210.1: Elisabeth Houston:: white castle powder puffs
SEVEN STEPS TO A GNARLY AWAKENING
safari
210

About two years ago, I experienced Elisabeth Houston's work for the first time. The word one must always use, I believe, with Houston's work is experience for her work demands that one isn't ever just reading, just listening, or just thinking. My first experience of Houston's Baby project was at a secret show at Human Resources, an art space in the Chinatown neighborhood of Los Angeles. The show involved photography/art, publishing, audience interaction, a traditional reading, party games, dress-up, video, conversation, and, finally, the audience's own writing. Throughout that show, and in the poems published here today, Houston's work challenges, forcing us to experience both Houston's own confrontation with gender, racial, psychological, and identity issues, as well as our own relationship with these issues. What becomes central is that we are being irrevocably isolated. Through Houston, we confront ineffective and inappropriate interactions, of the grotesque, of abuses of power, of stereotypes, of identity and gender markers and we find ourselves realizing our actual state of existence: alone in the world. And as we try, through these poems, to reach out in that aloneness and cross the boundary to another person, we inevitably entered into dynamics of power, privilege, and trauma as those attempts ultimately fail, even when they succeed. Or, as Houston writes here: "'the meaning of life' – and its corollary, fulfillment – was an equation / baby was constantly, secretly trying to solve." Andrew Wessels

white castle powder puffs


baby wanted     the kind of diamond     encrusted friendships     celebrities seemed to have     
madonna     whispered to gwyneth          who tied a red kaballah string around oprah’s wrist,      who pulled the levers          of the capitalist enterprise          cha-cha-cha- cccching!
& made the whole goddamn          world tick     like finely tuned rolex watch.     baby wanted those sort of friends.

she wanted     razzle-dazzle-spinnnnammazzle friends.     she wanted to travel     in a pack of well-coifed girls1     whose glamour      would seal her fortune forever,     girls whose beauty
could erect a fortress     against all she wanted to keep out, shame &     solitude &     penury &     general freakishness2.

baby wanted it easy; she wanted to luxuriate     in the decadence of high class friends. she didn’t want to toil,     among the        hhhhhrrrruumppfff!        m-m-m-m-mmmiddle class,      w. their low-brow tastes          their knock off bags,     and payless loafers.

… no, she wanted a life     greater than that – she wanted a life bigger. her     friends,     she was sure,     would seal her fortune.     & so     each night,     she’d rank her friends in her notebook.     she dreamed     of the perfect combination     of friends     & fun & popularity.3


& so—
she wrote,

1. jenny
2. lila
3. davida
4. tabitha

or sometimes,

1. jenny
2. davida — lila ??4
3. lila — davida??
4. tabitha

& very, very, occasionally

1. ???
2. ???
3. ???
4. ??? jenny ???5

surprisingly, or not –     baby didn’t think of boys.     she didn’t think how boys might figure          into her evil empire;     this empire included mostly women &     mostly women
w. impossibly large tits,     small waists,     rich fathers,     or rich sugar daddies     and little else     to their name.

sure, boys figured into          baby’s dream     of towering popularity     in so far as they might catapult     her farther into the castle.     baby wanted to be at the center of it all     & suuuuuuuuure     boys helped.     boys made baby     even more popular & hot boys     made baby     even more popular.     secretly,          though baby didn’t think much     of boys;
most boys were stupid     & gross & had long schlongs     & often wanted baby          to do things w. them     baby did not like …     things like suck & fiddle & pinch & snap …     things baby was not     very comfortable w.     and things baby surely did not tell     lila     or jenny     or davida     or tabitha about …

it was women who ruled,     it was women     baby wanted: jenny     & tabitha & lila & davida.
there was nothing     beyond the horizon          of those four golden girls – nothing more:     baby could see. she was blinded     by want: liposuction & lisa frank & 400 dollar-bulimia-trained          therapists …      jessica & elizabeth wakefield     cavorting around          the cul-de-sac of sunnydale, ca     110 degrees out     climate change     ssssssizzzzzzlinggggg     dis world     dry     making martians of us:     making us:     alien-          ated franc-          ine
pascal     was it
or was it     her ghost



1. the girls would all be date raped at age 14, 16 & 21. jenny would also be gang raped, and davida would have a secret affair with her lacrosse coach – and while it wasn’t violent – before sexual intercourse, he would sit on her head and pour gatorade into her vagina, and it would take years of therapy for davida to learn that no, this was not, in fact, “normal” teenage behavior.  
 
