Essays from

An Arrangement of Skin

The man on the other end of Houston’s local suicide hotline said his name was Blain. He had the nasal voice of a Texas weatherman: its kazoo-like lilt and swampy, Gulf Coast slowness. “I guess you know why I’m calling,” I said. Blain said he did not know and why didn’t I tell him. I told Blain that my life was falling apart. I told Blain how clichéd it was that I just said that, and I was a poet and hated clichés. I told Blain that every citizen in my former city—Richmond, Virginia—and my current one—Houston, Texas—was now aware of the affair I’d had before the breakup of my seven-year relationship. That the day after the blowout in which my newly minted ex, Carrick, kicked me out of our apartment, I’d defended my dissertation in a circle of English professors at the University of Houston in a pursed-smile stupor. “What does the color red symbolize in your work, Anna?” Dr. Serrano had asked me, cocking her head. I wanted to rip the blinds from the office window. I wanted to shout, “This is how I feel about red!” Afterward, instead of celebrating my years of hard work in graduate school and the fact that I could now plunk “Dr.” in front of my own name, I returned to collapse on a friend’s mattress, with her silver tabby, Slider, watching the cat chase phantom mice among the amber patches of her quilt.

I told Blain how one of my closest friends, Lee, had ratted me out to Carrick and gossiped to our acquaintances. Lee had been my literary mentor and surrogate uncle throughout college, the person who’d first introduced me to poetry—my passion and my vocation. We’d spent hours talking about poetry: sitting in his office where even the faux fireplace gaped with books; hiking along trails and icy Appalachian creeks in Sugar Hollow; sipping coffee at orange tables with mismatched fifties chairs in the punk-rock diner on Cary Street, the walls patchworked with graffiti-inspired paintings and studded with antique dolls’ heads. I loved Lee’s wild stories: how the FBI tapped his phone in the seventies after he’d organized campus protests against the Vietnam War; how he once went whitewater rafting with a Utah cowgirl; how he rented an apartment in London for two weeks only to discover he’d be rooming with the English actor Ben Cross. Not only were my relationship and my long-valued friendship broken, I felt as if poetry itself was broken—that my writing and the person who had first nurtured it had deserted me. The magic that used to infuse the fables and myths in my poems now seemed as extinct as the dodo or as impossible as the unicorn.

I told Blain that in the dregs of my guilt, before I’d been outed for the affair, I’d invented a ritual to stop time. When Carrick zipped his upright bass into its black canvas case the size of a body and drove off in his station wagon for a weekend gig with a string band in Austin, I was relieved to have the apartment to myself for a few days so I didn’t have to fake feeling normal. I didn’t have to send text messages with the door locked and the shower running. I didn’t have to sit on the porch, looking up at the lawn’s gnarled live oak where even the silver Spanish moss seemed truly metallic, too heavy for the tree’s arms to hold. Late one night I left the quiet of the apartment and bought a five-dollar egg timer from the twenty-four-hour Kroger on West Gray. As I paid for the timer I managed to make cheerful small talk with the ponytailed cashier amid the unforgiving chisel of the grocery store’s halogen lights. I walked back through the dark Texas streets tiered in ratty date palms, battered tea roses, and scumbled rows of oleanders barely lit in their own fuchsia glow. At home I opened the plastic clamshell packaging and sat the egg timer on top of a swan’s nest of yellow bath towels lumped on the floor. I cranked the Rolling Stones from my cheap speakers. I synced the coarse voice of Keith Richards and the driving snare drum toward the end of “Thru and Thru” with my timer’s shrill alarm, which I’d coordinated to coincide with the precise tick of midnight. I smashed the ringing clock with a claw hammer until I broke through the white plastic, until there was nothing left to break there at the empty center of the sound.

~

“The secret wish of all poetry is to stop time,” says poet Charles Simic. I’ve wanted to still a moment before, the way the sycamore-spotted birthmark on my inner thigh looks like a continent about to divide itself; the time my mother discovered my grandfather’s gay porn stash while cleaning out his house in Jackson after his death; the way a crawdad will hold its pinch until it hears thunder, according to those shivery Southern myths whispered in the dark of the porch. I’ve felt stilled by poems before, writing them and reading them. Haven’t we all felt like this, though, even when we’re feeling entirely unpoetic? Even when we’re vindictive and terrified and enraged and small? Hasn’t the world slowed to an acute and clarifying bluntness as we dropped an exposed toothbrush on an airport bathroom’s queasy-green tile, or as we skidded into a pickup’s bumper, or as we hung up the phone, that voice saying goodbye in anger reverberating like the end of Pangaea, that ancient landmass ripping and rifting forever?

