Sappho’s Body is Leaking: Sacred Enclosures of Queer Desire

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Sappho’s Body is Leaking: Sacred Enclosures of Queer Desire

By James C. Fleming November 13, 2018

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


In the sweet-thirst1 air of an unusually warm October night in San Francisco, Anne Lesley Selcer ritualistically summoned the beginnings of a sacred enclosure, a provisional utopia, when she introduced an audience to Juliana Huxtable’s poetry reading, All the Self Canonized Saints of Becoming, at the Lab. The mass of listening bodies, mine among them, shuddered through decadent states of abstracted adoration and exhaustion; we moved through then and there, from one sacrament to the next, transfigured by her words. The sacred planks of her stage stretched out into the horizon2; loosening our first-person I’s, we collectively became. In my notebook, rapidly scribbled words outlined the sensation:

            Secreted specters and fluids,
            pearlescent beads of saliva and gossamer semes twinkling
            like the skin of light atop a poolside reflection,
​            fluted, seaweed-green flourishes of sentiment transuding through air,
​            sibilant sucker punches thrashing the pleated foliage of sophisticated narratives.

Molly House Records. Juliana Huxtable, (still); October 13-14, 2018, The Stud, San Francisco, California. Courtesy of Molly House Records. Photo: Guerrilla Davis. 

Of Huxtable’s poetry, Selcer has written, “Her écriture transféminine writes from a body in transition, one in a complex survival of white supremacy, from a body inextricable from a complex layering of powers, identifications, and aesthetic signs.”3 This invocation and amelioration of the écriture feminine—a term used by Hélène Cixous to present a language that centers the experience, body, and jouissance of the feminine—represents a profound evolution, from the origins of Sappho to the rampant heterarchical growth of Huxtable’s poetics: an emergent queer language of desire. 

Hours later, with limbs moving like rhizomes to the oceanic blue of Huxtable’s DJ set, organized by Molly House Records at San Francisco’s pantheon of queer desire, the Stud, the crowd heaved into a transcendent state of embodiment. Drenched in sweat and sentiment, our faces erupted into gleaming bubbles that blew through the red-lit corridors of the club—a splash of many Ariels disintegrating into Aphrodite’s foam, riding the crest and trough of the wave, and landing on new shores of the self: a queer symbolic order, where sweetbitter kisses popped and dispersed upon foreheads, reconstructing the text and language of our experience.4

Sapphic fragments, legless and headless—all that remained of us was our excess. It spread beneath the seismic fluctuations of Huxtable’s music like strawberry-rhubarb jam, shot through with serotonin, dripping down the spine. Our edges and limbs were like seiches of desire that lay undefined inside the brackets of Sappho’s body. Inside these enclosures bloomed an internity5 of a fragmented poetics; each word scintillated on the edge of tongues for the past 2,598 years.6  

            and lovely laughing—oh it
            puts the heart in my chest on wings
            for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
                        is left in me
            no: tongue breaks and thin
            fire is racing under skin
            and in eyes no sight and drumming
                        fills ears
                                    —Sappho7

Molly House Records. Juliana Huxtable, (still); October 13-14, 2018, The Stud, San Francisco, California. Courtesy of Molly House Records. Photo: Guerrilla Davis.

On another October night in San Francisco, such fecund fragmentation was gorgeously embodied in Hope Mohr’s extreme lyric I, which was co-produced by ODC Theater and featured the co-written poetry and performance of Maxe Crandall. In the work, alterities between the first-person singular “I” and the shimmering enmeshment of queer communion are explored through a work that weaves new writings with body-based movement scores based on Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho, If Not, Winter

Neither sentimental nor nostalgic, the work constructed new worlds from a history of écriture feminine. This seems to be the work of queer futurity, a labor familiar to marginalized creators and cultures who are developing ways of becoming outside the framework of essentialism, patriarchy, and empire. 

In a conversation, Crandall shared: “With extreme lyric I, we wanted to make an event, or a world, where we could prolong and hold and explore the explosive moment of Sapphic desire.” “We were interested in learning from the extreme states of embodiment rendered in her fragments; we wanted to think touch, ritual, memories (of presence and absence), shapeshifting, wildness, the non-discrete, the leaking. Part of the experiment was to put Sappho back into the body, into song, into dance.” 

