Cartoons flickering on the screen. Sandalwood smoke begins to burn our lungs. Mama pacing the kitchen, swearing under her breath. “Ayyo, I forgot to light the incense in time.”
Brother forcing open the prayer book, as if cracking the shell of a nut.
Waves of snow like static as we walk to the corner store for Brother’s cigarette. Flinching as he sparks the end of it. “In the snow, tobacco can’t burn you.”
Papa cross-legged and eyes shut tight, unyielding, heedless to Brother’s prayer book flung in corner. Mama’s hand cradling Brother’s soft head, her murmurs. “Do not get irritated, nanna. Let the words float gently to the top of your mind, like water lilies.”
Yanking off my dirt-speckled boots and laying them with care beside the front door. Remembering Mama’s voice. “There are gods in this house, and we invite misery to remind them of the things we walk upon.”
Papa polishing my boots at night, hunched among deep blue shadows. Whispering Thank You only after he falls asleep.
Crush of pine needles as we follow the pale neighbor boy to a woodland clearing. “There is still time,” he says, dirt on his elbows, burying a gold-leaf book. “Accept the one true God, and repent.”
Counting when to stop holding our breath as Mama scrubs the floors with peroxide.
Scratch of Papa’s oil-stained sweater as he carries me, in violet sleep, to bed.
Counting when to stop covering my ears when Papa finds cigarettes flowering in Brother’s laundry basket.
Outside, the faint scent of lavender as Mama calls to the goddess from the open door. Her slender fingers, lights flickering on in the veranda. “Dusk is a time of prayer. We must invite the goddess in like a tea-time guest, into a clean home.”
Mama pointing up to the celestial blue-black. “Do not look when it is new. It will catch your soul on fire.”
Forbiddance from the woodland clearing when Brother looks at the moon. “The neighbor says our souls are already on fire, anyways.”
Crush of pine needles as I follow Brother to the woodland clearing. His fingernailshitting the dirt, moonlight in his hair, hands straining for the gold-leaf book.“There was something in here about forgiveness, I swear.”
Wiping condensation off dark window glass with my fingertips. Outside in the early frost, Papa turns the key in the ignition for me, his hands chapped.
Waves of snow like static as Brother turns to me, his cigarette extinguished by the falling ice. “Dad’s a dick.”
Wiping condensation off gold window glass with my fingertips. Outside in the daylight,smoke tumbles out of the Honda, now warm in its belly. Inside, Papa slips back under the blankets. Forgetting to say Thank You.
Brother’s tooth knocked out by Papa’s red slap. My advice to him, to slip it under a clean pillowcase and use the change for fifty-cent candy.
The small dove we squeeze as we bundle magnolias in our hands. Brother says he knows he is troubled but that he is like that crush of petals, soft at the heart of it.
Sweet burst of fifty-cent candy we buy in violet dusk. Giving what’s left of mine to Brother, who says he never knew the scent of Papa’s sweater.
Angry clink of porcelain over the evening news. Papa silhouetted against golden lamplight, hunched over the sink, washing silently. Mama sobbing in the corner. Thinking of Brother and wanting to remind Papa to be gentle, of how easily these things break.
“Why does it have to matter to you, any of the shit I’ve done, when all I need to do is repent?” Brother’s crashing voice. Dishes quivering on the counter, bone white and breakable.
Mama finally whispering that things are easier in this land, with its last minute acts of grace. Back home we must face our sins head-on like bulls. “This is why I pray for us. Each of your acts is a weight and each misstep marks you grave bound, in this life and the next.”
Burning my thumbs on the flame of an oil-soaked lamp Mama says will cleanse our souls.
In the dusty core of a village, past the white schoolhouse and mango groves, a statue wrapped in sandalwood smoke. This is what I glimpse in Mama’s photograph near the altar. “Your grandfather’s love built cities, but he could not always show it to his son.”
These characters Mama and I have written into our memories, mythic, unbreakable.
Sinking into a steaming bath after the snowstorm, trying to cleanse my memories. But on my eyelids only Brother, standing still in the rustle of snow, flakes on his eyelashes, small against the vast white ocean around us.
“Why won’t you tell him to forgive me the way he forgives you?”
Sinking deeper, my body a statue wrapped in steaming smoke, holding the power to rewrite everything.
Crush of pine needles. I break dirt under moonlight, and repent.
Lasya Gundlapudi is a Bioinformatics and Creative Writing student at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is the Editor in Chief of Le Monde, VCU’s Honors College magazine that profiles local artists/bands and surveys student opinion on the best cookies in Richmond. When she’s not writing she’s probably curled up with a cup of chai while watching a particularly intense episode of Jeopardy.
There is, literally, no integrity to the ruin as a space. It does not hold you there, nor does it make it easy for you to stay. It presents you with signs, and all these signs feel portentous of a coming end.
The Good Ruin
Things go, or so you let them. In the neighborhood where I grew up, in the years in which I was growing up, there was just one road sloping up a hill. At first, there were no houses on this hill, then one, two, several—all standing in wait. Many of the houses on the hill filled up, one by one, year by year: turgor pressure, water balloons, a green hose thickening in the lawn.
High on the hill, the quarterback of my high school’s team would get on the bus at its penultimate stop, not looking at me or anyone really, and we would all go to school that way, us kids from the Ridge, and over the years we did only the usual damage to each other, the usual names and phrases, and the quarterback went on to Ole Miss on a football scholarship, and received a DUI, and dropped out, and in the summer came north again to his house on the hill with the stone lions outside, and all my friends told me about this even though we had never spoken to the quarterback, and I remember thinking how funny it is to talk about your old neighborhood always in the past tense when life goes on there, balls flying and people talking, and I remember how one night, skidding like a loose puck on the highway, the quarterback died, and we could tell the story that way forever.
There are houses before there are homes and stories and unread mail. There is not always a home before there is a ruin.
Where I’m from, developers lay the roads first and draw the lots later. Each neighborhood starts out as an asphalt sigil, a brand upon the land, black and dense and full of fumes. Lining this network are invisible buds, plots of weedy earth that, if cared for properly, might sprout a house with windows looking out onto the world.
