Re Jane and Adam, Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, But Your Erotic Energy Touches Everything
This essay was commissioned by SAL for the occasion of the final event in our 2016/17 Sherman Alexie Loves Series on Thursday, May 11, at Town Hall Seattle. First Loves: Patricia Park, Ariel Schrag, and Sunil Yapa will feature these debut novelists that Sherman Alexie loves, as well as dramatic readings by three local actors. For more information and ticket purchases, visit us here.
By Rachel Kessler, WITS Writer-in-Residence
1. The Body Speaks
What language conceals is said through the body. My body is a stubborn child; my language is a very civilized adult.
We have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings. For the demands of our released expectations lead us inevitably into actions which will help bring our lives into accordance with our needs, with our knowledge, with our desires.
The body wants what the body wants. When I was a kid, my body was not a problem. The clap of my hands, my voice raised in song, my legs and arms dancing in the spirit in church. And when language failed, we spoke in tongues. The Holy Ghost entered us and breathed through us. The spirit changed our throats into instruments, moved our bodies in exaltation. To be taken over was sacred. We each had a secret language to connect directly with the divine.
“The words secret and sacred are siblings,” poet and essayist Mary Ruefle writes. Secret comes from Latin secretus, which means “separated, hidden”. The prefix se- means “without, apart” and the root, cret- is shared with words like ascertain, discern, concert.
An anagram of sacred is scared. Secret’s anagram is certes, a French word for indeed. Indeed, I am afraid. I fear the secret, the sacred within.
Later, when I encountered Eros, I recognized him.
Eros, most famously, comes bounding into the room when two people fall in love at first sight. But it’s also in the excitement that flashes through you when a teacher explains an intellectual proposition and you grasp it—or when someone tells a joke and you get it.
Eros is the quick spirit that moves between people – quick as in the distinction between ‘the quick and the dead.’ It’s the moving force that won’t be subdued by habit or law. Its function is to keep cracking open what is becoming rigid and closed-off. Eros explodes the forbidden… Eros mocks our fantasy that we can nail life down and control it. It’s as far beyond our attempts to regulate it as sunshine is—or a cyclone.
I hate the word erotic. I hate what has happened to this word. I hate the way it smirks in people’s mouths and goes flat in their eyes when I say I’m writing an essay about the erotic as catalyst for social change and revolution. Descended from Eros, a powerful, primordial god rendered chubby love baby by the Renaissance, we take all the power of Erotic and flatten it into red cursive and black fishnets.
Jung called it the spark that ignites and connects. Eros leaps between people “on his glittering golden wings, swift as the whirlwinds of the tempest” (Aristophanes) smacking us awake. -the fuck is this?
Scratch and infect. “He smites maids’ breasts with unknown heat” (Seneca, Phaedra). Waking us from numbness into sensation. What am I doing? Whose body is this? My chest cracked open.
Eros mated with Chaos in the Abyss and created the human race. The erotic cycles within us demanding things like the gods who leave heaven to dwell on earth in borrowed forms wondering, why do I exist? Undoing the skin we lived in.
This undoing – it’s not like stepping out of a pair of pantyhose. It is more like coming across a wolverine (Gulo gulo) “the glutton,” devouring a skull in her mid-winter hunger. It is the ravenous ache in teeth. It is the voracious sacred annihilation of security. It is my ass remembering the metronome of spine, swaying. It is my ass on the dance floor, shaking. It is my ass in this chair, writing. It is a chord I hear, reverberating.
2. Regarding Jane
As women, we have come to distrust that power which rises from our deepest and non-rational knowledge. We have been warned against it all our lives. But the erotic offers a well of replenishing and procreative force to the woman who does not fear its revelation, nor succumb to the belief that sensation is enough.
Patricia Park’s novel Re Jane spins Charlotte Brönte’s Jane Eyre into the contemporary story of a Korean American orphan named Jane so desperate to escape claustrophobic Flushing, Queens, she takes a nanny job in Brooklyn. She and her boss fall in love. Eros decimates the power of nunchi, the “governing principal of Korean society.” Jane explains, “There’s no word for it in English; perhaps the closest literal translation is ‘eye sense.’ … It was the ability to read a situation and anticipate how you were expected to behave… The adults at church always said that good nunchi was the result of a good ‘family education.’”
