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This is Jacket 14 - July 2001   |   # 14  Contents   |   Homepage   |

This issue of JACKET is a co-production with SALT magazine

Carla Harryman

From Gardener of Stars - a novel


WHILE I WAS MISSING Gardener, these creeps were trying to make me part of their harem. The harem was already made up of Bonnie, Mary, Eugenia, Patty, Lililth, Gretchen, Gillian, Zoe, and Fay. Some of these are my favorite names staged and here presented as future Gold Rush brides. There were also infants Lemur, Fox, Wolf, and Bear and older children whose names escape me at the moment except the die-hard Babs who followed me around, because she was to keep an eye on me she said in her transparent voice that went back through generations of well-trodden hopelessness.
    You’re spying on me but I’m taking care of you you rat came blithering out of my mouth truncating the distance between her post-apocalyptic environment and my own childhood. The motion picture sounds of creaking swings yoked me to isolated self-dramatization. Through some vacuity of memory, I situated myself among empty lots, gasoline leaks, and the sound of water running through pipes in a kitchen. The water drips marked a territorial privilege over the little lizards sunning outside under creosote plants. Even in the sensory world of childhood’s memories, basic technologies diminished human feeling for the natural world.
    Could Bab’s cult tell that I had a heart or were they intrusting her to me through instinct? They seemed to be in desperate need of childcare: none of them were really adults. The only thing they seemed to know to do with children was dole out chores to them. So I became Bab’s chore while she of the hard-bitten face, who couldn’t even respond to insults, became mine.
    One day I sat her down to explain to her the word oxymoron and then to describe a magnificent and bucolic world of insults. Babs sat listlessly under the darkening skies as I repressed my desire to tie her to a tree, as my cousins had once done to me when my self-seriousness had bored them. Skipping over the tree-torture story, I proceeded then to reminisce about the marvels of fashion as a way of seducing her into imagining a world outside her own, or as a means of belittling her as best I could . . .

