By: Kate Savage
“The air pockets, the alkali wastes, the crumbling monuments, the putrescent cadavers, the crazy jig and maggot dance [. . .]”
– Anais Nin
When I stopped believing in a man-god in the sky I took up praying to a very old ewe-sheep. That summer I was living in the Wasatch mountains up above Henefer, Utah with Peruvian sheepherders. I was peering deep into Utah and the cowboy mythos of the West and the Good Shepherd language of Mormonism, finding the strange thing within it and calling it a Master’s’ Thesis.
What was really happening was this: while my friends moved away from Utah and the faith, I saw that ‘leaving’ for me was going to be the opposite direction: inward. An awful movement, without reprieve.
No, and yes: an awful movement, but also something sweet and savory. When you move further and further inside, when you follow the line of blood, peer deeper down at the dirt under your feet, nest in the pages of genealogy books, trace your own words back along the tongue and down into the base of the throat—all of this carries with the pain something delicious. So don’t let me complain.
The sheep was an old ewe, a black face and tattered wool. Her muzzle a bony ridge curving downward. Most people don’t know how big sheep actually are. I rode my horse toward her, to force her with the loud, careening, dust-covered others down the mountains and into an eventual pen, but she planted her feet, lowered her head, and stamped a hoof.
She was a revelation. If Jesus Christ is the little lamb of God, then who is this? Teeth thin and yellow and no little bleat, but a bass trombone holler. I mulled my thought of her like a rosary, let me be baptized in her dust and anointed by sheep-grease. If there be a god, it’s no vague sense of Grand Oneness Up Above. She’s a tattered old ewe that surprises me. A particular creature, in the dust.
Most creatures lead with the head.
Crabs and humans lead with the hands. These pincers are our prow. Even with their sideways movement we can see ourselves in crabs– the small hands delicately scraping filth from the rocks; the claws held up as weapons to protect the tender face. Our hands are fierce because our faces are so weak. Dogs at play bite each others’ faces, trying to bite out the very teeth of the friend, while we can only slap and whimper.
One crab carries this logic to its extreme and keeps their claws always locked tight against their face. The shame-faced crab, we call it, and with our own hands over our mouths we ought to know.
Note: I say we see ourselves in crabs, but it should also be known we write cookbooks like this showing what our hands can do to faces:
Emmanuel Levinas was of the opinion that God reveals himself to us through the “face of the other.” But Levinas was careful about which others had a face — maybe a dog, he conceded, because one had been very kind to him in a Nazi POW camp. But surely you can’t find a face on a snake, he said. And crabs slide even further from us on any family face-tree, they’re essentially bugs. By ‘face’ we all know Levinas meant the eyes. He never thought a mouth could make us God.
Or, maybe what I mean is this: I feel for the face under those sheers, but I myself can’t hide hunger. The wet inside of an open mouth: desire and fear, teetering. That’s why we greet with a handshake: if we’re tooth-to-tooth like the dogs, one of us will be fed and the other food. Bringing my mouth up against yours I hear the growl of Helene Cixous:
We love the wolf. We love the love of the wolf. We love the fear of the wolf. We’re afraid of the wolf: there is love in our fear. Fear is in love with the wolf. Fear loves. Or rather: we are afraid of the person we love. Love terrorizes us. Or else the person we love we call our wolf or our tiger, or our lamb in the manger. We are full of trembling and ready to wolf down.
[. . .] Seeing the other knocks us over. Seeing the wolf. Fear makes us fall from the top to the bottom, taking us back to the age of blood, in infancy, as we crawl among the odors, the appetites, the food, the earth-worms and the dead.
We shake hands instead and in my hunger I chew my own cheeks, scraped into scars. Cixous also wrote that those who have bitten their tongues as many times as we have are either dead from it or more familiar with their mouths than anyone else.
