Shaelyn Smith



The way Alice Walker went out walking, calling "Zora, Zora, where are you?" and Miss Zora answered back "Alice, Alice, I am here!" Legend has it that Zora Neale Hurston had photographed a zombie. Orgasm flared up inside her. The milk will expire in three days. And later that night after the breeze has left town for some other distant place, after the tablecloths have wended their own wet ways around the clothesline and the bottles of wine have rolled to the roosts of the red-eyed geese—after all of that is done, it will be revealed.


High moon and a light breeze. You in pain and I not yet. This must be the most beautiful night there was. Through the base of our skulls we can feel the deep roots of our humanness, our skin bursting to the touch. This must be what it means to feel gratitude. Will we ever admit our intentions. Force open the lips, then things get real. Barreled, what we can catalogue as ammunition. Nothing minimalist about these matrices. We cocoon deeper into ourselves. The lies we told about the lies we told. And this is how stories work.


The titular inspiration for Nan Goldin's The Ballad of Sexual Dependency comes from the second section of an early 20th century opera, the overarching title of which, when translated, means small, trifling, insignificant, disposable. The opera is beautiful. The cycle of the photographs, when projected in sequence, takes over 45 minutes to complete. The sequence is set to music iconic to the decades in which Goldin took the portraits—each named for its subject, or their mood, or their location. The etymology of the things we call ourselves, or chalk ourselves up to. Most of Nan's subjects were dead within a decade of the snapping shutter.


Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston's best-known novel, begins with Janie Crawford, the main character, returning to a town she has run off from. The women she had known then, in the past, sit on their porches, now still, and watch her walk home. Judgment clouds around their heads in the coagulated summer air. Miss Janie has come back to the closest home she has after killing the man she loved. This wasn't an accident, but it certainly wasn't what she originally intended. She had little choice. It was self-defense. It was mercy. As Zora notes, "Now, women forget all those things they don't want to remember, and remember everything they don't want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly." The question being, according to what. In accordance with what. Who finds myth in this? What truths to be untold.


Georgia O'Keeffe spent much of her adult life deeply in love with Alfred Stieglitz. He represented her early work, he paid her way out, they continued to correspond surreptitiously by letter. She inks to him: "I'm getting to like you so tremendously that it some times scares me..." and Alfred responds: "It's queer how fond I am of you, not at all as man and woman but something so different it's very wonderful and it hurts terribly." The letters continue, until he finally divorces his wife and he and Georgia marry in a small, private home with no decorum, no celebration. In the most famous photograph Alfred made of Georgia she stares without emotion into the camera, her left palm sprawled across the butt of her right hand, the index and middle finger of which clasp her cheek, creating a small river of wrinkles to ripple up under her eye. You can't tell what she's thinking. Her eyes don't say anything. Her ring finger outlines perfectly the lower pout of her lip. Much later, Georgia and Alfred will split ways.


The nomenclature of something can indicate whether the term is positive or negative, but does, on occasion, cast the impression in a false, powdery light. If there is a beauty in truth, there also must be a falsity in profundity. The lies echoing around our filth. Some may choose the term ugliness, while others yet may prefer the word uncouth, feminine, evil. This is the manner in which we live our own lies and lie among our own truths. The caddisfly, kissing cousin of the butterfly, lives in the adult stage from two weeks up to two months. They emerge from the pupae stage en masse, sure to encounter a mate within hours of hatching. They may stay with this mate for a few minutes, or a few hours.


A young woman files a restraining order against her husband. One day she comes home to find that he has been there while she was out. He has moved a small painting 1/8" to the left. He has been doing this once or twice a week for the past month. No one notices but her. Synnecrosis is a rarely-used, archaic term of biological interaction. It indicates a caustic parasitic relationship: short-term, but so mutually destructive and inimical that it results in the death of both parties. This is infrequent, as it is not favored by evolution. Drawing to the close of the death/self period of their collaboration, performance artists Marina Abramovic and Ulay performed Breathing In/Breathing Out, which brought them both to their knees. They latched upon the mouth of the other, breathing in synchronicity until neither had any oxygen left. Both full of each other's carbon dioxide, they passed out, collapsing into one another, soft as overripe fruit. It took seventeen minutes before their individual capacities for life were destroyed. As the self is warranted. As the air is necessary. As the death is requited. And so it was.


