June 2022

self

I’ve had only one psychedelic flashback in my life. It was about 20 minutes into a therapy session. Unfortunately, I was the therapist.

“This was many years ago now, and I believe it lasted much less than a minute. But when that particular veil lifts, time is a yardstick with no markings. For time to be meaningful, one must have purchase on a moment, and then another, and the temporal distance between the two can be measured, like the distance between two pitons on a rock face. But on the other side of the veil, the pitons cannot hold. There is only presence, and presence does not have a duration. Nor does presence, at this deepest expression, require a …”

so begins Eric Jannazzo’s article for the online magazine Psyche (link here). Apart from the compelling first line, what is striking in this article is the analogy to both film and photography with psychical life. I know, it is not here in this quote. But Jannazzo goes on, …”consider an amoeba placed under a microscope. We can adjust the focus to bring a particular plane into sharpness, and in so doing other planes become obscured. The full ‘truth’ of the specimen cannot be seen all at once, but can be approached only in the aggregate of various planes of focus.” He imagines the self to be the same: “So it is for the self.”

The three planes of focus for the self, he says, are these: who I am; who I am really; and, who I am really, really. Only the second is the plane of focus of psychotherapy. The first is what a stranger might ask you in a shared social context: who are you? The second is a question of the social role having any kind of significance and of your significance within it. Maybe it is who I mean to be and what that means, rather than who I am and what that is. While the third is, says Jannazzo, a spiritual enquiry. Not that of an organised religion or organising cosmological story, it is “an enquiry into who or what we are most essentially … outside the frame that reifies the idea of the self as an individual unit, instead recasting it as a natural manifestation of, and inseparable from, the timeless substrate from which it arises.”

It regards the self from its relation to time; who I am really, really is in relation to time, a time arising from timelessness; and here, in view of time, the analogy comes in: “Imagine a dramatically sped-up film of Earth’s history.” … In other words, the inner relation I have to myself really, really, is in relation to time; and the time of that inner relation is given the analogy of a film, as if film were time itself: cinematic time replaces an inner sense of my relation to myself in time by way of the analogy that is made between time as it is essentially and as it is in a film. This analogy is what is called the time-image.

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antinomy or, ring the bells: the fire is upon us

Times were simpler when I was reading the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. I don’t recall whether I read the Second Chronicles. But I must have.

I picked up that volume just now and the events it relates seem familiar: the daughter of the woman Thomas raped now a woman herself; the potential for a world to be sacrificed to save a single soul. I wonder, did Lord Foul’s bane, the sunbane, occur in the first or second chronicles? Note, I said ‘volume.’

I remember the successive volumes, I, II, III, appearing. Now all three of them, both of the first chronicles and of the second, are collected in one book, one thick book, or two, to be precise. I remember waiting for the successive volumes to appear–and the delay in their arrival in New Zealand.

Times were simpler, and slower. The days were slow and waiting for the next installment of the story of Thomas Covenant, leper, was… How was it, really?

Dad and I were reading the books by Stephen Donaldson. I think about them often because of Lord Foul’s bane, the title of one of them. What the weather’s doing these days, although it is not the act of one man, seems to be a similar act of malice.

No, it is not the act of one man, but the act of all of them. All of us, that is. What were the times before the sunbane like?

Those would be the times I am thinking about, that they were simpler and the waiting, for books and other items to arrive in New Zealand, was sweeter. What were the days and nights like before we were aware of anthropogenic climate change? What were they like, before that pressure we have inflicted on ourselves, or that has been inflicted on us, by all, on all, called the anthropocene?

Sweeter than now can only mean the past. It can only relate to the nostalgia familiar to all of those who feel the need to reach back, and inevitably to compare their times with these. All of us, that is, reaching back for a comparison that can, that is and can only ever be a source of odium, or tedium. But this reaching back is also in some way reassuring. I do not know if I want even to describe those times, or if I ever did. Why is it reassuring? Of what is it reassuring?

Does it reassure all of us or them that their own and our own times were sweeter than these now? Does it reassure them that the waiting then was sweeter? That it is not, was not then, an imposition, inflicted on them, inflicted on all of us, by all? Does it reassure them, or us, the times were not back then thought to be characteristic of the species? They were not a general human circumstance but are reassuring now because they were then theirs, belonged to them, just that: the times were ours.