In my youth, I spent many weekends walking those buds—construction sites that were not yet houses or homes. I would cut through back yards and the invisible electricity of dog fences to arrive at the hill’s crown, where there were usually fresh remains to exhume: uninhabited frames of blond wood, sheeted in Tyvek house-wrap, with glassless windows and screen-less porches, gravel driveways, skeletal walls you could walk through, stairs without balustrades, Jacuzzis shining white in the saw dust mire of an almost bathroom, living rooms that soared like the insides of some cathedral. And why not treat it that way, like a temple, or a pulpit? A quiet, gathering mass?
People say they feel solemn, even contemplative in such places. Even if it exists without history or context, a ruin inclines us towards a feeling of reverence, or maybe melodrama. For years, I found so much to think about in those structures caught in between nothingness and somethingness. Who might live here when it was finished and sold? Which rooms would be their favorites? How would they decorate the hallways, the foyer, the patio out back? What kinds of pain would they inflict upon each other? What kinds of love? When I was thirteen, friends of my family began building what many agreed was our neighborhood’s largest house, a four-story affair with a theater ensconced in the basement and a balcony hanging like a sty from its face. Other neighbors moved out. School zones shifted. I buried two pet mice in cigar boxes in the woods behind my home.
Can the start of a thing not also be its ruin? Or must it all work chronologically: A Life → its departure → relics and remainders? Would it make a difference if I told you many of the houses under construction were never sold, that a mortgage bubble would burst, vanishing all pending offers, and that some of the sites are still there, still just gravel and wood, abandoned before they were found? Would it be fair to say that a ruin communicates through time, that its language is both past and future? The good ruin is an artifact as well as an omen; it is a house held up in the hills against the Tennessee sky, gathering water in its foundations, growing weeds from wood, dreams from leaf litter. Children pass through its empty belly, stare out from the ribcage and wonder.
We all left—for college, for the military, for sports, and cities, and show business. My parents live in a bigger house on a bigger hill now, and sometimes, when I happen to be “home,” I will go with an old friend to visit my old house. All the trees are gone, he says to me. And I look, squinting at my old backyard, trying to see if he’s right.
After the quarterback died, I read an interview with one of his friends in our local newspaper. The friend regrets not savoring his time with the quarterback more, echoing the sense of missed opportunities many of us feel in the wake of someone’s departure: “I don’t know where that fine line is where you have meaningful conversation and you’re not just catching up with people… I don’t know if you can develop a formula for that. I don’t know how you do that correctly every time.”
Who among us really has that formula? Who among us can get it right every time? It’s why I live on the other side of the country now, in a state with few hills of tree and shade. It’s why even the houses that were homes to me feel like ruins now and again, isolated on their mental isthmuses. I grew up, or mimed all the actions and hormone shifts that phrase implies. I left my home, my house. I touched the walls, smelled my fingers, lay on the carpet bare watching the fan that last summer day as orange wasps plied the crabapples and grass grew an easy inch in the yard.
Here on the other side of the country, I clip toe nails and grade papers. My apartment sits near the intersection of two busy streets. On the many nights when I can’t sleep, it’s nice to hear the cars passing on Broadway, the undergraduates rippling down Euclid. Every hour or so, the Union Pacific makes a run for it, dopplering past my position.
From my living room, I can see a pool that will soon be filled in to make a broad patio for barbeques and birthdays. My building manager drained the pool at the beginning of summer, but then the monsoon season came and never really left, filling the pool with a murky cess, contents unknown. The water has the look of tar to me some mornings, and makes me think of things extinct and yet not vanished.
Last Friday, I asked my friend to take me to a set of domes in the desert north of here. She drove us in her grandmother’s old Chevy, the two of us speeding one hour north on I-10 with the windows down. When we turned off at Casa Grande, we could see the domes already: four structures in all, covered in graffiti (some of it neo-Nazi) and large, irregularly shaped scars where the buildings’ outer shells had fallen away to reveal a layer of orange insulating foam. Three of the buildings were shaped like segmented caterpillars, the fourth like a UFO fused to the ground. My friend and I arrived as the sun was starting to set, and spent about an hour wandering around the premises, stamping our feet to hear the echoes. We found mutilated computer parts, sprigs of wildflower, the flyblown carcass of a bird inside a truck tire, and shards of rock that would look nice set in our graduate student apartments (think cow skulls on the tops of fridges, folds of coral on the bookshelves). Walking through each dome, I took pictures, trying to capture the light which spasmed across curved ceilings and uneven floors. When the golden hour hit, I stood in the fourth and most magnificent dome and asked my friend in her sundress to pose.
Urban studies folks on the internet like to talk about ruin porn, an artistic tradition—if you want to call it that—in which ruined places such as the Casa Grande Domes are photographed and aestheticized into a kind of hipster gestalt. Ruin porn’s favored medium is the digital image, often with an additional gloss of editing to make the graffiti poppier, the shadows gloomier, the daylight through a shattered door frame more haunted-looking. There are as many types of ruin porn as there are ruins, from the pastoral (dilapidated barns, rusting plows, fields lying fallow) to the urban (empty streets, wasted apartments, humbled billboards), and suburban (“sprawl porn”—the type I practiced, camera-less, in my youth). Not all ruin photographs should be defined as ruin porn, but almost all of them are sentimental in some way. They are high-contrast and rich in tones of gray and ocher. And yet they rarely reveal more than what they depict. As John Patrick Leary writes in an essay on ruin porn and Detroit: “So much ruin photography and ruin film aestheticizes poverty without inquiring of its origins, dramatizes spaces but never seeks out the people that inhabit and transform them, and romanticizes isolated acts of resistance without acknowledging the massive political and social forces aligned against the real transformation, and not just stubborn survival, of the city.”
