Digital Poetics #29 Yes, I Am A Destroyer (Extract) by Mira Mattar w/ Essay from Kashif Sharma-Patel
My name is only the name for those who do as I do – we heard this doing was its consequence and natural. I change my name to her pronunciation of it. Now I can speak without mumbling, stuttering. My employer gives me a voice, words, a face and body, their possible expressions and ranges of motion. In her push-up bra, my form and employer are happier. Here I adore being myself, finally glowing with application. I smile at her animals and pet them with sharp pencils, poisoning them a little daily. Under the table I crouch at the child’s feet in my lurid costume stuffing numbers into numbers. On the day of leftovers, the excess keeps dangling over the edge, eyes unmet, a sheet of hair, the popping head of a governess, the decimal infinitely recurring and getting swept into pristine invoices. I reach in after the child’s crumpled face but comprehension is lost. When it weeps, I stroke its head, when it draws a line of triangles called family, I add the curlicue of smoke over the chimney curving always upwards as a smile
expands the chest which once felt love and asks now if love is only a desire for recognition, then is this it? It is a kind of ardour yet when I turn to my task and feel my boss’s satisfaction searing into my hunched back, when I turn coyly over my shoulder, carefully dissecting a word and scraping its parts into the relevant bins, and still she is there, watching me, my irrelevant authenticity. She looks fondly too at the charmingly chintzy teacup chipped just so and plugged with geraniums resting on the least nice guest bathroom’s sink; at the early works of Young British Artists she has wisely selected, purchased, and displayed; at her garden blooming with the blood-black tulips I suggested she plant. I want to be as valuable, to adorn the walls, rational as advertising and as looked at. What reduction will I dream of next? What would she see but herself? What would I recognise but her? We lock eyes and my waist slims. She touches my shoulder and I am right as every pronounced T.
When she is out and I am bathing secretly in her tub I long for sickness to strike in order to force an invitation to sleep in her home. It would take two co-operating hands to pull the heavy curtains across the rolling greenness beyond the great windows through which would peek the real sun in slivers apt as poems come morning. My toes pretty in her bed, my fingertips suddenly quaint and agile, my eyelids light and thin, their blue veins imperceptibly nudged awake. I am so myself I can hardly feel it. I feel instead the bath’s rolling top under my warm palms as I lower myself in, my reflection in the golden tap ripples and is flattered into a narrow torso and larger breasts, a proud plump belly, a small nose, bigger eyes, even elongating and straightening my hair. The water works to lift my breasts into perfect rounds peeping out of the water milky with organic products, almost edible, or, in fact, edible, but perhaps inducing sickness – so I try. I dip and scoop body scrub, figs and almonds, cocoa butter and astringent lemon to tighten the pores, I swallow and keep it down. I add conditioner, coconut-based, and taste the bathwater in sips. Clean and churning in my ordinary clothes she finds me cradling the toilet bowl, vomiting really – well-scented capillaries on my cheekbones popping customarily, the sweet patches no lovers kiss no more. Bound to a bed, my forehead acknowledged, a compress, a bowl of soup on a perfectly slanted trayble. To not miss a moment, I sleep with my eyes open and the curtains too on this loveliest night of fiction. The moon progresses in an arc reflected in the long neck of the heavy spoon and my liver exhales. She cures,
even making a charity with her artist friends to help poor Arab children so she has no time to do her hair which is gathered in expensive carelessness drifting in rays around her face or in a ponytail swinging so merrily it turns almost 360 degrees behind her skull, a turbine, genetic, reflecting light generously unlike mine absorbent, greedy, hers inspires, motivates – I’d cry, I’d kill for it. Standing before her dressing table, no, sitting, because her dressing table has a seat, and the seat has a cushion, and the cushion has flowers, and the flowers bud and bloom and die and bud and bloom and die, she sits in the same position and with the same posture, familial, lovely, as her mother sat at her identical