The times were simpler, and the waiting, owing to our isolation, for items like books to arrive in New Zealand, sweeter. We knew we would have to wait and it was important because of that to take our time with a book, no doubt enriching the experience.

It would be easy enough to make it sound as if all the complications of the present arise from the growing sense of our universal culpability but it is not entirely so. Rather it is one more symptom, this guilt at being human spreading out to include everyone in general, of a layering of temporalities, laying one over another. For example, in one temporality, we are all in this together; in another it is us and them; and, in yet another, the great majority blame a tiny percentage; and further out there is virtually and so temporally, if not actually and therefore spatially, the singular time of automated sentience, of the singularity, and our enslavement to its terminal horizon.

Be that as it may, what I wanted to say is that the times were simpler and the waiting for further installments in whatever one was reading sweeter. Remember waiting a whole week for the next episode of a favourite TV show? It was so because there was not the complication of all these layers of temporalities, of local, global, cinematic, machinic and financial, as it were, times. What Dad and I liked about the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant is that Thomas is an anti-hero. I can understand why this might have appealed to Dad, but why did it appeal so much to me?

Thomas Covenant, leper, rapist and anti-hero, was the type of an antidote to the hobbits or to Peter, Susan, Lucy, whose name I always mispronounced internally as Lucky, and Edmund, although Edmund does come with his own problems…

Was it that year? later anyway, while waiting for the next installment in the chronicles, Dad and I both read The Jesus Incident, co-authored by Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom

And we picked up at the local general store of St. Arnaud, one of those odd chance finds that turn out better than expected, a collection of short stories called New French Science Fiction. How it got there I have no idea, unless the Kramers’ eldest son ordered it. He had tastes somewhat congruent with ours–one memorable night he introduced the whole family to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and to Lou Reed’s Transformer and Mum and Dad smoked some weed–so he could have.

In it was one story I have never forgotten. It is about the breeding of spaceships, huge sentient living beings, like whales, crossing the desolate ocean-like voids between stars, and from it I drew inspiration for a strange piece and its sequel I posted here some time ago (link and link).

Although inspiration is not the right word. It stayed with me, put it that way. It is probably because of Dad that I am always looking for antidotes for poisons I have not taken already.

The times were simpler but that does not mean to say they were any less profound. If anything, what has happened with times becoming more complex is a lessening in profundity relative to their complexity. Life may be more complicated now but it is equally more superficial. I have noticed this relationship between complexity and profundity in two of the books I am reading.

David Bentley Hart’s Roland In Moonlight, despite the knots it ties itself up in to establish profundity, not least that of spiritual insight, achieves only surface complexity. While the book I picked up as antidote to it, Mario Levrero’s The Luminous Novel, is instantly alive in its simplicity and has a surface that goes all the way down.

See, for instance, Levrero (the translation is by Annie McDermott) confronting various disorders he is seeking to consult a psychiatrist about; he is asked by the psychiatrist to fill in a questionnaire:

The questions were very well formulated. As I answered them in my head I saw my whole life parading past me at full speed, and plenty of things popped up here and there to explain why I have the disorders I do. After the initial shock, I realised that the things I’m fighting against as if they were disorders, without managing to overcome them, are not in fact disorders at all but admirable solutions I’ve been devising unconsciously, in order to get by. This is an excellent definition of my disorders: they’re the result of all that’s happened in my life, and more than that they’re the price of my freedom. (2021, 29-30)

Levrero provides a vital clue to why I started writing about Thomas Covenant, with, I admit, some nostalgia for those simpler times, but not for their simplicity or innocence.

Actually, the last thing I wanted to do was say that it was better then, or compare Roland In Moonlight with The Luminous Novel or say Levrero is a better writer than Hart, although he is. The Luminous Novel is even about the impossibility of writing about transcendental experience; and how do we experience or understand the impossibility of being able to write about it?

We understand through Levrero himself undergoing, that he underwent and is still undergoing, this luminous fact, at once both transcendental and impossible, of writing and of writing about personal transcendental experience.

