Table of Contents



Betty Rosen


On the corner of the desk there was a small container, round, shallow, light flimsy metal, easily lifted in a hand, and in it was a little liquid, water with a sleek skin of oil or soap. In that was the room and everything beyond the room, made of circles and slicks, small things that were made of big things, objects that were anchored to factories and forces, things and things that could be named and muddled in the little patches where we cannot see. And all of it was spread out flat, the talk, the lists of mornings. The more I learned the more was in the flat pool in the circular container, which was the shape of my eye, which was the shape of all things that are closed even when they seem open. There was always more and things were always bigger and had new names and brands and violences, new ways they were made from hurt and for hurt, and it became popular in pieces of writing to list items as though they could be heaped and mounded and as though the heft and density of an accumulation of things in a list would make a mark, make the real that everyone was always trying to hold, like lifting an unruly net spewing water and trash from its sagging middle, like lifting a great octopus squirming and fleshy and too much, too much. The real was not going to come, the catalogues of things produced and consumed and compared and composed and discarded were not going to lift up the real for more than a sly moment.
     I saw the circular container no matter where I moved in the room, even when it was behind my back, then I simply saw a picture of a back like a child's drawing and near it a circle and in it pooling some things clear and some things not clear and never enough clear to make more than two objects, back and container, and maybe a third, desk's edge, like a brutal cut of shadow there across what could maybe be seen. Other things I imagined, the chair with a great thumb's indent in the cushion and oil-shapes rumbling across the blue fabric, the bed in which I could lose the fact of my own body, wake to feel that I was a barely-shaped stillness on the sheet. Simply by saying two things together I could fit them into the circular container, just by saying "the present is not discontinuous with memory" or "everything that is happening came from something that happened" or "these things are similar" or "these things are as different as night and day" then there they all went together into the little circle where I could keep an eye on it all, that little flatness. I said trauma, trauma, and the oil or soap like a cloud against the sky made a glint of violet on the flat as though to say, this is the light on your neck through the curtains, this is the next morning and the next morning, a flat circle on the corner of the desk.
     Near the container on the desk's edge was a place where a piece of paper had gotten spilled on and, when I'd peeled it up, left a white translucent roughness that would not come off. But it too was part of the container and its liquid, there nearby, there in relation, a faint illusion of texture or change.
     Writing was tossing and turning around the edge of the little container. I understood why writers were writing shorter and shorter books. Each sentence of those books was a poke at the little pool of liquid, pushing at a cyst under the skin, flatten it, flatten it, and disperse it into the body, a poison, a change, a release of the opaque places, a resistance that in the end was at most another illusion of unflattening, that led the eye back, held the eye on that slick pooling of oil or soap, its glinting wink.
     On the corner of the desk there is a small container, round, shallow, and sometimes from it I can pull a hand.
     Not the image of the hand that might have appeared inside, the fingers angled grotesque elastic into the rounded side. Not the images of hands that made the things, all the things I could not lift up but let wallow there where words paint and repaint the surface till it is clearer than clearer than clear, each key press and pencil etch another sheen of flatness that is held between the oil or soap and the metal. Hands made the metal they say, hands made the space and time where words are thought or written, hands they say once could tip the round container from the edge, nails could pry up the white pear skin paper scar from the wood, the lists say there were types of hands and textures, the lists in the short books tell you that from the pulpy mold of the not-yet-paper you could lift up, dripping, the hard marks of work on hands, strip up the softness of creams, cut the looseness of knuckles and burst the tension of palms to release it all, the real, all that is not flat but deep and long, all that is worked and made and making in this full rounded world—this is what I used to read in the books before they became flat.
