Unsolved Mysteries

These poems are excerpted from Unsolved Mysteries (just released from Roof Books this October [https://www.spdbooks.org/Products/9781931824897/unsolved-mysteries.aspx]), a book of poems about the 1980s procedural melodrama and also other mysteries: emotional intimacy, sexuality, what happens when you die, and how to change the cruel trajectory of history.

"Unsolved Mysteries insists on the inadequacy of simply wanting what we want, how indispensable to want it insatiably anyways." --Kay Gabriel

 

Documentation

Most of the people in Unsolved Mysteries would not have very well-documented lives, were it not for their horrible deaths.

There are often a lot of family photos, and some video, and some family and friends and neighbors—but how quickly do you pass from memory? And Unsolved Mysteries remains in print, so to speak—you can access it; it will be a long time before it is gone, and the websites about it are gone, and all the remains of every person who once watched it are also gone.

Most of the episodes are about people who lived fairly un-noteworthy lives, but became noteworthy at the moments of their deaths by dying in horrible ways. What I mean to say is that, all things being equal, most of us will work and die, our deaths really registering mostly the fact that we kept doing our jobs and did not throw sand in the gears; the flow of global capital continued on our watches. We had feelings; we loved; we were sad; we loved some more; we died, with regionally- and temporally-specific accents that will soon leave the earth. With trite ideas about our families, or not. Unsolved Mysteries documents mostly the working classes, and we are otherwise sparsely documented. That is, the price the working classes can pay to be memorialized is a horrific death.

There is a book called The Art of Memory, written by Frances Yates and published in 1966. Diana came across it when she was preparing to write a review of something else; apparently all the experimental writers and artists of the 60s read this book and loved it.

I get the book, which describes a lost history of using visuals for extreme memorization, and really, for record-keeping before people had easy access to paper and print. The origin story is that a poet, Simonides of Ceos, was at a banquet performing a poem. He complimented not the host, but someone else in the poem and got into a sort of weird altercation with his host about it. Later someone wants to see him; he leaves the banquet; while he’s gone the roof caves in and kills everyone. The bodies are so mangled that they can’t be identified. BUT, Simonides remembers where people had been sitting; he is able to identify the bodies.

Later we get instructions on how to use what is described as the “places and images” method to create a memory system for ideas. You are a lawyer and wish to remember the details of a case and to create a system for it. The prosecutor has said that the defendant killed a man by poison, has charged that the motive of the crime was to gain an inheritance, and declared that there are many witnesses and accessories to this act. You need to create an image to help you begin to store this memory, Yates relays. This image is a sort of file folder, in which you’ll store more files. Your instruction:

We shall imagine the man in question as lying ill in bed, if we know him personally. If we do not know him, we shall yet take someone to be our invalid, but not a man of the lowest class, so that he may come to mind at once. And we shall place the defendant at the bedside, holding in his right hand a cup, in his left, tablets, and on the fourth finger, a ram’s testicles. In this way we can have in memory the man who was poisoned, the witnesses, and the inheritance.

The cup, Yates explains, “would remind of the poisoning, the tablets of the will or the inheritance, and the testicles of the ram through verbal similarity with TESTES—of the witnesses. The sick man is to be like the man himself, or like someone else whom we know (though not one of the anonymous lower classes).”

That is to say: the lower classes are hard to remember. In this scenario they’re not considered as a possible object of memory, and, furthermore, we cannot even be used as tools for the reader to remember something else, since the reader, presumably, literally cannot tell them apart. A man of the lower classes cannot come to mind at once.

But at the same time, we are instructed that it is common sense that it is easier to remember things that are “exceptionally base, dishonorable, unusual, great, unbelievable, or ridiculous”; we remember striking scenes from our childhoods more easily; we remember a solar eclipse more than we remember a sunrise or sunset, as those happen every day. So “we ought…to set up images of a kind that can adhere longest in the memory.” We can set up images that are exceptional; we can “ornament some of them, as with crowns or purple cloaks” or by disfiguring them, “as by introducing one stained with blood or soiled with mud or smeared with red paint, so that its form is more striking”; we can bloodstain people when we picture them, and then they are memorable.

In the scene you’re bloodstained, having just been beaten up.

