GENIUSES OF LOVE:

TO BE HELD AT ARM'S LENGTH IS NOT TO BE HELD AT ALL

by Julia Cohen

ISSUE THIRTEEN | FALL 2019

“And so we resist.” —Gertrude Stein 

 

“One of the things that is a very interesting thing to know is how you are feeling inside you to the words that are coming out to be outside of you.”

—Gertrude Stein

1.

Pre-coffee, silk camisole: what dirty photos I send to Cambridge. My morning nipple in a bed of self-made warmth. My friend texts back it’s like waking up next to you. But it is not a sustainable simile—a wife jutting out from his sheets. I add too much milk to my coffee, microwave the heat back into it. There’s no one in particular to tidy up for: an antler in my suitcase, the entrails of half-unpacked travel. I’m trying to extricate myself from my friend’s open marriage but the problem is: Gertrude Stein could recognize a genius & so can I. 

 

Stein thought she was a genius. I think Stein was a genius. I do not think I am. I am more concerned with how much pleasure I get from the support I give to those I recognize as geniuses. Why is this a worthy investment? In the mail I’ve sent postcards, syrup in snow, a kerosene lamp filled with frogs. Maybe I’ve been holding this supporting pose too long, but it depends on the genius. It depends on what’s created. When a simile crumbles in the dustpan I want to be met, met with all the forces a body can have.

 

Is this dusty vapor— the fantasy of availability? I only clean my house for guests: a sink filled with tea bag casualties. How long will it take before I am no longer surprised by the length of my hair?

 

2.

Half-naked in high school, drinking at a kitchen table after all my queer friends skinnydip in Geoff’s hot tub, some boy says he likes Nellie’s areolas. So much darker than the rest of her. I feel self-conscious knowing mine are light, like the shadow a bowl makes inside itself & for so long am afraid to show my breasts.

 

The photos I send to my married genius in Cambridge are a fuckyou to that moment when some 17-year old boy made me fear responses to a bowl’s shadow. Made me afraid to reveal my body even though he wasn’t commenting on mine, but complimenting Nellie’s dark areolas after Celine just fingered her in the hot tub. All of our short hair drying above icy drinks.

 

 

3.

In my apartment I prepare packages for my friends, my geniuses: I move a miniature chair from one boiling pot to another, I sweep black bats into the wrinkles of my hands. Gifts I am given are the bodies of seahorses: seahorse bodies I say tenderly to no one. By accident I write seahour. Gifts are not objects, really. When I think of my friends, how they keep me alive, what is left?

 

One genius I love is addicted to green grapes. One genius I love points to round tables & off-handedly says, Let’s sit at those moons. One genius I love despises showers but craves bodies of water. One genius I love has parents who never bought her pajamas. One genius I love sends emails that sound like poems. One genius I love no longer wants to have children. One genius I love had a window overlooking Coney Island. Their gifts are a new kind of armor that lets everything in—that saves lives by letting everything in. That kind of armor.

 

I’m reading a book about desire & love. It’s called Desire/Love by Berlant. I write in the flyleaf:

-to inhabit fantasy

-intimate to intimate

-the logic of beginnings

-desire’s disorientation

-no way to capture desire / is this even what we’re trying to do? (we = everyone)

-beyond its object

For each friend I have, I keep a list of questions I have not been asked. 

 

This Friday my student summarizes a poem we read as “the beauty of the disappointment.” I say, I have to write that on the board. I think that by of she means through. The beauty of accepting you have not been met with the force you desire. Meeting the disappointment & seeing it through.

 

I have met this disappointment & inhabited its beauty. With previous partners I’ve seen it through: swallowed desire in the absence of force, like an empty gulp of air. I’ve also been joyously fulfilled by the hum of another’s genius. A genius takes up a certain kind of space. A genius also creates an option to inhabit a space that has previously not existed & people flock to it. 

 

Stein hid in the French countryside for five years with her partner, Alice B. Toklas, leaving behind their art collection, a genius collection. By hiding I mean: they managed to stay alive in the Zone Libre. Because I believe in Stein's force, her fearlessness, I say to myself, I don’t think Stein was afraid of the Nazis! I mean, of course she was. She was. 

