AFTER FULDA

AFTER FULDA

 

Ik gehorta đat seggen. Tell me what you hear/d.

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The first sentence is the first line of a poem I’m dabbling in these days, from the Old High German, the Hildebrandslied, but the second sentence, the one in the English I know, isn’t the translation, just my response. Just the reading turned inward. The dead language asked for and responded to. Hildebrand, you see, he meets his son Hadubrand at the field of battle, but Hadubrand doesn’t recognize his father, who has been living in exile. Hildebrand finds himself honor-bound to fight, regardless of any fatherly connection he may feel toward his opponent, and the poem breaks off in line 68 with the two clashing shields. But we can reasonably guess that Hildebrand kills Hadubrand because of the endings of other tales in the Indo-European tradition with the same father/son/opponent set-up. I guess the moral of the story is: honor is a stupid reason. Honor shouldn’t be thicker than blood.

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But if you never recognize what or whom you’re fighting, what then? Although I guess I did figure out the face of my opponent and then I killed it, but I still don’t know the name of my shield, and even now my sword stings in my hand. A breaking is hard to face, even when seams are sewn, when the rupture is made whole once more.

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Ik gehorta đat seggen that a woman, that’s me, lived for an entire month in a terrible place. Two challengers stood against each other before assemblies. The assemblies were passersby, gathered armies, honor being striven for, not wanting to shit my pants from my irritable bowel, what have you. The psychotic episode proved to be bad for my stomach. One man clutched a newspaper while waiting for the train but he wasn’t reading it. No, the clutching took place between the vortex of his elbow and side as he fiddled with his phone. Another listened to music on headphones. There were women present as well, of course. But there was also the voice. Not one connected to any body I could see, but I new instinctively that it belonged to a man. Ik gehorta the voice telling me the meaning of the story he wanted me to believe as a way into the canal of his tongue speaking my messed up birth in his eyes. Nothing made sense, his wasn’t a language I spoke or even read until much later in offices, being interpreted, you understand, but I kenned the meanings all the same. Maybe that doesn’t make sense either. Regardless, I was my own epic. Not written down in dead words in some monastery or other, not in the 830s, no, rather a woman scratching her fingernails into wood, holding on, my hard-scrabble fight. Continue existing. That was the other voice, mine, the one I recognized as my own flesh. Then my guts started mumbling again, so I tightened my sphincter. Concentrate on keeping in, that’s the trick. This is the opposite of exploding, but necessary, because believe me, the ass is the final frontier of what people can handle. You do not want to be the crazy lady who shits her pants in public, because the world we live in does not have room for that. This was a deep fear I had for the entirety of the episode, and the entirety of falling down into it, and then later, climbing out.

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Maybe to tell a fresh story, you have to find an old tongue to make sense of it, a language you never learn but instead cling to tiny portions. Phrases, pairs of words, subjects-verbs. Maybe this is reading psychotically, or reading as a brain that was once split into pieces by lightning but no longer is but needs, all the same, to show how divided, how splintered it has been. I was so apart from myself that I have to introduce my story to you in a language none of us speak. That’s the thing. I heard a number of voices, by that point belonging to flesh, discussing my case. I had been disorganized. I had believed things that weren’t true. Things that couldn’t possibly be true. There was no spaceship in that painting and no one lived in it with a brain connected to mine with invisible tentacles and maybe that’s not the whole story, just the part I feel most comfortable telling. But it is true that was the worst day, the day my cheek wouldn’t come unstuck from the bed. Me pawing the quilt. My epic breaking down, me coming undone.

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Brief aside. Dead languages equal graduate school, at least in my mind, but after barely making it through my MFA program in poetry I quickly realized the unstructured boundaryless-ness of academia was exactly the kind of stress that counted as a stress factor in my illness profile. Therefore, instead of even thinking about applying to PhD programs, where I could have bathed in all the old, but maybe in the end, not-so-dead-after-all languages I wanted, I ended up with a series of shitty jobs in the retail industry. There were brief forays into other sectors, but never for long. But I snapped up all sorts of books, teach yourself CDs, DVDs, what have you, approaching anything to do with dead languages that I could find at the bookstore I worked at for a while. The CDs (Teach Yourself Anglo-Saxon in this case) were the most fun. I listened and repeated. I listened and repeated. I made an old tongue into a living being. Nothing I learned to say was particularly important but I was importantly waking up. Around the same time, I started getting into Beowulf for real. There are a few lines, I can’t remember exactly where in the poem, but Beowulf tells someone, Hrothgar, I think, that when he was younger, his kinsman never thought much would become of him. But look at him now, see. I held onto that. My failure didn’t matter. I was a hero, not a monster shitting my pants. No, I conquered monsters, including the one from the train platform. Maybe it didn’t matter if no one ever knew. I knew.

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Get it? Ik gehorta đat seggen there was a woman who figured stuff out and lived to see another day.

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Or, Hwæt, if you prefer. Just, it’s always a story I’m telling.

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Who was the poet whispering in my ear, telling me which part to play? Now I’m all like, some part of me faced the host, the assembly, the opponent, what have you, on the train platform, held onto the bench, looked away from the train, stopped going to the station at all when the voice got too loud, said Fuck you, Hildebrand, I’m not letting you kill me, even though maybe stepping back feels partly like failure. And where’s the honor in that? But figuring out how to fail is the most probable end to this story, even if it does mean—well, what it meant was needing help. Was looking in faces and seeing their mirrors and there was one face, the most important face at that time, that wore a seed of disgust and fear, confusion and helplessness, even though I’d managed to avoid the unthinkable and never once shit my pants. Not in public or private. My bowels remained an impregnable fortress. The battle took place on all the meadows surrounding the fortress but the drawbridge didn’t fall. Lucky for that. Again, again, how many marks can one person have against her? I already was only combing my hair with my fingers and thus developed several matted snarls that could only be removed by the cutting blades of a sharp pair of scissors. Ik gehorta it’s hard to take care of yourself when you’re sick and it is. It’s the effort in the face of the sick that makes up the epic. Not that the Hildebrandslied is an epic or anything. Like I said, it’s only 68 lines. But it’s a poem about heroes all the same, or some estimation of heroes acting foolishly, and that’s what I was, a fool, continuing on my own to face the beast, my opponent, the voice of freezing cold intensity, the one who came welling up whenever I waited for the train.

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Then comes recovery, the rest of your life. The rest of my life. Mucking about on Sunday mornings, years later, with old poems over coffee. Wanting to leave traces of yourself, myself, on everything, a mark that I have been here, there, in all the places of the back-and-forth and in-between, now, and ten minutes from now, and for hours, days, weeks, months, maybe even years after now. Because why not? Why ever not? The battle has left the meadow and I’ve walked across the drawbridge to a different beginning. The trick is: what words should I use to describe what defies description? Don’t answer. There is no answer. Instead, it’s a question, continuous.