The Details of Quarantine

There is much for people to worry about lately: namely the physical and financial health of themselves and their loved ones. Many have been writing about these stresses already, so I am going to excuse myself from adding to the topic. Instead, I’ll write about another aspect of social distancing, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic: attention to detail.

Over the weekend, a couple neighbors played live music from their front porch, and our neighborhood all came out and sat six feet away from each other to hear music and to connect with one another. I am fortunate to live in a friendly neighborhood where it is likely that people will learn the names of your dogs before they recall yours. When we first learned of the spread of the Coronavirus, people slowly began to work from home and stopped driving as much, unless they needed to forage for food. Little by little, a calm settled over our block. It is not unusual to see people walking their dogs through the neighborhood, and waving at one another is just the southern thing to do. But as we made peace with the situation, I started to see it: people’s smiles appeared effortlessly; adults giggled with their children, as they chased them around in their yards; grandparents taught the kids how to ride bikes. Neighbors made an even bigger point to check in with one another, and they began to notice and discuss their surroundings: the warm weather, the birds’ songs, the early spring-blooms.

Red-orange flower opening

As a writer, observing is my job. Honestly, what I’ve observed more and more, in recent years, is the tops of people’s heads. I won’t drone on about cell phone use. I believe technology keeps us just as connected as it does disconnected from one another. However, it seems pretty obvious that technology definitely stands between our senses and our surroundings. 

Is connection to nature really important to anyone but poets and artists? Based on the collective sigh of relief I’ve witnessed over the last couple weeks, in my neighborhood, I think it is. And whether we accept it or not, our bodies are part of nature, and paying attention to our surroundings paves the way to sensing what it feels like to inhabit a body and how that body interacts with its surroundings. 

Our culture revolves around work and status. We all get caught up in it sometimes, wondering if our achievements are good enough, if we’re good enough. But for many people today, those achievements are on hold for a while. What does this time-out mean for our psyches? 

city intersection at night in fast-motion

I am no economist or scientist; I cannot predict how our country will soon change in terms of money and physical health, but I hope that, since most of us are sitting at home right now, we might take this opportunity to begin to notice our surroundings more. Perhaps this quieter time might heal some of the wounds our fast-paced culture has imposed on our notion of self-worth. Humans are social animals, but there is something to be said for self-reflection, a pastime not just reserved for poets.

huge Earth marble between two tall buildings, with people looking up at it
Sebastian Errazuriz’s rendering of blu Marble, which is to be showcased at the Richard Taittinger Gallery on March 13, 2019.

Today, I leave you with Billy Collins’ poem, “Tuesday, June 4, 1991,” which describes the speaker feeling like a “secretary to the morning,” as he writes down all the details of his surroundings. The ending of this poem includes my favorite description of dawn that I’ve read in a poem.

I hope that you are all hanging in there. I know many people cannot stay at home and are directly confronted by this virus, either as healthcare workers or as employees at grocery stores and such. We appreciate you, and I hope that you, too, can find time in the future to rest and reflect.

Tuesday, June 4, 1991 

By Billy Collins

By the time I get myself out of bed, my wife has left
the house to take her botany final and the painter
has arrived in his van and is already painting
the columns of the front porch white and the decking gray.

It is early June, a breezy and sun-riddled Tuesday
that would quickly be forgotten were it not for my
writing these few things down as I sit here empty-headed
at the typewriter with a cup of coffee, light and sweet.

I feel like the secretary to the morning whose only
responsibility is to take down its bright, airy dictation
until it’s time to go to lunch with the other girls,
all of us ordering the cottage cheese with half a pear.

This is what stenographers do in courtrooms, too,
alert at their miniature machines taking down every word.
When there is a silence they sit still as I do, waiting
and listening, fingers resting lightly on the keys.

This is also what Samuel Pepys did, jotting down in
private ciphers minor events that would have otherwise
slipped into the dark amnesiac waters of the Thames.
His vigilance finally paid off when London caught fire

as mine does when the painter comes in for coffee
and says how much he likes this slow vocal rendition
of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and I figure I will
make him a tape when he goes back to his brushes and pails.

