Beacon Quarterly has published a quarantine check-in with 14 of its contributors! Read my words about the LA shutdown and try to find the leaked photo of me and an avocado.
This is my Ecce Homo for Good Friday 2020. It is from a soldier’s point of view, but I suppose it could be from Pilate’s as well.
I am working on a chapbook about human-animal transformations in art. In this excerpt, I observe Dog with Human Mask, 200 BC-AD 500, Colima, Mexico, a ceramic sculpture painted with red slip. This sculpture is part of the permanent collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Please check back periodically: I hope to have this illustrated chapbook available for purchase by the end of spring.
The dog is stuffed full of his own form like a stocking filled with sand. Bouncy musical forelegs, back legs round-boled. His tail is wide and high, a red spout from which you can pour whatever’s in him. He is wearing a mask of a man’s face.
He is ceramic painted with red slip. Across his glossy burnished body, a black patina, black on red like green is on copper. On the swell of his belly, the black is a long polish, as if deliberately spread by the nose of a cloth.
He is fat. Trimly fat, like a duck on water. Thick-necked, the flesh of the neck roundly distinct from body and jaw; a loop of flesh. Deep-eared. And the mask is pleasant, vague.
This dog has put its head in this mask as into a bag of chips. Now it is stuck. It lifts its head and everybody laughs. It is also a child who wants to make the family laugh. It is at the center of the living room. See the family from the child’s vantage, adults’ hands on brown leather chairs: one hand, turned over a thigh, like a pair of socks laid out for tomorrow. Adults looking down at you, with the through-smoke expression of certain people in middle age. These are your relations. They are laughing and it looks a little meager though it’s earnest, black mouth a rectangle between rows of teeth.
The mask has a moon-brow, a wide generous forehead in a soft shelf. It would be almost impossible to climb down that shelf. I see you hanging and dropping from the ridge. The brow extends totally to the ear, decreasing in depth; beyond the corner of the mask’s eye-bone, it is only a raised line that makes a shadow.
I see you on the walk-off of this brow, from a distance going down. I see you on the chair above me. I am coming to meet a person who is entirely a human being, from a very long distance off, a black form who has difficulty descending. I am a child on the floor. I am a dog surrounded by the smell of Lay’s Potato Chips—this smell is a prism of sensation on whose behalf time becomes a pair of scissor-limbs; time is pantographic in the context of this bounty of information.
I am working on 2 ekphrastic chapbooks. Here is an excerpt. This section is about Jean Fouquet’s The Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels, 1452-1458. Please check my blog periodically to receive notice of my chapbooks’ release. I hope to have the first available for purchase by the end of spring.
The woman is on the throne and her dress is open at the breast. The boy is on her cape on her knee. She lowers her chin to look at the boy.
A little girl is looking at the painting. “Why is it so big?” she asks with distrust.
Her mother leans near, sympathetic to the art and her child: “Because she’s nursing the baby.”
“The other one isn’t big.”
“It is. It’s just that her dress is super, super tight—you see, she’s nursing the baby—”
The throne is slick as pietra dura, spotted like salami, various with gradiant pine-green. The cherubim crowd: platelet-red, supernaturally blue. The woman is fashionably white to the point of ugliness, though she is very beautiful. She has a languid humorous air.
The ribbon at her solar plexus is taut and chugging in its eyelets: the heavy, sure and increasing forward motion of locomotives. Her breast bends the white gauze slip. White gauze like the melting edges of ice, a wall-thick ice shrunk by spring, thinner than a human tongue. I remember my childhood: look down through the ground-ice to the black earth it magnifies, wet, wet, grit and herbs.
I have an erotic experience of my own body, indistinguishable from the sensation of a spring breeze, as I observe the wide plane between her shoulder and neck, neck and clavicle. The tops of trees which move like water.
The ends of her fingers are pink as sheep’s mouths. The blue angels’ hands are vulpine in their prayer-shapes. Some animals mature outside the womb: the belly-shaped puppy is red but purple too, and gray, and not yet designated by limits. The workmen move competently and do not rush. I think of the workman on the roof striding. He is smoking without his hands and he lifts lumber and his big-booted feet. The wholesomely blind animal is under way. I see the men doing the newborn animal into completion. But the red of the cherubim is thorough. The cherubim are entire and unlimited.
My short story Valley of the Kings is now live on Beacon Quarterly’s blog! It’s about occultism in the Los Angeles suburbs. Thank you very much to the Beacon team and especially to brilliant editor Kailla Coomes.
Photo: self-portrait in high school
All names have been changed
When I was sixteen I baptised my friend Wendy. Jessica Falco had committed suicide over Christmas break and Wendy had started seeing things. This would be the year 2006.
In life Jessica Falco had been thick-bodied and sad. She wore clothes that made her look and feel like a wallet—false suspenders and studded straps and big black pockets. She had black hair in the shadow-puppet shapes of aughts updos. In the summer before high school I went around with her and her boyfriend and Ashley Scicli and Ashley’s boyfriend. We walked through town and we crossed the tracks and crossed the tracks back. I look at myself crossing the tracks in my pink polo and my long pearls: I look at myself because later that day I got an email that said “I saw you crossing the tracks with some kids from the other school”. It was from a friend I was trying to duck. I pictured myself as she must have seen me from the passenger side of a car. I didn’t reply to say that it was Ashley and Jessica she had seen me with, girls she knew as well as I did.
