Vibing With Montero

“I need time to give up just like before/I love it how you know I’d only come right back for more”

And so the chorus goes, with its roundabout search for love and belonging. It’s a habit and a talisman of heartbreak. Lil Nas X doesn’t shy away from the vicarious pleasure of being hurt, of having and holding a broken heart. He does things differently because he knows what he is doing with himself and in music. That is what makes his debut album Montero so alluring. The quoted lyrics from Lost In The Citadel is but a small sample of the experience of a deeply queer story.

The term ‘queer’ has in many ways lost meaning today. It still seems to be the only word capable of capturing any deviance from the norm of a cis-het existence on this broken planet. There is always another dimension to what we call a queer experience. So, I would be amiss to call Lil Nas X’s work representing any sort of universal queerness. What I received from it is not an objective standard for good and bad either (I will leave that job to the critics), but I vibed with it in a way that novelist Brandon Taylor considers vibes as an aesthetic value. On the release date, Lil Nas X was the most streamed artist on Spotify reaching over 46 million streams globally. Many felt those vibes indeed.

All the hype and interest that lead to this massive release had a lot to do with how Lil Nas X represents himself, and of course his excellent marketing. Right from the release of the eponymous single of the album and the controversy around blood shoes to the veritably curious pictures of a pregnant Lil Nas X giving birth to his album, he embraced his queerness and it stood out in a world of sanitised pre-release publicity (and sometimes silly artifice). It wasn’t shock value, but his way to evoke and provoke that made him so special. It riled his critics and all the haters (including many racist and queerphobic assholes) and also brought him a heck load of publicity.

Being a black queer man, Lil Nas X is not the ‘ideal image’ of queerness represented by popular white ‘twink’ boys (like Troye Sivan), or like Harry Styles and Timothée Chalamet who are packaged in this manner of desirability for conservative appeal. He is queer in a way that is messy and beautiful and chaotic and sometimes deeply melancholic. Some have referred to this album as a paean to sadness, but I find it deeply humbling as this sadness is also about survival.

His complicated relationship with his biological family is apparent in Dead Right Now and Tales of Dominica, where he provides a heartrending portrayal of his dynamic with his mother, who has suffered from drug addiction. Not similar, it still reminds me how it is difficult for me to have a simple conversation with my parents. After all the pleasantries while talking to my mother, there is an emptiness in how we broach subjects as if I am not enough. It’s perhaps because I am not enough for her. I have to manage my emotions and hide behind the note of cordiality. I can finally breathe with relief after putting down the phone.

As someone who has long struggled with gender identity and ‘sexual deviancy’, I feel it when Lil Nas X speaks of this loneliness in Void or the constant need to run away from life and living on Sun Goes Down. Also, that break in the tension like the sunbeam bursting through after the thunderstorm: “But there’s much more to life than dyin’/Over your past mistakes”.

And the pain of heartbreak is never far behind. His offer to be a part-time lover in Life After Salem is that desperate attempt to cling to something that was (maybe) good once. This inescapable and inexplicable sense of loss has an acrid taste of spent tears during lonely sunsets. I gulp down invisible tears when he croons with Miley Cyrus in Am I Dreaming: “Never forget me”. Our histories have been invisibilised and erased for so long. Lil Nas X is giving a name to this history by reclaiming his story. Though gruesome in its pain, this album is also an ode to his success and the hope for more.

When I listen to him, I believe in that hope. Hope is what anchors us to another tomorrow. And I will wait to let it play out its tune.

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Frankly, Amy

I read about it first on the news feed of Yahoo! It was a short piece; I do not remember much—I must have been sad, but I remember I was in awe of the touch of death. So close at hand (too far), so near, so hungry, and I felt the need to cry. That year was the year of knowing death for me. And it all started with Amy.

“All I can ever be to you/Is a darkness that we know/And this regret I got accustomed to…” she begins and lets the tears flow without restraint. I would perk up with those first few words and then wait for the refrain. She was good company for that lonely summer. Things were changing so quickly, and I had lost my bearing. But I had her. When she would indulge me with that groan of a sound in Rehab, “I just…ooh…I just need a friend”, I felt understood. That was one of the very few places where I felt understood.