Under the music I can hear the rush of cars and trucks
on the highway and every so often the new kitten, Felix,
hops into my lap and watches my fingers drumming out
a running record of this particular June Tuesday

as it unrolls before my eyes, a long intricate carpet
that I am walking on slowly with my head bowed
knowing that it is leading me to the quiet shrine
of the afternoon and the melancholy candles of evening.

If I look up, I see out the window the white stars
of clematis climbing a ladder of strings, a woodpile,
a stack of faded bricks, a small green garden of herbs,
things you would expect to find outside a window,

all written down now and placed in the setting
of a stanza as unalterably as they are seated
in their chairs in the ontological rooms of the world.
Yes, this is the kind of job I could succeed in,

an unpaid but contented amanuensis whose hands
are two birds fluttering on the lettered keys,
whose eyes see sunlight splashing through the leaves,
and the bright pink asterisks of honeysuckle

and the piano at the other end of this room with
its small vase of faded flowers and its empty bench.
So convinced am I that I have found my vocation,
tomorrow I will begin my chronicling earlier, at dawn,

a time when hangmen and farmers are up and doing,
when men holding pistols stand in a field back to back.
It is the time the ancients imagined in robes, as Eros
or Aurora, who would leave her sleeping husband in bed,

not to take her botany final, but to pull the sun,
her brother, over the horizon’s brilliant rim,
her four-horse chariot aimed at the zenith of the sky.
But tomorrow, dawn will come the way I picture her,

barefoot and disheveled, standing outside my window
in one of the fragile cotton dresses of the poor.
She will look in at me with her thin arms extended,
offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.

Featured Photo

Sebastian Errazuriz’s “blu Marble”

Spring

I’ll be honest, it’s been a trying academic year. My classes are going well—no complaints there. But it’s been a year of changes and painful realizations. It has become impossible to deny that some people, whom I love (and who sometimes love me back) are also moody and unpredictable, and that there’s nothing I can do better except to stop internalizing their bad behavior.

Usually, my optimism (which comes by way of nature or by outside grooming—I can no longer tell) benefits me. When I focus on what I want, I see more of it. However, there are times that optimism feels like a snake eating its own tail, renewing itself so quickly that I forget to stop and remember why I needed it in the first place. Its swiftness saws off the top, obscuring the root of the problem: in this case, that sometimes people just suck.

But as my friend recently told me, “better” doesn’t mean good, and I don’t have to find a bright side. Last night, my wife asked me what was wrong and was surprised when I said that I don’t want to teach Arabian Nights this week. “But you love Arabian Nights,” she said. She’s right, and when a book about a smart woman who subdues a sociopathic misogynist with storytelling can’t cheer me up, I know it’s been a long winter. My wife suggested that I embrace my sadness, and I think she’s right. Maybe happiness is a cork in water: if you want it, you have to remove control and let it float.

For now, the days are getting warmer, and the sunlight stays out late. The physical manifestation of renewal will arrive soon, in the form of springtime, and will remind me, again, how to grow.

Today, I offer you a poem about the beginning of spring, by Philip Larkin:

Coming

On longer evenings,
Light, chill and yellow,
Bathes the serene
Foreheads of houses.
A thrush sings,
Laurel-surrounded
In the deep bare garden,
Its fresh-peeled voice
Astonishing the brickwork.
It will be spring soon,
It will be spring soon —
And I, whose childhood
Is a forgotten boredom,
Feel like a child
Who comes on a scene
Of adult reconciling,
And can understand nothing
But the unusual laughter,
And starts to be happy.

—Philip Larkin

Photo Credit: Nika Akin

Rules of the Holiday

Recently, my neighbor, Rhonda, and I were discussing how much easier life has gotten since we’ve stopped going “home” for the holidays, but also how annoying it is when people pity us for our refusal to do what the “holiday season” culturally dictates. 

“You know, just because it’s Thanksgiving does not mean I have to eat turkey with family,” Rhonda opined. I concurred. Later that day, she texted me, “I just read that it’s National Bacon Day,” complete with an eye-rolling emoji.

“Where are you going to eat your bacon today?” I jokingly replied. 

Valentine’s Day is the next holiday on the calendar that asks folks to adhere to cultural norms. For this holiday, though, it’s not that we must break bread with our toxic families, it’s that we must express coupledom in the bright-eyed tone of new love’s infatuation. 