In other words, ruin pornographers have a shallow depth-of-field. They are concerned with capturing the look of a gone space before it is more gone, similar, perhaps, to their interest in preserving—with their musical taste, their choice of footwear—any other retro style that is attractively passé. Few ruin pornographers work with future archaeologists or historians in mind. In their images, the emphasis is on neither form nor content but emotionality and self-expression. For ruin pornographers (and I would include myself sometimes in this category), ruins can be oddly tender. We use them as backdrops for artsy photos and as destinations for the drives we take with lovers we will probably leave. In turn, the photos we bring home from the ruin are used to communicate something about ourselves: our pessimism for social progress, perhaps, or our attachment to things we believe others have forgotten. What is being fetishized in our photographs is not a physicality—an architecture or an interior decorating scheme—but a system of feeling. The ruin pornographer’s true subject is not the ruin itself but homesickness, loss, elegiacs.
Why do we circle back to these places then? A few well-lit shots would suffice. Why do we place ourselves, repeatedly, in locations, actual rooms, that were known and later vacated by people we will never meet? Is it misplaced nostalgia, the yearning for a life we never lived but somehow feel has passed us by? Or is it something less cloying than that?
I find pieces of ruin porn difficult to place in geography. There are usually no people in these images, and much of the bric-a-brac people leave behind looks similar in photos. Part of ruin porn’s appeal to me might be its apparent lack of tribalism, the way the photographs introduce viewers to a kind of all-space. Who hasn’t seen something ruined? Who hasn’t watched a post-apocalyptic or historical film in which all becomes rubble? For me, ruins are about nostalgia, but they are also about this feeling of access, and of play. A ruin functions as architectural litter. It is publicly shared. To get into such a place, you often just lift the barbed wire and sidle on in.
When I was still a teenager in Tennessee, I went on a hike with my friends to the North Carolinian border. It was spring break of our senior year, and all of us were waiting anxiously on college decisions, trying to see the future in the form of institutional names in our email inboxes. On the slope of a low mountain, we found a house, or really just the husk of a house, lines of stone and grout sketched in the April air, and among the trees was the sound of cicadas humming, and below that the sleek tuning of leaves, and below that our voices, braided into the humid hollow of the ruin, which had only three sides and no roof and which was split down its middle by a little brook which came gushing in from the east-facing wall.
You can stand in someone’s former residence, someone’s former life, only so long. Our teenage bodies constellated that space. Our eyes probed at every stone and root but always returned to the emptiness of the west side, where no wall stood, just a great gap through which vision might issue.
Before we left, my friends and I lined up like pigeons on the wall of the house with no roof to look into that gap. It’s so nice here, one of my friends said, and I wasn’t sure what “here” she meant. Here in the ruin, or here in the Appalachian South? We sat looking into the west, into the valley where most of us had come into the world, and I want to say I was not the only one who at that moment felt like I was missing a place before I had even left it, as if I knew, or could recognize from a past life, the look of this departure.
So often, I think, I confuse home for ruin and ruin for home.
After college, I left another set of rooms that felt like a home. I went to China, where I traveled for a year. It was 2014, and the Chinese building boom was ongoing. City skylines were clogged with cranes, traffic snarled in roadwork. Every second and third-tier city seemed to be building a new train station, or airport, or both. Even in older, more established cities, new houses and apartment blocks were going up in every direction, the country building itself upwards in infrastructure and self-esteem.
The absurd pace of recent Chinese urbanization—what Daniel Brooks has described as “time-lapse urbanism”—has coincided with a zeitgeist for Chinese ruin pornography. Western media outlets churn out a steady stream of articles and photo-essays lamenting city blocks and villages which were bulldozed to make way for development. On the other hand, the newly sprouted cities are described as “sterile” or “lifeless”—ghost cities before they were even inhabited. Looking at Kai Caemmerer’s photographs of the new Chinese city in “Unborn Cities,” one sees moody, sulfuric clouds above empty apartment complexes, Blade Runner-esque dystopias emptied of people, glass leviathans crawling across a dusty field. While the ruin pornography of America might be viewed partially as a broadside against late-stage capitalism, commuter culture, and the decay of an urban middle-class, the ruin pornography of China shifts the critique to top-down planning, unsustainable growth, and grandiose, Potemkin aesthetics. Both types, however, are shaped by a notion of social hubris: Who were we to think that we could live like this?
On a good day in China, I would stumble upon an empty apartment city in Xinjiang or the soggy leftovers of a farmhouse in Guizhou. There were weathered tombs in Ningxia to inspect, and crumbling transport depots in Sichuan to consider. There were so many ruins with stories I could only guess at (post office → restaurant → nothing?), and rooms with rotted-out ceilings adjoining rooms where lao baixing still ate and slept.
One ruin I remember quite distinctly was a multi-room apartment just east of Xi’an’s Muslim quarter where I went on a last date of sorts. Exploring an abandoned building with a temporary lover is like visiting a museum where all the art says something about your mismatched natures. My lover and I looked at floppy discs with no readers, torn newsprint with no headlines, left-footed shoes with no rights. In the apartment’s honeycomb of rooms (all the doors and furniture had been removed), we conducted a tiptoeing dance. He would exit a room and I would enter. He would stand at a broken window and I would wait a few paces back. A ruin is all surface, is all open rafters, or tattered curtains, or lichen blooming on stone. There is, literally, no integrity to the ruin as a space. It does not hold you there, nor does it make it easy for you to stay. It presents you with signs, and all these signs feel portentous of a coming end. Look at that, my lover said, and I looked across the room. Lying in a nest of rags was a blue-eyed, blonde haired doll, her limp body covered in a fine, light-bearing dust. As last dates go, this one was amicable, an end both parties felt resigned to. After I had taken enough photos, we left the apartment and went down a smoky alley full of meat peddlers. When I stopped to buy an egg, my soon-to-be-ex-lover turned in the crowd and gave me a distant, questioning look, a look I gave back to him later, twice wrapped in the sheets, a look that said this has been great, but yeah, I’m ready, let’s call it.
I am, like many ruin pornographers, interested mostly in the temporary ruin, the ruin that will not be set aside by local authorities for chisel and brush work, that will not be re-inhabited in latter days by tour guides and families on vacation. I pine for the ruin that will eventually leave no trace, which will be reconstituted without ceremony into its built / natural environment.