    In the woods of my home, I told her, is a clearing and a little store full of beautiful clothes. My favorites are the pale gold shirts with red threads woven delicately in. That’s because I like wild parties the likes of which you’ve never dreamed. Sometimes the shop is crowded with people slipping clothes on and off. Sea and sky blue dresses rain on the shirts of gold: there is often a kind of orgiastic tremor sublimated in the slipping in and out of the garments taken and then returned to racks repeatedly. People’s bodies start to touch as they voraciously parade around then discard the costumes in favor of something smaller, brainier, kinder, or more monstrous and obscene. Imagine wearing a pencil pattern shirt with a detachable collar embroidered with priests. Oh, but I suppose you don’t know what I mean by priest. Then I reached into my pocket and offered her a chewed-on number two pencil before continuing with my fashion-catalog narrative . . .
    Someone wears a tailered suit she can’t button or zip. She ties the pants around her waist with a silk cord. Someone else puts her legs through a loose-armed shirt, tying the end of the shirt around her hips and buttoning some of the buttons. New boots tied together by their laces are warn around her neck. They bounce against her breasts when she moves. Her feet are also dressed in boots, dainty ones suitable only for peacocks. But she doesn’t care what’s suitable or not. I have followed this girl and that on their private walks to shady spots and watched them try to return to nature in the silence of the death culture. It takes a very long time.
    I narrated all this to the near lifeless Babs, who moved only to swat flies from her pale limbs and morose little cheeks. And this isn’t all, I say, in a thrall of instructive cruelty. For while I watch these things, I find I have company. Men are lurking behind the trees, just as our parents had warned us. Have you been told to watch out for men? I ask her. I don’t tell her about the enormous sensation of well-being that falls on everything as the voyeurs and performers of the almost silent and vague and malingering sexual touching become increasingly aware of each other. I think of this composition as an object much like a small jewel and worth as much as the jewels of earlier times.
    Sometimes the men who still visit our world like to hang out around garden walls. I try to make my way over to Gardener’s when it is her wall they lounge on, which it often is because of all the stylish food and honeysuckle garden scents offered indiscriminately to anybody in that chaos of light and yelling called a home. We gather and watch them from inside to comment on the size of their asses, the curve of their backs, the fit of their pants. The tight, loose, big, voluptuous, and scrawny ones. Those with no belts and dimples on their butts. And those with no shirts and rolls of fat and muscle. While drinking large mugs of home brewed beer, we discuss meticulously which ones attract us and why, speculating on the squeeze of their balls, the taste of their tongues, and the softness of their hair. Which one of them is most like a collie and which a tarantula? The word parrot causes us to scream in fun. We bully each other about our preferences and belittle each other’s sex until we all feel damp and wounded since we always go too far and strike a sensitive nerve in one or other of our precious selves. Usually the men don’t notice us, but if they do, we with the lime wet kisses and dusty skin go out into the garden and ignore them. We slump under trees and sleep the sleep of the belligerent with a kind of pride in possessing nothing but the time passing.
    While I spoke, but mostly to myself, Babs had fallen asleep seated bolt upright against a sappy evergreen. Even a dumb child can make a fool of an adult — though I was turning into something else, not exactly adult. An adolescent passivity was overcoming me. It, the passivity, instructed me to stop talking. I had left the world of my own making and become, rather, an exotic shrub in someone else’s garden. I now suspect this to be a kind of spiritual disease associated with fascination. At home we say the witness is a traitor. She has powers that are committed elsewhere. Committed elsewhere, such that she does not want to perform or even to seduce or charm while all the while becoming more appealing to those to whom she is most indifferent. The meaning of everything becomes sexual.
    The old lady couldn’t stand it either. They treated her like a sacred cow: helping her to her feet, stalking her to the woods to watch her eliminate, serving her weak grainy beverages with odd little oat cakes that otherwise only the great he-man could touch and meanwhile providing her with fuscia sheets, plumped pillows, and eucalyptus oils to panic in as they waited on her hand and foot. Even so, she refused to look at them.
    Beneath the ritual fattening up process (and my own rather mesmeric curiosity which seems to hypnotize me along with every one else) each of our bodies held itself in an invisible brace of fear such that the translation of all events was seen only as literal fact. The scum on the surface of a pond forecasts the extinction of an edible fly. The pond is not resuscitated nor is the scum removed for further study.
    Even the man with his pinched back nerves and denotating privileges nit-picked about everybody’s and everything’s place in his world little creation. What bothered me the most about being there was how evident had become the human regroupings into isolated little subplots from the Westward movement. Whether I liked it or not, this included me. Were we just stock characters in an historical fantasy?
    We were squatters reinventing a trauma our descendants will brood over later facing the chalkboards. One receives a diploma for learning that one is not alone, will never be alone, is part of a past on the other side of splitting atoms; a past paradoxically far less and far more visible than the molecular imagination or technical information, a past, which, moreover, generates great disputes. The statistics of the dead are paraded on the days of these disputes in the grains of memories vying for ascendancy. In every memory lies a capacity for abstraction. One’s mouth of words can feel the bitter taste of the enemy’s chewing whenever data is used as the promise of further killing.
    This moribund world seemed to be waiting for further excitement.
    I recollected the following deaths:  A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, and others who had survived plague and war but whose names  I keep for myself.
