Meanwhile the clouds are white and the sky is all blue.
Why so much God. Why not a little for men.
—Clarice Lispector Hour of the Star, translated by Benjamin Moser
WHEN I WAS PREGNANT with Arachne, before she was born and died, I walked a lot. As I walked, I listened to Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. Rebecca, that eternal bestseller, with its nameless second wife, eponymous gone-girl first wife, and the mansion, Manderley, lashed to the end of the world by a long and languorous drive. I walked on a secondhand treadmill and I walked the dog on the cold, rust-belt streets, along the comfortingly slate-colored river, dead mirror, dead river, a river like a roof, and a sky like a street, asphalt up and asphalt down. I walked through that book and I sleepwalked towards that name, Rebecca, her impossible-to-see face. You read that book and you walk toward that face, Rebecca, until you finally see it, at the book’s dead center, the night of the costume ball, midnight, that face: it is your own.
When I was pregnant, I listened to Rebecca, and then Arachne was born and died. If I could go back to Manderley, whose face would I be looking for? Arachne’s, or Rebecca’s?
I think it would be mine.
The face I cannot recognize.
In a dream, I go back to the hospital and see Arachne, her face obscured by masking tape, resting again like a baby god in a nest of snakes, which were the tubes of her own precious blood being oxygenated by an extracorporeal machine and pumped back in. Some babies live, and some babies bleed
on that therapeutic regime.
Tonight I rewatch Don’t Look Now, Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 thriller. Like the novel Rebecca, the short story “Don’t Look Now” is by Daphne du Maurier. But while Rebecca is inherently voyeuristic, the film makes the opposite gesture. It tells us don’t look, don’t look, and so directs us, with its vicious pliancy, to do just that. It announces an ever foreshortened temporality, never any longer than two words, never longer in duration than a glance over the shoulder, which makes the dreaded now arrive.
I remember the film as being about a grieving couple who go to Venice to cure the ache of their dead little daughter and are instead haunted and hunted by her there. She comes back up through the water. She comes back up the drain. That’s what I remember.
I want that. I want to go back to Manderley and drag myself up the stairs at midnight. See myself. Pull my baby up through the water from the land of the dead. To the land of the dead
down the e y e o f t h e drain.
Now the film begins, and it isn’t Venice. It’s a puddle or ditch, blue-filtered, day-for-night, into which a relentless blue rain is pelting. It’s Hollywood rain into the world’s eye. Vision goes into it and cannot bounce out. It’s where all the girls have gone. They know: the only way out is down.
Now the little girl in her “shiny red plastic mac,” her hair a white-and-gold battle flag. She is surprisingly warlike, clutches a doll-soldier, conducts an onslaught all alone. After commanding herself to “fall in,” she does just that—tosses a red ball like an enucleated bomb and falls into the eye of the pond and disappears.
And now the parents appear, played by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. Alike and fantastically slim, becurled and wasp-waisted, they prowl and lounge restlessly in their house like emaciated seventies big cats, knocking over glasses and losing things. I feel a kind of vertigo watching them move toward their own, that is, our, fate. I say to ourselves:
Don’t look now.
And then they lose her, and they become despicable to me, because they are like me, despicable, as I am to myself, who lost my daughter, and in my mind I address them as you, which is the name I use for myself in the mirror where I heap up all my blame.
For you is a double-bladed pronoun: at once singular, sharp as a dart, and plural enough for all our blame.
It’s a very biblical question, who is to blame. It feels all over Don’t Look Now, though it is only articulated in one ludicrously brief scene, when Julie Christie blithely points out that Donald Sutherland thought it was fine for the little girl to play by the drainage ditch. It’s a passing comment on her way to another point, but for me it’s the knife blade that collapses my lung, every day of my life. So many points of blame. You, and you. But then again, I have to remember it was Arachne with the collapsed and damaged lungs, not me, and I have to blame myself for my pre-Copernican instincts, placing myself at the center of the damage system all the time.
