The History of art: a preview
The celebration of WorldPride this month debuted in the States with attendees into the millions, according to Gothamist and the New York Times. With corporations brandishing rainbows and deploying the hashtag campaign #pride, it is easy to feel cynical about the state of the world, knowing what we know about this administration’s mounting erasure of trans rights and their spurious control over people who have vaginas. Resistance to the hegemony, in the face of violent autocracy, must be shown at every iteration of art and the humanities, consumption of goods, and our impact on the Earth and one another. Rae Gouirand’s lyric chapbook, The History of Art, contains the audacity of the canon in its title and unabashed displays of queer love. It is a journey of discovery, one that Gouirand has navigated all of her life. For the queer body, safety is always far from a point of origins; it may require years into decades of unsatisfying hetero intimacy—that is, one-way pleasure and pressures to perform hetero-intercourse despite a lack of desire. To this, Gouirand tells us what it’s like to finally find solace in desire: “Twelve years of sex before my first self finds a way back in, just in time to be entered, finally. Like a stab that ends everything. A relief, to be reached.” Queer love can mean for some the lifting of a curse, one that has inhabited the body, through internalized guilt and confusion, for, well, forever. Gouirand writes on the next page, “ She rubs my back and it’s okay to open my mouth.” It’s okay to open the mouth. I had the opportunity to talk with Rae Gouirand about her incredible chapbook, and her answers are brilliant, unafraid, and steadfast. Take some time to get to know the writer behind this extraordinary chapbook, read an excerpt of the chapbook below, and then, yes my friends, buy the chapbook.
from The history of Art
My leg on her shoulder, her feet on my chest, my fingers hooked to her concave points, her mouth on my front, my teeth on her skull, both of us the surface, the smell of sebum in my nose when I breathe, sounds that unbound, bodies that undefend, each of us echoing morning into afternoon into evening, someone jogging the loaf of bread in from the kitchen so we can rip and chew and stuff our mouths I am in her hands, I am on the floor, I am under the ceiling peeling away, I have her skin, and the way I hold, and the way I shake. Her jaw strong, eyes two different shades. I tip, I take. A well is vertical. A mouth is a study of another mouth. Eyes open, eyes close, willing to meet it. We chew with our mouths and fuck with our hands. We talk with our mouths and push with our hands. We fuck with our mouths and talk with our hands. We take, we rake, outside it is dark. Outside it is light. A question I realize. Openmouth my throat. She drops a bag into boiling water and blows on it, hands it over. I am water coming in uncontaining. My shoulder gripped as I sit up. I say on your back. I say on your front. It rains on the glass. She says would you look? Leaves float in sudden lakes, accelerated toward their deaths as all things are by water. What you feel will kill you. What gets in will take you to your end. You are carried. You are carried. You are carried. Everything follows the path that suddenly accepts it, all the way to its end. Skin and mind, skin or mind, skin in mind, the paths between switching, holographic, simultaneous, churning.
An Interview with Rae Gouirand
Natalie Eilbert: The History of Art is as much a sensual as it a psychic undertaking. Can you talk about the intersection of memory and sexuality in this chapbook?
Rae Gouirand: I’ve been describing The History of Art as a poet’s diary, or as a lyric archive—it’s not quite a story, and it’s not quite a memoir. It is neither about organizing events and tracking change over time nor does it gather and accumulate sums of everything. The speaker of the essay is present through time, located in a series of erotic and revelatory scenes and moments. The interval of the essay is approximately thirty years, but every moment the essay visits is the present. That’s the logic of sensation: Both memory and sexuality are experienced against the lack of them—one struggles to remember, one tunes out instead of in. There’s white space in the equation. That’s the form of sensation.
I think where memory (or committing to memory) and sexuality first came up against each other for me was in journaling. Why keep a diary? What does it mean to ritualize a privacy, or archive evidence of one’s own project of sense-making? What’s dirty (or too specific, or too anything), and what’s history (or enough of anything)? The book is only 50-something pages but I hope it communicates something about the overlooked value of private notebooks—acts of self-authorship—as queer acts of reckoning.