Zora Neale Hurston was accused of molesting a young boy shortly after she had changed her own birth year from 1891 to 1901. The boy was ten years old. Right before Ana Mendieta died, Carl Andre was working on a series of boxes. He made these boxes of brushed metal. When shown now in galleries, the boxes are lined up on a wall. This is not how he intended them to be. He intended them to be spaced equally apart, in a field of the bodies Ana burned in the ground. She sunk her form into mud, grass, flower, feather, flame, sand, cement. She titled these earth-body imprints Silueta Works. The likeness of her human nature embedded in another, more powerful and independent, nature. Carl & Ana were married for ten months. The accusations against Zora were found to be false, and subsequently dropped, but the reputation proved impossible to shed.


Perhaps, even, we each have our own definition of what it means "to be with another." And also with you. Nan Goldin never allowed Brian to abuse her, but she evidenced it as art when it happened. The passion of what makes us ache with a hunger we can find no dirt or soiled satisfaction for. The bone of the skull as soft as the inner bark of a tree, the rigid lines along which we define our limitations. And this is what we call a face. This is what we call a trunk. This is what he meant when he said that the god in us is released as violence. At the edge of the woods Alice and Zora found one another. She was forty years old.


Later that night, in the still of the dark, we dance barefoot under the glass bulbs of fake light baubling their heads across the backyard, site of your own destruction. The grass so violent and coarse against the tender soles of our faint feet. The next day you call and I tell you my own truths of the night: you were drunk and I was drunk and we were drunk. I was dancing, I was falling in love, I came inside to check on you and you were packing your suitcases. I thought it was a joke. It wasn't a joke, you assure me. You were falling out of love. In my honest truths, I want to hurt like you, but I can't. I'm not strong enough. But I can feel your pain. I can try. I can fail. You will leave then, but you will come back. You can try. You can fail. You are unable to stay away from your own devastations. And so am I. And so we all. And so it goes.


After fighting her way out, the butterfly will rest on her cocoon's empty carcass to stretch and test her wings, dry them out before she flies. Nan named The Ballad of Sexual Dependency after a solo midway through Act Two of The Threepenny Opera where Mrs. Peachum conspires, of her husband's will, against their daughter. The solo telegraphs her indecisions in matters of the heart. She sings: "All through the day he swears / He's self-denying, then dusk descends / And once again he's lying // They're all the same / In meeting love's confusion / Poor noble souls / Get blotted in illusion." The Threepenny Opera premiered to poor reception, but gained favor soon thereafter, playing over 400 times throughout the next two years. It details the narrative of an amoral anti-hero. The question being: what keeps mankind alive? Beggars, gangsters, whores, constables, soldiers, musicians, addicts, magnates, politicos, sexual deviants, notorious criminals, executives, dishwashers, artists, bankers, cross dressers, pilots, xenophobes, the clinically insane, sociopaths, solipsists, those of us sequestered by and silenced in our fear. Who will help us run our businesses? After all this time, we still sit waiting.


When Brian met Nan for the first time in the back of a lower east village club, he gave her a mixtape. The first song on the B-side is this extravagant, melodramatic, pitching voice, of Portuguese or Spanish descent. The lyrics, a proclamation of you and I, until we die, waver between autotuned intensities and variegating frequencies. She listens to it on her headphones over and over and over as she stares across the East River, develops in her burnt orange darkroom, walks home just before sunrise. After the ribbon rips, she will be unable to find the song anywhere, as if it had never existed.


We are never the ones to determine the parameters of other people's thoughts about us. Just because I destroyed you doesn't mean I ever had it in me to own you. You never belonged to me. You first have to understand how you feel, and then you can understand why. At the margin of the forest Zora appears. The fruits heavy among the lowest branches will soon soften enough to resemble something like the thick hot custard released from an aching udder. We had this, and then we had nothing. The milk will expire in two days. We still have hope for each other. A female luna moth lacks a mouth. She does not eat. She exists solely to mate, to lay eggs, to procreate and perpetuate her species. As an adult, she will live approximately one week. She will not fly until she has mated. She will only be seen by chance, at night, fluttering around the bare light bulb, spent—this one last burst of brilliance.


The cynics of Janie's world found the biggest problems in a flush and fertile resistance to the movement of the time. They thought it not inaccurate but, rather, satirical. This was not enough. It's so easily misunderstood. They believed Zora Neale Hurston did not pay due credit to the pulse of the moment. This is not entirely accurate. True, she didn't have her worn, whorled finger right on the tip of the Racial Uplift, but Janie didn't live in the Harlem Renaissance. Perhaps this is why Alice Walker found it appropriate to rediscover Zora Neale Hurston as a feminist: Zora left Janie Crawford fingering another peak, belonging to her sexuality as much as it belonged to her. Janie, running the pad of her index around another cultural clitoris, waiting for it to explode. Because to Zora, for her art, and because to Janie, for her life, this was more important—the fallen pear mushy under the weight of wet dead leaves from last season. A promise, budding.