That is, there is a sort of back door: you can become, at least, a metaphor to allow people to think about other things if you are lower class but smeared with blood. You can be remembered.

Better yet if you are covered in a green tarp and pinned to a railroad,

if your foot sticks out from beneath a couch, frozen, at an icy Montana garbage dump,

if you disappear over a cliff and are found impaled on the rocks below,

if you’re later found buried in the neighbor’s back yard.

So we should, I think, invert it and force the rest of the world to be a metaphor for the dead of Unsolved Mysteries: the world as a series of red stains that can help us think about the thousand or so people, I’m guessing, who appeared on the show.

For instance, if we wanted to remember Dottie Caylor, we could think of Jeff Bezos smeared with blood, lying outside of his patrol car, with the lanyard of his handgun wrapped around his ankles, handcuffs on his left wrist, the name “Robert” written on his hand, his unit’s radar cable wrapped around his neck, and a bullet wound to the head. We would picture a wide, open public space, and put this image there. We know nothing about Dottie Caylor’s life beyond her shitty husband’s account of it, so I supposed we’d be using this image of bloodied Jeff Bezos to remember the shitty account on Unsolved Mysteries. But also: Frances Yates is unambitious. If we’re going to create little fetishes for memory, I want this one to tell us more: we picture Bezos marked with red, and what it gives us, the memory it provides, is Dottie Caylor’s desires, her relationship with her pets, the feeling of her skin when she’d just moisturized it, then again when it was dry and in need of exfoliation. And whatever else she wants to tell us.

Likewise, we might construct a garish, memorable image by which to remember Kurt McFall. We picture Beverly Sackler with one part of a sweater tied around her neck and the other tied to a bar three feet above the ground; when we think of Sackler positioned like this, face strained for want of oxygen, what is returned to us are the intricacies of Kurt McFall’s Dungeons and Dragons campaigns—the names of each player-character, their stats, the plot lines he wrote as DM, the jokes he made with his friends when playing.

Or, for instance, we picture the flip-flops, chair, radio, first aid kit, and lunch of Jim Walton of the Walton family sitting on the shore, but no sign of Jim Walton. And when we picture this what is returned to us is Kari Lynn Nixon, the girl who disappeared from her neighborhood, and her crush and the sensation of eating an ice cream, her pencil on the page, and also the scent of her shampoo, grass stains on her jeans, the texture of a burger as she bites it and heat warping the air above the grill, every bit of her life; we can make a 3D printed model of it all as we envision Jim Walton’s abrupt vanishing.

And so instead of the proletariat eking our way into the archive, covered in blood, as mnemonic devices for the historical wealthy to remember the trivialities of their lives, we will use garish images of the wealthy men—not men of the lowest classes, so they will “come to mind at once”—to evoke for us our own dead.

So that, for instance, the thought of a death helps us think of the life of another.

The Bachelor Inseminator

In the 1985 documentary God’s Country, which is about a rural Minnesota farming town in 1979 and in 1985, we meet a bachelor who inseminates cows for a living.

The bachelor inseminator gives his name as Steve; we don’t know his last name. He participates in the community theater, where he plays a king of corn.

We see him as the King of Corn, bantering with a Queen of Corn. Wearing a crown. And then we see him at work, inseminating a cow. He explains what he is doing as he does it. He puts one plastic-covered hand into the cow’s anus and uses that hand to help guide a wand that he inserts just below, into the cow’s vagina. He guides the wand with the arm that is in the anus up toward the uterus, and then into each horn of the uterus, where he deposits a bull’s semen.

When we meet him again in 1985, he says that he has done this to about 65,000 cows. The filmmaker asks him if he remembers the cows, if he relates to them, and he says that he remembers the owners.

Steve is in his early 30s and single, one of the town’s most eligible bachelors, says the filmmaker. I assume maybe gay. Camping it up as the King of Corn in the community theater, then displacing his virility into the insemination of cows using a wand.