NE: You are predominantly a poet, but The History of Art is a lyric essay. While a close cousin to poetry, lyric essays operate with a different frame of mind entirely. Can you talk about the process of writing this chapbook? How do passages of this essay compare to your poetry?
RG: I’ve certainly published poetry first, and primarily, to this point, but the number of pages of prose I’ve written, and plan to write or publish in this life, will almost definitely outnumber the number of pages of verse. I started writing this chapbook in 2012 after taking a couple of workshops that had offered me exercises designed to shake up the ways we give body to sex in writing. I’d always seen poetry’s tensions as inherently erotic—the poles of presence and absence, of line and break. Two things, not a singular one. A simultaneity.
A lot of queer people move through the world observing the ways that sex gets talked about. They end up thinking, on a basic level, Whatever, that has nothing to do with how I experience sex, or understand sex, or wear it. Sex for me, for the people who get sex the way I get sex, is this other territory over here and here and here. It’s survived—we’ve survived—by locating it over here and here and here. By becoming readers of its many expressions, and by reading and reading and reading.
Anyway, in starting to write this project, it ballooned into something hundreds of pages long. It got swallowed into a full-length memoir I’m still working on. I ended up going back into it in order to fish it back out. I kind of forgot it had started as its own thing so many years ago. I lost the thread somewhere in the middle of living my life and writing other books. So I stripped it back out and isolated the material in its original form, as this series of prose islands surrounded by lots of empty space. I sent it to a couple of chapbook competitions last year where it short-listed, and then you very suddenly and wholeheartedly said yes to it last February, which I hadn’t expected would happen at all. (Thanks again, by the way. I could not be happier to have a home for this chap with TAR.)
I’ve written quite a number of poems that present scenes intimate or sexual, or that speak to the momentary islands found between parties of two. Those moments naturally attract anyone who appreciates poetry—they’re commanding, they’re vertical with layers and layers of resonance, and I think readers know instinctually that when they’re reading something about sex, they’re also reading many things at once. When I’m casting these kinds of poems, I’m always aware of how they’ll recall (here’s memory again) other similar moments for a reader—how one moment will echo others, how one image or word or even syntactical tick will create a sense of history and pattern. When work turns us on, that’s what it’s doing—lighting up the layers and layers of sense that are stored in the same footprint. Awkwardly and impossibly honestly. We are restored by that impossibility made manifest. When work resonates with us, we’re with it. It’s inside us even though it’s not ours, somehow. Somehow is the argument of art. Somehow counts for more than a lot.
NE: This is certainly a tandem question to the previous one, but does your poetry delve into subjects of queerness with the same searing precision as The History of Art?
RG: I think I can best respond to this question by saying, first, that I think of poetry in general as a queer way of speaking, or as a form that acknowledges the essentialness and necessity of speaking queerly. It supercharges absent words, and emphasis words, and the gaps and interstices between words, in ways that transactional discourse tends not to allow. I have never not been a poet, and I have never not been queer, and I have never not been aware that the world restricts, starves, or denies the transmission of many kinds of sense that are perfectly clear, and deeply impactful.
I’ve always had a hard time drawing lines around work that is and isn't queer, though. Even around subjects that are and aren’t. Which is maybe funny because I sometimes get impatient with the language around queers ‘queering’ subjects, or forms, or institutions, when what we mean is change, or expand, or challenge, or re-contextualize, or better, or claim. To me, there’s work that teaches me something new, and work that doesn’t (though it might perform other essential, valuable labors). My second full-length poetry collection (which came out from Spork Press last December) is, to me, an extremely queer book, and it presents all kinds of narrative glimpses into queer life, or into the kinds of relational situations that might exemplify queer life; its primary concern, however, has to do with the ways metaphors fail, the kinds of gaps that live between people in intimate relationships, and how we ultimately expand and reduce ourselves as a result of our relational contexts. These are the problems I perceive, the crisis and limits I reckon with, and the insights that are born of my perspective. What counts and doesn’t count as queer work is another conversation, maybe.