I was already hurting, and suicidal ideation was creeping up on me like vines on a derelict wall. I remember the black dots of my vision when I would feel faint. I remember when I started starving myself. I remember the purple wall behind and the frame of the bed where I gave up on saving myself every day and every night. I don’t remember much of her death or my immediate response to it, but I remember that it was just the beginning.

Losing Amy was like losing the last vestiges of my innocence. More death followed that year. Someone I had once called a friend (who had moved on to another city for her education), a relative taken by cancer. So grew my fascination with what the end would mean. When life seemed to be slipping out of me one drop at a time, I felt a kinship with death. I followed its voice in my dreams — its whispers provided a relief from the pain, its silence was always punctuated with another hurt. I ached for it, I thought I needed it to fulfil what I could not in life.

Through it all, I still clung to Amy. I found others in later years—those voices with the Siren call, with the touch of a crystal cleanness, with the darkness of suffocation and breaking away from it.

“And life is like a pipe/And I’m a tiny penny/Rolling up the walls inside…” I repeated and repeated after my first heartbreak, and all the times I felt deceived by myself. She was there, as I delved into the exuberance of a tomorrow and the hopelessness of today, during my metro journeys to college. “As far as my heart, I’d rather be restless/Second I stop, the sleep catches up and I’m breathless…” remained in my head through the emptiness, as I found myself trapped in the pattern of my breaking.

But she was also there when I found myself in the company of friends. “Since I’ve come home/Well, my body’s been a mess/And I miss your ginger hair/And the way you like to dress”: I would forget my discomfort with my voice and sing out loud with Chi Chi, finding the joy of Amy in what has often been a lonely journey.

Whenever I find it creeping on me—the death that still vies for my attention, that is always going to be there—I think of Amy, and I think of the life that is here in this moment now. Not always. I falter, I get lured away by the pleasure of a funereal fantasy. But my love for her has remained the same. So much has remained the same, and yet so much has changed as well.

When I hear her voice, I do not regret all of it. I do not regret any of my falls and hurts. I remember them fondly, I am learning to live with them.

If there is a ‘beyond’, I hope it is restful and kind. Thank you, Amy!

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© Anmol HA

Something for the 10 years of passing of Amy Winehouse

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Read to me, Mr. Gaiman

His voice as if dipped in rubbing alcohol becomes the other mother. The simple innocence of the tone is becoming on a child raised by ghost parents called Nobody Owens. A battered voice dipped in equal parts melancholy and arrogance makes the eldest of the Lilim turn into a wizened old lady from a childhood nightmare.

He is my companion — a giant shadow, a friend like Sirius on the horizon, and unobtrusive moon that is somewhere lost in the folds of the satin sky — for my midnight walks. His voice rings and trills and drums and pulses in one of my ears (one side of my headphones doesn’t work). The universe becomes multiverse as I find myself in a deluge of heard images and vibrating words that journey through the ossicles to set in my temporal lobe. They belong to me, from him to me.

I have been listening to the audiobooks of Neil Gaiman, read by Gaiman himself, as I take my nightly strolls. He takes me away, as my tired feet keep on with their rhythm, and rise above the tiled floor and walk into a fairyland. I am falling in love with his voice, even more so than his stories. Perhaps it is the witchy combination of the two that makes me feel a little less lonely, somewhat more alive when the air is filled with the faint whispers of desert coolers and the sleeping breaths of most people in my neighbourhood.

“I tend to think the experience of hearing a book is often much more intimate, much more personal: you’re down there in the words, unable to skip a dull-looking wodge of prose, unable to speed up or slow down (unless you have an iPod and like hearing people sound like chipmonks), less able to go back. It’s you and the story, the way the author meant it,” expressed Gaiman in his journal.

I love when people read to me, just like I rejoice when their hands go through my hair, ruffling me, pushing my body to deep awareness. Yes, it is intimate.

I remember asking the first person I was ever with to read a poem to me. In bed together, I was nestled in their arms. I opened the said poem (I cannot remember which, it was perhaps a Keatsian ode as I was a lot into Keats back then) on my cell phone. Their voice made an enclosure for us, closer and more comfortable than the four walls or the late afternoon light filtering through the dust-caked window screens. I recognise the memory of hearing, more than the touch itself.