The caddisfly builds itself a home during its larval stage, in a nearby lake or pond or stream or long-standing puddle. Some will remain there for their entire lifespan. The structure will be either a case or a net, both of which utilize silk spun from the oral orifice, supplemented with whatever happens to be available in the surrounding environs: sticks, stones, claws, beach glass, various seaweeds, shells, sand. Some caddisfly find themselves in habitats that are fuller and more fruitful than others, thus have access to more materials. The entomology of interdependence. These caddisfly, in turn, become more reliant upon the exterior abundance and use less and less of their self-produced silks. Their bodies get softer, slower, tumid.


Marina Abramovic uses her art to test the self in order to transform the self.In Rhythm 2 she attempts to recreate unconsciousness and intentionally integrate it into her performance. She takes a catatonic pill—her body becomes uncontrollable; her mind stays lucid. She remembers no thing she physically performed during this act. In the second part, she takes a pill meant to control uncontrollable functions of the mind; her body remains present. She has no memory of what she performed during this act. In Rhythm 0 Marina put herself at the mercy of passersby in a public square. She sits surrounded by objects: a feather, a rose, a knife, honey, olive oil, a gun, a single bullet. She invites her audience to use these objects as they see fit.


In an amensalistic relationship, one party accidentally inhibits or destroys the other, with no benefit or gain of their own. The affecting organism is often larger than the affected, and rarely realizes it is even happening. In fact, the unharmed may do damage by the very fact of its existence in the realm of the harmed. For example, no plants can grow under a black walnut tree because of a substance the tree secretes from its roots. When the tree is mature enough, all the plants growing under it will begin to wither and die. Just by existing in similar territory does it inflict injury. This does not mean that the disadvantaged party is inherently weaker, but rather, due to situation and circumstance, is simply more susceptible to the traits of the unintended interferer. Carl Andre was charged with Ana Mendieta's death. A neighbor heard a scream. "Surely they were drunk, they were drunk all the time," the doorman said to the police. This is the way they had learned to live. Carl was acquitted. All charges were dropped. He chose to be tried with no jury present. By eliminating an audience, one can guarantee very little repercussion beyond that of their own right. To keep yourself contained in a quiet little world ensures some sort of protection. An arid ability to keep things inside.


Close up, the butterfly's chrysalis shrouds itself in shades of gold, a rush of metallic flesh, showy and ostentatious. Cobweb-like in its growth and differentiation. The repetition of certain patterns we have adjusted to, or have come to learn to need. Our protection stands among us. Like a shell, too thin to be opaque. The pericardium encapsulating our hearts. A film still in a frame of flame. The milk expires tomorrow. What kind of truth to be unarmed. Opaque, transparent, spun of silk, solid or meshlike, of various colors and composed of multiple layers, a butterfly larva will attach her cocoon to small twigs, vegetation, fecal pellets, often to disguise her transformation from predators. She'll spin to the underside of some perch—a leaf, a porch railing, the side mirror of a rusted-out truck, the faucet of a little-used garden hose, an abandoned backyard birdbath, a suspended branch, something buried in detritus, or whatever else makes itself available to her. Down along Highway 82 your car keys are stuck, up hanging on an electrical wire. And this is how you will reach me.


Legend has it that just by existing in similar territory do we inflict injury upon one another. This is not always intentional, but it is inadvisable. We bring out the worst in each other. We further the other's pain. Devastatingly. Incrementally. We are vying for the same resources: life, love, individuality, happiness, intellect, honor. Even last time I see you, you are not interested in talking, really, so we drink. We drink water, we drink tea, we drink wine, we drink Campari over ice, we take shots. We fall into the photobooth, we fall into one another, we fall into bed. We are so dangerous for each other.


In The Dinner Party, Georgia O'Keeffe's plate is last in line. Judy completes the third and final wing of the table with a plate most extravagant: it's of the highest, fullest dimension, to represent Georgia's artistic freedom and her pivotal position in the development of a female narrative. O'Keeffe says, "the men like to put me down as one of the best women painters." "I am, in fact," she says, "one of the best painters." Chicago made this plate herself, alone in her studio, late at night with a soft hum of rain on the window. Alfred writes Georgia a letter: "I love you, Dearest One, if I am capable of love."


