Good, Better, Best: Notes & Thoughts on Offering Help

Good: “What can I do to help? Can I do anything to help?”

Better: “Can I [something specific] for you?”

Best: “I am going to [do something specific] for you, if that’s ok.”

On Good:

When someone is suffering psychologically and/or physically, an open-ended question is often experienced as an invitation to do more work, when the aim and object of help is to lessen the work that the person needs to do. Besides this, if someone is ill or experiencing severe anxiety or other related maladies, this question is so often unanswerable! Especially for women, when a man asks this question it more often than not figures itself as yet another way in which labor must be expended to sustain this relationship— it’s a gift with strings attached. It isn’t always explicitly gendered, but when it is, it’s worse.

On Better:

This is predicated on your ability to apprehend what it is that the person you’re trying to help might need. They might’ve communicated it to you, explicitly or implicitly— either way you might not have “caught it.” This is why paying attention, the labor of apprehending people, is so important: we need to cultivate our ability to really ~see~ before and so that we can actually be of help to them.

Note: this can also take the form of “Can I do [X, Y or Z] for you?” Preferably if X, Y or Z are all three things that you know this person could use help with— not a willy nilly off-the-top-of-your-head list of possible needs: again: that’s more work for the person you’re “helping.” A lot of folks, and from what I understand many neuroatypical folk, can’t deal with a shit-ton of choose your own adventure options in this sort of situation, so I advise that you keep it simple.

On Best:

More than number two, this one is predicated on intimate knowledge– a learned, habitual history with someone: I know you often need X in these sort of situations, so I will go ahead and offer X. To the intimate relationship this can come across as very comforting— to the not-so intimate relationship I imagine this can feel or be very intrusive. Still, I do think of it as a risk you take— if you *really* want to help.

Important: you not only have to be comfortable with a “no,” but you have to make it visible to that person— to have done the work of making it visible to that person— so that they know that you are comfortable with telling you no. The work and anxiety of being afraid to say no to offered help simply negates said help.

Too often the refusal of help becomes the site of punishment and more labor on behalf of the would-be help-receiver. This is also very very gendered: too often men punish women for not “taking them up” on their “help,” because we don’t understand the extent to which in many cases every step of the “help offering” process is plagued either with more work for them, or anxiety at the spectre of more work or  worse: punishment.

All of this is to say: it isn’t simply a matter of HOW you say what you say. It isn’t a matter of *simply*  wording something right: it is a matter of apprehending that person and apprehending the nature of your relationship with that person, both personally AND structurally, and the relationship of that apprehension to your language.

The work of apprehending that person is difficult work, especially because patriarchy especially works to cloud our vision on this matter: way too often— and I mean like, cliche often— the would-be man-helper relies on a weird mix of a lifetime of over-affirmation and his “good intentions.” This isn’t simply good enough, it’s less than that: it’s violence.

But there is something that feels luckily true about “starting” with the way you say something: if you think about how you are saying something, it can often lead you back to the reasons you say things, and then ultimately to cultivating better practices of apprehending folks. That is to say (in academic language (sorry)): the relationship between how you say what you say and your in/ability to apprehend people is dialectical. They are two things that are woven, braided together by a host of factors. This makes it feel complicated, which makes sense if we’re talking about the dialectic, but it leads us back to the simple point: THINKING about how you say what you say and then putting the fruit of that labor into PRACTICE  helps you help people, which helps you see them, which helps you help them, which helps you see them, etc.





Try googling “Love.” You’ll begin so far down the disambiguation tree that you’ll give up pretty soon. “The important things about love,” you’ll think, “are things I can already say, or think of.” And then write down, of course.

Maybe you’ll be on the bus, like I was, in between opportunities to do something you either really want to do or really need to do, and so will jump excitedly at the thought of thinking about, googling, and writing about something as dispersed and unwieldy and esoteric and language-blooming as “LOVE.”

Lately you’ve written about HOPE and BEAUTY because those are also that sort of thing to think about, brutally between what you want and what you need to do and— now that you think about it/ realize what you’ve just written— somehow very amenable to traditional-style tattoos, two of which you have, one an ironic and earnest homage to your mother, the other a portrait of your ex, who you tend to think of as your one true love.

But then you’ll get an email with a link to the latest update of a newsletter/ blog written by an up and coming and truly brilliant writer, and that text will be about love, both in the sense that it sort of orbits or hangs around the idea but also mentions it explicitly, as well as better than you ever could.

Interestingly enough, that is when you’ll actually start to write this.

