exerpt from Good Timing & Gertrude Stein
How I buried this bag? No idea.
The bag was silver-grey. Think it had a drawstring.
Must’ve buried it with my hands. So then, not deeply: bloody underwear under oak leaves, loose dirt, on the other side of the stone fence. The forest-side, half an acre from the house. Acorns like horses’ nostrils.
A sentence unsaid: “I got my period.”
Out of invisible gauze or membrane, some sentences construct a wall within you. A black plum riding on the tongue. These sentences only seem possible inside your body: an act of evaporation escapes your mouth before ever reaching a recipient.
As solely interior sentences, their possibility exists as a reminder of vast emotional oceans between the thinking-island & the saying-shore.
Strapped into a stolen pad, I watch my mom as she breaks the spaghetti above the pot. Pours the bottle of pasta sauce into a pan. With a stubby pencil my brother crouches over a biology textbook. I make Spanish flashcards. I wear light jeans & flannel. In class, we’re learning locations around town. Biblioteca, supermercado. This teacher has a strange habit of licking chalk off his fingers, a tick that leaves chalk powder on his lips & beard, as though a moth is trying to leave a note on his body. My mom swiftly moves around the kitchen after a long day of seeing patients. I love that my mom hates to cook, that she says with exasperation, I worked all day, why is this expected of me?
Dinner roils in a familiar routine. With fruit flies on the bananas, dry dog food crunching in the corner. Little dogteeth & black curly fur. Lilies in a blue glass vase. I cannot jettison a sentence to intervene.
Gertrude Stein claims: “The great question is can you think a sentence.” But that is not the great question. I can’t say what is, but I question how to unleash the sentence. A sentence fermenting in a jar, then: confusion between the passive it wouldn’t come out & active refusal I wouldn’t push it out.
Because it feels impossible. Netted to uvula.
My brother & I are allowed ½ an hour of TV each night, after dinner, after homework’s done. We hustle through geography lessons to watch “Married with Children.” My mom, the therapist, allows us to watch with the condition that we understand this show represents an unhappy family. The humor is based on their dysfunctional dynamic, d’you get that, kiddos? She confirms with us that it’s okay to laugh, but not good to replicate. Al Bundy rolls his eyes as Peggy struggles to hold & then drops a soup can between her too-long pink nails.
The silver-grey bag is in a cabinet, balled up along with all the other plastic containers we save but never know exactly how to recycle. I’m not aware of the silver-grey one— that it will hold blood & maggots— not for another 4-5 months.
I’m also not yet aware of Gertrude Stein, not for another 7-8 years, when I’m in a college English class, when I realize she is one of the few writers who feels her way through a sentence without trying to affix a set meaning to her experience. When she explains “by written I mean made. & by made I meant felt.” When I feel a tug of both love & jealously toward the precise tumbling outward of her sentences. Feelings, like baby foxes, make their way out of the dark den into the clover.
Now, I tell people she’s fearless. At the end of my online dating profile, I ask of the anonymous other, don’t be scared of Gertrude Stein. Be brave. As though the male-other would understand why he should be scared. As though she casts unease, never having experienced it herself.
But Stein was scared of going unrecognized as a genius & her writings unrecognized as masterpieces. She was equally terrified of getting trapped in the clutches of a static identity, one that would snare her creativity. Genius was the only form of recognition she desired. She warns: “identity is recognition, you know who you are because you & others remember anything about yourself.”
I wonder when Stein got her period. If she & her partner, Alice B. Toklas, synced cycles.
Ancient Egyptians fashioned tampons out of softened papyrus.
The first Tampax ad circulated in 1936 in American Weekly.
In 7th grade, none of my friends talk about their periods but I see flannel shirts tied around waists, like an extra protective layer. I see their newly hairless legs, how they roll their soccer jersey sleeves over their shoulders to reveal naked armpits.
For Stein, once someone recognizes you, expectations then limit your identity. Recognition forces a restrictive relationship between you & how you’ve previously acted. This, in turn, threatens to cause stagnation in an artist. The infamous dog trots in: “I am I because my little dog knows me.” With my own little dog sleeping at the foot of my bed, this sounds sweet, the definition of companionship & connection. But Stein continues, “Creatively speaking the little dog knowing that you are you & your recognizing that he knows, that is what destroys creation.”
My mom keeps a box of pads under the sink. They’re bulky. If the cabinet door under the sink isn’t shut properly, my little dog opens it & tears apart the bloody pads, knocking the trashcan out & onto the bathmat. He destroys the evidence & creates it.
Unlike Stein, I want to be recognized. I want to anticipate the response I will get upon recognition. Like knowing my dad will poke his head into my messy room each night & ask, What’s happening in The Pigsty? My mom who tells me before bed, I love you to the moon & back. A brother who plays with GI Joes in the couch cushions, gentle explosions from his lips. This comfort of anticipation like the soft hum of moths against summer’s screen door.