This knowing how to behave, how to read a room and the strict social expectations parallels Victorian society in some ways. Both Jane Re and Jane Eyre know what they are supposed to do, but desire pushes them to speak and act out of turn. Disobedience is punished not only by shunning, but loss of housing and food. The pressure to conform is not merely psychological. It is physical:
“In Flushing your personal business was communal property. Such intimate knowledge was stifling. I tapped a hand to my chest, seeking relief. I felt tap-tap-hae—an overwhelming discomfort pressing down on you physically, psychologically. When the walls felt as if they were closing in around you, that was tap-tap-hae. When the strap of your bra was fastened too tightly across your chest, that was tap-tap-hae.”
Jane’s affair decimates her life. As she defies the morals of Korean American Flushing, and of American marriage, the known world, the earth she thought was solid under her shifts. She steps out into the unknown. She hovers over the abyss, in a literal and allegorical state of groundlessness, up in the air. On a plane.
She flees Brooklyn for Seoul on the eve of 9/11. The world explodes.
In her essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic As Power” Audre Lorde writes, “The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.” Eros detonates convention, and when the dust settles, leaves an opening. Catalyzed by love and lust, Jane liberates herself. She loses herself, dismantles her life, and, eventually, finds herself. Turmoil shakes out assumptions, forces situations.
“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh;—it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,—as we are!”
-Charlotte Brönte, Jane Eyre
Jane Re does not, dear reader, marry him. Like her predecessor, Jane Eyre, she is emboldened to speak up from an altered state. This is the true power of the erotic.
3. What I Don’t Know Could Fill a Book
Our erotic knowledge empowers us, demands that all our life be lived within the knowledge that such satisfaction is possible. It does not have to be called god nor marriage nor man or an afterlife. This is one reason why the erotic is so feared in the society we live in. And so often relegated to the bedroom alone when it is recognized or if it is recognized at all. For once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves, and from all our life’s pursuits, that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of. …our erotic knowledge…becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence… And this is a grave responsibility—it’s projected from within each one of us: not to settle, not to settle for what is convenient, shoddy, for the conventionally expected, or what is merely safe.
This incandescent passage obliterated me in the theater dark. It shined a light on my own choices – in my work, my art, and my life – and I saw how I clung to security, terrified of this knowledge. Artists Shontina Vernon and Hatlo wove it into a multi-media performance at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, a place I recently learned had been a synagogue. The same space my grandfather bar mitzvah-ed in. A building with my great-great grandfather’s name engraved on the cornerstone. A place I find myself, again and again, tripping over what I did not know, coming into knowledge by means of staggering, by falling, by misunderstanding, by awaking to knowing nothing.
I want this horse within me to die down, was how I mis-heard Alice Notley read from her poem “Two of Swords”. Before I went back to read it in Certain Magical Acts, I decided the line went: “I want this horror within me to die down.” Horror could sound horse. According to the text on the page, the line goes “I want this noise within me to die down.” Oh, yes. My scrawl mis-transcribed the n and i.
“It’s not what a poem says with its mouth, it’s what a poem does with its eyes.” Mary Ruefle reminded me to look.
4. Abandoned Structures I Have Jumped Off
It takes courage to push yourself to places that you have never been before… to test your limits… to break through barriers. And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight inside the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.
We climbed up that on-ramp to nowhere in the Arboretum. This soaring chunk of road connecting decaying wetlands to the sky was a popular place to hang out and drink enough beers to think about jumping off into the murky water below. The boys I walked with were not brave, but they drank beer. In the next few months each one of them would turn their back on me while my life exploded and I had a nervous breakdown at 21. Was the one who raped me there? I can’t remember. The one who puked in my bathtub and passed out, peeing himself in my roommate’s bed was there. But that’s not yet. The future will always be there, waiting. In this moment, I wanted them to be my friends, and I wanted to impress upon them my toughness.
