*A lyric essay written by yours truly
it is brown and blue and a sickly
gray with tinges of yellow-green.
Messy. Like a two year old was
given mud and a canvas.
The artist—she’s a visitor—calls it
“River” and throws it up on the screen in the
auditorium with reckless abandon,
as if she doesn’t realize how utterly dreadful it is.
The professors fawn over it, but we
students know better,
know that rivers make sense and
this thing does not.
after a while I think I see the
small beginnings of a trickle
tearing across the canvas.
My AP English teacher taught us how to
scavenge through and rend the sentences of The
Great Gatsby and Hamlet. I’d sit
in class every afternoon with the margins of my books bleeding Post-It notes,
my close friend Jamille huffing in the seat next to me from beneath a sheet of black
hair. “Why do we have to look so hard for symbolism? I just want to read to
enjoy it,” she’d say. I’d retort by telling her that she wasn't looking hard enough,
that looking for the deep stuff was what made reading enjoyable. I didn’t
understand how someone could just pick up a book and not want to find more than
a story and a few pretty lines in it.
They say a Shakespearean iamb moves
like a heartbeat.
Grandpa’s in the hospital. They
rubbed cool gel on his chest and did an ultrasound of his heart yesterday. It
was an ugly, uneven lump, moving sporadically within the boundaries of the
triangular screen and covered in dark indents that made it look like a skull. I
thought I knew the heart, but I didn’t. To think that something so terrible is
the only thing keeping his eyes open, his body working. It sounded like it was
leaping in puddles instead of beating. Per-plunk, per-plunk, per-plunk.
I think that’s what the artist
calls the next painting in her series. Half of the canvas is painted bright
red, and the other half is this oozing conglomeration
This time I think harder about it,
realize that what she is doing is painting simply for the texture, for the way
the brushstrokes crawl on top
of each other and make noise,
This is the way that she sees
and in its own harsh way,
it is a lovely thing to look at.
When I was 17, I told a high school
English teacher that The Great Gatsby was
the most overrated book in the world, with a weak plot and unlovable
characters. Her bottom lip turned cranberry red beneath the glare of her
stabbing front teeth, and her fingers ticked at her hips like fleshy
metronomes. Gatsby is my favorite
book, she told me.
“The telephone book slipped
from its nail and splashed
‘Excuse me.’—but this time
After watching Grandpa’s heart, we
left his room and waited in the hall for some time. The sun spread squares of
warmth out on the carpet like picnic blankets, and I slid to the floor to feel
it. I stretched my legs and thought about irrational things you sometimes think
about when you have family in the hospital, like how my nose was crooked but I
loved it crooked, or how my stomach curled at the sides and I was grateful it
did, because it meant things were normal, or how hearts were lumpy, but did
beautiful things. All these pieces of us that arced or curled or thumped in
ways that weren’t usual, weren’t supposed to be beautiful, but the movement and
the feel and the function of them was. Abstract and broken and messy. And
we are assigned a trip to the art
I push through the glass door, set
my backpack to the side, and walk up the
stairs with a pencil and a notepad.
The first piece that catches my
attention is a chain-link fence spray-painted white
and layered on top of itself like a
The artist is showing us how he
I made myself write a story without
using any rules once, this after years of grade school cans and cannots. I still timed every sentence, placed each word like it was a transplanted organ,
but it was as chaotic as it was beautiful. Run-ons and fragments and less
punctuation. I was proud of it because it said something it couldn’t have said
otherwise. It was the disjointed story of me, all language and movement and
And she beat it, my best friend who
knew everything about writing beat it to a pulp when I let her read it. Clunky, awkward, you wrote it last night.
Messy, like a two year old was
given mud and a canvas.
I think we’ve convinced ourselves
to look too hard
at the things other people put
their hearts into.
It’s a sticky June day, and Gatsby is spread eagle on my bedspread
like a dead man. Spine arcing up, text smashing down. I hate it when people set
their books like that. It’s a slow, torturous breaking of bones and binding.
But here I am doing it to Gatsby, not
even a copy I own. I watch it closely from my doorway, both of us undone.
No one ever told me what it meant to
see a book, to hold it open and naked
in my palms with its ugly heart heaving in and out against the clip and tear of
the elements. I am, I am, I am.
Books are supposed to be impregnable
enigmas, but I see the whole vulnerable of Gatsby
right now, and it is derailing me. Depth sacrificed for the chaotic and lovely
ripples of surface. Words functioning as words alone.
No one ever told me that the secret
to Gatsby is the fact that it just is.