“The lyric moment is an eternal moment,” poet Kathleen Graber suggests, “one that resurrects and resanctifies what has been lost. To stop time and to experience one moment of stillness. What is more impossible, more desired, than that?”

~

I don’t know why on my first trip to Paris last summer, at thirty-one years old, I chose to visit a dusty 180-year-old house of taxidermy over the grandeur of the Louvre or Versailles. Several months after my conversation with Blain, I’d fled the smothering white oak swamps of East Texas for the sunny perkiness of Southern California. I began teaching and slowly winding my way back to poetry. I watched my students’ eyes flash with surprise as we discussed a poem by Jack Gilbert in which a lonely man sits in his kitchen projecting a pornographic film onto the surface of a plum, as if in doing so he might contain a diffuse, unruly desire. I watched my office door creak open as a student entered, eager and shy and falling in love with writing the way I had a decade earlier.

Not long after I moved to Venice Beach, with its Craftsman-style bungalows and dazzling rows of duck-cruised canals, I married a deeply kind man—and fellow writer—near the edge of a seaside cliff on Catalina Island, where the leggy newlywed teen Norma Jeane Baker (the future Marilyn Monroe) once lived for a year and where the actress Natalie Wood slipped from her yacht to drown in her down jacket and dark curls. I felt drawn to Catalina for its glamorous past; its tragic women; its uneasy, isolated beauty. And though I’d grown happier and more stable since contemplating suicide, I’d never quite rid myself of the hauntedness—that spidery guilt, humiliation, and defeat webbing me even amid the salt-and-jasmine sea breezes and easy West Coast light.

~

Deyrolle is part Parisian taxidermy shop, part museum of oddities situated on a bustling strip of the Left Bank’s rue du Bac—a street swarming with slim, speed-walking women in ballet flats and stubbled men in cashmere scarves. Deyrolle is a portal into another, stiller world: that calm and timeless center within a glitzy, temporal swirl. The shop’s double doors and front windows gleam in oiled mahogany, trimmed with gold paint, and inside someone’s sponged all the walls a mild lima-bean green. The second story houses Deyrolle’s collection of taxidermied animals and insects. A few hunting trophy heads of deer and buffalo stud the walls, but the four rooms are mostly filled with creatures frozen in realistic poses: a white peacock and its blue-and-green counterpart sit side-by-side on perches in a corner, facing the wall in order to better spread their tail feathers for visitors; a honey badger with a dropped jaw raises one front paw as if to step miraculously from its display log; a spiny anteater hangs from a branch with its taupe muzzle poking out at passersby. In one side room, narrow as an old railway car, an array of vintage pedagogical boards adorn the walls and peep from cabinets: framed diagrams of grey-fluted mushrooms; pictures of the labor of honeybees in their golden hives; prints of the delicate skeletal structures of frogs that look as if someone lifted the lid to an amphibious piano to reveal its secret machinery. In a large middle chamber are displays of shells, corals, and crustaceans, interrupted here and there by the jut of a stuffed zebra, an upright polar bear, or a pair of chestnut-colored capybara that resemble ancient, knee-high horses with rounded snouts. Several of the rooms also contain boxes of minerals (quartz, gypsum, European granite); and the final back gallery offers the shop’s entomological collection: white butterflies with wings the sheen of mother-of-pearl; a cicada mounted next to its own crepe-thin shell on a piece of shellacked bark; fat scorpions with black tails poised to strike. Deyrolle is almost entirely walled with glass-fronted wooden cabinets of curiosities. The shelves are stacked with sepia-flecked ostrich eggs mounted on pewter stands, collages made of layered monarch wings that radiate an odd poignancy, anatomical charts on the red and threadlike neural systems of spiders, corked apothecary vials of seahorses that have the matte patina of dried honeycombs. The curio cabinets make up Deyrolle’s Wunderkammer, or “wonder-rooms.”

