Author Archives

Aaron Gilbreath
Aaron Gilbreath has written essays and articles for Harper's, The New York Times, Kenyon Review, The Dublin Review, Brick, Paris Review, The Threepenny Review, and Saveur. He's the author of This Is: Essays on Jazz, the personal essay Everything We Don't Know, and the forthcoming book Through the San Joaquin Valley: The Heart of California. @AaronGilbreath

Those Limits Were Not Hindrances: An Interview with Megan Pugh

Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

During his 40-year career, Leon Redbone was a musician for whom the past was never past and the persona was as important as the music. But what about his real name? And where did he come from? “That’s a memoir question,” he told one journalist. “I don’t answer memoir questions.” For the Oxford American, poet and prose writer Megan Pugh spoke to Redbone’s family and acquaintances to paint the most robust, reliable portrait we have of this compelling musical mystery. The story, “Vessel of Antiquity,” came out in the Spring 2019 issue with tragically fitting timing. Redbone died on May 30th, just a few months later.

While “Vessel” solves certain mysteries, it deepens the more important ones. While tryiing to understand what drew this expatriated Armenian to America’s musical past, the author captures the essence of the person — hilarious, kind, driven to live as his authentic self — and captures the sound and meaning of the music as only the best writers can. With incredible narrative skill and poetic sensibility, the story seeks the truth without taking the fun out of Redbone’s painstakingly constructed identity; more proof that poets often make the best prose writers. Pugh spoke with me about writing and Redbone via email.

***

How did this story start for you? Were you a fan of Redbone’s?

I wanted to understand why Leon Redbone’s live performances were so astonishingly good, and so moving. I saw him play in San Francisco in 2008 and 2011, and after both shows, I emailed a dear friend — a historian living across the country — about how urgently we needed to discuss the wondrous things Leon Redbone was doing with time: not just playing the old tunes, but also talking about long-dead musicians as though they were alive, whistling along to recordings, noting the presence of an onstage trashcan that seemed vaguely like the dustbin of history. (In hindsight, “discuss” probably meant “listen to me be very excited while I repeat all the details I can remember.”)

Years passed, Redbone retired, and no one had published the kind of serious, career retrospective he deserved, something that did justice to his art. When I reached out to Redbone’s publicist, Jim Della Croce, in 2017, he encouraged me to write one. Over a series of phone calls, Jim also told me wonderful stories about spending time with Leon. The piece began in fandom, with plenty of solitary research, but it moved along because so many people who knew Leon Redbone — friends, band members, family — were so generous with their memories.

Some of the best music stories start with that sort of passionate fandom, the urge to understand and honor someone wondrous. But part of Redbone’s legacy is the mystery he creates about himself. Did the people you talked to put limits on what they’d say about his origins?

Yes. Redbone was a very private person, and his friends were loyal— as friends should be. When I asked the blues singer Paul Geremia if Redbone had ever talked about his family’s history, for example, Geremia simply replied: “That’s personal.” Other folks, even if they’d known Redbone for years, understood that they weren’t supposed to ask about his life before he’d become Leon Redbone — or that if they got close to asking, he’d avoid the topic. Dan Levinson, who played clarinet with Redbone, remembered asking “something like ‘Are you fluent in any other languages,'” to which Redbone would reply, “‘Yes, all languages.'” Those limits never struck me as hindrances — they were information. And I was interested in other information, too: how Redbone worked, what it was like to be out on the road with him or in the recording studio, whether my developing sense of him seemed right to people who’d know.

I should be clear that by the time I became a Redbone fan, it was pretty easy to find his birthplace and given name (Nicosia, Cyprus, and Dickran Gobalian): George Gamester had written about them in the Toronto Star back in 1986. Those details led me to others. But as I learned more about the Gobalian family’s history — Redbone’s father survived the Armenian genocide, and “Leon” was the name of the last king of Armenia — I worried about what to include. Should I follow the example of the pianist Tom Roberts, who told me that when people tried to talk with him about Redbone’s origins, he’d just plug his ears and sing? So many people had been careful not to violate Redbone’s privacy, and I wanted to be careful too. I sought advice from friends — one a professional philosopher, another a longtime journalist. They told me that this information would not harm anyone; that I was going to share it in a respectful context; that it might generate interest, knowledge, and understanding; that I’d talked about this history with Redbone’s wife, Beryl Handler, and younger daughter, Ashley; that this is how profiles work. But I ran the details by the family one more time anyway, just to be sure.

