by Leigh Phillips

33 keeps wanting to undress itself, so put on more concealer instead. Liquid makeup / Fond de Teint Liquide. This one’s from Clinique, and it’s supposed to fight blemishes while it paints over a coat of 600$ prescription skin cream. What not to swallow: Duac Topic Gel (Clindamycin 1%, Benzoyl Peroxide 5%), Aczone (dapsone) gel, 5%, Trentinoin 0.1% manufactured by Ortho Pharmaceutical (if swallowed, consult a poison control center immediately). What to swallow: Doxycycline Hyclate 100mg twice daily with water. More swallowing: fish oil. What not to swallow: cheese. It makes it worse. Swallow: whatever vitamins your grandmother suggested this time. Wash with: sulfur. Do not swallow sulfur. Moisturize: it’s your job. Drink: a bad idea, but who cares. Wake: to mirrors. See red. Focus on your breathing like a Buddhist. Remember: the most beautiful part of yourself is who she thought you were. Forget: reading this poem:

It’s said it takes seven years
to grow completely new skin cells.

To think, this year I will grow
into a body you never will

have touched.
–Brett Elizabeth Jenkins

Remember last night? You used the 99$ Trentinoin and woke to war on flesh, called “the initial breakout,” which is estimated to last (you almost type ‘lash’) approximately 3-6 months. You are enflamed and she is engaged. Your story is no longer about she, but 33. Consult feminist literature. “It is true that women don’t tell all. And even if one begs them to speak, if he begs them to speak, they will or would never express anything but the will and the word of the ‘subject’ who rapes and robs them of jouissance.” Remember reading Cixous at the Binghamton Nature reserve with your love: “oh! She hadn’t realized the day before that eyes are miraculous hands, had never enjoyed the delicate tact of the cornea, the eyelashes, the most powerful hands, these hands that touch imponderably near the far-off heres. She had not realized that eyes are lips on the lips of God.” The dermatologist: “keep your hands off your face.” The most beautiful part of yourself is how you understand Irigaray. To the hairstylist, “I just want bangs long enough to cover up my forehead.” The dermatologist asks you to put on a paper gown and show her your nipples. The overhead light is the white burn of phosphorous. Nope, no suspicious moles. “If you see a suspicious package, notify an MTA employee.” You cry in the subway, from SoHo to Union Square.

When you walk in Sephora, they know what you’re looking for. You don’t look at their faces. It’s Manhattan. Everyone’s an animal. You’re not supposed to care about your face either, you’re 33, shouldn’t you be getting married in a small handful of tolerant states? Yeah, it’s fucked, your face, that is. Halfway between being a 13 year old boy and a woman about to fire up the black market botulism and stab it in the forehead crease but read some feminist literature on the subway, c’mon now, girl. Elizabeth Grosz: “Human bodies, indeed all animate bodies, stretch and extend the notion of physicality that dominates the physical sciences, for animate bodies are objects necessarily different from other objects; they are materialities that are uncontainable in physicalist terms alone. If bodies are objects or things, they are like no others, for they are the centers of perspective, insight, reflection, desire, agency.” Or not. You’re not going to sit in a seminar circle full of European Marxists in Cuban military hats. This isn’t grad school and you’re no longer beautiful in a town where the broken buildings filled with the crap of feral pigeons suddenly turn themselves to trees.

Once, you were beautiful because of the gnawing thing that nestled in your bones, burst them into blossoms, light, the lights, you will read aloud this beautiful goddamned poem in a hideous dress and be 25 in a trench coat, smoking outside the library tower, distracted by the white hot sex-burn of imagery down the back, a shiver, though it’s nearly May, it is always cold, it is always hot, you are always naked, it is always beautiful when you’re 25, 22 or 29 because you’re feral, dangerous on the cusp of a stanza that hasn’t quaked, dangerous as the legs tremor before the climax which is the word, the book, the poets clumsy in the Belmar bar, pressing close around a microphone wet in beer and palms, and you open your mouth and sing for eight years and some people think your mouth is knives and the others say flowers but you know, underneath the skin of it all, you’re lightning, knives, and flowers. You will never hurt anyone. Acne never lies to you. You are angel, acne and full of flowers.

And for fuck’s sake don’t show them how you really feel. Do not write this essay. Do not even think to articulate this essay. You are a professional. You’re in the academy. You’re a tenure track pressure cooker. You’re 33. Wrestling with identity politics is for your therapist, who says, “lots of homely women think they’re beautiful.” Learn how to maintain eye contact, so a colleague never again says, “I can tell you don’t think you’re beautiful, but you have beautiful eyes.” You look down. You’ve just noted a small hole in the knee of your pantsuit. Lucia Perillo writes, “The sick tiger walks the length of the bars in her cage in the zoo as if nothing’s wrong, and we humans ask each other how we’re doing every day; as a chorus of millions chants, Fine. It’s as if we have transposed the animal imperative not to expose our weaknesses, from body-language into words.” From body language, into worlds.