Back to the film. Your little girl is drowned. But you seventies parents are locked in your now, preoccupied—you (he) with your work, you (she) with your books, you with smoking, you with a fiddly slide projector, you scoping the slide of a stained-glass window depicting the risen Christ. He allures and alarms in his floating red cloak. For red is the color Christ wears when he returns to earth to do battle with/for his people. Petulant, warlike. So it is foretold:
I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment. (Isaiah 63:3)
But Jesus isn’t alone. When you peer closer at the slide, you glimpse the little red-hooded figure tucked in the crook of the pew. A glass spills, and now a lick of blood whorls across the slide, answering his incarnadine mantle. And you know by this sign that the worst that can happen, has happened.
For you (he) are pregnant with second sight.
Out through the introitus of the house you fly. Your baby’s drowned, gone down the waterslide, to the underworld, to come up at Venice, that most watery of cities and climes. She wears red for battle. Not Christ, but Christlike, bloodthirsty, all wound, a mad lamb with contagious blood, as reflected in her adjectival name—Christine.
Remarkable about this opening sequence: you have seen the film before, but you can’t remember its sequencing. You don’t remember if Christine’s fall is happening in real time or dream or retrospect. Is it the first or ninety-ninth time you (he) stagger from the pond with the little body in your arms, your maw and mane wild, your eyes rolling terribly as a lion’s or Titan’s, heaving toward the house, toward the moment you will catch your (her mother’s) eye, and you (she) will take into your eye the full round globe of this disaster.
Like the angels at the Lamentation, who squeeze their eyes shut or ball their fists in their eyes at the chapel at Padua, even as they are suspended like flies in an azure eyeball: no one gets to unsee this
horror movie in which the horror happens in the film’s first frames
and the only solution is to be a solution: to dissolve; to go down the drain. Rise on the gorge of the eye of the drain.
(Go back and die in her place.)
Plot, plot, the rush to Venice in the rain, the dangling from ropes. One meal is set but crashes to the ground. In contrast to du Maurier’s short story, in which the opening scene, the titular phrase, and a critical encounter all take place over heavy tourists’ meals, the film is anorexic, meal-free, so the main characters must devour themselves, even down to their cardiac tissue, down to their red, red hearts. The camera helps this along by looking/licking with ravenous eyes. You (male) are a church restorer, and, as you explain to the bishop, gesturing to the drizzle, “acidity is ruining all the adhesives.” The acidic mouth of the rain is eating the face of the church. The solution is a new mastic, a strange word repeated in the mouth of the film, mastic, an adhesive, to be applied to the exterior of the church.
What else, what else, in Venice? You meet conventionally appropriate psychic sisters, one of whom is conventionally second-sighted though blind. They tell you Christine is with you in Venice, that she is happy but wants you to leave. Under the friendly barrage of their visions, you each wear a helmet of big blonde tarnished curls. Big seventies hair like the golden fleece marking you for further sacrifice. A gamut of coats, each fit more closely than the last. But as you grow thinner and thinner, like figures in stained glass, it seems to me that rather than having psychology you represent having psychology, like Adam and Eve after the fall.
The grieving are always asked to reflect on their grief, to self-surveil, to dredge insight from their interiors up their throats through their mouths to the air, where it turns red. When in the film you (female) finally produce this required specimen, the camera seems impatient. Rather than composing the typical close-up, signaling bona fide interiority, the camera shoots you (plural) hurrying across a cold courtyard in longshot, your would-be confession in voiceover. It’s as if this utterance is a curbstone which must be clambered over to reach the next part of the plot:
I’ve been trying to hang onto myself
To get rid of this emptiness
That’s been upon me like some pain
And now with the help of these two women
I’ve finally discovered how!
What should appear to arise de profundis, to be summoned out of the depth of a grieving mother’s soul, feels strangely chilly, thin, rushed and idiomatically strained—“that’s been upon me like some pain” is not natural English speech. The lines issue in what sounds like Julie Christie’s voice, but from no particular body. It’s as if you (she)—or the film—does not want to provide the spiritual nourishment of reflective, learned experience. It does not want to palliate or make useful the antic intensity of this pain. Instead it wants to rush to the séance. It wants the world (or the film) to end. It wants to see Christine.
