By Naomi Riddle
27 August, 2021
“The whole kingdom is spilling out of itself. There are holes everywhere. To the east, a pile of impossible tasks of my own making. To the west, a mountain of broken crowns I will melt and recast into a machete.”
Sabrina Orah Mark, ‘Fuck The Bread. The Bread Is Over’, The Paris Review, (2020)
A letter about looking. A letter about holding the globe in my head, so I wouldn’t get trapped in my own myopic world.
I thought if I could stay ahead of the news or made sure I looked at the heat dome(s) and the floods and the building collapse, then I would arrive at a conclusion. If I avoided certain types of scrolling, but found other more useful types of scrolling, such as live feeds and data maps and definitive climate statistics, then I would better understand.
(This is what I used as justification. If I were more honest, I would admit I needed to know, or I needed to make sure I wouldn’t be surprised.)
A letter about how I wanted to bookmark a map of the world, to spread it out and push thumbtacks into the centres of distress. I clicked on the images of the mussels and clams cooking inside of their shells; I read about wet bulb temperatures and what happens to the human body when it “can no longer cool itself by sweating”; I looked at statistics about vaccine shortages, new and old waves, WTO warnings about variants announced nine months ago, and also how the globe needed to think of its vaccination response as a globe, not as a group of individual nation states.
I saved quotes from climate scientists stating what they said would happen was happening now, and it would continue to happen, and it was worse than they had expected.
I clicked on the article about the crop of cherries burning on the vine.
Then the prime minister of Haiti was assassinated, then there were protests in Cuba, and then there were calls to send the US military to both of these countries, simultaneously. I read about Hunter Biden’s $50,000 paintings, and, as I had before, about oxygen supplies and burial grounds and hospital beds.
I watched Scott Morrison’s recurring display of nationalist pastiche every time he removed his mask.
A letter confessing that what I was doing wasn’t working. That the more I looked, the more my justifications came to be seen as implausible. How I continued to sit with my torpor, in front of a screen. How I kept saying to myself keep looking because you have to get used to this kind of looking because it is only going to get worse.
But looking doesn’t equal insight, and just as my activity increased, so did the blaze rebounding off it. My limbs were becoming heavier and heavier, and my movements more sluggish and suspicious, because of what I was carrying behind me: a dragnet filled with 10am, 11am, and 2pm press conferences, and the tactics of Sky News political reporters, and the discussion thread about the trauma of those who had seen a person intubated then seeing a person on television pretending to be intubated and pretending to be unable to breathe.
If I was asked why are you doing this, or what is it you hope to achieve, my only answer was silence or contempt or to point at the dragnet behind me, filled to the brim with its flotsam and grime.
I wouldn’t admit what the dragnet was teaching me, and what it was making me believe. I didn’t want to hold the globe in my head anymore. I wanted to hold it between my index finger and thumb like a grape, and squash it.
A letter about vanishings, or a letter about illusions / trapdoors / escape hatches / ragged edges / rinds / offcuts / drains / and aerated soil. A letter about how I kept pulling books out of the bookcase in the hope this action would reveal the entrance to a secret room: a room containing a spreadsheet and a to-do list and a plan.
A letter about the time when I thought the pandemic was a hinge, or a moment when everything might be undone or recast. How there was a time when I thought the pandemic would rupture the “limitless reality” of hyper-capitalism, and yet all that happened, really, was our need to spend & buy and click & collect became more insatiable, and the pervasive mood was one of envy instead of care.
If the pandemic gave “Australians” a new kind of knowledge, then we quickly threw it away, or we built ourselves a gilded cage, or we felt safe as long as we blocked those people from other countries where the disease was running rampant. We had already forgotten what we had learnt the year before: a disease doesn’t care for borders and it will jump over whatever it needs to in order to survive.
“I felt obscene,” writes Rachel Kushner in The Hard Crowd. “I felt obscene.”