What I know about my mouth is: it’s a broken pot. I pass as a normal being until I’m under the x-ray and you can see the metal plates and screws that hold this pulp of a face in a shape. Teeth invented bone. They were the first tissue to ever calcify, and the hardening leached back, into entire skeletons, each joint created in the image of jaws. I am trying the reverse, turn my teeth to mush so the rest of me can soften.
The secret of my mouth is I am a sea polyp, a clam, mollusk, dangling my feelers out toward the objective world to snatch a morsel. One morsel is this (from an Adam Zagajewsky poem):
The tongue is the last animal
in the face’s reservation.
My tongue is a cleaner-fish. My tongue is a moray eel rushing timid back into her shelter. As much as I wanted to be a creature of the open air, knowing how to growl, I listen to the sea sound in my own skull more often than the ocean.
I left the mountains but kept sinking in and down. Sinking with effort. As Kafka wrote in his diary: “You have to dive down, as it were, and sink more rapidly than that which sinks in advance of you.” When that ewe became faint to me, more an idea than her spectacular self, I looked about me for the lowest thing I could find always with me to worship, the faint dark feel of anti-god. Doomed Kafka also wrote: “To know the terrain requires the instinct of a quadruped.”
I settled on the Big Other folded up inside me: I began praying daily to the germs in my gut.
Our Fathers who Art in the Innards. A four-legged instinct first sniffs out that my gut is an abbreviation. Nothing much. We humans have big brains, so we build the animal kingdom into a pyramid of brains and sit ourselves at the top. Should ladders interest other animals, they might build them of other organs. Look above us on the Ladder of Bellies: the birds, who have no teeth. Instead, they store their food chunks soaking in a crop, then send it through the acid-bath of a stomach. Only after that does the food find its teeth, deep in the belly. In the gizzard, full of little rocks and grit, muscling down the bits into pulp to send through the intestines.
And higher up there are the sheep, goats, cows. The stomach of a ruminant is a four-part litany, the holy quadrinity:
Each with its secret mysteries. This is the Passion According to the Cloven-hoofed. Our hero is Plato’s other horse: “The other horse is a crooked great jumble of limbs. . . . companion to wild beasts and indecency, he is shaggy around the ears — deaf as a post — and just barely yields to horsewhip and goad combined.”
Stamp a hoof. The rumen is where the sheep farms. She feeds her crew of bacteria the grass and leaves that she could never digest on her own. After the legions feast, she brings the whole slurry back up into her mouth while she’s at rest, and swallows something nutritious, delicious to her. While we keep sheep, goats, cows they have their own internal livestock.
Rumen is latin for throat. It is the hope of resurfacing: all those things you have swallowed down are not forever lost. Whoever we’ve eaten might know we were sorry, and return back to us entire. The throat moves in two directions, you swallow and you sing. I feel it now writing this, because writing is a kind of cud-chewing. When Margaret Atwood wrote about writing she said this:
I was reminded of something a medical student said to me about the interior of the human body, forty years ago: “It’s dark in there.”
Possibly, then, writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light.
What I mean is: don’t expect this to smell nice.
Not everything can resurface. ‘Reticulum’ means ‘net.’ In a sheep, it’s the second stomach, catching the stray nails and wire the animal guzzles down in her hunger. This is the world of things that are lost to us. I feel this net in the squeeze at the base of my throat, the sharp something caught in my craw.
Always lost? I’ve learned some humans have nothing but smooth muscle at the base of their throats; some humans have healed over completely. For example, I had a mother. Before she died she told me that all she had she earned, and all she lost she could have kept if she had only done it right.
Me on the other hand: lobsters and crabs climb into my boat uninvited, while my fish hook drags the bottom and catches on that tangle of boots and branches, that dark sulfur mud and muck. Unlike my mother, I keep losing fish hooks.
