2016 Contest: Nonfiction Runner-up THE FUTURE OF THE LYING BODY by Sarah Cook
Sarah Cook’s writing has appeared in Illuminati Girl Gang, Gaga Stigmata, The Feminist Wire, and elsewhere. Her latest chapbook, “Somewhere the / Shaking,” is newly out from above/ground press. She writes at freelancefeminist.com, eats a lot of rice, and dreams of writing the “Before and After” puzzles on Wheel of Fortune.
2016 nonfiction judge T Clutch Fleischmann selected Sarah Cook as the nonfiction runner-up for the essay, “The Future of the Lying Body.” Fleischmann says:
“is it the burden of the writer to confuse bodies with their words?” the essay “The Future of the Lying Body: Overly Attached to Language” asks early on. An honest question, and one of several that drive it forward. There is a paradox at the core of writing about the body–that it evades language, that words and embodiment have different chronologies and lifespans to them. Rather than balk at these problems, “Future of the Lying Body” uses its own inventive forms and stark voice to go more fully into them. “What does it mean to just shut up already about my future body & be a body now,” it asks, and in response continues to write, to find its beautiful “birdknowing.”
The Future of the Lying Body, Overly Attached to Language:
a response to girlfriend and guy 1
- 1. Start with a safe presumption: how all bodies renovate, are renovated.
- 1.1 In other words, bodies make and are made.
- 2. However, the female body is stuck within a double bind: her body is crazed from both sides. First she is crazy for not becoming a body, or rather, not a better one. She is unfinished, lazy, dismissible. Second, she is crazy for trying to become a body: for playing with appearance, for building a trajectory of the self and then, not so effortlessly, hurtling her body toward such.2
- 2.1 The delicate balance of caring about appearance without appearing to care.
- 2.2 Are we obligated to care about what our bodies become while quietly ignoring the history of such becoming?
- 2.3 How we categorize the body’s efforts: only certain actions, certain performances, are acknowledged as real work, as a condition of the “L” word.3
- 2.3.1 A body sitting still cannot be truly said to be doing anything.
- 2.3.2 I have never seen a body sitting still.
despite the confidence of my gait, i’m not really sure where to start. i’ve thought about you in the oddest of moments, have wondered repeatedly about the process of a girl making up herself, to be ready for engagement, that perfect balance between stance and pliancy. my body is on the ground. my body can roll at a moment’s notice. for example: when the music starts.
perhaps the years i spent watching romantic television shows at an age where my consumption preceded my comprehension dictated the shapes i thought knowledge came in. i knew for many years that makeup was to be applied with care, that friendship formations were structured around one-to-one romantic ratios, that subliminal messaging was a real thing you could still joke about.
dear Gaga: have you ever been one-to-one anything? do you remember if you were a Zach girl or a Slater girl? did you root for Screech and Lisa or was the comic mishap of their unrequited teenage fixation enough to leave you feeling satisfied or at least distracted? did you dream of growing up and having lots of babies?
neither did i. but it was fun to consider a name rolling off my tongue for the first time, as if creation could be matched by a warm bundle of new words. baby zach, baby kelly. & to learn about forever while young enough for the word to sound perpetually new. the vector of my habits—small baby getting bigger.
but you, Gaga, you model impermanence through repetition, i knew this about you even in pre-language, a knowing that radiated from my chest down to the barely-grounded soles of my feet. we’re not just born; we’re born this way, and that way, and this way, again and again, differently.
what an embarrassing place to start. this body, these words.
- 3. The body wants to be real but the body wants to be real in this. exact. moment.
- 3.1 To be one’s real self takes work and, accordingly, time.