but slightly larger dressing table, and as her daughter sits at her identical but slightly smaller dressing table. At these tables, and in unison, they pick up their wooden-handled soft-bristled brushes, meet their own eyes and each other’s eyes and brush. Oh how easily it slips through! There is no resistance, no entanglement, no tearing – only smooth unchanging beauty more powerful than mouths or cunts, eyes or tongues; more powerful than the arrangement of features on a face; more powerful than legs or breasts. And we squat ironing our ears flat, we crouch over the hairdryer eradicating baby hair with a singe, pulling our hairlines into tents so hard that our eyelids distort and come away so the bright white eyeball’s separateness is remembered with a gasp. We never swim, never feel being entirely in water. The mellow throb of hair against the back gives them always a rhythm to walk to, always someone to walk with, sometimes it is me
who is her friend. What is a modern friend but an approximate human with elbows to lean on and discuss death with in the kitchen? I pretend I still menstruate as we consider the row of supplements hovering beside our golden tea which levitates in silken pyramids, its components stratospherically uncommon and sipped down mindfully, her humanity glowing as mine is tapped and drained, naked lymph. A game is being played: every time she says natural cycle I try through the hole in my pocket to catch a stray hair on my thigh and pull. She drinks it hot, it scalds me but I keep up. (My organs are superfluous.) Her favourite bit is to pretend that because we share an accident of birth we have something in common. That because we have something in common, we have something in common. I manage occasionally to grip the tip of a fine hair and pull without pinching my flesh. (As a child I trained myself to stop wincing.) The patch below my right thigh pocket is studded with angry red lumps. She tells me she is so glad she’s found me, that all her friends want one just like me. See – my education kept its promises. Now I am a cool spacious room,
I am a dead bluebird, suicided against the conservatory glass, scooped up kindly and dropped sorrowfully outside. I am the blood and feathers of the dead bluebird stuck haphazardly to the front paws of the ginger tom licking his chops and stalking grandly through the cool spacious room. I am today’s lesson about death. To soften the blow, I wear ruching
which is echoed in the crimps gathering around the stamen where the petals of the calico flower barrette in my immobile hair gather and splay in an approximation of the aphrodisiacal orange blossom whose scent I’ve used behind my knees and ears just enough to suggestively alter the air. My stubbed nails are pomegranate pink and I sucked a spoonful of honey just before I arranged myself like this, knowing exactly the moment the husband will enter with his globed back, his universe, his narrow gait, and want to eat me, to dissect me and decide the names of my new edges and what puppets will be their kings. To exist he must cast and trawl and drain, chase and maim and sever. He does not want me to remind him that the food in our mouths is the starvation of others – my sisters, my brothers, that my yes is the silenced no of another. Honey-breathed I mutter a song in a language he does not know in a melody he could never comprehend which circulates in me, buried. Later perhaps he will click into a different subcategory on RedTube, where eyelids are heavy with kohl and the elaborate hips are scored to some imitative microtonal song. Relaxing against the doorframe loosening his tie, a sitcom, he sees me. He does not want me to seduce him, he wants me to provoke him. He does not want to possess me, he wants to be changed through contact with me. A contact that will only add more him to him.
Is it an ounce of his solidity I want? To wake up the same every morning only recognising myself more over time, to get to be a fat everywhere and yet rooted and with a tartan all of my own? For my sentimental remembrances to be part of my loveable qualities and a shared experience too, not excoriated, to not be from somebody else’s memory of a place? To be listened to as if I contain some germ, some origin, like I decided language too? Do I want to live inside his private omniscience also? Is it warm inside? Does it burn? Could it?
Could I throw my head back with the other birds perching on the high edge of the shiny enclosure and sing? Would that be life?