I sense that Rhonda will not be passing out heart-shaped chocolate boxes this year.

Valentine’s Day has the distinct ability to tap into people’s singlehood-sensitivities. I’m lucky. I liked being single. There were times when I was unhappy, but there are times I am unhappy now, as a married person. I’ve never completely correlated emotions with relationship status. However, some people feel a deficit, when single, and who can blame them? The world is built for two. 

Also, as a woman, it’s difficult to enjoy alone time in public without the interference of strange men who find your independence unsettling. Saturday Night Live addressed this problem in the brilliantly “funny-because-it’s-true” skit “Leave me Alurn.”

Yet, despite our contemporary version of “the couple’s holiday,” the origin of Valentine’s Day is unclear. There is apparently enough debate about St. Valentine himself, (namely, whether or not our version of him is actually a combination of two different people) that the Catholic church ceased liturgical veneration of him in 1969. However, all of the stories about Valentine include religious persecution. One common narrative is that he performed weddings for Christians, which was not allowed under the emperor, Claudius Gothicus. Apparently, getting married could exempt a man from conscription, and Claudius was low on soldiers. Ah, politics. Under the umbrella of this story, one version has Valentine curing a blind woman in jail before he is led to his execution. He leaves the woman a note signed, “Your Valentine.” 

It’d be interesting to celebrate Valentine’s Day in this manner, comforting someone in need. I don’t think it’d garner many marketing strategies, though. Who knows? Capitalism is a flexible beast.

Young woman eating chocolates out of a box by herself in bed.

But for today, I offer you three love poems that deviate from the rush of new romance. The first, “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps,” by Galway Kinnell, is a slightly awkward moment between a couple who has been “long-married.” The second, “the cat’s song,” by Marge Piercy, is a love poem from the cat’s perspective, and the third, “[you fit into me],” by Margaret Atwood, is probably a very common take on love.

Enjoy!

After Making Love We Hear Footsteps

The cat’s song

[you fit into me]

The Murder Ballad, True Crime, and Why We Need Horror

I have my sister to thank for getting me hooked on horror in my adult life. However, my first memories of horror movies were cringing at friends’ houses, while we watched movies like When a Stranger Calls and Black Christmas. I was too proud at that time (I was 14) to admit that I hated them. I knew I would spend the next several weeks worried that I would somehow make the inconceivable mistake of heading back upstairs after the heart-stopping “the call is coming from inside the house” twist.

However, in my 20s, my little sister revealed to me that she loved I Know What You Did Last Summer, and for some reason, it was then that horror movies clicked with me. I started watching the oldies: Carrie, The Exorcist, Amityville Horror. I loved them. 

The older I get, the more I appreciate the psychological aspect of horror. My two favorite horror movies of 2019 are Midsommar and Us. I like Midsommar because I am interested in cults, and for weeks after watching it, found myself wondering if Dani will reconsider her final choices after the dust settles. Us was so creepy that I actually felt unnerved by my own reflection for a whole weekend. Also, I could not get out of my mind, the movie’s slowed-down, spooky version of “I’ve Got Five on It”!

There are many theories regarding why people like horror. Some say it’s an outlet for anxieties or a way to cohabitate safely with our inner monsters. (The Babadook handles the latter in an interesting, literal way.) Game of Thrones, although not a proper horror narrative, definitely exhibits horror elements. I admit that, during the “crown of gold” scene in season one, I found myself cheering for the grisly demise of Daenerys’ abuser, although it was unnecessarily vicious. Despite Daenery’s coldness, a trait I normally find unsettling, I felt relief for the end of that particular torment and for the way she embraces her unique gift and personal power.

I think one of the main draws of horror is an acknowledgement of exaggerated (for many of us) true-life suffering. When watching horror, we don’t need to deconstruct the nuances of our ennui: Pain is barreling through the woods in the form of a blunt man with a chainsaw. 

There is also a shared experience when watching horror. A community outcry, a “Don’t go in the basement” moment. We watch people bungle down narrow hallways and trip over rocks, knowing we’d have done it differently. There’s a comfort in believing we’d survive to be the final girl.

