“Wet and cold my country, where the softener seeps in but the powder burns still in washing tone.” Through prose poems, found-verse collages, fractured short stories, and micro-fictions…
“Wet and cold my country, where the softener seeps in but the powder burns still in washing tone.” Through prose poems, found-verse collages, fractured short stories, and micro-fictions, Michael Tyrell’s Phantom Laundry reveals an America caught in a ferocious cycle–fixed on apocalyptic omens and numbed by reruns and reality TV, but still inexorably drawn to the possibility of redemption and recovered purity: “Clean now, never been so clean. God died a useful thing.” Running the gamut between fairy-tale characters and infamous killers, Hollywood icons and urban legends, Phantom Laundry also considers how the seemingly ordinary, apparently desolate life might be momentarily renewed thanks to the playful miracles of language: “What tenderness in smoothing over the delicacies, overalls and overnothing arguments.” With this, his second collection, Tyrell continues to make a name for himself as a strikingly original poet whose work blends comic word-play with haunting gravitas.
Order it today: http://www.backlashpress.com/product/phantom-laundry/
by michael tyrell
I’m excited to be reading my poem “Delicatessen” at the launch reading for this year’s Best American Poetry anthology (Sherman Alexie and David Lehman, editors). The reading will take place at the New School on the evening of Thursday, September 24th; more details to come.
And to learn more about the book: http://books.simonandschuster.com/The-Best-American-Poetry-2015/David-Lehman/9781476708195
“Letters Written Near the End of the Cold War” in Fogged Clarity (listen and read–FREE): http://foggedclarity.com/2014/05/letters-written-near-the-end-of-the-cold-war/
“Delicatessen,” “Mirages,” in The Iowa Review (buy issue here): http://www.iowareview.org/issue/volume-44-issue-1-—-spring-2014
Thank you, Jason and Justin, for making this happen. And a shout-out to my amazing co-worker, Nicole Callihan, who was a recent BPOTW, and has a terrific new book of poems just out. http://brooklynpoets.org/poet/nicole-callihan/
Central Park; St. Mark’s Place
It begins on a long line, the way most things do in New York; it begins two days before Labor Day, when the city’s practically deserted—yes, a kind of ghost town. It begins with an ending, the way most things do, anywhere. Summer’s ending. Standing on the line to get into the Guggenheim, I’m looking at the treeline in Central Park. It’s yellow sooner than usual. It’s been a drought season. From what I understand a lot of trees died this summer. I saw one fall on St. Mark’s Place a few weeks ago. It just snapped in half, and the people on the sidewalk screamed. Somebody shouted, “Oh fuck, that branch broke his head,” and there, by tattoo parlor, stood a tall boy holding his temples, and a broken branch at his feet. He looked dazing but he wasn’t bleeding. He was one of those strangers you designate as the representative of a minor disaster—someone you’ll never see again but won’t soon forget. I’m on the line waiting to get into the Guggenheim, and somehow the image hasn’t left me, the tree broken in two, the boy being given ice to put on his head, and a dream that I had where every tree in the city had disappeared overnight.
Whenever I go into a museum alone, I remember Angie Dickinson’s character, the lonesome New York wife, in the movie Dressed to Kill. She gets followed around by a stranger and likes it so much that she follows the stranger herself. It turns out to be the sexiest museum-visit in the history of the movies. The exhibitions aren’t the focus of this elaborately made chase scene, but they never entirely vanish from the frame. Look but don’t touch—the law of the museum, the law between strangers—creates a kind of unbearable tension. We see Angie lose her glove, we see the stranger pick it up, we see the two of them play hide-and-seek, we see an urgency we seldom feel in museums and galleries. And we, the movie audience, are safe and shut-off from this pursuit, a little lonesome ourselves, a little deprived, infinitely more invisible than the art that Angie and her stranger walk hurriedly past, but whose power may have had something to do with igniting the spark between them.
Inside the Guggenheim, near the sign that says Photography Not Permitted, a young man and woman, two lovebirds who were kissing earlier on line, decide to share the audio guide headphones. No—they’re not the audio guide headphones, they’re iPod ear-buds. They’re in that stage that most people outside their relationship would consider intolerable, where no act of shared intimacy seems beyond them.
“I like that it’s called Haunted,” the male lovebird says.
“Too obvious,” the female lovebird answers. “It’s what any exhibition could be called.”