So there is something, no, something more than contrarian about Levrero’s task. It is absurd, but not futile; it is heroic, it is after all the price of freedom, but paid for in a kind of disbelief in any transcendental justification or excuse outside of absurdity: and Thomas Covenant is the Unbeliever.

Beyond contrarian, for disorders that are tickets to freedom, absurd and trivial habits, actions that are even shameful and only by accident heroic, or are undertaken with heroic nihilism: they are antinomian.

I woke up trying to recall a sense of how I was in those earlier times, perhaps so as to reclaim something of those times, by first trying to remember all the lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody and second by recalling my reaction when I first heard it. As you know, I just killed a man.

Hart goes on at some length in one of his nighttime discussions with his dog Roland, conducted in the liminal space between sleeping and waking, about human guilt. He points to its source being in transcendental but also in an irretrievable organic experience. Here is Roland’s view: I know the myths, the dog begins,

… the Eden myth and the other tales from around the world of the loss of an original beatitude or innocence. But, even if that’s something that actually happened rather than an allegory about something that’s always happening in your kind, then it happened in some other world, some other kind of time. As for this world–this fallen world, this aftermath of that other world–here, in this world, it may be that your feeling of original sin also consists largely in a kind of oblivious memory of your organic past… an ineffable ache of conscience that’s really a kind of organic recollection of all the phylogenic misery and slaughter and blood-soaked attritions by which your species climbed its way out of the mire of purely biochemical existence. Long before your species had even appeared in the world of chronos, the world of the time of death, you were gestating in the womb of nature as a mere stochastic organic possibility, an only remotely likely final issue of incalculable ages of violence. And you bear that lineage and that whole physical history as a kind of ontological guilt, a stain deeply imbrued in every cell in your body–written in every strand of your DNA. Every one of you is Cain, the mark of your immemorial guilt indelibly inscribed on each mitochondrion and every cell-wall… Ah, well, so it goes. A delicate blue flower springs up atop a noisome midden, and its fragile, incandescent beauty dazzles us, and we forget all the purulence and waste and dissolution and ceaseless decay from which its exquisite, transient charm was born. That evanescent flicker of enchantment inveigles and beguiles us. But deep down in the cellars of your cerebral cortices your reptile brain still lurks–a serpent, so to speak, perhaps the serpent of Eden himself–and all the later excrescences of your modular brain are compounded upon that ineradicable ophidian core. And it knows. It remembers, in its cold, cruel, scaly way. And you of course, my friend… (2021, 190-191),

Roland the dog says, are no blue flower.

It ends in a typical bathos. Except that Hart comes back with, But you are a philosopher.

I hope you can see why an antidote might be needed.

The thing is, having had more of the former than the latter, I had forgotten which was antidote and which poison. My dream reminded me.

Before leading me to the lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody, I had heard a voice, like that unforgettable moment in The Fly.

After getting sick, when your appetite returns, the last thing you want is spicy food. You want something plain, bland and easy to digest, like McDonalds. A burger lay under a friend’s car seat, forgotten, for 3 months.

When it was found, it looked as good as the day it was bought. There was not a trace of mold on the bun. The patty still had the same muted and insipid colour and, no doubt, taste, and had not a trace of mycellium.

Whether it is a sickness with its origin in emotional imbalance or in gastrointestinal upset, it is the same on the emotional side of things.

In convalescence, on the return of affect, the last thing wanted is spicy emotion.

The appetite for strong emotions may take longer to return than that for heavy or highly flavoured food and strong wine. It may never return. This may have happened to large proportions of the population and be just as much to blame for the homogenisation of culture and cultural experience as the influences of either commerce or social media.

What I am trying to say is that by the times we live in now, under the sway or influence of our times, most of us have gone through similar … I want to say trauma, but it is as if the convalescence does not follow from anything but a vague anxiety, such as Levrero writes of, that he is haunted by; or, rather, that it precedes it.

Our whole society, I don’t think I am generalising or exaggerating, would have passed through or is still passing through and is even in the middle of a global convalescence. I am too.

I had, before today, forgotten at one time that I relished the thought of having killed a man. And that I wore my mark of Cain with pride.