Lately, you’re into that which Michael Chabon calls, “the ruinous work of nostalgia,” and lately, you love the 1990s and Dana Scully, and would like to believe she’d understand internalization of the patriarchy. Or not. Trust no one. Remember: the sick tiger in a cage. See, it pretends it isn’t sick. Animal instinct dictates the tiger show no trace of weakness, therefore he will not get eaten. He will die quietly of cancer. We are supposed to live quietly. You could die quietly in a cheap suit, rather than spend a life like a poetic career of polyphonic post-confessional scabs. Remember when we spent our 20s being sexy as dirt, we said be a mess, be an acne mottled gorgeous fucking poet deconstructing every phallus, and at this point, your friends will not have married yet, or gotten cancer, or gone to MFA programs and given up on poetry. You miss the gorgeous permission of the mess. You miss telling people inappropriate things like we’d always do in poetry workshop. We made faucets out of our mouths and loved each others tongues and then suddenly, you begin to get how little you’re actually supposed to tell people outside the small circle of people agonizing about line breaks. Truth is anti-social.


This isn’t the ruinous work of nostalgia. This is how it’s supposed to be. This is who I’m supposed to be, for whatever reason, mottled, imperfect, rumbling with caffeine steam and a furious heart and bad skin and an impressive collection of Sleater-Kinney t-shirts, some torn, all worn to the shape of the body I’m born with. My stomach drags over the waist-band of my jeans because I don’t care about working out when I’m always working out the kinks in my brain. Sometimes, my brain makes my mouth do inappropriate things, like tell you my skin tortured me for 15 years, for telling you I actually once considered taking a drug so toxic you could give birth to a fin-baby. That’s right, fins. The thing we stopped growing when we evolved from fish grow back because of high-octane zit cream. Did you know the main part of the brain responsible for speech is called Broca’s Area? Me neither. This is the part of the brain found in the temporal lobe of the cerebral cortex. Damage to Broca’s area can cause odd symptoms as not being able to name common objects, or to say fuck off. Once, I went into a General Practitioner with a persistent cough. Suddenly, she said “You don’t have to live this way,” before writing a referral to a dermatologist at Beth Israel. My skin, that day, spoke. It wasn’t asking questions, or asking for help. It was there, uncovered by foundation, because I was too ill to put it on. I nearly always put it on. This way, my skin is a form of silence. Self-hate is a silence, too. We gather these things into ourselves, they gnaw away at the interesting things about us, and it’s anti-social to speak of the pain it causes. It is anti-social to speak of them, but not anti-social to actively try to change it through cover-ups, creams, antibiotics, and ointments that result in fin-babies.

I realize that I owe it to myself to be weak, to tell the truth in my breakouts, to disrupt borders. I realize that my concealer that I wear to work is a lot like the suit I wear to work that is a lot like my embarrassment over the hole in my pants and that at 33, I’m not yet solved. I am not married; I do not have children; I drink too much; I eat too much takeout; I don’t exercise; I’m missing a tooth. I am not self-actualized. I am not self-actualized. And it’s all going to be okay. I will never be the faculty member with the husband, the perfect skin, the impeccable suit and the ability to speak coherently before 8 am. I will always have fissures. So will you. And if you have them and show them, I’m probably attracted to you.

I am not the sick tiger in the cage, nor do I say “fine”, at least not all the time. Colleagues ask if I’m alright or if I’m sick. Should I worry? I have shown so many signs of weakness and some days, I wake raw in all the wrong places. I know to the doctors, I’m meat. I know I’m allowing myself to be meat by listening to a doctor and a hairstylist offer a 33 year old woman Botox, and not remembering the immortal words of RuPaul, “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else? Can I get an amen in here? Let the music play!” Remember how you felt in the country with dew on your back, dreaming animals from the shapes of clouds. There is so much universe to get drunk upon.

Meanwhile, Lucia Perillo muses, “Easy to forget, the world is still occurring outside the drama of the self.” Look up. It is winter and winter is waning. You are the dark and you are ravishing. In the sunrise, you’ll be less beautiful. You’re always beautiful by not being beautiful. Open your mouth; let the flowers pour out. Look up: Venus, the second brightest star in sky is glaring next to Mars. The flesh of sky looks just like yours: mottled light and dark and full of wonder. Like Neruda, “drunk with the great starry void,” remember, we will all be sky stuff, particles. “The world does not end,” says Charles Simic. In a vast sky, I stand.

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