April Snow

This is the walk she knows they will never take:

down the jealous sidewalk

where every step’s a stumble,

across volcano train tracks

sleepy in sunlight and screeching at the moon,

toward the glassy freshwater air

and the green that spills

down into skirted diamond current

where she kicks off her shoes

without thought,

half drowned in her mind slipping

with him off the bank, buoyant,

free and fluid-limbed,

creatures the likes of which the river has never seen,

as if there were no such thing as fish.

edited 8 June 2020

9 April 2016

How ‘Bout Them Apples?

How do you like them apples now? I hear

The anthem being taken up. And yet

The tune is faint and easy to forget

If panic has not stuck it in your ear,

Or drummed it down into your bones, or lodged

It in the antechambers of your heart,

Reminding you, should revolution start,

There can be just so many bullets dodged.

How do you like them apples now? we said,

And swift was the response: Only a few,

A few bad apples—but their aim was true

The night that she was murdered in her bed.

Our cry goes out to jury, judge, and jailer:

Convict the cops who killed Breonna Taylor.

15 June 2020

Who Wants a Lover?

Who wants a lover this Valentine’s Day?

Who wants a meaningless fling?

Who wants a romance with no consequences,

No major commitments, just minor offenses,

No number, no text, and no ring?

 

Who wants a lover this fourteenth of Feb?

Who wants a roll in the hay?

Who wants next morning to say that was fun,

A meeting that’s over before it’s begun,

With little occasion to stay?

 

Who wants a lover this Valentine’s Day?

Who wants a chance to say no?

To schmaltzy hand-holding and sweet hesitation,

To code words and cuddling and close conversation—

You can come, as long as you go.

2 February 2018

Clouds Over Troy

Central Courtyard, University of Southern California.

this is hallowed knowledge:

 

the shadow of the movement

of heavenly bodies

in the cool dry air—

 

June gloom come early—

 

illumination

where no sun shines,

the torch of kings

to guide the steps of coming plebeians—

 

sustenance for the humblest soul,

no more native than the palm tree,

no less hungry to stretch limbs upward into Western light

and roots down into pacific earth

21 May 2018

Image: taken by the author the day before composing the poem, in the courtyard overlooking Doheny Library

A Summer So Long

As a seed in the bright-colored street I am saying so long

To the I know of nothing, the nothing that knows not of me.

On a high cushioned wingtip my bondage was loosed with a song

Of seduction to come, a provoking, profane melody;

The lean languid lusting of aimlessness, sloth, and despair,

The wandering torment of roads I have too often trod—

Surrender, surrender to city, to crisp, crowded air,

Pave me a new path, clothe me as I have never been shod.

O city of walls! Of markets and marked cobblestones!

Shall I feel my whole destiny thrust upon me where I stand?

Shall I enter your palaces, prostrate myself at your thrones?

Shall I not be delivered from out of my enemy’s hand?

My descent I passed singing, as whispering leaves to the ground;

I must blossom anew in your soil, in the home I have found.

19 August 2019

The Greeters

A poem

You’d think everybody’s eyes would be fixed up here,

so far above the cataracts. But these two kids look

just like they used to, and nobody calls them four eyes

they’re the cool ones who left the party early, before

you could corner one of them and say hey,

how does it feel to be struck by the hand of God?

At this point you could ask the big guy himself,

although he probably wouldn’t hear you over the screech

of the lightning needle on his cumulonimbus turntable.

In any event, you could use a boost as you scramble

toward this soundless brightness, inertia suspended. These two

snag your clammy hands and steady you. By now they’ve learned

to glide. Haloes round their eyes, adjusted to prescription.

This week I’ll be posting poems I’ve had lying around (this one for five years, for example), because 1) I want to give them a place somewhere, and 2) I need to refuel before resuming my regimen of rather long posts. It was easy not to realize how much I was writing. Hope you enjoy these scraps of the past as much as I enjoy unearthing them.

The Gospel According to Alexander

In which I open a portal

Hey all,

It’s a busy couple weeks in my brain and body, so allow me to tide you over by dropping a link to a freshly published essay in the magazine of the Women Writing Berlin Lab, a local organization I’ve been privileged to work with since nearly the beginning of my time in the city.

The piece first took shape a few years ago, but with some redefining under the eye of a diligent editor, it has entered its Platonic Ideal state and found a home. I love to see that happen.

