Inspiration Presents Itself to Me in the Form of Anxiety
When I was asked to be a blog curator on Harriet for the month of April, I had been thinking a lot about the relationship between risk, danger, and discomfort and how these sensations or entanglements might relate to creativity. I presented some of my thoughts to the folks I’d asked to blog and invited them, if they were so inclined, to consider the relationship between contemporary poetics—theirs and/or others—and this notion of the “safe space.” In Gala Mukomolova’s “Inspiration Presents Itself to Me in the Form of Anxiety,” which borrows its title from Susan Sontag’s Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947-1963, we encounter the fraught spaces of reversal, where presumed safeties are destabilizing dangers; pointed threats to the female body in particular; and more oblique hazards such as the danger of being caught between languages and thereby rendered ghost. Out of what untranslatable place does the urge to create emerge? Or, in Mukomolova’s words, “Where does it come from, the means to live?” This gorgeous and wandering essay is a letter to Sontag’s notebooks—both narrative and notational, an imprint of making one’s self within and against the hard haunting edges that call the writing into being.
–Dawn Lundy Martin
Brighten Beach thinks it can cure everything. In summer, markets brim with pickled tomatoes, sliced watermelon, cucumbers, celery, and cabbage. What a pleasure to walk down the hot street eating semi-sour pickles, their juice dripping down my wrist, mixing with the ocean salt still on my skin.
The passivity of the last three months is broken. But instead there is an area of coldness, + rage in me.
—Susan Sontag, 1960
You might wonder how a queer woman entering her 28th year, her Saturn Return, would dream up something so ludicrous as moving in with her homophobic old-world mother who lives on Brighton Beach. Despite all of the homemade Russian food, the vareniki and blintzes with cottage cheese she made for me on early mornings, I wondered about it too. I had straightforward answers, of course. I didn't have a job waiting for me, I didn’t have enough money saved, and I had no life plan. These self-evident truths crawled over my body at night and settled on my chest, hot with the breath of failure. I slept very little, I cried very much.
“Before I die,” my mother said casually while wrapping a blintz, “I would just like to see you happy.” She speaks to me only in Russian. As she placed the blintz gingerly in the oiled pan, “If only you didn’t waste all your time writing and found a man to make your life beautiful.” For my mother, beauty is a narrow metonymic. It upholds femininity; it defines itself against a stalwart masculine archetype. In subjugation, a woman is fulfilled. There is no convincing her that life offers up many types of beauty (and many types of fulfilling subjugation—for that matter). For this reason, and because of my Russian tongue that I drag behind me like a dumb limb, the two of us often run up against the dead end of language. When I was a child, my mind was a flower opening that no one witnessed. Each time I went with my mother to the Welfare offices, she bought me something like a dress from Strawberry. She was appealing to the girl she imagined in me and I gave her that girl in return.
Here was the root of my gendered self—a femininity that gets taken for granted. We would get pizza after Strawberry and over oily napkins my mother would detail her indignities to me. Did I know about the Hasidic woman who demanded mama clean the floors with a toothbrush on her hands and knees? I was my mother’s translator at the doctor’s too. When I was twelve, I had to find the Russian words for, “We will need to cut off your right breast because the tumors are malignant” and say them to my mother who I’d never seen nude.
I returned to New York after a decade away. I’d buy cheap lox and eat it straight from the container. After mornings writing freelance articles on “wind power” or “steel mines” or the “history of silly string,” I would drag myself out to the sand and drop my body down.
Where are you? Halfway between the aquarium wall and the lifeguard chair with the flags.
My friend Marina and I shared one old towel, trying to dry our depression up with the Sun. We watched a seagull cut the sky. It shit around us. A man in a speedo erected himself in our light, his shadow bothering us with questions he already knew the answers to.
My desire to write is connected with my homosexuality. I need the identity as a weapon, to match the weapon that society has against me […] Being queer makes me feel vulnerable. It increases my wish to hide, to be in visible—which I’ve always felt anyway.
—Sontag, 1959, NYC
The apartment my mother lives in now is not the one I grew up in. There is a shield in the mind where memory lives. For two nights I have tried to conjure my childhood home and slipped into sleep instead, like the Russian heroine Vasilyssa standing before Baba Yaga's house while it spins around on its bird legs. To be shown the door, to be allowed in, she had to speak the right words to the house. I have no words and when memory finally allows me inside the old apartment, I wade through silence. Here is the texture of the white walls—bumps and splatters that for whatever reason made me feel distinctively poor. Is it strange for a child to dream of smooth walls?