    I was trying to get beyond the obvious horror of the place. Ignorance was a product of what they saw as nature or "the way it’s supposed to be." As they fattened Alice, they tried to starve me. Convinced that Gardener was dead, they revered my future demise. Nothing else present — woodpecker or worm or vanilla sap pine — could startle them out of their terror.
    It was time to awaken Alice. As I snuck away from Babs, she released a weird sound. It resembled a high-pitched click such that I mistook her momentarily for a strange insect or snake.
    What are you looking at, she asked in her dimmed-down voice. Nothin’. I said it slowly such that the word nothin’ approached her own trampled jargon. Each one of us waited for the other to make a move.
    Why don’t you like me? she asked at last after something like twenty-five days or seconds, with the wisdom of the ages falling to her feet in hallelujahs of truth and compassion.
    This is not the kind of question one can answer truthfully to a child. She seemed even then, right after asking it, to have forgotten asking it as her eyes followed a grey squirrel up a tree.
    Alice slept under the tree with a spangled blanket wrapped around her knees and her greying black hair wrapped around her shoulders and sticking to her neck and face.
    How did she get here, I asked the girl? I thought she was kept in some kind of gilded prison.
    Do you think you’re in some kind of fairy tale? the girl wanted to know. The lethargic Babs had transformed into someone quick as a whip. She ran circles around the tree. Alice stirred. Babs laughed. Alice slept and struggled with the blanket, which flopped to the ground, as two strange women approached her with a stretcher. They lowered the stretcher next to her. Alice did not wake up as they tugged, lifted, and rolled her onto it. Her arms rooted over its sides, hanging almost rigidly downward.
    Was she unconscious? There was no one to ask. The strange women carried the stretcher swiftly in the manner of a current taking a log downstream. The world had become silent and wrong. (Even in the most isolated realms it can move too fast.) No person seemed to be capable of right conduct. Nothing was knit together in the way I had imagined. Dreams floated up and receded as autonomous wills breaking through netting.
    I am not in what’s going on, but alongside it. That is why it’s still unreal.
    As I followed the stretcher with a sense of foreboding, the girl ran alongside of me panting like an old dog. She would never keep up. Imagine that civilization is oriented around weight and breath. And that the hypnotic site, the cult, the harem, the lily pad of mad decorum, exposes and betrays this fact.
    Alice woke up. No longer herself, she said, I have violated their script. The cult women dropped the cot in panic when Alice started talking. Alice swung her mind to an upright and seated position. And as she railed against human stupidity, her body followed. A little girl threw a small stone at her, hitting her in the head. She was instantly dead. Each person stopped, as if at the end of a riotous ballet and waiting for the curtain to go down, the conductor to appear, the applause to begin. But the conductor did not appear: they were all looking at me.
    In the beginning of a dream was a shrub. The dream said I am a dream and this is a shrub with three foot bushy limbs, four feet in length, and 30 inches deep. It flowers in the early spring and you know its name. In the book in the dream the shrub was represented in a full page pencil drawing by C. Incomplete and scruffy in style, the drawing said less about the shrub than the artist, who had abandoned a fully worked-out rationalized scheme to the whims of the pencil. Who rendered the plant? I asked the dream.
    It must have been uncomfortable with my question because the page turned on its own. Facing swaths of unreadable print, I floated rudely down a torrential stream that tossed me into shapes an alphabet would make. I tried to speak to this event as if it were a person. I am spelling nothing was formed in my mouth but my mouth was at once instantly submerged and opened too huge and inhaling. There must be a perfect relationship between air and body for one to speak is what the dream said as I lay flattened over a quiet spot in the rushing water. This is more dangerous than anything yet, I thought, and decided to pretend to struggle, to trick the dream into an unusual form of predetermination, something it was not quite so familiar with, something it needed to think about, to take time with.
    As the dream slowed to accommodate this new thing, the stream overflowed its banks and washed over the pages of inchoate letters. The letters stuck to the page even so, but as the water receded they began to cry. Aspiring to myth, the dream decided that the tears of the alphabet were the basis for human life. Overjoyed by the innocent feeling of revelation and stimulated by the unanticipated association between letter and life, I was not prepared ( and I am certain now that the dream was setting me up and intent on betraying my innocence) for the dream’s final surreal gesture: the word NARCISSIST used in the style of graffiti painted over everything else. The dream seemed to be delighted by this outcome, particularly by the effect of its stylistic imitation. The word looked so pleased with everything it had obliterated. I woke up frustrated, angry, and unsatisfied.
    The day dissolves ungainly emotions one wakes with or they are absorbed into it. More rarely, the day reflects them all day long. I am only a romantic sometimes. Or passive, introverted, and cruel. A trader, scavanger, masochist, voyeur, or handyman sometimes. And although I do and say almost everything with her in mind, I only care about Gardener sometimes.

One can make love to someone at a distance through someone else who’s hated. Gardener, do you read me? These pages are writing themselves.

Photo of Carla Harryman
Carla Harryman’s novel, Gardener of Stars, is forthcoming from Atelos Press. Other recent books include The Words: after Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stores and Jean-Paul Sartre (1999), There Never Was a Rose without a Thorn (1995), and Memory Play (1994). A native Californian, she is now living in the Detroit area, where she is on the faculty of the Department of English at Wayne State University and co-organizer, (with poet and playwright Ron Allen) of Black Mouth Reader’s Theater in the Cass Corridor area of Detroit.

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This issue of Jacket is a co-production with SALT magazine,
an international journal of poetry and poetics, edited by John Kinsella
PO Box 937, Great Wilbraham, Cambridge PDO, CB1 5JX United Kingdom ISSN 1324-7131

This material is copyright © Carla Harryman
and Jacket magazine and SALT magazine 2001
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