An Arrangement Of Skin

How the act of looking can help beat back the seductive lethargy of death.

| Winter 2014

The man on the other end of Houston’s local suicide hotline said his name was Blain. He had the nasal voice of a Texas weatherman: its kazoo-like lilt and swampy, Gulf Coast slowness. “I guess you know why I’m calling,” I said. Blain said he did not know and why didn’t I tell him. I told Blain that my life was falling apart. I told Blain how clichéd it was that I just said that, and I was a poet and hated clichés. I told Blain that every citizen in my former city—Richmond, Virginia—and my current one—Houston, Texas—was now aware of the affair I’d had during the breakup of my seven-year relationship. That the day after the blowout in which my newly minted ex kicked me out of our apartment, I’d defended my dissertation in a circle of English professors at the University of Houston in a pursed-smile stupor. “What does the color red symbolize in your work, Anna?” Dr. Serrano had asked me, cocking her head. I wanted to rip the blinds from the office window. I wanted to shout, “This is how I feel about red!” Afterward, instead of celebrating my years of hard work in graduate school and the fact that I could now plunk “Dr.” in front of my own name, I returned to cringe fetal-pig-style on a friend’s mattress, with her silver tabby, Slider, watching the cat chase phantom mice among the amber patches of her quilt.

I told Blain how one of my closest friends, Hunter, had ratted me out to my ex—and gossiped to the rest of the Milky Way—about my indiscretions. He’d done everything short of branding my shoulder with a scarlet “A.” Hunter had also been my mentor throughout college, the person who’d first introduced me to poetry—my passion and my vocation. We’d spent hours talking about poetry: seated in his office where even the faux fireplace gaped with books; hiking along trails and icy Appalachian creeks in Sugar Hollow; sipping coffee at orange tables with mismatched ’50s chairs in the punk-rock diner on Cary Street, the walls adorned with graffiti-inspired paintings and studded with antique dolls’ heads. Not only were my relationship and my long-valued friendship broken, I felt as if poetry itself was broken—that my writing had deserted me. The magic that used to infuse the fables and myths in my poems now seemed as extinct as the dodo or as impossible as the unicorn.

I told Blain that in the dregs of my guilt, before I’d been outed for the affair, I’d invented an absurd ritual to stop time. When my then-boyfriend zipped his upright bass into its black canvas case the size of a body and drove off in his station wagon for a weekend gig with his string band in Austin, I was relieved to have the apartment to myself for a few days so I didn’t have to fake feeling normal. I didn’t have to send text messages with the door locked and the shower running. I didn’t have to sit on the porch, looking up at the lawn’s gnarled live oak where even the silver Spanish moss seemed truly metallic, too heavy for the tree’s arms to hold. Late one night I left the quiet of the apartment and calmly bought a $5 egg timer from the 24-hour Kroger on West Gray. As I paid for the timer I managed to make cheerful small talk with the weary, ponytailed cashier amid the unforgiving chisel of the grocery store’s halogen lights. I walked back through the dark Texan streets tiered in ratty date palms, battered tea roses, and scumbled rows of oleanders barely lit in their own fuchsia glow. At home I opened the sharp plastic packaging and poised the egg timer atop a swan’s nest of yellow bath towels lumped on the floor. I cranked the Rolling Stones from my cheap speakers. I synced the coarse voice of Keith Richards and the driving snare drum toward the end of “Thru and Thru” with my timer’s shrill alarm, which I’d coordinated to coincide with the precise tick of midnight. I smashed the ringing clock with a claw hammer until I broke through the white plastic, until there was nothing left to break there at the empty center of the sound.


“The secret wish of all poetry is to stop time,” says poet Charles Simic. I’ve wanted to still a moment before, the way the sycamore-spotted birthmark on my inner thigh looks like a continent about to divide itself; the time my mother discovered my psychiatrist-grandfather’s gay porn stash—and his bisexuality—while cleaning out his house in Jackson after his death; the way a crawdad will hold its pinch until it hears thunder, according to those shivery Southern myths whispered in the dark of the porch. I’ve felt stilled by poems before, writing them and reading them. Haven’t we all felt like this, though, even when we’re feeling entirely unpoetic? Even when we’re vindictive and terrified and enraged and small? Hasn’t the world slowed to an acute and clarifying bluntness as we’ve dropped an exposed toothbrush on an airport bathroom’s queasy-green tile, or as we skidded distractedly into a pickup’s bumper or as we hung up the phone, that voice saying goodbye in anger reverberating like the end of Pangaea, that ancient landmass ripping and rifting forever?