But don’t look now, don’t look now, or it really will end, my darlings! The worst that can happen happened in the first few frames, so it’s hardly hard to die now, in a Venice of lugubrious grief, grief-lagoon. And the film wants to get you there, but also delay (that’s genre for you), sending you out in your humidity-curled hair and tweeds and belted trench, with your oxygen badge of life aboveground, the red God wears when he comes back to do battle, the red of his little minion, mignonette, lump-of-love, Christine. The red wants to jump right out of your skin. You’ve got to give that up if you want to go under—the red, I mean.
But what can you buy with your life? With these notorious tourist markups, what’s it worth?
On her way to the séance, you (she) says to you (he):
You said you’d give your life in exchange for hers.
Well you can’t.
It slips by with characteristic inattention on the part of the camera, but it’s the coldest line in the film. The dead girl is priceless. Her loss is an absolute loss. Your own death isn’t good enough to buy her back.
But maybe it feels good to admit it. Because now, zeroed out, you’re like a ghost, or a molecule, and you can go anywhere. You can go all over Venice. And now you get what you want.
You’ve emptied your wallet of pragmatism. You’re a bit giddy, and you believe you can meet your fate by staying in Venice and by the power of sight—like looking into a portrait at twelve midnight, when it becomes a mirror.
As you admit to the dark-haired priest:
I wish I didn’t have to believe in prophecies.
But I wish I didn’t have to.
From there it’s a series of tawdry cuts until the blood-red banner unfurls (in victory) from your neck, red, an enucleated battle red indicating the exit.
The name of this film in Italian: A Venezia… Un dicembre rosa shocking
…a shocking December red.
To begin again in December. You, plural. Begin again.
And then I’m swept into another film, this time a documentary, One More Time with Feeling, following the singer Nick Cave during the making of Skeleton Tree, an album written before but recorded after the falling death of his fifteen-year-old son, Arthur. An English sentence like the one I’ve just typed attempts to map everything, constellates nouns and verbs like stars, the syntax providing the white connecting lines that arrange the stars into tragic pictures: cause, effect, subject, object, appositive, equivalent, before, after. The English sentence only moves forward. Run it backward and all meaning falls apart. Compared with other languages I’ve encountered as a publisher of translation, English can only tolerate the merest fingernail’s width of temporal delay, of logical uncertainty, the time it takes to glance from one noun or verb to the next in the line, before our sense of the world falls apart.
Take your eyes off the plot of the sentence moving forward and your world falls apart.
This is why people in grief are always told to keep moving forward, to have something to look forward to.
Don’t look down, and don’t look now.
The English sentence works this way, but trauma does not; it either scribbles over the map with paranoiac hypergraphia or smashes all those white lines away, cause and effect, before and after, like and like, so that the stars just hang there, beaming and smarting, the disarticulated stars, of whom no account can be made.
It reminds me of an inexplicable moment in Don’t Look Now. Lost at night on the canals of Venice, having just caught his first glimpse of the red-hooded pixie, you, Donald Sutherland, inexplicably remark—
It’s okay, I’ve found the real world.
This remark garners no response. It cannot become part of human exchange. It has the ring of last words, the confidence of a dying saint who glimpses heaven. It is spoken out of time.
Your actual last words are: wait, wait.
To resume: “One More Time with Feeling follows the singer Nick Cave during the making of Skeleton Tree, an album written before but recorded after the falling death of his fifteen-year-old son, Arthur.” Unlike my sentence summary, in One More Time, trauma’s disorderly sentence deranges the form of the documentary itself. It is a film that can’t begin; an opening interview is disrupted by a technological breakdown; Cave is filmed dressing to leave for the studio, then called back and made to undress, re-dress, and leave again. “We need an exit,” the director remarks, but can’t find one. The technology continually introduces lags into the production, gums up the works. This disorderly form echoes Cave’s description of the recent decomposition of narrative in his own work—
I just feel that to do, uh, a fractured narrative, uh, a thing where time is actually compressed, uh, events, uh, stuck on top of other events, there’s no particular logic to it, um…or a distressing kind of logic? Makes it, um, much more real? And true to the way I feel about things.