Another time, another person who anchored at this violent shore for an evening, that is to say, it was a hookup. They sent a poem after a couple of days. A written verse, not spoken, about all that I left on their bed to their safekeeping. The scent, a stroke of my fingers, a pause that lasted. It was beautiful in its composition and still, I imbibed it in my mind as if they were reading it to me. The voice, more than the words, found its place in my skin.

What is it in the voice — the shape and sound and stillness of words and their absence thereof — that creates this web for me? Why do I reflect so much on the simple romance of people reading to me?

In a world where we derive pleasure from the visual medium (for instance in pornography where the voice, when present, is but a conduit to artificially heighten the stimuli) in the absence of a sexualised touch? What is voice but an afterthought, something dispensable, something that we can do without to reach the state of release or orgasm?

I am not denying the pleasure derived from listening to a pop song or an orchestral crescendo. I am trying to derive a loose hierarchy of senses to understand what comes first and what matters more that attracts us. I am not talking about phone sex either as it corresponds to particular acts being voiced and exchanged and therefore, the voice is in some ways subservient to the physicality of the actions.

Let me ask you to reflect on something. Think of the sexiest voice that you have heard, listen to it, feel how your body responds to it, and think of the person behind the voice and then yourself in tandem with that image. Is it similar to the response of Joaquin Phoenix’s character to the Scarlett Johansson’s AI-voice in Her?

“The voice is ambiguous, ambivalent, and enigmatic. We don’t
trust things we can’t seize with our eyes and hands. We might squeeze
the beloved’s body in passion or fury, but we can never hold his or her
voice hostage,” writes cultural theorist Dominic Pettman in his book Sonic Intimacy: Voice, Species, Technics (or, How To Listen to the World).

The voice, devoid of the body, is such a strange thing. When we say someone’s voice touched us or made us see an entirely new world, we are defining it by a more specific sense because the voice unto itself does not command the same expression. Still, we are defined by it, and it is characteristic — its tonality, rhythm, pitch, range, et al. — of our personality.

When I think of the voice behind those two poems, whether I heard them or not, I map out the entire person, how I saw their skin and all that lies beneath, how I perceived their lips and tongue and the throat producing those sounds that make a voice.

When I listen to Neil Gaiman, I think of his voice apart as well as a part of the story he weaves and constructs with its plot devices and endings.

In any case, I love it.

Read to me. It may be a bit more or less than romance. It is not always about desire and pleasure. Just read to me so that we can know each other better, as when I take from your voice, I give myself to you too.

This is the second essay in a new series of essays called #Trash. You can check out the previous piece here. As promised, I wrote something sexier as compared to last week. Let me know what you think about this essay, what voices left an impact on you, as well as some good audiobook recommendations. I welcome your feedback and topic suggestions as I would like to keep going with this series at least for some time.

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Not a Poet!

Who do I seek to comfort when I am writing a poem? Who can find some reprieve or succour in my written word?

My approach to poetry and writing as a whole has often been selfish. I am selfish. I begin with the urgency of thought or vulnerability of my heart when I pick up the pen or open a word editor. I design and modulate and raise my voice to find someone — an invisible spectator or a known or an unknown other — who can consume it all for me, digest, excrete, and display for my purpose, to exterminate my words till their remains are indistinguishable. Such an inexorable marriage of poet and poetry and reader.

I am hungry for any reader, as I seek to consume so to be consumed, without parenthesis or any context. I do not care who the reader is. I do not comfort. I do not create an experience where we can both meet and touch each other and walk through our shared emptiness.

I want to devour so to be devoured. I want to become the other so that I can know myself better, even if I provide only a limited scope for that understanding to emerge.

“Poetry is an intimate act”: The adage is mentioned in the first chapter of my handy Poet’s Companion, which further goes on to define how a poem is sharing knowledge, which seems to be another way of universalising this experience. It seems anyone who creates, gives birth, evokes the miasma of the human truth or situation is expected to display it in a way as if it belongs (to more than one).

As a reader of poetry and other things, I know of my need to relate and be a part of the verse and the punctuation — to belong in a line-break or hide in a plot device.

When I read some of the so-called poems that came from me, I recoil at the arrogance, at the self-entitled diatribe of a diminutive of who or what we call a poet in popular understanding or literary parlance.

