Defect

Defect

for Robin Radikowski

You were smart,
to slip out first.
I remember when boys
laughed at your red
face, the trouble
your kidney’s failure
caused when you didn’t make it
to Typing class, and I had no idea
that you died.
You were 12, and I lost it
in History.

Today, a blogger
called “homos”
victims of a birth
defect, and I thought
of you, Robin, sitting
at lunch with us.
I don’t know
if you were gay.
I always saw you
as sexless, really.
The champion
of delight: the only
relief from adolescence
came to you
as quickly as death
did, and I think, now, at age 40,
how I wish you’d come to
me again in a dream
as you did the week
you died, explaining why
you were still here, cleaning
out your locker, and making me
forget, once again, to be afraid
of this world.



From Cracked Planet, forthcoming from Negative Capability Press
First published in Third Wednesday, Summer 2014 

How It Happened

How It Happened

It happened in the woods,
of course, where all that growls
maintains a weird light.

Dreams are petal cut-outs against
wood that happen
to ignite even the barest
fraction of memory. 

The slightest growl
in the dark you remember
fingering your afghan
that night, as a branch
tapped the glass.

Only it wasn’t the woods
where it happened because you
were on the inside. You had only wished
you were the woods as dark
crept near your belly.

Nails and skin, crocheted blankets.
Just forget it.
It happened
where all dark things do.



From Cracked Planet, forthcoming from Negative Capability Press
First published in Dispatch One, December 2005.

Werewolf

Werewolf

Sister Nun does not mind
that she’s a werewolf. It doesn’t
bother her to think of the night
he pierced her back with dirty
claws, infecting her
with the urge.

Dogs bark at the night, prepare
for Sister’s visit. She gnaws their
bones, humps the women, and makes
everyone laugh.

But not everybody likes Sister
Wolf. The humans grab their
rifles or, in a pinch, chuck
silver bangles at her and
shriek. Sister growls,
laughs, and wakes nude
and adorned until the next
bald moon pulls her like a
riptide.



From Sister Nun, Negative Capability Press, April 2016

Follow Sister Nun as she escapes over the wall of her convent (even though she has, in no way, been held captive) and read as she explores her identity, sexuality, and the path to enlightenment by wrestling alligators, vacationing in hell, and traveling through time and space during her 215-year lifespan.

“Weiland’s book is polished, unusual, and lovely, but it is even more than that. I don’t remember when I read a book of poetry that I couldn’t put down. Sister Nun is an unforgettable character – and this book that bears such a strong character’s name reminds me of Jane Eyre, Emma, Anna Karenina, and Lolita deserves to be in such elite company.”

-Amy King, Author of The Missing Museum and I Want to Make You Safe; winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize.

Tasha Yar At Her Best

Tasha Yar At Her Best*

Pain is a small price
to pay for clarity.
Just ask Tasha, she’s died twice,
so far. But at her worst, she often
felt her best. Crawling
through trenches, phasers
set to kill. A clear target
in the muck. Even her daughter, defying
genetics with her mother’s
blonde bob, disappointed
Picard in every, single way.
Armor and purpose. Family legacy.

But here’s a secret
that Tasha never told anyone:
Her death fantasy (and we all
have one) was to expire by the pool
on a holiday planet, opal sunset.
No phasers or fighting,
not that it matters, she knows
that now. Death brings
clarity far beyond
your pool day, and this time,
she slips through colored panels,
indigo and reds, the fire-pink
of cherry blossoms, and into the deep
and changing sea.


*In “Yesterday’s Enterprise” (Season 3, Episode 15) the ship experiences a temporal rift that results in creating an alternate timeline. Yar is once again alive on the Enterprise, but allegedly dies again on an Enterprise from the past. In “Redemption, Part II,” (Season 5, Episode 1) a Romulan, named Sela, reveals that she is the daughter of Tasha Yar and that her mother was executed years ago when she tried to escape from Sela’s father, who had kept her as a sex slave.