In many ways, Georgia O'Keeffe and Judy Chicago are contemporaries. Both were chided and chastised for the seeming vulgarity of their work. The flowers of Georgia's and the butterflies of Judy's. Both resembling too much all the names for cunt: beaver, lady bits, pussy, poon, cooter, cho-cha, muff, snatch, honey pot, pink portal, cookie, biscuit, cupcake, snatch, slit, box, twat, cha-cha, hooha, any sheath-like structure. Judy very much admired Georgia, but Georgia did not feel the same way. Legend has it that Georgia refused to work with Judy, and rejected her invitation to the party. "Too showy," she RSVPs. She did not want to be thought of as celebrating the female form. She did not want to be mistaken for something she was not. Judy set her a place anyhow. Legend has it that just before she died, Georgia took off all her clothes and walked across the scorched sand, into the stunning, hot mess of a New Mexican sun.


Legend has it that just after Ana Mendieta died, Carl Andre made a sculpture based entirely upon a photograph of the back of her head. The way the fan lifted the hair from her neck, and how the ends of the hair, when nearing the light, resembled little phosphorescent maggots. The kind he found in long dead rodent carcasses near the compost pile of his childhood. A boy in the park. Working with what we have because there is nothing else for us to do. Carl made the sculpture out of plastic, which was not a medium in which he typically worked. He left it in his studio, and occasionally used it to test a power tool, or the heat of a particular solder.


As humans we need the innate structures of our internal bodies—how the bones, even though hidden, are typically found in the same ratios; how the organs come alone or in pairs; how the vertebrae slowly step their way out of the spine to test the diaphanous tautness of our skin; how the brain begins to develop, rationally; how, for protection, our skulls begin to fuse tighter around these pulsing connections; how our bodies grow in hemispherical symmetry. This is how beauty works. This is how we learn to see things independently of our dependence. What becomes fuel for combat, and what we have no power in resisting, harrumphing in the burgeoning light of a free and lucid dawn.


After Brian beat Nan he tried to apologize. She said, "No, thank you," through the heavy wooden door and went back to bed, pulling the blankets up over her head and rolling toward the window. The season is over. The season is very short. She was becoming very familiar with this. Familiarization can become ritualistic. Some choose to use the term battered. The streetlights through the blinds cast everything in a dirty orange glow. Eventually most people move. Eventually most people find a place to come to rest. The headstone typically requires another person to inscribe it. The inscription is not always of one's own accord. Nan hadn't even needed to look through the peephole. She knew his voice by the way he knocked.


True love almost always has positive connotations. This can be a common misconception.  We can never expect salvation, but sometimes it finds us. Brings us to our knees. This is what we call prayer. This is what we call an absence of the lord. The light comes glittering after. A fulcrum of fluidity—the lies we tell are not always the lies we lived. When Marina and Ulay split ways, they walked toward each other from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China. She starts from the east, and he from the west. They each walk for 90 days. When they meet in the middle, they say goodbye—this signifies the end of their collaboration, and the end of their relationship. Marina cites this as a part of her oeuvre. Ulay does not claim it in his.


The vivid and viscous breath of a thing that has begun to take on a life of its own. Alice gave Zora a big glossy stone; she paid someone else to engrave it. What she hoped she could be called as a predecessor. The blood in blood relation. It's a clandestine approach to which we must gift some credit. A future little heron huddled on the road, the black and the green and the white of this one lone swamp. Everything we do must come from the selfish place within us. As Zora ends Janie's life, when Janie, compelled and alit, invites her own soul to come out and play.


Legend will have it that when Ulay comes back to Marina after so many years they can do nothing but simply stare at one another. They are both wearing red. Her arms slowly extend across the table. His meet hers, halfway. They clasp hands, desperately but without chaos. He gives his head a small shake, releases her and stands. Sitting there alone, she wipes her eyes, pushes back her hair, looks down at her lap. Absorbing as much as we can, we already know that it will not be enough. This they know. There will not be enough in this world to fill us up. It won't keep us from trying.


No more life beneath us. The last time I come to your new city, we don't see each other. I can't. In a recent letter, an old friend informed me of his love life: "I will stop dating very soon, because I have lost a lot of money on classy cocktails and mean women." The space called twilight and what that means now. And when they went singing out into the independent dark, Zora notes "they mocked everything human in death." These things are built upon our externalized immunizations to the things happening within our homes. If there is a consumer, there must be a resource. The inherent violences of confidently contained intimacies.


