CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
Where I Am From
I am from a big book with five books in it. It is often red: a red book, a red binding. We were slaves in Egypt, we stood at the bottom of Sinai with a golden calf made of melted bracelets and with tambourines, etcetera. I am mixed on the subject, but mostly proud in a useless and illogical manner.
But it is my original family, my gene-tango. My extended blood. Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Romania, Austria, Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island, places I may never go or may never go again but my bones in my face sing these songs anyway, and can be recognized by the more recent immigrants, by the natives of each cabbage-souped place.
Of tenements I know nothing but how the word beats in me, beats me. Of how I beat it to death.
Questions true me. The culture of asking a lilting question, a rocking back-and-forth question. The culture of an angry question full of lilt. The questions in those five red books: why hast thou forsaken and where are and why. Why why. Like my daughter, age two, the why-why girl. The how I question the true of all those nations and neighborhoods and tenements, little ghettos all mixed up and rebordered and unvisited. The question of self, of blood, of faith, of God, of books of rules. The rule questions: why on this night and how many stars before and if in its mother’s milk.
How untrue it all may be and how history makes it, if not true, then long. And my family. My mother’s milk, that I drank and that I make. The one I cannot escape, even forty years in a desert, even with a snake close at hand with an apple, even in a language lost and found, in diaspora, in exile, self-imposed or otherwise.
And so: a new song:
On an airplane between O’Hare and JFK, I stop reading the manuscript of the former student on whom I have a past, current, and lasting crush in order to turn up the satellite radio station on my headphones and listen to The Vapors doing “Turning Japanese,” a song about which I heard a rumor, when it was originally out, which was a long time ago, that it is about masturbating. That “turning Japanese” means to masturbate. I am thinking about these things at the same time as thousands of people in Myanmar are starving to death after a massive cyclone hit, and at the same time that thousands of Chinese people are sitting outside in the rain after their homes were destroyed by a massive earthquake that devastated the Sichuan region. I don’t necessarily want to be thinking about masturbation although I want to hear this song, this old song I love. I don’t necessarily want to masturbate to the manuscript by my former student or to the thought of my former student, but hearing the song I now realize that when I once urged my former student, forcefully, in front of the whole class, to write into and through his baser heterosexual male desires and let himself be a little more hateful, a little bit crueler, in his poems, that this was a kind of come-on. It was a genuine workshop comment, and probably good advice—I miss those baser desires in this manuscript I am now reading—but it was a come-on and perhaps he and I both knew it. At any rate, I know it now.
Why does turning Japanese mean masturbating? Is it something racist, having to do with a squint, that I can’t fathom? Japan is the first country whose international aid has just been accepted by China after the terrible earthquake. The first plane has left the ground. This is the kind of thing my former student writes about in his manuscript: air travel, natural disaster, other countries, masturbating. It is not the reason I have a crush on him but it’s not not the reason. I have recently told my former student about my crush and he has told me he also had a crush on me because of my first book and my poem about Henry James. I told him, even if you were repugnant to me I would still love your poems which is true but I also told him I don’t know if I could find the person repugnant who wrote these poems that I love which is also true.
By the time the Japanese aid reaches China, many, many schoolchildren will have already been buried alive in the rubble. By the time I have gotten to this age my masturbatory life has become rather stagnant. By the time I get to the end of my former student’s manuscript I want it to have turned nastier—more “dirty sweet” in the words of another current crush—and I say as much in the automated comment box along the side of the page. I write, “By the time I got done reading this book I wondered where the meanness went; I want it to be more brutal” and by the time I write that I realize that this may have more to do with me and my crush on my former student and my crush on the world and my need for everything to have a dark, sad-happy sex-energy tinge to it than to do with the poems. By the time I stop reading my former student’s manuscript and writing my masturbatory comments and realize that I want to turn up the volume on “Turning Japanese,” the song is nearly over. “Kids in America” by Kim Wilde comes on next.
Arielle Greenberg is coauthor of Home/Birth: A Poemic; author of My Kafka Century and Given; and coeditor of three anthologies, including Gurlesque. She lives in Maine, where she teaches in the community and in Oregon State University-Cascades’ MFA program, and writes a column on contemporary poetics for American Poetry Review.