Coming soon in new, book-length manuscript, “To Boldly Go: Poems from the Starship Enterprise.”
First published in Cahoodaloodaling, Issue 27: Joy Sticks, Fall 2018

Smile Stew

Smile Stew

I slice
my smile
as though
a lamb
chop onto
the skillet.
Clinks.
Champagne
flutes
on New Year’s.
Extra teeth.
I am cooking you
smile stew.

You have asked
for it many times,
but I tell you
it’s too much
work. I work
too, you know.
Your comeback
is always
the same:
If your belly
aches, no point
to say it shouldn’t.

And the satin
bow in my stomach
tightens because only women
can cook smile stew,
and the knot
becomes stiff and shiny
like my smile, ready
to be ready.

So, I pluck
the light
from my cheeks.
The glare that strains
my eyes into happy
wedges, I use
as garnish.

I serve
it on a glazed
white plate.
My dish
a moon
in the dark.

I clear out—
meaning,
I am gone—
meaning,
I am haunting
my own body.
This husk
slips like a baby
doll into the corner.
Tulle and silk tossed
like arugula
as you take
your seat
and open wide.



Coming soon in new, book-length manuscript, “The Cure for Loneliness.”
First published in Valley Voices: A Literary Review, (Women Poets: A Special Issue) V18, N1, Spring 2018

Make It Up with Makeup

In the summer of ’88, my mother handed me some Avon samples and told me to go put them on in the way she had instructed. Excitedly, I skipped to the bathroom. I was thirteen and not yet allowed to wear makeup, unattended. However, my mother was headed to the other side of town to sell quite a bit of eyeliner to my friend’s mom, and she wanted me to model “appropriate makeup for a young girl,” in case my friend was allowed to wear makeup before I was. (No fair!) It was for the sale, she said.

I liked seeing my mother bustle around the living room, preparing for work. She was a good saleswoman, talented at convincing people they could not live without summer’s citrus-scented lotion or a florescent, pink bangle. Unfortunately, she also struggled with mental illness, which usually caused her to oscillate between abusive behavior and unavailability. Sometimes, though, she was able to pull herself out of bed (a Herculean effort in her condition) and sell Avon. These were my favorite times. It meant that she was out of bed, talking to other human beings, and “fixing herself up.” However, for an “Avon lady,” she didn’t wear that much makeup, even when at a client’s house with her train case of nail polish. She only wore foundation, rouge, mascara (which she didn’t even need), and 80s bubble gum pink lipstick.

Sometimes, she’d allow my younger sister and me to play with the samples. We’d run off to our room, do something terrible to our faces, and return smiling in amethyst, liquid eyeliner and maroon gloss. My mother was never a tender woman, but she could, at least, deftly point out when you were wearing too much blush. It was in this manner that I learned to apply makeup.

Little girl smears red lipstick on lips while looking down into compact mirror.

My mother was a firm believer that makeup had only two purposes: to hide flaws and to accentuate natural beauty. I always wanted her to wear red lipstick, but she informed me that “red lipstick is for fun girls,” only she didn’t call them “fun girls.” Look, it was the 80s and “fun girls” were totally in! Stripper fashion and sexy, music videos writhed and tempted her young daughters, and she hated it. Yet, the legitimacy of red lipstick is the only makeup disagreement we ever had. I still think the right shade looks pretty on anyone, and with her pale skin; dark, brown hair; and green eyes; red lipstick would have made her look like a beautiful vampire from an Anne Rice novel.

Gif of Robert Plant's video with pale women wearing

Because of my mother’s attitude toward makeup (less is more) I never got that into it. I wore “cover-up” for my teenage acne and occasionally, bright, blue eyeshadow. In college, I used face powder on my oily skin, and on a pretty day or when I liked a boy, I’d don the forbidden, ruby lip. I’ve never owned mascara or blush.

I still normally wear very little makeup, although it is a comfort to apply a bit each morning. Growing up, I watched as my mother emerged, less and less often, from her darkened bedroom. She had blocked the windows with boards, and she ran the air conditioner—for white noise—all year round. Visiting her was like entering a freezing, black void. Since she rarely joined us, she also rarely got dressed, and years went by without a haircut. 

