Without Setting Fire

by Emerson Whitney
This book is the black of a wide open mouth. There’s no other place to start, really, just agape.
I like this idea of an open mouth, lips at liberty, the reckless brush strokes of a painting, open and possible.
Here’s the opposite, category like a clenched jaw.
An endless portrayal: mirrors, ace bandages, bathrooms, doe eyes, all kinds, underwear, apparatuses in the underwear, the scar, a scalpel, naked or mostly, looking off or down.
Don’t think like this with me, not now.
Instead, here’s a cloud. Its base is still widening, purple and pregnant. No storm yet, a perfect, impermanent slice, dry. We’ve got our feet in the snow, small black prints, ice up to our ankles. The ceiling of cloud is a mouth of purple, there’s almost no air, the only warmth is from a dull sun behind us, our hands are red in the light, they’re mingling. We want to live in the space of changing conditions. We love the limbo, no departure, no arrival, a wide, whipped up pause.
Here’s a followup question: how to live in-between and boundless. This question is a photo of myself standing beneath one of these shaking clouds. I want to live in the space of separated points, doubt, difference, two. I am not unique. I realize we’re all tangled. I want to relate to this tangle without untangling, without setting fire.
I might also be trying to feel better about myself. I have a small frame, legs that spread slightly out when I sit, not too many muscles. I take pictures of myself shirtless from my computer after I shower, skinny. I don’t post any of them. I look at the red splotches on my body and massage them. This is the moon to me, this surface. It’s devastating, the link between the hunk that I move around in and my consciousness. What bridge is this? I used to slice at it, I was one of those kids who’d bend a paperclip apart while we were talking. I’d do it slowly so it wasn’t obvious. I would make a sharp point, sharp enough to scab my tongue if I sucked on it, its pink plastic loosened into sheaths like bark. I’d nod at you while you were talking and stick the pin-end of that paperclip into my hand until it left a swelled hole—bright orange.
You don’t know me like this.
I haven’t behaved like this for years.
You know me as someone who walks upright and loves people and moves softly through the snow. All of this is true. Still, there’s a residue.
Right now, I’m under instructions to lay down for twenty minutes a day and contemplate caring, and if I can handle it, to look at a picture of myself while I do so.
Today, rather than do this, I stared at this bug I killed. It was helpless on my desk last night, belly up with all its legs looking, just under my lamp, it’d been hiking the lamp’s base for hours, slipping down the faux brass. It was the kind of bug that could almost be a tick, just big, with a large snout, shaped sort of like a spade. There was a red mark on its back that I liked, it flashed out of the corner of my eye all day yesterday as I moved papers around to give it space.
When it flipped over, I lifted an envelope to its legs and watched it right itself and climb aboard. I was feeling friendly, helpful, and so, opened the door and set it out there on the envelope. I’d been watching its struggle all day, and wanted to relieve it, didn’t think it through. I should have set it closer to the house or put it into a knot of wood by the door or an eve. I didn’t. I figured it would fly or something. I don’t know why I thought this. I hadn’t seen evidence of wings. I left it out there and turned off the light.
This morning, the bug was in the exact same place I’d set it, the body was covered in a purple-tinged frost, fuzzy, mute and static. I watched the lump of body for a half hour, telling myself I’d seen it move, the sun was out, it might be pretending sleep. When I got up to check, I found that the bug was on its back, legs frozen up, dead body directly over the “E” of my name.
I’m having a hard time contemplating caring.
The other day, I laid there and scrolled through my phone (not what I’m supposed to be doing), and realized I should use it as an opportunity to click on Instagram and look at a photo of myself—try it out. There was a photo I’d posted a few weeks before. I’d taken it after putting on some of my partner’s lipstick that she didn’t seem to want. It was lagoon blue, very liquidy, a kind I’d never seen. I figured I could put glitter in this lagoon on my lips and make the cosmos. I puckered. I liked it. I’m not confused about how cute this is. In the bright blue lipstick, I was smiling, and the way the light worked, the little hairs on my upper lip and chin showed up dark and strong. I have the kind of chin hairs that curl over, the queer ones. I swelled up with a small amount of disgust looking at that aspect, gay, great, wild. I don’t want an estrogen beard and I love it sometimes. I stroke it all the time, lament when one of the little black loops comes off on my knuckle. What is this except a kind of prayer?
My prayer is about this ache and the volume of it.
The truth is, I saw a version of myself walking across a college campus ten years ago, and I looked down at my own body and recognized that something, in looking at him, had happened. He was walking around the library in heavy boots and a thin sweater. That afternoon, in the mirror, I looked into my own iris, green with a strip of yellow all around, green like a series of blues. I stood there and I touched my hands to my face as if to feel for warmth. I wanted his body. I wanted that boy’s body in my hands, I wanted to slip inside him and zip up.
