A Gemini Interviews Her Other Mouth

 

Gemini: I suppose you remember what your mother told you about Geminis…

Lidia: Yup. She said, in a thick southern drawl, “Well, you know, being with a Gemini is like being in a room with 50 people.”

 

Gemini: So which you are you today?

Lidia: The Lidia that just picked her kid up from school on her way to the grocery store before she washes clothes.

 

Gemini: Ah. The domestic Lidia.

Lidia: Correct.

 

Gemini: She’s fucking boring.

Lidia: Gee, thanks. But you are dead wrong.

 

Gemini: What’s not dull about domesticity?

Lidia: Gee Gemini, lemme make a list. There’s the fact that our bodies generate, oh, I don’t know, ALL OF HUMAN LIFE, we are the other side of masculine action in terms of reflection, repetition, cyclical experience and generative practices, we make a place of comfort and grace for a body to come home to—

 

Gemini: Busted. You are the worst housecleaner I’ve ever met and you know it. Forget dust bunnies. You’ve got dust godzillas…and I know for a fact there are year old underwear and socks under your bed.

Lidia: I’m not talking about housekeeping. I’m talking about how a woman makes a compassion home of not only her body, but any environment she comes into contact with. Even you do with your bitchy, fierce, chaotic, electric body.

 

Gemini: Oh Jeeeeeeez…..I was wondering how long it was going to take you to get to talking about bodies. That took like 15 seconds. What is your DEAL with bodies? COW is crawling with them.

Lidia: Well, you already know my DEAL with bodies…I love them. All of them. I think they are pretty much the coolest thing in ever. I wish more of us could love them with abandon. The book is a bodystory, and I told it in the hopes that other people might think about their own body stories. I think the body is a metaphor for experience and an epistemological site. And having carried life and death there, I feel like I am in a good position to speak about the body.

 

Gemini: Man. Talk about a buzz kill. But since we’re on the topic – why didn’t you tell in your book what your daughter’s name was?

Lidia: Lily. I couldn’t make a sentence big enough to hold her.

 

Gemini: What’s the one sentence in COW that matters to you the most?

Lidia: “Love is a small tender.”

 

Gemini: That’s not even a grammatically correct sentence.

Lidia: Fuck grammar. It’s fascist in its need to shape experience away from bodies.

 

Gemini: WHATEVER. Again with the bodies.

Lidia: And language. What sentence matters the most to you?

 

Gemini: I think it’s a cross between “This is your daughter leaving, motherfucker,” and “Even angry girls can be moved to tears.”

Lidia: I can understand that. Your you and my me have a lot in common—two sides of a girlbody.

 

Gemini: Why does the body matter? I’ve been throwing this body at life forever and it’s a wonder it’s still functioning…isn’t it the brain that saved us? Isn’t it the brain that makes pretty much everything matter?

Lidia: Well I don’t buy that old Cartesian Dualism thing. There is no mind body split. But the mind is more culturally valued and sanctioned than the body, and the body is more objectified, abjectified, and commodofied in this culture. Like Whitman, I am interested in the mindbody that is closer to energy and matter and the whole DNA spacedust universe shebang.

 

Gemini: Oh I see how you are. Now you are trying to be grad school mouth Lidia. OK smarty girl, how would you define “edgy?” Isn’t that what you are trying to be?

Lidia: Actually, to be honest with you, I think I’m just trying as hard as I can to be precise. Not edgy. I guess I’d define edgy as twitchy and confused. Tweakers and Republicans come to mind. I think when people call certain kinds of writing “edgy” they probably mean it made their brains itchy or something…but in COW I tried to be exact is all. Emotionally, linguistically, physically, lyrically, exact.

 

Gemini: By the way. I know why you refer to The Chronology of Water as COW. And it ain’t bovine.

Lidia: True.

 

Gemini: You wanna tell em, or should I?

Lidia: Go for it.