Or is it to walk at noon with others, after she has pressed a five pound note into my palm for lunch and I have knelt to kiss her ring in gratitude, to the supermarket under my big person crown? Oh compassionate rocket, gem baby, succulent heirloom rows, at once a thirst and its quenching, juice redeems, a desert, the sea, let me swim for hours, mango, coconut, pineapple, papaya – is this paradise? Is this unoccupied space? Is this the creamy squish of balance? Why then are the shelf stackers constructing pyres and in the aisles smashing their heads against the freezer cases competitively? Solitary and lightly-salted everyone quick-heeled for punctual pay. Please let tonight not be too argumentative and sad to press against with the people and little animals we call home – that slender rocky dimension speciously named, tight and squeamish as veins. We gesture wildly at the surface of lunches and wait to be selected and pried open – how else will our insides get different? I stand harder to better feel the movements of others all around, the breaths and gusts and mutterings of little swifts and soon I am in the sky, one of them, one of hundreds and long-winged too, soaring across the clouds, our shadows trailing us as we pick together one high roof over there to perch on, arching and dipping and patterning the phlegm-constellated pavement, the triangle of green, the rainbow-flagged steam baths, the kids spilling out of the chip shop, the green lights glowing feverishly over the area’s now esteemable properties, the unending sorrow that is the only continuous thing, the deranging flashbacks of all that was lost and keeps getting loster, a solitary strutting cat, nests stolen and souped, the ravaging comprehension of what regret is, the dead fox in the road and we pick one high roof to approach and as we do our shadows break sharply at the right angle between ground and building and scan rapidly up the wall studding it with shaded patches which from inside must create flashes – we are spectacular, we land effortlessly. To celebrate we throw our heads back and sing and so on the days when she presses a five pound note into my palm for lunch I don’t eat any food but scrunch the money up and eat that instead.
In Mira Mattar’s Yes, I Am A Destroyer (Ma Bibliotheque, 2020) we encounter a set of fragments that explore the limits of the self, the enmeshment of gender and labour, and sensuous performance upon – and against – the urban stage. Ostensibly a narrative of a tutor and the sedimentations of their everyday routine, what we find is a rejuvenated approach to the first person prose narrative, one heavily routed through the prosody of a radical poetics reflecting heavily on dissociation, refusal and sensation.
Central to the first person collapse that Mattar undertakes is a nuanced relationship with gender and sexuality. In a sense there is a deep ambivalence around the assigning of gender as subjectification:
They told me I was a girl and I believed them. It taught me who I may or may not love, how to arrive at femininity and what I may or may not invoice for.
It was a narrow road ahead of managing, maintaining and defending this stranger’s body: of making it body beyond body–shitless and pissless, bloodless yet lustful, smooth, firm to the touch but unfeeling. (18)
Gender as naming and gender as body, or as alienation from the body. There is a pragmatism, a refusal, a survival, one bound up on the contested ground of desire. Girlhood as an ontology built upon that broken ground: ‘What a young girl is for example must always learn to look away first–tease, weeping […] Like each word, each gesture might lead to your death. I learned long ago about poise.’ (27) So too we are told, ‘I was small but never a child [...] What remains is a flayed thing, sealed.’ (44-45) This is tweaked in a passage later: ‘What remains is a flayed thing, porous.’ (59) Between sealed and porous lies a violent ambiguity around the desire of/for the body. This line of thought continues, ‘as I masturbate on my sumptuous bed with one of my favourite dildos – how could there be desire for skin on skin?’ (83) This conundrum is one focused around the question of power, capital and labour:
‘There is no resistance, no entanglement, no tearing – only smooth unchanging beauty more powerful than mouths or cunts, eyes or tongues; more powerful than the arrangement of features on a face; more powerful than legs or breasts.’ (77)
The passage, referring to the narrator’s employer brushing her hair, draws out this double-bind around power and the body where exalted exactness conflicts with the fleshiness of embodiment. This is pithily explored earlier in the book: ‘My body is not desired only because of the roomy quality lent to it by congenital loss, which, though named by lovers as mystery, is only and again the unerotic and ordinary history of power.’ (41) The ordinary history of power is constantly grappling with the formal elements of Mattar’s aesthetic innovation that comes to typify the messiness of social life. In an orgy scene we are told that the fellow participants, ‘love feeling without being’. (51) There’s something here about the ontological stakes of bodily interaction, one utterly tied up with the alienation of gendered labour where dissociation is a vector of refusal, escape. The concern revolves around the effect of commodified sociality on acting-in-the-world, and the push-and-pull of sexual desire.