It became important to me that I get dressed in the morning and fix myself up a bit each day. It’s funny; some of my friends say that they love staying in pajamas or not showering because it makes them feel rebellious and satisfied, but these people all had parents who made them breakfast and were still awake when they got home from school. Lounging, unwashed, must feel like a forbidden freedom, but for me, remaining in pajamas feels depressing and uncomfortable, like I’m missing out. I felt so isolated in childhood; the last thing I want to feel, now, is unprepared for company. 

Super model, Iman, posing in pretty, purple makeup.

Recently, I’ve become more interested in makeup. Before the pandemic, I hardly ever wore eye shadow or lipstick unless I was teaching that day. (I think academia warrants an extra shield.) But these days, I find myself experimenting with highlighter and wearing tinted gloss. I recently found Jaime French’s YouTube channel where she does makeup tutorials and reviews. I particularly like “Makeup and Movie Mondays,”  where she pokes fun at movies with daft characters and extreme plot holes, all while she applies her makeup. I don’t know why, but it comforts me to watch her lacquer her lids with lily pad green and to watch how she transforms her fresh, natural face into a glimmering, cat-eyed goddess. 

Jaime French, applying green eye makeup.

These days, I take my time blending eyeshadow and arching my brow. Now that I don’t commute much for work (or for anything, really) I have extra time in the morning. On most days, it’s likely that no one but my wife (who appreciates but wouldn’t care if I never wore makeup again) will see my curled lashes or berry lips, but I don’t need them to. This year has seen so much pain, it feels right—human even—to create something pretty and unnecessary. I’ll catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror or the reflection of a window—gold shimmer on my eyes, faint sparkle on my cheeks. I’ll recall my mother’s isolation, how often I would give her a mental make over (fresh haircut, form-fitting jeans, red lips) as I sat alone in the tension of our living room. Powerless. But I also realize then, with a subtle, satisfying flash, that I am an adult now, and I got up this morning, curled my hair and highlighted my cheeks. I brewed coffee and sat on my porch, greeted neighbors and their dogs. The air is crisp, and I am part of this world, of this neighborhood, of a story outside of my home. I’m alive, and I look pretty.

Cyndi Lauper, posing in bright makeup and hair color.

Today, I leave you with Dora Malech’s “Makeup,” which expresses the speaker’s relationship with makeup and with her mother. I particularly like the final image that describes nature’s cosmetics: 

Even the earth claims color
once a year, dressed in red leaves
as the trees play Grieving.

Haunting My Friendships

The month before I finished my BA, a friend informed me that I had become a ghost. He said that he could no longer see me as quite present nor as quite gone. He could not continue to invest in our friendship, but my lingering presence kept him attached. I think he was just bitter that I was leaving, but now, years later, his comment has me thinking. When it comes to friendships, do we all, eventually, become ghosts?

My freshmen have just turned in an essay assignment that asks students to analyze a group to which they belong and to discover what shared activities bond them. As I’ve been reading these essays, I’ve noticed a theme. After only two months of knowing their roommates or sorority sisters or teammates, they declare that they’ve made “lifelong friendships” and are experiencing “a bond that cannot be broken.” Perhaps it’s my own bitterness at recently losing a twenty-five year friendship that makes me cringe at these platitudes. How do they know whom they’ll be friends with until the end of their lives, and how do I know either? My friendship ended over seemingly nothing, and yet, looking back, it also seems obvious that the branches of that tree would have eventually, undeniably, grown apart. 

A lone tree against the horizon, growing in two different directions.

Losing friends in my 20s made more sense to me once I reached my 30s. In our 20s, we were still making deeply significant choices about how we would be adults. Habits were malleable and often remained undetermined until later. It made sense to me, in retrospect, that once the pieces of our adult personalities fell into place, some of us would no longer fit.

Girl standing at edge of water holding hand out. In reflection is another girl holding her hand.