It’s interesting that you sought a philosopher’s counsel, because a project like this presents the clear ethical issues you describe, but it also begs other questions about how sharing this personal information influences listeners. If his identity and performance were, as your story says, as important as his music, does knowing Redbone’s other identity change the experience of his music?

That’s a tough one, and I wouldn’t want to presume to answer it for other people. I’m still moved by Redbone’s work for the same reasons I’ve always loved him — his sly panache, that voice, the way he breaks the rules of time — but research and writing have deepened my experience and helped me understand it. Yet there’s so much about Redbone I don’t know, including how appropriate it is to think of his life before he was publicly Leon Redbone as an “other identity.” I like that uncertainty. I like that he kept audiences focused on his art.

His death, though, and the poor health that preceded it, have changed what I hear. On some level, his records were already raising the dead, but I wish this didn’t now include him. I never met him, but it felt oddly intimate to have so many long and sometimes heartfelt conversations with people who cared about him enough to try to help some woman they’d never met write an article. I suppose that process amplified the feelings of simultaneous closeness and distance that I love in his work — the past brought back, the past you’ll never quite get. But also, I’ve just been thinking about these people — who know him not just as an artist, but as a person whom they’ve lost — a lot.

You also mention how no one had published a serious career retrospective before. Was the limited number of secondary sources a challenge?

I don’t want to imply that there was a lack of writing about Redbone. There’s quite a bit, and I found it incredibly helpful to read many, many profiles, record reviews, and interviews from the 1970s on — especially since, by the time I began working on the piece, Redbone’s health was too poor to allow for an interview. What I read didn’t do what I wanted to do, but that was okay — it meant that there was room. And though no one else was writing about Redbone’s career at length when he retired, the folks at Riddle Films premiered a wonderful documentary short, Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone, last year, with stories about Redbone’s emergence on the Toronto scene and some beautiful, more recent footage.

Some of my favorite prose writers are poets, including Hanif Abdurraqib and Denis Johnson, and after seeing the way you articulate ideas and use language — I had to read this with a pencil to mark the margins of the pages — I wasn’t surprised to learn that you are, too. How do your poetry and prose inform each other? What challenges does writing in two forms present? 

That’s nice to hear, thank you! Both genres, for me, involve a kind of obsessive attention. Both come from a desire to find a language for something at times when that language might not be immediately evident. Whatever I’m writing, I tend to enjoy thinking about the ways that — to borrow from Kenneth Koch — one train may hide another, or one experience may haunt another. I tend to feel very attached to the sentence, as a form, and the kind of wonderful fragmentary play at which many poets I admire excel never comes easily to me. But I’m mostly okay with that. I like sentences.

All the Obstacles in a Mother’s Way

AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda

In Issue 71 of The Dublin Review, Dominique Cleary shares the myriad ways coworkers, family, and strangers overstepped their bounds by giving her mothering “advice,” and ultimately the way in which she was forced to choose between her job and raising her children. Spanning the time before and after she gave birth, each section is titled with a different offender — boss; male colleague; husband; mother — so that the essay’s structure recreates the neverending, exhausting cycle of obstacles put in womens’ paths, and the ways society tries to undermine female autonomy. People tell Cleary how to dress, how to structure her days, how her career will tank and how breastfeeding will cause her breasts “to sag before their time.”

Getting from Monday to Friday was like swimming the length of an Olympic-sized pool without coming up for air. I hated having to wait to see my children at the end of the day when they were tired and cranky. I was missing their milestones. First words and first steps were reported to me by the staff in the crèche, along with more perfunctory accounts of what they had eaten, whether they had napped and for how long, and the number and consistency of their bowel movements.

Under the Parental Leave Act my husband and I were entitled to eighteen weeks unpaid leave each for each child under the age of eight: seventy-two weeks in total. My husband didn’t want to avail of his rights. Men weren’t taking parental leave – not back then, anyway. He would lose traction at work, as well as income.

The leave was designed to be taken in large chunks, but it could also be taken piecemeal with the agreement of the employer. I sounded my boss out and made a formal request to take every Wednesday afternoon off, unless a case of mine was listed in the Four Courts on that afternoon. I could afford to do it this way, and it would ensure that I’d be present at my desk every day of the week.