I doubt that there is a way to look up on the internet where Steve is now. He was 35 in 1985; I was 3 in 1985. Him being 32 years older than me, he’s now got to be 68 or so. He’s just a bit older than my parents; while he was inseminating cows, my dad was quitting his job landscaping and getting a job at the post office—more stable—so they could have me—and my mother was a quitting her job as a secretary at an upscale moving company so that she could stay home with me. I was fixing to enter the scene, preparing to break a crayon in half, to cry about it, to fix it with Scotch tape, to cry about the tape being on the crayon. I was steeling myself for the world’s treatment, preparing to sit in a sandbox shaped like a turtle and imagine things.

Perhaps we don’t live first as we exit our mothers’ wombs but instead in the horns of the uteruses of cows, our spirits nesting alongside cow embryos, the spirits of the calves resting elsewhere alongside a different set of human embryos. The spirit predates the embryo and the embryo takes this spirit on when it flees the host’s body. Or perhaps we return to the theory of the homunculi. Steve, the most eligible bachelor in Glencoe, uses the wand to deposit thousands of little cattle into the horns of the cow’s uteruses.

Another resident in the town confirms that it would be hard to be gay there: “you’d have to have your private life in Minneapolis or somewhere else.” In 1985, the filmmaker asks Steve if he has gotten married, like he said he might, and Steve says the plan had been pushed from 35 to 40 and he would make a decision by then. But also that the right person just hadn’t come along yet. It occurs to me now that all the most eligible bachelors through most of history must have been queer. In 1985, my brother was about to be born; I was taught how to stand on a small stool to reach the phone and dial 911 if there were an emergency while my mother was pregnant; the prospect empowered me.

If Steve is 68 and I am 36 I wonder where he is. If he stayed in Glencoe; if he is still inseminating cows; what form my body would need to take for him to feel attraction to me and how I might create a situation in which I could fuck him. If I could make myself older, perhaps more masculine or perhaps just as I am, or perhaps younger, perhaps less cellulite, perhaps more cellulite—perhaps whatever is in his porn but really perhaps whatever would make him most comfortable—I could take this form and let him lube up his fingers, I could remove my harness—constructed out of the skin of a dead cow—and he could let the harness rest on his hands as he plied me with the silicone dick, me on my knees and running my fingers inside my body, him behind handling the dildo, my fingers not at all like wands; I pull my fingers out after I cum and shove them into his mouth; I suck his cock for a bit, but when he cums it’s onto the bedding; we don’t wipe it up but let it sit there and hope it soaks through to the mattress; it’s so much cum and I fuck his face while he watches it dry up. We leave the room. We walk out. Reagan is president; I’m seventy years old; I can’t feel my face.

Ars Poetica

Maybe poems have always been about remembering and for some reason I was fighting it. Like I didn’t want to care about remembering things. I mean no one wants to read something about how one person’s life is so precious, but I do think I thought poems could be about the world and therefore not about me. And, you know, I still want that—more the world, less me, but also kind of all of me here, to haunt you and live in this book after I die. Roaming the earth and getting pulped and roaming some more.

David Berman, one of the first poets I loved, died last week and I keep reading “Self-Portrait at 28” over and over again. I wish I could write this poem as a David Berman rip-off but I can’t get in the mode. I can only note that I first read that poem when I was 21 and now I’m so much older; now I’m 37 and to think the words “Self-Portrait at 28” is something different than what it once was. I didn’t read that poem when I was 28, but I’m certain there was a moment when we all re-enacted the ending. When my voice was what filled my cat’s thoughts, as Berman’s speaker’s voice fills his dog’s thoughts in the poem:

             You see,
his mind can only hold one thought at a time
and when he looks up and cocks his head.
For a single moment
my voice is everything:
Self-portrait at 28.

The trick is that we get David Berman’s portrait through himself seeing his dog seeing him and telling it to us. For a single moment. There are some things poetry is ill-suited for, but it’s extremely good at describing the single moment. I guess that poetry can’t help but be precious then, and also that it’s always a metonym: let’s get at this moment and use it as a thumbnail for all the other moments.

The first lines of that poem are “I know it’s a bad title / but I’m giving it to myself as a gift.”

I remember first hearing the term “Ars Poetica” in poetry class, College of Charleston, circa 2002, and thinking that ars poeticas seemed like the worst because they suggested there was nothing to write about: if we’re making poems about poems instead of about the world, and the world isn’t worthy of note, and there’s no experience of a thing to point to, then why stay alive?