- 3.2 Women don’t just inherit cyclical time, aren’t just born into the stream of female recursivity; they depend on it and therefore construct their perceptions within it, channeling that inward cyclical perception into an outward appearance—I circle myself within the company of others. Such repetition lends to the appearance of sitting still.4
- 3.3 That is to say, women are good at messing up the inward/outward boundary, have a propensity toward grand embarrassment—which, if you think about it, is always constituted by some disruption of boundaries: when something inside accidentally gets out, or when something outside gets in. The female body is required to keep things neatly compartmentalized and, should she turn things inside out, risks being seen through one of many qualifiers: hysterical; paranoid; overly attached; too feminine; too masculine; gross; sentimental; on her period.
- 3.3.1 A woman is always either on her period or not on her period; either way something is happening or recently happened or is about to happen (repetition disguised as monument).
- 3.3.2 Women cross their legs to hide everything that is happening down there.
- 3.4 It’s language which lets us discuss variations of time, what counts as real and, likewise, impossible. 5
- 3.4.1 We make things up in language; likewise, we make up our bodies.
- 3.4.2 It’s one thing to talk of the impossible, but it’s another thing entirely when the living counterpart of language graces your body with its presence.
- 3.4.3 I mean the impossible body faces something entirely different than impossible language. When someone says, you’re not making sense, they’re never talking about your arms, your face, your stomach.
- 3.4.4 When your body parts stop making sense—or risk having never made sense to begin with—you face a difficulty beyond language, though still demarcated by such.
- 3.4.5 I mean it takes language to say, what’s wrong with your body?
- 3.5 The body exists either in time or before/without it; but regardless of how you count the days forward, you are still a body until you are not, until you simply disappear.
- 3.6 To disappear is always a metaphor, until it is not.
one time i had a bird, Gaga. she’d been kept unwell and then was given to me, and so our commonality began. i learned of the dangers involved in keeping her in a too-small cage, so i got her a bigger one. i learned that she needed patience when trying to coax her out of her smaller-turned-bigger cage. but after a life spent mostly navigating too-small spaces, it was difficult for her to come out. she couldn’t easily move from confinement toward expansion. it was a transition and i had to give her time, i had to be patient with this bird. once she gathered enough courage to come out, she still had to learn to fly. just having wings wasn’t enough: she had to learn how to move her body without the pressures of restriction surrounding it. her wings had to become acquainted with this new density of air, with the ability to roam. with the sound and weight of a body that moves with less and less around it tightly.
i remember the day she died. i was eating spaghetti—did you know that i am also Italian, Gaga? only on my mother’s side, though that blood is full and roiling. my mother doesn’t speak Italian and neither do i.
my mother has never dyed her hair. my mother loses herself in a million others who rely on her at work, and this keeps her happily distracted.
she was just lying sideways on the floor of her cage. i never finished eating.
i am learning how to reintegrate things, Gaga, and it is a slow and uneasy process. it is a plate of cold food in my lap, my head looking from one side of me to the other, back and forth, inscrutably slow.
4. The ideal body is both interesting and unkillable6, gestures toward the occult without being subsumed by it, sheds light into the basement of the tenured heart. The anchored face of my body-shape. In this instance, face is just a metaphor.
my first memory of Gaga is a kind of non-memory: an inability to recognize what she looked like, specifically her face. as if i’d never seen it before. as if the makeup/outfits/fireworks had always been a kind of mask: and so i had never seen her eyes (deep, dark), her nose (bold), her teeth (beautiful). Gaga, it took me so long to really know what you looked like, to be able to spot you in a crowd.
my first memory of my own face is non-existent. to this day, a strange fear of not being recognized pervades me as i shop for groceries, walk down the street, return anywhere.
- 5. Too often, the body becomes not unkillable but unlikeable, a consequence of the silk shadow of the female ideal. This in relation to other bodies, in the form of coupling (inclusion, exclusion).
- 5.1 Here is where the mind must begin its interrogation of the body:
- 5.1.1 How can I be in control of my own happiness, separate from anyone else, from every single other body?7
- 5.1.2 How can I remain stable outside those moments of (usually at least partially sexual) intimacy with another (re: self-validation & self-permission)?
- 5.1.3 How can I be alone I mean utterly alone for one day?
- 5.1.4 “How” is not why is life so? but how can I reclaim my agency?