My boss reacted with a low-grade vibration of disapproval. He cited ‘business exigencies’ and ‘inconvenience’, but in the end he let me take a small part of my entitlement in that way. I suggested I could take the rest of my entitlement in short blocks during court recesses. Months went by without a reply and I found the uncertainty stressful. Meanwhile, an employment agent called me out of the blue and offered me a job interview with a competitor. He made it sound like I was being headhunted, but I suspected that attempts were being made internally to move me out of the way. The thought of starting from scratch somewhere new was exhausting, so I declined the opportunity.

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Murder in the Name of Drug Prevention

AP Photo/Bullit Marquez

Under Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, drug dealers routinely get assassinated on Manila’s busy streets. Dead bodies get dumped in the bay and on city sidewalks, with signs reading, “I’m a pusher” hanging from the deceased’s necks. Those who resist, including clergy, have been shot in broad daylight. For Virginia Quarterly Review, Adam Willis examines the president’s brutal war on drugs, and how this Catholic nation seems torn between support and outrage. Many Filipinos applaud Duterte’s efforts to curtail the drug trade, while many Catholics have actively started resisting them and his violent, dictatorial rhetoric, risking their own lives in the process.

In the Philippines, the church has emerged as the most prominent voice of dissent against a drug war that has claimed, by some estimates, more than twenty thousand lives. It is also under perpetual assault from a president intent on contesting the very essence of Philippine Catholicism. Having framed his 2015 campaign as a referendum on the legitimacy of the church, Duterte has forced religious leaders to choose between coveted political capital and their moral mandates. It is a familiar dilemma, exacerbated by deep historical fissures between conservative and liberal clerics, and it has heightened pressure on the church’s most prominent prelates. In particular, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the country’s most influential church authority, who splits his time between duties on behalf of the Vatican and leading packed services in the cathedral of Intramuros—the Catholic heart of the Philippine capital—has been criticized by activists and clerics alike for his deferential approach to dealing with Duterte. Such soft-pedaling, they argue, seems blind to the country’s suffering and risks degrading the moral integrity of the church. Meanwhile, Jun and a small crop of the church opposition have reoriented their lives around a mission to document the drug war while helping to seek accountability for those responsible.

In a country where vigilante executions have become commonplace, this work is perilous at best; Catholic leaders who speak out are often inundated with death threats, sometimes from Duterte himself. In the last year and a half, three Filipino priests have been killed under mysterious circumstances. One was ambushed in his car after negotiating the release of a political prisoner; another, while saying blessings on a group of children, was shot dead by a motorcyclist; a third was murdered at the altar in front of parishioners just before Mass. In 2017 and 2018, such violence against clergymen prompted more than two hundred priests and religious leaders to petition for licenses to carry firearms.

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Big Problems and Big Paychecks in West Texas Oil Country

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The Permian Basin in West Texas is named for rocks laid down during the Permian geologic period, which include rich gas and oil deposits. The region has experienced many oil booms. The current one is the biggest. For Texas Monthly, West Texas native Christian Wallace spends time among the pumpjacks, documenting the boom times and examining damaging side effects. Like so many locals, Wallace’s life has been intimately linked with the area’s fluctuating oil market, and you get the sense that he cares deeply about the people and place when he asks the hard questions.

Most West Texans are grateful for the recent uptick—making a good living in the dusty Permian has never been easy—but even so, locals are faced with a host of new concerns. For one, the cost of living has inflated so quickly that, for many residents, it has outpaced the gains. Those without jobs in the oil patch are especially hard-hit, and industries outside the oil field face severe staffing shortages: Dumpsters overflow without garbage truck drivers to empty them. Students are late to class because there aren’t enough bus drivers to pick them up. Law enforcement is stretched thin while crime rates—drug use, sex trafficking, theft—rise along with the influx of temporary laborers. Hospitals are short on physicians. Schools can’t keep enough teachers in their classrooms.

And there are other very real concerns: driving on the highways alongside gigantic tankers and equipment haulers can feel like a suicide mission. Even some of those who are fiercely pro-oil have grown worried about the strain on the region’s limited natural resources—especially water—and the environmental toll of the proliferation of sand mining, the flares burning methane and benzene, and all the trash that litters the region.

Though Texas and the U.S. will reap serious profits from the sweat poured into the Permian, what lasting benefit will the region have to show for all of this when the boom ends?