Enjoy, and I’ll catch you on the regular again soon.

Forza Italia! 🇮🇹⚽️

Love—Cecilia

I Love Edie

In which I mount a defense

*CW: eating disorders, assault, drug abuse*

Several months back, I read Karen Karbo’s In Praise of Difficult Women, a collection of profiles of women who transformed industries, championed causes, or lived some type of way. Among the profiled is Edie Sedgwick, who clearly belonged to the last of these categories. A socialite and Warhol acolyte, Edie attained ‘it girl’ status in the mid-‘60s by sheer force of the charisma (and cash and credit) she possessed. I’d hitherto come across her only in the context of the famous male company she kept 🙄 and my interest was piqued.

Certain people—I won’t put them on blast, they know who they are—ridiculed the notion that she was influential enough to merit a spot in this collection alongside the likes of Carrie Fisher, Helen Gurley Brown, and Real MVP Angela Merkel. Of course she had none of those women’s credentials or accomplishments to her name, but hearing her dismissed so categorically made me feel tenderly toward her. Protective, you might even say. By this point I knew she’d escaped the fast-forming 27 Club by a mere year; it wasn’t as though she’d had time to accrue said credentials or accomplishments. Surely she didn’t deserve such disdain.

I proceeded to read Edie: American Girl, Jean Stein and George Plimpton’s oral history of her life as told by her relatives and many, many acquaintances. And not only have I grown more protective of her, I am heckin’ delighted by her. What a presence. Who could do what she did?

Well, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Delighted, yes. Also terrified. She grew up in a world of limits, so rigid and yet so erratic that there was almost no choice but to be completely unlimited when she finally got out on her own. The sheer physical stresses she subjected herself to…I just couldn’t imagine leading that kind of day-to-day. That was precisely the reason she became so popular in certain crowds: the amazing tolerance she built up, the ability to endure, to live by no rule, to try all the newest things and take all the biggest risks. She was too fast for anyone, too far ahead of them. The way some people speak of her in the book is as if they’re speaking about a nonhuman, superhuman creature.

She came from an old-money family. Very old (Mayflower old), very money (bought up acres of ranch land in and around Santa Barbara). I doubt she would have been able to go on as she did without that cushion of tremendous privilege: a carefree life is an expensive one. But early on she was too busy searching for one person in her enormous family who could understand her. Usually it was her younger sister Suky—they were the two youngest of eight children—and then whomever she befriended at the boarding schools she attended. The patriarch, who went by ‘Fuzzy’ to his family (rich people names amirite), was deeply unstable and insecure, constantly trying to reinvent himself and constantly taking it out on his wife Alice and children. Edie later implied on more than one occasion that he assaulted her.

By her late teens she had developed an eating disorder and was sent to a private psychiatric facility in Connecticut called Silver Hill, where she did not recover properly but was discharged nonetheless. The book alternatively serves as a history of American medical institutions failing their patients, a history not so much disappointing as alarming. It becomes obvious that the Sedgwicks dealt with any sort of psychological deviance by packing the sufferer off to an institution: two of Edie’s older brothers were casualties of this method. Minty (‘Minturn’ was an old family name), to whom she was especially close, was institutionalized in early 1964 when he came out to his father and ended up hanging himself in his room. Years later, Bobby had been in and out of hospitals by the time he had a fatal car accident. The number of facilities Edie entered and left, the amounts of time she spent under supervision and care, in proportion to the amount of concern her mother showed when people called to tell her where her daughter was, truly boggled my mind.

Anyway, as long as she was back east she decided simply not to go home and instead settled in Cambridge, studying sculpture wih her cousin at Radcliffe and befriending the young gay men of Harvard. It was here that she began to make a name for herself with her lavish spending and pull-all-the-stops-out partying. After turning twenty-one and coming into a trust fund, she chose to relocate again to New York, where her grandparents owned some prime real estate, and pursue a modeling career. Within a year she had met Andy Warhol at a party and inserted herself into his Factory group, well on the way to becoming his latest ‘superstar.’