Losing people in my 40s is also painful, but instead of confusion and regret at what might have been, it feels more like an intense awareness of reality. I can usually see clearly now, after years of watching patterns (both other people’s and my own) how thoughts, feelings, and choices shape our lives, together and apart. 

Now, I have all these memories of my former friend, an entire lifetime of them, fun ones like when we got lost in Redondo Beach, looking for the restaurant we had visited several times before. Bad memories of arguments and misunderstandings. And just the nice ones, walking along the beach, talking about our respective futures, whom we’d like to marry, whom we’d like to let go. But now it feels like I’m haunting these memories, as though I’ve regressed to a previous lifetime when I was inclined to walk with a dragon who would burn me if I was not charmingly demure enough, if I did not twist for him just right. The pleasant memories can only live in the context of who I used to be, and it’s a strange way to grieve, stacking memories in a cupboard I will no longer visit. 

Ghost girl sitting on park bench at night.

Today, I leave you with Cynthia Huntington’s “Ghost,” a poem that explores different phases of connection. I like the faint existence that the speaker inhabits in the poem, and the object of her interest’s distraction. Bit by bit, the ghost seeps into form until she finally states her name. The situation reminds me of how people become more of who they are, as time passes, and the unpredictable response of their loved ones to that strengthening identity. 

Options

I remember reading some dumb article in the 80s that claimed that women felt more stressed than ever because they had been “offered” more life choices. Should they stay at home with kids? Work outside the home with kids in daycare? Work outside the home, part time, with kids at home? Honestly, I don’t recall any other options but those three. I’m going to glide right over the ridiculous claim that women are happiest when most oppressed and that men cannot factor into child-rearing. Nevertheless, it would be incorrect not to admit that options can, in fact, create stress when making decisions. 

Options themselves are not the problem, though. Surely, most people have more options than they realize or care to acknowledge. I think the challenge, when presented with numerous paths, is mastering the art of narrowed focus. For instance, this semester, my university has performed some pretty impressive contortions, trying to maintain funding whilst not exposing students, faculty, and staff to a potentially deadly virus. On these gymnastics, I choose not to comment publicly. I will say that, while removing the option of meeting with all students (in the same room and at the same time) has prevented much of what I normally can accomplish in my classes; in a strange way, it’s opened doors to other learning options that I hadn’t truly considered before. The details of these options may best be detailed in another forum, but I will mention that my hope is to return, one day, to regular in-person classes, but with new ideas I’ve picked up from this tip-toeing-on-slippery-riverbed-rocks semester we’ve been handed (gifted?).

Growing up in an unhealthy household proved my greatest informant regarding the preciousness of options. While I agree with the pessimists that it is annoying when optimists try to arm-wrestle people into cheerful submission (although I would argue that those optimists aren’t as happy and open-minded as they claim) the same can be said of the iron fists of the gloomy and their relentless oppression of choice. Many of my early, familial cellmates could be described as the latter. I believe that the only way I escaped their misery was to fantasize about better options.

The key to embracing options is first, to see them, and second, to narrow them down for yourself, as not to get overwhelmed. I find that the first is usually the most problematic for people. Of course, we’ve all been told what we’re allowed to expect. For instance, I always have to laugh when somebody older than me (or these days, around my own age) tells me what horrors lie ahead once I “hit” a certain age. (It’s a curious way to say it, “hit,” as though your birthday isn’t just waking up, not dead yet, but a violent act you obliviously greeted.) I’ve been told what physical and emotional changes I should dread since I was twelve. Sure, changes happen, but I find that our culture suffers from a serious lack of imagination. Beyond what one can expect at certain age-milestones in life, I hope that the current revitalization of various movements (civil rights, women’s movement, and so forth) might inspire people to imagine a healthier, more thriving world than they previously thought possible. Although probably, many people will continue to hold tightly to the “truths” they’ve been taught and, perhaps, even punished for questioning.

My friend, James Duncan, the editor of Hobo Camp Review, recently published a beautiful issue of poetry with themes of hope, opportunity, belonging, and optimism; and he graciously included my poem, “Ode on ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn.’” In this poem, I reference John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which he describes a young couple, immortalized on an urn. The two will escape old age but also will never move forward, even prevented from ever kissing each other. They are frozen in this joyous, innocent, youthful moment. 