2. one day after practice, jenny grabbed davida’s hair extensions – pulling on her long black braids – as she screamed “horse hair! horse hair!” afterwards, jenny would claim that she’d heard hair extensions could burn quite well and she’d thought they’d make perfect flammable material – along with firewood and twigs and bramble – for the school bonfire that would happen in spring.  
 
3. davida’s lacrosse coach was convinced that davida was a “mature girl” and he used such logic to justify humping and pumping the brains out of this very beautiful black girl. since he knew about ida b wells and he’d studied sociology, he was well suited, he surmised, to be davida’s very first lover.  
 
4. lila and davida were actually arch-enemies and they’d fought over jenny – for jenny, cruel as she was, stood at the pinnacle of popularity. jenny would play one off the other, sometimes spilling secrets – lila’s bulimia, davida’s herpes – or other times simply telling tall tales. “davida hates you, lila. you should beat her with a pipe.”  

5. five months later baby would crumple this list, throw it in the basket & scream at the top of her lungs: “i am done! i am done! i can’t do jenny lowenberg!” five months later, baby wore clogs, himalayan scarves, and had a girlfriend named lani. she would publicly forsake her plastics, her lists, and her obsession with power & privilege and begin to rank, instead, her feminist fairy godmothers — hooks, foucault, and butler — in various towers of truth.









SEVEN STEPS TO A GNARLY AWAKENING


STEP 1 – “the meaning of life” – and its corollary, fulfillment – was an equation
          baby was constantly, secretly trying to solve.

how could “the meaning of life” include such superficial bitches
          like jenny & davida & lila? how could “the meaning of life” be hung
on the glittering ladder of power & privilege?

did power give things meaning? did meaning exist beyond —
          all that silliness, all those surfaces, all those plastics?
baby didn’t know, she just didn’t know.

was it happiness? did happiness = achievement? did achievement = success + love?
          or did meaning = joy + suffering with a sprinkle of happiness?
she didn’t know. she honestly didn’t know.

baby thought that surely, surely – meaning had to include
          the variables of truth + love + power ; but did meaning = fulfillment?
if meaning = fulfillment then why did she pine after popularity

like a dog w. its blue tongue / dragging to the floor?
          … & so “the meaning of life” equaled, baby surmised – exhausted
– w. thinking & scribbling & shuffling the cards –
          equaled popularity + social hierarchy + friends

                    & baby’s friends were pretty, rich things –




STEP 93 – baby had never heard of such terms like “unreliable narrator” and “post modern apothecary.” she didn’t understand such terms & quite honestly, she didn’t care for them. she didn’t care for universities or professor-goats or any of the verbose motherfuckers who liked to pontificate about literary theory.

          she wanted to write!
she wanted to write! unimpeded by the barrage
          of w-o-r-d-s that wouldn’t stop –
w-o-r-d-s that would pour over her / like clear evian water.


(note: there had been a food fight in the cafeteria & jenny lowenberg had “accidentally” thrown a bowl of red pasta sauce on baby’s head, and then kindly took baby to the bathroom where she poured evian water on baby’s hair – as if to clean it, as if she cared.)




STEP 4 – what didn’t make sense, baby knew, was how desperately searched for silence within words. she hated words & yet she needed them. she hated language & yet she used it. this was all she seemed to be able to say …

1 – 2 – 3 & A – B – C

it was the same repetitive loop on the record player; it was the same spin-cycle
in the dishwasher: sense & non-sense, sense & non-sense …
          … sense & non-sense … wake up, you dumb bourgeois bitch!
bertha had wanted to say, sense is real – you make sense – it makes sense –
          – cents – sense – scent(s) …

baby wasn’t ready to believe she made sense;
baby wasn’t ready to believe in cents.
baby would continue to write pallid poems & scratch the surface of reality
and press the same hopeless key of the T-83 calculator over & over & over again …

this is it! this is it! this is it!

x + z = ABC x + BBB = CC
x + z = ABC x + BBB = CC
x + z = ABC x + BBB = CC





STEP 23 – bertha knew baby better than baby knew herself … but baby was still convinced that the way to know oneself was through oneself, and so she continued to fall into the same solipsistic traps that led her to the self-help section of barnes & noble where she’d pick up a few gems, like eckhart tolle and doctor phil, and pray to god that these men could help her recover from her depression and crippling anxiety.




