“Jack Nicholson’s mind is possessed. Like my body, my dress.”: Paul Cunningham on Sara Tuss Efrik’s “Night’s Belly”
Johannes asked me to talk about my translation of Sara Tuss Efrik’s “The Night’s Belly” (Nattens Mage), a hellish three-part fairy tale of wombs and charred rooms that draws on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, the story of Sleeping Beauty (or Thorn Rose; Little Briar Rose), Little Red Riding Hood, and possibly even Polanksi’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968). “There are plots against people, aren’t there?” This is the question a frantic, phone booth-encased Rosemary desperately asked after being cruelly deceived by her husband. In “The Night’s Belly,” Efrik’s female protagonist similarly carries a child of unknown origin. A swelling devil-red child—sometimes described as having pincers, or flapping wings. A throbbingly painful monstrosity. Possibly the child of her husband’s “red mistress” (who later evolves into more of a Macbeth-style witch-mistress), Efrik’s protagonist continuously obsesses over the unfaithful husband’s activities:
“The nipples smarted, the pubic hair frizzed up. Paranoia melts and is redistributed, transformed into small graftings of screaming creatures. Girl dolls, logs. Everything gets mixed together. The heat pushes moisture out of the skin, surfaces glow teasingly. The husband finds himself on the African continent, in a city of solidified lava. White jeeps cross paths with starving dogs, gospel music flows out of Pentecostal churches, overcrowded hopsitals have locked their gates. The suicidal husband drives around with a sweet slut. They are going to climb Nyiaragongo. I expand the image, a widening circle, it whirls, a treasonous ring dance around that which burns. More and more sluts. A mass of eggs, explosions, a burning sky, a spray of shrapnel across our bodies.”
The first section, “Red Mistresses (Retreat),” poises readers to flow “valve after valve” through a paranoid pipeline of lava-like sewage. A montage of excrement. A language of shit. An age of drug-induced decay. The protagonist’s womb is volcano-like. Logs of “girl dolls” burn up on the fire. Her unborn child appears to be violently attached to her like ropes of pahoehoe.
“The Shining played on a television as we fucked. Because Nyiaragongo burned my husband’s body. From beneath the eggshell roars a burning river. My body is not a knife. Or an alternative. My only choice is exorcism. Anything to avoid melting.”
The notion of the child in “The Night’s Belly” appears to be something more akin to Cronenberg’s “psychoplasmic” children of The Brood (1979) or the supernatural occurences in The Exorcist (1973). Efrik’s body of text gradually begins to resemble the hauntings of Kubrick’s own labyrinthine mise-en-scene. The protagonist’s swollen belly ambushes the reader with appropriations of Kubrick’s occult hotel, which include the trance-like repeat of the Grady twins as well as moments of repetition reminiscent of Jack’s typewriter antics. (“i am no one / it’s not a secret anymore / not a chore anymore / not a secret chore anymore / i do not know who i am anymore”) Author Robert Luckhurst has noted the ways in which Kubrick embedded violent pieces of his own troubled self (i.e. his maddening need for multiple takes, the inclusion of his personal typewriter, his habit of tossing a baseball against a wall) into The Shining. Efrik’s protagonist appears to be wrestling with a similar blurring of identity:
“I am a creature’s surrogate mother. I fertilize it with female twin filled hallways. Fertilization, an infinite hotel. And everything is there. The child’s red mothers. The child’s father. I am also there. There is also a nursery. I hide myself beneath a blanket of solidified lava. I hide there among animal limbs and sawn off pipes of bone. My twin filled stomach valves (a goosefoot valve, a pizzeria valve, a vulgar valve), perfected overnight. Cavities enable my ascent. Mistresses! Come and save me, pull me out of myself!”
