Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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Conceding to Desire

Going through random papers -- my home office is really out of control right now, what with all the insanity of April -- I came across something I had considered using as an artifact here, but mislaid and then wrote on the back of when I was recording my hotel reservation for the 2003 MLA Convention.

Maybe it's because I'm listening to Laibach and just got done visiting Chris -- or "Christopher," as we called him them -- but I'm feeling temporally unstable today.

What I found was a poem Annalee wrote for Thom Gunn's poetry workshop in the spring of 1988 -- I was a freshperson, though a year older than her -- which I ended up sitting in on.

Most of Annalee's poems for the class were playful, deft of touch, and pretty strenuously anti-realist. Gunn used to praise her technique but lament the fact that she didn't seem to deploy it on topics of substance. This annoyed her greatly. But one day, she wrote something more concrete and overtly "real" and turned it in.

Gunn loved it, as did the rest of the students in the class. I remember Leanne -- whom I barely knew at the time, but hung out with at Cody's café after class -- going on and on about how great the poem was.

Annalee, though, clearly felt conflicted about the response to the poem. She worried that it represented a kind of "selling out" to the prurient realist tastes of the poetic mainstream.

Since I vicariously experienced the same concerns through Kim a few years later, as she dealt with performance poetry audiences' desire for the "dirt" of her personal history, I've recalled Annalee's anxieties about her poem many times.

For me, as you may imagine, the poem inspired mixed feelings. Michele was a threat to my relationship with Annalee. But there was something seductive about the idea of being cheated on with a woman. Or, to be more precise, reading Annalee's poem made me realize that there could be something seductive about being cheated on in that way. I'm not sure the thought had ever crossed my mind before, not having had much concrete experience of relationships.

I also liked the poem on its own terms, even though I felt guilty for liking a poem that Annalee had such powerful mixed feelings about:
Michele Dressing

What could I say
when you turned and asked,
"Which one looks better on me?"
You had two skirts on the bed
I did not realize
that you were undressed
until I looked away from the window.
I was full of the street
and at first your arms were not bare
but slowly my eyes made you
as the sunlight drained out of them.
Turning, you hair turned,
your back shifted and
I stood, suddenly strange
in the darkening room.

I answered you finally with my hands
in my pockets.
You looked perfect in everything:
soft and bruised
like a battered princess.
But still you would not dress.
Seeing you in the sunlight
with your sad curves reminded me
of cheap candies --
how could I have thought it?
"You look as if you would taste like
I said
but my voice broke
and I could not smile.

later in the dark
we drank red wine on the balcony
you smoked a cigarette and said
I'd like to be your lover
my hands were cold

you were so soft
I thought you must be rotting
and in the light
you dripped shadows like water

we're psychopathic
you said
tugging at a sleeve

I thought of you dressing
over and over again

always covering yourself with clothes

-- Annalee Newitz, 3/24/88
Given the inconsistency in the punctuation -- one comment in quotes, one not -- this may be a first draft. I don't remember.

Reading it now, I do understand better why Annalee felt she was making troublesome concessions in the poem. The exuberance of her surreal mode suffers a little when it's constrained by a linear narrative. Here, it's the individual images rather than the poem as a whole that impress most.

I have to day, though, that if you ever saw Michele back then, you'd say that Annalee captured her self-presentation perfectly.

We would see her occasionally on BART over the next few years, looking more lost on each successive occasion.

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