I read this poem as an undergraduate and felt moved by its romance (if not frustrated that the two could never truly be together). Now in my forties, though, their situation seems horrible. Beyond just their inability to consummate their romance, they’ll also never get to grow old. I have always been taught that growing old is a horrible event that happens, both to body and mind. Admittedly, I have always enjoyed good physical  health, which I’m sure informs my optimistic notion of aging. However, the couple on the urn, while they will never face inevitable physical decline, will also never receive the honor of perspective, the awe of understanding life more deeply after having witnessed cycles repeat, their significances revealed. I wrote my poem, not as a backlash against the inexperience of youth, or as a lamentation of life past forty, but rather as a revelation of the pleasures of growth.

I’ve linked my poem below, for anyone who is interested. Also, you should read James’ guest blog post about his beautiful poem, “Last Appointment of the Day.”

I hope this blog post finds you in good health and happiness (or as close to them as possible).

“Ode on ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn'”

Rituals for Meaning: Community Bliss or Groupthink Tyranny?

My wife and I are fairly nerdy. Often we spend our days off reading together and reading to each other. She recently read to me an article called, “God Is Dead. So Is the Office. These People Want to Save Both,” by Nellie Bowles, which discusses how working from home through Zoom (among other contemporary culture shifts) has supposedly created a need for group rituals in the workplace. In the article, Ezra Bookman (founder of Ritualist) poses the question “‘How do we help people process the grief when a project fails and help them to move on from it?’” Ritualist’s Instagram account suggests “‘A ritual for purchasing your domain name’” and “’A ritual for when you get the email from LegalZoom that you’ve been officially registered as an LLC.’” 

Later in the article, Bowles claims that she is “hungry for ritual….If my boss said we would be instituting a one-minute group breathing exercise in the evenings to mark the closing of our laptops, or beginning each meeting by all smelling a clove together, would I like it? I would.”

Four people fist-bumping above a work station/desk.

Now, because Postmodernism and contemporary society have conspired to kill satire, and because I sometimes cannot differentiate between my wife’s sarcasm and her charming southern accent, I finally interrupted and asked: “Is this a joke?” “No,” she replied, “it’s from The New York Times.”

I won’t get into the fact that, for Gen Xers, a “good” job meant that you could afford some of what you wanted and weren’t coming home in tears every night. I won’t get into it because I’m not completely sure it’s wrong to expect more out of life and work, and I’d be hypocritical to suggest otherwise since I gave up a corporate job (that often had me in tears at night) to earn a Ph.D. in poetry and live happily lower-middle class ever after. 

I do require meaning in my work for happiness, and I’m glad that I picked writing and teaching. However, the idea of sniffing cloves together with my colleagues gives me the creeps. I feel certain that they, too, would share in my discomfort. It also seems forced, and in fact, Bowles even mentions that “many workers are already devout on their own terms, on their own time, and are not at all hungry for soul-based activities between 9 and 5,” not to mention the problem with asking “workers to give their professional activities transcendental meaning when, at the same time, those workers can be terminated.” I’ll skip over my cringe at the term “soul-based” (whatever the hell that means) and just reiterate that in this sense, I am old fashioned: I believe work is work and spirituality is private.

Still, there is a place for shared rituals. In March, just as my university shut down, due to COVID-19, my mother passed away. I had not spoken to her since I had moved to Alabama in 2008. It’s a decision that I still don’t regret because I made it out of the desire to thrive and not out of anger. My mother experienced many problems in life that prevented her from living well and maintaining healthy relationships. 

When I first found out she died, I didn’t know what to do with her ashes. I had no experience planning death ceremonies, and the additional obstacle of pandemic travel restriction meant that her ashes sat on my shoe shelf for four months. We ended up taking the ashes to some woods that belong to friends of ours,  who also run Wild Ground, a “creative project dedicated to the cultivation of sacred spaces, joyful connections, intentional living, and earth healing.” 