Whereas now I’d like art to consume as much of life as possible; if art is the katamari ball and life is all the objects in the world, the objects that have not yet been subsumed into the katamari ball are always too many and make me anxious.

Writing about memory instead of about the world makes me scared—who will read this poem, I think, I mean, who are the people I don’t think of as the readers for it but who might nonetheless see it? But I’m going to write this here—let’s make it performative, a speech act:

If you’re reading this and I should forgive something you’ve done, I forgive it. If you’re reading this and I should ask your forgiveness, I’m asking it.

I take a walk with a lover. We get bagels; we take them to Grand Army Plaza; we sit on a bench; I don’t spill anything on myself. He tells me about Mormonism and I have nothing to offer since he knows everything about Catholicism. I say that maybe we’re missing something with confession. Now people go to therapy, but therapy doesn’t involve speech acts: my therapist can help me, but she can’t forgive me. Forgiveness is pretty social.

I mean: sin exists. There is that Flannery O’Connor story in which a very young boy has barely left his house, and his grandfather, who is his caregiver, has also has barely left the house. The grandfather has been to Atlanta once and is afraid of it; they’re in rural Georgia; the grandfather agrees to catch the train with the boy and take him to Atlanta for the day. The grandfather doesn’t know how to do a lot of things outside of his normal routine; he is scared. When they’re in Atlanta, very much a big frightening city, they get lost. The young boy accidentally knocks someone over, if I’m remembering it correctly, and suddenly people are yelling at him, demanding he pay money, threatening to throw him in jail, etc. The boy is terrified. The grandfather, who had been distracted by something else and so had been walking a bit behind, sees this happening and pretends he doesn’t know the boy, even when the boy points at him and appeals to him. The grandfather, who does not have any money, walks away, leaving the boy alone with people yelling at him that he must pay. The grandfather eventually finds the boy again—he feels regret after—but that doesn’t change it, and O’Connor is so dark and brutal and good. It’s like she’s taunting us, daring us into Catholicism—you think sin doesn’t exist? Let me think of something horrific; there is no way this isn’t sin. And we nod in horror.

Men leave their wives for younger women all the time, sometimes leaving their kids as well. Even in commie circles. And every time I definitely think this is a sin.

When I left a partner, my first therapist afterward asked me if I missed my partner and when I said yes, she said, “well, he bore witness to your existence for five years,” which was true. But she also said that as though it were explanatory.

The next time I fall in love, the person I’m in love with will never remember how the cats used to crawl into a hole in the box spring of our old bed, for instance, and sleep in the box spring so that if you couldn’t find them, you’d eventually look under the bed for two weighty pockets of fabric hanging down lower than the rest, and you’d poke the fabric and find their soft heavy bodies and they’d mew and stir as you woke them.

And when I go out now with people my own age, I think wow, you’ve lived a whole life already; it’s not like you’re ever going to be able to explain it all to me.

James Baldwin just kills off Rufus, the character the narrative has thus far followed, a third of the way through Another Country. Which is a weird brutal move you can’t do in poetry either—you have to have narrative to build the protagonist. In poetry we’re ready for one moment to be special and unlike the next. In fiction we want to believe the continuity of the narrative—that’s the premise for narrative working—but it doesn’t occur to us that the narrative can still continue without the protagonist. I.e., there is a social world. For a single moment your voice is everything to someone somewhere—but that’s why it’s just a single moment.

I’m eating my bagel at Grand Army Plaza. There should be more of a concept of sin in the world, we say; we should just get what sin is right. When do you reach the age of accountability in Mormon theology? Eight. When do you reach it in Catholic theology? Seven. My lover is nine years younger than me so I’ve had ten years’ more sinning than he has, in total.

Part of me doesn’t doubt that the sins last longer than the rest of it: if, for instance, Flannery O’Connor created a story about a grandfather who sinned by forsaking his grandson, that grandfather’s sin lives longer and wider than, say, the tumbling buffalo that David Wojnarowicz dreams, since the tumbling buffalo involves no sin, and since, because it involves no sin, in or out of the frame of the dream, we want to hold it in our brains as long as we can—look, this buffalo has survived since the 80s, penetrated out of its dream world and off of Wojnarowicz’s lips and onto a tape diary and from the tape diary into a paperback book printed in many thousands of copies and from that book into my brain and from my brain into this poem, to do battle with the awful grandfather in the Flannery O’Connor story, but, god, all you feel when you read the O’Connor story is a pit of sickness in your stomach. What if you woke up so guilty; what if you’ve been so guilty and it wasn’t justified and the shame of it just hung there.