The caterpillar sheds her old skin, under which is a newer and tougher skin that will become the chrysalis. A private transformation in public, the process called metamorphosis and what this means now. Unfurling ecchymosis petals in the darks of the cheekbones, the delicately lined skin under the eyes. Judy forms and reforms the ceramic setting for Georgia, elevating each curl and curve, sharpening some edges, smoothing over others. This plate is so much more elaborate than the rest: totally three-dimensional, a hole in the shape of a lily, a clitoral jack-in-the-pulpit hood pouring over the petals and stems glazed various shades of pistachio, peppermint, lavender, bone. Not a skull. Not a flower. Not a butterfly.


The butterfly harbors various trickeries: polymorphism, mimicry, aposematism. The butterfly suggests something else in the shape of the dark: mammalian eyespots and owls and bird droppings. The moth learns to resemble more dangerous creatures, more poisonous breeds. It takes on a familiar form: a tiger swallowtail without yellow, a monarch without orange, a Rusty-tipped page without the rusty tips. A coloration of warning, a swirl of the baleful, the tiny thrill of pattering wings. We begin to resemble each other more and more. We admit this to ourselves, but rarely to each other. In public, other people take notice. And even when we stand up and say our goodbyes, even when we split ways, we know it's not forever. We need one another. We need one another to feel pain. I need you to feel my pain and you need me to feel yours. My pain begins to resemble your pain, and your pain begins to sound like mine.


Brian had seen the photographs. He felt deeply embarrassed. Nan had photographed them a year before in bed. In the photograph he is sitting on the edge of the mattress smoking, looking out the window. The photograph is tinted the grainy colors of the desert. The bed is a plain metal frame, the kind of pastoral, or otherwise plain, domesticity. Brian holds his cigarette in the crotch of his index and middle fingers. Right at the nib of it. Nan, dressed in long black sleeves, stares at him, suspiciously. Some may choose the term incredulous. She will not title this a self-portrait. "It will not happen again," he says, knocking a little harder on the door. 


The butterfly's pupa state of mind is preparatory, transitional—a protection engendering change. The question remains: what difference between love and amorality, if amorality has a home in love. A drone note accentuating a change in the music. The low thrum of pheasant deep in the mossy forest, beating her lonely wings into a lowly trunk. The warbling of a winter wren just after a sunrise storm, the striped maple striated with gashes too white to be forgotten. Today is the day the milk expires. Vibrant seafoam green of the monarch butterfly chrysalis, hanging from old window screen secured to the top of a fishtank. This must be the first mark of gold leaf. To the nose of my memory: the sonorous and smeary smell of sweat clung and dried to the hair of an armpit, sphagnum moss ripe with swamp water, a blond brew in a tall glass, a skunky joint, slow-cooked pork belly, pickled daikon radish, ajax, fat eggs, grapefruit rind getting sharp in the bin, flesh not yet on fire, but beginning to wax—a change, not unwelcome nor unwarranted.


My friend continues his letter: "It was not preferable to anything." I am choosing not to think that way any longer. Or perhaps it escaped me. In a parasitic relationship the predator is generally much smaller than its prey. Here when we meet the body begins to dissolve in the way it will continue to dissolve. Once we are there we have to put each other on, and then take each other off again. When Ana Mendieta's feet lost their grip just before she fell from the windowsill there was an instantaneous sound. The keen of a hermit thrush. A bottle breaking. The distress of a heated night.


Before Georgia O'Keeffe finally gives in, she stops collecting. She returns all the rocks, bones, stones and shells she used as subject models back to the earth. She scatters and disperses them amongst the weeds growing along the edge of a field yawing open to desert behind her studio. She saves only one object: a tiny skull, belonging to some small rodent, maybe a pet. Alfred sends her another letter telling her how much he needs her, how he can't be the same without her. He begs her to come back to him: "—How I wanted to photograph you—the hands—the mouth—& eyes—& the enveloped in black body—the touch of white—& the throat—". She opens the window and lets the hot air rush in around her. As her eyesight begins to go, she will only be able to see in the periphery.






In 2010, The Tiger Lillies, a British cult band who cites The Threepenny Opera as one of their greatest musical influences, performed a live soundtrack for Nan Goldin's The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. The entire 42:00 minute recording can be found on YouTube, complete with the full cycle of photographs.