NE: Your work here beseeches the reader toward a tome to be studied and turned over. There’s an illusion of timelessness implied in the opening pages, a prompt for further exploration. Tell us about the title, The History of Art, which, on first glance, is quite grandiose. What did you hope such a title would accomplish?
RG: The book I’m referencing in the title (H. R. Janson’s 1962 volume History of Art) was one of many enormously heavy, beautifully bound books I remember seeing all over the place as a young person—the kind of book that signaled to me that the most impossible task—a collective of human histories—could be organized by a single author and presented as a singular unit of digestible knowledge. Could be taken in. Could be possessed, displayed. The (many) feminist critiques of that book cite the ways in which that book as a survey text is obviously narrow and restrictive and consequential. But I mention it in this essay to anchor a point of origin that the essay witnesses. The first awareness of my body as a sexual body, or as a body that related sexually, was born of studying classical figures presented in the pages of that book. Not in relation to other bodies—in relation to art. To made things. To the long-outlasting evidence of our human appreciation for human-ness. For the mortal body, for the ways that life can be rendered and etched in stone. The impossibility of that body, the survival of the forged form in time.
I grabbed the echo of that title for my own in part because I think great art is deeply erotic, and often born of echo. It draws us out of our typical abilities to perceive and sense and expands our awareness; it confuses the limits between our consciousness and the consciousness we can access or visit or experience. There are consequences to that. Art sees us. I wouldn’t say that I set out to confuse the boundaries of sex and art in this essay, but I do hope the title would make a lot of readers say ‘oh, I know that book,’ or ‘oh, I’ve seen that, we had that in my house growing up,’ and then force them to do a double take, to register a dis-orientation, the way that art and eros both cause us to do sometimes.
NE: Talk about what it was like to write so explicitly about sex, orgasms, voyeurism, and desire.
RG: It was maybe not that different from writing anything else I’ve written. Some of the moments in the essay were written in deep states of reconstituting scenic memory; others in stickier or more nascent half-hypnosis. I was very lucky that, in some cases, I had notes-to-self to work from, in the form of the journal I’ve been keeping almost religiously since I was 11. I have always written in my journal as though I am writing to everyone and no one at the same time, so there’s a charge there for me. I think the conclusion I’ve come to is that it’s not hard to write well about sex, it’s just challenging to write about it in a way that doesn’t make it smaller than it is. You have to have some depth perception to cast the tension in the right place, and/or to put it in the places where it exists simultaneously. That willingness to travel with it requires a kind of commitment, I think. There are definitely challenges that come with sending it out into the world of published works, because the last thing that women are allowed to acknowledge is how they occupy their sexuality on their own terms (especially when that sexuality doesn’t have to do with men, or with a heterosexual paradigm), but I’ve always been kind of a don’t-care on that front, and in this case that works in my favor. I’m 41. This is it. The point of all this is to bring us back into contact with all the parts of ourselves we’ve cast off—to make us synonymous with ourselves again. In that sense, it’s a remembering, an invoking. In that sense, it’s sex. Readers who don’t feel me on that will never find this book to read it anyway. Desire keeps people alive, over a long and deadly serious term. I’m just trying to write the shit out of my books before I die.
Rae Gouirand is the author of two collections of poetry, Glass is Glass Water is Water (Spork Press, 2018) and Open Winter (winner of the Bellday Prize, Bellday Books, 2011), and two chapbooks, Jinx (winner of the Summer Kitchen Series Competition, Seven Kitchens Press, 2019) and Must Apple (winner of the Oro Fino Chapbook Competition, Educe Press, 2018). She lives in northern California and lectures in the Department of English at UC-Davis.