I credit this same survivor-desire for true crime’s rise in popularity. Yes, the abnormality of violent, human behavior fascinates people, but I think the real draw to true crime stems from anxiety. It’s no surprise that women are the primary consumers of true crime stories. Humans are hard-wired to scan and prepare for danger, and most domestic and sexually-related murders are committed against women. The “sleeping with the enemy” motif is popular in true crime narratives. These stories uncover the telltale signs of future violence, missed or ignored by the victims. Women are too often groomed to dismiss their intuition, which leaves them vulnerable, but true crime stories not only validate our instincts but encourage us to use them.

True crime narratives offer inside information about potential, domestic horror; however, the stories that end with the perpetrator in prison, also provide relief. Although, just as in most horror movies, the danger is never really over. There have always been violent criminals on the loose, no matter the number that get locked away.

Today I will leave you with a murder ballad called “Twa Sisters” (Two Sisters), which is believed to have first appeared on a Scottish broadside in 1656. The ballad chronicles the tale of a woman who drowns her younger sister over the love of a man. There have been many versions of the tale. In some versions, a man finds her body and uses her bones and hair to create a harp; in other versions, it’s a fiddle. Sometimes, the elder sister is exposed as a murderer, and the younger sister is portrayed as completely innocent. Other times, she has taunted the elder sister with the fact that she has won the beloved’s affections.

This ballad points to another reason people are interested in such horrific acts. These narratives sometimes ask us to consider how “monsters” are made. Whether the younger sister taunts or not, she surely does not deserve to be murdered, and yet, we can all relate to jealousy and the desire for revenge. These narratives beg a question: under the right circumstances, might we be the monster?

My favorite version of “Two Sisters” is Gillian Welch’s “Wind and Rain.” I love the refrain, “Oh the dreadful wind and rain,” and the way it illuminates the degrees of this horror. In the end, when the younger sister’s body has been crafted into a fiddle, it does not explicitly expose her murderer nor mention the man she loves. It will only play “Oh the dreadful wind and rain.” The ending does not provide any true justice or quick healing but rather suggests that art’s transformative power lies not in transcendence, but in accepting the present, dark as it may be. 

Empathy and Enlightenment—or—This Is My Dance Space; That Is Yours

Winter is coming…possibly. It’s been a hot year. Despite the fact that it’s December, and I’m still wearing short- sleeved shirts and light sweaters, winter feels like a quiet, reflective time to me. Perhaps it’s my reaction to the relentless holiday music and advertising, or the ridiculous push for the “Christmas Miracle”—family members who have been locked in emotional, mortal combat, all year, suddenly toast eggnog before a roaring fire. Personally, I’d rather take walks in the crisp morning and contemplate the hibernating trees. I guess I’m not much of a Christmas person. 

So, in the spirit of self-reflection, I offer you this dark tale of cosmic entanglement, aggravated, I’m sure, by my upbringing in a church that explained enlightenment as blissful omniscience and oneness with all. We were taught that this lens is the highest and most desirable. However, on a lazy afternoon, at a shopping mall, I learned that there’s a dark side to melding into my fellow humankind.

Woman looking in mirror, confused

Picture this: I am shopping for dresses with a friend of mine. We cheerfully pull a few off the rack and head into the dressing room area. Down the hallway is a large, full-length mirror. We step into our respective dressing rooms. I slip on a v-necked, long-sleeved, red dress, and consider my reflection in the dressing room’s smaller mirror. I decide that I need to see the dress from farther away, so I step out of the dressing room and into the hallway with the bigger mirror. I look down at the dress and see my light, brown hair, sitting below my collar bone, as usual, and my pale skin, with pink undertones, yellowish under florescent lights. However—and my brain cannot understand this image in any way—I am no longer wearing the red dress that I had donned just moments ago. Instead, I am wearing a black dress, with a scoop neck and spaghetti straps. I panic, befuddled that I am suddenly wearing a different dress. My eyes widen, and I freeze. Slowly, I lift my head from the dress, to the collar bone, and then, to a face I do not recognize. For a moment, I don’t know who I am or what reality I inhabit. Everything I thought I knew about this mundane moment in a department store dressing room flies out the window, and I can’t breathe. Another second passes, and my vision clears. I recognize that I am staring into my friend’s face, who, at the exact moment that I stepped out of my dressing room, to look in the full-length mirror, stepped out of hers, facing me in a black dress. 

