Introduction One My lover was a poet, or;
Introduction Two So Long did not waste her wasting days. We set up her deathbed in the guest bedroom. She was surrounded by pot plants and books and wool blankets, facing a window and the afternoon sunlight. She was surrounded by loaned hospital equipment, a drip stand full of poison and painkillers, little sensors on her chest, on her index finger. She was dying, actively dying, and still she wrote every day. But how do I curate these final works? How do I gather and share what is left of a woman so loved by her readers?
Putting together this collection, I questioned many times my decision to include everything So Long wrote from her deathbed. In the end, nothing was cut. Dying is a private act, an act performed by So Long’s private, domestic self, the So Long I shared my life with. What of this act is mine to give her readers? Is sharing So Long’s death a betrayal by me of the self that lived behind domestic boundaries? I quote here author Caitlin McKinney, who wrote thus of intimate postmortem photographs taken of Susan Sontag previously kept private, taken by her lover Annie Liebovitz: ‘to whom does this domestic boundary belong, [and] for whom is its transcendence a problem?’ McKinney answers her own question, suggesting that:
Queer knowledges that circulate in public ... might open up space for considering the precarious social mobilities afforded sexual minority women to represent, or imagine, their lives in non-normative ways.
For me, and for So Long, this is more important than keeping private the failings of the body. Indeed, so much of So Long’s work was focused on making public the joys of the body: the private, sexual, non-normative joys we found in one another. Why should the pain of her death be any different, if it, too, can open a much-needed space?
Still, my decision hinged on the works themselves. My lover descended, quietly, inevitably, into the dementia of the dying, and her writings became shorter, less connected, more personal and introspective. Gathering So Long’s final words together I was forced to ask myself: what constitutes a work? In asking this, I turn to Foucault, who once deftly asked and then refused to answer that same question:
Is everything [s]he wrote and said, everything [s]he left behind, to be included in [her] work? ... what if, in a notebook filled with aphorisms, we find a reference, a reminder of an appointment, an address, or a laundry bill, should this be included in [her] works? Why not? These practical considerations are endless once we consider how a work can be extracted from the millions of traces left by an individual after [her] death.
And so I didn’t exclude anything from this collection, although much of what is left is far from the polished poetry that So Long produced for most of her career. It was hard for her, I believe, as writer and as woman, to come to terms with the fact that the discursive constructs she had spent her life engaging with had not provided her with the tools necessary for the direct and unmediated experience of dying. For her entire career she had been able to find a place for her self, her body, her experiences in the discursive constructions she knew and trusted, but now on her deathbed she applied the abject to herself and was ejected from a fast-dissolving structure. She was stranded with her new, dying body and without a familiar lens through which to view it.
This is perhaps because dying is an experience that by its very nature must sit outside of all understood human experience. All writings about dying are speculative. As felt experience, dying is a culminating, climactic experience in which language itself dissolves. When Marlowe’s King Edward II was killed, sodomised with a hot poker, he uttered no words: just a cry. Matrevis, as he stamps on the King’s dying body: ‘I fear me that this cry will raise the town.’ To cry and raise the town is one thing, but when your murderer is your own body, and your only legacy is words, such wordlessness can be – and was, for So Long, devastating.
In her final days, So Long was obsessed by the emptiness of words in the face of something so vast and irreversible as death. She spoke of Foucault, which is perhaps why I turn to him now, and of signs. The deep-rooted spell at the heart of all words is not in the speaker or the writer, but the listener, the reader: words are only vessels, and soon emptied of meaning. So Long spoke of this, and she spoke of her body the same way: a container struggling to contain; an impossibly small and expendable sign for something enormous and important and completely irreducible to mere words.
This fear of the inadequacy of words speaks to a fear of the inadequacy of voice. Samuel Beckett asks us, ‘what matter who’s speaking?’, and I say, all matter: That So Long herself spoke is all-important, that these pieces of her last days of life exist and through them she can still speak is all-important. The fragments I have drawn together are a clashing of the public and the private selves, a new facet of the name So Long. The pieces in this collection paint a picture of So Long in her final days, a picture of a woman on her deathbed still struggling with fear of mortality, with lust and anger and grief; a woman who, at the end of her life, prioritised two things: her love, and her work. I am lucky, in this collection, to be the custodian of both.
