“I can read a text in anything—
to read a body is to break
that body a little. What I mean:
When my desert reads a life out-loud, it takes
the body down, back to its dirt, one symbol at a time—
drinking the blue milk of an eye, a wasted tongue
pulled back down the throat, a vertebra
unlocked and dragged under.
The body after itself,
the after-body, become banquet”
-Natalie Diaz, “cascabel”
Pull yourself together, we say. You look so put together. I’ve been trying to put myself together.
There’s a whole group of Western philosophy problems playing with the identity of separable things. If I take one fistful of dirt from the pile in your yard, is it still the pile? You say ‘yes,’ and I get all gleeful: what about two fistfuls, or three, or thirty-three, because eventually there won’t be any dirt in the pile. Where’s the line? And lots of things are separable. When I run my fingers over the brickwall I leave some cells behind—am I still “me”? Back at Amherst College, it wasn’t long before some student felt all clever and retreated to “mereological essentialism”—you are only you if you have every last one of your parts. Reading Diaz, listening to the poem instead of trying to hold fast to some rational line in the sand, instead of looking for the pure essential “me,” I wonder if I’m the thing that’s being changed. I’m the body that’s scratched and carried away, that eats and carries with, that breathes in and then back out. When her “desert reads a life out-loud,” maybe we’re all that kind of changing thing.
I went for a walk and wondered what “personal moment” from my life I could talk about in this piece, to help explain why Diaz’s lines reverberate so much. I found some possibilities. This: when I go into the ocean I try to feel the ocean, not just my skin. Or this: I slide my hands across rough brick walls, trees, stones, feeling their texture. I want to feel myself read-aloud. Or this: I once started hiking at midnight with my older brother so we could watch sunrise from a peak. We got to the peak hours too early, and laid down, cold now that we weren’t moving, to watch the clouds rise up around us until the peak was an island in the fog. Rise higher until the island was washed away, and we didn’t see the sunrise. I didn’t read that moment right, didn’t get to the end I meant to, but I think the moment read me.
As I thought about those moments, they all seemed to work, and none of them seemed to say what I meant. Maybe that’s because they’re all moments of me. Think, instead, of the ocean with its salt, the bricks with their late heat, the peaks with its weathering stones. The desert “takes / the body down, back to its dirt.” What if that’s not an undoing of the body, the dirt, the desert: what if that’s what body, dirt, desert does?