We laughed, of course, when I explained my confusion. Our appearances favor each other—same hair and skin color, similar body size and facial structure. But something in me changed that day. The terror of not knowing where I ended and my friend began did not resemble the blissed-out, hippie version of nirvana that belonged to my church’s narrative. It unsettled me.

Alice walking through the looking glass

Dear Reader, Halloween is over, and now, the true horror begins. There are no masks on Christmas, except for the emotional ones we’ve carved out of fear and necessity. Winter is here, and when the distractions of bright wreathes and holiday cheer subside, when we remove the twinkling lights that help us forget the grey sky, we are left with nothing but our identities…or lack thereof.

Today, I leave you with Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room,” which is about a little girl who experiences a disorienting moment where she cannot discern her identity from her aunt’s or even the people in National Geographic

Click here to read the poem.

Click here to hear the poem.

(By the way, as I wrote this blog, I couldn’t get the theme song of the podcast Spooked out of my head. If you like scary stories, of the ghost and demon variety, you should check it out! “And remember…never, ever, never, never, never, never, ever…turn out…the light.”)

Image by Leandro De Carvalho from Pixabay

The Marriage of Light and Dark

Outside my dorm window, in the mid-1990s, the walnut trees lined Russell Blvd, the main drag in Davis, California. When I had an early class, I would watch hundreds of crows expand and stretch their wings at sunrise. Clumped on trees, they looked like large, dark flowers blossoming before they elegantly glided into pink sky or congregated on the sidewalk to squawk at each other. At sunset, they would gather again on the trees and curl into tight balls. 

Depending on the folklore, crows have been described as good luck, bad luck, harbingers of death, helpful on the battlefield, or even gossipy. While I like a good animal lore story, one of the most interesting things I’ve heard about crows is scientific: they apparently remember faces really well and can hold a grudge! (There are many articles and studies that can be found on this topic just by Googling “crows remember.”) Also, they apparently feel attracted to shiny things, even if it’s garbage. I once saw a crow pinch a bit of glinting aluminum foil in its beak.

Crows congregating on tree against blue sky with white clouds.

Having grown up near Los Angeles, I could tell you much about artificial shine. I’ve never looked it up, but I sometimes wonder if LA is where tooth whitener was invented. I heard someone from Europe say once that, in America, people look at you funny if you don’t smile at them, and in Europe, they look at you funny if you do. I don’t know if I’ve met a fellow, American woman who has not, in fact, been told to “smile” by some random man or expected to grin through pain, lest she be labeled “bitchy.” Even recently, I was told by a co-worker that she could not imagine that I could ever get angry about anything. I honestly can’t even picture that scenario. Even Mickey Mouse got pissed off sometimes. I believe that demanding cheer, and that a fellow human being shrink to a flat character, is a form of objectification. It indicates the objectifier’s belief that it is another person’s purpose to delight, with smiles and joy, even when she’s just trying to find a ripe avocado at the supermarket. 

Of course, on the flip side, some believe that cheerful people are as such because they lack awareness of the horrible things that happen in the world. People who wear rose-colored glasses cannot see the whole picture because they’ve filtered out the darkness. While I agree with the latter, I’d add that true happiness shifts and actually requires great focus on the light, as well as an understanding of darkness. After all, it is just as shortsighted to look at life through a darkly-clouded lens. Just as much truth is obscured.

Artwork of woman with pink roses in her eyes.
Concentration #11: “rose-colored”

Maybe that’s why I like the image of the intelligent, dark crow, hunting for glitter where ever it may be. I’m not sure anyone can truly appreciate the bright points of life without knowing something of its opposite, and I’ve never minded my darkness: it’s where creation begins. While the benefits of light are fairly obvious, darkness can evoke empathy, self-reflection, compassion, and appreciation. 

