, and I would like for him to have an experience of keeping a book he is ashamed of.
I remember a time when another friend of mine lived for a year without adding to the landfill. It was difficult. She failed a little, because at one point she broke a plate and decided not to keep the pieces. But otherwise she succeeded.
Not adding to the landfill can mean not creating any garbage, not bringing any home, or not being the one to throw it out. The lines between these accomplishments are not always clear. Some people live their whole lives without adding to the landfill, and we call this hoarding. Some people spend their whole careers in the humble occupation of garbage collector. I want my friend to think about this with me.
Compulsive hoarding can be the result of trauma, says the Wikipedia entry on compulsive hoarding. Trauma is very commonly the result of huge structural forces like racism, patriarchy, capitalism, the state. I can’t get rid of the book because—I am just now putting this together—it has injured me, and my injury compels me to keep the weapon close at hand.
And for my friend to get rid of the book while I keep it in shame would be backwards.
I do not tell my friend I am angry at him. I am angry because in the past I listened to him too much, and as a result spent years of my life reading the wrong books. Now he likes different books, ones that I would like to read, too. This structural continuity through our changing tastes is difficult for me to accept. I am at a stage in my life when I would like to listen to my friend less and also read what I want, but now it seems I can only do one of the two. If I cannot change the structure of mainly listening to my friend, is there any point in reading different books at all? It is painful to consider the possibility that what I have learned so far in life is mainly this habit of listening to men.
I have to admit that the night my friend teased me about the woman poet, I wanted to fuck him but wasn’t brave enough. Years later, just the other night in fact, I was brave enough. Having such a long delay between an idea and the corresponding action was interesting.
I know what you are thinking, but I’m not angry about the fucking. It was friendly and bold, joyful. It was not shameful or cheating. It was an idea I had, and then it happened.
To get rid of a friend who is alive and changing because of a book that is fixed seems simultaneously very tempting and less than reasonable. “Bibliomania is a disorder involving the collecting or hoarding of books to the point where social relations or health are damaged,” says the Wikipedia entry on compulsive hoarding.
About moving through the world and discarding things, Maya Angelou says, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.”
About the uneven distribution of this labour, Ariana Reines adds, “Why do you always think you / have to do something / I don’t know . . . maybe / it’s because I’m a girl.”
About the anxiety that seems especially to accompany the exercise of tiny amounts of power, Anne Boyer says, “I think the real enemy of a just arrangement of the world is not the class of people who stay up all night talking about ideas and waving their hands. We sometimes just think it is because we are the sorts of people who stay up all night talking about ideas and waving our hands.”
About people with power, Fred Moten says, “I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?”
About help, Joni Mitchell says, “Help me.”
I think that Maya would get rid of the book and Ariana would keep it for performance art and Anne and Fred wouldn’t give a fuck though in all likelihood none of them except probably Ariana could have been so turned around as to acquire it in the first place. This is speculation. Joni wasn’t talking about the book, just the general condition of men and having feelings.
It is possible I need to discard a lot of what I’ve known and loved.
There was a paralyzing moment after my friend and I slept together when I proposed, or he proposed, I forget exactly who proposed, that we should have a threesome with his girlfriend. If my interest in my friend was by that point mostly historical, my interest in his girlfriend was more current. The real electricity was a crush I had—a big one, just beginning to unfurl like some springtime thing—on a different woman. I felt swept up in its energy. I couldn’t face it yet. So instead of finding a different place to stay I kept on being there one more night, and his girlfriend came home from her travels, and I gave them space to talk and tried to be exactly the right amount flirty and open and filthy and rained on and approachable, and she took me grocery shopping and cooked everyone dinner, and I waited, like a scroll in a vault, to be chosen.
The three of us ate on the balcony in leafy air. Our knees touched. It was delicious. The table was so tiny. Some books spilled from the top of a stack to the floor with slapping sounds. I waited to see if I should make a move. Were there actions in this circumstance that were possible. But if so they were invisible to me, and I didn’t take any, and in the end I wasn’t chosen.
The next day, I went home on the train. Before I went through my bookshelf and gutted it—and to be clear, I gutted it: five boxes into the recycling and six to the second-hand store, where I made the most money I had ever made that way, because violent books have a high resale value; I am sorry if I gummed up the system—I spent five or six months waiting. I was interested in the relationship between myself and my surroundings. I was interested in power: what knowledge is. I was interested in who it belongs to when I have it. I was alone with my body and I was contemplating boxes. How the empty ones are more useful if what you want to do is move. The heart is not infinite. Mine was once again becoming blank.
When I wrote the list of violent acts that appears at the beginning of this piece, I anonymized the stories to prevent victims/survivors from being identified. I recombined, stripped out, or, in some cases, altered details. As I did this, a new difficulty opened up. Abuse is repetitive and unoriginal to begin with. When I stripped a story of its specificity, the number of people it could apply to multiplied, and it began to encompass experiences I hadn’t meant to reference, whether for reasons of accuracy (I never owned that book), safety, or ignorance. And when I invented details to distance a story from the situation I had in mind, there was the potential that these would bring it closer to someone else’s experience—abuse is repetitive and unoriginal.
Despite my best efforts to keep the focus off individual victims/survivors, two frightening possibilities persist: One, a survivor of abuse whose story I did not mean to reference will see her experience in what I have written and conclude that her confidence has been betrayed, whether directly by me or through the rumour mill (I say “her” because in this essay I have spoken only of abuse against women writers, though survivors and perpetrators alike come in all genders, and some people’s genders, e.g., mine, are in a state of drift). Two, an abuser will leap to assume that his was one of the violent books on my shelf and that his particular actions were the ones I had in mind, and conclude that his victim has spoken up.
I want to greet these possibilities with a basic fact that I hope is more powerful. If you are a victim/survivor of this shit, you are very, very far from alone.