“From outside one will always triumphantly impress theories upon the world and then fall straight into the ditch one has dug, but only from inside will one keep oneself and the world quiet and true.” -Kafka’s notebook
People treat the belly as though it’s for eating. They are wrong. The belly is simply for being, and like all beings the belly eats. We can’t be blamed for our hate: we’ve been told from the first words that we should hate our stomachs, suck them back into ourselves, hold them back the way an overprotective mother holds back an eager child. But it doesn’t change the damage it does: you hate a belly and you hate being itself.
Down this deep, you’d best hope for a sibyl to guide you. Down this deep, I forget the me now out of my sight. I forget her face, hands. I have turned entirely inside-out. I am a different I now; there’s no use trying to stay in contact.
Kafka says: “Everyone carries a room about inside him. This fact can even be proved by means of the sense of hearing. If someone walks fast and one pricks up one’s ears and listens, say in the night, when everything round about is quiet, one hears, for instance, the rattling of a mirror not quite firmly fastened to the wall.”
I walk fast in the night and listen. The sibyl sits her square mass heavy on my lower left rib, pulls a lever on this la-z-boy to stretch out her feet. She puts her square hand in a tupperware bowl and pulls out a dried oak leaf. She crumples it into her pipe and sips slowly while her dog–a black and nearly-hairless mutt–growls at me and the the radiator pops and I measure the space between me and escape. I can’t be sure I belong here, this deep on the inside. She pulls the pipe away from her mouth, that sharp chin, and says:
You’ll have to go over the ocean.
Her eyes are blind-white under the bulldog wrinkled forehead, and for all that tremendous age I can see her body is fresh, huge and muscled. Her smoke fills the close quarters with its bitter smell, and rises to a fog-cloud blanket above us, which rolls green-grey just over the Sibyl’s head. I saw her first in a picture of the Sistine Chapel ceiling but her stomping grounds are down, not up. She readjusts her handkerchief and I watch her rusty braids unfurling slow like fern leaves.
When we walk she holds a large cane and a lamp and the mutt keeps pace. The sky lightens a little before we reach the ocean. This sea is thick, pink-grey water, heaving up and down all at once, not in waves. At the edge the water jostles in oily bands of yellow and brown. Dip your hand in here and pull it out crackling with salt. Prickling shrubs grow near the shoreline. The sibyl reaches down and snaps off a branch, brings it to her mouth and chews. It leaves a black mark along her lips.
Flies buzz. One lands on my arm and I see its wings are round like little coins, its back is humped. Like a wolf its fur bristles, like a spider its eyes gleam.
We walk along the shore until we come to the jetty, curving black out into the expanse. At the end is a boat, sails raised, tilted at a crazy angle. I scramble awkwardly aboard. As the sibyl throws me the honey-colored rope she shouts Have you fallen in love?
In love. Have you fallen?
I’m too shy to say, so she shrugs and turns back down the jetty, calling over her shoulder Well if so it will help you stay awake on the way.
Inside the hold all is deep red and curved to a circle. The ship moves on her own in a broad bend, staying near the shore and then every day circling further and further inward. At night from the red-patina hold, I hear the calls of giant brine shrimp, like whale song mixed with gurgle and purr. They nuzzle close to the hold. When they rush away, each of their many limbs drums a filip on the boat-belly, ascending in tone like a xylophone.
I stay awake.
I land inside another dream, where I sit and talk to the mud about God.
I say: I don’t want to be misheard. I don’t mean for my words to ooze bitter bile salts when I say God. You have to trust me on this, mud: I’m trying a kind of faith. From the days before the Church Fathers drew the universe as a series of expanding circles, with God clear at the fringe and Satan as dead-center bull’s eye. The belly of the beast. Faith from the days before layers.
They still hold Jesus up as a #1 foam finger. If God became human that must have been because humans are the very best. And that’s why he didn’t become a lesser-bodied woman. Surely not a sheep.
But in my old days at BYU I sat in a bank of seats and learned the mouth-filling term ‘Kenotic Christology.’ Kenosis means self-emptying. I sat in another tidy classroom and read the words of Milton, saying Christ
for us frail dust
Emptied his glory, even to nakedness.
