Exquisite Corpse

Another Astronaut Poem

What if this time
we learn how to visit stars and it’s only a matter
of pulling on spacesuits before we can walk
together through hydrogen and helium and licking
flames, when you are with me in this light
licking across our chests and fiberglass vests and memories
of old snow and home planets no other heat can keep you.

What if we’ve embodied the stuff that composes
a star long enough that this doesn’t hurt anymore, what if
forgetting doesn’t hurt, what if we forget it ever hurt.

Remember that star’s absurdly dying.
Always. Atomized I can’t keep you from that exquisite

corpse. But

what if we go to the station a few times, not too many
times though, and in the refueling I remember old snow in
old cities crisped beneath our snow boots long before we knew
how to walk the stars and headlights flickered
and buckled in early morning light when you too
buckled and flickered and the streets below
were familiar, the great avenues always like that
whether above or below or frozen and it is almost
like that in space, on stars, and what if when you’re

with me you feel stratospheric. On stars the black
air fades behind the fire walls and apples bloom from trees
nourished by the photosphere. Cosmic push, human pull. What if
when you’re with me nothing but my eyes of snow and mouth
of fuel can claim you, what if those trees always bloom, what
if you can’t go without me

                                            what if from Earth from sky from
neighboring stars they see us and the flames and the streets
they are all there and the buckling but this is impossible, no
one ever died of heat.

By Farryl Last 

The Exquisite Corpse: The Role of the Physical Body in International Affairs 

At first, it is almost impossible to make out what the photo is supposed to represent, beyond softly curving grey shapes and an alarming slash of blood red, but behind the dramatically lit images lurks a sense of evil, something unsettling, something not right.  As the series of darkly lit photos progresses, the shape of a sneakered foot emerges, then a leg, and finally a hand streaked with blood. Suddenly, it becomes clear that this is Tsaenaev Dzhokhar, suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings, emerging from a boat covered in gray tarp. He lifts his shirt to show the SWAT team that he is unarmed, revealing a lanky torso twisted with poking ribs and streaked with blood.

The 2013 Boston Marathon bombings had international implications, highlighting the ongoing insurgency in Chechnya, a place many Americans had never heard of and occasionally conflated with the Czech Republic, ahead of the Sochi winter Olympics. It also drew attention to the United States’ counter-terrorism policies, and fed into debates about privacy and security that began with Edward Snowden’s decision to leak NSA documents that pointed to a vast web of communications surveillance conducted by government intelligence agencies in the name of security.

Although the bombings reverberated out to international politics, they began as a story about physical bodies. The story originated in the decision of two young men to hurt others, which by their twisted logic would make a statement about the hurting of the people in their homeland, or perhaps about their disaffection from American society. The bombings were followed by a manhunt around the city. Law enforcement teams searched for two boys, one scraggly and one more muscular, in order to prevent them from harming others. The incident ended when the bodies of both brothers were recovered—one dead, and one alive but on the brink of death, found the day after the bombings concealed in a boat (as documented by the photos).

From the macabre photos of the bombing’s aftermath to the bloodied boy emerging from the boat, the narrative of the Boston Marathon bombing was shaped by our reactions to the human bodies). The casualties in the bombing were unusually twisted because the bombs robbed many runners—elite, world-class athletes who found their greatest joy and challenge in running—of their legs. It disabled, the most physically able.

Despite the unchanging presence of physical bodies in international politics, International Relations theory has been unable to capture the role of the visceral. Diplomacy was once conducted primarily through bodies, with royalty uniting polities and building alliances through marriage. Even now, the physical plays an outsized role in the conduct of international politics, from the particular trappings of state dinners, where table settings and gowns carry with them a myriad of unstated meanings—take Michelle Obama’s Alexander McQueen gown worn at a state dinner in 2011—to the burgeoning understanding of the role of emotion in international politics.

Classical IR theory has conceptualized the state as a “black box.” The metaphor of billiard balls is often invoked: states, by this measure, should be conceived of as unitary actors whose internal workings have no relevance for international outcomes. These billiard ball states bounce off of each other in eternally reproduced patterns that are determined by the structure of the international system itself. By this account, states are little more than cogs in a perfectly efficient piece of machinery.