Levrero’s clue is his disorder. His many disorders are like signals sent into the future from former times, by his former self. This earlier version of him or of me had the foresight to arm him against the traps set by the future, but had not reckoned on his being trapped in turn by what was intended to protect him. Luckily he realises in the passage quoted above what the true intention in those disorders is.

My shame and guilt that I consider myself to have been carrying for decades resembles Levrero’s disorders. They are precautionary, and had I known, would have come with a message, like a user’s instruction: these are meant to keep you free. They are antidotes to poisons you now have taken.

You can imagine it like this, it is easy to be disturbed hearing alarm bells in your head. You must realise however they are signals of real danger. The fire is upon us.

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R.I.P Paula Rego 26 January 1935 – 8 June 2022

read Johnathan Jones’s excellent valedictory in the Guardian: ‘She is dancing among the greats’: the dangerously honest, richly ambiguous Paula Rego

Paula Rego, The Artist in Her Studio, 1993

…magical realism… says Johnathan Jones … so, read Eden Kupermintz, “On the Radical Escapism of Magic Realism or how to become a god in late capitalism

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the post-retro Ostalgie of Paulina Olowska

Yesterday I was looking at the retrofuturism (or is that Nachträglichkeit?)of Paulina Olowska:

Paulina Olowska, L’introvertie, 2012
Paulina Olowska, Girl in Portobello Road Market Offers For Sale Dresses She has Made, 2012
Paulina Olowska, The Swan (After Norman Parkinson Foundation), 2017

…and today I read that Paula Rego died yesterday…

…not that there’s much similarity: Olowska’s work is like a painterly Ostalgie. Perhaps it recalls Antoine Volodine?

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on transcendental experience … after Mario Levrero

Mario Levrero begins The Luminous Novel… he is a writer from Uruguay, was. An unnecessary detail, perhaps. Alejandro Zambra, a writer I admire, Chilean, as it happens, or happened, like Bolaño, yet very unlike him, writes about Levrero that we cannot, we readers, we cannot hope to understand that mythical beast, that chimaera, that the literature of Latin America is, without taking in the part Levrero has in it. He says something like that.

And we might for a moment consider the chimaera. Mythical, yes, but also a fish…

…although to call it a fish is to dismiss the inventiveness that’s gone into it. …but also man-made, the chimaera:

…here pictured as a kind of babble of bodies.

Chimaera is mythical, fish and … here made by Kate Clark:

Or, consider the following, in view of literature, from E.V. Day:

The chimaera is also a work of conscious and deliberate construction. Matching chicken and lion, bird and reptilian parts. To put on display, and this is the key word, don’t you think? display.

4222 years ago, the Egyptians weren’t engaging in the earliest known taxidermy for the sake of producing chimaera to display. Embalming and processes of corporeal preservation, of animals, including humans, was conducted not for the living but for the dead on whom these practices were being used. Unless we consider that the exhibition of the dead was not as we understand it but for religious purposes.

Was the intended spectatorship some kind of cosmic audience?

Probably not, because the way out into the cosmos was back in through the world, a world of living deities and cosmic entities present rather than having to be presented, not requiring elaborate rituals, for example, in order to be presented, but already there, in attendance. And these were waiting to see themselves join the throng of the dead.

Their embalming and preservation must have seemed like having to join the queue, for the afterlife. Death.

And now they see themselves sail the stygian waters of the Nile into the omphalos of night. They don’t leave their bodies… no Judgement will have to restore the lucky ones who got the winning ticket to their discarded corpses.

Embalmed, taxidermied, they wait in line, the living gods, and travel over into death beside themselves, beside themselves, if everything has gone well with their preservation, beside themselves in the same way as we might think of an other world being beside this one. An early multiverse.

It is also the Egyptians we tend to thank for our first glimpses of chimaerae. (The word itself is something like a chimaera.) The Sphinx, whose riddle is herself. The bird-headed people, the dog-headed, and the alligator-headed dog.

When does this all change?

Is it at the birthplace of the human individual that Siedentop announces with the advent of early christianity? When, he maintains, before a subsequent crackdown by the institutions of a priestly caste, there were just as easily female communities and communities in which women were considered individuals as they were male… children, individually, born with a relation, a corporeal relation, to the living body of Christ, and, to life everlasting?