Foucault, again: so often writing is linked to death, to sacrifice. Ancient oral storytelling modes guarantee their heroes and heroines a kind of immortality, a passing down of self through other lives if not their own; modern authors are guaranteed the same by departing from and finally erasing the self, an act inherently paired with that of writing. I do not think So Long would have wished for this kind of immortality. So Long loved and lived aggressively. She never had a spare moment to imagine the way she would be remembered, nor, I am certain, did she care. I am reminded of Simone de Beauvoir writing, after the protracted death of her mother: ‘Whether you think of it as heavenly or earthly, if you love life immortality is no consolation for death.’ I feel similarly bereft. I gather and share because she would have wanted me to gather and share, knowing all the while that these words are only containers, that without her breath they can never again hold the vitality and power they did when she spoke them. But here they are: the millions of traces left of my lover. So long, So Long, with love,
Helena Peach, or;
Introduction Three My darling, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis; My darling, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis; My darling, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.
And they’re saying, it’s best for you, it’s best for you. We just want you to be comfortable. The end, then, is in sight.
They change the sheets a few times a day. I keep shitting myself like a baby. It’s a symmetrical indignity. There is a window; Helena knows how I need a window. Plants in pots, cut flowers in tall vases, mugs of fragrant tea I can’t stomach but whose familiar smell lends an air of domesticity to dying and masks the smell of medicine and shit.
Here in death’s antechamber I am lost for words. I can’t eat. I crave food only to chew it and spit it out because I can’t swallow. Swallowing is an abhorrent act. I cannot make myself do it. I spit my saliva into a bowl the nurse has placed by my bedside. It looks like a steel mixing bowl, the kind in which you would beat eggs, fold them into milk and flour, mix three things that could never be unmixed, combine things that could never again be singular. I know that I am dying. I don’t know how I know. It is a divine knowledge, or perhaps the opposite, perhaps an entirely mundane knowledge: I am falling away from the world.
There aren’t words to speak of death because dying is wordless. Dying is shameful. Housecats know when they’re going to die and they hide at the bottom of the garden so they won’t disturb their owners’ ordered lives. It’s something you do in private, like vomiting: you seek out a cubicle and hope nobody overhears you.
I have been robbed of the womanhood I used as pen, as weapon. Womanhood, Robin Hood, robbinghood. My womb was my arsenal. Now it’s withered up and dried. After man is done thinking about woman, what is left of her is unthinkable, unthought. Cixous. Why do ‘emasculate’ and ‘effeminate’ mean the same thing? Why is there no word for what they have done to me? Why is there no word for the pucker above my heart where used to swing heavy ripe fruit?
Woman should write her self. Cixous. Woman should explore her body with its thousand and one thresholds of order. Woman should make the old single-grooved mother tongue reverberate. Reverberate, doesn’t that just sound like sheer pleasure, a reverberating tongue? A tongue to lick the mother’s milk. A tongue to write in white ink. The experience is more important than the language, but only if you have the power to put one inside the other. When the power to tell disappears, the pleasure of happening goes with it.
Woman has sex organs more or less everywhere. Irigaray. I don’t. Not now. What do you mean? Nothing. Everything.
I cannot connect the proud body of écriture féminine with my shameful dying body. I am not subject. I am not object. I am abject. I am at the border of my condition as a living being. Kristeva. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border. I might live, until, from loss to loss, nothing remains in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit.
And so they have confined me; and so I am confined. I have my cubicle in which to die privately, in the eyes of my lover, in the eyes of a rotating harem of nurses with shaded eyes. So this is what death looks like, say those eyes. I am sad for you, say those eyes, and I will forget you, deliberately, as soon as I can. You frighten me, say those eyes, not because you need me but because you are ashamed of your need. I behold the breaking down of a world that has erased its borders. Kristeva. It is death infecting life. I am death, infecting life.
Were I there when Monsieur Hyppolite and Monsieur Lacan were in conversation I would have conjured you. Were I there for this –
M. HYPPOLITE: The animal is bound by death when he makes love, but he doesn’t know anything about it.
M. LACAN: Whereas [wo]man knows it. [S]he knows it and feels it.
M. HYPPOLITE: That amounts to saying that [s]he [her]self takes [her] own life. Through the other [s]he wants [her] own death.