Then she kisses him again. A barrel-shaped woman behind them mutters, “Jesus, Get a Room.” She jams in not ear-buds or audio guide headphones but earplugs. She unwraps a package, makes a point of holding it up so everyone can see that she wants to be sealed-in, no voices but her own: the ear plug’s brandname is Hearos.
I’ve lived in New York long enough to know people I have no business of knowing—the man who sells paperbacks with acid pages, titles like Chariots of the Gods and Fear of Flying. Going around in circles, or in and out the grid, there are certain people who seem to hold the world together for me: the ancient Polish women gossiping on the stoops near the bridge, where every month or two there’s a new face on the billboard. The Brave One becomes Ghosts of Girlfriends Past becomes Avatar.
For once in my life I decide to get the full audio tour, it’s part of the ticket and it can’t hurt, but I start on the wrong floor and the narrator’s instructions don’t match what I see. I’m thinking about what the man said to his woman, and what she said back, and the third woman who found their kissy-lovey-honeymoon business annoying enough to issue them a stern rebuke.
Maybe she was correct. I’m thinking that we all need to get a room—not for anything carnal but just so that we can be more sealed-in, more haunted. Ghosts don’t often appear in places as populated as this, do they? My grandmother’s mother, a teller of tales, a midwife, said you know ghosts when you see them. They look like someone you’ve seen before, or maybe you’ve seen them in a dream. Ghosts only appear to strangers, she said.
What Will Haunt Me
So exactly right it is, I almost know it before I see it, the thing that will stick with me from this visit: Annette Messager’s My Vows. It’s a spider web of pictures—a spiral-shaped string suspending hundreds of gelatin prints. Nipples and hands and penises and other parts: no words, no names, only erotic memory. Think of ads on dating sites, Charlie Sheen using a shot of his tool as his online profile’s avatar, Jpegs of genitals on Craigslist Missed Connections—the parts that can be shown to a stranger before the most overexposed thing, the face, can be shown, because maybe it’s the only sex organ we have.
Marilyn wants to be friends on Facebook. 3 Friends in Common: Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, Jane Fonda. Marilyn posted new pictures, drinking champagne on the beach with Wally Cox and Marlon Brando, Album Summer 1962. Marilyn is single. Marilyn likes Carl Sandberg and her fellow Gemini Walt Whitman. People in Marilyn’s network include Fidel and Boddy. Marilyn’s Farmville animals are thriving. Marilyn likes your picture. Marilyn commented on your wall post. Marilyn is recovering from her cold and should be back on the set of Something’s Got to Give very soon.
Instructions for Hearos Earplugs, Rock and Roll Series, Reusable and Washable, NRR 22, Trusted Since 1992
Caution: Improper fit of this device will reduce its effectiveness in attenuating noise . . . . Although hearing protectors can be recommended for protection against the harmful effects of impulsive noise, the Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) is based on the attenuation of continuous noise and may not be an accurate indicator of the protection attainable against impulsive noise such as gunfire. . . .
In 1838, Louis Jacques-Mande Daguerre took a picture of the Boulevard de Temple in Paris. He must have taken it from a respectable height and distance—it’s definitely not a candid view of the European street. It’s the furthest thing imaginable from the romantic images of Robert Doisneau. Instead, one gets a dismal vista of city life, the profiles of Parisian buildings, trees that look like plumes of smoke. The two human figures in the picture are the size of grease ants, and just as dark. It’s two men, one shining the boots of the other. This pair, among the first human beings to be photographed, have no faces, no names; when I see human faces in other early photographs, I’m always struck by their expressions: the terror, the boredom, the impatience.
It would take many years, I think, for someone to achieve that kind of look. We flirt with the camera as early as a moment after our birth, Daddy ready with the flash button off so he doesn’t hurt the new baby’s eyes.
It begins with an ending, the way most things do.
* * *
What I want to say is that I think there’s some grace to being afraid of the camera, something to be said for the art of being sealed-in, and some sweetness in noticing the things that are turning yellow and are beginning to curl up before their time.
I go home from the Guggenheim with the same stranger I came with, myself. I worry about the disappearance of things I know about New York, I worry about the Hindenberg Omen, which I admit I don’t understand, and I worry about the students I’m about to meet, many of whom were probably in the museum with me. Maybe it’s that moment before you meet someone new that you’re a ghost.
All I know is that during summer weekends in New York, when Manhattan becomes deserted, when summer is what’s among three markers, Memorial, Independence, and Labor, I fill an imaginary but tangible space.
