Bad Survivalist: Nadia Arioli (nee Wolnisty)
On “Starlings, Caravans” by Kay Sage
Once, I broke my own heart. Listen. Miscarriage is normal, expected, considered fine. We get our hopes up. We say, Yes, yes, we can do this. Our bodies know what to do.
Kay Sage is a painter with rules. I can’t quite figure them out when I’m awake, which makes sense, is right, for a Surrealist. But observe “Unicorns Came Down to the Sea” and “All Surroundings are Referred to High Water.” They look similar, don’t they? In fact, writing a poem for each, I had inadvertently switched them. Both have the color pallet of the Mediterranean. I’ve spent a few months there. The Mediterranean, I mean, not the paintings. Greece and Rome. You hear folks who pretend to be worldly go on about that light, that yellow, drowsy light, but they’re not wrong.
At my past job, my boss would tell me I didn’t observe well. I think she thought I had a learning-disability. Everything I did had tiny typos or miscalculations. I would say, I thought it was okay to make mistakes. And she would say, No, not like this.
Hysterical pregnancies are also normal enough. Maybe it’s just in old-timey novels and sitcoms, though. I’ve taken pregnancy tests at Target. Once, at Braum’s. I got a burger after.
A month ago, I set myself up to have something small, nonexistent die. I had a hysterical miscarriage. There isn’t a name for it. That’s what I call it. It sounds unimportant and kind of funny. The doctors certainly thought so.
I like to think I can see things, though, like straight to the bones of things. This couch I am writing on is blue. I couldn’t remember if the sides had studs on them or not and had to look again. They do. But what I do know is the way it fits my body. The back, it feels overstuffed, like it’s pushing on me, but the base of my spine is cradled, and I don’t feel any of its old aches.
A month ago, I was late. Two weeks. And then, the sensation of stabbing. Of falling.
Elliott Smith stabbed himself in the chest. Not once, but twice.
In the cult I was raised in, I was taught no one was cursed. We can all be redeemed. Depression was a choice and didn’t have to be terminal. I know the first part is a lie, but I find myself struggling with the second. It seems inevitable that Kay Sage shot herself in the chest, doesn’t it? I mean, look at her paintings, all are the moment before the gun goes off and the moment after. That’s how you know there isn’t a way out.
Almost all of her paintings have architectural elements in them. Little structures that could exist, but don’t. Nothing in hospitals is that inevitable, that still. Things in real life can feel looming, but don’t actually hover. You, the viewer, are God, seeing things straight on.
Her paintings have draped cloth, sometimes in human form, but more often statues of what human beings would be if they were headless. Her paintings are controlled. They are places you would like to visit but not places you would want to live. There was a breeze, but you just missed it.
The stabbing sensation was below. I interrupted my boss’s meeting and said I have to go. My boss asked if I needed an ambulance. Well, what she said was Are you okay to drive? and I said Yes.
I bled through my pants on the drive over. The blood washed out, easy enough, the next day, which was good, because I just bought them, and I liked them. The next week, hiking with my husband, down a closed trail, they got ruined. I still have burrs in them. The pants are on top of a bucket of shoes in my closet.
Like all good painters, Sage breaks her own rules. Take “Starlings, Caravans,” for instance. The colors are purplish like clouds. The yellows are bright. It doesn’t look like the town my father-in-law described before and after a tornado went through. So still, so waiting.
Underneath my body is a skeleton. I like to think it serves me. It gets me to the gym well enough. I like the row machine the best. Put this massive ass on a hard seat that other asses have sweated into. Use femurs and tibia to push it back and forth. Hold on with finger bones, phalanges. Your skeleton knows how to make a rhythm, even if you always clap on the 1’s and 3’s, and your musician husband teases you for it.
My hip bones are wide. The space between is empty, is filled with blood, tissue, fat.
At the hospital, no one was at the front desk. When they found me in the waiting area filling out paperwork I had helped myself to, they asked what was wrong. I said I don’t know what is happening. I think I’m having a miscarriage. They asked how far along I was. I said I don’t know, I don’t know.
The tornado is happening now in “Starlings, Caravans.” A boat is ready. Oars are everywhere, scattered without deliberation.
Scholars tend not to read into Sage’s titles, which is fair enough for a Surrealist painter. But I don’t think it is a coincidence this one is called “Starlings, Caravans.” Things that move in groups.