That essay, though, turns out to be more about consolation, which means “comfort received by a person after a loss or disappointment.” The relationship between love and consolation is a lot like the relationship between “comfort” and “a person” in that definition. The essay reads like a critique of that relationship, though: of the lazy assumption that one of the things love does is consoles you. Or that love does anything. As though it were a merely a subject. And that feels right to you.

But you’ve been thinking about Mr. Rogers, and this quote of his that reads

“Love is at the root of everything— all learning, all relationships. Love or the lack of it.”

The words “the lack of it” tacked onto the end have felt incredibly brutal and increasingly necessary to you: the high relief of something’s opposite or absolute lack isn’t just conceptual for love, love as not a subject but as something else, something that bears the characteristics of something that motors (subject) but also the movement of that motoring (verb), which I suppose means the form. Love is form or only knowable as such. And its absence has a form too, marked by love, or it’d be something else entirely, known by it’s movements and its effects.

Everyday you remember that you like to define “form” as “the shape of the way something moves.”

The funny thing is that some of the movements and effects of love— pain and struggle— are also the movements and effects of its lack. Maybe there is no such thing as an actual complete lack of love?

What does lack of love move toward? Nothingness? If that’s true then the absolute nothing of love mirrors the absolute concept of nothing itself— “something else entirely”—  which feels interesting. But then you remember that this is actually a super old theological discourse, where folks pitted the idea of

  • existence itself as love and nothing as the lack of love— which means that existing is a product/ part-and-parcel to love, and that heaven is ultimately expanding love/ ultimate something, while hell is simply the return to nothingness, to nihil


  • everything possible being within the realm of existence, both good and evil, love and it’s lack— a cosmology where nothing is impossible.

And then you remember that the reason the first version— which you like better— was postulated was in order to preserve the supreme and uber and superlative unknowability of God himself, which was something they felt they had to prove because at one point Paul or someone said something along the lines of “we can’t call God good because he is beyond that— our limited conception of good or evil or whatever is necessarily surpassed by the just super ultimate beyondness of God” (paraphrase), which was why Dionysius the Areopagite used the term “supra-existent” which sounds both badass and right.

Then you realize that your avowed fondness for apophatic theology has either informed or simply luckily syncs up with your conception of beauty, which is basically that something has to be at least a  little bit sad to be beautiful and the world is very much at least a little bit sad and is therefore beautiful which means that, coupled with the affirmation of simply existing as being good and a product of love neatly brings beauty into the fold and now you’re not sure if you’re simply finding ways to console yourself.

As a subtext you remember a wiki-rabbit hole you went down this morning that started with remembering how David Bowie played Pilate in one of the Jesus movies, and you wanted to find a screencap of the moment he looks into the middle distance and asks “what is truth,” and how that traced to [Alethea] which traced to [Lethe] which to [“World Disclosure”] which traced to Heidegger’s [The Origin of the Work of Art] and ultimately to the [Hermeneutic Circle] which you’ve bookmarked with the mental note that you need to brush up on that even though you feel as though you’ve sort of got it figured out.

The real question is whether or not Pilate’s question was rhetorical.

On Liminalities: The Hope From Within The Fire

How many kinds of in-betweens are there? How many in-betweens are habitable? How many levels of habitability are available to us? Made available.

I live in the East Bay. On the 12, or the 6, the 18 and the 52 or the 51B. They’re all numbers and lines, not categories. You can be coming or going, you can not know which, and yet you’re still there, at the intersection of multiform liminalities.

There is a schedule, I suppose. It isn’t a myth— more of a “fuzzy set,” a for-the-most-part or a you-get-the-idea— a drift or a gist. The liminality of not knowing the nature of the whats you’re between is more malleable than the words we give things like the people, places, or things we mark as limits. There is only a suggestion of mathematics, or: mathematics can only suggest the pure concept with which to articulate our various and sundry in-betweenesses. In so doing it deflates the pure concept not as useful or concrete but as crystalline, economic, a tool. Tool-like at most, maybe.

Lines and numbers. Signifiers, one to carry us over the other, to assure us that we’re here, or will be, or were, wherever those those things were. Are?

“I’ll be there ASAP,” I say, because possibility was what rendered that thereness possible in the first place, though I didn’t really know it: possible is the only way I’m able to be anywhere.

But that doesn’t make possibility a misnomer or a redundancy (the truth is something like the opposite, really), just that existing is only articulable as a tautological feedback loop of sorts: boring, maybe; banal, often; “duh,” mostly.