 

Gemini: “COW” is the euphamism Gertrude Stein used to refer to …

Lidia: Spanking twinkies.

 

Gemini: Which is your favorite bodily fluid?

Lidia: That’s easy. Cum and tears. Because they are salty like the ocean. Although Andy and I did have a good run with breast milk.

 

Gemini: Speaking of bodies and women and language, rumor has it on the cyber streets that you like to sometimes give readings wearing a special outfit.

Lidia: Occasionally.

 

Gemini: Did you ever worry that the “outfit” might embarrass your husband and son?

Lidia: I don’t know…hold on a minute and I’ll go ask them…

 

Gemini: HEY! While she’s out of the room lemme tell you some secrets about her…she likes to wear wigs, in her thirties sometimes on airplanes she’d adopt a foreign accent and invent a name, she plays clarinet, she once peed on the steps of the Capitol, and she once broke into someone’s home and stole all their stuff so they could collect the insurance. Luckily it was a long long time ago. Oh. Crap. She’s back…

Lidia: So I asked Andy and Miles if my reading outfit embarrasses them. Andy said, “Well, sort of it must, because I kind of get a stomach ache when you do it and I think to myself, oh Lidia…” And Miles said, “No, you just look more like you.” Why do you have that shit eating grin on your face? Have you been telling stories about me?

 

Gemini: Absolutely not. So here’s a question that’s been bugging me.

Lidia: Shoot.

 

Gemini: Why is your COW book all …. You know, choppyish?

Lidia: You mean why is it written in fragments and out of order?

 

Gemini: Yeah. Like I said. Choppy.

Lidia: Because I was trying to mimic the way memory works in biochemistry and neuroscience terms. Pieces of things brought together in a resolving system.

 

Gemini: Look at the big brain on the lid. Gimme a break.

Lidia: Seriously.

 

Gemini: Yeah I KNOW. Isn’t this partly why no agents will touch you? Because you have to “do things” to your stories? Every thought of telling them like a normal human being?

Lidia: I am telling them as precisely as I know how…I am telling them the way they feel to me, as true as I can get the language to go strange.

 

Gemini: Yeah yeah yeah. Tell the truth but tell it slant. Dickinson.

Lidia: Yup.

 

Gemini: Look how much action that got her. No offense, but she was kind of an isolate. Definite bummer at parties. Not a very snappy dresser either, I might add.

Lidia: Well, I am quite fond of isolates. And I used to have to breathe into a brown paper bag at parties in the bathroom. And my fashion sense is questionable.

 

Gemini: I’ll say. Ever heard of this thing called a “haircut?”

Lidia: I think you got all the social genes…and I’m guessing I have you to thank for all the unusual undergarments?

 

Gemini: Bingo.

Lidia: And rule breaking? And un-ladylike behavior? And anger? And propensity to fuck up? And a wide variety of boots? And potty mouth? And sexual excess? And drugs and alcohol and…

 

Gemini: Do you have a point, oh miss big breasted faux mother goddess?

Lidia: Yeah. I have a point. Let’s throw a lip over it and drink to it. My friend Karen Karbo gave me a bottle of Ardbeg, and my friend Chelsea Cain gave me a bottle of Glen Livet. Choose your poison.

 

Gemini: Sure you wouldn’t rather brew a nice pot of Jasmine hippie tea?

Lidia: I’m sure. I’m the one who let you into my lifehouse, my bodyhouse, my wordhouse…we are only me together. Cheers.

 

 

Have the elder races halted?
Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas?
We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson, Pioneers! O pioneers!

Walt Whitman (1819–1892), “O Pioneers,” Leaves of Grass

Years ago I had a plum job straight out of college working for a post-production house as an assistant video editor.