It is this ruin without written record that bears the most emotional weight for me, not the ruins whose stories are so well-known and staid that they may as well be set-pieces, parts of ruin canon. In the unknown ruin exists the potential for speculation dissociated from knowledge, dalliance without comprehension. I like the ruin that I can know for a moment and then unknow, that feels like an extension of the senses and so is visceral: this lighting, this texture, this old and yet fecund smell.
In a way, the ruin can be a body, the body a ruin. The pornography of both humans and buildings seeks to reduce this corpus to a feeling, a color, a set of repetitive postures and lightings. I enter a new ruin and enact the same predictable photographic situations. I zoom in on a child’s belongings scattered across the bedroom floor, make art or porn of the broken panes in the windows, the lonely boot prints in the dust. In my reproductions of the ruin, I invest its surfaces with feelings of foiled desire or loss, and enjoy myself greatly in this process.
I must confess that I am not terribly interested in the ethical debates that rage in certain corners about ruin porn. On the spectrum of objectifying and fetishizing trends in visual culture, ruin porn seems relatively benign to me, and yet that does not mean that this type of peeping doesn’t warrant pushback or self-critique. What is gained, communally, in the aestheticization of ruins? What is lost or evaded?
When I visited the village of Little Likeng in Jiangxi Province, a woman in her eighties sat on her stoop and screamed at me to stop what I was doing. She was concerned, it seemed, about a crumbling white wall I had lined up in my frame, and though I couldn’t quite understand the local dialect, the gist of her words was clear: No pictures! No pictures! No pictures!
I believe I was a little ticked by the stridency of this local woman’s denial, how she had seen through my imagined invisibility and read me as the enemy. Like many travelers, I often operate with the idea that I am different from the moneyed riff-raff passing through a place, that I possess a higher order of appreciation, a respectability to my voyeurism that should shine through in my politeness, and—in China at least—my grasp of the local language. I like to think that I am one of the good apples, unaffiliated with the boorish incomes on holiday, and so the woman’s yells reminded me that I was not so different from that amorphous rest: the honeymooning Chinese couples and boozy backpackers and sundry Germans with guidebooks. I was not from that place, and therefore brought with me evidence of Little Likeng’s “discovery” by tourism and the ensuing reconfiguration of the local economy around that precious but nonrenewable resource of “looking old.”
This tourism of the old and ruined can be an incredibly awkward business. Like all of the tourists who come to Little Likeng, I had bought a ticket at the village’s gate. I had passed through the turnstiles, walked the quaint dirt path and paused for effect on a wobbly boardwalk over the lily pad strewn pond. It was difficult for me to divine a clear line between the village as “attraction” and the village as a home to various individuals, people whose mundane lives had been spruced up as an attractive experience for paying customers like myself. Walking somewhat guiltily through Little Likeng’s streets, I couldn’t help but think that if the appeal of a place is how different it seems from the globalized, deracinated everywhere, then maybe I should not be looking at all. Maybe I should let such places be, or at least keep my camera at home.
In China, the fates of places like Little Likeng seem already set. Walking into town, I saw above me a white viaduct several dozen feet above the tallest local building. I was told by a shop keep that it was a newly constructed arm of China’s high-speed rail system, and that trains were already bringing crowds 200+ kilometers an hour from Hangzhou and Nanjing to nearby Wuyuan. The question of access, in other words, was already a moot point, or rather a line scrawled onto the sky, visible from every corner of the village.
After my scolding by the old, white wall, I walked to one of the village’s many abandoned houses. Out in the house’s main room, someone had applied a collage of newsprint and old photos to the walls, and left two clothes hangers hung askew. I saw a color still from an early 90s television show called Yi Cun Zhichang, or “The Village Head,” as well as a few photographs of people who probably used to live in the house. In one of the ground floor rooms, my cell phone light illuminated a black-and-white photograph, blown up to poster size, of a nubile young woman, as well as a large map of China. What furniture was left in the house included a dining table and a dresser. Looking directly above the dresser, I stared into the eyes of Mao’s famous portrait.
Standing before the smirking Chairman, in a house otherwise gutted, its contents in disarray, I had the suspicion that I had stepped into a time capsule artfully left behind for visitors to ponder. Look how it all changes, the paper collage on the wall seemed to say. Watch how a family lives and then leaves, producing, years later, these brief simulacra, these vicarious memories, these scenes without actors. I wondered how long a family or families had lived here. I wondered if they had known the old woman by the white wall when she was not so old, if they had stayed, as she had, to watch the white line of progress draw itself above the village, to witness the tourists riding in on tandem bikes, the jeweled fish gone scarce in the streams, the art students from the cities making sketches of fruit on all the bridges. I wondered about loss, and the weird, masturbatory thrill we get from looking at its leftovers.
“Hello?” The voice startled me. I turned to find a handsome young Chinese man in a very pink oxford shirt.
“Can I help you?”
“I’m just looking around,” I told him, somewhat sheepishly, like I had been caught in a not-just figuratively pornographic act. The man only smiled and gestured for me to carry on with my photo-taking. He wore a tool belt, and as he walked about sinking nails into the walls, he told me that the house was one of the village’s oldest, that its walls were essentially rotting, and that he, the new owner, was racing the termites and the clock to get it renovated.
“Renovated into what?” I asked.
“I’m turning it into a hotel,” the man replied. “Next time you come to Likeng, you must stay here!”
As I travel, I keep finding these broken structures, some peripheral, some at the very center of things. Everywhere, apartments and malls and synagogues are being torn down, entire districts leveled as countries recycle their built environments. Everything is passing, it seems. You feel you should pass with it for a time.
It is not lost on me that most of the ruins I gravitate to qualify as broken homes, that the ruin I appear most drawn to is a domestic one, and thus a metaphor for the family as ruin.
Yet I come from a home that remains nuclear: my parents carpooling each day to their jobs at a lab where America used to refine its uranium; my sister reading anime and chatting online; my brother and I scattered to different cities but easily recallable each holiday season. I come from a home that has strained against its foundations but never broken, that has been middle class and now upper-middle class, that has kept its walls and its privacies intact.
