Disturbing Words: waste

Originally published on tinyletter 16 June 2017.

‘More than a handful is a waste.’

True story: this is an actual thing that an actual person said this to me, 20 years ago, about women’s breasts (and specifically about mine).

Full disclosure: I was 32 DD at that point (and had been since I was 12), and these days am 32 GG/H.

What a waste, eh.

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Let’s get this out the way.

waste does not have an interesting etymology: it comes from the Latin word vastare, vastus, meaning desert or desolate (nothing to do with vastus with a short a, which means vast). As in devastated. Attributed to the Proto-Indo-European root: *weh2st- (“empty, wasted”).

Waste means waste.

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I’ve been haunted this season by a film title: DIALOGUES or A Waist Is A Terrible Thing To Mind (Owen Land, 2007-09). I didn’t make it to the screening at Lux, so I can’t say anything about the film itself, although there’s something about the opposition of body and mind in that title that bugs me.

The title is a transpositional pun, a witty kind of chiasmus in which a well-known phrase turns itself inside out; in this case, ‘a mind is a terrible thing to waste,’ the motto of the United Negro College Fund, which you may not know was actually developed in 1971 by advertising agency Y&R.

How great (i.e. terrible) is it that the URL short title of Advertising Age is adage, as if advertising slogans could become the moral sayings of our time. As they – terribly – have.

Just do it.

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I grew up in advertising, that wasteland. My father started his own ad agency in the mid-80s (that wasteland), and I “worked” there every summer of my early teens.

Worked: was sent out, at eleven, to buy cigarettes (nod and a wink to the guy in the newsagent); was told to fill empty Evian bottles from the kitchen taps (which was how I worked out something was going on with the client who would later become my step-mother – because I was sent out to buy actual Perrier, with no snide jokes); was told to eavesdrop on other colleagues’ meetings and report back; and I learned a variety of swear words, as well as how to use a photocopier, how to use a mouse, and how to sniff both photocopier toner and sprayfix.

Thus passed my general introduction to the wasteful nadir of capitalist endeavours, one whose sole purpose is to exploit needs by misdirecting them into fruitless wants. I learned manipulation with precision, Machiavellian. I learned operational racism, sexism, and homophobia. I learned it was acceptable to have pictures of naked women on the wall of your office if they were on a client’s calendar.

What a waste of a life.

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‘I don’t so much fear death as I do wasting life.’ Oliver Sacks, quoted as the epigraph to Bill Hayes’ devastating (from vastus) memoir, Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me.

All I want to read at the moment are queer memoirs laced loose with grieving and kindness. It’s not really a genre that gets its own shelf in bookstores; it’s hard to advertise.

These are books – I say these, including Alys Fowler’s Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery – whose thoughtful authors – distracted from life’s path by the dark wood of loss – wander, physically and in their prose. They take tangents; they fragment.

I think of Rebecca Brown’s The Gifts of the Body, too. Books about how nothing is wasted where everything is loved – observed, valued, weighed, touched, offered.

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Here is the new US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith on why she moved from poetry to memoir when writing about her mother:

 Where prose is concerned, I suspect that the process of “keeping talking” – the willingness not to stop and wrap things up where they appear to end, but rather to keep going, to keep threading things together until a narrative unity announces itself – facilitates the collaboration between the writer and her unconscious.

Prose (that) wastes words, in other words. It expends, without stinting. It keeps talking, in both senses: continues; holds and honours.

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In Economy of the Unlost (1999), Anne Carson asks ‘what do we waste when we waste words?’

She was writing at the last moment that that question could be philosophical, just before the advent of social media.

There is a strong association in Eurowestern culture between (private) (non-professional) (confessional) writing and masturbation, encoded as wasteful acts. Self-indulgent, as in: self-spending of energy that should more properly go towards production and reproduction.

Fuck that.

What do we waste when we get to know our selves?

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Waste is actually a Francophone derivation from vastus. The Germanic Anglophone derivation, which it came to replace post-Norman invasion, was weste.

Sadly, the OED says that weste has nothing to do etymologically with west (which comes from vesper, evening, i.e. the cardinal direction in which the sun sets).

But, 22 letters in, we can know better than the dictionary, can’t we?

The West is waste. Lays waste. Makes waste (literally, turning limited organic materials into indestructible poisons such as plastics that then lay waste to ecosystems). Has predicated its entire culture on the designation of others (people, places, objects) as waste.

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In Latin, vastus is where no cultivation takes place, no civilisation. It’s is the opposite of human.

You know, that place.

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TS Eliot (banker, publisher) calls it ‘the deadland’ in his monumentally boring poem The Waste Land. What does the deadland do? Oddly enough, despite being dead, it breeds (lilacs, emblematic of first love and – because they flower close to Easter – of resurrection).

How stupid (or afraid) do you have to be to confuse birth and death? To confuse renewal with ruin?

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Is it just coincidence that TOILETS is an anagram of TS Eliot? It’s certainly not an anagram I can resist.