So Larry Siedentop maintains in Inventing the Individual: the Origins of Western Liberalism, 2015.

If you bear in you this inner connection, in your living body, this special relation that is special to you, would not the display of the dead pass to individuals to behold? Would you not already have in hand your ticket, to join the queue…?

General exhibition would be a thing institutions might want to have some say over, so restricting entry to an other world, and cutting out the ones not worthy for being somewhat… chimaerical. Raising ticket prices, and so on.

Cutting out animals entirely. Women. Naughty children. Saving them who’ve not had time to sin. Little angels. But all would press against the gates, to see… the exhibition.

Instruction enters. Education, and edification. Now it is on how to live beside yourself, next to your immortal part: the real you. It is no longer the practice of separating to be rejoined in the afterlife.

Until we consider resurrection in the body. Then we have to consider which one the dead part is: and it is clear. It is the body of the animal to which the soul is glued on, by cosmic taxidermy. Well, not really. More by transcendental taxidermy:

the human soul stuck to the body of a corpse… and which the afterthought? For the afterlife, the latter.

…Is resurrection in the body metaphorical? or… virtual?

This would make sense. I mean: it would make sense. The rational part of sense, to which the soul is the best proportion, the perfect ratio. … And freed from the body takes off, like this:

Pause.

What part is the insubstantial again? and what the rendered insubstantial? the de-prioritised?

It’s that old body of the animal again, of which the chimaera is the perfect example: a constructed thing.

A mechanical thing, even, that David Bentley Hart rails against with such seriousness. Seriously. (In a nod to Hart I wanted to say, with such wanton solemnity.)

A book I am reading. Roland is a dog. He talks to the narrator on serious subjects like the dismissal of the transcendental experience (of living beside yourself, body and soul) by the mechanistic world view. The book’s success will be in the measure to which Roland separates himself from the views of Hart, the narrator.

From instruction, edification, tutelary and educative purposes, to … entertainment, would seem to be the path followed by chimaerae into modernity. Entertainment and art, that is. And we ought to think of those lesser souls belonging to lesser bodies, bodies more chimaerical, like those, classically, of women. And of the children who are yet to be edified and educated; and of non-whites, yet to be colonised, indentured, and given a mission.

Too embodied, these ones.

Will Hart allow his dog, Roland, to be one of these?

And what of the bodies of literature, like Latin American literature? The chimaera of …?

I don’t think Zambra really uses the word, chimaera. χίμαιρα is the female form of χίμαρος, meaning, in Ancient Greek, male goat: female goat.

– Jacopo Ligozzi, c.1600

I said female goat… but we do have here the fire-breathing part, and the querulous lion: is this masculinisation concessionary?

We can ask the same of literature, of course, as well as we can whether it is non-concessionary.

Mario Levrero begins his novel… this happens in the first two pages… by relating the sort of psychologism that Hart might reject.

Levrero tells us that he had a transcendental experience, which he told a friend about in the form of an anecdote. Why an anecdote? Because the etymology of anecdote is clear: it means unpublished account (ἀνέκδοτος = ἀν- not + έκδοτος published. έκδοτος derives from έκ- out of or ex– and δίδωμι, which is the first person singular of the verb to give).

Levrero’s friend says he must write it down. It would make a great novel. A great and luminous novel, perhaps, like we have here in our hands.

And Levrero says no. Impossible. Impossible to recapture the transcendental experience, to do it justice, in anything more substantial than an anecdote. End of discussion.

Except that it’s not, it’s not the end. It’s the beginning.

Levrero forgets, and this is the important point: he forgets the friend’s instruction, the friend telling him what he must do; he has, afterall, rejected it. And, anyway, it turns out they are no longer friends.

He forgets it. Levrero says, of course, what he is in fact forgetting is his resistance to his friend’s advice. And from this resistance comes the whole problem. The problem that is The Luminous Novel, in its published form. Because his opposition to the idea inflames it.

He tries again and again to write down the anecdote in which he relates his transcendental experience. And he dismisses each effort, and destroys it. But, the next important point: the urge and urgency to pursue the idea no longer comes from the friend, the friend who is no longer a friend, but from Levrero himself. It comes from inside him.