A letter beginning with Lotte L.S. reminding us “not to confuse care for getting all our individual needs constantly met, not to confuse freedom for having no right to ask for commitment or sacrifice, and not to confuse collective life for lots of individual people in one place.”
(A group of people standing in a gallery might only be lots of individual people standing in a gallery.)
A letter asking why, if so many of us profess to be against capital, and the market-driven pursuit of perpetual accumulation, we continue to define and shape our endeavours with its infected terms? A letter asking whether there aren’t other words, other languages, we could use instead of “development”, “asset-request”, “industry”, “sector”, “promotion”, “brand”, “performance indicator”, “content” & “profit-return”?
A letter bringing together June Jordan (“these poems / they are things that I do / in the dark” and “these words / they are stones in the water / running away”) with Hélène Cixous (“I do not want to see what is shown. I want to see what is secret. What is hidden among the visible. I want to see the skin of the light.”). So, a letter suggesting we learn more with our eyes closed instead of open. A letter about the importance of not looking, not gaping, and listening to the other quieter lesser voice telling me to stop.
A letter asking to begin again, again.
A letter asking, if there is such a thing as a reparative mode of reading, is there also a reparative mode of editing? And, does asking this question go against the definition of what an editor is actually meant to do (direct, edit, assemble, make public)? If an editor believes in smallness or slippages or vanishings, are such beliefs anything to be proud of, or are they just the result of timidity and/or adolescent refusal?
Ask if it’s possible to strive for this reparative mode of editing without being asked the follow-up question: if you believed whole-heartedly in what you were doing then wouldn’t this whole conversation / letter / question be redundant?
End the letter with a comparison between the etymologies of the word “editor” and the word “doubt”, and find solace in the fact that doubt, aside from fear, can also mean to question, to hesitate, to sit between two things.
A letter outlining an argument. On the one side, I need to read it because I need to understand, and on the other, You don’t need to read it to know where you should be directing your gaze.
If I stare at this letter long enough a solution will reveal itself.
Disclaimer: a solution has not revealed itself.
I have decided all future letters will be a place where talk of money or precarity ceases to be a defining feature / where writing will not be determined by its necrotic sensibility / where writing enacts a process of de-commodification instead of acquiescing to its commodified power.
See: Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s talk ‘Writing On Your Own Terms’ and her understanding of publishing as separate to (and an imposition on) what writing is (and can do).
A letter about what we’ve learnt, which is mostly the ability to say the same sentence over and over again. What seems to be of most importance is HOW LOUD WE CAN TALK until our opposition retreats. It is our followers and shares and the status of our personal brands. The ability to back ourselves 100%, or, to make declarative statements that anyone might have made, but saying them with absolute assurance, whether qualified to or not, and knowing it is unlikely anyone will go back and reread our statements in 24 hours, or two weeks from now, seeing as we’ll all have moved on to the next event.
How you considered deleting your first and second unfinished letters because they referred to moments-in-time that already seemed dated and insignificant compared to what was happening now, but you left them in anyway, so as not to forget.
A letter in response to the flippant retweet about Afghanistan, and how you imagined this person sitting, reading the original tweet, nodding and smiling, and then clicking on their phone, yes retweet, this is what I want to say in this instant, how easy that was.
How, later, you read Matt Canavan’s tweet: “Does anyone know whether the Taliban will sign up to net zero?” And then the follow-up, “It was meant to provoke”, and then the explanation, “In my view, one of the things that has gone wrong is we have been far too focused on First World problems like diversity and inclusion rather than industrialisation and defence.”
I felt obscene.
I felt obscene.
A letter rewriting your unfinished letter about June Jordan and Hélène Cixous, clarifying that the not-looking or the reaching-in-the-dark is different from a turning away. Place this feeling-with-eyes-closed alongside JJ’s belief in “thinking in global terms.” Consider that the same poet who wrote these skeletal lines / they are desperate arms for my longing and love also wrote I did know it was the money I earned as a poet that / paid / for the bombs and the planes and the tanks. (You are trying to work out how to move / slip between these two things.)