(except the mid-word ‘s’s were written like ‘f’s, so I read it like a lisp; ‘for us frail duft . . .’). I’m only following my old lives inward, a movement I know could be demonic, mud. But if Christ Almighty gets emptied, don’t you think that means empty clear down to his nutsack? Isn’t he hollow meat-bag ape like the rest of us?
The gnostics shuffled their feet over this, saying one so pure could only appear to be eating, so Jesus never took down into his gut the liverwurst of barbarians. Like Bill Clinton promising he held a joint but never inhaled. But the mud and I agree to keep this kind of fidelity, to allow Christ E. coli and a belch.
This is what Kafka wrote in his diary:
A little boy had a cat that was all he had inherited from his father and through it became Lord Mayor of London. What shall I become through my animal, my inheritance?
This is what I wrote in my diary:
My mom is afraid of sleep these days because she ‘goes too deep.’ She rests and can’t stop resting, she doesn’t make it to the bathroom in time. She says all she needs is courage. She thinks if she didn’t fight to wake up she would die, and then wonders why she fights. If I truly believed in heaven, would I wish to live? And yet she does want to live, she struggles for it every day, she is afraid of dying. I am so glad, I admit, I’m so glad she believes in a loving-tender God. Because if she didn’t I would have to add her anger to my own. If this were me dying (but this isn’t, right? She and I have two separate identities, right? One of us dies at a time, right?) If this were me they would have to try to convince me out of anger.
The big eukaryotic cells that compose me were invented when one cell swallowed another and kept it alive. I’ve thought of it as a farm, but maybe the bigger cell was parasitized by the smaller one. I’ve thought of my mitochondria with gratitude for pumping out energy for me, but maybe my cells are only gloves for them, they only make energy so I can continue moving about to feed them. Who is mother to whom, here?
And on the scale of the organism it’s the same double-story: small creatures feed me; or I am worn by a host of germs, I am a communal prosthetic limb. Either way, what makes me is bringing the other uneasily inside.
Sometimes we need a dream or a palm reading. Sometimes we ache for the thing that’s inside us to be outside at the same time, so even all alone someone besides ourselves can tell us what comes next.
When we write we want to listen and transcribe. But whose voice is this? Margaret Atwood warned:
Where do writers pick up the idea that they have an alien of some sort living in their brain? Surely it wasn’t Charles Dickens the fun-loving paterfamilias, keen deviser of Christmas games for his kiddies, who caused poor Little Nell to die an early death? He cried the whole time his pen-wielding hand was pitilessly doing her in. No, it was the necrophiliac he carried around inside himself, like a tapeworm made of ink.
Spiral inward and down. It helps to be left-handed. Right is a 90-degree angle, is upright, is correct, is righteous. The hand dexterous. Left is the hand sinister. In other cultures, this is the filthy hand, the one you wipe your own shit with. In my own culture, when you salute with your right hand, when you cover your heart in the pledge, when you raise the right hand in church or a temple ceremony, the left-behind hand can be doing whatever it wants.
Sitting in me is a sixteen-foot rope, and I’m down on the ground calling Rapunzel Rapunzel let down your golden hair. Spread out the surface of that filagree gut and you can cover a tennis court.
Can the Russian poets help me? This is Joseph Brodsky:
Things themselves, as a rule,
don’t try to purge or tame
the dust of their own insides.
The size of it, the too-muchness, the intricacy: will I try to tame this animal? The tube that runs mouth to ass is a way of bringing the outside deep within us but keeping it outside. You go inside, and you only find the dark and unknowable. The deepest internal remains the darkest and least knowable. A domestic alien. You go deep inside yourself and find only the not-self: 100 trillion others living their own inscrutable lives.
Entrañas extrañas: strange-gut; foreign-inside; the core of us that is a stranger to ourselves.
Cixous cries out:
And me, am I the result of this blood and the sum of these decades? Is my life in me, before me, behind me, ahead of me, longer than me? Who’s in charge here? I want it to be me! Me who? We would all like just once to have hands so as to take ourselves entirely in these hands, and arms to embrace ourselves from the first day unto the last.
Birds have one hole for everything. Find the favorite perch of a tree: look down, and see the seedlings. A bird sits in a paloverde and shits seguaro-seeds. Once in a century, a seguaro is born down there in the arms of paloverde.
Whole fortunes have been built of bird-shit. Islands raucous with sea-birds were scraped clean of guano, though it piled 50 meters deep. It was spread over cornfields before we could do the job with fossil fuels. Wars were fought for these islands.
Now my people put spikes, sharp and long like nightmare-anglerfish teeth on the sills of doors and windows, out of fear that a bird, a small, feathered dinosaur, will shit white on the cement. Those birds have cold eyes and move their heads too quickly, but all the same they are trying to be helpful. They can smell that the cement and the car windows are tragically barren of soil. They are Cinderella’s chipper helper-beasts, building soil for us where we are most in need.
Why are we afraid of them? Georges Bataille had a sense:
The vicissitudes of organs, the profusion of stomachs, larynxes, and brains traversing innumerable animal species and individuals, carries the imagination along in an ebb and flow it does not willingly follow, due to a hatred of the still painfully perceptible frenzy of the bloody palpitations of the body. Man willingly imagines himself to be like the god Neptune, stilling his own waves, with majesty; nevertheless, the bellowing waves of the viscera, in more or less incessant inflation and upheaval, brusquely put an end to his dignity.
Milan Kundera wrote that “kitsch is the absolute denial of shit.” And “kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements.” “Kitsch is a folding screen set up to curtain off death.”
He warns that “before we are forgotten, we will be turned into kitsch. Kitsch is the stopover between being and oblivion.”
After Mom died, her veins were drained and filled with formaldehyde. Then her guts were pumped clean — the world inside that fed her in life were robbed of their last supper. Instead of eating her corpse they were drowned in formaldehyde solutions. Some of them, I hear, smell like wintergreen mint. With her body on display at the funeral, we all said she did everything perfectly.
The first animals digest in a sac instead of a tube. There is no up or down–one hole is both mouth and anus. We’ve since invented up and down. Bataille again:
The division of the universe into subterranean hell and perfectly pure heaven is an indelible conception, mud and darkness being the principles of evil as light and celestial space are the principles of good: with their feet in mud but their heads more or less in light, men obstinately imagine a tide that will permanently elevate them, never to return, into pure space.
But deeper back and further down we can peek past the sides of this fiberboard theatre backdrop. Dark means both outer space and the bottom of the ocean; light means burning on the sun and burning in the magma. The only land fresh for living on is a delicate shell where we bury our sweet potatoes, slow, not tasting beneath the breath of burning rock. Our own fragile home is a tender strip of an inside, swallowed deep inside airlessness.
Kafka wrote “in the fight between you and the world back the world.”
I’d like to back the world, but what does that mean today, as I watch Donald Trump signing another piece of paper? This is also the world, isn’t it, with leaders and laws? There are intricate marks on the paper, meaning a whole people a whole river a whole climate will be bulldozed for a pipeline, a new tube of mouth-belly-anus, for a different sort of parasite. He puts the pen to paper, paper that once was a tree, trees that once housed my ancestors, now pulped and bleached to become the tabula rasa of world-burning. So we’re all nostalgic, aching for something to be great again, and monkeys do the oddest thing with their thumbs.
Anna Kamienska, the Polish poet, wrote:
Souls of animals
of the fawn mangled by dogs
of the hare hanging head down
with a torn ear
of the rooster jumping without a head
of the bitch trailing a thread of blood
of the pigeon with glazed eyes lying under a fence
oh souls of animals
pray for us.