Here not only is narrative disarranged, but the sentence with which Cave might relate that disarrangement is also in disarray. In dialogue with an unseen interlocutor, uhs and ums press through the sentence, imbuing it with a non-semantic material somehow thicker and more instrumental than empty air. It’s sticky, congealed, disarticulated stuff. It is disarticulation itself, another thing the mouth does to the face, coming out from under, distressing, and not obeying the injunction to move forward, a kind of inarticulateness that draws a ring around the word events: “uh, events, uh.” Throughout the film, the phrases “what happened” and “the events” are the euphemisms Cave and his wife use for the very recent death of their son, the open phrase and blanked-out, plural noun ironically multiplying and amplifying the event of his death as trauma does: “uh, events, uh, stuck on top of other events.”
Trauma, uh, it’s mastic.
Throughout the film Cave tries to articulate this inarticulable sense of something else pushing through, against all the film’s digital articulations and lyric specificities. He reveals that his wife is superstitious about his music, considers it prophetic, that it has foretold their misery. He disagrees, but then suggests that the prophetic power lies not in the bloody, indelible images of his lyrics, where each god/man in battle mode continually raises his “red right hand,” but in their tone—“a certain element of anxiety and dread and anguish… So they foretell, uh, they can foretell, um, certain events.” The indeterminacy of tone, mood, atmosphere becomes a pressing, determining force, an inarticulacy that nonetheless foretells the most dire of events.
That’s why, in Venice, your unguarded, relieved statement, It’s okay. I’ve found the real world, jars so. Because where is this relief coming from? What does it refer to? It doesn’t refer. It just is. Like the light on a saint’s face, or the smile Jesus wears as he pulls on his battle robe.
After Arachne died, I had a recovered memory of her father smiling at me with relief from just above my angle of vision. I couldn’t place it in the sequence of events. When, in those thirteen days, would he have expressed relief like that, been lit up with such a beatific smile. It’s okay. After several days I placed it. I was lying on my back. It was the delivery suite. I was immobilized. We were bathed in operating lights. The baby made one half-cry like a cat. He smiled. We waited. But she never cried again.
Cave’s persistence as a visual icon comes from his ability to play every part in turn: not Adam, but the devil. Not the devil, but the preacher. Not the preacher but the sinner. Not the sinner but God. He dances like a strip-club Chaplin. Every incarnation looks the same and is the manifestation of the black material of his voice. Unwholesome. In Once More, which captures the recording of an album and so sets out to synch voice to image, Cave’s voice becomes unhinged, somehow unhooks from his body and goes roaming under and over the film, producing vocal tracks not captured on the album, issuing from no body on the screen. These spoken-word sequences, like the villanelle “There Is More Paradise in Hell Than We’ve Been Told” and the disarticulated pantoum “Steve McQueen,” unfurl on a petroleate tide. In “McQueen,” a Luciferean speaker exhaustively enlarges then reduces himself, as if to smithereen himself or smite himself out of being: “I’m a housefly called God and I don’t give a fuck… I’m Steve McQueen… I’m the Burj-al-McQueen,” but really I live inside my typewriter where “I tell my housefly not to cry / my housefly tells me not to die.” No creature could survive this many inflations and obliterations. Except the universe, maybe. Cave’s voice wants to de-create. Then try to pray.
God is great, chances are.
God is good.
Well, I wouldn’t go that far.
Or is it:
God is great.
Chances are, God is good.
Well, I wouldn’t go that far.
With that the soliloquy of the self-harming gunslinger, at once a tower and tear in a housefly’s eye, goes flat, becomes a dialogue of two slender saints, as in the gold mosaic of a wall, immobilized by grief, in pieces, smashed, faces outward with fingers upraised. Knocked out of my pluralized audiencehood, I feel directly addressed. And I answer in my Venice-voice:
I wish I didn’t believe these prophecies,
But I do.