Richard Serra Exhibition, Museum of Modern Art, 2007
Your popularity makes visiting you difficult. You’re free only on Friday nights, when the spectators pound in. A bit like a public execution. It should be easy to see a piece of you—you are, after all, vivisected. But everything seems already taken, inhabited. Everyone seems to need you too much. You’re visible and invisible, both, like a disease. We see the symptoms but not the microbes that trigger the symptoms.
Even babies—why so many in a museum? The babies point and burble, or they cry deeply, ardently, into themselves. A womb is a museum that we don’t remember, Freud says, except in sleep. Oceanic bliss. It’s the mothers who preside, the fathers who seem redundant. Maybe infancy is a form of metonymy: the parents look at the baby but only see themselves. Like saying, you, Richard Serra, when I mean the work of Richard Serra? Who can blame these parents? Don’t think I’m making that tired analogy about art being the offspring of an artist. Every creation here seems more willed than wild, predestined in a way that children never are. You’re more a genetic engineer than a parent.
What are they—we—looking for, but proof that you, Richard Serra, exist? And therefore we exist? We pass by and through your sculptures and we believe without question that you authored them. But maybe it’s not belief or faith, but simple laziness; we accept these claims as facts because it is easier than to think something else.
If you’re a king, your royal guard does you proud. No one’s allowed to touch, even though your precious materials—steel, for one—will probably outlast the oils our fingertips may leave.
Let me ask you candidly: are you a monster? You’re definitely a carnivore. Maybe you’re so ugly you build mazes to outrun your reflection. But there’s a shortage of mirrors here. And maze feels like the wrong word: I can get in and out of your gigantic puzzles without trailing red yarn or torn bread. Since the Minotaur retreated into retirement, the labyrinth is under new management, and maybe the myth doesn’t have to end with abandonment. The one who figures out the maze and helps the hero—she’s the one who gets abandoned.
What I want, more than anything right now, is the novelty of being lost within one of these tunnels. Once, loss was news. Even if I got lost inside for a few minutes, I could say that the sculpture me, at least temporarily. How many times have I been in Central Park at night without being lost? What would that well-lit lantern become in a blackout? Wouldn’t the well-governed grid of Manhattan be forced to concede to the forest? Isn’t there something beautiful about this?
You don’t provide paths, you carve out exits. You whisper us instructions to follow your thoughts horizontally. The vertigo, even acrophobia, is meant to be transmitted by both the structure and the strangers who are attracted to you. Perhaps you mean to work on the big people the same way the forest works on the children in fairy tales: you coax us to disappear. It’s not just the size; in New York, we’re used to being dwarfed. You want to undermine the fictional map we’ve absorbed, the tidy stories we tell ourselves about space.
I wonder if you come here, secretly, in disguise: you might be the man who passes me, whose T-shirt reads Protect Me From What I Want.
You make me seasick, and the worst thing is: I have no words to hold on to. Richard II loved words so much he lost his throne. His successor loved the throne so much he lost his soul. You wouldn’t trade your kingdom for a horse, but you don’t fool me: I know you’re a killer. A friend told me yours is art that kills. Fact: in the seventies one of your steel pieces fell, crushing a rigger. Is there anything here meant to memorialize him, or is it that the hubris of making your gift horses demands blood? What bridge doesn’t have a worker embedded inside it, what skyscraper doesn’t have a death for every floor?
When I go out in your garden, I wonder what it would look like with just your sculpture and nothing else built by humans. Would these giant waves and ship prows become more sacred? A friend told me once a story about sacrilege, how you can see the McDonald’s arch and a pyramid of ancient Egypt in the same view.
I want to steal something from you, of you. In the end, all I can manage are a few pictures with my phone. I hope for a candid snapshot. I lack the guts to get in the photo, to implicate myself. Isn’t it odd that a phone, something that depends on the give and take of conversation, can now take something as unanswerable as a photograph? My phone’s memory clogs with my attempts to take everything in, and in a few weeks the phone itself will be gone, left in a cab. I can look at the brochure to recall this, but that feels like cheating. The brochure shows too much. I want to remember what I stole from you: a close-up of rust, like peeping through a microscope at frantic, bubbling cells—that thrill that borders on alarm, because it’s just enough to let me know what you’ve made is alive.
The poem is “Falling Stars,” originally published in Peter LaBerge’s journal The Adroit Journal (Hi, Peter!). Thanks to my beloved and talented friend Jennifer Pastiloff for filming this and posting it on her YouTube channel:
And please check out Jennifer’s other videos and writings: