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Heather Momyer :: Reading Rebbecca Brown

            Claim 1. There is a convergence between art and reality and this is an argument that has existed for quite some time. Claim 2. All speaking and personal communications are creative and authorial acts. Claim 3. All forms of listening and spectatorship of personal communicative acts are interpretive acts. It thus follows that the world of personal and biographical and therefore real is not completely distinct from authorship, creativity, and the therefore fictional world. All communicative acts become part of a body of work and are fair game when it comes to usage for interpretation. I say this knowing that a piece of creative writing does not necessarily correspond directly to events in the author’s life and I do not attempt to deny the author’s creativity and ability to imagine. However, arguing that biographical and personal readings limit the possibilities of a text is invalid because I believe that all interpretations and readings limit the possibility of a text. The personal reading is not alone in this weakness. This argument is made through a study of the work of Rebbecca Brown and through an analysis of my own personal reading experience. The following is also a love letter. I begin…


Dear R.B.,

            I write this letter because I cannot write another paper on something that I do not care about. From now on, I insist on writing only about work that I love. That is the first point. Secondly, I insist on writing only about those whose work is under-appreciated or essentially unknown. For example, I love Flannery O’Connor’s stories and I love Wise Blood. But so do millions of others. I leave that work for them. But, you, RB, on the other hand, who are you in this world of poetics and scholastically-discussed prose? You publish poetry and essays and have even made it so far as to being discussed in the third person by a journal reviewer. But most importantly, you are my friend and I care about you. So, to answer the above question, I will tell you what I see and what I hear.

            I see photographs of former lovers left behind in Los Angeles. You made your choice and they hurt you for your decisions. I hear descriptions of the man who wore cowboy boots and collected road kill. He wasn’t your type, but he certainly was hot. And mostly, as I read, I hear your voice. My lover likes to pick up dead things/ he heaved the rough husk of her up and into the bed/of the truck open-mouthed and bleeding tongue twisted/up coil of redblack slackness smacking / flat bruised blue roads punched.(1) I try to listen to the violence of the deer body torn apart. The lover is not there to rescue your bleeding body, but he heaves the carcass so untenderly, redblack of flesh bruising more. Sigh highway skin swelled belly full back / and forth head rolled black eyes blank redblack / blood of tin fish wood and bottle can smell of dead. (1) I want to pay attention and listen only to the words, but I have heard too many other words before and I have heard stories of this man who wore cowboy boots, collected road kill, and made unusual requests. I have heard this character before and I know his desires. It is not your body that he seeks. You are permitted only to witness. Rivers oceans ice chests no matter how much he cuts / open and pulls out a matter of grass mud fur spine / stretched flat wood to wooden wall look redblack / wrapped once baby look there without. (1) Of your own desires, there have been so many conversations and words spoken, so many words written, and yet, how can I simply express them in words spoken here?

            As I read these poems, I could speak of water men, strong as oceans, threatening to swim to the depths, only to return to the shore and the breath of air, your love and happiness. But I know of tragic loves and long-held pain. How can I ignore what I know?

            It seems that these games of words are painful for us all. I think of my friend who sends emails writing that he doesn’t feel well, and occasionally speaks of pills and blood. I never ask, but rather play with words and guesses, but how do I ignore what I know? [A]t the end of the sea / the buoyant slick of you like a moment slides by floating / on a wave where fins find you beautiful / we waited when the water rolled for you to sway away[.] He tells me he has health problems and quickly changes the subject. He asks when will he see me again and we plan for the New Year. [F]rom shores of sand and dryness / as you floated further out your eyes would shine more glass/like black and it was morphine / that moved your mouth slowly into a tighter tighter o / the fish favor you in their blue green / world where all your moments are one large wave[.] I take his hints and do not say what he does not think I know, because that seems unfair and breaks the rules of our game. [W]hen the sun shines you to pieces[.] But always, I want to say “I know, I know.” [Y]ou gleam light like in spaces and we smile on the shore / we are dry and afraid but happy[.] “Leukemia is a dreadful disease. I know you are dying and it hurts me.”


[T]o see you iridescently quick and breathing once again. (2)


            I know for some there is no return and the last breath of air can suffocate such men of the water. They remind me of Eliot’s mermaids and you, Rebbecca, are another Prufrock, searching for meaning to fill your own spiritual void that lies somewhere between your body and the world you inhabit. It is a disease and you wait for the finned man to return, to breath once again, leaving you frightfully sure that he is there in your empty space and you wait to hear the music in your ear, wondering if the cure lies in a voice and in a song.