This account may strike those not steeped in the intellectual history of IR theory as odd.  After all, states are not tangible entities. Rather, the term ‘state’ is shorthand for a collection of organizations which are in turn made up of individual people, people with memories, ideological commitments, emotional responses, and a myriad of other preconceived notions and ideas triggered by synapses firing in their heads. Wars are fought not by a tangible entity called the ‘state,’ but by individual people. Each of these individuals has their own physical capabilities, their own reasons for fighting, and their own family and relations back at home—all of which in part determine how a war is fought, not just the material capabilities and resources of each side.

These classical models of International Relations theory are particularly inept when it comes to theorizing the new threats that have emerged in the past decade or so—civil wars, terrorism, insurgency, and so forth—because they have no way to include individual agency, cognitive processes, or the physical body in their models. While emerging theories are beginning to tackle the role of cognition, individual agents, symbols, and emotion in theory in new and creative ways, the area left under-theorized is the role of the human body. What is the role of corporal bodies in the way that wars are fought? George Washington, to take just one example, crossed the Delaware River with his troops in the middle of the night, surprising the sleeping British troops and eking out a battle victory. How have the processes of the physical human body, of the need for sleep, for shelter, and food, shaped the ways that we fight wars?

Theorizing the human body could provide answers to a number of pressing questions that traditional academic theories are unable to answer: how is physical difference used to mobilize various groups in war-fighting? How do different people react to images of the human body, both the dead—the exquisite corpse—and the living, in media like television and print, and how does that in turn impact the decisions that policymakers make?

Photographs like the image of a surrendering Tsaenaev Dzhokhar have tremendous power and affect us emotionally and cognitively in unexpected ways. Academics in other disciplines provide a sense of how we may build up a framework around understanding the role of the body- Judith Butler’s work on gender is just one example. It makes intuitive sense that our experiences of, and reactions to, the human body play an important role in international politics. We need to develop better theoretical and empirical models to understand how.

By Alexandra Stark 

Grace and the Pigeon

Life, on occasion, must submit to art.  Grace watched as the Donovan family pitched themselves through the uptown psychology office like a tribe of Bedouins, settling in for the night.  Dr. Lieberman, Dr. L, they called her.  The Donovans believed she could help them. Grace loved her patients for believing in her.

Today Grace was having a go at an unorthodox practice. Grace had learned about the exquisite corpse from her father, a doctor with the temperament of an artist.  A creation of the Surrealists, the exquisite corpse was a practice in rotation. One person would speak a bit, then the next would pick up a new idea, using the final words of the preceding person to spin off on a new thought. They made drawings this way as well, one man’s line breathing life into the next. Those Surrealists, they knew something about transference.

Grace had played the exquisite corpse with her sister Lisa in the station wagon on long drives across America, from Paterson, New Jersey to the great chasm of the Grand Canyon, to the sacred cliffs of California.  Lisa lived in Florida now, and had an ugly but expensive house and handbag. Grace explained the exquisite corpse to the Donovans, suggesting it as an exercise. She supposed it would force each to speak separately, instead of all at once, and she could try to sort out the associations they made to reveal faults in thinking. Faults in the earth, faults in our minds. It was all the same.

Grace neatened the papers on her lap. She watched Alana, her primary patient, settle back into the couch and flit through her purse, looking for a gum wrapper.  An exquisite corpse was hardly normal psychological practice, but Grace was out of options. She could barely keep her mind on the slippery gray frog of the Donovans’ dysfunction, let alone dissect it. She’d long thought of herself as a technician of the mind who worked out cogs and false starts, and filled engines that had run too long on empty. Lately, she’d been doing things like this, playing games, and she wondered if she were just a trickster, a magician with a coy sleight of hand. She needed to take a break from her practice, she thought, while her divorce papers went through. She hated to abandon her patients like Alana, though. And also, her routine.