A Lemonade-Genius, Tart and Incisive, Sold by the Sip: On _A Mammal’s Notebook: The Writings of Erik Satie”
When I wish:
…I live in France
“in the days of Charlemagne.”
thanks to a friend of mine who is a Wizard…
(Return to the Past)
We haven’t yet made it to the Dog Days of summer and yet it is time for something completely different—A Mammal’s Notebook: The Writings of Erik Satie, edited and introduced by Ornella Volta, translated by Antony Melville, and just out from Atlas Press, London. This volume, like Satie, aka ‘The Velvet Gentleman”, is good-looking, hilarious, charming, insane, snippy and visionary, all at once.
Volta, a Satie scholar who established and oversees his archives and runs the Satie museum in Paris, notes “Satie still seems, even now, contemporary, because the problems he brought to light remain unresolved.” In the wake of Wagnerism, those problems included how to wave away self-seriousness and bring lightness, exuberance, play, modern flexibility into modern musical composition. Satie’s innovations were nimble, direct, cussed, literally childish, and endlessly inventive, and feel, to this day, fresh, completely free and freeing. First, he writes very short pieces, often quoting and satirizing both friends and enemies (Satie is truly contemporary in the quantities (and quality) of his frenemies). Next, he titles them after decidedly un-serious, anti-musical and/or formally paradoxical topics—Desiccated Embryos, Bothersome Globs, Sports & Recreations, Three Compositions in the Shape of a Pear, etc. Next, he annotates his extremely brief pieces with hilarious indications to the performer—“As if you were congested”; “Almost invisible”; “Be an hour late”; “Corpulentus” ; “On yellowing velvet”; etc. The brief, stanzaic texts which accompany many of the compositions have the barmy precision (Volta’s word) of Crevel (and/or Paul Legault’s playlets) (or Mallarme’s translations of English nursery rhymes) (or Stein) and are plenteous and delightful. In a piece for children, which reads half-Tzara, half-Richard-Scarry–
3. Steps of a Grand Staircase
It is a grand staircase, very grand.
It has more than a thousand steps, all made of ivory.
It is very beautiful.
No one dares to use it for fear of spoiling it.
The King himself has never used it.
To leave his room, he jumps out of the window.
And often he says:
“I love this staircase so much I am going to have it stuffed.”
The King is right, isn’t he?
In addition to these charming texts to accompany compositions and the vitally bonkers performance indications, A Mammal’s Notebook includes hilarious lectures, complete with loopy loaded ellipses which anticipate Jack Smith (note: all ellipses in the below passage Satie’s):
A critic’s brain is a store,–
– a department store
You can find anything there: –orthopaedics,– sciences, –bed-linen, –arts, –travelling rugs—a wide range of furniture,–French and foreign writing paper;–
–woolens,– hats, –sports, —walking-sticks, –optician’s,– perfumery,–etcetera
The critic knows everything, —….. sees everything, –hears everything,— touches everything,…
moves everything around….., eats anything….., confuses everything…….– & thinks nothing of it…..
What a man!!…..
Tell the world!!!……
All our wares are guaranteed!!!……
In hot weather,–
All the merchandise is kept inside!!!
Inside the critic!!!!!
This is the kind of delightful, crazy jousting we find throughout Satie’s compositions, verbal, textual, or otherwise. The maddening elliptical pacing is like a tonal, Loony-Tunes powder keg being tossed back and forth between speaker and audience. One imagines ‘the critic’ fuming alongside on tiny shoes like Yosemite Sam, about to provide the flame that explodes the proceedings.
In addition to the lectures, notes, annotations and libretti, (texts not to be read aloud, texts to be danced, sung, etc), and texts written for publications, the most intriguing ‘specimens’ in this mammal’s notebook are two further uncategorizable texts. First, the “Catalogue of Erik Satie’s Musical and Literary Works with Comments by the Same Gentleman”, which I take to be a collaboration between Volta and Satie: a timeline of the composer’s life work with notes retrieved from Satie’s manuscripts and inserted alongside the dated texts, such as, regarding Medusa’s Snare:
This is a play of pure fantasy… with no reality.
Do not see it as anything else.
