Today in the PEN Poetry Series, guest editor Maggie Nelson features a poem from T Fleischmann. About Fleischmann's work, Nelson writes: "I first encountered T Fleischmann when I was asked to write something on behalf of 'SYZYGY, BEAUTY: An Essay.' I wrote then that the book 'shimmers with confidence as it tours the surreal chaos of gender, art, and desire. Its declarative sentences—seductive, abject, caustic, moving, informative, and utterly inventive—herald a new world, one in which we are blessedly 'here with outfits like strings of light and no future.' I hail its weirdness, its 'armpit frankess,' its indelible portrait of occulted relation, and above all, its impeccable music. I was excited to check in and see what T has been working on lately; here is an excerpt from what T describes as 'a book-length hybrid essay navigating between Felix Gonzalez-Torres, queer affection, and ice. A more honest description would just be that it's a big mess of descriptions of ice breaking and attempts at understanding FGT better, but hopefully its coming toward something more cohesive.' I love its steady, direct thinking & feeling, and how different it is from SYZYGY. I look forward to seeing it in the world, and am happy to offer a glimpse into it here."
For the month of July, I stay in a room in an apartment in the Lefferts Garden
neighborhood of Brooklyn.
There are two other people who live here, one a close friend and one an
The room belongs to a third friend, Eric.
He, like me, thinks often of the breaking of ice or glass.
In the living room is a small round table with a lamp at its center.
Surrounding the lamp is a pile of individually wrapped candies, thirty or forty
maybe, all of them a crisp and glistening blue.
I am sentimental, but continue to be surprised by how quickly an event, while
retreating into the past, gains its nostalgia.
It is not simply that seemingly tragic events are palliated with time, but instead that
the texture of those moments appears to have woven into it a gentler fabric:
the day my last girlfriend broke up with me, how we confirmed our love for one
another and I then turned to a close friend for comfort;
my grandfather dying, the immediate family around him and exposed to one another
in a way we rarely are;
even the fall from a ladder and the hazy, concussed afternoon I spent lying on a
porch and listening to the creek run.
In this way, nostalgia seems to me to be dishonest;
I am not convinced the fabric of loss has any texture but that which it had when my
hand laid upon it.
The first time I walked up to “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in LA) I stood before the
sculpture for two or three minutes, a few feet back.
A friend had earlier explained the piece to me, so I knew I was allowed to step
forward and take a piece of the candy.
I selected one wrapped in bright yellow foil.
I knelt, lifted it and fingered it for a moment before unwrapping.
I placed it in my mouth.
I ate the candy as I continued to look at the pile, slightly diminished.
I felt for a moment an acute sense of loss and beauty, each indistinguishable from
The candy was very sweet and melting.
I consider this to be the most affecting encounter with a work of art that I have had.
I have never properly lived in Brooklyn, but spend a few months here every year.
I come to see the doctor who gives me the hormones that make my body different.
New York is a city where people talk often of how it was.
It is the place out of which came nearly all of the art and poetry that, while still
young, redirected my life, showing me how I might see.
I wonder at the city’s ability to haunt.
In the spring, I came during an exhibit at the New Museum titled NYC: 1993.
It was, according to the museum’s description, “an experiment in collective
In Michigan in 2003, it was the artists of this exhibit I found when I first found art:
Todd Haynes, Kiki Smith, Lorna Simpson.
I made plans to attend the New Museum with a friend the day before his own
opening in Chelsea.
Instead, I stayed out the night before until sunrise, jaeger bombs and drunken fights
The day of our museum trip I slept late into the afternoon, Eric’s arm slung across
Late in the summer, however, when I return to the city, the Whitney hosts a similar
exhibit, I, You, We.
Glenn Ligon’s overlapping text, Catherine Opie’s Self-Portrait with stick figure
carvings, the crooked teeth of Nan Goldin photographs.
I attend this exhibition, walking the angled circle of the floor twice.
My slow pace is slower the second time.
Over the next few days, I offer to bring friends to see it.
I shy at actually describing the experience of viewing this work, avoiding words like
“powerful” and “sad.”
Though, these words are trite enough that I know they will fall short of revealing
anything significant of me or my obsessions.
There is a heat wave in New York City.
One day, as I find myself again suggesting we might trek from Brooklyn to the
Whitney, two friends and I become incapable of leaving my small, air-conditioned
We lie together on the bed—
Eric beside my left arm, our friend Henri beside my right.
In the past I have imagined what it would be like to date each of them.
In the past I let this affect how I behaved when we were together.
We scroll through gay hook-up applications on our phones, comparing the men with
whom we occasionally chat.
This activity goes on for hours.
Sometimes one of us leaves the cool air to make a cocktail, and we briefly try to
relocate to the breeze of the roof.
Another friend comes, joins us on the bed, likewise scrolls through boys on his
We laugh at the images on the applications, grids of queers in which the four of us
occupy a single row.
An hour or two past midnight we put our phones away.
Eric, Henri and I sleep in the air-conditioned hum like three closing parenthesis.
As we leave the next morning, Eric grabs two of the blue-foiled candies and places
them in my purse, little shards that will begin to melt in the heat of the subway.
Gonzalez-Torres was aesthetically brilliant, able to make a string of lights or a photo
of a bed into a site of exhilarating beauty.