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It’s appallingly hard not to think about Vivien(ne) Haigh-Wood’s appalling husband, if you think at all about Anglophone poetry. I try not to, I really do.

But he’s just so easy to make fun of, with his fear of feeling, and of women. I’ve written for Litmus about why he was afraid of cinema (because it is like feeling, and like women).

And (sigh) I’ve unwritten The Waste Land. It’s why I’m thinking right now about waste, and about places called wastes and all the generative generosity that goes on there.

Those poems are in a new chapbook called what the waste land said, and you are welcome to email me in response to this letter if you would like a copy.

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What is it about, what the waste land said?

What Donna Haraway calls ‘living in the ruins.’ The opposite of apocalypse. The apocalopposite. Haraway notes that she is drawing her phrase from, and elaborating the ideas of, Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.

Far from accelerationist hysteria – which always strikes me as indistinguishable from Ricky Bobby shouting ‘I wanna go fast,’ i.e. just replicating HPCC-as-per – living in the ruins is hard and everyday in ways that don’t (yet) make for (what we understand as) a good story.

There is no waste in it. No empty space. No writing anything off.

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But maybe a lot of writing.

People ask, quite reasonably, ‘what are you writing?’

‘Stuff’ is not a viable answer, but it’s the only one I’ve got. I don’t know what it’s going to become, if anything, other than fibres of becoming. Stuff, then, quite literally. Notebooks textured with my illegible handwriting, notebooks so material to me that I panicked about finding a secure enough place to keep them when I went away last week to a film festival.

In making up my being, they are not for publication (which is, after all, in many ways a form of advertising).

Hence I handmade a chapbook (thank you, Jenny) out of poems written and (mostly) published over the last two or three years, ecofeminist flytings and flirtings with words of urgency, in order that I had something to show (advertise) for my time; so that it wouldn’t seem like I’d been (entirely) wasting it.

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Or: are Vivien(ne) Haigh-Wood’s diaries only useful insofar as they shed light on the work of her husband?

Passages from her diaries, deciphered from her minute handwriting, will be included in a 950-page edition of Eliot’s correspondence, which Faber & Faber will publish on 22 June. It is the seventh of 20 planned volumes devoted to Thomas Stearns Eliot.
20. Planned. Volumes. And mere passages from her diaries. Tell me which is the waste.

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What did Vivien(ne) waste when she added -ne to her name: né, born, in French; in French, Vivien means living or alive.

But in English, ne is an obsolete form of ‘not’ or ‘nor’, a denial or unwriting – but not the rendering of herself as waste. Watch her breed lilacs out of his deadland. Oh, it’s strong, her refusal that blurs birth and death to contest the subsumption of her life into his.

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Deep breath. As if everything before this was (what a waste) preamble.

For a long time, I thought I was dead.

I’m not sure how literally I mean this; I am testing it out by writing it in public. But you knew you were breathing, you might say, and I would say: Barely.

In the summer of 2003, after I’d submitted the first two chapters of my Ph.D. and my world had lost all meaning with the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and that I do mean literally), I set out to discover why (asthma aside) I had such trouble breathing, was so often breath-held or breathless. Why I was choking every time I went for a swim. (It’s not because I’ve got ‘them heavy boobs’ [to quote the always-on-target Rebecca Nora Bunch] although they – in so many ways – do not help.)

I had a book, because isn’t everything in a book? (It is for me.) In this case, Donna Farhi’s The Breathing Book, loaned to me by a friend.

I breathed, as instructed, turning the pages and trying, day after day, to understand how that diagram applied to this thing that I was told was a body.

I don’t think I made it through the first chapter before my life fell to pieces.

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On the night that the memories of sexual abuse returned to me, I had been sitting up late writing my first ever piece of creative non-fiction (for a magazine competition), an essay called ‘Say Something Stupid’ because it started out about the song ‘Somethin’ Stupid,’ as recorded by father-daughter duo Frank and Nancy Sinatra.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Nancy Sinatra said something stupid: ‘Some people call that the Incest Song, which I think is, well, very sweet!’

Incest wasn’t where I started, and it wasn’t where I meant to end up. I thought I was writing about my ex who had used the song in a short play which I’d teched, bringing up the track as I cross-faded the lights in rehearsal after rehearsal.

But. Saying something has its own intelligence; or rather, words are smarter than I am. And so I did find myself saying something (that seemed stupid) as the piece derailed deep into a remembered swimming pool, gasping for breath.

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What really upset me (I mean: really), as I hoarsed out to the friend (loaner of the book) when I called him after an hour of lying in the dark having palpitations and violent flashes of images outlined in brilliant white light, my breath stuck somewhere on the ceiling, was this.

I had spent half a decade studying feminist literary theory, and writing again and again about/against father-daughter incest – in Shakespeare’s late plays; in Romantic closet dramas; in Canadian immigrant women’s writing. I’d just published my first peer-reviewed paper a few months previously, and that last was its subject. Title (quoted from Janice Williamson’s Tell Tale Signs):

‘This dark echo calls him home.’

And so I had.