I walked with my pack of cowards to the edge. They cracked open cold ones. I watched their mouths. I should have been watching their eyes.
I knew that if I waited much longer, my mind would not let my body jump. And it was a hard climb up there – to climb back down through the sticker bushes and morning glory and bottle shards would be much less graceful than the terrifying plummet off this abandoned bridge.
The time between stepping off the guardrail and hitting the water passes more slowly than I expected. There is time to notice how long it takes to fall this far. Time to know it is impossible to actually calculate the distance or impact of dropping. To know I cannot understand the water below. It is brown and nearly opaque, thick with lily pads. There is time for my fear to accelerate in tandem to my mass and gravity speeding my body towards earth. Time for the awareness that this is certainly going to hurt when I hit the water.
I didn’t announce myself. Hoisted one leg then the other over the guardrail and I was off. It wasn’t a brave or showy jump—more of a fall, really—but I went first, without words or beer. The boys on the on-ramp looked up at me, the lone girl there standing on the edge. Maybe the sun haloed around me, maybe my body cast a shadow over their huddled words. I stood still for a second. I wanted to leap, to spring up into the sky, but all the courage I could muster was to step forward, into the air, into nothingness, into the unknown.
Don’t be ashamed to be a human being – be proud!
Inside you one vault after another opens endlessly.
You’ll never be complete, and that’s as it should be.”
-Tomas Tranströmer, “Romanesque Arches”
When released from its intense and constrained pellet, [the erotic] flows through and colors my life with a kind of energy that heightens and sensitizes and strengthens all my experience.
Ariel Schrag’s novel Adam churns with what desire can bring about. Adam, the 17-year-old cis boy at the center is mistaken for trans by a gorgeous and fascinating lesbian. Eros, that wily spirit leaps between them: “He thought about the silent glances with Gillian at the party. When you talked without talking, it was as if your brains were touching. Adam felt a shiver of electricity in his body.”
Erotic energy gives his life a sense of purpose: “Life before Gillian was a cold, colorless wasteland through which he had pursued the meaningless business of being alive for god knows what reason. Really, what was the point of life if you didn’t have this in it? He wasn’t being dramatic. It was a legitimate question.”
He rides his lie as far as it will take him. His secret transforms him as he carefully researches how to pass. Motivated by lust, he hides in trans disguise, which is despicable. But by trying on another’s experience, he awakens empathy. Eventually his passion radiates outward from his personal obsession to becoming an activist for LGBTQ rights.
6. Dance Revolution
In touch with the erotic, I become less willing to accept powerlessness.
Rebel girl, rebel girl—
you are the queen of my world!
Rebel girl, rebel girl—
I know I wanna take you home,
I wanna try on your clothes!
We ooze toward the glow of the tiny, low stage. From the dark corners of the Seaman’s Union Hall girls shuffle, stroll, strut, caught in the pull of the punk singer’s command. Kathleen Hanna landed her spaceship and sucked us up in her brilliant light, beamed us to this new planet. Flanked by my housemates, I am part of a moving wall, a wave of women, rolling to the front, and when we get there, we jump and slam and thrash, we dance and shake, we detonate.
Bikini Kill possesses me. Filled with drums and bass and screaming, there was no room for the constant hum of self-loathing that usually accompanied me. I no longer heard the faithful murmur of my self-conscious analysis of what people around me were doing and what I should be doing in response. My main mode in my late teens and early 20s was to hold very still, pretend I was invisible, and watch with all my thoughts. Punk exploded that. It hammered at my brain, at my stiff limbs, until I found myself unable to hold so still.
Even the coolest of cool girls cannot resist. We all raise our arms, close our eyes and headbang in unison. I am back in church, the spirit moving through me, through all of our bodies, we are instruments of the revolution.
7. Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist
Recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world, rather than merely settling for a shift of characters in the same weary drama.
Don’t you want to go with the winners? you ask. I want this noise within me to die down … I would never ask that you follow me; I will never acknowledge a leader. I am my own president. But also, I am everyone, trying to be with you, because I exist, and always have.