In part because of this allure, it is possible to forget his political efficacy.
In both intention and execution, his work is as driven by motors of dissent and
remonstration as by the mechanisms of beauty.
He spoke of his interest in occupying power, in “infecting” it.
Many of his works enter or reference capitalist reproduction
(the billboard, the distribution of objects, the dissemination of information)
while using that power to create modes of freedom and grace for those most damaged by the system,
queers, people of color, poor people, those living with HIV/AIDS.
His work does not simply endure, but rather replenishes itself.
It is a thing that can be broken and put back together to be broken again.
Like so many of my friends, I found my way to the city because of what it had been.
What it had been, we thought, meant what we could be.
I walk up to the pile of candies.
I take one for myself.
This candy is free and it is mine.
And I think of how Ross in L.A. might have died just as slowly, just as swiftly.
I am aware that I take something away.
I am not certain, however, of what I might contribute.
There is a poet in the city whose writing I came across a year or so ago.
While in Lefferts Garden, I email him.
He accepts the offer to have drinks on my roof.
As soon as my head is hazy enough to dampen my nervousness, I kiss him, and we
walk down to the bedroom for the remainder of the night.
Although he and I text back and forth, he declines my offer to have another date.
I, futzing my evenings away on other boys and drinks, fail to attend a single poetry
reading or literary event this month.
My lingering attraction to the poet, I tell myself, is based more in his words than his
I want to inhabit the space of his poems alongside him.
Practice thinking in the way he sees his world.
I joke with my friends,
“the poet has broken up with me already,”
and we decide that, as you are allowed to mourn a relationship for half the length of
time that it lasted, I can take three hours at the bar for this.
They buy me beers as I complain about not having a partner.
I experienced the act of removing the piece of candy, with its overt ritualization, as
an act that both grounded me and pushed me further into an imaginative space.
The tactility of unwrapping the paper and tasting the melting sugar placed me in my
own body, while the knowledge of Gonzalez-Torres’s history with Ross removed me
from my experience.
In the moment when my tongue accepted the candy, I would have been tempted to
say that the remove placed me in the memory of the artist.
I know, however, that I was only in my own memories.
My losses are squarely different than his.
As none of our losses are the same.
Gonzalez-Torres moves between fact and imagination, the object and the memory,
to create an invitation:
He welcomes me to an approximation of his loss.
This is a measure of his generosity as an artist.
And I am left wondering if it is a failure of my spirit that I have allowed my own
imagination here at all.
My roommates and I hold a small party on our roof.
The poet, invited, does not come.
I spend the night smoking cigarettes with a handful of friends whom I have dated or
am still ambiguously dating.
To chart these romances would be to find constellations among stars that will not
At one point, a friend laughs,
“I want one of those damn candies but I guess some important artist made them.”
She then takes a candy.
There is Another Queer Poet at the party, a stranger to me.
He does not match the enthusiasm of the conversation I thrust upon him.
We reference only a few favorite writers before he turns back to his date.
Later, I won’t remember the conversations I have that night, just that a friend I used
to date leaves early to meet the girl they are seeing
(a guitarist I, by coincidence, had hooked up with a few years prior)
and that, when the moon first peeks above the geometry of Lefferts Garden, a boy is
surprised to see it so low, insisting that
“It is always higher”
despite agreeing that it rises and sets.
We have to see the world to make anything of it.
At twenty I saw the curved back of a boy, short and bearded, my sheet draping his
hips in their slight curve.
At twenty I saw a photograph of a billboard of an unmade bed.
The billboard, repeated to me over the years in exact duplication, comes clearly
when I face the blank page.
It clarifies its image even though I do not know what I might say of it
(only that there is something there I want to say).
For the boy, however, I have to search.
The vivid outlines—
the mat on which I slept for years and his own tendency to lie still in sleep—
come because they are the general repetitions of my life at that time.
Although it seems to be, twenty is not really so long ago.
I remember that I wore his silver ring, that we each laid beside a coniferous tree one
It seems ridiculous now that the picture of a billboard of an unmade bed would
weigh on me more heavily than any summoned image of him, a boy I loved and who
then moved away, our lives arriving at a natural split.
Although the moon we see graces the horizon, I too insist it is always higher.
I become convinced that my imagination must be the problem.
That I cannot take a piece of candy, cannot think of a city or cross the break between
two stanzas, without my fancy directing it all back to the container of my own life.
(I mean nothing of your imagination.
That is yours to do with.)
What can one do with a past?
What I mean is, what can we do with our bodies?
I want a white-walled room, a bed with white sheets, a lamp and a pile of books.
An attention to the truth of objects, I think, might be a way to handle this.
My emotions linger on white linens I have not touched and the love between two
men I have not met.
With the heat in Brooklyn there was nowhere for my friends and I to be but beside
one another in this bed.
I join thousands to block the streets of Manhattan in protest, I wake early and read
broken lines, my friends wear wigs and bright eye shadow.
I am uncertain whether these are the experiences I had hoped to find.
I leave the party on the roof while it still continues.
I lie beside Eric and we talk in and out of our sleep.
We are so boring, we laugh to each other.
We both prefer a white room and glass when it breaks.
We are so boring, we laugh to each other.
We both prefer a white room and glass when it breaks.
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