Verse, Venice, and Lars von Trier.
Every book has its own texture, materiality, and topography. This is not only metaphorical; the process of creating literature produces all sorts of flotsam–notes, sketches, research, drafts–and sifting through this detritus can provide insight both into the architecture of a work and into the practice of writing. Blunderbuss is excited to run this series, in which we ask writers to select and assemble the artifacts of a book in a way that they find meaningful and revealing. In this installment, Cynthia Cruz discusses how Lars Von Trier, Jean Genet, and Venice informed How the End Begins, published by Four Way Books.
In poems of “elegy and opulence” (G.C. Waldrop), How the End Begins draws on a range of artistic influences and triggers to bring forth poems of silence, longing, and communion with the intangible world. In her fourth book of poems, Cynthia Cruz “continues to write the soul in its fullness and emptinesss” (Afaa Michael Weaver).
How the End Begins, my fourth collection of poems, began, I believe, sometime around the year 2011. The title of the book came from a review of Lars von Trier’s film, Melancholia, by New York Times the film critic Manohla Dargis. The film was a huge influence on the book.
I have written elsewhere about the film which is, in my opinion, an honest and harrowing account of mental illness/depression. The way the film factors into the book though is Lars von Trier’s account of the inevitability of the world’s end and the chasm between those who dare to see what is actually happening and those who can’t stomach this truth.
In the culture of the United States, what sells are books and art and films that are uplifting, that promise hope through doing. The world and its things—our need to fill ourselves with material and nonstop action—are some of the issues I was thinking about before I saw the film. One of the film’s main characters, Justine, suffers from an unidentified mental illness, and von Trier connects her illness to her inability to blind herself to reality.
The film is a masterpiece, and I return to it often. I find it poetic in that it does not tell us what to think—it shows us images and a plot and allows us to do the thinking. How the End Begins is also the title of three of the poems in the collection. Here is one:
How the End Begins
The galloping horses collapse
At night beneath the stars.
Then the film goes blank.
Sorrow comes on: delicious
Illness that it is.
I come back to the theater:
Past the floating
Willows near the river.
Part Two includes porcelain horses,
Rooms of tables stacked with food
I never eat.
Mesmer and stars.
A haunting that goes on
Like a wedding without end.
Unload the coffers of memory:
Riding through the forest on horseback
I carried my baby
Sister over miles of countryside.
We never survived.
In the summer of 2011 I traveled to Venice, Italy with my husband.
We both wanted to see the Biennale and the city. As it turns out, I was less than impressed with the Biennale, though I was incredibly moved by the museums and the many tiny churches throughout the city. Every time we passed one, I’d sneak in. At the Gallerie dell’Accademia, I was blown away by the paintings on display. A number of the painters painted gold halos around the heads of angels. These halos appeared as if they were helmets.
When I travel, I tend to suffer from jet lag and general cloudiness. As a result, I find myself in another state, a kind of cloud-ness. I forget things but also am more porous—can take more things in. In any case, I seemed to have forgotten the name of the artist who painted the painting with the helmeted angels. Later that night, and the next four or so, while lying in bed unable to sleep, in a fever of anxiety, I imagined the helmeted angels watching over me–and Mary, who appears on nearly every corner of the city. That painting was the germ for the poem “The Boatman.”
A thousand helmeted angels
In pink silk robes.
Then the man with the cross and the long white beard,
His brown dog
Lapping up the broken world
From the hull of his boat:
Carrion, and viscera.
The remains of a bird fallen from its nest.
The probability of death
Tonight or in my sleep:
Blood, black as squid ink
On my skin in the streets.
Drugged on nothing, just their words.
Flies and what they said to me.
What I built of their words.
A spider’s nest filled with the gem of their venom.
And someone’s voice in my head
A woman at the bed
Of her dead child.
Alone, and God
In the gold
Icon locked inside the glass case
In the vast cathedral
I cannot get to him.
On my knees
In the immaculate hotel room
Beneath the porcelain chandelier,
Suffocating on my own beautiful toxin.
The city, the idea of moving away from things, and the illusion that doing is the panacea for experiencing the world as it is (that centering one’s life on the acquisition of money and fame, things and so forth in order to rise above the world) were the germs for the poem “The Treasure.”
I asked the hornets and all other insects
To come to me.
Horned, and by the million.
Flies, and drugs.
With no number.
Just a small rectangular window
To show my eyes,
Whisper the name I was given.
And I was granted entry
Into the underworld,
The broken world. The brightest
Women and children, starving
On the concrete floors of the city.
Men, and sick
Animals. Semen, and drool.
The gnashing of teeth.
Money: sexual, and infectious.
The rich lace of this world.
And the warm lights of fame, her promise.
I took all of it in.
I was afraid
What would happen,
I took all of it in
Because I could.
It was given.
I stepped onto the boat
And let the world deliver me
To its glimmering shores:
Its cars and its clothes
Its beautiful anthems.
Into the world, into the world.
A night that never ends.
Through the morass, the throngs.
Children and animals, left behind to die.
Worthlessness, without meaning.
But what of Mary and her halo of stars?
I found myself naked,
My cupped hands asking for more.
They called me brilliant,
They said I could join them.
I was afraid to be pulled out from the circle.
The world and its melodious
Music, in the end,
A kind of hologram.
But what of Mary and her halo of stars?