~

I’ve learned that the word “taxidermy” comes from the Greek taxis (“arrangement”) and derma (“skin”), and may be defined, literally, as “an arrangement of skin.” In addition to being well-versed in the details of anatomy and the craft of tanning, taxidermists must also work to evoke that ineffable spark of life: call it a soul, a personality, a sentience. If we see a bit of batting poking from a belly seam or an amber dab of dried glue oozing from the side of a glass eye, the spell is broken and the work recedes into lifelessness. And taxidermy is about life, not death. I’ve realized this slowly, staring at the miniscule bristles and graceful angles of limbs. It’s about the ability to look closely and patiently at the body of an animal. The taxidermist represents not the dead creature, but the living one, held in time, for just an instant. Taxidermy creates the illusion that an animal’s movement has only momentarily been stilled.

~

Ten years ago, when I took my first undergraduate poetry class at Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond, I slept with a plastic bottle of Ambien on my bedside table to remedy my insomnia. At least that was what I told my friends, and even myself. Occasionally, I could feel that awful secret as it twinged hotly on my tongue, like a clove-spiced lozenge. I realized that keeping the sleeping pills within my reach was my own perverse sort of insurance policy: my escape in case I finally decided to swallow a handful. Whenever the pull grew too strong, I’d flush them.

The pull grew less strong as I discovered poetry: how Sylvia Plath’s speaker brags in “Lady Lazarus” about her phoenix-like capacity for resurrection and triumph from suicidal catastrophe: “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.” Or how Charles Wright imagines a constellation shaped like a swirling, ethereal spider—“juiced crystal and Milky Way”—and traces how we seek transformative beauty in the details of our daily lives: “All morning we look for the white face to rise from the lake / like a tiny star. / And when it does, we lie back in our watery hair and rock.”

~

The stone crab at Deyrolle seems to float in a coral cloud of its own body parts behind a cube of Plexiglas. It’s the size of a dinner plate and dangles in evenly spaced segments, like a marionette, joined by pencil-thick lengths of copper wire. Its jagged orange pinchers, fractured and reassembled, point to the sky. The stone crab holds a shape impossible in life. It’s as if it had dropped from a great height, and, just at the moment of impact, just as the fragments of shell began to roll away from each other, someone froze time. Below the crab crouches a cat-sized taxidermied skunk with hair wispier and more delicate than I’d imagined such a feral critter having. Its black-and-white stripes mingle into a narrow patch of silver in the once-wind-tussled arch of its spine, as if a strange breeze had just blown up the spiral staircase of the shop and passed by.

~

In his famous essay, “Some Reflections on Dolls,” early-twentieth-century Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke voices his antipathy toward dolls. According to Rilke, those lifelike objects trick us, as children, into inventing souls for them, a process that later results in feelings of disillusionment and betrayal. Once the child realizes that her toy has outgrown her sympathies, the figure’s dark, disenchanting nature “would break out,” Rilke writes, “it would lie before us unmasked as the horrible foreign body on which we had wasted our purest ardor; as the externally painted watery corpse, which floated and swam on the flood-tides of our affection, until we were on dry land again and left it lying forgotten in some undergrowth.” To Rilke, the relationship connecting a child and a doll unravels, over time, into a sinister one.

~

Yet that’s not why I could no longer look with easy affection at my own favorite stuffed animal from childhood, Charlie: that golden lab puppy my mother bought me instead of a live dog when I was in third grade. During the same humid Houston fall that I’d phoned Blain, I’d also confessed regularly into the ear of the stuffed dog. It sounds suspect, but I wasn’t hallucinating. I didn’t believe the dog would talk back. I must’ve needed a way to enact a dialogue with my own mind: Should I kill myself? What about my parents, my little sister, my best friend in Oregon with her new baby? How could Lee so self-righteously rat me out, sever our friendship and the link that connected me to my first experience of poetry? And how could I be a good writer and teacher of poetry if I constantly heard the harsh, judgmental rasps of my old mentor thrumming in my skull? Was I unforgivable?