- 5.1.5 How does anxiety over the future body come into play here?
- 5.1 Here is where the mind must begin its interrogation of the body:
i’ve learned that birds, perhaps as a biological evolution of some instinct toward survival, as some mask to ward off prey who know the innate desire called taking advantage, hide their illnesses well. it is hard, from our human perspective, to recognize that a problem exists, that something might be happening on the inside.
& suddenly, sometimes, all these things come together at once: birds, nests, writers referencing each other. flight, theft, a body thrashing forward, a body concealing things as a gesture of strength, a body concealing things as a result of oppression. a body confusing one for the other. is it the burden of the writer to confuse bodies with their words? is it our last instinct toward
synchronicity. binary. aviary. ovarian.
it’s an old story, still undoing itself. the words disintegrate, or they get soft, or they break.
space expands before my very eyes. my body, good at being small, thrashes regardless.
- 6. The future body is just a way of talking about coupling (inclusion, exclusion). But the female body, pushed up against such outside, systematic manufacturing, has her own ideas: wants to stop considering the future of her own trembling gait. Wants to deconstruct the appearance of “love” and “insanity” within the same sentence. Wants to consider future from a gender neutral perspective. Grew up being talked to about obsession and watched it blossom in her home space over and over again and because of this realized that to be overly obsessed is both to blossom repeatedly and to remain a dead seed of an idea. The ultimate confusion: unhealthy things that look so beautiful (homes, behaviors).
- 6.1 Are the future body and the female body at odds? (repetition disguised as monument.)
- 6.2 The future body, like the past body, matters most when other bodies are involved. When it is truly just the self which you are contemplating in retrospect or in conjecture, time is negligible and what you’re really concerned with is the present. How your old body shapes your current one, how your current body informs its own becoming.
- 6.2.1 Does the cyclical female body therefore include the past female body, the future female body?
- 6.3 In fact, I say “future” and I don’t mean tomorrow or something out of reach but the present moment of becoming. “Future” is only accessed through language but the body I am talking about means something outside the space of language. For this reason, “future” is an insufficient word.
- 6.4 What does it mean to just shut up already about my future body & be a body now? To let myself be this body, untethered from the restraint of a linear story.
- 6.5 “This” doesn’t necessarily mean just one thing. You have to allow multiplicity a space within your brain, have to really commit it to your full somatic knowing. A process that involves repetition and intention and empathy.
Gaga, you talk about the city and i think of my own existence within it. i look at the intention on the faces of the people i see, emphatically walking down the street. i consider your face and my newfound recognition of it. what does intention look like on the face of a female rockstar? of course, it’s you. but i can’t even see my own face as it is, let alone when i’m in the city.
i sit here and drink this coffee. think about these words only seconds before i say them. i see how accidental all of my actions are. i see the accident of this cup of coffee, and the way my hand does or does not grasp the handle in still moments of non-consumption. i quietly talk to the person in front of me and even these interactions are unintentional and yet somehow so predictable. i can’t imagine meaning to walk somewhere, meaning to move into a predesignated space. to know where i’m going, in the city, with a face that knows too.
i think maybe to exist in the city is to always assume you know what you’re doing. but i’m so bad at assuming i know what i’m doing, let alone what i intend.
i’d like to just worry about the future when it gets here, but i’m stuck negotiating with myself in this very moment—which threatens, repeatedly, to become another one (i lean forward even as i say this to you now).
i accidentally take another sip of coffee, imagining the weight of so many shopping bags as i feel the caffeine entering my bloodstream, my lungs. the images fill my breath and even this is a terrible accident.
- 7. What is the difference between lying and fiction?
- 7.1 Who even gives me permission to ask this?
am i the bird? am i the nest? am i the eggs? am i the seeds? am i the shreds? am i the parts? am i the flight? am i the weight?
- 8. “English is capable of defining sentiments that the human nervous system is quite incapable of experiencing.”8
- 8.1 Who is it that said, men create, women lie?