He attributes to himself, to his inner being or core, or soul, if you like, the demand, the commandment to write … and even tells himself it was own idea. It came from him…

And what is he doing, then, the poor man, torturing himself, when every effort to write down the story of the transcendental experience is in vain?

One thing is for sure, he can’t write his way out, he can’t write himself out of this problem, because he is the problem!

He is the problem and the cause of the problem and he can’t cut himself into two halves, even if they are unequal halves, returning to himself once he has cut himself off from or cut out the criminal part. The corpse, if you like. The animal. He can’t claim transcendence by following the only part that is transcendental.

As I said a psychologism, or a psychological ghost story. And, like Hart’s, a spiritual one.

The friend is ghosted, dead to you, and you tell yourself it is you yourself who told you what you must do because of what you had done.

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matter in the raw, and god or simulationeer must be a monster, capable of near-infinitely sadistic cruelty: Iain M. Banks, the moral argument for their nonexistence, our existence.

You know there is a theory … that all that we experience as reality is just a simulation, a kind of hallucination that has been imposed upon us.

…how can we know that our own reality is the last, the final one? How do we know there is not still a greater reality external to our own into which we might awake?

There are those who hold that, statistically, we must live in a simulation; the chances are too extreme for this not to be true.

If we assume that all we have been told is as real as what we ourselves experience–in other words, that history, with all it torturings, massacres and genocides, is true–then, if it is all somehow under the control of somebody or some thing, must not those running that simulation be monsters? How utterly devoid of decency, pity and compassion would they have to be to allow this to happen, and keep on happening under their explicit control? …

War, famine, disease, genocide. Death, in a million different forms, often painful and protracted for the poor individual wretches involved. What god would so arrange the universe to predispose its creations to experience such suffering, or be the cause of it in others? What master of simulations or arbitrator of a game would set up the initial conditions to the same pitiless effect? God or programmer, the charge would be the same: that of a near-infinitely sadistic cruelty; deliberate, premeditated barbarism on an unspeakably horrific scale.

By this reasoning we must, after all, be at the most base level of reality–or at the most exalted, however one wishes to look at it. Just as reality can blithely exhibit the most absurd coincidences that no credible fiction could convince us of, so only reality–produced, ultimately, by matter in the raw–can be so unthinkingly cruel. Nothing able to think, nothing able to comprehend culpability, justice or morality could encompass such purposefully invoked savagery without representing the absolute definition of evil. It is that unthinkingness that saves us. And condemns us, too, of course; we are as a result our own moral agents, and there is no escape from that responsibility, no appeal to a higher power that might be said to have artificially constrained or directed us.

— Iain M. Banks, Matter, 2009, 338-340

Attila Richard Lukacs, S.H.A.R.P.

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only

the old sensitive trees    you see on the coast here

they can make you believe   life is sad

gods in the forest


a character's always he or she or they
never it Levinas    the French Jewish philosopher

my friend, Alphonso Lingis, you can call me Al
and when you call me, I am called to myself
    to answer for myself, Al
       as if my self is what you have when you're busy
               doing other things    also from Lithuania

anyway, Immanuel Levinas insight is God is individual
is not the general category of transcendent Being
       an individual    like a character, he she and they

they pull their own roots out of the ground

the old sensitive trees do not oppose the young
and when you meet God, it's like anyone

hey, how ya doin? like the song ...

they throw themselves they hurl themselves off cliffs

yell, Bollocks overboard ! 

and hurtle out of bed like they are leaving this life

any gods       must die?

it's a question you can only answer with a proper name.

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to you of all people

harvest the leaves of grass

harvest all things mottled, bare of charm

how can you harvest that
       like anchors on the seafloor

a luminous watery sky
     a wash a watered silk

gather the wings of flies, 
 ...I said, flies.

I know what I said.

yo, measure the beds...
      we have lain on, still lie, will lie on

how are you with dogs, I mean
      how are you with animals in general?

and leaves that fall now and leaves that don't know
      to

how are you over this?

is it courage to feel what you are
to feel what you are feeling
      is it courage

gather on white paper

I'm sorry I said that

how are you about being at all?
how      are you over this

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