Two women face each other, shrouded (one in black, one in white) wearing minimalist, pointy crowns by the ocean..
Daniel Vazquez “Sirens” Photo series

Today, I’m including Joy Harjo’s “The Path to the Milky Way Leads Through Los Angeles,” a poem that contrasts nature (and perhaps, the nature of existence) with the emptiness of city life. I think Tinseltown is an easy target when it comes to exposing shallowness, but I’ve always seen Los Angeles in this poem as a symbol of humanity’s growing pains. We’ve expanded technologically but have not caught up emotionally. We have so many options for ways to live out our physical lives, but we’ve lost touch with our important animal instincts and spiritual intuition. 

My favorite line in the poem is “The shimmer of gods.” I’ve been a big fan of Harjo since graduate school, and in this poem, I particularly like how she plays with tone at the end:

“So what are we doing here I ask the crow parading on the ledge of falling that hangs over this precarious city?
Crow just laughs and says wait, wait and see and I am waiting and not seeing anything, not just yet.
But like crow I collect the shine of anything beautiful I can find.” 

If she had ended with “I am waiting and not seeing anything,” the tone would feel as lost and empty as Los Angeles. If she had ended with “not just yet,” there would have been some hope that the speaker may possibly find the meaning of existence. But I like that she ended with the image of the speaker mimicking the crow and collecting “the shine of anything beautiful” she can find. This ending marries the hope of finding life’s meaning with one optimistic way to cope in the meantime.

(Note: Word Press is not cooperating with the line lengths of this poem, so I have included an image of it below. If you cannot read it, the poem can also be found on Genius; although they, too, appear to have had formatting issues!)

from: A Map to the Next World, Norton. 2000

Featured Image: Jane Cameron Photography

Everyday Horrors

Spoiler alerts for the 1948 movie, The Red Shoes and Black Swan below!

A graduate school poetry professor, DC Berry, once told me that narratives are either comedies wrapped in tragedies or tragedies wrapped in comedies. The movies I’m going to discuss are probably neither, but for some reason, the older I get, the more I recognize horror in places I never thought to look, or at least, I am more affected by it. For instance, I recently watched Hereditary, a horror film that involves dark witchcraft, possession, and a terrible family tragedy. It was the latter that struck me, though. Yeah, yeah, yeah, blood sacrifices…beheadings…but I spent the majority of the movie wiping tears off my face because I couldn’t stand how cruelly and dysfunctionally the family treated each other at the dinner table. I felt similarly about the horrors of family when I watched The Witch. At the end of the film, I wasn’t scared; I was just really bummed out.

The Witch

When I was a little girl, I watched the 1948 movie, The Red Shoes and was transfixed. Victoria Page, a young ballerina, must choose between dancing in the company that will most nurture her art or her egotistical husband, whom she loves for some reason. I recently watched it again because I wanted to know if I had remembered it correctly. I only recall a few movies that I watched when I was little, and this one stuck with me. In fact, it informed many of the decisions I made as an adult, regarding career and relationships. What I recall thinking, as a kid, and as I re-watched it last week, is that a woman should never give up her career or her art or anything that serves as the anchor of her happiness. If she would like to marry, she should maintain this anchor at all costs, and not trade it for (as, Boris, the dance company’s impresario puts it) “the doubtful comforts of human love.” Don’t get me wrong, there can be room for both; a balanced life is often healthier (for any sex). However, Boris will not allow his dancers to fall in love with anything but art. Victoria Page sees it differently, and when told that Boris has fired Julian because of their romantic involvement, she replies, quite reasonably: “I shall dance somewhere else.” However, Boris’s company is where she grows most as an artist, and thus, the true conflict begins.

The Red Shoes

To be clear, the only reason for the conflict she feels is that her men are tearing her apart. Her husband’s ego cannot withstand her need to dance in the company that has fired him, and Boris’ ego cannot withstand the thought that her attention should sway to anything but his artistic direction. At the end of the movie, right before she dramatically flings herself off a building and onto the train tracks below, I recall thinking  (both as a child and now, as an adult) that she should have just divorced her lousy husband, who is so controlling that he abandons his opening night (and a pivotal moment in his career) just to dominate his wife and remove the one thing in this world, besides him, that she loves. That scene was exactly how I remembered it, and my feelings about it haven’t changed. 