But I am on fire with the having been there. Perhaps reality wasn’t prepared for the scourge of our memory, history for the way we touch it, the world for what we can do with sex, what we can hold deep in our bodies, share with other bodies. I’d like to think that our erotic engagement with it at the very least ruffles the feathers of the world, but in its deepest sense my erotic engagement with the world doesn’t give a fuck. It, too, is a feedback loop of sorts: feeding itself on itself, burning-growing. Take that, world.

It’s in this sense, I think, that care comes not from an investment in the world, isn’t rooted in the world, doesn’t depend on the world. No, it bursts forth from the mad anti-physics of a fire that feeds and grows on itself, deep in our bellies. Additionally, I think the more we help each other let it, the more our madness will fight the world: push on it, nibble on it, dance on it, bite and scratch it, more verbs and, eventually— this is the hope from within the fire— replace it.

A Matter Of A Series Of Squares (The University Was On Fire)

occupy mic check

Note: This is a bit of short fiction I first put together and published in my second ‘zine, COLORS MORE COLORS, back in 2015.

The University was on fire; was a matter of a series of squares (not circles) positioned with respect to their corresponding series of relationships and the overall picture that that painted, squares being circles with broken arms and legs, a tedium.  

The Professor found himself wondering if he could not not continue to think like this, perched on the brink of something something-like-new and nestled in the workings of some verb that was poised to end the brink-like sensation of its own activity. Simile was bringing things closer together than it was ever before capable of doing: his two remaining research assistants fucked each other constantly behind the thin curtain in the corner of his laboratory, the right and acute angles of various limbs clamoring for circleness, the arcs of moans.

Armed guards stood outside the laboratory The stale scent of a tenuous agreement between warring factions— coupled with a cold and constant influx of cash in the direction of the rebel students—  kept his space clear of the debris necessary to the conflict, but suggested that an inverted though yet still positive relationship existed between abundance and time. He felt himself swinging outward towards the apex of the logic of decay. They hadn’t left the laboratory in weeks.

Through the old window, from his sweaty cot, he could see the campanile burning like a torch in the night, hear the muffled pops of distant gunfire, taste the metal quality of the night air as it poured in through the three inches of open space between the sill and the sash.

He is an anachronism. The affect of the idea of the burning of pale limestone is of skin crawling.

The verb for the appearance of the existence of the first term was something like discover, or having been discovered. It seemed to have occurred quite by accident: a month ago he had been shuffling through smoke and fire, escorted by two armed students and clutching a hefty bundle of files that contained an assortment of necessary documents, when the retort of a single gunshot sounded the end of the first of the two students’ life. She fell silently. With a startled yell he remembered running, yells, more gunshots. Plunging through the gaping hole of the open door of the building in which his laboratory resided, he tripped and fell, his papers scattering in the foyer. With a kick he forced the door to, frantically swiveling his prostrate body around in order to push it completely closed, before managing to catch a glimpse of a police officer as he rummaged through the fallen students’ pockets, claimed their weapons, his own hot rifle lying nearby on the concrete. He could see the blood running in a curious fashion over the brickwork; it spelled the name of the first term.

The cries of orgasm were not present to him. Nor the sensation of sliding into sleep, exhausted.  Relative quiet filled the tall-ceilinged room with its ancient windows through which the light of fires and police lights pulsed.

It was somehow embedded in the first term that there would be three, that there would be a second and then a third and that once the second had been articulated the third would emerge as some new form of inevitability, whose verb in regards to reality would be something akin to a series: to reveal, to unlock, to transfigure. The and-then, then, was not so pressing as the task that now presented itself to him: the articulation of the second term.

From behind the curtain a figure emerged, a shadow in the dim light. It approached him, stooped low in order to dig through the sounds of a plastic bag, stood again, illuminated its face with the small flame of a cigarette lighter, in front of which now bobbed the tiny orange glow of a cigarette, a body half illuminated by a general light from without, half undisclosed by a specific darkness within.

As far as he could tell, there would have to be a relationship between the first and second terms, a sort of second order kind of term. A pale body lay on the cot behind the curtains. The first second order term would be something like an articulation, the need to be articulated. Cigarette smoke hung in the air above him, static, having made shapes. Would the specific articulation of the second term make its relationship to the first immediately evident?  Suddenly, the campanile collapsed under its own weight. Or should the articulation—  would the articulation—  itself lead him to the second term? Shouts and gunshots outside, nearby. How then would the third term emerge… ?

The sky seemed lighter. It must have been morning which means he must’ve fallen asleep.  