The role of Baron Medusa is a sort of portrait… Even a portrait of me… a full-length portrait of me.
This catalogue is a dotty and engrossing piece of collaboration between the scholar and her subject and I’m delighted by the little spark of occult flame that jumps across, as Satie appears to provide the scholarly annotation for his own life. Satie is also quoted as writing, of himself, “His music is senseless & makes people laugh & shrug their shoulders.”
But the final, mysterious wealth of this book is the nearly indescribable “Private Advertisements”—selections from a collection of 4,000 cards which were found in Satie’s apartment after his death. These close set, printed or hand written cards read like cryptic advertisements, musical scores or even architectural renderings. These are impossible to truly quote here—“Forge-on-the-Bubble/The White Pine Inn:/Manor & Farm/ (1253)/Entirely in cast iron/Gift of the Devil to his Godson”—but suggest an endlessly ingenious mind following a path of inspiration truly beyond what contemporary genres or media could accommodate—are these scores? cards for a player piano? computer programs? advertisements? parts of a Darger-like novel? The novel of the 19th century dying into the 20th? I think also of the endlessly inventive work of Ray Johnson, whose inexhaustibly playful correspondence art has just now been reissued by Siglio in gorgeous large editions, & might be read alongside Satie’s.
Volta’s frontmatter and annotations record the life of an artist always slipping in and out of synch with his contemporaries, prefiguring and racing ahead of them, claimed as this one’s forbear, that one’s follower, leader to this group, émigré from that. I almost picture a figure like Ray Johnson, or like Chaplin’s tramp in Modern Times who enters the clockwork wrongways and so is shot out by the machinery into force-driven, yet farcical, free, plastic, elastic space. Perhaps this paradox describes the way Satie participates in and even generates the musical language of his time while also seeming thrown completely wide of it, making work for future aliens and holothurians to play back with delight.
The Latina Gurlesque vs. Everyone Else: A Preface to a Reading Against the White House of Enlightened Poets (this Friday in NYC!)
AMIGAS, get ready for the World Cup of all poetry readings! The throw-down featuring Jennifer Tamayo, Monica McClure, and me will be in NYC this Friday, 7:30pm, at the Bureau of General Services-Queer Division (details here).
Me and my superstar fellow readers, I must point out, are not battling each other as opponents. Far from it, we’re joining forces as the one and only LATINA GURLESQUE, a luminous, feminist, outrageous decolonial parade. Taking a SPICY, CALIENTE line of flight south of the original Gurlesque anthology, our aesthetic already throbs in contemporary performance art. Consider the mystic genitalia and unholy queer ‘spictacles’ of La Chica Boom:
By Laura Ellen Joyce
Sara Tuss Efrik’s Persona Peep Show is a reproduction that draws attention to its status as perverse copy – as defaced art. The poem-film examines what it means to reproduce. There is a heavy emphasis on the female body in the language and visual imagery of the piece. What we are seeing in this film is both a reproduction of Bergman’s Persona, and an interrogation of the ways in which reproduction happens culturally, artistically, and biologically. Efrik reminds us that reproduction is an uncanny act, that to reproduce is always to die. Reproduction exists as a means to protect the dwindling, fragile object which is replaced. In the case of Persona Peep Show, Efrik resituates Bergman’s original film within a contemporary political and artistic context and allows it to be disseminated anew. What she also does is to set up a series of psychoanalytic and feminist concerns around the nature of reproduction.
Reproduction in Persona Peep Show is miasmic, toxic, and yet utterly natural. Nature shown to be violent, messy and chaotic — when the narrator says: ‘you imagine nature is leaking. It doesn’t’ and ‘that’s just fenced nature’, the speaker implies that nature does not leak, does not encroach, but rather is present in every act, in every meaning. This conception of nature is reminiscent of Timothy Morton’s work on nature and ecology – work which is typified by his term ‘hyperobject’ By this term he means objects which are beyond our understanding — objects which will exist well beyond our lifetime. He says that: ‘[a]longside global warming, hyperobjects will be our lasting legacy. Materials from humble styrofoam to terrifying plutonium will far outlast current social and biological forms.’ It is this version of nature – the trashy, the toxic, the undead, which is invoked in Persona Peep Show. Reproduction is presented through the insistence on artificial plurality. When the narrator states that ‘the highest realization of credibility in her world is my ability to reproduce her. i.e. create copies of her from her, duplicate her. She she she she she’ There is an indication that the internal logic of Persona Peep Show is concerned with proliferation above all else – a contagious, miasmic reproduction, with the female image a its bacterial heart.