M. LACAN: We are all completely agreed that love is a form of suicide.
– were I there for that I would have said, for Helena Peach I would take my own life. Through Helena Peach I want my own death. I know it. I feel it. I make love and bind myself to death. I am bound to death and yet still I must love. I must make love. I am bound to love and still I must die, I must bind death, I must make death love and I must love death, I must bind myself to Helena Peach. Jouissance, Monsieur Lacan, is pleasure, and pleasure is Helena Peach. Hélène, une pêche. Ma pêche, my peach, the peach between my thighs.
56 caesar fifty-six years ago they tore me from my mother. gloved hands plucked me from her belly, where i had been a pioneer.
then, i guess co-existence was the mode du jour, despite that visceral separation by my father, those sterilised scissors cutting the thick rope of gore that tied me to her and her to me like a kite like an anchor like a shackle, maybe.
i could write volumes of odes on what the inside of a vagina looks like but i wonder, still if i would be different had i seen one on my way into the world. maybe this loneliness really comes from the coldness of my first embrace: a latex interruption clinical abruption while others took their first wild breaths between hot, wet thighs.
i think probably not, but then again that sense of being torn from sanctuary might be some kind of caesar complex that i wouldn’t have if they’d let my mother guide me through her hips and through her lips as she did my brother and my sister after me.
remember how we knew before they told us that they’d slice my breasts off – how I stood in the kitchen preparing for dinner slicing tomatoes in half and potatoes in half and apples in half and you saw me standing there surrounded by all those little half-spheres and asked me what on earth kind of salad I was making – remember – remember that little oncologist remember driving home in silence very slowly as though the diagnosis had changed anything, as though it hurt any more now that we knew what it was – remember? you kissed them that night those twins those moons those tumourous pestilent bulbs yes you sucked on them until I cried out my darling and you cried too – remember when we slaked our lust in every roadside public toilet from here to Adelaide? melton ballan ballarat ararat horsham nhill keith tailem bend they all hosted our private ecstasies our shuddering elbow-deep cuntclench cries the oh oh ohhhohohohh then wipe and flush and wash our hands with soap and water – remember – remember you and I in the bathtub together where once we would have cupped one another’s breasts and bottoms in the curved soles of our feet – you and me in the bathtub speaking together this new sick language – saying words like metastasis and lymphoedema words like cyclophosphamide and methotrexate and palliative – remember when my hair came out in your fingers as you ran them through it and it was fine and soft and sad away from the head sweet not dirty like the great clumps in the shower for it had fallen away in an act of affection – remember when they moved an iv drip stand to our bedroom where it took the place of the nightstand on one side that old nightstand once bearer of books of cuppas of a vibrator and a clock and a little white frame with a photograph of us inside it us younger and unlined and with four breasts between us – my darling my wonder my own tenth muse – this canker grew in the space between us before ever we knew there was one
[The ‘Empress’ tarot card, from the Rider-Waite deck: image]
helena and the empress a gown decorated with pomegranates, a crown of stars, a rod, a heart-shaped shield bearing the symbol of venus, a field of ripe wheat; the fool strides forward.
she’s gone to preston to buy fruit. how we used to stare out from the collective imagination of two people who are fucking (who have just fucked before leaving the house) at the fruit, at all that ripeness and fertility in bright heaps like aztec gold, and it was sex, all of it sex: phallic curved bananas strawberries like areolas stonefruits with their wrinkled hidden centres we stared at piles of red pomegranate seeds glowing like coals dried apricots like earlobes we lay the palms of our hands on big round melons dimpled butternut pumpkins golden brazen ears of corn bunches of grapes hanging heavy swaying low everything ripe everything bursting everything light and the smell of it all! earthy and acidic and sweet and we could not
keep our hands off one another’s bodies we could not ignore the screaming stimulus we could not ignore all that fruit our bodies were fruit and i licked my lips then and i lick them now to think of your strawberry areola crystallising under my teeth/tongue, of butternut dimpled hips, of dusty plum skin of hot wrinkle opening of little red pomegranate seed –
but my own body, now brittle, can bear no more fruit.
how can i fuck her how can i love her in a body like this whose ripeness has been incised and removed whose juice is poisoned whose dusty blush has faded to a deathbed pallor?
once, long ago, we would handle the fruit excitedly, our eyes meeting and burning across piles of it, a multitude nobody else greeted with such dripping heat, and we would know that we would plumb one another’s depths with fingers that still smelled of this fruit and she will come home soon, smelling of the fruit and we will both pretend that we do not smell it. she will wipe crust from my chapped lips with hands that held two oranges in them with wonder, a twin weight long gone from this bed
THE DOCTOR: Ms. Long, I’m afraid it’s bad news.