Alana was a twenty-seven year old, strawberry blonde, feverish woman, who stuttered whenever she was upset, which was usually. Alana had called Dr. Lieberman on the recommendation of the friend of a friend, another young woman who had nerves before tying the knot. Alana had nerves, and she had reasons to have them. Now after eighteen months of an engagement and weekly sessions of therapy, the wedding was a week away. They all sat silently as Alana pulled her summer-sweated hair into a disheveled bun, heaved the cooled air and began the game. “Look at all the lunatics, made loonier by marriage,” Alana cringed, “My Dad kidnapped me and my sister Cecelia when my mother was drinking, said we shouldn’t be around a woman like that. Still he wouldn’t divorce her. I mean, what the hell? Instead for a summer we went to live with my dad and Uncle Bert, who was a degenerate gambler, in a shack outside Buffalo and cried the whole time. Cecelia was nine at the time, and I was twelve.”

Her voice was getting shrill, which she noticed, and stopped speaking.  She stuttered on twelve. Ta-ta-ta-ta-twelve. Grace liked Alana, though she tried not to play favorites.

From their initial meeting all those months ago, Grace had (perhaps naively, in retrospect) suggested couple’s counseling. Couple’s counseling turned into family counseling a few weeks later, whereupon it descended into an unscripted chaos, a daytime talk show lasting 45 minutes a week. Sometimes Grace cried in her office after they’d gone, their burdened impressions still denting her sofa cushions. They were so helpless, so human, so resilient and cruel. She and they had everything in common. When they were gone, she missed them.

Three Donovans in addition to Alana were in her office today: Alana’s fiancé Christopher Esposito (a Donovan by association), her father Frank, her mother Sheila.  Grace didn’t have much to recommend about marriage lately, but she tried to leave her problems at the door, as they say, shrink-wrap it in the closet of her mind.  Today she would just listen. It was pitiful, their state – Grace considered it professionally embarrassing. Alana was no more ready for marriage today, than she was one the first day of counseling.  She was no less ready, all the same, and Grace could at least give herself that. She hadn’t talked her in or out of anything.  Anyway, all the Donovans seemed to want was a time to chat.

She remembered them, afterall, and that was no small accomplishment. She knew the Donovan family numbered at six people in the immediate, but blossomed into an extended clan as vast as the boggling universe, ever-expanding, frightful in its midnighted secrets.  Grace’s brain swelled with the names of overlapping, parallel cousins that she charted in notebook doodles, imagining herself as a great navigator of their bloodstream’s spatter across the earth. Many nights, Grace dreamed of them, their reddened hair, their freckles, their lusty anger. In her dreams they ran barefoot through Central Park, peeling off their layers and submerging in the lake, where they were beautiful and never sunburned. When Grace woke startled, she was surprised her husband wasn’t there in their bed, beside her. Then she remembered it was because he had left her, which was because he had met someone younger, who smiled a lot and was bustier. These things happened.  Grace had her dogs, and all these people’s lives to keep her company. She also drank a lot of red wine.

This afternoon, they sat in a little circle in the office, as though they were playing duck-duck-goose. Alana sat next to her father who sat next to Christopher who sat next to Sheila who sat next to Grace. The exquisite corpse moved in a neat little circle. Frank Donovan leaned across his tremendous belly, put his elbows on his knees, and took his turn on the talking carousel. “When I was 12, my parents couldn’t afford to send us on a school trip to an amusement park along the Jersey Shore,” he said, his reddened skin blushing to maroon, “There were seven of us kids, and three of us were old enough to go on the trip: me, James, and Jack. Sister Mary Frances took up a charity to make up the money from the rich parents in the parish.  I guess she felt awful thinking of us left behind. My dad found out. He was ashamed…so ashamed. He beat us until we were black and blue, when he found out there were good-works happening in the name of his roughneck kids.  People had a point of pride about taking money then. My mother was mortified afterwards. She couldn’t send us to school like that, in various battered states, so none of us went, after all that. What can you do? Life is like that. Family isn’t a walk in the park.”  He let out a huge bellowing laugh. “Oh a walk in the park, the amusement park,” he said and he trembled, jiggling his belly.