“I thought it was just about the worst fucking thing I’ve ever seen”: The Serious Delirium of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives
“[Nicholas Winding Refn’s] latest theater of the macabre is brutal, bloody, saturated with revenge, sex and death, yet stunningly devoid of meaning, purpose, emotion or decent lighting.” – Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times
“Movies really don’t get much worse than Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives. It’s a shit macho fantasy—hyperviolent, ethically repulsive, sad, nonsensical, deathly dull, snail-paced, idiotic, possibly woman-hating, visually suffocating, pretentious… [T]his is a defecation by an over-praised, over-indulged director who thinks anything he craps out is worthy of your time. I felt violated, shat upon, sedated, narcotized, appalled and bored stiff.” – Jeffrey Wells, Hollywood Elsewhere
“It’s not that overwrought violence and human depravity are unfit grist for art, but without a compelling plot and a modicum of character development, all this film has to offer is a repugnant prurience and heavy-handed atmospherics.” – Kerry Lengel, Arizona Republic
“I thought it was just about the worst fucking thing I’ve ever seen.” – David Edelstein, Vulture
I love all of the negative reviews of Only God Forgives because they are totally right. Except what the reviewers perceive as failure, I think is total victory. I mean, “[B]rutal, bloody, saturated with revenge, sex and death, yet stunningly devoid of meaning, purpose, emotion…” Are you kidding? That sounds fucking awesome. I want to feel “violated, shat upon, sedated, narcotized, appalled and bored stiff.”
“Aren’t we begging to lose a fight every time art is made?” writes Sean Kilpatrick, in his a review of Only God Forgives. (continue reading…)
Depthlessness is Not a Word
by Thomas Cook
In a recent review of Kate Durbin’s E! Entertainment, I refer to Durbin’s expositional prose as “point-of-view-less” in order to describe the haunting affectless/affecting dichotomy of her transcriptional fiction. Throughout her book, Durbin faithfully depicts, I argue, “the reality of reality television” and “the surreality of the real” by objectively describing the mise-en-scène of Real Housewives, The Girls Next Door, and other reality television successes of the first decade of the millennium. The technical choices that Durbin makes in her video work, “Anna Nicole Clown Mouth,” reaffirm the aesthetics of her prose while adding a dimension to our understanding of the effect (and potentially the aim) of such an aesthetic.
“Clown Mouth” is one shot. It lasts eights minutes and forty-six seconds. The camera focuses on the lower half of Durbin’s face, where a red clown mouth outlined in black is painted around her actual mouth, spreading up to her nose, down to her chin, and out over her cheeks; the camera remains focused on that part of Durbin’s face, stationary for the duration of the video. The only movement in the video is Durbin’s mouth, opening and closing to speak as she reads the entirety of the “Anna Nicole Show” chapter of E!, a story written in the form of a transcript that includes voices from CNN, Anna Nicole Smith, Howard K. Stern, Riley (Anna Nicole’s daughter), and mechanical baby, whose hundreds of “mamas” Durbin reproduces. Here we return to the question of point of view: whose mouth are we watching? It’s not Anna Nicole’s mouth, nor is it Howard’s, Riley, the mechanical baby’s, or Durbin’s. Looking closely at the video (or watching it several times as I did), one is struck by clumsy physicality of a human mouth. Lips flap, a tongue squirms and cavorts, the teeth rise and fall. All of this to facilitate speech, but again, who is speaking? Moreover, does the question whose mouth are we watching and who is speaking have the same answer? In “Clown Mouth,” we watch a mouth, trapped in a close-up, masked and unmoored from body, divorced from identity, a flat and unchanging orifice of the affectless as Durbin neither smiles nor frowns, her voice sounding neither angry nor shrill, happy or concerned. The video takes place in real time with no technical effects. The focus is sharp. Durbin effectively reproduces the flat expanse of televisual experience that her fiction creates through the use of filmic techniques that resist the emotional or affect-based conduit of point of view. What we see is what we get. But that’s all.