Here is the kitchen window where my father sat in a wooden chair, reading mysteries and smoking. The window is large with a diamond-pattern expanding gate attached for security. As a child, I dreamt of pulling the gate open and climbing six flights down the fire escape; as a child I dreamt that intruders would climb six flights up. I see a flash of my brother fucking his girlfriend on the living room floor, her scrambling to cover him from me. I hear my mother pacing through the night—in pain from chemotherapy. I feel her loneliness and her uncertainty; I remember my fear of mirrors at night. As a child, I had no room that belonged to me but I had a writing desk. At the desk, I folded my knees up to my chest and tucked myself tight up against the table’s edge. I spent hours this way, writing or painting. In imagining my body so enclosed, I begin to cry. A bowl of fruit my father would have prepared for me appears and disappears as I slip outside memory. Cherries, diced bananas, melon slices, an apple quartered. I carry out a ghost in my throat.
How to make my sadness more than a lament for feeling? How to feel? How to burn? How to make my anguish meta-physical?
Because I believe in magic, magic rises around me, but magic is not a cure. I've wanted a therapist for a long time—almost as long as I've wanted health insurance. A woman emails me about the banner image of my horoscope website. She would like to print out my Khokhloma Galactic Rabbit and make a blanket of the image in exchange for three therapy sessions. On a Monday at noon, I video-call her. “I think there's something wrong with me,” I tell her when she asks about my heart, “I keep weeping over cover letters and never finish them in time.” She gives me a stern, kind, look which comes through a little delayed because of the connection: “What if there's nothing wrong with you? What if this is exactly how emotionally abused people act?” Oh. “What is emotional abuse?” the immigrant mother asks her Americanized daughter.
Six months living with my mother, as if in some sort of Jewish version of Purgatory. Each day, I vowed to see my mother wholly—the wound and the survivor. Each day, I felt her erase a part of me and draw something else in its place. “Don’t get angry with me,” my mother said as she entered my room the day before I finally moved out. “I just want you to think about your future. I know that these conversations don’t go well between us but a mother must tell a daughter the truth. These women, they will never love you back, they will never stay. That’s why your last girlfriend abandoned you when your father died. Because the kind of love you have is empty—without future.”
“This is hurting me,” I uttered through tears. “You’re hurting me.”
“I’m not hurting you,” she said. “You’re not hurt.”
Feeling hurt is passive; feeling angry is active.
I sit across from a woman who I have known for a long time. She has agreed to give me a massage in exchange for some Tarot cards I made. We catch up by writing to each other—write because she's deaf and I, ignorant of ASL, thumb passionately at my iPhone. During the massage, we are silent. I try my best to surrender but it’s not easy—a general guardedness at the edge of unearned intimacy. My friend pushes deep into my shoulder blades. I keep my hardness here, I gestured earlier when she asked me what I needed. The weight of the world, of caring for too many, she replied. Most women do. Since she's taken to wearing white, my friend tells me later in her living room, men have become kinder to her. I wonder at this—our symbolic language distilled into color. Whiteness/Purity—that old fraught dynamic. As if symbols are not invented, as if symbols are ahistorical. What colors do we emanate as women, our auras and their vibrancy? Does that vibrancy engender anger in men? Is it logical to resent witnessing a light that is not for you or of you? What did you learn about my body, I ask her, meaning spiritually, meaning tell me what I already know about my well of sadness. You look so willowy, she observed, but you are very strong, amazing muscle tone. To be seen as powerful without reference to the spirit or, perhaps, up against the backdrop of my emotional self obsession, a rare and quiet gift. Still, as I prepare to leave her apartment: are you afraid to walk by yourself at night? I'll go with you, if you want.
I water my white mind with books.
Impenetrable disorder of human relations.
On my way to Marina’s apartment, on the subway platform, I keep my back to the wall. Other young women who are new to New York City might not have an archive of incidents occupying their minds and keeping them alert but I grew up here. I know that the man last summer who attacked Asian women with a hammer is from the same cesspool of men who, when I was growing up, pushed women off the ledge into oncoming trains. On the A-train, I pull out my book, Susan Sontag’s Reborn, and keep my earbuds in. Men have shown me that reading is not reason enough for solitude.
