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In The Mix with Intermix

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Adrian Nelson
Adrian Nelson

Sensual Haunting

Collagen is a tough, flexible molecule that supports ligaments, tendons, cartilage, bones, and teeth. The molecule is a triple helix of amino acid chains, held together by hydrogen bonds. Collagen may be relatively simple in form for a protein yet, brought to life through stainless steel and colored glass, it has a haunting, sophisticated quality.

Sensual Haunting

Anna M. Esquivel is an assistant professor of English at Jackson State Community College, where she teaches writing and literature. Her academic essays can be found in Black Magnolias: A Literary Journal and the online journal From Rural to the Academy. Her fiction and poetry can be found in Mais Oui! and Red Hot Chick Lit Review. Through both her academic and creative work, she explores sensual textuality and seeks a unified theory of eroticism.

JVE: At the moment, I'm haunted by a recent reissue of Sally Mann'sImmediate Family, a collection of photographs of her children in ruralVirginia; the photos are stunning and blurry and dreamlike, with lots ofinner life pulsating all over the place. I bought the book because of athought-provoking essay of Mann's in the New York Times this past Aprilin which she addresses the controversy over her work--I wasn't thatfamiliar with her photos or aware that many people think she exploits herkids and reveals too much about them (they're often nude in the photos).Of all works of art, real connection happens for me most immediately withportrait photography, the kind of I-Thou contact that Martin Buber describes,instead of the I-It relationship that lets the photo remain an object. Facesand bodies in photos often feel very active and participatory in their beingseen--they become a Thou to be met and reckoned with--and they can haunt youfor days. Photos like hers that raise questions about ethical responsibilityto your subject are particularly haunting because of how they resonate withwriting work, with the responsibility we have to the people we write about,characters both invented and real. Mann's photos are all the more tenderand uncomfortable because she's a mother photographing her children, soall the roles blur. This question of responsibility to our subjects opens tothe larger question of the artist's responsibility to the world thatwe're here to bear witness to; the question itself probably haunts allartists. We are more global and connected than ever, ofcourse--virtually--yet only by the thinnest of threads, it seems, which breakif they're strained the tiniest bit. It's overwhelming, and I guessthe way I often explore that overwhelming and baffling connection is byreturning in my work to the small community I grew up in, to those mustyhouses where I went to youth group meetings and we had to go real slow up thegravel road in the dark because the black angus would crowd around the carand lick it and we couldn't see them, we had to be careful--thoseconnections between people were the first and strongest I'd sensed sothey still instruct me.

In a wonderful poem by West Virginia poet Irene McKinney, "Homage toHazel Dickens" she writes: "Whether we go or stay, we've lostit./ The porch, the cold crocks of cream in the cellar,// the redbone houndin the yard, the wild azalea all orange/ and sweet, we've lost itstanding here looking at it// this way" When you look at your home, thevery stuff of your day, with a certain kind of gaze that recognizes the stuffis imbued with preciousness because it's fleeting, I think everythingstarts to haunt you--the faces of your freshmen composition students, yourmailman who limps, the girls down the road who do each other's makeup onthe front porch. Of course we can't look at things that way all thetime, with that kind of gaze--we'd short circuit or explode and wewouldn't be able to tie our shoes for the ridiculous weeping! But thespiritual practice of writing is what trains us to see that way at sustainedwonderful increments and to try to render what we see, to say Look. I thinkwhen you look at a piece of art that rises up in you and haunts you, it meldswith the stuff already haunting around in your mind so that there's areal sense of interconnectedness, maybe wholeness.

JH: You're a very sensual writer--I keep thinking about how, in theessay, you describe "the divot in the pillow on the camphor-smellbed" and legs "caked in pantyhose" Where do you think yourattention to the senses comes from?

