Like a man practicing his whole life to say a single word
Bewildering skins
Author: Thái Hà
Published on: 9/21/2016 4:10:09 PM

On Confusion of our skins || Sự rối loạn của lớp da
by Michael Brennan, translation by Lưu Diệu Vân, AJAR press, 2015


“Language is a skin. I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire. The emotion derives from a double contact: on the one hand, a whole activity of discourse discreetly, indirectly focuses upon a single signified, which is “I desire you,” and releases, nourishes, ramifies it to the point of explosion (language experiences orgasm upon touching itself); on the other hand, I enwrap the other in my words, I caress, brush against, talk up this contact, I extend myself to make this commentary to which I submit the relation endure.”

(Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse)


On the skin of Confusion of our skins, Nguyễn Hưng Trinh’s artwork The ego’s battle exits as a tattoo. As with Michael Brennan’s handwriting, this chosen tattoo perhaps can be seen as a signature of identity. Original unblemished skin seems insufficient for these ‘roughly-cut pages’ to express themselves in their first encounter with others. The book not only needs a shell to protect itself but also needs more colors, more cutting lines and cracks, the conscious and unconscious imprints of the subject, the scars and the wounds and more. Skins, as such, are the narratives that constantly tell the stories of the beings they cover.


The ego’s battle opens the imagination to a medieval execution. Everything appears unfinished – the execution is transpiring, in its most tormenting moment. Only here, it lacks professional quality, it is painstaking but somehow arbitrary, somehow more like self-mortification or facing a masked flayer who appears sickly. The executioner neither understands why nor when nor how the plan came about nor how the process of execution is being carried out. Upon first contact with the book, readers can immediately be brought in living touch with simultaneous roles, playing the witness who bears a sinful complex, embodying the executioner with a violent pleasure, as well as re-experiencing the absurd panic of the executed. This state of being permeates the collection of poetry. As with the original title in Giramondo Press’ English edition, Autoethnographic, all we can do is contemplate and speculate. On loss and destruction. On physical pain. On the disproportion of a skeleton with its strings of meat stripped away from the shell of the human figure, and probably as well, the possibilities of physical contact with the world and others that have, over time, been pitilessly deprived. Only a few clear gender indicators linger, but they do so almost to represent themselves rather than a subject. Red lips are present in their primitive forms as pieces of rouged skin. The identity of the being is partly established through decorating patches of skin, following the string of current discourses on identity.


There are times when, suspecting manipulation of the visual field’s certainty, one may store their faith in tactile touches. Like Saint Thomas in Caravaggio’s painting, the faith of God’s existence is not proven in the visibility of the figure; credulity only comes when his hand touches the wound on the body of the Saint. The sense of the insurrection of a human being, who has flesh and skin like us, who shares with us the same potential to be wounded, carries a sacred religious message. Yet denying the visual power here is nothing more than a demand for tactile approval. Not the observation but only the tangible touch of skin and flesh can bring us a revelation in cognition. The ill will toward visual power sometimes ascends to an obsessive terror. When we gaze at other human beings and other human beings gaze back at us with a highly objective look, this is when we look at each other with the squint of Medusa, the squint that instantly turns the gazed-at object into stone, whereby the object can be interpreted only as dead and noncommunicative. Maurice Merleau-Ponty sees a more intimate way of communication through direct contact of “the skins” that cover us and others, that which protects and contains the penetrability of the ego, that which exchanges with the materiality of the world, as well as that which constantly slips into and defines the other. However, if skin is a discourse on identity, and language is only a skin that sustains the existence of each individual, to what extent can its conviction reach? When skins become a “confusion”, when the outer layers of skin gradually dry and flake off, when they age and are dispossessed, what possibility of communication remains with us?


Brennan covers his poems in a cortex of narrative, filled with the recognizable signs of character, background setting, situation, and dialogue. However the cortex is quickly destroyed. In the gathering of those particulars, they become drained of their ability to associate as a perfect whole. The collection pushes us into a maze rather than a directional narrative; the characters appear as fragments, at times they float onto a page and then disappear in a moment, leaving us no clue as to how to predict or guess when they will reappear or bid us farewell forever. As for the background setting, it is torn apart into boundless space, with the presence of a setting as disorienting rather than orienting. The situations do not progress as any kind of development, rather, as repetition of some fixed situations that appear every time in different forms, with different characters, or with the same character in different landscapes. Only the immigrant complex permeates throughout. It is as if the characters here have been struggling to find their words, to seek an exit/escape, and to go in search of memory. The melancholy of loss and being astray exposes an inassimilable situation; one cannot implant the skin of identity onto another skin that is also forever estranged, forever insecure.  Quoting Edward Sapir, Brennan reminds us of a gratitude for language. But in each poem, language is treated as a different confusion. Because “the skin” of language, which sustains and covers reality, which protects the wholeness of a subject and nails a named reality, it becomes broken, decayed. Language used to console us, give us the illusion of possibilities of unity and togetherness. Yet “The Great Forgetting” alarms. On the skin of languages, patches are peeled away as forgotten layers of words. All that remains are distorted scabs. Words bearing faded memories are stripped of their original nature. Desire presenting itself in words is with a new chaotic order.