Elliot. We don’t talk at all because he is allergic to cellular devices and lives off the grid in a trailer in Oregon. Elliot has echolalia and eats stinkbugs for food. He has an incredible voice, totally incredible. His parents were Jews for Jesus and he sings like nobody I’ve ever known, like all of the castrati must have, like heaven. Often, I search through the internet for new music he’s made. Other people make videos of his performances and post them regularly. His music makes me cry because we’re both so soiled, so soft. He’s taller than me, almost a recluse. He taught me how to use the men’s room. Eventually, I had top surgery because I wanted to know the magic he came from, I wanted the swift updraft of being that he seemed to have. I wanted to not-bounce when I walked like that, I wanted a crystalline sheen. In a recent video I watched of him, his torso is covered in twinkle lights, he’s got the same pubescent chest, the same hairline, the same softness as me. He’s singing about meridians and the lyrics drift into angry bird calls.
Elliot and that group of friends that we come from are all now moving from baby trans people into adulthood. Most of us still look like children, get called out on it all the time. Most of us too, have refused to transition in any traditional sense—is there one? A pop-culture screenshot of trans that suggests movement from one place to another. We drank heavy from the history of radical trans women, Black trans women, and a powerful femininity that’s driven us toward ourselves, sometimes in a circle. None of us have really gone anywhere, except close, then closer to some mess, happy sometimes.
Yesterday, I spent time with Clay in a green sulphur spring that was kept in a barn, Clay is from that same group, an old friend of mine and Elliot’s. We were nowhere. She’d just had top surgery, had her chest carved into pecs. We stood in a field surrounded by short brush and farm equipment, the barn was a few frigid yards away. We stood in a stiff wind that raked at us from the north, over this massive thin lake, stood there for a few moments before stomping toward the barn with the sulphur spring, our bodies blowing around. She used to be militant about he, actually, and even before that, at one point in our friendship, she’d asked that everyone use “buddy” as her pronoun, we did, would again if asked. Now, she.
I’ve always been impressed with the strength in her body. Her hair lands on the strength of her shoulders now that she’s let it go long. I envy how she holds herself out like a point, bright green. I yelled into the wind to ask her if she feels like I do—like uncomfortable with all of the words all the time—she said, yes, absolutely, but she’d surrendered to the idea (particularly after surgery) that she was lonely in her assertion of herself. Now, I guess, she said, I’m OK with letting everyone see me as they do. I don’t care anymore and I do. There’s nowhere to go, she said, it seems. We turned toward the barn.
For twenty minutes, we swam around in the green water magnified by gray walls all around. There were chicken wire windows, and a blue carving of a wave that was painted with a request, “respect these healing waters.” The words lilted up. The temperature of the pool was 98.9 degrees. It wasn’t warm, there was no door that shut completely. The whole hunk of barn slammed around in the wind. A wind thudded the metal roof, other people visiting the springs ran into the barn in heavy snow boots and emerged from the stalls with tropical towels, shivering. Clay kept her shirt on. I went topless. There was something missing. The water was too lukewarm, too much like being in our own bodies, frustratingly similar to our own soup.
In there, Clay started the conversation again. She backed up to the hot water spigot and stood under it, the warmest place in the pool. Becoming part of a Native community made her feel much more sane, she said, she’d rather focus on that than gender. She’d spent most of her life worried about gender, but not enough about race. Now, there’s a community for me, and I don’t need militancy as much. This is growing up, I guess, she said.
We didn’t stay long. Towel dried dripping over what looked like a cow cistern. We smiled at each other and shook.
When I drove myself back from the springs alone, I wondered what it would be like to feel grown. My hair was still wet and freezing at the ends, my underwear was too, I could still feel beads of sulphur on my thighs. The idea of adulthood has always left me breathless. I ran my hands along the thin, crusted car fabric. I put my finger in a hole in the fabric on the driver side door, my habit. It’s a crusted hole about the width of my pinky. My car is still filled with pac-marks from the days when I smoked cigarettes and drank, I left reckless burns all over the place every time somebody ripped me out of the driver’s seat, took my keys away. A yellow foam peeks out of all the holes. Home? Sometimes, when I think about all these things, I want to park the car in some shallow brush off the road, take my hands off the wheel, put my palms on my thighs, let my brain empty out like a barrel.

In my free time, I watch compilation videos of merchant cargo ships in storm conditions. I wait for aqua marine water to shake itself from under the bow of whatever ship it is, the camera is always mounted toward the bow, there’s always a slit of aquamarine, ice-blue, falling out of the frame, feels like a hand making way out of the water.
I realize I’m looking for myself in this water, my own cacophony.
Last summer, I was introduced to Emmanuel Levinas and I think I fell in love because his writing shoves me off a ledge into this kind of foamy discomfort, I like that, I like and dislike it there.
The woman who showed me Levinas’ work was a Texan lady who I’d written off as straight and probably conservative. I was judging by the photos of her that reminded me of the teachers I had in high school with big hair and pinched mouths, a can of Diet Dr. Pepper always at the edge of their desks. But on the first day of class, she explained Levinas like this: we are infinite. Each human holds the infinite inside them and that’s petrifying. It’s petrifying to ourselves and to those around us. All humans remind us of this infinite from which we come, she gestured out the window at the sky and continued, So we either try to assimilate them, understand them, master them, and thus, kill their infinity and thus, kill them, or we literally kill them, she said. And she shut me up.