     No, sometimes, since the days of you, I can pull up a hand. For months after you I dreamed bodiless on the sheets that I had made a model of you, hooked together with metal and plastic where I was told the veins and muscles would be, with tweezers individual hairs affixed, glues and cutting tools on the desk, a cup of water on the floor beside the chair because the desk top was needed and because, they'd told me, water is deep, it works beneath and before and behind, it moves blood and stops it from boiling or freezing, it settles in around the organs like sky against a cloud, it circles flat into and out of and through the thing they called my body, so I put the round cup of water near the chair, and I planned out where the materials would come from and what they would become in the you I would make.
     The artificial hairs would be acrylic and they said I would not need to worry about tangles and I wouldn't need to trim because it would not grow. The skin they said would be flat unlike, they said, real skin which has a geography and a history, which bubbles and bursts up with oils and errant hairs and cracks when you cut it so the water can push the blood out to dry and stick and later be scrubbed off. Real skin, they said, can hold the marks of climates and diets and oppression and restriction and it can even prompt reactions and set off political debates and cause blood to pool in water like oily or soapy circles even though, they emphasized, the world is not flat and in the deep ocean there are many things we will never see or know. I was skeptical but my tone was flat and my gaze was flat on the circles of their faces and I showed them the flats of my hands on the corner of the desk and there was nothing for them to see that might make them doubt me, grief, grief they said, so they left me to my making.
     But a body was too much. You were taller, much taller, and when I lay on the paper to trace I could not imagine myself long enough to find the circles where your eyes would be, your paper eyes colored in dark and seeing neither out nor in nor back nor forward. And the cutting tools were dull, the little ridges of blood they raised were flat soon enough, they did not run off my arms as though my arms were curved surfaces, and then the scars were part of lists, catalogues of symptoms, they said trauma, trauma, and I sat in a little circle of light and attention, flat and clear except for the wet opaque patches that later had to be cut to make the short books. You were encompassed, the strange and hunted way you'd thrown on a shirt so that as I watched you I could feel the liquid soft of the cloth on my own back and neck and then through that I could feel the heat of your skin and the rise and fall of the muscles and the unruly small hairs, the history and the smell of the land and the unbelievable green of the grass and the shape of your tongue and teeth making sounds differently than I did, the bones stretched long so that you bumped your head and contorted your legs to fit in big deep spaces, the way you moved through water and it embraced the tunnel of your long spine like a train and I carried along, feeling blood and bone and all the time as it came and went, rocked and beat and roared like water.
     You were encompassed. You and I were written up in short sentences and in my room I began to wash or paint and some oil or soap gathered in the small round container and I placed it on the corner of my desk and that was that. The room became written and all the things around and behind and before it settled on the flat, where nothing could hide. But sometimes I think if I nuzzle a fingertip into the liquid and then another I can pull up a hand, dimensional, feathered with little shadows, its rocky places and ravines, the traces of blood in black eels of vein and the slithering pinks and whites of life, life swimming in the blood. A dream, they say, but look, there are the tiny hairs at the wrist and there are the long long unbending bones of finger, and look, there are the hands that you once curved to cut apart the water as you swam, and there as I hold your hand I feel that I too have a hand, and the only edge it encounters is the fact of you, and our floating together in the deep.



Grief has a way of making even the smallest ideas, the simplest tasks, feel massive, unwieldy, grotesque in their chaos and complexity. Expansion in any direction, even the third, threatens, so grieving can feel like trying to hold a massive force steady: flattening, tugging taut, condensing, compacting. It requires a pared-down geometry, a minimal set. Some people deal with loss by trying to reclaim length and depth through telling and retelling. I tried to make my feelings into small dense forms, distilling the grief into opaque little shallows and matte little circles. In the process, I thought about Abbott's Flatland and the trauma-flattened landscapes of Tom McCarthy's C., Kandinsky's Circles in a Circle, Escher's Drawing Hands lithograph, the hyper-realistic dolls of Siri Hustvedt's novels, and the flattened coiffed "bog body" Clonycavan Man in Ireland's National Archaeology Museum—and the unbounded creativity of those works brought me back some hope of dimension, in my piece as in the time of writing it.