            But R.B., you are a mermaid, too, “singing each to each” with melody and sound, in language that seduces but with words that are all too often not understood and I wonder at the pleasure you find oscillating between being seduced and being seducer; one who drowns and one who consumes men like oceans. You accept the violence of the tides, letting broken waters eat your remains. You become the violence of the tides. Is this what passion is? Oceans and fog and cracks of thunder./your voice erases moment after moment. (3) The ocean swallows us whole with its eyes closed and your body dissolves into the foam, pulsing with the earth and the moon. Your voice and language are served on a platter, ingested and digested into something that is more than human, liquid and earthy. We have sat in rooms, and while there has been no tea nor cakes nor ices, but perhaps blends of blueberry and zucchini after long sweating runs, and I have heard you echo and lament “I cannot say just what I mean.

            I read your essay “Excavating the Author’s Bones: DB by RB on RB and DB” and I am trapped in the footnotes. You write quite frankly, I’m insecure (and also such a bitch, sometimes). I can’t speak the correct language (bitch) and I am definitely no genius. I prefer to remain stupid (and mad and possessed), as much as I sometimes make it a point to try to assume the language of the master/author/genius. (4) Once, you told me that you were smart, and I am still glad to have heard you speak those words, but the mad bitch who cannot speak correctly is a woman who has been all too often authored by your own speech, and I find myself looking for what I know of her. In the margins, I wonder if Delia Bacon’s paranoia is a reflection of your own paranoia. You do juxtapose yourself against her. I wonder if her madness, possibly defined as over-reading, is a reflection of your own madness and over-reading. You do look for innuendo in word choice and tone of voice. I contemplate on your contemplation on the difficulty of being considered both attractive and brilliant in the case of Delia Bacon and the re-iteration of “I’m stupid” is in my head. I think you want to speak and be heard and by saying “I’m stupid” you simultaneously speak while being seen. You are a sly vixen. But when I see that Nathaniel Hawthorne accuses Bacon of being like a lonely child “bubbl[ing] over with new-found syllables,” I wonder if she shares your sense of sound. Perhaps the language of the bubbling child comes from a pre-linguistic sense of meaning that begins while in the womb’s water. You rush toward water, fight through water, and I think that perhaps it is this bubbly water language that you privilege over the speech of the master/author/genius who communicates only in proper syntax and dictionary definitions. But immediately afterward, you write, a fellow student, instead of saying anything constructive about my poetry would resort to saying things like, “I don’t get it.” While she may have no idea what I was trying to say, I did not appreciate the fact that she attempted to turn my writing into incommunicative ramblings. Maybe she believed I too was a child bubbling over. I believe she is a bitch. (4) I am guilty and I begin to wonder whose madness and paranoia I have been looking for. Perhaps my madness lies in the search for your madness, which lies in the search for Delia Bacon’s madness, which lies in the assertion that Shakespeare’s work is of multiple authorship.  How many authors write this letter and must it be our bodies that lie on the stage? How should I presume?

            Are not all dialogues and conversations interpretive acts? You and I already know that the distinction between art and life has been blurred for quite some time. See “The Murder of Gonzago.” [1] See Prufrock. But, with you, I have misread. I looked for what I knew of you in your writing and at times, what I read sounded true. In type and in spoken words, you repeat the word “body” and the phrase “skin and bones.” The fact that Eco chooses to ignore the actual physical body writing, the skin and bones, the fingers moving and proceeding, bothers me. What about the body? What about Delia wanting to dig up them bones? What about the moment of writing when the blood rushes and the fingers pump? What about the movement of the physical activity [skin and bones] that differs from eyes that move across a page? What are you doing right now? No doubt your toe is tapping [and you’re breathing—skin and bones]. (4) At the moment, I choose to ignore Eco, his skin and bones and his text. Or rather, I choose to say that Eco is wrong and the line between the author’s body, skin and bones, and the writing on the page, text, is not as distinct as he likes to suggest. [2] Like Ford Madox Ford would suggest, I can never really know you and all I have are my perceptions. [3] Your body, voice, and language are texts by their own rights; they are signs for my perception and for my reading. And so when I say that I read your poems as if all is spoken by a character [4], I say that I listen to your voice as if all is spoken by a character. Where is the real you? I give up. We are all story, always character.

            But, if it is a spiritual quest on which you journey with this speaker/character, it will not be done at the expense of your body, its skin and bones, the blood beneath your fingertips. Your character is the lover, “and so it is the lover who speaks,” [5] but the lover must have a body. We have run together, you and I, felt the heaviness on our knees and feet. We are heavy and weighted and we try to think airy thoughts, will ourselves off the ground, float with breeze, defy gravity. And for moments, it seems that it works, but mostly it doesn’t. We never forget the matter of our muscles. We never forget our bodies because we know that we will die and perhaps we are afraid. We may be more than our bodies, but without them, we would be air, unable to drown in our oceans.

