Near Departures

For an egotist, it is frightfully easy to say goodbye.


The bloods belonging to such a man roil with the gusto of just-cut freshets, surging and ever-renewed by itinerant headwaters—the ego is this itinerant source. Itineracy is ego’s proof to the rest of the body that its dominion is justified, else the naysayer gut and spleen call the ego “soft” in a single moment of stasis. Temerity, by the way, is the ego’s alluvial sediment.


Some of you may recall the moment in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird when Atticus Finch summarizes Tom Robinson’s predicament as “having the unmitigated temerity to ‘feel sorry’ for a white woman.” Though Finch’s tone is meant to be ironic (if driven), the phrase unmitigated temerity threw hooks into me. I wanted that life: one characterized by unmitigated temerity.


Figuring the difference between temerity and, for example, plain prickishness isn’t always easy. You’re invited to ask my two or three friends how I’m getting on.


I joined the staff at Noble / Gas Qtrly a few weeks before the first issue, 202.1, went live. As a poetry reader, I tried to be helpful, but was aware that the editorial staff would need to stamp the journal with their originary aesthetic. I was so won by the cheek of pre-202.1 posts at (“Quit holding hands on the escalator. You are not a human chain. This is no time for romantic solidarity. The line at Turkish Roast will be out the door.”) that questions of my own “contribution” didn’t much matter.


A strange moment of repose for the ego, surely.


The creatures riparian to those blood-lakes, in any case! And not one is accessory to a situated landscape, but source to that source: owl, mare, hornet, adder, violet fungus, sow, vegypygmy, protozoa, leech, tiger, foxglove, mole. Mole?


And there was the cover image for N.G.Q.’s 202.1, titled “Rictus.”


A telling reductivist moment for the photographer—the fullness of a mole’s life, the mystery of its death, too, in a mouth. For a “ruff vegan” (as I call myself), anger was the easy follow-up emotion. Anger masks both my searching anguish and a sense of guilt I cannot expiate—that I am wound in a world whose capital is creaturely blood and sap; that I am in it and of it, and cannot hope to avoid culpability. Being vegan isn’t enough; only a return to cave-dwelling could come close to removing me from the commercial circle of animal exploitation, and that move is one I cannot bring myself to make. This sense of abjection is heightened by the relative paucity of companions-in-sentiment—thinker Undine Sellbach calls it “experienc[ing] [one’s] own departure from shared social understanding as a form of animal vulnerability.” So, red, riled, I thought I’d just snuff the relation, leave N.G.Q. to my betters, head this attention elsewhere.


The ease with which the ego scrawls valedictions carries with it a cynical imperative. For many years, I took this cynicism to be part-and-parcel of the ego’s presidency; more recently, I’ve realized the cynical mode (in this case, “Shove off, here’s another ‘zine that imagines sensitivity can be given piecemeal”) tends to preclude more careful reckoning—and always precludes with an indignant voice. Cynicism is majorly protective, after all. With something like a winning imp and a waif cherub on either shoulder, I sat with the quandary. Considering the mole, ought I stay or go?


Consider the mole past its mouth. Consider it past the sonic resonance of “rictus” with “rigor mortis.” The wondrous utility of its biology: eyes and ears small enough to avoid cumbrance in a tunneling life; species-specific supernumerary digits; specialized hæmoglobin proteins for processing carbon dioxide; reduced hindlimbs and powerful forelimbs. Consider it with a jot of imagination: the owner of paralytic spit and planning enough to craft entire “larders” of frozen annelids; sensitivity to every movement in a twenty-foot tunnel. One needn’t romanticize the mole to ken the dimension of its living: a few facts are quite satisfactory for that.


Consider it with a bit more imagination to find the slick concert its velvet fur makes with digging speed. Perhaps it chanced to burst forth from the ground in a lily patch, upsetting a pair of garden shears—and there, seen by a stooped grandmother, the mole becomes a symbol of second loves. Little does it care, however, since now the mole has oxygen enough to head earthward again, nosing past a vein of bronze, hearing the curl of a pillbug with the clarity of a bass-boom.


Spece: stay, or go.


Nothing heroic made me stay at N.G.Q. The imp may have abated. I am sure of my egotism as ever, but also that mission’s end, so to speak, can’t be resignation. There’s no mole in that.


There was also the late-night bedside vision so often gifted us in the midst of such struggles—in my case, this passage from Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others:


The hunt for more dramatic (as they’re often described) images drives the photographic enterprise, and is part of the normality of a culture in which shock has become a leading stimulus of consumption and source of value. “Beauty will be convulsive, or it will not be,” proclaimed André Breton. He called this aesthetic idea “surrealist,” but in a culture radically revamped by the ascendancy of mercantile values, to ask that images be jarring, clamorous, eye-opening seems like elementary realism as well as good business sense.


I was too tired that night to attempt a verification of Sontag’s hypothesis by psychoanalyzing the N.G.Q. contributor in question; I’m too savvy to try it now. It’s also foolish to imagine that someone putting photographs on offer at a burgeoning online glossy is part of the “photographic enterprise.” Still, the headwaters interrogate: Why is this mole’s corpse salable? Why is this being better fit for gawking than prayer?


In response to questions like these, nothing is as bloodless as goodbye.


Joseph Spece.