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How One Artist Publicly Dealt With the Aftermath of Her Rape

Photograph by Isadora Kosofsky for The California Sunday Magazine

An artist named Stephanie Montgomery was raped at the LA strip club where she worked. Montgomery worked at the strip club to help fund her creative pursuits, and during slow times at work, she often sketched customers and coworkers. After, her manager and the rapist denied the assault took place, and the police failed to do more than collect a chillingly detailed account of the assault, so Montgomery used her talents and painted the grizzly story of her assault on a 48-by-14 feet billboard at the entrance of one of LA’s busiest freeways. Journalist Kathy Dobie tells Montgomery’s story at The California Sunday Magazine. Montgomery’s is the story of female talent getting thwarted, of male violence and female credibility, of men betraying their female coworkers, and of how little help there is for women to deal with the aftermath of sexual assault.

Stephanie came to realize she’d reached the dead end of a road she had never wanted to be on in the first place. Nothing was going to happen. No justice, just another rape, the world moved on. The #MeToo movement had opened up the conversation, sure, and it had also spurred men into hyperdefensiveness and aggression, but when the smoke cleared, had anything really changed? Where were the arrests, the convictions? Did a stripper have a bigger voice, a better shot at justice than she would’ve two or five or twenty years ago?

As the months passed, something boiled and wept inside her; she couldn’t live with the silence, couldn’t let the rape go unanswered or pretend it never happened, as she had first hoped to do. An idea began to take hold. She was going to paint something, something huge, something public, and call out the rapist, the strip club, the LAPD.

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To Protect Children from Sexual Abuse, the Catholic Church Must Eliminate the Clergy

Vadim Pacajev/Sipa USA via AP Images

In a gripping and contentious cover story for the Atlantic, journalist and ex-Catholic priest James Carroll argues that it’s time for Catholicism to dismantle the priesthood. The fundamental problem, Carroll writes, is that “clericalism, with its cult of secrecy, its theological misogyny, its sexual repressiveness, and its hierarchical power based on threats of a doom-laden afterlife, is at the root of Roman Catholic dysfunction.” The clergy were not created by God or the bible, he explains, but are political units of the Roman empire, and it has corrupted the Church in a way that has made the systematic abuse of children around the world possible.

The Church’s maleness and misogyny became inseparable from its structure. The conceptual underpinnings of clericalism can be laid out simply: Women were subservient to men. Laypeople were subservient to priests, who were defined as having been made “ontologically” superior by the sacrament of holy orders. Removed by celibacy from competing bonds of family and obligation, priests were slotted into a clerical hierarchy that replicated the medieval feudal order. When I became a priest, I placed my hands between the hands of the bishop ordaining me—a feudal gesture derived from the homage of a vassal to his lord. In my case, the bishop was Terence Cooke, the archbishop of New York. Following this rubric of the sacrament, I gave my loyalty to him, not to a set of principles or ideals, or even to the Church. Should we be surprised that men invited to think of themselves on such a scale of power—even as an alter Christus, “another Christ”—might get lost in a wilderness of self-centeredness? Or that they might find it hard to break from the feudal order that provides community and preferment, not to mention an elevated status the unordained will never enjoy? Or that Church law provides for the excommunication of any woman who attempts to say the Mass, but mandates no such penalty for a pedophile priest? Clericalism is self-fulfilling and self-sustaining. It thrives on secrecy, and it looks after itself.

While Carroll still extols the many benefits of Catholicism’s vast, global, care-giving network of hospitals and schools, he sees the Church’s hierarchy and exclusionary structures as harming, not serving, its 1 billion believers.

In the Americas and Africa; in Europe, Asia, and Australia—wherever there were Catholic priests, there were children being preyed upon and tossed aside. Were it not for crusading journalists and lawyers, the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests would still be hidden, and rampant. A power structure that is accountable only to itself will always end up abusing the powerless. According to one victim, Cardinal Law, of Boston, before being forced to resign because of his support for predator priests, attempted to silence the man by invoking the sacred seal: “I bind you by the power of the confessional,” Law said, his hands pressing on the man’s head, “not to speak to anyone else about this.”

A priest did this. That is the decisive recognition. The abuse of minors occurs in many settings, yes, but such violation by a priest exists in a different order, and not simply because of its global magnitude. For Catholics, priests are the living sacrament of Christ’s presence, delegated above all to consecrate the bread and wine that define the soul of the faith. This symbol of Christ has come to stand for something profoundly wicked. Even as I write that sentence, I think of the good men on whom I have depended for priestly ministry over the years, and how they may well regard my conclusion as a friend’s betrayal. But the institutional corruption of clericalism transcends that concern, and anguish should be reserved for the victims of priests. Their suffering must be the permanent measure of our responses.