HELENA PEACH: ‘I’m afraid it’s bad news.’
SO LONG: ‘I’m afraid it’s bad news.’
HELENA PEACH: Doctor, this is hardly a time for cliché.
Helena appears to me as if in fantasy: Helena the saint, Helena meaning ‘other’. Helena my nursemaid, bearer of ice chips morphine drips Helena. Helena wiping vomit from my chin, treating my bedsores with the same fingers, kind and full of need, that caressed my standing nipples (which are in absentia). Helena the saint, Helena meaning ‘other’. The construct of desire is in itself a fantasy. We cling to one another because we need one another, we each need the other to believe in desire and to feel it, to really feel it, to really believe the fantasy. Helena. Helena the saint, Helena meaning ‘other’. Helena my nursemaid, figurehead of ship gentle fingertip Helena who desires my body in all its materiality and excrement, in its shit and blood and pestilential fucking cancer, in its place outside the order in its newfound terra nullius: a body with which I have long since ceased to identify and Helena loves it still.
I had a dream where I swallowed my tongue.
I wanted to tell you I was looking for you, but I could only write it down and so I posted you a letter because in dreams people do that still
And a part of me went with it and we found you sleeping with your eyes open. You didn’t see me come in and I thought how funny it is that we only ever kiss on the doorstep
(please come in
please go away)
Like our tongues are currency and the exchange rates are really good on the welcome mat where the neighbours can see us loving each other like two people are supposed to.
Perhaps the dream was just part of the aftermath of that fight we had about saying yes to the looming spreading end of things even though it’s hardly paradise and the climate here is stifling
And everything matters still, even the way we pay for things.
And we matter. Perhaps we’re made of matter but perhaps matter is made of words and all I’m doing is trying to put them in an order that makes sense to people other than myself –
And all these shopping lists and notebooks and calendars are unbearably optimistic when you look back on them and think about how you pencilled in that date with such childlike hope –
But really they’re just words. The cancellation was just words and so was my diagnosis and if that’s all they are then I have the antidote.
It’s right here on this page. Just like any pharmaceuticals I merely have to get the components right
When I realised words were all I had to leave behind I stopped being able to use them properly. They’re just containers, figurative Tupperware, scribbled markers curving and bending and holding things they can’t contain. What happens, when I die, to the woman in my poems? The woman in the poems I wrote when I fell in love – the woman, years ago, who spent hours, days, endless sleepless nights rolling naked under kneading fingers – the woman who planted root vegetables with bare hands and dirty fingernails, carrots and turnips and beetroots and spuds – where is that woman now? Does the woman live on, the woman in the poem, with the vegetables and the orgasms, written in white ink? Does writing split the self? Do I inhabit the differences, the negative spaces between my words and what they are trying to carry? Will I live on only in the spaces between one thing and another that define, by omission, both? Does the woman in the poem define me by omission – can we not exist side by side? The deathbed hysteria of the unsaid, the unmentionable – this language that is only differences holds them all, and they are all differences, and I fill the differences and am filled by them – a post-structural panic, a collapse of universalism, a deathbed différance. Derrida. The negative spaces between words hold me to ransom, hold us all to ransom, pin the vegetables self down on a page away from the self of the deathbed. I’m damned. I hoard the difference. I hoard the mornings. I whored the morning mourning. I can only whisper, now, I can only write a little bit each day.
it’s in the room it’s in the room death is in the room soon i will lay down my pen soon i will close my eyes and see her the empress she’s in the room she’s in the room death is in the room and you know the moment itself will be everything and nothing but you must you must wait you must sit by my body until it becomes a thing you must sit by my body until you can reject it because i will not be there to reject it myself because i want you to see that i am gone from it before you put it in the ground you will do this because i have asked you to you will do this and then you will walk away
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