And I was so angry – breathlessly enraged – with myself for wasting all that time not realising that what I was researching so closely, so investedly, so feministly was (hiding me from) myself.

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That same friend – respecting my life=books way of being – loaned me Shoshana Feldman and Dori Laub’s Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature. And Ellen Bass’ The Courage to Heal. And Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery.

What a jewess (q.v.) team. I recommend them all wholeheartedly.

But for all their compassion, their careful and astute observation of how trauma trip-traps memory like a troll beneath a bridge, they could not answer my question, my self-accusation of waste.

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‘I want to consider the place “where the voice becomes confused,”’ I wrote in the introduction to my first published paper (quoting Williamson again).

I didn’t want to consider it at all. I hadn’t considered that in fact I might be confused. I couldn’t be, could I, with my confident academic prose voice sounding so calmly and compassionately, so competently and cleanly. So objectively, bearing the evidence before me.

Prose as brassière, doing the heavy lifting that allows for that smooth-and-uplift presentation.

What do you do with more than a handful, when what bore you up and kept you presentable has fallen into shreds?

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For a year I lost my voice, altogether, writing nothing of substance. Chronic RSI meant I couldn’t type. I couldn’t think enough to string a sentence together. No poems. No Ph.D. chapters. No more creative non-fiction.

I Dragon Dictated (spelling out Deleuze because it heard ‘dollars’ or ‘delusion’) bitter, terrified, dishonest reading response papers for my graduate classes, unable to find a way to articulate the only thing I could think about, within the underwired confines of academic discourse.

Until – the following year – I was assigned Michelle Citron’s memoir of her own returned memories of sexual abuse (and of her working-class Jewish childhood in Boston), Home Movies and Other Necessary Fictions. The story of how she made her film Daughter Rite, in which one character narrates an assault by her step-father, and how she (Citron) only realised years later that the story had emerged – refracted – from her own life, made me feel a degree less idiotic. A degree more alive.

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When I think of that year, 2003–04, I think waste. Not for the reasons you might think.

What a waste that it took me three months to cry.

What a waste that it took me six months to tell my mum (on my freaking birthday, I’m a prize) about what had happened.

What a waste that I thought poetry and writing were my enemies, some via diritta, and not my companions in the dark wood. It took me a year to think I might be even able attempt to say what I had remembered in a poem – that way of doing I had thought as fundamental to my self as breathing.

Deep that breath.

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What a waste that it has taken me fourteen more years, and twenty-two letters, to write this, and – moreover – to really consider that I might in fact be alive. That I had to start with a joke about my boobs, and a sideswipe at TS Eliot, to find myself writing (and unwriting) what I did not actually set out to write, even though it is all I have been thinking about for the last two and a half months.

I planned this letter to be waspish about waists; and worldly-wise about wanking (etymology unknown; evidenced in writing since 1948 and of male persons only, according to the OED). About how writing – really writing; this kind of unfolding prose writing; or the even more real, unpublic kind that I decided to lock (no joke) in a closet when I went away – makes me (as Faith observes of slaying) ‘hungry and horny’ (BtVS, III.3).

Except it’s not really horny, that hunger (I don’t think it is for Slayers either, exactly): it’s something both less and more. Something about having a body. About being afraid. About finding and feeling one’s limits, where you (as you) meet the world, that fluid and risky border.

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Call it – that place; that writing; this way of being – salt marsh, regularly flooded by the tides. Sulphurous with trapped and decomposing material, because hypoxic (as if short of breath).

Deadland. The kind of place they concrete over, or polder into utility. S(t)inks of pollution, sites of over-exploitation, grazing, salt harvesting. Thought of as ruins. Badland, adland.

Not the garden. Not the ocean. Not the forest. Not the mountain. Unsublime. Boring, endless mudflats that suck at your feet and grow no crops for market.

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A waste turns out to be a terrible thing not to mind. To have been mindless about; to neglect or belittle or denigrate.

So-called wastes are now recognised (by Eurowestern science; the many and varied and frequently displaced and devalued peoples who have lived in or near marshes say, ‘What took you so long’) as essential to preventing inhabited and farmed land (so-called civilisation) from being flooded. They buffer against wave action and trap sediments to delay coastal erosion.

Salt marsh is preservative. It is rich in plants that digest toxins and filter runoff. And for many marine species, a refuge, resting place or nursery habitat.

Is(n’t) that enough?

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It’s taken me fourteen years to think of my deadland as alive: not as resurrected or rescued or revitalised or regenerated, or any of those buzzwords. But always having been alive, as and of and in and for itself.

What a waste of a life, living as if one were dead. I am not sure how I will (if ever) forgive myself.

But maybe forgiveness isn’t the point; maybe it’s an institutional notion, dependent on some sense of the via diritta, the right life.

Maybe what I need to do is give myself (to [of/from] myself), unstintingly. ‘To keep going, to keep threading things together,’ as Tracy K. Smith has it. To keep this going, this ebb and flow, as something precious – not because it is cultivated, but because it is waste.