There were a lot of impressive features in my claim to this job: I was female (still am, last I checked, but one can never be sure), I was completely green, and I was respected. The respect came from my knack for picking up skills quickly, and my talent for faking it in sessions with paying clients (really, really paying clients. Hundreds of dollars-an-hour paying clients). Though my direct superiors knew I didn’t know what I was doing, their clients were blissfully unaware due to my rather remarkable grace under pressure.

In this way, I had what you could call “on-the-job training.” Yes, I had graduated from college with good marks, and a final year in film school. I had even heard of the high-falutin’ editing system that the offline editors worked on, but I didn’t actually know what “offline” versus “online”  meant, which was where I was hired to assist. I had seen a patch bay briefly in college, but didn’t touch the thing; I had opened Photoshop but never did anything beyond make a poorly constructed collage out of a picture of my dad reading a book in front of Saturn. It did not qualify me for my job title.

But, perhaps because I’m more afraid of public humiliation than anything else on this green earth, I never let the clients see me sweat. The lead editor would lob me a slow ball and I’d rally, looking the picture of cool as I stumbled through menus in Photoshop looking for God knows what to design a layout on the fly; then the client would ask for something that I had literally never heard of in my life and I would, with subtle sign language from the editor, pull a rabbit out of my ass. We were an amazing team.

But I learned my job very well. I was adept at graphic design, I learned all the technical crap associated with the machine room; I learned how to patch any machine to any other machine via patch bay; I learned how to use color bars and what being “out of phase” meant. I ended up being very good at what I did. I earned my title eventually.

What I was not good at was leaving my high morals at the door. We were not working on Scorsese pictures; nor were we working on documentaries covering deforestation in Brazil or the crimes against humanity in Rwanda. We worked on the maiden roll-out of Tivo infomercials. We worked on Nike spots (featuring more often than not the recently disgraced patron saint of Nike, Tiger Woods). We edited a shockingly embarrassing children’s series called “Bibleman,” produced by and starring as Bibleman himself none other than “Eight is Enough” alum Willie Aames, who, despite his belief, still managed to be smarmy and creepy and totally full of himself.

There were high quality spots from some of the greatest ad agencies in the country, and some of the lamest dreck ever to grace late-night television in the form of “As Seen on TV” product pitches. Precursors to “The Snuggie,” we led the charge on such products as Bowflex, OxyClean (featuring our lost coke-head infomercial star Billy Mays in some of his early work) and early incarnations of the ShamWow craze (not, sadly, featuring Vince Shlomi, the guy who had his tongue bitten by a hooker but someone completely less memorable).

In this climate, I felt sullied. A little dirty. Crass. I begrudged the work we did, the high-flying feats of amazing editing and graphic prowess, our team’s remarkable grace and fluidity, put to onerous use by Beelzebub and his band of ShamWow shillers. The amount of effort that we expended in creating horrifying spots at the behest of our clients was just a little bit more than my Evergreen State College-informed views of media could handle; I lasted about three years in the business before I retired at the ripe old age of 32.

I don’t think about it much anymore, except to wonder at the amazing success my former co-workers and bosses have found. They are pillars in the field. And I’m very happy for them.

I’m also older, and a little less, shall we say, morally bound to strict ethical interpretations of how my skills are best put to use. I don’t think I would sneer so much anymore. I understand now, as I didn’t then, that sometimes you just have to step back and hold your nose until the noxious fumes of aesthetically devoid commercials dissipate. They’re gonna make the shit one way or another no matter where your morals lie; you just aren’t making a living if you get out of the ring.

But now and then I’m shocked anew at how advertising works upon us. I don’t know if working in the field, albeit briefly, gives me any special insight, but now and then I find the cultural critic in me wallowing up out of the depths of my long-dormant liberal college education.

I cannot help but be enthralled by the recent ad campaign called “Go Forth” from our Portland hometown heroes Wieden+Kennedy, one of the largest ad agencies in the country. In two spots, poems are read with a certain creaky ancient charm, both clearly archival recordings, or an amazing facsimile. Paired with a dirge-like mono-tonal soundtrack and shockingly lovely images of eerily beautiful humans in all states of outdoorsy revelry, the spot entreats us to embrace our American heritage, our pioneering spirit to “Go Forth…”

…and buy Levi’s.