Hope Mohr Dance. extreme lyric I, 2018 (still); October 4–6, 2018, ODC Theater, San Francisco, California. Courtesy of Hope Mohr Dance. Pictured from left: Maxe Crandall, Hope Mohr. Photo: Robbie Sweeny.

In the performance, Mohr and Crandall exchange declarative cries while gliding along a hanging plastic pall, which obfuscates four figures moving in the center, the mysterious heart of the stage. Narrative and movement append meaning upon Sappho’s surviving poetrythe remaining body of work that nurtures others through the centuries. 

            Hope Mohr: Sappho’s body is leaking!
            Maxe Crandall: Sappho’s body is running, overcome, exhausted!
            HM: Sappho can’t find her tongue!
            MC: Sappho’s body is leaking!
            HM: Sappho’s heart is flying out of her chest!

The work extreme lyric I is a powerful ward against language’s tendency toward ossification. Sacred enclosures must be constructed with the body; an écriture transféminine is penned always through the living papyrus of movement and skin. Does it leak into the future? Does it leak from the feminine into a queer comingling of form? I am eager to write for the multi-species composites of an unknown beyond human narrative. Perhaps such a sacred enclosure might be written with a queer tongue—a shimmering, iridescent ink constantly leaking through continuums of delirious sentiment, excess, and futurity.

Hope Mohr Dance. extreme lyric I, 2018 (still); October 4–6, 2018, ODC Theater, San Francisco, California. Courtesy of Hope Mohr Dance. Pictured from left: Jane Selna, Tara MacArthur, Susette Sagisi, Karla Quintero.Photo: Robbie Sweeny.

In the increasingly totalizing violence employed by right-wing nationalist insurgencies, white-radical extremism, and the impending global ecological collapse, this leaking feels imperative. It is a function far beyond the binary of life and death. Desire becomes a horizon, a trajectory of becoming that might encompass a better, more equitable future. In this way, queer tongues leak an emergent, provisional language that wavers between ideas of becoming and annihilation yet is rooted deeply in hope.

Artists exploring queer futurity speak in tongues. Their foreheads bow down into lean-to contact; their slippery forms dip into one another, holy waters and oils mixing up a froth of shimmering ink. In the words of José Esteban Muñoz, who’s life work illuminates this emergence: “To think and feel a then and there…we must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds.”8 Millennial Sapphos replace the self with potential; they shred the present into bracketing narratives, promising pen and papyrus to unknown divinities and self-canonized saints. Back in the sacred enclosure of the Stud, betrothed to and drowning in Huxtable's beat, I experience hope. “Sappho’s dripping with sweat. Sappho can’t be seen. Sappho is close to death. Sappho’s immersed in the feeling.”9 I am unsure where my body begins or ends, whether it is open or enclosed, flowering or pouring out. A shimmering ink suffuses into, and becomes, everything.

Notes

  1. “Sweet-thirst” draws from Sappho’s poetics, where words and phrases such as “sweetbitter” or “bittersweet Eros” are common.
  2. "Because no one can set foot on the sacred planks of the stage, in the hopes of approaching the living heart of the mystery, without having first stripped from head to foot down to one's self: for the aim and the mission of these agents (actor as well as director and author) is to increase the odds of the birth of the You." Hélène Cixous, Stigmata (London: Routledge Classics, 1998) 179.
  3. Anne Lesley Selcer, “Being Desire,” Jacket2, May 24, 2018, https://jacket2.org/commentary/being-desire-huxtable#n5.
  4. “Eros the melter of limbs (now again) stirs me / Sweetbitter unmanageable creature who steals in.” Sappho, trans. by Anne Carson, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (New York: Random House, 2002), 265.
  5. Cixous uses “internity” frequently in her writing. The word means “the quality or fact of being internal, inwardness; the inner part, especially of a person’s being.” https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/internity.
  6. The Greek poet Sappho died in 580 BC.
  7. Sappho, Carson, If Not, Winter, 63.
  8. José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009) 1.
  9. Excerpt from performance text for extreme lyric I written by Hope Mohr and Maxe Crandall. Courtesy of Hope Mohr Dance.

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