The "city" is to Cavafy what "Nature" was to Wordsworth, what the "garden" was to Andrew Marvell, what the "unspoiled countryside" has been to innumerable poets: a source for poetic inspiration, self-justification, redemption. It is most refreshing to find a poet who has focused his vision on the life of city streets rather than musing in the pasture. It is this urban focus which marks out Cavafy as a clearly modern poet, and Edmund Keeley in his book Cavafy's Alexandria: Study of a Myth in Progress (Hogarth Press, 1996) rightly appreciates that this theme – usually the city of ancient Alexandria – is both the touchstone of the poet's developing sensibility and the best guide for the reader who wishes to grasp the underlying unity of his work. Keeley does a fine job of charting Cavafy's progress through its streets, sometimes mean, sometimes splendid, sometimes halting, often erotic.First of course there is the Literal City; fortunately Keeley doesn't burden the reader with historical chronicles, as Cavafy often manipulated his history and mere facts can be irrelevant. Probably the most important fact of the literal city is Cavafy's second-floor apartment in the Rue Lepsius, and Alexandria's cafes and bisexual brothels where he imbibed the cosmopolitan pleasures and sometimes slipped into a small corner of torment.Next is the Metamorphic City, Alexandria of the past, the crowning glory of the Ptolemaic empire. Within this city the poet's imagination is put to the hard task of somehow reconciling (mostly by means of irony) the harsh conflict of the present and the past, sordidness with beauty, achieved by combining the rhetoric of grandeur with the understatement of worldly observation. This is a testing ground for Cavafy's verbal skill, but in terms of content, the past won out; it was only through a projection of himself into history that Cavafy could exonerate the kind of love that modern society considers shameful: homosexuality.Poetic town planning thus produces the Sensual City peopled by godlike young men of rare beauty, mapped in vivid details of the flesh and a remarkable coming-out of the poet with explicit homosexual themes. But Cavafy paid a very high price upon entering the gates of the Sensual City: he became an ageing sensualist. It must be admitted, regretfully, that there is more fantasy than actuality in this city: Cavafy seems to debauch upon reflection – We who serve Art, / sometimes with the mind's intensity / can create pleasure that seems almost physical." I consider such elitism to be a bluff for failure, an over-compensation for the sense of loss which runs through Cavafy's poetry: "all lost so quickly ... / the poetic eyes, the pale face ... / in the darkening street". As Keeley observes, "one senses that Cavafy's voyage from a passionate reality to a redemption in art has been made at a high price. With the elevation of his city to a realm where memory, imagination, and metamorphosed feeling rule entirely, where the act of poetic creation has come to replace the act of involved physical passion, we discern that the actual city outside his window has become unrecognizable to him ... made inaccessible by the poet's intense preoccupation with the haunting image of an earlier city."Somewhat paradoxically, Cavafy's most concrete homosexual poems also contain the most sublimated archetype – images of Adonis, a lad so lovely that Cavafy sometimes tumbles headlong into a sentimentalised paean to his virtues and beauty. Cavafy says in "Days of 1909, '10, and '11": "I ask myself if the great Alexandria / of ancient times could boast of a boy / more exquisite, more perfect – thoroughly neglected though he was" in modern Alexandria. Keeley justly punctures this nostalgic balloon: "Given the normal range of priorities in the twentieth century, it is difficult to blame even the society of British-occupied Egypt for failing to support this Adonis under some system of patronage that would reward beauty alone."Eventually Cavafy's obsession with transforming the past leads to the Mythical City, a Hellenism nearly as puritanical, despite its fundamentally hedonistic bias, as Julian the Apostate's attempt to revive paganism to counteract Christianity. Ultimately Cavafy's vsion is that of a snob: the best people are those who dress like the Greeks, talk like the Greeks, behave like the Greeks – whether in Alexandria or Antioch or Cyprus – and take "the Hellenic kind of pleasure." Heeley wisely refrains from noting that Cavafy was very nearly a homosexual chauvinist. "The Greek way of life" may indeed be infinitely superior to "holy" Judaism and Christianity, as Cavafy says most convincingly in "Myris: Alexandria, AD340", but when all is said and done, even the most attractive male prostitute in Antioch is after all just a human being, not an idol of Eros to be worshipped so slavishly.Humour is rare in Cavafy's work, though it occasionally occurs: "But they had the satisfaction that their life / was the notorious life of Antioch, / delectable, in absolute good taste" ("Julian and the Antiochians"). Done with humour, such Philhellenism would be most acceptable, but Cavafy's predominant earnestness makes it ripe for debunking. Keeley is himself a bit too serious in his criticism of the poems, a bit too sympathetic to Cavafy's compassion and commitment and pride and suffering, a bit too impressed by his obvious sincerity, to stop and realise that it is precisely the poet's sincerity which is most cloying.The last stage of the journey is all too predictable: the Universal City, where the poet's affirmation of ancient values becomes an act of faith – inevitably tragic and heroic – in the fact of historical transience. Again, I have less sympathy for the "nobility" of this theme than does Keeley. But Keeley's general attitude is just: Cavafy is one of this century's major poets, albeit with reservations. 041b061a72


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