What if sin is less ephemeral than all the rest of it? I guess that must be how someone came up with the concept of Hell, which certainly must have predated Heaven.

I tell my lover that I want him to make me Mormon, and he replies that he never got to the level at which you can do that, but his brothers did.

Anything that made me Mormon would also just be a speech act. Speech act upon speech act, all to apologize.

I watch Fleabag, a show about guilt, and I cry more than other people seem to have cried when watching it. Also: the hot priest, the confessional—I feel like Twitter missed that what’s actually hot about the hot priest is the promise of forgiveness.

The metaphor is that sexuality holds out a promise of forgiveness, or of not in fact needing it—I’m supposed to need forgiveness for this sex sin, but since the rubric that dictates that is bullshit, in fact perhaps I don’t need forgiveness at all—and what calls the question is when our main character pursues the hot priest, someone who can forgive with a speech act, and winds up on her knees in a confessional booth.

And the promise of forgiveness is, perhaps, the promise of being able to love your lover rather than fucking and simultaneously spiking the camera—that is, turning to it and looking at the viewer, when previously you have not looked at the viewer—to comment on the fucking, a move that’s better than some moves and worse than others and that felt overly familiar to me as I watched the show.

Fleabag takes the camera spike trope from The Office and subsequently so many other shows—main characters turn to face the camera and address the camera cleverly and sarcastically to comment on the antics of everyone around them, of the world they’re living in—and show it for what it is. Spiking the camera is about depression. Maybe in the British office the depressive camera spike is a welcome critique of office culture: our straight man looks to us, the viewers (framed as a documentary crew), instead of those around him—don’t we all feel like this in the office, wouldn’t we all like someone who is not crazy to talk to, someone to share a glance with? Maybe in the American office, more depressingly, it’s a very un-self-conscious sort of generalized depression—humor equals a constant light mockery and distance from one’s surroundings; it’s almost like that bit in Mark Fisher, where we’re all imagining a Big Other—we think someone likes things as they are, when in fact no one does, but we constantly project onto our environment some sort of culture that everyone consents to and likes except for ourselves. Derisiveness is the only mode we can operate in, and so we get Steven Colbert and every other wry news show that is like it, too, where the world is the office. We’re all being winked at by the smartest person on the sitcom, and we get him, and he gets us, and everyone else doesn’t get it. Something about it feels very late nineties / aughts / pre-Occupy, when, finally, like Fisher predicted, a sort of veil lifted in political life and many of us saw each other there, hating the same things, and stopped looking only to the imagined viewer.

But Fleabag is different from The Office. It posits spiking the camera not as a clever default from a witty protagonist, but as a depressive symptom. Being too clever for everything around you, wanting to have a nonexistent viewer who looks at the world and helps you disengage from it through your shared cleverness. Which makes clear, maybe, that people liking the American version of The Office is pathological, and that instead you should watch Fleabag and weep for hours.

It’s the priest, the priest who’s both a real human and a person you want to fuck and also someone with the power to forgive, who can see that you’re doing something weird by addressing the camera, and can, with a lot of effort on your own part, get you to push the camera away, and eventually say goodbye to it, and then, from there, behave as if you’re in a non-self-conscious piece of art, a piece of art that isn’t meta, i.e., so that you aren’t even in art, you’re just in the world. The show ends.

I feel jealous that the screen can break it down like that, since poetry doesn’t work that way and instead all we can do here is address the audience.

When I was jogging upstate, listening to Judee Sill and looking over the Hudson at the Catskill Mountains at sunset, at the rays of light peering through the clouds up by the mountaintops, it occurred to me that maybe all of religion, or at least Judeo-Christian religion, is a really elaborate metaphor about mountains and perspective. Which seemed embarrassingly silly—like, really, all this because people were like whoa, mountains, I can see so much from up here! Someone must be up even higher! And when I’m in the valley, light comes through seemingly in proximity to the mountains! Galaxy brain. God is who can see it all at once.