What I knew of the Factory and accessories (the Velvet Underground, etc.) didn’t amount to much prior to this book, and I am now coming to the somewhat distressing conclusion that I would not have fit into any ‘60s subculture. I’d long suspected that, however much I adored the Laurel Canyon musical scene, I was not West Coast enough (laid-back, drives cars) to be quite at home. I can’t say for certain, but I don’t think I would have made a very good hippie. In reading about the New York art scene with which I might presumably vibe more as an East Coaster with ties to the city, I realize an aluminum-foil-covered loft where people get beat up during shooting for films with no discernible plot while everyone else plays twisted mind games and/or has sex on every available surface is perhaps not my ideal stomping ground either.

The unifying factor could well be drugs. You’re not likely to feel at one with the kids on acid and coke when the strongest you go for is cannabis. (Evidently I would have wanted most to be Barbra Streisand: go direct to Broadway and skip the rest.)

Edie, on the other hand, was well-adjusted or perhaps maladjusted enough to fit in—and not only fit in but become the talk of the town. With the assurance that she was in with people like her Cambridge friend Chuck Wein, who was indispensable to Warhol, she ruled the scene at Max’s Kansas City. She was at once loved and loathed by every limousine company in town: she tipped generously but her schedule and behavior were, to put it charitably, inconsistent. She made several films with Warhol from mid-’65 to mid-’66, including Beauty No. 2 and Poor Little Rich Girl. (Have I seen any of these films? No. Do I want to? TBD.) Despite the fact that nothing about this whole venture was mainstream, she was picked up by the mainstream media for her appearances about town and was suddenly modeling for Vogue.

Her personal style was impossibly chic. I want to wear black tights all the time because of her, and from the looks of it everybody in 1966 did too. And how many people do you know who can pull off an arabesque atop a four-wheeled rhino? Then drive that rhino down the streets of Midtown and get a fake ticket for trying to park? Ugh, she was so cool.

But bear in mind she was also a twenty-two-to-three-year-old girl and highly impressionable. If you, for example, were going to lure her away from Warhol’s hipster gang into your hipster gang, and convince her to sign with your manager, and hint that you two were going to star in a major motion picture together, and not tell her you had secretly got married in November of ’65 while observing her rather obvious crush on you, well, does that really sound like something she’s just gonna bounce back from? Isn’t that sort of taking advantage of her goodwill and friendship and vulnerability? Maybe she wouldn’t care that you’ve written a song or several about her if you LIE to her FACE, now, would she?

Speaking generally and hypothetically, of course.

I don’t mean to be flip about the drugs, either. Everyone in this environment was heavily dependent on substances, sometimes multiple at once, to the point that they began to lose touch with any semblance of reality. The substances defined people’s relationships, or, if it got really bad, their whole personalities. Poor Edie didn’t think she could survive without amphetamines, then soon enough without heroin. She was pretty high-functioning, but not everyone was, and some of her acquaintances didn’t make it. Many of the figures in the inner and outer circles of that crowd were outcasts from more mainstream echelons of society seeking community; but the desire to connect came with lethal complications. In a matter of a few years Edie herself was alienated from everyone she had once associated with, her addictions shutting her away in hospital stays. She met her future husband, Michael Post, at one of those hospitals, and even he was never able to get her to fully stop using. In November 1971, after four months of marriage, they came home from a party where she had been drinking. She took a few pills, went to sleep, and didn’t wake up.

I wish Edie didn’t have to be so tragic to be so remarkable, though what made her the latter also made her the former. It really doesn’t help that nobody talked about her like she was a real person who needed to be taken care of, or, more accurately, needed to be helped to learn how to take care of herself—as opposed to some idol to be worshiped and then left to her own devices. I ultimately have to stand by this wild girl who used the resources at her disposal to live without inhibitions and become known for being herself. She embodied the adage that we’re here for a good time, not a long time. She was like the first true manic pixie dream girl, except beholden to no brooding sensitive male protagonist. She was the protagonist.

You can quibble with her morally if you like, you can question whether the fame was worth the strings attached, but you can’t deny that she didn’t care. Her allegiance was to her own wants and needs. That just hasn’t been achieved by all that many women, and those who have achieved it have rarely been celebrated for it. For better or worse, no one who knew Edie could stop talking about her. Now neither can I.

Image: 1966, after a fire at her apartment in the Chelsea Hotel, her hand gauzed and bandaged from the burns she sustained

A Brief History of Nollendorfplatz

In which I highlight a byte of queer Berlin

One more Pride post to round out the month, the subject being something I simultaneously know quite a bit and hardly anything about—the city I’ve lived in for very nearly two years.