The narrator illustrates this point while fantasising, triggered by a man in a gilet nearby:
‘[...] I will buy two hundred pound glass dildos and a designer fridge-freezer to put them in, no, no, I will buy a separate fridge-freezer just for sex toys, LSD, and champagne, I will buy lace underwear in both pale and garish colours which will peek out occasionally from beneath my clothes [...] embellishing my impossible ass which will be so high and so pert on account of my personal trainer who I will see daily who I will sweat hard for and who will fuck me with my freezing cold well-lubricated two-hundred-pound glass dildo because I will not want his poor warm flesh inside my hot expensive cunt.’ (38)
Sensuousness is thus continually imbricated in the manifestations of market capitalism. This structural issue of economy undergirds the fragmented narrative of the book. Mattar tells us ‘routine is crucial’, (23) in the maintenance of the body and the decisions undertaken amidst ‘conflicting needs and desires’. The individuated subject is constricted; a kind of realism irrepressible and bittersweet. Yet, one that animates the dynamism around sociality, desire and embodiment in the urban everyday. We can think about the contemporary cultural politics that frame such writing: from the no-futurism of austerity capitalism, through to a resurgence of subcultural consciousness, one rooted in the disjunctive historicity of marginalised groups, though this sort of periodisation only takes us so far.
In fact the question of writing is where we should be looking. For the narrator it becomes something intimately tied to the experience of being: ‘Writing, almost remained, held by something below surrender and desire, below care and spite, refusing, despite its aphasic life, to die.’ (70) It holds a particular place within the book which manages to elude crass meta-textuality. Instead it represents a way in which one tries to attempt a structured self-exploration. This continues: ‘the soft furnishings of inside are / lit according to mood: the soul’s interior can adjusted or reflected’, (72-3) followed by a litany of adjectives, materials, bodily anatomy, medical conditions, and verbs of domestic work in the past tense. This structured listing operates as a way of grounding and processing everyday experience. Experience and memory feature heavily too where the narrator claims ‘melancholia started shortly after birth’, (21) to ‘we study the wrong memory.’ (91). This goes back to the conflict that the subject feels as resistant to categories of speech/power within social-sexual life while finding flashes of empowerment in embodied being. We find a variance of writing’s efficacy between the ironic (‘Here I am! I share my fiction with humans’ P. 85) and the earnest (‘I conjure I’ P. 33).
‘A broken story is not a poem. A story that cannot exist but wants to is not a story,’ (92) and so Mattar arguably makes a dissimulated comment on the limits of poetic fiction, the autofictive trend, and the contemporary modernist; a conundrum no less. For the last section breaks down into more recognisable poetic form, ridden and sodden with broken narratives and fragmented personhoods:
A sickness over the city, squatting greenly, teeth out, keen, moving with slow ease, certainty, sharpening on us, ever florescing, toning the sky lime and bile, acid hue in ribbons sprawls tentacularly, into between the ravines of buildings frail or permanent, or gutted, or fresh, fresher without, burned, empty, flung; snaking round hard temples, glass, denouncing the sour clouds, leaking over heaths, over marshes, teal, saturating slim chimneys, brick, asphalt, concrete, tile; forming and entering chapped pores, knuckles of invisibles, seeping up from bowels to spiral over coiled fox shit, dappled palest pink in new blossom, ankles, calves, muzzle, straw, hound’s nostril gaping, rabid. (95)
We are left bereft and consumed by writing that excites and evokes, speaking to a desire on the move, bodies trapped in binds and twisting for release, narratives indeterminate in their splintering ineffability; we keep abeat.
Mira Mattar writes fiction and poetry. She is an independent researcher, editor, and tutor. A Palestinian/Jordanian born in the suburbs of London, she continues to live and work there. Her first book, Yes, I Am A Destroyer was recently published by Ma Bibliothèque. Her first chapbook, Affiliation, is forthcoming from Sad Press; and her first collection of poems will be published by The 87 Press.
Kashif Sharma-Patel is a writer, poet and editor at the 87 press. They work at the interface of sonic, visual and written cultures with particular reference to queer and racialised experimental work. Kashif has published and performed poetry widely with a full-length collection forthcoming on the 87 Press. They also write music, art and literary criticism for Artforum, The Quietus, AQNB, Poetry London and more.
This publication is in Copyright. Mira Mattar and Kashif Sharma-Patel, 2020.
The moral right of the author has been asserted. However, the Hythe is an open-access journal and we welcome the use of all materials on it for educational and creative workshop purposes.