- 8.2 What about the phrase, manmade?
- 8.3 What does this mean for the way we discuss our experiences, especially as women? Men create what they desire, while women are always only conjecturing, fibbing, pretending: we experience, I mean we live especially through language and derive our sense of possibility through play, through dress-up: we dress up but remain, fundamentally, the thing beneath.
- 8.3.1 Is language the thing on top or the thing beneath? Is the answer a gendered one?
- 8.3.2 “I don’t need to be on top / to know I’m worth it / ‘cause I’m strong enough to know the truth.”9
- 8.3.3 In this case, the thing beneath is just a girl, but even “girl” is an invention, a production.
- 8.4 What if we make up the body and the effort and the hurtling, regardless of gender? What if beneath the clothes and the makeup and the performance there is nothing?
- 8.5 If we live primarily through language but are most often relegated to or accessed through our bodies, where do we even exist?
i think about my early knowledge of you, Gaga, of who you were: someone with contradictory body parts; with smoke billowing around the dark edges of your face, a medusa-like wig planted on you, which i felt curiously impelled to look at but never could in full.
i can’t pretend to know you outside my own experience of you, Gaga.
you’ve embarrassed the edges of your body by pretending to pull your insides out and wearing them into the gross, demanding space of public consumption, and even then some people could barely consume you. you own your proportions, Gaga, and portion yourself accordingly, you and your plant-life, geometric-life, communal flesh. you don’t stay seen, and i think this is your intention: to blossom outward daily in the shifting female architecture that is your body-space. i ache at the sight of such harsh lines, such incoherent limbs. such hurtling & throbbing across the stage, as if time and space are not always constructed in opposition of you. i see your teeth & your eyebrows & i can’t unlearn the urgent sense of female pain.
- 9. Despite this slow meandering down the page, I mean to be writing a poetics of urgency: like the urgent, immediate sense of pain, the clarity of our wounds: it is a pressing, easy truth. In moments of intense hurting it is so easy to prefer simplicity over reality.
- 9.1 What is the reality of pain? For a woman?
- 9.2 “The general outline goes something like this: girl gets her period; girl gets scared; girl gets mocked. Girl’s mother never told her she was going to bleed…Girl gets; girl gets; girl gets.”10
- 9.3 This is, again, a language problem. We say the following things: we get sick, get hurt, get revenge. We get angry. Get reprimanded. We come to have or hold or receive: the marriage of object and ownership. But elsewhere we talk of becoming: we become more fully ourselves, become comfortable, become content. We become rockstars, become women. The difference is between achieving and beginning. To strive for a life not of attainment but growth. Not a static identity but a process. Is female pain relegated to a space of static entity: a pain that grows but only ever gets to be what it already is: difficult; too much; unrewarded? An unnecessary object. Get off of me. When a woman is emotionally involved with a man, who risks the greater amount of pain? I’m talking about the difference between object and being. How to no longer relegate pain to all of womanhood; no, how to no longer relegate women to a space delineated by its possibility for being pierced.
when you pierce me with your music, Gaga, i become aware of all that i risk on a daily basis, that which i have learned to overlook or tolerate, the sense of being a woman in constant debt.
but i feel that i owe you nothing, and it’s this reciprocal relationship which constitutes for me a sheltered space, a place reinforced by its own movement, its irrepressible growth.
what about the body that knows a feeling, an experience, a sensation mid-flight, which language is quite incapable of capturing? i mean the birdbody which simply doesn’t fit inside even the largest, most well-constructed of sentences. open yet contained.
- 10. The female body, in some cases, starts over from a clean slate, where the act of cleaning, of purging, is also the act of becoming. The body is (un)becoming, and so the process has begun.
- 10.1 A body unbecoming through its strange use of words.
- 10.2 She might even need to uncouple from herself.
- 10.3 Language can also facilitate new avenues of experience, when the body pushes back against the boundaries of what can be said but keeps saying.
- 10.4 Wait, where did the ground go?