In the end, my affinity for ruins, for broken homes, is not really about me, or not just about me. It is the leavings of other people that lead me to these ruins, people I can assume had something here, and then lost it. The ruin fills not with sorrow or desperation or anything so maudlin, but with lack, with lacuna, with a call to be answered. Maybe you start as a pornographer and try slowly to become an archaeologist. Maybe you worship the surface but try, warily, to steer your mind deeper into the cess, which is an archive of sorts.
Just as images of the body can be either pornographic or erotic, so too can images of ruins. Barthes writes that the distinction here is between heaviness and lightness; while the pornographic image presents a heavy desire, fixing the lust object to the page as something static, unmoving and unmoved, the erotic image initiates a lighter want or need. The viewer is invited, with the erotic image of a ruin, to flit outside the frame into a “subtle beyond.” His attention is not so much grabbed as it is met, and thus engaged, he comes to think of the atmospheres surrounding that ruin, to imagine for it histories and also possibilities—a way backwards or forwards into loss. This loss is not tied to any specific person or thing we know. And yet we care about it, this anonymous, useless feeling. It’s why we turn off the highway when we see an empty ranch in the distance, why we always look for the windows which are broken, and the barn doors that hang discombobulated. It’s why even as I live on this side of the country, I think of all the houses standing empty on a hill. We come to know each ruin as an iteration of something real, a projection of that most intimate ruin, the home we left first, whose lines we trace over every subsequent room we inhabit and then depart, ad infinitum and still one more.
Thomas Dai is working on his doctorate in American Studies at Brown. His writing and photography have appeared or are forthcoming in Guernica, The Offing, Southwest Review, The Rumpus, and Southern Review.
In the plastic chair, I am learning as a young child that my body can be cut, peeled, suctioned, probed, grafted, stapled, and sutured. The body previously thought of as mine is opened and rearranged by many blue-gloved hands.
The Pill That Made Me a Poet
I rub a hand across my bare belly,and it transforms into heavily bleached terry cloth. Turning my head on the pillow, I see a drive-through window, like the kind at McDonald’s, but the brightly illuminated room and the crib-like bed are five stories off the ground. Every few seconds, a different adult appears on the wall, pauses, and is replaced in a carousel of slides. An absence I sensed as a presence had recently administered to me, an angel different than Lorca’s counterpart to duende; than Rilke’s “Angels, (they say) don’t know whether it is the living / they are moving among, or the dead”; or Iowa City’s Black Angel. A wet towel had been placed on my chest to keep down a fever on an ascent past 104 degrees. By turning my head, I looked beyond my little self who was often still lying on an operating table or in a recovery area.
As a six-year old, I am wheeled on a gurney into a pre-op or recovery room and transition from first- to third person. This child patient opens her eyes despite anesthesia. She sees undressed and unconscious adults in a pre-op area bathed in sepia, the lighting dim as inside an appliance. Hospital sheets are draped like tarps. A slack adult face lies on a gurney a few inches away, a man’s bare arm and open hand with wedding band dangling outside a sheet. The patient can’t tell if she’s headed into or out of surgery. She shifts slightly but doesn’t feel the backspace of pain or restriction from IV tubing and the urine bag, which will be attached to a hole in her right side. The patient closes her eyes.
“I’m not ever myself; I am a metaphor of myself,” I say to my husband about what it’s like for me as an adult to talk to a doctor, any doctor.
Dr. V explicates from his side of the desk, and my mother and I sit in low-slung plastic chairs, diminutive seating even for a six-year old. We watch slides Dr. V projects onto a narrow screen atop a bookcase between artificial plants and binders, a screening area suggesting he was in the habit of documenting his work. When I recently Google his name,“Harvard,” and “urologist,” what comes up is a white-haired Leprechaun’s face and the usual internal narrative of gratitude. How lucky I was that he’d been on sabbatical in central Maine, how he saved my life, how otherwise I “would have been on a dialysis machine.” Dr. V was the type of surgeon who practices “heroic medicine,” as Susan Bell says of specialists from elite teaching hospitals who helped girls and young women when hometown practitioners couldn’t diagnose birth defects.
In the plastic chair, I am learning as a young child that my body can be cut, peeled, suctioned, probed, grafted, stapled, and sutured. The body previously thought of as mine is opened and rearranged by many blue-gloved hands. Organs normally invisible are outed, glistening because of their disturbed privacy, their involuntary functions made the subject of inquiry. Something does pass out of the body—levitates, sees the self from above, third-person, to be captured in the surgeon’s dictations:
The patient was given general anesthesia and placed in the supine position. A Pfannestiel incision was made, sharp dissection was carried across the anterior rectus fascia. The recti were separated in the midline. Allises were used to grasp the bladder. The bladder was entered. The bladder was so retracted as to expose the left ureteral orifice. It was situated at the dome of a moderate sized ureterocele. Pictures were taken of this anatomical defect.
The patient was given general anesthesia and placed in the lithotomy position. The urethra was calibrated and accepted up to a #22 Otis bougie without difficulty. A #17 cystouresthroscope was introduced into the bladder. Inspection of the trigone revealed the following: the right ureteral orifice was stadium in shape. The right intra-mural tunnel was approximately 8mm and not on the interureteric ridge proper. It was in face lateralized.
The patient was returned to the Recovery Room in satisfactory condition.
Molecular mass of 268.35 g/ml
I was born with a tray of birth defects. I’m like the board game Operation or the surrealist parlor game Exquisite Corpse. Make a sidewalk outline of my body and draw four scars inside it—an equal sign on my lower abdomen, the bottom part made in 1976 and the top in 2005, a dime-sized circle on my left side also from 1976, and a four-inch line on my neck from 1992.
Just as flimsy tweezers move around plastic organs in the board game, parts of my anatomy were moved to different locations in my torso—a tube twisted so far to the right that it fires off aimlessly, like a street lamp (still illuminated) struck by a car—another part not attached at the right place on its organ. My anatomy was redesigned using unexpected shapes, occasionally primordial, with the incongruity of a lion’s head drawn on a plant stem. An organ revised into a crescent shape. Gill slits that manifested on my neck during my first month studying poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The defects made themselves known over widely separate moments—malformation at age four, grape fruit-sized cyst at age twenty two, twelve weeks premature birth of my first child when I was thirty five.