It’s the notion that, for better or worse, someone has a ledger. That things aren’t in fact, moment by moment, and continually washed away, that instead everyone is held to account and somewhere we’ll be happy on account of the good things we did earlier, and elsewhere Jeff Bezos, say, and his peers will have their blood spilt eternally. Even if all of this happens only in some abstract way, just from someone looking down from just above the summit of a mountain for a very long time.

Which I guess would be some comfort. Someone, I guess, would watch the dog in David Berman’s poem, watch him hear the speaker call him. But it already doesn’t work: if God is about mountain tops, God still doesn’t have access to the full range of sensory and psychic experiences of the world.

Maybe someone watches us with the ledger, but the ledger doesn’t record much. Instead you’ve got to write the poem. David Berman writes the poem about the dog running in a field and hearing his name: for a single moment / my voice is everything / self-portrait at 28. But the dog calls back, spiking the camera, if David Berman is the camera man and I am putting myself in David Berman’s shoes. You fill the dog’s head and the dog fills yours. The reader overhears it. God looks down from a mountaintop and likes what he sees, his vision obscured by nothing but the dog’s furry head and your head, also furry.

Oh

I rewatch God’s Country again.

It’s not just the bachelor inseminator: I would also like to sleep with the pig farmer, the pig farmer who likes to work for himself. In real life I sleep with a man who tells me about his failed attempt to be an entrepreneur, something he tried because he wanted to work for himself. It humbled him, he said.

I’d like to sleep with the pig farmer in his youth, at the time of the documentary; I’d need a time travel machine to do it, and I wonder if it is even possible to find a contemporary pig farmer working under similar conditions.

The contemporary pig farmer’s life would be different; I speculate he’d be less happy and that pig farming has gotten harder.

It is probably impossible to sleep with anyone right now who has a hopeful view of the future and is not an idiot. I mean: in 1985 I bet you could sleep with many people, most people even, and the person you chose as your lover would think the world was going to keep getting better and better.

I’ll probably never fuck someone who imagines there might be benevolent aliens in space.

Or that the situation is infinite.

Or that we are small in comparison to a vastness.

Instead I’ll fuck only people aware of impending doom.

One lover likes my sweat, and I have been self-conscious of my sweat for as long as I remember. I am on top of him; he is rubbing my clit while I fuck him; I feel sweat bead on my forehead and watch it splash on his chest; he sees me notice this and begin to wipe away my sweat and says no no, put it on me, put it on me and pulls me down to rub my torso against his; our bodies are very slick.

And this is hot because sweat is hot, but it is also hot because he has changed my shame to pride via his direction.

This is no way to end this poem, which I had intended to be about space exploration.

And socialism.

And how people once thought that better forms of civilization existed elsewhere.

And that our world too could be better.

And how the passage of time means that I’ll never fuck someone with the structures of thought that people had in the 70s or 80s, at least not in their youth.

It’s a good sort of water-into-wine trick to be able to make something one had felt was unattractive attractive, and of course very useful as a corrective in the case that a lover keeps apologizing for their sweat, for instance, something so goofy that even I have always known not to do it, even before I was taught to like my sweat.

However, if I were going to be very convincingly told I’m wrong about something and have my view of it radically changed through pleasure, I’d rather that thing be my notion that there is very little hope. This task seems like one for someone from God’s Country, from the first part of the movie, which was filmed in 1979, and not from the second part, which was filmed in 1985 and chronicles how much bleaker things have gotten by the time the filmmaker returns to finish his movie.

I’m on vacation upstate, lying in bed in an AirBnB that has floor to ceiling windows covered with a sheer curtain. That is, anyone could be watching me.

I would like the 1979 pig farmer to breech my screen and step out of it, as though he were the Kool-Aid man from the same period, a giant anthropomorphic pitcher of Kool-Aid bursting through, pigs galloping behind him. “Oh yeah” is a perfectly respectable thing to say during sex; this would be all he’d need to say; he’d pour the Kool-Aid on me; it would look like blood; it’d be a single act of pouring and then I would crawl into his empty glass body and curl up in it, dreaming of what comes next.