WHITE MATERIAL: Obscene Whiteness as an Occidental Residue in Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgive
In his post yesterday, Johannes made an interesting observation in passing on the Thai setting of Nicholas Winding Refn’s widely reviled Only God Forgives:
Like Sylvia Plath’s “Fever 103″ it takes place in the orient, where imperialism discovered modern beauty in the 18th and 19th centuries. In Xanadu, Coleridge built an opium den…
One of the film’s obscenities is the obscenely patent Orientalism of Refn’s mise-en-scene. The film unfolds in a claustrophobic Bangkok-as-‘Chinatown’ , on sets reminiscent of The Lady From Shanghai, Death of a Chinese Bookie, and Polanski’s iconic so-named film in which Chinatown stands in for Hollywood’s Heart of Darkness, complete with reddish-green lights, drug haze, voyeuristic, curtained chambers, catwalks and corridors, sightlines which don’t match up, and theatrical spaces like operas, burlesque stages, go-go cages, boxing rings and nightclubs. The obscene is that which should remain hidden but is not; in Refn’s film, the latent racism of Orientalist tropes so common in Western film is right out there into the open, neither ironized nor dressed up as Keanu-ish spiritualism for the benefit of the Western individual’s soul.
An effect of this Orientalist palette is to make the white figures seem particularly artificial. More than ‘American’, they read to me as white; the phrase ‘white material’ comes to mind, after the semi-autobiographical Claire Denis film about French colonists in North Africa. The mother character, played by Kristen Scott Thomas, is not only a sexed-up outre Mommy MacBeth, part-Real Housewife, part -Freudian bingo card, but she is in whiteface with blonde extensions, golden dusting powder that simulates clublight or the mandate of Heaven, an impractical manicure, and elaborately painted on eyemakeup that obscures any kind of ‘natural’ eye.
Why is it significant that Refn’s protagonists are in whiteface? [In Refn’s previous, not-reviled Drive, blondissima Ryan Gosling wears a white and gold jacket to drive this point home.] Refn’s mise-en-scene re-renders whiteness not as an originary, natural term from which all other terms are derived and against which they fail to measure up, as in Imperialist logic, but as an artificial mask made from dusting powder, hair extentions, eyeshadow, hairdye, Western suits, acrylic nails, foiled tips. These toxic, inhuman substances truly are the ‘white materials’. In the context of Western imperialism and colonialism, structural violence comes from the West, from the Heart of Whiteness. Evil, which only God can forgive, is a white material which can be piled up or smeared on in various configurations and manifestations.
Finally, as Johannes’s observation indicates, so much of the Modernism which is so beloved to me carries with it the trace of colonialism, imperialism, racism, sexism and Orientalism. A chief offender is my beloved Artaud, whose Theater of Cruelty (ahem) derives from his febrile, Paris-World-Fair impressions of Balinese dance. I recognize the racism inherent in this theatrical encounter, and I hope I do not replicate this relationship of colonization in my writing or reading. Yet if I am not willing to discard Artaud’s body of work, I am also not willing to divorce this racial element from his work. Instead I keep it always in view when I think about Artaud, because it becomes a site where Art’s violence, its unwholesomeness, its predatory tendencies, as well as its theatricality, its artifice, its relationship to Evil, comes into view—that is, where Art becomes obscene.