Wish I didn’t have to believe it, but I
Arachne lived thirteen days. Was God good (to me)? Well, maybe. I spend many months thinking about her different deaths that could have occurred, earlier or later, trying to weigh up which would have been worse. It doesn’t occur to me to imagine that she lives, or is born without her defect. That hope is too massive to swallow or lift. Instead, I, like a housefly, and a housewife, rub my little hands together and try to say a little prayer. To make myself feel better. It goes: at least, at least. But it doesn’t work. I can’t be grateful. I can’t go that far. I can’t complete the sentence in a way that I believe.
The best death of all would have been: mine. Me.
I tell my housewife not to cry. My housewife tells me not to die.
No, I got that wrong. He says housefly, housefly.
In one of the most painful scenes of the film, Cave confides, “It happened to us. But of course it happened to him.”
This is choked out around many face rubs, dropped gazes and divagations. Meanwhile, outside the window, the wrought-iron fence, black as any prophet’s brow, points repeatedly at the sky.
(((You said you would give your life in exchange for hers. Well, you can’t.)))
is somehow the hardest
(ad + mittere—to send to
like fan mail, or to take in
to the hospital)
like cleave and cleave
can go both ways
Send it out
through the mail slit
in your throat
called the mouth.
The throat is there
To move the red around.
Arachne’s blood snaked around incorporeal
exsanguination of a baby-saint
it hung in the air in plastic sheathes.
Like a palm held up to a flashlight
God’s battle glow
Like at her death she was
in all that
useless unasked for
On balance, it must have been written in the stars, that the molecules that made her diaphragm would knit wrongly so that at birth she could not draw a breath we call that a birth defect because it emerges with the child negatively prodigious as the child passes through the introitus the throat of the canal and the introitus is the music that plays as the priest arranges his things this mistake is deranging is plural has duration is infinitesimal both huge and small like everything related to the stars I want to lift my painstirrer up and disturb their bright array was it for this that five-one-hundredths-of-one-percent chance opened the cosmic gate
I want to dissolve
in this pain
these paint-can stars
this fake tomato soup
(Diner: What is this housefly doing in my soup? Waiter: Looks like the backstroke.)
(Housefly: What am I doing here in the soup?)
(Waiter: I want to die
And I want to go to Man-der-lie.)
How to live past thirteen days:
Quoth my Tiresias, Nick Cave:
Every time I try to articulate it, it just…it just…does the whole…does him a disservice. That’s what it feels like to me. It happened to us but it happened to him. Um, and that’s, um, like the day or night and around that time, um, it’s like this place, um, you just don’t want to go—the rest of the time, it’s okay.
And I feel like that means: all the time.
It’s okay, except for all the time.
The day and the night and around that time.
Covering every time zone
In the second-grade textbook
like a canny black fly
rides on the second hand
of the secondhand clock.
I want this clock
I want to exchange my life for hers.
I don’t want to survive her and I don’t want to survive.
We become foster parents, and our first charge is to go pick up a little needful baby at the same hospital where she died.
We take the same route down.
We drive exactly the same way through the brittle countryside
at exactly the same time of year.
It is always around that time
of what happened and never another time.
And it took three hours, that afternoon, a very suggestive time!
And at the rest stop my insides jumped out of my guts
And back on the road, the setting sun
Showed red through the trees
It bears its battle colors
As it weaves through the stents of the sky
Like when you hold a lit flashlight to your palm or
When you’re Christ or Christlike
As I reclined
in the passenger seat
with Luciferean ease
I thought—At last.
In my chariot of red
In my lariat of red
Lashed by the neck
To the oxygen machine
Christ bought for us to wear
On holidays and when he’s coming back
To lift his red right hand
and march us back
to paradise. All his child soldiers.
And I thought:
I’m going back to the hospital!
Joyelle McSweeney is the author of many books of poetry, fiction, essays, and plays, most recently Toxicon and Arachne (Nightboat) and The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, Occults (Michigan Poets on Poetry). She edits the international press Action Books and teaches at the University of Notre Dame.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.