A letter admitting what you’re reaching for (in the dark) is a way of writing about the globe—globe as in orb, as in sphere, as in world, as in planet—that is able to hold everything together, which is different from saying they are all equivalent or the same. That thinking in “global terms” also includes trees, the stratification of clouds, waves, riverbeds, and alluvial floodplains—a “world-space” and a “world-time” which can move horizontally and vertically / backwards and forwards.
Also, you’re asking whether it’s possible to find such a world in the moment you are most enclosed, when your perimeter has been reduced to the four walls around you.
Today, when you are writing this, your answer is yes.
A letter about how the lecturer said where you are looking from is just as important as what it is you are looking at.
June Jordan: “Let me define my terms, in brief: New World does not mean New England. New World means non-European; it means new; it means big; it means heterogenous; it means unknown; it means free; it means an end to feudalism, caste, privilege, and the violence of power. It means wild in the sense that a tree growing away from the earth enacts a wild event.”
My need to keep looking and to keep searching has as much to do with a lack of trust or patience as it has to do with an anxiety about being surprised.
But better to be surprised, better to discover this world anew rather than categorising and qualifying and constricting each part of it. Remember: most of the things you’ve needed to look at and read have been accidental or stumbled upon or lent or passed on or shared (shared as in given, not shared as in algorithmically produced).
An example: a newsletter from Anne Boyer, in my inbox, unexpectedly and without warning—
“I did not know how the lost could write, or what we could say, or if we should say anything, until walking down the stairs from the attic, I had a revelation: how the lost can write is for the lost.”
I stopped looking. I stopped the alt-tab / alt-tab / alt-tab and I turned off the press conference and the debriefing and the live stream and the 60-second clip and the reports-on-the-ground and the collected thread. I stopped using “and” as a conjunction and replaced it with but / although / even if.
You don’t need to look at it to know where you should be directing your gaze.
The dragnet started to tear.
The terms of my globe or my orb or my grape began to gather together off-screen.
I closed my laptop.
I stopped looking, and I wrote to you.
Writers & works referenced:
Rachel Kushner, ‘The Sinking of the HMS Bounty’, The Hard Crowd,(London: Jonathan Cape, 2021)
Rachel Kushner, ‘We Are Orphans Here’, The Hard Crowd, (London: Jonathan Cape, 2021)
Lotte L.S, ‘Afterword’, A town, three cities, a fig, a riot, two blue hyacinths, three beginnings, five letters, a “death”, two solitudes, facades, four loose dogs, a doppelgänger, a likeness, three airport floors, thirty-six weeks—, (Oakland: TRIPWIRE, 2021)
June Jordan, ‘These Poems’ (1977), in The Collected Poems of June Jordan: Direct by Desire, (USA: Copper Canyon Press, 2005)
Hélène Cixous, ‘Writing Blind: Conversation with the Donkey’, Stigmata, (London & New York: Routledge, 2005)
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, ‘Writing on Your Own Terms’, Tinhouse, (2021)
June Jordan, ‘June Jordan at the Brockport Writers Forum’, Brockport, (1981)
June Jordan, ‘Apologies to All the People of Lebanon’ (1985), in The Collected Poems of June Jordan: Direct by Desire, (USA: Copper Canyon Press, 2005)
Manfred B. Steger; Paul James, ‘Excavating the Long History of Globalization’, Globalization Matters: Engaging the Global in Unsettled Times, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019)
June Jordan, ‘For the Sake of People’s Poetry’, The Poetry Foundation, (2002)
Anne Boyer, ‘each homer of nought’, M I R A B I L A R Y, (2021)
This piece is indebted to Mary Ruefle’s ‘23 Lectures I’ll Never Give’ in Madness, Rack and Honey (2012).