I wrote a eulogy and picked a poem for my wife to read, and together we made a space for the ceremony we created. I don’t want to discuss details of the ritual, which brings me back to my leanings toward privacy around such matters, but I will say that my friends were very good at listening to how I wanted to honor my mother and finding ways to make meaning through ritual.

In some ways, rituals can express creativity and healing. Perhaps the best shared rituals are, ironically, spontaneous. Although I had put thought into the scattering of my mother’s ashes, and had written, prepared, and packed important items that I wanted to include, we mostly created the ritual on the spot. It was not prescribed by an institution. No one needed permission to invent or to improvise. The ritual was uninhibited.

Trees in forest with

Alternatively, though, rituals can sometimes morph into formal, rigid expectations. I’ve often thought that my mother would have been happier if she had been born later. Contemporary times could have provided her an easier path to live the life I think she would have preferred. I picture her skipping marriage and children. I think she would have enjoyed boyfriends or lovers or maybe even a partner she didn’t have to live with. Maybe she’d have chosen a career that would have never crossed her mind as possible, as a woman in the 1970s. Maybe she would have been a writer.

I chose not to have children and didn’t even marry until my forties. These decisions provided me with the time and energy to live the life I had dreamed up since childhood. I was not the little girl who played with dolls. Oh, I had some, but even before I was old enough for kindergarten, my “play” was to leave the “kids” at home with “Dad,” so I could go to work. That was my fun. Sure, as a young adult, I still experienced aggression from people who condemned me for not marrying and having children, but at least I didn’t need a man to co-sign my apartment lease.

Black and white photo of young woman in 1970s, on phone at work desk.

I’ve never been one to romanticize the past, nor do I begrudge my mother for the possibility that another life would have made her happier. Unfortunately, the tyranny of cultural demands lead her to the rituals of “traditional” family. Society convinced her that marrying young and staying home with kids equaled fulfillment, even though she  clearly found no pleasure in either. 

I suppose what bothers me about Bowles’ article is the thought of a person’s workplace (already greedily absorbing employees’ personal lives through their smart phones) would seek to maneuver itself even deeper by invading the spiritual realm. 

Life’s situations always provide two sides: the simple and the complicated. If attentive, one can always locate both. Bigotry is simple: it’s cruel; don’t do it. Bigotry is complicated: it comprises the very root of our culture in ways so normalized that many can’t even see it, even sometimes those who directly experience it. But while working to dismantle the sicknesses of our world, one might consider the simple ritual of paying attention to day-to-day life. One need not work at creating meaning for such simplicities. There is no need to analyze, daily, what activities count as “soul-based” as though our consciousness checks out every time we forget to mindfully eat our cereal. It’s usually enough to pay attention to what our bodies tell us about the actions we’re performing. I feel that if my mother had had enough support to do the latter, she might have thrown caution to the wind, remained in her single-woman Hollywood flat, and discovered her own path to fulfillment.

Photo of my mother in the 70s,
Janice Weiland 1950-2020

I leave you today with the poem I chose for my mother’s ash-scattering ceremony.

The Laughing Heart
By Charles Bukowski

your life is your life.
don’t let it be clubbed into dank
submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the
darkness.
be on the watch. 
the gods will offer you
chances.
know them, take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death
in life,
sometimes.
and the more often you
learn to do it,
the more light there will 
be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have
it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in 
you.

Would You Like Some Tears with Your Terror? What Horror Narratives Gain from Grief

Recently, I watched Shirley, a movie that attempts to tell a story about someone writing a story, the latter of which usually proves boring to watch. I make this statement as a writer myself. Unlike a dancer, for instance, a writer’s art is what she gives you after its completion, not the act of creating the art itself. That phase usually consists of long hours of staring into space, scribbling, and talking to one’s self. The movie spices up the process by focusing the Shirley Jackson character’s twisted relationship with a boarder (a purely fictional character used as a plot device). The movie was all right, but it rekindled my interest in Jackson’s work, including one of her more famous gothic horror novels, The Haunting of Hill House. I had never read it before and  enjoyed the book’s ghosts—literal and figurative—and the ending, which does not clearly resolve the mystery.