 

Stein considered fleeing to Switzerland with Toklas but decided, “No, I am not going we are not going, it is better to go regularly wherever we are sent than to go irregularly where nobody can help us.” Nazis had entered her space in Paris & now she waited. They waited together. 

 

A genius can create space but not control those who enter it.

 

4.

I visit Cambridge in daylight. I build a pillow fort with two princesses, eat lox & capers, walk a cancerous dog. Small hands cover my face in shiny stickers. In the evening my married friend says he’s had to return to old, dirty photos since I’ve not sent new ones in a while. He guesses it’s because I’ve been in a relationship that just ended. But that is not why, really. I track patterns: each person a bouquet of patterns & when one shifts, when a leaf curls up like a frog’s tongue around a fly, I recalibrate my response. The first question I used to ask: what did I do? How did I cause this shift? 

 

Sifting through each interaction’s memory looking for ways in which I could have repulsed the other.

 

Now—now I don’t know what I do. I start to do that but I stop. I remind myself how little I have to do with anyone else’s perception of me. Really, so little has to do with me at all. 

 

I saw this friend withdraw into his family & was not going to pretend he was emotionally available. I closed myself out of his open marriage. So I respond to the cleft in the pattern with less anxiety & shift my own behavior to match his. I respond with anything other than my body: with photos of my coffee table’s coral reef; with photos of snowdrops from an outer province of Denmark where I stand with friends on a wet bank; with photos of strange flower pods I snap off the public garden in Wicker Park. 

 

Now I ask myself: How do I feel about your cleft? I let my feelings lay on the shore, collect them in the seahour, as the tide of anxiety pulls away. I feel disappointment & the beauty in that is grounding. 

 

But in Cambridge, I relapse. My friend, whose family lives on the other coast, pulls the hourglass from my neck, slowly unbuttons my dress. Why do I let myself quietly adjust to less?

 

Gertrude Stein looks like my grandmother: her nose, her eyes, her stocky build. I think they were both beautiful: plump, eyes glimmering. Both were not religious. My grandmother never saw her own beauty: the way she tenderly looked at each bird that flew to her feeder, how her warm, strong arms overcompensated for her paralyzed Polio leg. Her laugh like a dozen ripe apples falling off a branch into soft grass. She quietly internalized the belief that Jews are not beautiful. She did not have faith in her own beauty.

 

Like trying to dry off with an already-damp towel, I feel deeply uncomfortable that I have inherited this particular lack of faith. Its absence is an unsaid sentence that wraps itself around my mirror, my body, any magazine. I am not supposed to say: no one thinks Jews are beautiful. Now, I write with fear about the reception of a feeling. But there is no space for my nose to be beautiful other than through disappointment. 

 

Yet, I have faith that we can find beauty by looking into our ugly feelings— that I will not repulse you with my honesty. 


 

5.

Every week, freshman year of high school my friend Carlos & I play Battleship in his attic bedroom. Rancid posters on the wall. We giggle & call out I9 or B3. I do not flirt. I want camaraderie. When he puts his arm around me my organs feel like they’re curling up. I cave in to get away: pulling my body into my body to disappear so that the other reaches out & touches nothing. 

 

One of my most asked & unanswered questions is why I have this same reaction to my mother. What do they have in common besides loving me? What I used to think was: they both love me too much. More than I can offer them in return. It feels impossible. I feel impossible with the caving-in-ness of space itself.

 

One genius I love writes about torture & law. One genius I love sings that when she cries she feels like a man. Most geniuses I love love Ana Mendieta. One genius I love is an artist with tumors sprouting from her hands & feet. One genius I love was almost killed by the wine-dark sea. One genius I love films beasts & children in southern swamps. I would give up so much to live in support of these forces, these spaces. 

 

How much of me is composed of the questions I have not been asked? Or questions I ask myself over & over without finding another entry point to the space?

 

When I wake up I see a half-sipped mug of blueberry tea, a children’s story taped to my wall, a wrinkle down my chest from sleeping curled on my side that reminds me I am aging, that will fade in a few hours, though I know one day won’t fade at all.

 

Did my great grandmother believe in God? My grandma did not believe in God. My mother does not believe in God. I do not believe in God. To me, this holds beauty. We are Jewish. 