Grace no longer found stories like this horrifying. She heard it everyday, in a few variations, from all sorts. Grace knew that Freud had written that the Irish were the only ethnicity impenetrable to psychoanalysis.  While she considered Freud imaginative shmegegge, this notion seemed to have some basis in practice. The trouble seemed to be that the lot of them jumbled and shouted and hooted and chimed all on top of each other, listening too quickly, too well, not to hear, but retort, jab and mock, all in an act of a unending affection. Their misery they found comforting, their tragedies, a little hilarious. Pain was a natural as getting a pimple.

There were better ways of being, Grace reminded herself. Better paths to take.

Lately she found herself wondering if life was some sort of pratfall, a long excruciating joke. It did seem a little surreal, to her, the amount of suffering people carried around, and yet civilization endured. People still went to work, paid their bills, drove on the right side of the road.  Sometimes it did feel to her that she needed to invite the whole world into her office, the vast interconnected lot of existence, and create one never ending exquisite corpse. At least they could be honest then, about the perpetual confusion. At least then we would be communicating.

Grace nodded at Christopher, Alana’s finance, signaling him to speak.  She was doing an okay job of pretending to listen. Christopher grumbled and coughed. “A walk in the park every Sunday, with my grandparents. We went every week. It was like a tradition. It was a tradition,” he said. “My grandparents loved each other so much. They did everything together, until my grandpa passed.  They made me believe in marriage as a happy thing. As it turns out, I found out recently they were cousins, actually, but the family kept it hush hush.” He coughed again, “My cousin Tony was born with a clubfoot and my sister Gina has a lazy eye. My mom blamed it all on my father’s genes. My father likes to say that love knows no bounds. And that it was common in the old country. My mom, she says my father is inbred. And an idiot, but she only says it when he leaves the room.”

Christopher’s dad was right. It wasn’t uncommon in any of the homelands to marry a cousin. At least then the family ties would have kept it together. Grace really needed a break.  She would go take herself to Hawaii on long, beachy vacation. That’s where she had wanted to go on her honeymoon, not to Reno. Grace thought of her second cousin David. He was a pretty good-looking guy. What if. Who knows. Who cares.

Sheila spoke next, her voice like the flicker of a flame. “I read The Idiot by Dostoevsky in my room at the boarding house when I was 16. I was at the boarding house on a scholarship. The headmaster said I was quick, a brain as sharp as a tack. My father was dead, died in a construction accident, and my mother was making due on a secretary’s salary.” Sheila swallowed hard, and smiled a happy-sad smile, “My mother sent me away because she wanted me to have opportunity. I was afraid to go and I hid in the basement when the day came for me to leave. When I was 17, my mother was hit by a drunk driver. She died. It was a rainy night, I remember. I started drinking then, all the time, and the school tossed me out. I got a job as a waitress on an overnight shift. The first night your father came in. I thought he was a nice looking guy. I thought marriage and kids would mean I wasn’t lonely.”

They sat in stewing silence and wringed their hands. God it was hard to be lonely, and life was long and lonely and that made it hard. Grace thought it was odd that a lifetime of misery could be encapsulated in sentences, and just only a few of them. Powerful, magical syllables.  Grace had so much to tell them. She had her own pain. She wanted to hold them. The clock looked at her in angry dismay. “I’m sorry, but our time is up,” she said, closing her notebook.

The Donovans collected their things. Alana asked if they would see her at the wedding, which was going through, regardless.  Grace said they would, they would. Frank said he had a younger brother around her age who was also just coming out of divorce hell. She looked at him quizzically.  “You stopped wearing a ring,” he said with a shrug.

When they were all gone, Grace looked out the window to see a perched pigeon looking into her office. It tapped its head against the glass, not understanding the barrier. Grace remembered a time when she was a younger woman, a girl, maybe twenty-five years old and had taken a train to Washington D.C. for a conference. She’d forgotten to latch the door of the train bathroom when she’d gone to pee and a suited man had opened the door on her by mistake. He was busy apologizing, when she, with her skirt around her ankles pulled him in, and there made love with him, with no explanation. They’d fed off each other, in total detachment. Was that what it meant to be exquisite? A corpse? To act without thinking, move without reasons? To just plow ahead? She thought so. She wasn’t a very good psychologist, she knew. In fact, she was a lot like the pigeon.

By Kathleen Nora White 


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