I also watched the recent television version of the book.  I thought the reimagining of the story was quite interesting. The main characters are transformed into a family unit (instead of a group of strangers from the book) and the majority of the narrative takes place outside of Hill House. However, I did not care for its tear-jerker tone. The incredibly sad memorial scene stretched on for so long that I felt relief when the remaining family members finally got chased by angry ghosts again.

Ghost with bent neck, standing next to her open casket.

Horror can provide a safe environment to channel excess anxiety, and in fact, it has been scientifically proven that children who experience trauma will forever produce too much adrenal. Considering the number of children who have either experienced abuse or other traumas (such as war and poverty) one can better understand the potential healing affects of the ax-murderer through the woods scene! (Read more about the therapeutic need for horror in “The Murder Ballad, True Crime, and Why We Need Horror”.) I think it’s interesting, though, that recent horror narratives seem to dial up the grief factor. There are some people who claim to benefit from the cathartic affects of the tear-jerker, but I am not one of them. I always feel manipulated by overtly sad narratives, and when I’m watching horror, intensively sad scenes hit me harder than a monster lunging from a closet, horrible grin and hatchet in hand. I’m not at a horror movie to cry.

But what is the purpose of grief in horror? Horror narratives speak to the audience’s fears, of course. Blood, guts, violence—yes, those are easy buttons to press, but what really keeps people up at night depends largely on the time period and the specific audience. Rosemary’s Baby came out at a time when people were particularly anxious about women’s reproductive rights. Us speaks to our current notion that horror is our fellow American. (I think that idea works no matter what side of the political spectrum the audience resides.) Ready or Not responds to our anxiety about the 1% and its control over the vulnerable.

Woman with blood on face, hiding behind door, with rich people on the other side, covering hteir eyes.

But grief is sneakier than anxiety. It runs deeper in our psyche. Perhaps it’s even the root of anxiety. Grief is horror, but it is also so commonplace, one could almost miss it. The Netflix movie, Bulbbul explores grief to a backdrop of witchcraft and feminism. (Read more on horror and feminism, in “Everyday Horrors”.) Although producer Anushka Sharma claims that the movie is a drama-thriller, I’ve always found that the combination of feminist issues and revenge-murder leans more toward the horror genre. Either way, this movie struck me for its ability to weave the grief of the protagonist (an abused child bride) with a hopeful revenge scenario, fueled by Kali.

Kali facing audience in seated position, her many arms holding weapons, a genie lamp, and a decapitated head.
The Goddess, Kali

There are some parts of the movie that could use revision (like the worn and offensive “developmentally-challenged-man-as-predator” trope). Overall, though, I enjoyed the movie. The tension between the calm smirk of the protagonist and her past trauma, which is revealed, bit by bit, intrigues. Although not a tear-jerker, the grief of violation and captivity acts as an invisible monster, lurking beneath the beautiful, bright setting and lush costumes.

Bulbbul fanning herself as an attendant brushes her hair.

It will be interesting to see what horror narratives are born from our current pandemic. Covid-19 has all the makings of a horror-genre monster. It’s invisible to the naked eye, and symptoms of its presence could be the virus or just something benign, like hay fever. Even the results of catching the virus is unpredictable, from asymptomatic to painful death. Add to this fear the grief of losing our loved ones (or that potential) and the sadness of being cut off from loved ones as we quarantine. Even the connection lost from covering our faces with masks depresses. (Although the use of masks is wise and necessary).

Perhaps it’s the ordinariness of grief that makes it a fertile seed for a horror narrative. Our every day problems and sadness can sometimes add up to one hell of a demon.

Still, I prefer not to bring a tissue to a jump scare.

Today, I will leave you with a simple haiku by Clement Hoyt. I like this one because it takes an ordinary, creepy item and animates it to unsettling results.

A Hallwe’en mask,
floating face up in the ditch,
slowly shakes its head.