If you really want to be a part of the bleeding edge of our youthful American spirit, you’ll want to do it in some Levi’s jeans.

I was so impressed by the spots that I looked up one of the poems online, to glean a touch of understanding about whether or not it was a real poem, or a jingle crafted in the Dark Arts of ad copy. Imagine my surprise, and a little shame, that it was that most American of American poets Walt Whitman, himself reading his poem “America,” in a recording from so long ago that it was preserved on a wax cylinder.*

This set my mind racing. I couldn’t actually believe it.

The first thing I couldn’t believe was that I didn’t know the poem. As a person who prides herself on, if not bookish scholarship at least a well-rounded education, I couldn’t believe that I didn’t know this iconic poem from an iconic collection by the most iconic of American poets. What did that say about me? What did that say about my education? What did it say about education in the main?

It occurred to me in the dark wallows of the night that if I didn’t know the poem, most everybody else didn’t either. Which, if one can extrapolate, makes our first collective listening of our finest poet a recitation in a Levi’s commercial. Does this imply that we are being educated by commercials? That the erosion of the basics of American History and American Lit class leave us to the mercy of Wieden+Kennedy to provide our scholarship?

I tried to think of other poets, American or merely English-speaking. I tried to think of cultural heritage. I hate to say it, but I came up wanting. I know a number of American authors, classic or otherwise. I’ve read me a fair lot of Steinbeck and Faulkner and O’Connor. The only poet I could think of was T.S. Eliot who was such an old bigot that he didn’t even want to be American, even though his poetry is amazing.

But I could list an astonishing number of television spots. I could rattle off, with no problem whatsoever, the jingles of countless dozens of ads shilling everything from coffee (the Folger’s coffee theme still resounds in the morning when I’m desperate for my own cup) to soda (“I’m a Pepper, you’re a Pepper,” “I’d like to buy the world a Coke”) to the Super Sugar Crisp Bear and Tony the Tiger fighting for superiority in my brain while some Frooty Toucan duels with some ne’er-do-well Cap’n). I still quote those Budweiser assholes completely inadvertently (“Waaaaazzzzzahhhhp”) and sometimes hear the groaning bullfrogs singing their Budweiser chant completely unbidden. I can tell you about Superbowl ads from before the DotBomb, but cannot tell you who was in the Superbowl.

“Where’s the Beef?” “Got Milk?” “Yo Quiero Taco Bell” “Calgon, take me away…” Stop me, now.

It hurts me in a deep private place to admit that I’ve succumbed this way. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if I could recall with any confidence one single poem that wasn’t crafted in a boardroom as a part of some campaign. I might be able to recite a little Shel Silverstein, that bitter bard of Seventies ‘tweens, or Dr. Suess books because I’ve read virtually all of them numerous times since our son was born.

So I’m left with the obvious: I heard “America” for the first time in a commercial selling jeans. And I liked it. How do I square that? Interesting that, once I began researching the commercial, I found hints of people being similarly mesmerized. People linked to it on YouTube, people discovered that the poem was by Walt Whitman. They blogged about it, they wondered what the poem was about (and, predictably, made completely erroneous analyses of the poem).

That is the mark of a successful campaign.

And I’m left wondering, how do I feel about being introduced to Walt Whitman in a Levi’s commercial? My life has been enriched by the experience; I never knew there were live recordings of Whitman and am happy to have heard one. The poem itself is a worthy introduction, under any circumstance I suppose. And an entire generation of dips like myself have also been introduced to Whitman, albeit through a pitch for jeans which apparently, upon their donning, will help one embrace the American dream.