On the day that I was wearing my pink polo we went to the roof of the parking garage to walk around some more. Jessica got up on the little concrete wall at the edge of the roof and said to her boyfriend “If I jumped, would you jump too?” She was facing him. She had her silly hands open. Like most of the girls our teachers considered dangerous, Jessica had dim eyes that lifted and closed like a Betsey Clark baby. She had a shy boyish way. The idea was that she was a thug or something. I think of Kathleen Myers whose twin I had classes with. The twin was your typical Illinois prig, wearing the Illinois expression, which is a sneery quick blink as if she was trying to see something she didn’t like through smoke. Kathleen on the other hand was gentle. She had a lip ring. (Now, it is true that at some point she stabbed her twin in the leg with a pair of scissors, like Boo Radley—but you couldn’t have blamed her.) She grazed over the sidewalk toward me after school one day. She said to me that she had been suspended because a teacher thought she was masturbating at lunch. She was wearing big plaid sleep pants. “I had my hands in my pockets,” she said. She was trying to impress me a little bit and she was also ashamed.
I was irritated by Jessica Falco’s dramatic pose. Her boyfriend said yes he would jump too. The hair on his head was like a chicken on her breast as he hugged her. Maybe I told them to get down and maybe I didn’t. I don’t like heights.
Jessica hanged herself over Christmas break and Wendy started seeing things. She would open the door to her bedroom and a shadow would race out of sight like the aliens in Signs. One time there was a dark figure sitting on her bed with its knees drawn up to its chest. I remember picturing this. We were walking in a circle around the track during gym. We were outside, so I guess that means it was spring. Wendy was asking me what she should do about it. I enjoyed being treated like an expert. I said I thought I should baptize her. At my house Wendy sat in the white chair in my computer room and I stood over her with a Duralex Picardie tumbler full of water. I insisted that this would get rid of the shadow people. She agreed as if I was trying to trick her. As I baptized her she looked to the side and tucked her mouth into her cheeks like a child with a secret.
For a few years after, whenever I went into the city I would compulsively check the crowds for Jessica. We weren’t especially close. She was Ashley Scicli’s friend and that’s why I walked around with her. I don’t think we ever got together again after that summer. Sometimes these days I google her and I read her obituary and I read her name in the RIP section beneath the Grin N Barrett column of the bulletin at Mary Queen.
She went to see the man. She went to the hotel. He regarded her dress with delight. “You look poppish!” he said. Their first languages were not the same; in her mind she cycled through meanings: “puffy”, “like a puppy”, “like a doll”. He said, “Like a 60s pop singer!”
After a while they lay side by side and they spoke. He had a way of rising up from inside his talk with clear honesty, a bewildering habit because it came at strange times in a sentence and because his honesty was so naked, considered but without self-pity. In this respect he spoke like a man who had been in AA, but as far as she knew he had never been an addict. Maybe this was a French characteristic and maybe it was normal there.
Today she told him that she didn’t trust him. She said it wasn’t that she thought he was deceitful. She said that she didn’t trust his opinion of her. They were talking in the dim gray of the room with the blinds drawn. It was on the first floor. He had that toothpaste smell of male sex. With care because their first languages were not the same he told her some things. She was surprised. She was surprised to be surprised, because she leaned idly on her natural empathy. She had an outsized ability to predict others’ lines of thought. She was not right as ubiquitously as she had come to expect.
The man filled a glass of water and she drank it; he filled the glass again and he drank it. When she was fifteen she went to Jamba Juice with the other students in the play. She was not well-liked in the little drama club. She was very afraid when she was with them. She was in a daze of fear. Among the students there was a boy for whom she had a big desire. He was tall. He had wide lips on top of the flat line of his mouth: this gave him a look of self-contained irony, like a Victorian woman. He noticed things. The boy was cruel to her—as far as she could tell beyond the haze of her fear. He was cruel probably because he was long and old and about to go to college, and because he thought her abstraction was funny. At some point he had seen something of her body, which was exceptionally slender and good back then. She understood in a sort of mythological way that he was interested in her sexually. She understood also that he found her repulsive.
In Jamba Juice the boy looked at her and they spoke. Pointedly he asked if he could try her drink and she said all right and he took her cup. He sucked on her orange straw. There was a moment of silence amongst the drama students: then one lifted her lip in disgust and said “Sick.”
In the hotel the woman and the man were happy together. She said to him to come on her breasts. The warmth of come, its sort of warmth, was very strange. It was most like breath from the nose in winter. Maybe like a horse’s breath. They washed up.
When she opened the door she saw rain: water bouncing from the ground like the balls and stems of crocusses. Light in the water. For an instant, slower than time, she was astonished and didn’t know what she was looking at.
She said goodbye at the door. There was a man noticing her in the parkinglot. As she moved toward the tree across the street the man from the parking lot came to her: he said, “If I gave you my business card, would you be interested?”
“No, no, no,” she said, and she was not offended or suprised. “That’s my boyfriend.” She meant that the man she had left in the hotel room was not a john.
She stood beneath the little green tree getting rain on her head, which she liked. She was waiting for a taxi. She was confused. She was confused the way you are confused when you discover that your destination is on a different street than the one you’d pictured. You are not lost and not afraid of becoming lost, but your human mind which desires custom hesitates to put aside the idea it had built and decided on. She had told a lie: he was not her boyfriend. She had told the truth: she was not a prostitute. She was surprised at the lie and at the truth.
I am very grateful to the publications who have shared my work this year: the Arcade Materials project, Meat for Tea, Beacon Quarterly, and Salt Hill Journal (not pictured). May 2020 bring me into new work and new friendships. May we all serve our art well.
Music: “I Am Not Zen”, Ambulance