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk…
(Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”)
It seems a lot of people are troubled by Lana Del Ray saying that she wish she were “already dead.” Seems that’s not an “empowering” thing to say. We should all be energetic and as alive as possible. Working for a change in the anthropocene. Something I love about her songs is that she does sound already dead. They all seem written from a haze, from the other side.
It’s in the new one:
But it’s even more in some of the old ones, like “Summertime Sadness” and (duh!) “Born to Die.”
What sets her apart from predecessors in provocation like is that she celebrates the bacchanalian excess of peers like while immolating herself in themes of co-dependency that make smart people squirm. Her songs exude the pain her paramours repress through drugs and sport sex, and their implicit subject is addiction.
In other words, unlike so much contemporary poetics for example, this is not poetry that “critiques,” that gives us an ethical position. Unlike Hollywood, pop music etc: it’s not uplifting. Unlike both: it is not “empowering.”
She gets hit by her lover and it feels like a kiss.
This haziness of death is of course the feverish state of art. It is a kiss but it feels like a punch.
It’s an addiction.
[Marty Cain has a very insightful review of Lucas de Limas's Wet Land up on HTMLGiant. Here's an excerpt:]
“In her response to Stephen Burt’s recent essay in the Boston Review, the poet Joyelle McSweeney criticizes Burt’s concept of the Nearly Baroque: “forget ‘nearly’ and ‘almost.’ I want to go all the way… All the way and out to the other side, which is this side, but eschatologically inverted.” Wet Land may be a perfect example of what McSweeney seems to be calling for. Rather than hiding behind an aesthetic mask, de Lima fully embraces artifice, deliberately taking ownership of the inherent violence in poetic representation:
MY BULLET CRACKS THE GATOR’S SKULL LIKE AN EGG.
MY BULLET SHATTERS THE GATOR THE WAY A WORD BREAKS OPEN THE LORD.
MY BULLET IS BEAUTIFUL.
IT SHIMMERS IN THE QUARTER-SIZED KILL SPOT ON THE GATOR’S NECK.
MY BULLET MAKES MY FATHER PROUD.
(from “KILL SPOT”)
In this invocative moment reminiscent of Frank Stanford, de Lima suggests that the artistic process is complicit in a circle of violence, death, and rebirth. The gator killed Ana Maria, the book symbolically kills Ana Maria again, and de Lima enters the pulsing door of grief, emerging on the other side with Wet Land, a text that inhabits a different world altogether—exhumed from a swamp, winding along a chaotic figure-eight in a cycle of violence and tenderness. It would be too predictable if de Lima chose to vilify the alligator, but fortunately, he resists the easy route. On the first page of the book, de Lima tells us that the alligator’s blood is “so potent it can destroy HIV,” and that he feels he has an “alliance” with the creature. The alligator becomes evocative of a transcendent presence, embodying both life and death, eros and violence.”
I want to follow up on James’s great post about Persona Peep Show with a post about the most obvious topic relating to the film: that is “fan-fictions” or “kitsches” Ingmar Bergman’s supposed Masterpiece Persona (a lot of the text is in fact from Bergman’s movie). What Mark Efrik Hammarberg and Sara Tuss Efrik picks up on in their remake of Bergman’s movie as “peepshow” is exactly the scandal of the image that James talks about in his post, the “peep-show-ness” of Bergman’s movie. And like many fan fictions (this is why I’m drawn to this para-genre) it takes this elements and blows it up, pushes it out of balance, find the excess, the ghosts, the pornography in the masterpiece.
Their peepshow fan fiction was first shown as part of the gurlesque-themed 2013 Stockholm Poetry Festival, and it revels exactly in the kind of mask-playing, superficiality and viscerality that has caused so many people to be troubled by the gurlesque.
Like James, I think Steven Shaviro’s a wonderful reveling in cinematic fascination. Shaviro points out that what troubles people about cinema is often this flatness of the image, which has no interiority but which nevertheless is tend to cause fascination, a strong bodily response (which as he points out is often seen as apolitical but which can be highly political).