Migration is only considered migration when it happens in groups. When World War II broke out, Sage paid for Surrealist ex-pats to flee from Europe. She arranged the passage. Then, Andre Breton kicked her out of the group for being too moneyed, too female, too privileged. This too, feels like breaking the rules.
At the hospital I peed in a cup. Not pregnant. I had two IV bags. They made me feel cold. The female doctor and the male nurse told me how periods work. That they hurt sometimes. I am 29 years old. I have had over 200.
The cult wasn’t terribly interesting. The leader, hilariously, was also named Jim Jones.
But what stuck with me, the most, besides the praying in tongues, the faith healers, the obsession with the year 2000—they called it a jubilee year—was how they treated young girls. When I was ten, I got my first period. We had to go to a prayer meeting. The next month, it came early, mid-prayer meeting. I asked my friend for a pad (tampons were taboo). She didn’t have one. So we asked my mom for one. She told my father what was happening so she could get the keys and go to the store. Everyone was angry with me. She’s too young for this, they said.
In “Starlings, Caravans” the perspective is different than in her other paintings. You, the viewer, are lower than the structures, gazing up into it, like someone being gurneyed into an ambulance. Or, to borrow a phrase from St. Vincent, a birth in reverse.
I want to believe in this painting and its painter. I was to believe her suicide was not inevitable. But what to say of the commotion while it is happening?
I don’t always observe where my body is, running into protruding parts of the room, head in another space. I stubbed my toes on the couch. But I don’t forget my bones.
I got Eve’s curse. So do most people born with uteruses, at one time or another, but me in particular.
The cult taught us that once someone hit puberty, it was okay to tell their father that boys are going to be knocking down their door. You shouldn’t wear a bra if you were still in middle school because you were too young. Your body moves over to adulthood slowly then all at once, and it better be a migration on time with everyone else in your grade. If you left childhood too early, something was wrong.
No one was cursed, except each and every girl, to carry a shame between her legs. No sin cannot be undone except puberty.
At the hospital, I thought about stingrays. There is no way they’re not filled with love. I know projecting yourself onto the natural world is a kind of violence, perhaps even a violation, some sort of human-centered distortion. But how can I not observe the world through a human lens? So, think of it, gentle kites, in oceans, in far-off places, floating with more grace than you ever could.
The cult reduced me to a hole, I felt, a hole for a baby to pop out of, a hole to leak. You, idiot hole, you idiot hole, I would say before going to bed. And the hole was for men, too, or one man, who was your husband, unless it was Jesus. And this, too, was inevitable. You would grow up, properly, not too soon, marry a God-fearing man, have children. The children would live in a neighborhood somewhere in the Southwest, together, and have fellowship, community.
And if that didn’t happen, it was because you were cursed (no one is cursed). When I left for college, didn’t come back, lived with my boyfriend, left him, married an agnostic, and somewhere in there my mother tried to kill herself, no doubt the elders whispered, See, see, of course this would happen.
When you’re bleeding, crying, hooked up to an IV bag, and pretending this doesn’t make you feel cold, it’s hard to convince the staff you’re not prone to hysterics. That when you say this is the worst pain you’ve been in in your whole life, this includes getting in two accidents that total your car. That this includes someone breaking your tailbone. This includes getting stabbed.
Once, I saw sting ray’s skeleton in a picture. They have a skeleton under there. The shock of it. Bones fanning out like oars. But I should have guessed that one: kites have cross beams. Muntins, I think they’re called, but maybe that’s just for windows.
The skeleton was indisputable. Beneath blubber and grace, hardened calcium. Just like particle board inside the couch, a defect in the brain, a tailbone.
But there wasn’t a baby. The hospital confirms this. It’s not that there was a baby that went away. There never was one to begin with. That it was just you, your brain convinced that all you could ever bring about was death.
Nadia Arioli (nee Wolnisty) is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Thimble Literary Magazine. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in Spry, SWWIM, Apogee, Penn Review, McNeese Review, Kissing Dynamite, Bateau, Whale Road Review, SOFTBLOW, and others. They have chapbooks from Cringe-Worthy Poetry Collective, dancing girl press, and a full-length from Spartan.
Image: “Starlings, Caravans” by Kay Sage, pinterest.com