I remain engaged peripherally. I watch a young man jerk around the train car, his body volatile. He is singing or yelling or arguing to himself and I want to tell you that I feel for his alienation, his inability to be sedate in this largely cruel world, but I do not. I am watching the woman he approaches. His pants fall low on his tall frame and his crotch is at her eye level. I am reminded of each time a man exposed himself to me on the train. One night, a young boy stood beside me on the train gently muttering take my dick you fat bitch, take it, t-t-t-take it.
The unruly man bends down to speak into the woman’s face but she has headphones on and will not look at him. Opacity. I try to catch her eye, to invite her to sit beside me and away from him. This woman, a black woman, might not want the allegiance of a strange white girl—might have had it handled. Or she might be silently screaming for alliance. I don’t know but I am protective of other women to a fault and there are times when my anger has made things worse. Instead, I witness her refusal to look at him or anyone. Another man beckons our volatile stranger and upon hearing a man's voice the crazed one grows calm. They exit the train together and I imagine a very female communal sigh of relief but, in truth, none of us meet each other's eyes and none of us make a sound. It is better, at times, to not speak about pain—lest in speaking it, we give it a long life.
My repressed feelings leak out—slowly
In the form of resentment
A continual leakage of resentment
When I arrive at my friend's neighborhood, two boys are perched on a nearby stoop. “Hello,” they say. “Hello,” I reply softly. “HELLO!” one boy yells again at me, an accusation of my ignoring them. “Hello!” I repeat louder, picking up my pace.
“I am cleaning beets, my good woman!” Marina announces from the kitchen as I walk into her apartment. She is speaking in Russian, a rare gesture on her part. I hurry down the long hall to see it for myself. “Ah yes, you are a true house-lady,” I play along and we laugh about it. After scouring her fridge and devouring my first real meal of the day at 10 pm, I venture into her bedroom where a new painting is in progress. Not long ago, Marina told me of a lavender/pink color that sometimes attempts to pass for neutral or off white and how its appearance signals, for her, a kind of violence to the eyes. The background of the painting seemed to evoke this color. In the foreground: a small plastic doctor figurine casts a shadow. “This was Jane's little doctor,” Marina explains. Marina’s sister Jane died of an overdose in the apartment her dealer shared with his mother. But, she also died from a long unending battle with mental and physical disability.
“No one would know that looking at this,” Marina interjects when I begin to express how much grief the painting radiates. “They'd just think I was expressing some sort of contentious anger with doctors and medical institutions.” So what if she was?
I take Benzedrine at 5:00
When I visit my mother’s apartment, there is a letter denying me healthcare again; I just can’t prove my income enough. Where does it come from, the means to live? I upload a hand written letter from my employer. I upload a scan of my last month’s checks. My mother, who is riddled with maladies, complains yet again about the visit from the government aid that cut her nurse-care hours:
Why do you have depression? he asked when I told him it was debilitating.
My husband is dead, I replied.
How long has he been dead?
Don’t you think you should get over it?
My mother makes us both a large salad. She likes to dream up odd careers for me and wants to know why I can’t just open up a tutoring center for children. “What do you write about anyway?” she finally asks. “It’s a shame I have no idea what you write about.” It’s a shame for me too, the way I use her and in using her forgive her. Her lack of English and her inability to use a computer create freedom in me. My work depends on her absence. To look at one’s mother like one does at a memorial. In looking, I take her on.
“I’m writing about anger,”I try to find the Russian words to tell her.“Bone-deep anger, the kind women inherit. The marrow of it an aggregation of daily assessments made regarding the threats to our lives. How we carry it quietly, how it corrodes us from inside.”
“Oh,” she says, disinterested or perhaps distancing herself, “that.”
[The title and all section headers are from Susan Sontag’s Reborn: Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963.]
Gala Mukomolova earned a BA from Hobart and William Smith Colleges and an MFA from the University of Michigan. Her work has appeared in the Indiana Review, Drunken Boat, PANK, and elsewhere. In 2016 Mukomolova won the 2016 Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize. She writes horoscopes on her website, The Galactic Rabbit.