Something toyed with me. It ran its chemical influence over me, that ball of rapidly evolving cells which now types this sentence. Normal development of the head and neck muscles occurs in the fifth gestational week and from gill-like pouches in the throat area of the seahorse-like fetus. In weeks eight through ten, a hormone is secreted in male fetuses the absence of which in female fetuses turns Mülerian ducts into the uterus, uterine tubes, and vagina. For females, urinary tract abnormalities occur in tandem with Mülerian anomalies.
5mg/day in weeks 7 and 8, increased to 10 mg/ day every other week through the 14th week
Beginning June 1969, Hawaii. Mother age twenty one, father age twenty-six.
1 gestational month July20, 1969: Apollo 11 Moon Landing
2 gestational months Mother suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum or persistent morning sickness. Cannot keep even cottage cheese or ginger ale down. Quits job at counter in gift shop.
2 gestational months August 15-17, 1969: Woodstock
3 gestational months September 1969: Parents move from Hawaii to Somersworth, New Hampshire. Mother possibly given a cocktail of endocrine disruptors by different obstetricians with father’s job relocation.
4 gestational months Mother is nearly twenty pounds lighter than before pregnancy.
6 gestational months December 1969 First military draft “lottery” for Vietnam War and first strain of HIV arrives in the United States.
7 gestational months Mother continues to have difficulty holding down food despite medication prescribed and is now thirty pounds lighter than before pregnancy.
Birth, March 1970, in Douglas Wentworth Hospital in New Hampshire, at the same time as my neighbor one house down on my street volunteered as a candy striper in the maternity ward.
March 1970 In a photograph mother wears a shift style dress with lace-up go-go boots and is skinny as Twiggy.
1971:Article published in New England Journal of Medicine links in-utero exposure to the drug Diethylstilbestrol (DES) to a rare cancer in girls.
1973: Research begun on psychosexual side effects of DES on males exposed in utero.
1983: The year in which Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals stops producing Benedictin after a flurry of “preconception” tort liability lawsuits alleging gastrointestinal and limb defects in the wake of uproar over Thalidomide. Claims about Benedictin subsequently disproven.
2013: FDA reinstates Benedictin under the name Diglesis
August 2015: The FDA issued warning to Kim Kardashian to stop promoting Diglesis on Instagram where she had posted, “OMG. Have you heard about this?”
DES or Diethylstilbestrol, with a molecular mass of 268.35 g/ml and elemental configuration of C18H20O2,was synthesized by a graduate student, Leon Golberg, at Oxford University in 1938 in research funded by the UK Medical Research Council. The United States Food and Drug Administration later approved DES for a wide range of uses: as an inexpensive hormone therapy for menopause, a lactation suppressant, a treatment for advanced prostate and postmenopausal breast cancers, as a treatment for infertility and miscarriage, and as chemical castration for sex offenders.
According to the Center for Disease Control, around 5-10 million patients were given DES in the United States between 1938 and 1971, including pregnant women and the daughters and sons of those pregnancies—called DES Daughters and DES Sons. By the 1950s, the drug was administered to tall girls to prevent excessive height, despite the fact that as early as 1939 researchers had seen indications that DES might be carcinogenic. For pregnant women, the recommended regimen was 5mg per day in the seventh and eight weeks of pregnancy, increased to 10 mg per day every other week through the fourteenth week (or just beyond the first trimester, the most vulnerable time in fetal development), to 25 mg until the fifteenth week, and then to 125mg in the thirty-fifth week of pregnancy. A 1971 FDA bulletin warned physicians against prescribing DES to pregnant woman, and by 1975, the FDA banned the sale of 25 mg and 100 mg DES pills.
DES, one of the first carcinogens discovered to be able to cross the human placenta, is now known to cause two side effects: clear cell adenocarcinoma, a vaginal and cervical cancer that was extremely rare in young women before the introduction of DES, and structural alterations of the reproductive tract that can result in infertility, pregnancy loss, and preterm labor. The drug is currently prescribed for urinary incontinence in dogs, though a foreboding “bone marrow suppression” is listed as a side effect for canines.
A 40-fold increase in risk of clear cell adenocarcinoma of the vagina and cervix. T-shaped uterine cavity, hypoplastic uterus, endometrial cavity constrictions and adhesions. Gross cervical abnormalities are visualized in about 20 percent of exposed women. Twice as likely to experience infertility. An 11.7 percent excess risk of ectopic pregnancy (14.6 versus 2.9). Increased lifetime risks of spontaneous abortion (53.3 versus 38.6 percent). Loss of second-trimester pregnancy (16.4 versus 1.7 percent). Twenty percent risk of miscarriage versus 8% in unexposed women. Pre-term delivery (53.3 versus 17.8 percent).
The thick cables of the new Tobin Bridge in Boston pass above me in the ambulance, like a giant centipede or a timeline alit in the night. I am losing the baby, I think because that’s what I’ve been told with medical certainty, as I am arrowed toward the emergency room at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, wheeled, rushed, swabbed, scanned, injected.
Patient is educated woman, is unmarried and has recently moved to area, feels depressed, says 9/11 has made her decide to have child, declined post-op prescription.
