May 15, 2013

The essence of Gatsby:

*A lyric essay written by yours truly

In a phrase:

it is brown and blue and a sickly gray with tinges of yellow-green.

Messy. Like a two year old was given mud and a canvas.

The artist—she’s a visitor—calls it “River” and throws it up on the screen in the

auditorium with reckless abandon, as if she doesn’t realize how utterly dreadful it is.

The professors fawn over it, but we students know better,

know that rivers make sense and this thing does not.


after a while I think I see the small beginnings of a trickle

tearing across the canvas.

My AP English teacher taught us how to scavenge through and rend the sentences of The Great Gatsby and Hamlet. I’d sit in class every afternoon with the margins of my books bleeding Post-It notes, my close friend Jamille huffing in the seat next to me from beneath a sheet of black hair. “Why do we have to look so hard for symbolism? I just want to read to enjoy it,” she’d say. I’d retort by telling her that she wasn’t looking hard enough, that looking for the deep stuff was what made reading enjoyable. I didn’t understand how someone could just pick up a book and not want to find more than a story and a few pretty lines in it. 

They say a Shakespearean iamb moves like a heartbeat.



_                          I am._

Grandpa’s in the hospital. They rubbed cool gel on his chest and did an ultrasound of his heart yesterday. It was an ugly, uneven lump, moving sporadically within the boundaries of the triangular screen and covered in dark indents that made it look like a skull. I thought I knew the heart, but I didn’t. To think that something so terrible is the only thing keeping his eyes open, his body working. It sounded like it was leaping in puddles instead of beating. Per-plunk, per-plunk, per-plunk.


I think that’s what the artist calls the next painting in her series. Half of the canvas is painted bright red, and the other half is this oozing conglomeration

of yellow and blue oil.

This time I think harder about it, realize that what she is doing is painting simply for the texture, for the way the brushstrokes crawl on top

of each other and make noise,

like a hive of bees.

This is the way that she sees water,

and in its own harsh way,

it is a lovely thing to look at.

When I was 17, I told a high school English teacher that The Great Gatsby was the most overrated book in the world, with a weak plot and unlovable characters. Her bottom lip turned cranberry red beneath the glare of her stabbing front teeth, and her fingers ticked at her hips like fleshy metronomes. Gatsby is my favorite book, she told me.

“The telephone book slipped

from its nail and splashed

            to the floor,

                        whereupon Jordan whispered,

            ‘Excuse me.’—but this time

                                    no one laughed.”

After watching Grandpa’s heart, we left his room and waited in the hall for some time. The sun spread squares of warmth out on the carpet like picnic blankets, and I slid to the floor to feel it. I stretched my legs and thought about irrational things you sometimes think about when you have family in the hospital, like how my nose was crooked but I loved it crooked, or how my stomach curled at the sides and I was grateful it did, because it meant things were normal, or how hearts were lumpy, but did beautiful things. All these pieces of us that arced or curled or thumped in ways that weren’t usual, weren’t supposed to be beautiful, but the movement and the feel and the function of them was. Abstract and broken and messy. And lovely.

After “River”

we are assigned a trip to the art museum.

I push through the glass door, set my backpack to the side, and walk up the

stairs with a pencil and a notepad.

The first piece that catches my attention is a chain-link fence spray-painted white

and layered on top of itself like a sandwich.

The artist is showing us how he sees light.

A trashed fence.

I made myself write a story without using any rules once, this after years of grade school cans and cannots. I still timed every sentence, placed each word like it was a transplanted organ, but it was as chaotic as it was beautiful. Run-ons and fragments and less punctuation. I was proud of it because it said something it couldn’t have said otherwise. It was the disjointed story of me, all language and movement and beating.

And she beat it, my best friend who knew everything about writing beat it to a pulp when I let her read it. Clunky, awkward, you wrote it last night.

Messy, like a two year old was given mud and a canvas.

I think we’ve convinced ourselves to look too hard

at the things other people put their hearts into.

It’s a sticky June day, and Gatsby is spread eagle on my bedspread like a dead man. Spine arcing up, text smashing down. I hate it when people set their books like that. It’s a slow, torturous breaking of bones and binding. But here I am doing it to Gatsby, not even a copy I own. I watch it closely from my doorway, both of us undone.

No one ever told me what it meant to see a book, to hold it open and naked in my palms with its ugly heart heaving in and out against the clip and tear of the elements. I am, I am, I am.

Books are supposed to be impregnable enigmas, but I see the whole vulnerable of Gatsbyright now, and it is derailing me. Depth sacrificed for the chaotic and lovely ripples of surface. Words functioning as words alone.

No one ever told me that the secret to Gatsby is the fact that it just is.

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