Nollendorfplatz—“Nolle” or “Nolli” for short—is a neighborhood I passed through on the days I elected to travel to work via U-Bahn when I lived near Tiergarten (the S-Bahn was more efficient, but sometimes you need to take it slow and smell the Rosen). In fact, its station is one of the oldest in Berlin; it was included in the first-ever U-Bahn line in 1902 and is now part of the U2, which runs from Charlottenburg up through Prenzlauer Berg. I especially like it because it is an elevated station; my favorite parts of the U-Bahn are where it emerges from underground and you’re watching the city go by.

It was formally established in the mid-19th century and named for a Czech village—though the original square was structured to resemble a Parisian boulevard—and has undergone many iterations over time. Most famously, during the economic and cultural boom of the Weimar Republic in the ‘20s, it became a hub for the growing LGBTQ+ community, typified by nightclubs like the Eldorado on Motzstraße. These locations became particularly visible targets as the Nazis rose to power; they converted this nightclub into a paramilitary headquarters in the ‘30s. The area also became a target for Luftwaffe bombings, with large portions, including the U-Bahn, needing significant renovation after the war.

The Pink Triangle memorial outside the station commemorates residents of the area who were sent to camps or otherwise killed. The writer Christopher Isherwood was quick to immortalize the vitality of the community in his novella Goodbye to Berlin and the collection (The Berlin Stories) in which it features. Cabaret mentions the neighborhood as being the home of some of the characters, which I don’t remember, but then it’s been a while since I’ve seen it. Unsurprising, in any event.

Motzstraße has enjoyed a great resurrection, hosting the annual Pride event known as “Motzstraßenfestival” (officially the Lesbian & Gay City Festival) since 1993. The former Neues Schauspielhaus, patronized as a concert hall, cinema, and operetta house for the first few decades of the 20th century, is now the Metropol nightclub; it has already had multiple lives of its own, defining disco in the late ‘70s and pioneering techno in the ‘80s, its latest incarnation having opened in 2019. New bars, restaurants, and queer bookstores have rejuvenated the area. There’s even a Berlin bear painted with the flag.

I took a long stroll or two through Nollendorfplatz shortly after arriving here given its proximity to my home district, but even so I barely scratched the surface. I didn’t do much hanging around amongst the establishments (though what time I did do that yielded up a very good pizza place). It’s only one of the neighborhoods I would like to know better, which I have more hope of doing as increasing numbers of us barrel toward our second dose. This neighborhood is an example of those you’ll find all over Europe that expose the layers of civilization that make their city what it is. That, among other things, draws me to it. I know I’ll be back.

Image: the Metropol, taken by the author on 25 August 2019

Lit Review: ONE LAST STOP

Or, won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?

*WARNING: SPOILERS*

I’d heard quite a bit about Casey McQuiston’s new novel, including an interview with McQuiston herself, by the time a college friend cosplayed on Instagram as pragmatic heroine (or heroic pragmatist) August Landry. Her personal endorsement tipped the scales from Hopeful Read into Must Read. I was already singing the title to the tune of Ariana Grande’s “One Last Time.” Needless to say, it only got better from there.

We follow 23-year-old August in her move out from under her mother’s wing in New Orleans to Brooklyn, where she hopes for yet another fresh start in school and a life apart from the case her mother has spent their whole lives trying to crack: the disappearance of August’s uncle. As she adjusts to a demanding job at an old-school pancake house, a building full of wacky characters, and a rocky commute, her daily life—and relationship to all of the above—is derailed (pun intended) when she encounters Jane Su on the Q train. Jane is August’s tall butch leather-jacketed dream girl, and she crops up on August’s train…all the time. This is good news for August (or would be, if she weren’t terrified of love) but bad news for Jane. Turns out she’s stuck in time, having been displaced from the ‘70s by an electrical mishap (more of an event, really), and has no idea who she is or how to get back to where she once belonged.

Enter August and her years of dissecting hopeless mysteries. Over a span of months, she and Jane bond within the confines of the train Jane is physically unable to leave. August helps Jane piece together key components of her identity, her situation, and the various lives she has led in various cities. It isn’t only August’s problem-solving skills, but her own story, that clue Jane in—might it have something to do with someone in August’s life who vanished in the ‘70s??

Oh yeah, and they have sex. Tastefully written, dimension-straddling, very sexy sex.