So on balance, would Whitman understand what had happened to his poem? Would it matter to him one jot that he influenced a tide of Americans, not through Lit Class in fourth period but in a flashy, well-produced advert? He may very well reach more humans in that one ad than he’s reached in the last decade in English class. What is the moral or ethical barometer of that, when we are exposed to something great? Is the greatness diminished by its delivery? Is the fact that Whitman is being used to sell jeans an indication that we should close up shop and retire English Lit Classes forever and instead offer college classes analyzing the last several decades of the art within the advert?

Because I know, through working with commercials both great and small, that some of the greatest creative juices are being dumped into amazing 30- and 60-second spots.

There is something beautiful about the form, if you separate it briefly in your mind from its sole intention of selling you junk you don’t want. It’s like the haiku of film; all the humor or grace or sadness the director wishes to convey must be synthesized into a tiny little package. The writers are constrained by impossible boundaries to tell a story, and yet time and again they do it, not just successfully, but often with beauty, simplicity and poignancy. The bleeding edge of special effects are pushed further in the cause of creating 3D models of absorbent diapers and stunning animations of hamsters driving cars than they are in movies and tv. Why? Because the budgets are (used to be) in advertising.

So I’m being disingenuous when I suggest that we scrap American Lit in favor of “Sixty Years of Commercials: Art and Poetry in Advertising,” but only slightly. I didn’t end up spending my life in the field, only because I was too inflexible at the time to recognize the subtle beauty of that most pernicious of forms. But I recognize greatness when I see it, and I know that even though I won’t buy any Levi’s as a result of W+K’s campaign, I will inadvertently quote Whitman at strange times, maybe in tandem with the Budweiser frogs.


*There seems to be some question as to the provenance of the recording itself. In a comment, D.R. Hainey writes:

…a Google search led to the real deal. According to the accompanying information, it’s believed to be Whitman, and the recording is only thirty seconds long, which was as much as those who discovered the recording in the early 1950s could retrieve. As to the voice on the recording, which is thought to have been made in 1899-1890, one analyst has this to say: “It contains a subtle and quaint regional inflection–a soft mix of Tidewater Atlantic and an Adirondack dilution of the contemporary New York accent–which has quite literally disappeared in our age. No one speaks that way anymore. The notion that someone might have set out to imitate such a nuanced archaic inflection strains credibility just a bit.” I agree. If this isn’t Whitman, who was born on Long Island in 1819, he must have sounded very similar.

Thus tipped off that my scholarship is not 100 percent, I did a little Googling myself, and found no proof that it wasn’t Whitman, but no proof that it was, either. My discoveries, in the short time I dedicated to the search, are in the comments. But should anyone want to take up the charge of the Whitman recording mystery, I think it’s a fascinating cause.

I choose to suspend my disbelief because I think it’s simply magical to hear Whitman. But I understand that in the search for truth, justice and historical veracity, it may be more important to others to keep up the quest.


As soon as I enter the room I want to fuck someone. A kaleidoscope of colors and words assaults me.

While other students filter to their seats, I’m bewitched by a canopy of poetry scribbled in bad penmanship on all the walls and ceiling. A banner of Blake reads:

The unfolding of the imagination is the only true education.

The bell rings and a buck-toothed dancer in pink tights and high-waisted tweed shorts brushes past me hurrying to her desk. I scan the room for a seat and find one near the back corner underneath a verse of Poe.

While I’m reading the wall, Tom Dillon walks through the door in a white t-shirt, ripped Levi’s and clunky motorcycle boots, duct tape holding the soles and buckles digging canyons into the leather.

 

We make eye contact and time goes all gooey while he walks to his desk, a desk I long to mount. Instead, he climbs atop, the desk, not me, unfortunately, and roars, “I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.”

Ok, maybe I don’t want to fuck him. Maybe he’s just a dork who watched Rebel Without a Cause orEasy Rider one too many times. Maybe he won those boots off an East Side Rider in a back-alley gambling ring. My dad once won a 1969 Jose Ramirez classical guitar in a poker game.

