Michael Sikkema to HR Hegnauer & Bhanu Kapil

Dear HR Hegnauer and Bhanu Kapil,

I’ve been listening to Thelonious Monk playing Duke Ellington songs lately, an album predictably titled “Thelonious Monk plays the music of Duke Ellington.” I’ve spent probably too much time thinking about the preposition “of” in the title. Thelonious Monk, according to the liner notes, “retired briefly with a small mountain of Ellington sheet music; in due course he reported himself ready for action.” I don’t have a particularly well-trained ear, but whenever I hear Monk play, I can usually tell that it’s Monk, regardless of who penned the song. I’m getting better though, and as I listen to more and more of this kind of music, I can start to feel the presence of the writer or composer. I can sound people out, hear a ghost in the background. I mention all this because I think it has everything to do with how I’ve been reading your books, SIR and Schizophrene, together. I don’t only mean that I’ve been reading them at the same time.

HR, your beautiful chapbook SIR offers us elegy in the form of “a spliced thing trying to rivet its selves back together, but not really knowing what this might actually look like.” I think, Bhanu, that this has something to do with your description of the immigrant experience in Schizophrene as being a “root distinguished from its branching plant, kept in a jar on a shelf to grow.” I’m fascinated with how SIR is clearly elegy while Schizophrene feels elegiac, elegiac for whole masses of people and homes and ideas; is this because, Bhanu, you were trying to create a book that offered “a quality of touch?” Touch leads to a feeling of presence, and it is this presence that binds your two books together for me.

I’m interested in how this idea of presence/absence takes on the form of ghosts in both your texts. In SIR, it is the ghost of Sir visiting HR, and Bhanu, your ghost is the ghost of the book itself, thrown into the garden to compost then recovered, but you also tell us that “a ghost is a duplicate.” I think of the section in SIR early on, where HR talks about her and Sir’s “matching gym-sock-covered shins” and coming home to photos of them “printed in doubles, always.” In both of your books, “a ghost mutates through intensity, gathering enough energy to touch you.” In SIR, we see the presence of Sir in life then in death, but we also see the presence of Miss Alice in her body and cognizant, then in her body but forgetting she has a body. Everything, everyone, throws shadows. In Schizophrene, we have the book we hold in our hands, the one we can touch, and the ghost book, the lost one, the “one rotted to the bone, the paper is covered with metallic fur . . .”

Bhanu, you also tell us that “schizophrenia is rhythmic, touching something lightly many times.” I think that both of your books give us little worlds where everything is touching everything, rich interconnection, places where “it is psychotic to draw a line between two places.” This touch takes on different faces at different points. Bhanu, you present the erotic side of touch, when you give us the lines:

I am preternaturally still, my fingers stroking the fur of the wall behind my thighs.

And then, you immediately critique, explore, contextualize, question, and complexify that image with:

“If you touch it, it’s yours,” says the butcher to the housewife as she extends her hand towards the ham.

Compare all of this again to HR’s letter to sir:

I know that was you making my hair all full of static. I’m not scared, but I didn’t like it either. Please find a different way.

Or my favorite letter from this section:

Dear Sir,

I know you’re here again – moving that tiny iron and placing it

next to its tiny trivet. That was a good one. Like how you’d turn my

baseball trophies ten degrees to see if I’d notice.

I noticed. Thank you. I like this much more than the static.

There is the deep intimacy of the SIR/author moment but deepened with our presence. I get a similar feeling from your idea, Bhanu, that “the schizophrenic’s job is to make the house schizophrenic.” I think of the inside/outside exchange, the way places can be crazy-making, the way we can carry that crazy on like conduit. I think of Dickinson’s idea of nature as a haunted house. I think of hours and hours of horror movie footage ceaselessly trying to document the faux-paranoid realization that the world around us has eyes and ears and teeth. I think of HR saying that she “read somewhere that it’s impossible to tell if dementia is hereditary because it’s too common in elderly people.” I think of people watching their loved ones dissolving into whatever comes next, and I think of Williams Carlos Williams describing it as “the wave rhythm of Shakespeare watching clowns and kings sliding into nothing.”

Writing the stories of our dead, building them book-bodies, is also building a bridge into our fears, our future. Bhanu, you ask “ what if the ghost is empty because it’s making a space for you” and HR, you speak directly to this idea at the end of SIR when you say “Please, I ask you to take these memories and claim them as you own. I’m afraid if it’s left to me, I’ll begin to forget things.” You see the bridge, and you answer it: “I hate this death. Makes me feel like we’re running out of time . . .” In SIR, the ideas of death and memory are inseparable. The body/not-body and who knows what when and how they know it are stitches that bind. To touch, to be bound, these ideas run through Schizophrene as well. Bhanu, I read and reread the passage:

I was lying on my back in the snow, my notebook balanced

next to me on a crust of ice, like a wolf. Like a lion. Like a

cobra. Like a tiger. Like a schizophrenic.

Schizophrenic, what binds design? What makes the city

touch itself everywhere at once, like an Asian city, like the

city you live in now? What makes the wall wet, the step

wet, the sky wet?

I reread many of the passages in Schizophrene and I think of HR’s description of a vision she had while typesetting a book:

Maybe you don’t believe me, but the letters were made of tiny humans lying on their backs with their arms crossed over their chests, and they were breathing.

I reread this passage, and others, of HR’s and I read that HR typeset your book, Bhanu, and I see your books, your book-bodies, filled with each other, filled with letter-bodies, tiny humans present and absent and leaning into each other. I think of the musical notes Monk plays in “I Got It Bad, And That Ain’t Good” and I imagine them written down, drawn, forming the face of Duke Ellington, probably laughing.

Mike Sikkema has the technology but doesn’t understand how it works.  He enjoys cornbread and watching accidental poetry rusting into the wheel wells of those stepside Chevy trucks. You can buy his book here: http://www.blazevox.org/index.php/Shop/Poetry/futuring-by-mike-sikkema-155/  and a new chapbook here:  http://greybookpress.com/.