            It is this drowning that you violently will yourself toward, even if it means bringing the body of a man who is beside you. This is love. This is passion. He is of the river, your “mr. romantic kiss you on the ocean prince,” (5) but like so many others, you gave up believing in the fairy tale long ago. You know that handsome men who come from the waters holding cellos are broke musicians who will have affairs with cocktail waitresses from North Carolina. (5)  But, footnotes aside, your fairy tale still ends with the regular “happy ever after.” You know the truth, but still, you cling to the water dream. Is this your source of anger? Or am I wrong once again? I can only speak for myself. The evolution of violence/blood and cuts strike fists splintered/pound trees for sap bees for honey/hunger makes the light weight round the empty full/a line straight without source through the belly. (6) Violence escalates, knotted up in tightened-fists, drunk bar brawls; a man gets off when your knuckles crack the skin of his jaw. I say, “let’s leave” but he wants to take you with him. Thrash who have strike having not the skin knots / bruises blue across all oceans and waters broken / out howling and slapped beginning purely to have / love or luck slowly thumped right out. (6) The line between love and pain is fine. Or perhaps, it is only I who imagines this love line exists. I ask you, RB, are they inseparable? Must that ocean love suffocate and chew through us all?

            Our spiritual guidebooks claim that happiness is found in stillness. There is no pain, only quiet observation. [6] Our sense of “I” is beyond the process of thought and language, beyond the ego. We have discussed this. But I taught Equus this semester and I cannot recall if you are familiar with it. Draw days with one lump or two taking / want to thin flesh back into water filled / with ancestor fin those thin films flailing strong / enough to bend a wave’s submission. (6) Erin Bertram writes of your essay “Reading of Water: Subjective Surging Based on Graham Swift’s Waterland” that it “simultaneously annoys and dazzles readers with its meandering style.” But, she adds, “Brown comments steeply, I think, and not un-clearly, on time and its relevance—or irrelevance—to narrative.” R.B., will you never leave the water behind and settle for the ground beneath your feet, your weight on the earth? Can you only feel your body when you are floating/swimming/drowning, crushing bones with water that slips between your fingers and toes, heavy, weighted, liquid, and always ungraspable? Are there no moments for revisions? Can you ever leave those water men and hear the love songs in the stillness of the landscape?

            Dysart, the psychiatrist, contradicts those quiet books of peace and tells us that our pain is our own. We create our pain and it is irrevocably a part of who we are. And perhaps it is through our suffering that we find our passion. [7] Seep through fish battles that reel / without ending memory makes blood matter / split yet remain a residue lines somehow / inside to beat beating by beating to beat. (6) Does it ultimately end in the choice between pain and passion or stillness and contentment, but left somehow without our guts? When Equus leaves with our pain, he will take our intestines with him. I cannot decide which choice is the best choice.

            Rebbecca, we wonder why we always repeat ourselves in words and in actions. We always look for the water men who lead us into the lullaby waves only to find ourselves caught in the undertow and in the moment when the sirens’ songs start to screech in our ears, but the next mermaid who comes along murmurs again in mythic melody, once again seducing us with dreams that we know are untrue. Lives are cyclical, rendering time irrelevant. Or maybe these recurring ocean dreams are merely attempts to stop progression, stop time. We think that time will not move forward. It is too relevant and we are mortal, skin and bones.


Writing by Rebbecca Brown

listed in order of appearance

  1. “my lover likes to pick up dead things” 27 rue de fleures - 2007
  2. “at the end of the sea” caveat lector - 2006
  3. “informed by fog or ocean” The Southwestern Review. 2005.
  4. “Excavating the Author’s Bones: DB by RB on RB on DB”
  5. “Fairy Tale”
  6. “the evolution of violence”


Special Guests:

Barthes, Roland. A Lover’s Discourse. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.

                         . Roland Barthes. Trans. Richard Howard. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

Bertram, Erin M. Rev. of The Means. Issue 1 (2005). Literary Magazines: The NewPages Literary Magazine Reviews. Ed. Denise Hill. 20 Mar. 2006. 27 Mar. 2006
< http://www.newpages.com/magazinestand/litmags/default.htm>.

Eco, Umberto. Six Walks in the Fictional Woods. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Eliot, T.S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Modern Poems: A Norton Introduction. 2nd Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 272-276.

Ford, Ford Madox. The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992.

Shaffer, Peter. Equus. New York: Penguin Books, 1974.

Tolle, Eckhart. The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. Vancouver: Namaste Publishing. 2004.



[1] Hamlet by William Shakespeare.

[2] Six Walks in the Fictional Woods by Umberto Eco.

[3] The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford.

[4] Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes.

[5] A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes.

[6] The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.

[7] Equus by Peter Shaffer.

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