Gaga, in your music video you do all the things and you are filled with intention: the blood of Gandi, Jesus, Michael Jackson. you are funny and cute, you and your angry housewife squad, you rebirth yourself and become the patron saint of feathers and fun. you are both guy and girl and i know it’s a bit of a wink, you taking charge of your power via shoulder pads and crotch-grabbing and the general claim of power through your manliness. it is exactly such lying, such creation, that tells us everything and nothing about your sexuality, about your gender. i watch you and forget that a difference exists or matters.
what does it mean to be the girl if the G.I.R.L. is also the guy you are romancing? to be the guy in this context is then also to be the girl. i think you’re telling me that you want to be the guy under himself, or rather, girl beneath girl: you play both parts. it becomes a romantic story of self-love, don’t you think?
i have to assume that you love yourself so, so much, Gaga, what does it feel like to stop waiting?
- 11. The body lies in wait but the female body mostly just lies and then mostly just waits.
- 11.1 Waiting for: redemption; photo shoots; requited intensity; a pure state of being clean; more fluff, more fun, more frequency; her feelings of longing to go away; a chance to lie in a way that is really, truly meaningful; her feelings of longing to return.
- 11.2 Self-longing.
- 11.3 Lying just means we’re in control of our language; similarly, I want to control my body, but it’s taken me longer to figure that out. To learn the difference between lying about my body versus with it, to see “intention” and hear, echoing in the background, invention. Not to control the situations around me, nor to bend myself through the doorframe of what I must or should do, but to invent the self and then perform the self until it is reflected back to me through my surroundings, which will then bend and shape around the space of my body moving through.
- 11.4 “You have to tell a lie that is so wonderful that your fans make it come true.”11
- 11.5 To perform the act of caring about the self until it is ingrained in the natural habitat called being a woman.
i listen repeatedly to your lyrics, Gaga. someone will be wearing makeup and someone will be wearing a tie, but mostly i just look into your face and see the ability to misplace all the intentions i could one day muster, the ability to take “control of this love (of this love).”
i pretend your name is also an acronym: you are the Girl And Guy And. you are practically too much.
12. To figure out: the body. To figure out: the desire for control. Self-control: the shape of self-care, stuffed unintentionally into the guise of melodrama. The guise of difficulty, of selfishness. The body turns to her own reflection in a spectacular moment of rebirth, jewel-encrusted, blood-letting, her hands hovering so as to articulate power and intimacy. Queue dance scene.
the control is not even in the necktie, or the top, but the command: “touch me.” you said you would hug your dancers in lieu of hugging every single person in the crowd, but sometimes i wonder if you really just want each and every single one of us on top of you, Gaga, if the safe space of the room and you, climbing over the stairs and into different outfits, and our gaze—surely i have not stopped gazing since my first moment of recognition—as if i have mounted you in my own personal accident.
13. Some people ask me, why the body?, but I keep saying, what else is there? As if my body doesn’t pierce the air with every question. As if recognition is enough.
which comes first: body or cage?
birdknowing, or the mind urging its body to catch up?
1. The music video consistently referenced is Lady Gaga’s “G.U.Y.” The idea of two intersecting narratives—both of which complicate the critical/creative divide in different ways—is especially informed by Juliana Spahr’s “Spiderwasp.”↩
2. Effort is so unflattering on a woman’s body.↩
3. Either “labor” or “love,” but never both at once.↩
4. See Kristeva’s essay, “Women’s Time,” and/or any Wile E. Coyote cartoon.↩
5. Channeling George Steiner’s After Babel.↩
6. Some language taken from Joyelle McSweeney’s “Future No Future.”↩
7. I am indebted to Hannah Black’s “You Are Too Much” for making me feel so uncomfortable that I couldn’t not write through that discomfort.↩
8. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein.↩
9. Just read the lyrics.↩
10. From “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” by Leslie Jamison.↩
11. “The Broken Heart and Violent Fantasies of Lady Gaga,” Rolling Stone, 2010.↩