 

My grandma did not have faith in God or her own beauty, but had faith in hand-written letters, the scent of cherry tomatoes warming in the garden, how a newspaper should be read cover to cover every day. I do not have children yet. If I can help it, they will not believe in God. For girls, I like poet-names like Mina & Mei-Mei. For boys, well, I don’t want any boys but I like Elijah & Ezekiel. If I can help it, they will have faith in so many things:

in grieving for water

in how everything burns besides the chimney itself 

in how I will try & not love them too much

in sand as a temperature we should respond to

in the teeth that peel back the planetary nature of a plum

in our return address

in pouring coffee for someone you love


 

6.

But what does it mean to love someone too much? For Carlos, not relenting when the pattern wouldn’t shift. For my mother, what my therapist calls lack of differentiation. Maybe, though, it is what every daughter feels: the unevenness of knowing my entire body was inside your body.  Now, the space between a planet & its ring.

 

I return from Demark to dog paws imprinting a baseball diamond to a moldy coffee filter & an egg in my windowsill. Bobby pins bobby pins bobby pins. In Wicker Park, far from Cambridge, I start to date someone new who does not believe in God. Who tells me I walked through a river in the Ozarks with two friends when I was 19. We found our way to a small cave. We floated in the watery cave while finding the natural acoustics with our voices & stacked a three part harmony. Who is warm, who makes me laugh just by saying, Hi. Who I hope is not a genius, really. 

 

I do not feel anxious or concerned with the beauty of the disappointment: In daylight, I send him dirty photos.

 

I listen to Quin’s music make a Sunday morning out of a Thursday evening & we bake a sloppy cake on a random weeknight. I put my ear over his heart & am not surprised when I hear a new kind of noise. Resting my glasses on the twigs of a branch he has strapped to the wall above his bed. Together, I want to curate the space between the planet & its ring: all the force a body can bring.

 

He brings me coffee at 8:37am. I warm my hand on the paper cup before reaching for his cock. I text a friend, Quin brought me coffee this morning & went down on me & I came in 2 minutes--it was insane. He knows his way around a pussy. Then I text Quin, You’re going to work with my pussy on your face. He responds, I know. So pumped!

 

I send a draft of this piece to a genius who does not know he is & he writes back take out the parts about Stein, kill your genius. But I am not ready. I think Jewish humor is sexy. Stein jokes about Hitler & the Nobel Peace Prize. She jokes about autobiography. She jokes about dictators. She jokes about punctuation & Mina Loy. My phone is filled with dirty photos & I joke that none of them include my nose.

 

I do not think most geniuses prioritize how to love so much as how his or her genius enters the force of others. Let all the geniuses I love be geniuses of love! or Please send me a genius of love! I would pray, if that was something I could do. 

 

It is a gift to show someone we love the ways in which we know this person. This is pleasure’s return address.


 

7.

In high school I stroke the short, wet hair of my friends as they puke in the toilet after we drink too much on a dark swing set, after skinnydipping in Walden Pond, after they make out with each other between the highbeams of police cars shining in the pond. I take care of them with my hidden body. I see them rooting out their forces through kisses & play. I inhabit their spaces with a lonely joyfulness.  

 

With Quin, he comes with a young son & I rethink what family could mean: buying a bleached out shark jaw for Max; listening to a cardiologist predict aortic weather inside Quin’s chest; taking the branch strapped above the bed wherever we go. Letting love be a force that leads us to the unsaid. Dwelling in spaces that are sayable. How to raise children to be geniuses of love: 

faith in the inability of locksmiths 

faith in pine sap

faith in the joy of reading someone to sleep

& hearing the breathing change

faith, unlike fog.

 

There are many kinds of space I do not want to take. When we look at each other we are beautiful. 

 

Friends, grief isn’t a house. What is? What is not an image? Love.

Julia Cohen's most recent book is a hybrid collection of lyric essays, I Was Not Born (Noemi Press, 2014). Her poetry books are Collateral Light (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2014) and Triggermoon Triggermoon (Black Lawrence Press, 2011). Her work appears in journals like Juked, Jellyfish Review, The Rumpus, Boston Review, BOMB, DIAGRAM, Entropy, and The Destroyer. She can be found at juliacohenwriter.com.

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