Because your twenty-one year old mother’s English is broken, umlauted, because it is 1969, because she did not finish high school in her bombed-out country of origin, because the white coat man speaking to her is Dr., because she follows authority and does not listen to Magical Mystery Tour nor does she smoke wacky tobacky, because she can barely stomach it (and often does not) when her husband spoons maple walnut ice cream out of the carton, because she can’t hold down cottage cheese and saltines, because morning sickness is like lying in a hammock in trees covered in Spanish moss inside a snow globe and wanting to sleep all the time in the bracken water light, because she moves with the man she married after knowing him for three months from one military base to the next, from a tropical island to a rugged New England coast line, because her friend in the apartment building who was writing a dissertation in mathematics is also experiencing hair loss though not from pregnancy kept her company between her rushes to the toilet, because she barely saw her own father and remembers how he took her age seventeen to the airport when she left her country, one shore to the other, the surf pounding, stomach roiling, balcony overlooking the Pacific. It’s not because of a class you took, a book you happened to notice on a shelf marked Poetry, a supportive adult or ten minutes with a college advisor, not because of a childhood literary prize or special inner ability, but because of some man who thinks he knows best, who sits across a desk from a young worried immigrant who has come in twice that week, man who is thirty-four years into his medical practice and two years out from retirement, who isn’t in the loop about latest medical developments or controversies, who doesn’t attend medical conferences, his practice located in rural New Hampshire or on a distant island, who hasn’t renewed his journal subscription since 1961, because it is 1969, and because all women seem unsure, if you were my daughter, I’m telling you what I would advise my own daughter, because as he flips through his notes next to the dic-ta-phone, the note pad from the pharmaceutical rep, can’t keep down food, the young woman who does seem thinner is looking at her hands in her lap, because though this medication is prescribed for miscarriage not morning sickness but maybe it’ll help, because he is also thinking that if she carries this pregnancy to full term he might ask if she wants to give the baby up, how to carefully inquire, he has that older couple in mind, you’re so young, you have a lot of time ahead of you, your husband moves for his work, wouldn’t it be easier to travel without a child?, because this is what the doctor told her, because she can’t handle throwing up again this afternoon, she puts the capsule to her lips, then the glass of flat ginger ale, then swallows.
The microscope is 7.5 pounds without lens on the bathroom scale. A bronze and black monocular with a horseshoe-shaped base, equipped with a triple nose piece and a 10x eyepiece, the microscope was probably manufactured between 1895 and 1934. Rusting letters on the base say Spencer Lens Co., Buffalo, NY. A pink sash, tied by my daughter, makes the dusty microscope a portly general at a beauty pageant. I move close to the microscope for the first time in three decades. It has the smell of dust and much-handled dollar bills. Lacking specimen slides, I drop a corner of the sash onto the viewing platform, rotate the taller of the lenses, and shift the mirror.
Turning the knobs, the microscope tower slowly descends like a cautious apartment elevator. The “shiff shiff shiff”evokes my childhood bedroom, its pinkness and vacuum tracks in shag carpet. What I see through the lens is a mottled light—mold has infiltrated the lens—and the ear-nose-and-throat specialist who hung around my parents’ convenience store whenever my mother was working behind the counter. It’d been his microscope in medical school, and he’d gleaned that the freckled girl playing in the grocery aisles wantedtobeadoctorsomeday in the way children sometimes embrace a profession that had given them a traumatic past—social worker, police officer, teacher, surgeon.
A few years later, from a passing comment, my mother suspected he’d been in the operating room with the surgeon, his golf buddy, and that they both removed her varicose veins in a botched procedure in which she would lose too much blood and return home with legs covered in staples. Goldfish under dissection on a rainy after school afternoon. Eyes raised from the microscope to the way the light looked in the April grass on the leach field. Library anthology of poetry. The sudden feeling of wanting to write a poem—the exact break-away moment when I escaped becoming one of them and used what I had experienced in hospitals and in their offices in my own way, for poetry.
Well-nourished, healthy Caucasian female, age six
In medical records, you are undressed in the third person and put in the johnny of jargon and pseudo-objectivity. When I have requested my records, I have been surprised by the subjective house calls about my intelligence or socio-economic standing, that I am polite, articulate, a patient with a pleasant demeanor. I half-expect to see a note about the model of car I drive. With slides from surgery, the body is no longer the foundation. It’s a launch pad for elsewhere.
Writing in Bed
I tug the I.V. stand with the plastic bag for my urine around the playroom. I like the social scene of the children’s recovery floor in the hospital in the state’s capitol, Augusta—the ill-sorted and banged-up donated toys, the cartoons, the other sick or healing kids with tubes, urine bags, catheters, casts, stitches, or bald heads. I befriend a fellow townie who stuck his arm in a spinning clothes dryer. I like the Flav-O-Aid popsicles. I don’t like it when the medical staff circles my bed and discusses my case, and I hope one of my parents is able to get out of work and visit. At home, my younger brother and sister are growing into their pants lengths, readying for school, adding bone and muscle mass, eating after-school snacks, slipping ahead of me in the birth order while the birth defects and medicines are keeping me physically immature and slighter, and there’s talk of holding me back a year in school. I would grow up amid innuendo that I wouldn’t lead a normal life. Much was left unspoken despite how it directly concerned me.
As children mythologize and imaginatively reconstruct, I picked up crisscrossed meanings, implications, and foreshadowing and rebuilt. At night, I am tucked into bed by on-call nurses and left to process the day’s prodding and consultations. It was the start of many important moments pertaining to writing—of working through problems imaginatively and decoding vestigial images—while sitting in bed. These times setup my tolerance for working alone hours on end, removed from family and peers. I don’t go to the prom because I look like a ten year old. In high school, I wrote my first short stories and poems in my canopy bed. A persistent writing block breaks after my water breaks six and a half months into a pregnancy, this time in a hospital bed in a high-risk pregnancy ward, in what was supposed to be a two and a half month bed rest at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston. When my writing block that had lasted since the graduate program at Iowa finally ends, I am wearing a johnny and looking at the view from my hospital window, a narrow opening of June sky above a still life of abandoned duct repair work, Dunkin Donuts coffee containers, leather tool belt, and wrench, left by workmen who never returned to the job.
A larger field of knowing
The loop of helplessness and frustration of yet another medical complication and needing to turn to the very class of experts who caused the problem in the first place sent me from one error to the next, misdiagnoses, wrong prescription, side effects, wrong medical records, false certainty, assumptions, callousness, baseless statements (you’ve lost the baby) (the technician taking twenty minutes to remember to confirm, the fetus is still there, heart beating), omission of crucial information, misuse of medical equipment, blasting 80’s heavy metal in the ambulance at midnight, stunning insensitivity, that baseless certainty.