This is the essential question of Levinas’ work, how to “confront the otherness of the other without annihilating or canceling that difference or replicating the other in my own image…”
Yourself, myself spills. I attempt to classify, to gather, to possess this infinity. Like asking a person of ambiguous ethnicity, where are you from. Like the filtering of genders and races and classes, neat, clean, an attempt. All of these attempts are long failures. The infinite rules anyway and it’s so uncomfortable. There is no rest from the infinite, no solutions here, Levinas says, just the discomfort of unknowability and an eternity that lives in the flash of our faces—we’re powerless.
“The face of the other resists me,” he writes. “Not because of its power, but because of its vulnerability. It resists me…thus, this other-ness subjects and interrupts me of my mastery, so I want to kill it…[but] the one I kill is never quite dead enough,” Levinas continues. “It was always already spectral, this excessive other-ness. There will continue to be haunts and visitations.”
(I hope to haunt you here.)
Levinas is sometimes referred to as the masochist’s philosopher, Fred Moten too I guess, they both encourage “staying in the break,” a metaphorical commitment to getting thrashed around. Moten suggests that radically is often a loss of footing, a commitment to discomfort, to upending inquiry, the hardest part of the wave. This is Levinas’ point too, just Levinas’ “break” is the face.
I once had the great benefit of asking Moten what he thought about assimilation, trans assimilation specifically, I showed him a video from a Marco Marco show with trans people and drag queens stomping the runway, capitalism? Commodification? He laughed, leaned against the desk, You already are assimilated, he said. It’s already happened. Then he shrugged.
Afterward, trying to understand, I read some of Fred’s work in an interview he’d done with Lit Hub where he addressed a love he has for books, a fetish, he said, pivoting to commodity.
“I’m not very moralistic when it comes to commodification. I don’t think commodities are dirty. I mean I think commodities are important and useful and necessary. They’re eloquent vulgarities. They’re these fundamentally important instruments that help to structure our social life. And also – insofar as I’m the descendent of commodities and bear the trace of that commodification in my own flesh – I don’t see that I have any standpoint from which to be moralistic about what it means to be a commodity or to be in relation, so to speak, to, or even through, commodities.”
I’m grateful for Moten and his writing and the understanding that like my question to him about trans assimilation, or anything else I write here, is myopic, American, white, poor, trans, queer, disabled, alcoholic, feminine, slightly masculine too. This is the aporia: all the categories matter and infinity does, the surplus, an evading aspect.
I want to know Moten’s break like the back of my own hand. What happens if I am muddy and I stain? This book sloshes: I don’t want to be controlled. Who does? Who wants to be eaten up by categorization and subsumed? Yet who wants dissonance and confusion (con, thrown into disorder; fusion, union as if by melting)? The Black Radical tradition says, yes, and who is the one with a choice?
There’s a knocking in my chest—Moten and Levinas link me around the waist and draw my attention to discomfort, discomfort at an inability to master or possess. Is this infinity? Is this the route to ethics that Levinas maps? Ethics as the first philosophy—a concern with right and wrong behavior.
Last night, Jo put clothespins on my labia, two I think, I couldn’t see, I was blind- folded. It was sweet, her putting them there, and sweet feeling just before she took them off, hot and new. I grabbed for her arm as she took them off, I wanted to do it myself, I always do, to control how the blood rushes back. She doesn’t let me and I jerk around. The pain is a sound like a pine smell, the beginning and an end smashed together and untraceable, large—here is my being, I want to say. Here I am, this is what I want to hand you, this event of me. I want to rumble through your body and out of your mouth. Her body is always shadow in the light, my love, the masked one, ripping at me.
I can’t understand you, Levinas says, I can’t make the infinity of you something more solid and digestible, if I do that, if I fix you to a point, I kill you. All I can do, he says, is caress.
The hue of this caress is on an edge of texture and vibrance.
My heart maybe, ours.
It’s an accident too, like a name.
Thinking without understanding may be the strength of human thought, says Marc Guillaume.
My need for comprehension and mastery is a windy attribute, blocking me from consciousness, transcendence—
I want to be an accident, a slip in understanding.
I’m asking to remain strange.
Emerson Whitney is the author of Ghost Box (Timeless Infinite Light, 2014) and Heaven (forthcoming). Emerson’s work has recently appeared in Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, Bombay Gin, Jupiter 88, ENTER>text: 3 years, &NOW AWARDS 3: The Best Innovative Writing, Drunken Boat, Cream City Review, Agápē Journal, and Hold: A Journal. Emerson is a kari edwards fellow on behalf of Naropa University, a REEF fellow at California Institute of the Arts, and a 2017 PLAYA resident. Emerson is also a PhD candidate at the European Graduate School and teaches creative writing at Goddard College.

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