He’d once had a dream wherein he’d woken up, shuffled to the bathroom and looked into the mirror. The moment he saw himself there he realized that he was dreaming, woke up, and opened his eyes- which beheld only the ceiling from his vantage on the cot. Rousing himself, he shuffled to the bathroom, turned on the light and looked into the mirror, only to be reminded that he was still asleep and transported immediately back to his bed, once again falsely awakened.  Fearing that he was somehow caught in some sort of oneiric feedback loop, this time he lept off of the cot and ran into the bathroom, trying desperately not to remember what he’d just learned.  But it was useless: before he could even reach the threshold of the door to the darkened bathroom he awoke again, still dreaming on his cot. He learned two important things while stuck in the feedback loop: first that he could tell it was a dream by the fact that each succeeding reboot presented a reality to him that was visually dimmed by some sort of filter, as though a thin piece of colored cellophane was held before his face— a different color for each episode—  and one that deepened the darkness of the shadows of corners and the like. Secondly, he could tell that he was asleep by the muffled quality of the sound, as though an invisible pillow was wrapped around his head. He found that if he lay still he could hear the sound of his own, actual, breathing— still and trebly and far away. The greater the success he had in isolating the sound, the closer, he felt, he came to waking up. Interestingly, however, it wasn’t until he managed to make it to the faucet, turn it on, and splash a handful of water into his face that he was able to actually wake up.

It was an uncharacteristically sunny morning. He could see high white clouds travelling across a brilliant blue sky from where he lay. The massive double doors to the laboratory, he noticed, were slightly ajar. He moved quickly across the room, startled by the sure feeling that the adjacent room was vacant. Peeking through the crack he found that this was true— the guards must have left during the night. He stood still, as if doing so would help pierce through the ominous and growing silence. His research assistants were gone, their curtain pulled to, their cot still marked by the weight of their sleeping bodies. From window to window he moved, cautiously, but could see no sign of movement. Finally he emerged into the blinding morning light. There was no breeze, no sound of birds or distant traffic, no crackle of flame or of gunshots. The pale light fell on everything, everything was shiny.

Photograph: Students on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, on November 9th, 2011, during an Occupy demonstration. Photo by the author. 

The Un Dis Embodied Voice of Jacq Greyja’s GREATER GRAVE

[About two] year[s] ago now I had the pleasure of trading Jacq Greyja a couple of zines for an early draft of their [then] forthcoming collection of poems, GREATER GRAVE. I have been struck by how brilliant these poems are, and because of this I asked them if I could review it for the first issue of THE WHITE STAR READER, which I will be debuting tomorrow* (Sunday, August 3rd) at the 16th Annual San Francisco Zine Fest. So as a sort of celebration of Jacq and the fest and the debut of the WSR#1, here is a[n old] sneak peek at my review of Jacq Greyja’s brilliant GREATER GRAVE, available now from The Operating System. Also be sure to attend the release party at Alley Cat Books on August 10th!

I suppose that the experience of being physically arrested, for lack of a better word, is one of- if not the primary- reason people read poetry. I like to say that good poetry is like a hearty meal: it saturates you, surprises you with its combination of tastes and micro-experiences, leaves you breathless, even if you’re not over full. And yet it is a labor, it takes a certain amount of effort and even strategizing- when to eat what and in what order, when to take a drink, when to sit back and just feel your jaws moving over fare, marveling at the deep visceral sensation of the experience. There is some poetry that exceeds even this sort of analogy, that almost immediately affects one in such a profound way that even if the volume is small, it sits on your shelf or next to your bed or in your bag for a year- not because you’re not reading it, but because you can only handle snippets of it at a time. I know that I am waxing hyperbolic here, and also that one of the greatest characteristics of the best poetry is its ability to map and act out subtleties, the middle stuff of life, the stuff that is less easily apprehended precisely because it doesn’t operate at the extreme limits of sensation or registrability. What makes Jacq Greyja’s forthcoming Greater Grave so singularly exceptional is that it does both.

Greyja, a non-binary, mixed race, queer Latinx in their mid-twenties, is currently working on their Creative Writing MFA at San Francisco State University, after having earned their undergraduate degree from the University of California, Berkeley, last spring. From their website:

“Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bettering American Poetry, Berkeley Poetry Review, The Fem, Apogee Journal Folio, Gravel Magazine, Columbia Poetry Review, Yes Poetry, The Nottingham Review, and MISTRESS. Their collage work was recently featured in ‘Not Even’: Poets Make Collage at Bushel Collective in Delhi, NY. Jacq is currently completing two chapbook manuscripts: Ejecta Ejecta, the winning manuscript in Where Are You Press’ 2016 poetry contest, and Greater Grave, forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press in late 2017.”