Language crystallizes into a crisp divide between bodies. How an unsaid sentence trenches, existing both as the moat & the drawbridge sealed tight.
I need some way to eject this sentence, to call for a catapult. “It is not clarity that is desirable but force,” Henry James claims. Force is more than the physical act of speaking. Like a recipe with an impossible ratio: emotional capacity mixed with an interpersonal situation mixed with timing.
What to do with the absence of force, the sinking of the sentence back down to the gut? “I got my period” wilts like a bird covered in coal dust, a negative velocity.
I’m in Berlin & sitting across from a man I barely know but want to know better. He’s a poet. He’s fluent in German & has lived here so long he bends the English words, saying “good” with a strange lilt. I make him repeat the word “good” over & over without telling him why. Later in the month someone who picks up on his manic nature will call him a “prophet in a previous life.” An intensity like an explosive peony, like a microscope over any feeling.
He has metal in his spine, giant eyes, a unibrow hidden by the arch of his glasses, a sadness he’s only just learning to talk about. A defensiveness I’m wary of & a penchant for pistachio ice-cream. I’ve hardly written in two years & being here feels like an escape from my job & a collapsed relationship. I’ve hardly read in two years & now, reading again, I am thinking about sentences.
Across from this man, not having spoken to anyone in days, I tell him I want to write about sentences that seem like bones, like solid masses. Like dropping a seed down a bottle’s neck, watching the plant grow inside its torso— its growth cannot get out of the bottle without cracking its neck.
He asks for an example. This is where it gets tricky. To give an example is to say a sentence out loud that’s never been said: It is to break the bottle.
I tell him we pass the spaghetti. We pass steamed spinach. Cloth placemats & cloth napkins pad us as we chat about our day. Who we hung out with at recess, what we studied in each class.
Yet, it feels like my eyes are trapped in their sockets: I’m looking out & failing to grab onto the external world. Like hooking a fish & being unable to reel it in. The eyes measuring a new distance. In altering the distance, the self also alters through the silence of the sentence. As my interior voice blots out the conversation, I see mouths moving above pasta, faces of a different season. As though my dinner chair is pulling back & the ferns in the wallpaper suck me up into their rolled green tongues.
“I got my period.”
To sit in front of someone, to think the thought, the complete sentence, unable to utter. Yet, it’s not a wounding sentence & in a godless family, I’m unfettered by any religious guilt budding alongside sex & pregnancy. Maybe the desire to avoid changing how someone else experiences you. This desire for certain recognition would horrify Stein, a duplication blurring into enervation like a rotting fruit bowl left over from a painter’s still life. But this is not my desire.
Fear of being unable to predict a reaction. It’s not the changing self that’s scary, or the visibility of the change, but opening up to the unanticipated response. When you register the noise, will you let the moth keep batting against the door, or quickly open the screen & knock the moth to the ground, or simply turn the light off?
Two decades pass & then in Berlin I say to the almost-stranger, the man I want to seduce with honesty, “When I was younger I couldn’t tell my mom I got my period for a number of months.” A Thai menu below me, legs crossed on a bench, looking into grey eyes, June barely beginning above us. To yank the plant out of the bottle or, to realize the glass was only sand in the corner of an eye.
He feathers his eyebrows above his glasses & reaches his hand across the table to mine. I tell him I’ve only written the sentence through the negative space of feelings. Hidden in a previous poem, “There are objects buried in the backyard I do not want found.” I wrote this adamantly in the context of trying to live more “above ground.” If I were to translate that sentence here, it would read directly, “I buried blood-stained underwear in a silver-grey bag in the forest, on the other side of the stone wall, having run through my own yard to get there. I don’t want to live like this.”
Because I didn’t tell my mom I had my period for a few months. Because I waited & accumulated a number of stained pairs from the first bleeding of each month. Before I could stealthily snag the pads under the bathroom sink.
Before I understood my timing.
The first sentence I kept from my mother; the sequence of events I keep from everyone. Maybe the behavior seems illogical & in this illogic, by extension, deranged. To keep private the derangement. Maybe I’m trying to protect you from a look of horror. From the guilt you’d feel when you realized I’d seen your horror.
Say it again.
Julia Cohen is the author of one collection of lyric essays, I Was Not Born (Noemi Press, 2014), which was recently translated into German and released by Literaturverlag Droschl. She’s also written two books of poetry, Collateral Light (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2014) and Triggermoon Triggermoon (BLP, 2011). Her nonfiction and poetry appear in issues of Nat.Brut, Dreginald, Juked, The Rumpus, Entropy, and BOMB. With Abby Hagler, she curates a monthly interview column on authors' early obsessions at Tarpaulin Sky.