McQuiston’s love of New York is a historian’s love: she superimposes her geographical biography onto August and approaches the city from a state of wonderment. The cause, it is determined, of Jane’s displacement was the blackout of summer ’77, which I had read enough Talking Heads lore to suspect. As Jane’s story filled out with dates and places, I eagerly awaited a mention of the blackout and attendant musical atmosphere; and the irony that her break with space-time occurs just shy of Talking Heads’ official debut frustrated my nerdy heart a little. But knowing Jane was a CBGB girl, and would have been tuned in to the cool places to be, gave me all the more reason to stick by her and made her all the more likely to win me over.

And she is winsome. Indeed she and August make a winsome pair—they have trouble expressing their feelings but find answers in each other to the questions in themselves. The dynamic between them is where McQuiston’s voice shines most, if one accepts the premise that it shines more in some areas than others. Because their relationship takes place wholly on the train, it would be easy for the narrative to become repetitive and subsequently boring; but both characters and readers are in the capable hands of an author who renders each encounter distinct and switches things up. A party thrown by August’s accountant/drag queen neighbor transfers onto the Q to include Jane; August totes a midnight picnic on board in her first conscious attempt to seduce Jane; they make a habit of crossing between cars via the adrenaline-rush-inducing emergency exits. I’m calling it now—a movie happens within five years.

One of my favorite things about the narrative is how bound up August’s ragtag group of roommates become in her story—how positively integral, in fact. So many romances relegate friends, living-space-partners, et al. to the sidelines once the love interest arrives. If, that is, those people don’t evaporate entirely. But the psychic Niko, cynical Wes, and funny, brilliant, multi-talented, uncontainable Myla only figure more prominently after Jane enters the picture. (Can you tell Myla is my favorite? The others are perfectly wonderful, but man, she’s something else.) They all have fleshed-out backstories and something to offer, as do August’s coworkers at Pancake Billy’s House of Pancakes and even, ultimately, her faraway mother. The many strands weave together satisfyingly, if a bit romantic-comedically (rom-commily?). But it is basically a modern-day rom-com, so what did you expect?

I do mean modern-day: it’s set in an alternate 2020, one not ravaged by plague and isolation. What a time to have potentially been alive.

Even so, the August/Jane romance is the gravitational center of the narrative. I won’t reveal whether the gang succeed in replacing Jane in time, but suffice it to say she leaves her permanent touch on all their lives. Per her limitation, she and August often communicate by requesting songs on the radio (McQuiston’s inclusion of “I Know There’s an Answer” from none other than The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds did NOT give me a minor meltdown why do you ask). She forges quick friendships with the queer community August falls into via her roommates, demonstrating the inter-generational kinship people can find along their self-discovery journey. August becomes more comfortable openly manifesting those parts of herself. And the more they learn about each other and themselves, the more fulfilling and well-rounded their attraction grows. It absorbed me: it was an intoxicating read.

McQuiston calls it an “Unbury Your Gays” story, subverting a tired trope, refreshing to say the least; but what impressed me above and beyond is how grounded and believable it manages to stay. It’s science fiction/magical realism, yet it rings truer than some stories supposedly set in our world as is. Representation-wise, it’s commendable—Niko is a Puerto Rican trans man in a relationship with Myla; Wes and Isaiah (the accountant, whose drag alter ego is named Annie Depressant) have been dancing around a mutual crush for years; and August is a bisexual cis girl who has her first female partner in Jane, a Chinese-American lesbian—and perhaps it’s because of the New York setting that it feels plausible. Certain reads come to mind whose array of identities feels either tokenized or so contrived that it seems to exist suspended in an ideal world where everyone is not only accepted but celebrated by everyone else exactly as they are. McQuiston’s characters know that the most radical acceptance and celebration start with themselves and each other, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she based the environment on what she has seen around her.

There’s so much more I want to say that I won’t. In sum, could not recommend more highly. Fans of romance novels especially, I think, will sense the step forward this novel symbolizes in the literary timeline. And despite one of the primary characters being a transplant from half a century ago, it’s packed with millennial humor. It will also remind you that every month is (or should be) Pride Month.

If nothing else, it might convince you to go out and befriend a psychic. They might be more legit than you give them credit for.

Dedicated to Ellie. You’re doing the Lord’s work.

Image: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2021