I have read some contemporary reviews of The Red Shoes that claim it is a movie about artistic obsession. However, if the protagonist were male, I wonder if this so-called “obsession” would be viewed in the same way. Usually, when men are single-minded, regarding profession, we just call them “successful.” To me, the horror of this narrative is how commonplace and easy it is for a woman to marry someone who seduces her out of her light. Yes, the same can happen to men, but for women, there’s the added trap of cultural pressure not to outshine men, lest she be considered egotistical. “Selfishness” is one of the worst cultural sins a woman can commit, even if it is just for the short duration of a ballerina’s career. In the movie, Boris is, of course, also an asshole, but at least he uses his assholery for the promotion of her art, which she describes as wanting as much as she desires to live.

Black Swan, a more contemporary, but still tragic, ballet story, dons more overt elements of horror: bloody stabbings, doppelgängers, and surrealistic bird transformations. And yet, the underlying darkness again appears as a woman pulled apart by the demands made of her femininity. In this film, the virgin/whore motif manifests through the opposing forces of her controlling mother, who insists on infantilizing her grown daughter; and her creepy boss, Thomas, who sexualizes her during late night rehearsals in an attempt to awaken the darkness she needs for the Black Swan role.

Nina, becoming the Black Swan…literally.

I’ll admit, one of the most horrifying elements of the film is what ballet dancers do to their bodies. O their feet! O their spines! O the horror! (I’ll spare you a photo.)

I digress. I love this film. Natalie Portman is fantastic playing the role of a scared, little girl in a grown woman’s body, as well as the confident adult in touch with the primal need for lust and conquest. I’m also a big fan of surrealism and coming of age stories. This movie especially intrigues me because I am unsure what to make of the ending. 

First, there’s the fact that Nina’s death, at the end of the ballet, makes no scientific sense. Many people have pointed out that a stab wound doesn’t just start to bleed, randomly, at the end of a dance performance. True, but then why does her friend gasp when she sees Nina’s bloody midsection? There appears to be something literal in her death. My impression was that she did (or was about to) physically die at the end of the ballet. I’ve often wondered if simply having Nina wait to pull out the glass shard until the end of the performance, would have resolved this practical issue. I’m no scientist, though. Perhaps, she could not have performed those dance moves with glass in her abdomen. 

Natalie Portman has apparently stated that she doesn’t believe that Nina dies at the end of the film but that she symbolically kills her inner child in order to mature as a woman. I like that idea, but I’m still confused by what appears to be literal blood, that other people can see, spreading down her tutu.

No matter. I liked the movie so much that I’m willing to suspend my disbelief in this form of human anatomy! What interests me most, assuming she’s about to die of a stab wound, is whether or not she truly finds her power at the end of the movie. My first thought, when I saw it in the theater, was yes; she attained her deepest desire: perfection that marries technique with the experience of losing herself in the moment. However, the price of this perfection is mental illness and death. As Thomas holds her hand and calls Nina his “little princess,” a name he had previously reserved for the last prima ballerina (who did not take his rejection or her retirement well) I couldn’t help but notice how puny he looked in the face of Nina’s artistic triumph. 

Again, though, I can’t help but to imagine this story with gender roles reversed: what if Nina were a man and Thomas, a woman? I just have the sneaking suspicion that, not only would Thomas (in this case, the star of the ballet) get to live, but he’d also be endowed with some sort of sexual power over Nina, despite her new role as his superior, in this imagined scenario.

Gender roles aside, I do not think America has mastered the art of balance. There seems to be quite a bit of the “do or die” mentality: overworking and indulging in ways that mask a deep fear of unworthiness. If we’re not perfect (read: popular, beautiful, talented—“the best”) then maybe we’re nothing. In that sense, I think that the end of Black Swan is a happy one. She has achieved her greatest performance and will never have to cope with inevitable decline, if not tomorrow, then in a few years time. 

This month, I offer you Nikki Giovanni’s “Balances,” a poem about the push and pull of life’s contrast. 

Balances 

In life
one is always
balancing

like we juggle our mothers
against our fathers

or one teacher
against another
(only to balance our grade average) 

3 grains of salt
to one ounce truth

our sweet black essence
or the funky honkies down the street

and lately i’ve begun wondering
if you’re trying to tell me something

we used to talk all night
and do things alone together

and i’ve begun

(as a reaction to a feeling) 
to balance
the pleasure of loneliness
against the pain
of loving you