Sunil Yapa’s novel Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist leaps between and loops seven characters in the chaos of Seattle’s WTO protests: cops, protestors, politicians collide in the tear gas-filled streets. A young homeless man named Victor drifts into the swirl and winds up locking himself into PVC piping with a crew of dedicated non-violent protestors, making a “message with their bodies.” He joins them, “feeling something he did not want to feel, feeling the thing that he went to bed feeling, the thing he woke up feeling, the thing he felt at his tent beneath the highway when he moved gravel from one spot to another with that stupid broom.” He watches the cops hold down an older woman and insert pepper-spray soaked Q-tips into her eyes and nostrils. She endures the pain and remains:
“Was it love, and then what kind of love was that—love for the action, love for lockdown, some sort of love for the earth and her six billion human fellows? Was her belief in justice enough? Compassion has its limits. It only went so deep, right? Victor thought this pain went all the way down.” His newfound protest mentor, who goes by the name John Henry, believes “that courage and compassion were everything… what you sacrificed in the struggle was nothing compared to what you got in return—a sort of blazing personal heat. You transcended your own history to become the person you needed to be. You stood apart. You transformed yourself. No more double life… no more lies permitted in the sacred ground of your heart.”
Here is the erotic transforming the world. Victor watches John Henry’s lover and accomplice, King:
“King knelt back down in front of them. Looked at him with eyes so green he understood how you could drown in someone and never want to come back. And why did he say it? because he wanted to prove to her he wasn’t a fool? Because he wanted her to stay? Because he wanted her to kneel here forever and touch his face the way she had knelt and touched John Henry?”
Yapa’s novel is shot through with individual desire fanned into larger and larger fires. From anarchists to riot police, this energy flows through, permeate decisions, and, ultimately, drives change.
My daughter was two months and two days old when we marched in those streets, our streets. I strapped her tiny body to my chest and marched with the day care workers union we had recently formed. It felt like a holiday, like a parade, until the clouds of tear gas hit. What the fuck am I doing here? Love for my daughter brought me there, an energy that radiated out from our connection—as small and myopic as it was, that love transformed me, grounded me and imbued me with a sense of purpose and power. This small human’s heart beat next to mine as we walked into the abyss.
8. Guided Meditation With Imagined Ancestors & Woodwinds
But when we begin to live from within outward, in touch with the power of the erotic within ourselves, and allowing that power to inform and illuminate our actions upon the world around us, then we begin to be responsible for ourselves in the deepest sense.
I know now I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.
I wanted to trace the arching electricity of that spirit, of Eros, the sacred, the secret, the creative energy breathing through each one of us. The erotic refuses to compartmentalize or fracture into discrete boxes. It’s like the harmonics of the ferry shuddering home into the wind, the railings reverberate wave and tone.
Lungs cycle in pain and relief. This is the way of the body. There is always some shit going down. Do you want to drone tone all night long? The trick is to pocket air in your cheeks.
In the beginning, Adam was a clay pipe for the archangel Gabriel to blow through. And the devil cut in apertures. You can try to cover the openings with your fingers but there are too many holes to stop all the air. You will run and fall, run and fall, and run and fall, until you no longer move. You are quick, then you are dead. My ancestors breathed these songs through an oboe cut from the apricot tree. The devil came to us up in the hills. We were tending our flocks. We wandered and dueled over the green and rocky places. Knowing he could not outplay us, the devil drilled holes in our horn while we slept. When we rise in the morning we thwart the devil, we give voice to what could ruin us, we breathe in, we breathe out, we are air moving over and around pain, and these wounds create the timbre of our spirits.
Rachel Kessler is co-author of books Who Are We? (with 7″ record) and TYPO, made as co-founder of poetry performance collaborations Vis-a-Vis Society and Typing Explosion, respectively. Her work has appeared in The Stranger, USA Today, Tin House, Poetry Northwest, Narrative and elsewhere. Inspired by everyday occurrences, she has performed poetry in parks, on buses, disguised as a tree, aboard water taxis, in phone booths, hair salons and public restrooms.