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Optimizing Meat 2.0

AP Photo/Nati Harnik

The most impossible sounding thing about the Impossible Burger isn’t the idea of a delicious meatless protein — some of us have been eating delicious meat substitutes for years — it’s hearing people talk about this food product in terms of scalability, optics, engineering, and “manufacturable prototypes.” The future has arrived, and it tastes better than it sounds. Chris Ip writes for Engadget about the brief history, challenges, and ambitions of Impossible Foods’ meat-free technology, and how its success relates to a planet that’s warming partly because of industrial beef production.

“Ethical consumerism is a failure and doesn’t really accomplish what we want it to accomplish,” said Michael Selden, CEO and founder of Finless Foods, a cell-based seafood startup. “What you need to do is create things that are ethical and moral as a baseline but make them compete on metrics of taste, price and convenience, which is what people actually buy food on, and Impossible has really embodied that.”

There’s a comparison to sustainable energy here: We all need it and we’re barely willing to curtail our electricity demands, but if there’s a price-competitive, clean alternative, then sure. With food, it’s an acknowledgement that — solely for the guaranteed sensory enjoyment that those who are food secure might enjoy each day — taste is the key driver to change our habits.

This leaves Impossible in a nice position. The global economic demand for meat combined with the swelling cultural-political urgency to curtail it could be great for business if you have a legitimate alternative. And the high-risk-high-reward venture capital system demands startups that can pitch themselves as limitlessly scalable. A worldwide problem of this degree means that Impossible can plausibly — and not disingenuously — bridge both a business goal of sky’s-the-limit growth and a messianic narrative. Brown’s social mission aligns with his profit-seeking obligation in ways that can make as much sense to private equity as to Katy Perry.

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The Ways of a Wandering Spirit

Aaron Gilbreath.

It’s summer. Don’t you want to get in your car and drive? I do. Since I can’t, I reread Marya Hornbacher‘s travel essay from Nowhere, a reliable publication for a range of travel stories. Starting in Minneapolis, her road trip begins in a world of motels that overcharge, restaurants that serve bad coffee, and cities that fade into vistas that, as she writes so beautifully, feature “no motels, no Walmarts, just the American landscape sprawled out in all directions as the sun went down.” Then she travels back in time through memories of past trips, where she examines the reasons she travels at all.

I don’t know why I come and go. Why not? Is there any reason or reasoning behind it? How can I ascribe motive to a thing I simply do by habit or nature or flawed design? Once I asked a friend, “Why are you a Buddhist?” We were walking. He answered, “Why not?” I laughed so hard I had to sit down on the sidewalk, it just struck me as so unbelievably funny. He looked at me, puzzled, waiting for me to explain the joke. I didn’t understand his logic; there was no reason for him to be a Buddhist. But then, he was right—no reason why not. At the time, I too must have believed in motive, and reasons for things happening, impetus, choice. Why do I leave? Why do you stay? Maybe I do it by instinct, like a bird flies south, knows how to get where he’s going, knows how to get back. I wrack my tiny brain, but there is no motive, no real choice for or against a given place. A body in motion tends to stay in motion. It’s nothing more than the way you’re aligned. You maybe have a tendency to drift, a habit of wandering off.

As she travels through America and her memories, she keeps trying to understand her desire to keep moving.

I like the in-between places, the pauses, caesuras in space. The places between points, places you pass through, maybe stop for a moment, en route. They have a satisfying sameness, a beige-ness: airports, McDonald’s, rest stops, truck stops, chain hotels. The air in these places buzzes with fluorescence and an acute sense of time. Your body is hyper-alert: you are a body in motion, never a body at rest, and because a body in motion tends to stay in motion, your muscles remain slightly flexed, even in sleep, as if you might suddenly need to sprint. You are always just about to leave. Who uses the drawers in hotels? Some hotels don’t even bother with drawers. Sometimes you don’t even bother to bring your bag in from the car. You just pop the trunk, dig around for underwear and socks, stuff them in your pockets and unlock the door to room 112 or 203 or 1768 or whatever it is, wherever you are. You close the door behind you and sit on the end of the bed, in your numbered nook, tucked neatly into place. You remain at the ready, wearing your coat, ears attuned to any ambient sound.