Mr. Dillon pounds his chest, another yawp I presume, but I’m not really sure because I’m no longer listening. I’m watching his mouth, the way it puckers when he comes to the end of a phrase.

He reminds me of a rooster my grandparents once had who used to chase the dogs with his chest puffed out.

“Full of hot air,” my Grandpa used to say before the IRS killed him.

I look around to see if any of the other kids in my class are buying what Mr. Dillon’s selling. Three inky-haired goth girls wiggle their asses in their seats, and the boy next to me wearing a shredded Day-Glo jacket and oversized rhinestone earrings checks out Mr. Dillon’s package.

It is a nice package, I note. Nothing like a dick in Levi’s. I can imagine the boxers underneath. Probably light blue. Maybe striped. I sneak my hand into the cotton hole; feel the steamy warmth, the flesh of the balls, warm and soft, like fresh baked dinner rolls.

“Stop staring,” the boy next to me snaps.

“You’re the one who was staring. I was just trying to figure out what you were staring at.”

He scoots closer. “He’s fucking hot, don’t you think?”

I glance over at Mr. Dillon possessed by the Whitman rant.

“His teeth are kinda small,” I break. I don’t want to be one more groupie.

“You’re fucking crazy,” my Day-Glo pal snipes. “You can’t tell me you’d kick him out of bed.”

“Eh,” I reply, shrugging my shoulders like he’s no big deal.

Mr. Dillon seems enraptured by the poem, but I can’t help wondering what the big fucking deal is with Whitman and why Mr. Dillon seems so moved by him.

Or is he? Maybe he’s just another poser sycophant teacher who wants to ride the clock and fuck all the little girls. He keeps reading:

I think I could turn and live with animals,

They’re so placid and self contain’d,

I stand and look at them long and long

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,

They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,

They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God…

Though I don’t want to, I love him. His small teeth. His big feet. The way he colors his world with bright hues. The way he smirks when he gets to the end of a stanza.

I’d never loved a teacher before. Some of the girls in junior high were crazy about Mr. Nuggins, but I thought he had a big butt. There were also rumors at my last high school that Mr. Millie raped a student, but then that student was expelled, so I gathered it was all bullshit.

My earliest teachers were nuns with nose hairs and halitosis. Not very fuckable nuns. Not like Julie Andrews or anything. Except Sister Brigettte; she was pretty, even if she didn’t wash her hands all the time. They always smelled of cigars and shrimp.

When I switched to public school after my parents divorced, I spent most of my time practicing my super powers to turn invisible, so I didn’t pay too much attention to my teachers, which worked out great because they didn’t pay too much attention to me, either.

“I heard he’s fucking Amy Wattingen,” my new friend purrs, pulling me out of myself.

“Who’s Amy Wattingen?” I ask, scanning the room of fluttering eyelashes.

Day-Glo examines his navy blue nails for chips. “Oh, she’s in regular English,” whispering the word like it was pedophilia or cancer.

“Is she pretty?” I ask, regretting it immediately. I sound jealous.

I am jealous.

“She’s tall and thin,” he laments, sucking in his cheeks like a New York junkie. “Go ahead and hate her. I do.”

I turn to my book, ashamed of myself. Ashamed that I’m jealous of a girl I don’t know. Ashamed that I love a man I don’t know. Ashamed that at the end of the day I’m just like everyone else, falling for some scruffy boots and a line of poetry. Not like he wrote the goddamned poem. 

I didn’t want to be like everyone else, so I vowed to fall out of love with Mr. Dillon immediately. Love was a choice, and I would simply make another. But as he climbed off his desk, I noticed a small hole in the crotch of his jeans. Though but a fleeting glance, what I saw made time stop and go all gooey again. 

Mr. Dillon wasn’t wearing underwear. No boxers. No briefs. No tighty whities.

Blake me now.