What is normally thought of as a solid given was for me formed with a yellow dotted line, like a passing lane, and pass I did, in and out. It was like sending out a sonar ping, mistrusting doctors’ opinions and instead relying on internalized knowledge. Prewriting takes a similar trolling for answers, an inductive casting ahead for language to start or continue a poem. In 1952, Brewster Ghiselin described this back and forth in writers as a movement between “automatic and conscious production”—a ricocheting off of more controlled and conservative thought—the already known—into a “new order developing…in obscurity.” Jung suggested that for artists who approach the unconscious, “[t]he experience that furnishes the material for artistic expression is no longer familiar. It is a strange something that derives its existence from the hinterland of man’s mind.” I started writing poetry and used the same technique of scanning my surroundings, propelled by the levitation of the lyric or the side shadowing of the metaphoric. In return, years of writing practice have honed that intuition so that odd events are the side effects of poetry.
It’s 2002. On a dirt path in a city park, I see a series of images of a rider on a yellow mountain bike hurtling at me. I step off the path, and three seconds later a guy on a bike vaults over a gnarled root and crashes into the exact spot where I’d been standing. It’s 1996. I’m reading on my stomach on the school grounds of an international summer boarding school where I’m teaching, my back to a baseball game. The muted sounds of the game have a marsh to cross before they reach me, but I still feel I should change locations. It’s a sizeable distance, I rationalized, so I don’t move, but I can’t concentrate on the book because the impulse is intensifying. I cower, bracing for impact. As often when the premonitions happen, they’re a series of shuttered images, slow motion, and usually in yellow. A few seconds before the baseball slams into the back of my skull, I see an orb moving through the air, not round but an elongated yellowish in jerky still shots.
It’s 1999, and I’m fresh out of creative writing graduate school and on the job market for a position teaching writing, with nearly a hundred applications out in the mail. In the afternoon, while browsing in a kitchenware shop with my boyfriend, my hand passes in front of a placemat with the map of the continental United States, and my fingertips rest on a lime yellow Louisiana. I’ll be moving to Louisiana, I think. Later over dinner, a roommate remembers to tell me that someone from Louisiana State University had phoned. It’s 2003. A friend is telling me in the vaguest terms about problems with a guy she’s dating in Maine, not mentioning his last name, only saying that his ex-wife seems too present in the man’s life. I feel funny. I look straight at her, a yellow déjà vu filling my torso, and interrupt to ask if the boyfriend’s name isn’t J.S., a high school acquaintance with whom I hadn’t spoken in years. She is shocked because I am right. It’s 2004. In a car accident on an exit ramp, in a line of rear-ended vehicles, I’m catching my breath behind the steering wheel. I’m less than two months pregnant and headed to an appointment with a urologist to discuss possible pregnancy complications from my birth defects. (He’ll say no problems will arise, and five months later, problems most definitely arise.) The passenger door opens, and the software engineer I dated prior to meeting my husband slips into my passenger side seat, saying a voice had told him to leave work and drive on the highway to look for me. His polo shirt is yellow. His pants are yellow.
None of these incidents appreciates being put into language—it’s the first they’ve been typed—and they’re protesting. All the same, I enjoy the equivalency of dressing the uncanny in the same Times New Roman as other content. I am reminding myself to notice these events in real time before logic sets in. This receptivity to the irrational takes leaving behind preconceived ideas, a willingness to engage with the unknown, a risk. Likewise, the vital parts of a poem or essay can become misshapen by ambitious thoughts or premature exposure to outcome and audience. This type of knowing is what it means to be involved with poetry—using a phrase as a lure to see what I can pull from the preverbal, the unknown, the all-white of possibility—and receiving some type of response.
I’ve dropped my car off for an oil change at the local father & son mechanics. It’s an early November day, and I’m walking the mile back to my laptop on the kitchen counter. The road is industrial and ugly, a short stint between a bank of fast food restaurants, faltering shopping mall, and second-hand car and furniture dealers before the turn into our cul de sac. It’s not a safe place for a pedestrian, the constant whizzing traffic ten mph over the limit, no sidewalk, just this curb of petrified grass pelleted with bottle caps, butts, and broken asphalt, a strip mall with “Commercial Space For Rent” signs and a Rent-a-Rec—then a culvert with iced-over water, scrub trees. I pull my collar up to ward off the chill while trying to fend off a funk, residue from some minor slight, and I don’t care for the undertones of self-pity. I look toward the pre-snow sky and in a private conversation say, “The universe doesn’t owe you anything,” when something immediately catches my eye. It’s a twenty dollar bill, waving from the frost-stiffened grass curbside.
The bill is a parody of a twenty dollar bill, clean and crisp, unwrinkled. It feels brightened, as though a different light was cast on it than the November surroundings, as though the twenty dollar bill were in a collage and excised from another time and place. The next two yards of the curb are covered with fluttering money—tens, another twenty, fives, and a few one dollar bills. I look for a lost wallet or purse—or worse—a person lying in the culvert. Nothing. ($110 when I’m in my kitchen, counting like a startled bank teller.) For a moment, I just stare but then begin to stuff the money into a coat pocket, aware of what the sight of a well-dressed pedestrian in a butternut yellow wool coat picking money, lots of money, off the ground must look like to passing drivers. I text my husband, You’ll never believe what just happened. I joke how the cost of the oil change was more than covered by my extrasensory walk home, and my husband (who tends to be skeptical of odd experiences) asks if I’m crazy, this time taking the event seriously. He reminds me of the internal statement I’d made right before the money showed up and says it’s clear I can’t keep the money. I’m not supposed to keep the money. I release it. I give it away. Ping.
Material in this essay was obtained from Susan Bell’s DES Daughters, Embodied Knowledge, and the Transformation of Women’s Health Politics in the Late Twentieth Century as well as from the New England Journal of Medicine, Wikipedia, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Brewster Ghiselin’s The Creative Process.
Alexandria Peary is the author of six books, including Prolific Moment: Theory and Practice of Mindfulness for Writing (Routledge 2018). Her new collection of poems, The Water Draft, will be published by Spuyten Duyvil in 2019. She has recently published creative nonfiction in the Cimarron Review and Meridian, with a sequel to her lawn care essay coming out soon in The Gettysburg Review.