As you can see, they’re already prolific. And I, for one, am happy for this, already feeling blessed to have been given a sneak peek at Greater Grave, and already looking forward to whatever is next. I will need some time, however, to spend with Greater Grave.

Greater Grave is an excellent example of the sort of fantastic possibilities I talk about in the essay in this first issue of The White Star Reader*, first, because it works tirelessly to disrupt its own surface, secondly because it relentlessly problematizes relations between things.

Greater Grave has a singular texture, and that texture bears the traces of architecture- that is: it bears sort of signature of its own labor. It makes me feel as though the aforementioned tirelessness with which it works bears the marks of the author’s actual tiredness- that is: it feels like an expenditure. A precious expenditure, like the substance of actual labor rather than a product of labor. I want to say that this is why its texture feels so profound and uncanny: it is as though that which is impossible to make into an object has been given the sensual qualities of an object, like tasting a movement or smelling a sentence.

I’m going to have a hard time moving past talking about the very first poem, whose title “Progress still controls us even in tales of ruination.” -Anna Tsing already displays a sense of the competing vectors mentioned in this issue’s essay: here there are two vectors- two movements- one towards the good (progress) and one towards the bad (ruination) whose coupling calls into question the assertion that the vector of “progress” was ever ‘good’ in the first place. This simple, structuring juxtaposition displays a good deal of the entirety of Greater Grave’s function: to show the brittleness of single signifiers, in this case progress, where a simple placing it in relation to something else can show the multiform fissures of its foundation. But this is the most simple example of this function, as the poem to which the quote serves as a title immediately begins to unravel a number of constellatory relations between things, creating what seems like an objectless allegory: a moving metaphor without a single static node along which its mechanisms function.

First, the structure of relations between the lyric subject and the things within them are structured by desire:

          wanting to edit this memory           I interject

          that I recall feeling not liberated/…

Second, that an impossibility- the prospect of editing one’s memory- is presented as a possibility. This possibility is followed by a broad space, a pointed lack, wherein the reader is implicated in their relation to the lyric “I,” as one who can never be sure to what extent that which they are able to remember or apprehend has been edited: what was in that space before either the edit or the desire to edit it? Why does the word edit feel like the word delete? Because both are impossible, strictly speaking?

Not only does this lyric “I” feel or simply “recall feeling,” but it “interjects” the assertion- an assertion that is weak not only because it is three verbs (interject, recall, feel) away from something other than what it is claiming, but because it follows immediately after the caesura of the possible having-been-edited-memory, which feels like an actual, although negative, interjection. It’s weakness, however, becomes a moot point, when we learn that that which the voice claims to have recalled is the negative of something it doesn’t believe in anyway, now a double negative:


          back before I dis member

          I forgot that I disbelieved in liberation

The location of all of these things- feelings, the voice itself, whatever the memory is- in relation to each other are thrown into the mysteriously unknowable past: the voice recalls feeling (from when to when?), but reverts (to before when?)- to “back before I dis member,” where all of the sudden to remember- taken as such both because of swift reading and the fact that before one forgets one exists in a state of remembering- is to take apart a body, and somehow now seems to have always meant to dis-RE-member, which semantically amounts to the word “forget,” only with a double modifier: the negation (dis) + a return/ repetition (re) + the verb for “put together.” This is the formal and semantic mechanism of the uncanny, wherein something means one thing and as well as its opposite. The double movement of the competing vectors of ruination and progress which structure the poem are therefore shown to have many more moving parts, necessary tributaries, possible functionalities, and sophisticated middle mechanisms and textures than the now seemingly oversimplified binary heuristic of the title- while it all seems to remain contained within it.

And this in the first five lines of the first poem of the book. But the reader doesn’t come to know the placeless map of constant movement through the act of mapping, which I assume requires a static terrain. Greater Grave, a map of movements, so to speak, is apprehended via the affect produced by the troubled and fluxing relations of and to other relations, by the feeling of being arrested, the sort of paused-with-an-over-large breath inside your chest that needs to get out. It feels felt because it feels embodied, and therein lies one of its greatest characteristics: that this lyric “I,” the I that dis/ remembers and wants and from which the poems of Greater Grave emerge and which Greater Grave never denies, affirms the continued possibility, plausibility, and political necessity of the lyrical poem, of the poetic voice of suffering subjects in the world, of the sort of broken utopian dreams that come from this sort of post//post/postmodern subject, this re-embodied (un-dis-embodied?) voice.