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Why Can’t California Public Schools Quit Teaching a Eurocentric Version of State History?

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The missions that the Spanish built in coastal California are beautiful tourist attractions, but their construction involved the enslaving, erasing, and killing the state’s native peoples. For High Country News, Allison Herrera reports on the activists and tribes working to change the way public schools teach California history. Herrera, a member of the Xolon Salinan tribe, describes the forces that shaped the current Eurocentric, whitewashed curriculum. The curriculum omits indigenous suffering, and centers the story around the missions, rather than one that predates the Spaniards’ arrival by thousands of years.

Greg Castro and Rose Borunda, a professor at California State University, Sacramento, and other educators and activists formed the California Indian History Curriculum Coalition in 2014. Much like Rupert and Jeanette Henry Costo, who founded the American Indian Historical Society, Castro and his peers are tired of seeing California’s history books ignore Indigenous people and gloss over the Golden State’s ongoing relationship — and violent history — with the land’s first people. And much like his forebears, Castro is taking a grassroots approach to create regionally and culturally specific curricula.

Borunda says that she and others in the coalition are part of a national movement to put more emphasis on a more accurate history of Native Americans for both elementary and high school students. She points to the state of Washington as a model for how to teach Native history. The curriculum called “Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty in Washington State” has been endorsed by the 29 tribal nations in the state. It asks thought-provoking questions, such as, “What is the legal status of tribes who negotiated or who did not negotiate settlement for compensation for the loss of their sovereign homelands?” and “What were the political, economic, and cultural forces consequential to the treaties that led to the movement of tribes from long established homelands to reservations?”

“The focus is connecting students to the geography of this place, making them feel more connected to land and water,” says Sara Marie Ortiz, a citizen of New Mexico’s Acoma Pueblo, who worked closely with the Muckleshoot Tribe and with students in the Highline Public School District, just south of Seattle. Muckleshoot is a close partner in creating “Since Time Immemorial” with the school system.

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Learning About Love from Strangers

AP Photo/Jacques Brinon

“I have often had the experience of looking at love from a distance,” Thomas Dai writes in The Southern Review, “of knowing it more as a concept than as the warm, embodied feeling it is supposed to be.” By photographing the inscriptions that lovers leave on rocks, trees, and various public places around the world, Dai finds insight into what queer love is and might be for him. Although sexually active, he examines his desire for encounters versus the kind of romance that leaves its own lasting mark. In the process, he leaves his mark in this personal essay, rather than carved deep enough into bark to kill the tree.

Looking through the photos in my folio, I realize that the lovers’ marks repeatedly appear in places where two entities meet in discord or unity. Romantic vandals leave their marks at the Grand Canyon, where red earth cleaves into blue sky, and at Niagara Falls, where Canada abuts America. The lovers go to Stanley Market, in Hong Kong, to sprinkle their names on the tide line, and they haunt the grounds at Dunkirk and Manassas, where opposed forces once met in mutually assured destruction.

I don’t know yet whether our doubleness needs such commemoration, if I should be getting out my chisel and my paints and going to that border, that wall, that place where often we like to meet. For so long, I have thought about love as a feeling which leaves no such traces, which lives and dies in the moment. I have thought about love through the words of philosophers like Barthes and poets like Ocean Vuong—Vuong who writes: “To love / another man / is to leave no one behind.”

What I have avoided thinking about too deeply is the hope I hold against these words, the hope that we will not disappear into or away from each other, that we will keep our separateness but stay somehow a unit, moving through the world not alone but in each other’s company, each other’s co-feeling. For some reason, I do not balk at the cliché this figure enacts—love as two people’s shared journey, a long march through city and fen. I think of a time long ago, in Manchuria, when I watched many couples casting red paper lanterns over a frozen river. There was a metal train bridge in that city, covered in thousands of lovers’ marks left by people from all over China. I spent hours picking over this bridge as carefully as I could, wanting to record each and every lover’s mark I could find, to bear witness, however fleeting, to all these collected love affairs, these different moments excerpted from so many strange lives. Standing at the bridge’s center one night, I looked out and saw a flock of lanterns detach from the river’s southern bank. The lanterns floated on unsure winds to the river’s other side, where I assume they fell into the snowdrifts as trash.

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