it’s like genitals
I want to show you all these tiny parts
but I’m public public public
(from a poem called ‘Rewriting’ by Eileen Myles, in Sorry, Tree (2007)
I was walking to work the other day in heavy rain. It was one of those rains that seems to be triggered by people walking into it, like an alarm sensor. So as soon as I left my flat it kicked into action. I had on my proper raincoat and I had the hood up, which I never do unless it’s a serious rain. (The truth is: several people in my life have teased me about having a disproportionately small head – have I written about this before? probably – and I suspect that a hood just draws attention to it, kind of like an egg coddler.) It’s a good raincoat because the rain seems to just bounce off it.
I had this strange feeling, when I was walking along, that my head, inside its hood, was utterly safe. It felt tiny (. . . it is), and warm and cushioned inside its house. I was able to let the rest of my body drift about, exploring the rain. I thought of myself as a sort of octopus. A small head, two large round staring eyes. My body would move in such a way that it seemed to be everywhere and nowhere. If I accidentally lost a limb while my body was out in the water, it would swiftly regenerate. And just like a severed octopus limb, anything broken from me would be able to carry on operating, of its own volition, for a little while – maybe it would try to pick up food to try to feed a phantom mouth, or uncoil to beckon a cat, or squirt water at my enemies. Meanwhile, my eyes would follow everything.
I don’t mean to really compare myself to a literal octopus – the octopus is after all one of the most cognitively complex animals of our time! Its intelligence exists on a whole other and unknown scale to ours. It’s the basic structure of the octopus I was really interested in, as a metaphor. I thought: maybe there’s a way to replicate this feeling of having a control centre, deep inside this hood where I can shelter but still see everything, and I can let the rest of me flail about in the weather and have bits broken off or eaten every so often, depending on the day’s luck. There must be a way to have this feeling without putting my hood up.
There’s this essay by James Brown in The Fuse Box (yes it’s a Victoria University Press book, but THIS IS NOT SPONSORED CONTENT) where he mentions that for poets at poetry readings, you can think of the poem you’re going to read as your ‘safe house’. That’s the place you can always go back to, where everything is familiar and known. There will certainly be places where you’d prefer not to look – like a tiny cupboard that a cold musty breeze blows out of, or behind the pinecones in the fake fireplace where you once saw a rat go – but basically you understand the furniture and how to work the locks and the stove. You don’t have to leave at all. Venturing out of the safe house – as in, doing some impromptu banter, maybe telling a joke – can be worthwhile, but it is definitely risky. You’re out in the open now and death is possible.
As a teenager I was often told that I should be getting out of my ‘comfort zone’. The nineties were a golden age for comfort zone talk, as they were for that book Being Happy!: A Handbook for Greater Confidence and Security, with a picture of some guy with a heart for a tongue bouncing through a field of weeds, screaming. He was out of his comfort zone, and I needed to get out of mine, too, in order to ‘grow’. I now hate the whole concept of the comfort zone and the supposed necessity of leaving it and actively putting oneself into places of discomfort for the purpose of personal growth and a less boring life. I always wanted to be a houseplant, growing happily inside a warm greenhouse. I’m not sure I even believe in ‘zones’. I like better the idea of a person simply having different layers. Sometimes a certain layer is exposed all raw to the day; sometimes your layers are braced strong; perhaps more often you’re a messy overlapping weave of layers, like a big peeling heel.
Maybe all this is too obvious to be written about. If so, picture me like an octopus rocketing away under jet propulsion.
When I think about a safe house, I’m not thinking about a comfort zone. I’m wondering if it could be a place you take everywhere with you. It doesn’t recede just because you’re in a different country where you don’t know how the trains work or you’re sitting on a stage about to try to answer a question and sound like you know what you’re talking about. Even as various limbs are being lopped off all around you, you can be warm inside, safe in the knowledge that everything will grow back and that they can’t touch you in here. I don’t really think it’s possible. I think it’s a fantasy. I’m going to carry it around anyway.