And so, with Confusion of our skins, Brennan above all else pushes us into a condition of contemplating the disintegrating “skins” of language. If the illusions that language bring us have been playing the role of rescuing human beings from their loneliness, now, they are exposed in their fragility, brokenness, incredulity. They are the interruptions between grammar and signification, between individual words and collective memory, the limitation of a noun and the multitudinous rain of images, the greater and greater extreme codedness of language and the complexity of inner emotion. Each layer of language skin is stripped and destroyed, lost and pained: the amnesia of a noun, of how to express emotion, of how to communicate, though we still try to cling to a little illusion of the possibility of imitating the empty standard of grammatical practices. One should hook into the remaining pieces of skin, fill them up, sew and patch them, find ways to hold them together by repeating over and over, by holding tight to the images of memory, as the father clings to the imagination of “those ox heart tomatoes”, and the son turns back every clock in the house in order to steal time, attempting to turn the present into the past. They soliloquy everything that appears in their minds, comprehensive or incomprehensive, logical or illogical, all of it originating from a hidden clause “we will wait for Mother’s return” (Those ox heart tomatoes). Only for the silhouette of mother not to fall into oblivion. The poem builds a terrifyingly true-life dialogue; its reality exposes illogicality, aimlessness, and the meaninglessness of ordinary dialogues. As the dialogue of Estragon and Vladimir in Waiting for Godot. Here is also the waiting to be freed. Jumbo almost wants to give up. Still, there is some attempt to cling on, though all seems irretrievably slipping away, lost: the pastoral dream slips away into paranoia, the verbal loses its meaning in soliloquy, standard grammar exposes its own fallacy, water flows down its plughole, orange peels slip into the compost, lives slip away on the deadly freeway…What the father keeps repeating in his head is a miniature imagination, as if holding onto a dream, treasuring a good memory that must not be lost. Or perhaps it is only to keep in mind that there is something we are waiting for, so we can have some reason for our existence, to not let ourselves go with the slipperiness, and maybe to know who we are.


Memory – language – skin, as an all-at-once occurrence, appear and interact with each other within their own confusions, constructing a multi-leveled imagination (the skin of language, the skin of memory, the skin of body, the skin of geography). It is just that they are all scratched, abraded, and deformed.


Who is Alibi Wednesday? also confuses what humans face with language. Language is something that brings us a sense of a “world already”: “Don’t worry too much, it’s all taken care of”. As “When Old Tom walked out of the desert, the world seemed to be put alright,” (Growth cycle) “the world was already the world and we were looking for ourselves,” (World already). To enter the world with the footsteps of an immigrant, one’s first encounter is with language. The city has its own language, outside us, a solid institution. To enter the world is to permeate the spatial membrane of exclusion, of acceptance and refusal. It is one that demands all who live within it to violently submit to it. This encounter injures the newcomer. It defines the position of the immigrant, the minor, the object, and makes their language “goo-goo”, lisping. The ‘old’ language must be stripped away in order to call the city by its name and be on good terms with it. Emotion must also be expressed in other words, communicable. To come to this city is to come into full contradiction: it is both attractive and terrifying; it forces insiders to obey its strict abstract rules of language and at the same time, it bears an astonishingly sensitive skin to the touch. It measures happiness in “equal portions of vodka, ice and speed”. All of the most attractive, the most distinguished details of the city present themselves on its surface. A portion of them immediately mesmerizes us into an ecstasy when we come into contact with them. In other words, the sensual aspects of the city’s skin. The newcomers have to find the way to plant themselves on that skin.


On the skin of the city, there appear completely specific spaces, the places precisely named and clearly detailed (the vestibule, the petting zoo, the plunge pool…) and of course, there are indicators (Emmett Dalgliesh, Miss Edelstein from the evacuation center). All of the presences seem to fit in a popular imagination of the city. But the person On the journey seems blind to the composition of the surface. After the loss of direction and passive following of various external voices (though it seems these voices are also spatially blind) is a surreal description. It exposes the rupture between the real and the dream, between two systems of languages: at first, the immigrant tries to identify and name “vestibule”, to be familiar with the city’s language system issued by the other; but in the end, the failure of this communication is very clear. The immigrant is totally blind to the new space, to the reality that is being covered and named in the language of the other. The skin of language reveals its fallacy. Though it is present, it cannot be imagined as anything outside itself. It is nothing more than cloudy clumps: “zoo” is a cloudy clump; “something warm and moist called Mavis” is even more ambiguous. In return, the language of the immigrant, the way of naming and describing things, when compared to customary logic, is also a whimsical muddled clump full of confusion when configuring a species: “The Jackal-faced lounge lizard distracted me with his barking”, “the saratoga tending a trolley of newborns in the corner”… These kinds of comparisons open up an abnormal imagination of “zoo” that slips away from Emmett Dalgliesh’s identification, coming to represent the rupture in concepts of humanity and possibilities of communication. The sense of an essential relationship between language–reality has been erased to its limit. The faces of such clumps of cloudy languages appear and reappear in the collection. As when “the Chinese fortune-teller’s wet lips part, and you’re left to draw on prophecies in the strange language of your future” (After the circus), or in encounters with the “fool”, “the Dingaling”, who is “going on and on about something” that seems incomprehensible (Symbiosis). There is no perfect whole of skin, only incohesive pieces. Languages cannot touch one another; skins cannot be rubbed together and explode. Because then it is easy to slip away with nothing to hold onto.


Language’s capacity to establish social interactions then becomes too fragile. As the cloudy materiality of language gets exposed, it can be nothing other than itself, can hide nothing more inside it. Like skin stripped from the body. And so, the depth of each “skin”, each surface, gets erased. A state of flattening gradually overcomes everything. Cyberspace is flat, intensely cold. Each process, each connection, no longer bears any significance except for the very process and connection by itself, without background setting, without character, without any message transmitted, even the profoundest association of love can only appear as hyperlinks, systems of coded information, clicks, or mechanical actions of downloading. (Noah in love)


- Thái Hà
- co-translated by Nhã Thuyên and Kaitlin Rees

- photo by Nguyễn Quốc Thành

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