I stood before her—
Broken, but still
In her vast cathedral
The ghost of what I was
Out of me.
When I am writing a book of poems I don’t think beforehand what the book will be investigating. Instead, I just write about what I am obsessed with at the time. Writing is a machine for me: I write what I don’t understand with the hope that by getting the words on the page (and then through research and many revisions) I will understand a bit better than I did before. Some of the themes in this book were inspired by the Austrian writers Ingeborg Bachmann and Thomas Bernhard.
I respect and admire their work as much as I admire their ethics and their honesty, and I imagined both of them with me throughout much of the writing of this book. You might say they were muses, though I like to think of them as my guides. They show up directly in several of the poems—including “Coco,” Setting for a Fairy Tale,” and “Death: The Project.” Ingeborg Bachmann, of course, introduces the book with her quote, “No new world without a new language.”
Setting for a Fairy Tale
Ingeborg Bachmann and Thomas
Bernhard: speak to me now.
How can I move
Between these two worlds?
At the Grand Gala
Inside the apple orchard
Drinking pink champagne.
Thomas, wearing his famous fawn suit,
Ingeborg in a wool camel shift.
This was before she died in a fire
Before he wrote, “At last I was able
To get up and go to the window.”
Don’t, they warned me,
Let your voice be devoured.
Just let your ego dissolve, she said,
Like some weird Hindu god.
Years later, we rode in a gold
Mercedes into the blackening chaos of the night.
Jean Genet is another muse or ferryman who guided me throughout the process of writing this book. I was especially interested in his texts The Declared Enemy and The Thief’s Journal. One thing I have been thinking about a lot lately is the idea that despite how far forward you move in your art career, it is necessary to resist the powerful call to assimilate, to polish yourself, to become professionalized and, in so doing, lose the very parts of yourself that propelled you where you are. Where we come from when we come from Other places: poverty, various experiences with institutionalization, juvie, being diagnosed, public housing, public health centers or clinics, the experiences of being Other via race, mixed race, religion, and/or coming from outside the United States, and, of course, self-identifying outside the heterosexual norm. I am interested in protecting this aspect of myself and of my students. How, then, to become a better writer, a better artist, without forfeiting these essential parts of who we are? Jean Genet was my ferryman—guiding me to safer shores.
Several of the poems in the collection reference the work of visual artists. “The Birthday Ceremony” refers to Sophie Calle’s series of the same title about which Calle stated:
“On my birthday I always worried that people will forget me. In 1980, to relieve myself of this anxiety, I decided that every year, if possible on October 9, I would invite to dinner the exact number of people corresponding to my age, including a stranger chosen by one of my guests.”
What most interests me about Calle’s project is the use of the vitrine, the colleting of items to ward off aging, and the grief when nearing the time of one’s death. And so, though my series does not correspond directly with Calle’s project, it connects through the idea of collecting items or words inside a glass vitrine as a means to ward of death, grief, and trauma. The poems, then, become a kind of talisman or a collection of talismans. Here is an excerpt from the series.
The Birthday Ceremony
And I thought I heard America
Coming in like a dream on the short-wave.
The uncanny always comes back—
Non-stop theater of compulsive
Mother, I’ve another
Drink in my hand,
Failing, again, at controlling
The clutter and chaos.
America, fading out, a flicker at first
Then lost, in my blind spot.
The Birthday Ceremony
Scrapbook from five to eleven a.m.
Throw the I-Ching, reconfigure the mess
Of last night’s sordid tarot.
Wine glass rings on the jackets of all my favorite books.
Drink organic tincture of leaves and anise seed stars.
Coat the face in clear cold jelly
From the cheese box in the fridge.
I will drive it out of me, my mind.
Another series in the book, “The Fatigue Empire,” refers to the title of German artist Cosima von Bonin’s exhibition of the same name in 2010 at the Kunsthaus Bregenz.
In 2012, von Bonin, scheduled to give a public lecture with the musician Moritz von Oswald, cancelled. In lieu of their talk, the two artists issued a statement. Here is the announcement in its entirety. The cancellation, one can imagine, as part of the artist’s performance, her enactment of Empire Fatigue. From the announcement, what I found of most interest were the following words: “I feel exhausted” and:
“To function constantly these days is seen as extremely virtuous. For many the worst thing would be to acknowledge that they are exhausted. Contemporary capitalism demands constant creativity, and that one deal with it, profitably. Not even losers are left in peace—they too should work on themselves continuously, and get involved permanently. The Fatigue Empire represents an opposing model that celebrates exhaustion very open-mindedly, as everybody knows of course.”
This, the sense of being exhausted as a result of capitalism’s constant push forward and our refusal as participants in the West, in the United States, 1) to stop or at least slow down and as a result risk being passed by our competitors (who may be other artists or writers), and 2) to really look and see the world as it is right now. How the End Begins is a text that I hope begins to stop or slow down and acknowledge the world as it is.
The poems were previously published:
“How the End Begins” in American Poetry Review
“The Boatman” in Ivory Tower
“The Treasure” in The Toronto Quarterly
“Setting for a Fairy Tale” in Spoon River Poetry
“The Birthday Ceremony (And I Thought…)” in Ping Pong
“The Birthday Ceremony (Scrapbook…)” in Ping Pong
Stills from Melancholia courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Photos of the Cosima von Bonin exhibition by Markus Tretter and courtesy of Kunsthaus Bregenz.