STEP 12 – baby doesn’t trust herself at all, not ever, not a lick.
she trusts herself only when confronted with the awful reality that she herself is all
she can trust: the truth is baby’s the last stop on the block,
she’s the only real statue to which she can pray.
          sure, there is the statue of liberty, the green mildew goddess
whose skirts lap at the island nation of man-hattan, the greatest borough on earth,
          a city that teems with promise of six dollar cappuccinos & polish tea crackers
                    & a faux down-market hipster aspirational flavor.

          … sure, there was liberty, there was hipsters, there was doctor phil.
          … sure, baby could find hope – or – maybe direction – or maybe
the slim compass needle set clearly on meaning & community
          … but really, truly, baby would always find herself –
a self placed on a shelf – a baby doll – a: ________ : an empty cracked – baby-doll
          if only baby realized this, bertha thought. if only baby knew




STEP 445 – what bertha knew and what bertha wrote …
     1. baby is post-suicidal.
     2. baby is “neutral as yogurt.”
     3. baby is loved.
     4. baby is loved.
     5. baby is loved.








safari


on her third day in south africa, baby saw a giraffe, a rhinoceros, and a zebra having a threesome. it was her first day at madike game reserve in kwazulu natal, south africa, and baby didn’t think she would see any animals, let alone any animals mating; she definitely didn’t think she’d see three very rare animals mating with each other. yet, there they were
—a giraffe, a rhinoceros, and a zebra each pounding each other in a mad, tropical blur, each exploding like tiny bright fireworks.

back in scarsdale, baby had a whole crew of creatures in the corner of her bedroom: a snake named harpsichord which she usually called harpy, a jackrabbit named louis, and two fat hamsters named tweetle dee and tweetle dum who were brothers and lolled about indolently. baby had saved twelve jelly jars of quarters to make this trip1 and it was very exciting, then, that she was now in kwazulu natal among wild animals, not pet animals.

while baby watched, a little man peddled up to baby with an ice-cream cart2 that had, splayed across the belly, the words “cool cool gorrau gu”. she gave him a nod, transfixed by the animals. she did not know but “gorrau ou” meant “white person” and here, in south africa, baby too was a gorrau ou.3

she ordered a strawberry ice cream cone — “rainbow sprinkles, too, please,” — and the little man fussed behind the cart. when he appeared with her cone, she gave him one rand note and returned her gaze to the animals humping on the horizon.

“yum, yum” said baby and settled into her collapsible chair.

suddenly a leopard sauntered over; its pink tongue slipped out like a secret and began to lick baby’s ice-cream cone. usually, she was fussy about her food,4 but she waited patiently as the leopard took his time licking the ice-cream.

“you like that?” asked baby. the leopard continued to lick, not saying a word.

“aw, you do — you do like that,” said baby and gave a smile. again, there was quiet but for the licks of the leopard.

a few indian business men drove by and ordered two ice cream cones as well. their suv was rimmed with five armed guards carrying guns that hung from their chests. when a herd of zebras appeared, the men dropped their cones and whipped out their cameras. they click-click-clicked as the zebras stampeded away, the red african dust covering their business suits.

the leopard sniffed the indians fallen ice cream and nuzzled the cones, and then returned to lick baby’s ice cream.

the leopard smiled and baby smiled back. the leopard licked, and licked again.

“may i call you nelson mandela?” baby asked.

the leopard leapt up and devoured the entire ice cream cone in one gulp. baby began to cry and then the leopard leapt up and ate baby too.



1. mother and father would only let her go if she made an estimated one-fourth financial contribution to the trip because mother and father were goddamn sure that their little baby was not going to be a spoiled little motherfucking baby.

2. there were a great many carts that speckled the horizon; carts that sold tee-shirts, bottled water, key-chains, and dinky bobble-head dolls of zulu warriors. those dolls, baby knew, were racist. those dolls baby surely did not buy.

3. yes, baby was white, even though father was a second-generation ashkenazi jew and mother, who was of german ancestry and whose ancestors settled in the minnesota in the eighteenth century, volunteered with urban youth at the ymca and liked to wear dashikis in july.

4. baby brought with her four jumbo tubs of smooth jiffy peanut butter in the very likely event that she didn’t like the native food. what she did find herself liking, however, were braii boerewors because they reminded her of hot dogs.





HI BABY