I whispered to Charlie about how I’d told Blain my fantasy of checking into the campus Hilton, locking myself in the bathroom, and swallowing a handful of Ambien. When Blain asked me to consider the shock of the housekeeper who’d discover my body, how the trauma would affect that person, I paused to picture the scene. First, I might as well order room service and have the butter-poached lobster and a pomegranate martini—a sort of “last call” for pleasure, courtesy of the material world. I’d then write a note and tape it to the bathroom door, warning the cleaning crew of the room’s grisly contents, thereby warding off the horror of an unanticipated discovery. I’d write the note in both English and Spanish, just to be sure. I’d print the words because my cursive is clumsily elephantine from my only using it to sign cover letters for poetry submissions or checks to renew my New Yorker subscription each October. I wouldn’t use any hotel towels. I’d keep the hem of the shower curtain free of the bathtub. I’d leave a big cash tip by the phone. I pictured myself curling up in the tub, with an inch or two of warm water drawn for comfort. I could just let myself wander off. As my breathing slowed I’d slump lower in the tub, my red hair spoking from my pale face like mad Ophelia’s waves in the Danish brook. The way the flat practicalities of my plan pitched into an idealized—even precious—morbidity jarred and disgusted me. I wouldn’t be at all like Shakespeare’s Ophelia, floating eternally and lovely and tragic: I’d just be dead. I promised Blain I wouldn’t be booking an eternal stay at the campus Hilton anytime soon.

~

I stood a long time in front of the pair of taxidermied peacocks at Deyrolle. I liked the way someone had positioned the white peacock next to the bird with saturated hues, as if the anemic one were dreaming sideways and in a cascade of color. Or vice versa: the blue-and-green peacock looked back on the distant winter of his own mind to find that—yes—he’d survived. The pairing reminded me I now stood on the other side of that November in Houston, safe on a whole other coast and in a new quality of light.

~

Since 1831, the principle of Deyrolle has been “to bring to human nature the sense of observation and description”; that “if one wants to protect nature, one has to know it.” Instead of an Eiffel Tower postcard, I chose a baby scorpion as a souvenir of my first trip to Paris. I thought the larger arachnids, with their curled fat tails, might break during my flight back to California. The bespectacled man behind the counter in the entomology room, who’d gently scolded me a few minutes earlier for photographing the stone crab, pinned my scorpion inside a small cardboard box and padded its body in cotton. His pupils looked unusually dilated, as if his daily peering into the minute details of shining beetles and rare butterflies had forever magnified his gaze. I wondered, as I descended the stairs to the street, if the airport security guards at U.S. Customs would linger over the X-ray of my bags; if they’d ever seen a woman carrying a baby scorpion in her purse; if, as their scanners turned objects transparent, they’d glance at me; if they’d ask me how many times in this life I’d been stung, and with what difficulty, perhaps, I had managed to survive.

~

In “Some Reflections on Dolls,” Rilke addresses the deceitful doll-soul, as if he held the shell of it—that silent object—in his hands:

O soul, that has never been really worn, that has only been kept always stored up (like furs in   summer), protected by all kinds of old-fashioned odors: look, now the moths have got into you. You have been left untouched too long, now a hand both careful and mischievous is shaking you—look, look, all the little woebegone moths are fluttering out of you, indescribably mortal, beginning, even at the moment when they find themselves, to bid themselves farewell.

As I wandered the wonder-rooms of Deyrolle, I imagined the inverse of Rilke’s disillusionment in which moths flutter—terribly mortal—from the body of the shaken doll. I imagined each creature held a history inside it, the intricacies of a lived life, with its shifting landscapes and loves. I imagined the spiny anteater licking garnet clusters of ants, flicking its lavender tongue, and the yellowed ivory of a nineteenth-century fox skeleton in a bell jar beginning to shiver and plink out its story of longing for a red barn and a farmer’s chicken coop. I imagined the white peacock perfectly camouflaged on a blizzard-encrusted stump, as if the snow had grown a miraculous bird of powder-white plumes, who now rises—resurrected—from the shining, winter ice.

There, almost two years on the living side of that divide I had faced in Houston, I could also imagine how my act of looking—the care with which I engaged the world, that alertness and openness and sensitivity—was a way to beat back the seductiveness of death. When I stepped into Deyrolle, the magic and energy of lives pulsed around me: countless species and shells and wings and the most complexly beautiful—and fragile—skeletons. I felt wonderstruck. These specimens of stopped time were, I realized, transparent, undying. Deyrolle was like an ark that carried me—carries all of us, our stories. I felt that world I had once tried to pry apart within the egg timer finally open up and let me—still breathing—step inside.

 

reprinted from AGNI

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