A poet friend once said, “Anyone who writes even a single poem is a poet.” I find this quote attributed to Kierkegaard even more exemplary: “What is a poet? A poet is an unhappy being whose heart is torn by secret sufferings, but whose lips are so strangely formed that when the sighs and the cries escape them, they sound like beautiful music… and men crowd about the poet and say to him: “Sing for us soon again”; that is as much to say: May new sufferings torment your soul.”

They never said who is to define what a poem is. If the decision is left to the one who writes it, it would be a futile exercise to discuss it any further. Still, I agree with a self-construed definition of such words and the meanings attained, far away from the capitalist mores of publication, reach, and popularity.

Let’s say everyone is a poet, as in everyone is capable of writing or thinking or sensing or living a poem. That should definitely upend the fallacy of a singular or multiple strands of a definition.

A song of Emilie Autumn that helped me through some bitter nights says, “The world is full of poets, We don’t need anymore.”

So, I have decided that I shall not be deemed a poet anymore. It’s yet another act of selfishness to take up a word, make it mine, live through it, use it, mutilate it, and then leave it be. But I am selfish. All my creative endeavours are built on the basis of the mythos where comfort only lies in destruction or pain. I turn it to favour me, to suffer, to pick at my gangrenous pen so to be seen or noticed or analysed and thus found.

Let us go back a little now. The day I started writing this exposition, I received a kind rejection from an editor of a digital magazine, who suggested that my work is not of a ‘snug fit‘ for them. This is something I already knew because I often revelled in being too small or too big. Too short in my much-cherished individuality, too big in the failure of my years. Like a rat that can fit into the tightest of spaces and still be the purveyor of ghastly death (mostly blamed for the black death as if death can be anything but black). A study suggested that the rat’s case may be blown out of proportions. Its complicated mathematical model pointed out the human-parasite link to be the primary cause of mortality in many affected cities.

It is for me an acceptance that what is apparent to my mind and heart is not often the whole truth. Facts change, so do emotions. So, take everything I write as a self-questioning enterprise or my agency to mould and expand my thought process.

I will be writing poems, whenever it happens. Sometimes out of habit, at other times deliberately carving words from the carcass of language to make them palatable. As history goes, I am not good with fine dining. I will also keep learning through reading and doing the unspeakable things to any poem I come to love, and perhaps go through a bit more of that companion text.

I do not know if any poem I will write can cause what I want it to release into my small world, where a comment or two can cause such a surge of pride and/or repulsion in me. Only for some time. This is the only way I have known because it is a release, and not something that I have nourished and built and kept safe. I do not think I ever had a chance.

I always sought to be comforted when that was not possible. I wanted reprieve when it could never last.

“Why live a lie,” sings Autumn as a refrain through the song. I am not going to bother with it. It is just a beginning to overcome some internalised delusions, and it has to be symbolic like everything else, to be of any significance.

This is the first in a series of essays envisaged by me called #Trash. Please bear with me as I had to get this self-indulgent piece out first; I have something sexy planned for next week. Share your opinion and topic suggestions (however trashy) in the comments. You can keep up with me on my Instagram or Twitter as well.

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of waiting

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naked. i sit in the bathroom, waiting for my needs to dry and shrivel so that I can take control of my breath again and proceed with my shower. listening to Cyndi Lauper, i wait. i am merging with my immediate emptiness. yet, I keep on waiting…

waiting for things to normalise back to their abnormality. waiting for that dairy milk cake to rise and collapse and harden and soften with time. waiting for ice cubes to melt and burn my tongue further and blister. waiting for the pain to recede and waiting for it to come back. waiting for the silence before the scream to extinguish itself and waiting for the impending scream to crack open the earth. waiting for the food to pass the intestinal tract and waiting for the next unsatisfactory meal.

waiting for the room to start becoming my skin and enclosing my wronged limbs and waiting for it to break me to nothing. waiting for the world to open a star-shaped space for me and fill me with moonlight. waiting for my heart to collapse beneath the weight of my consuming world. waiting for the hunchback sky to turn into that particular hibiscus-red and fall down on me. waiting for the heat to penetrate my shadow skull and open flowerless graves within. waiting for a song that would escape my lips and take my voice and bury it into the ploughed riverbed. waiting to be kissed by a nightmare and fucked by an inconsequential god.

waiting for the wait to end.

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© Anmol Arora

Image source (Tyeb Mehta (b. 1925) Diagonal Series signed and dated ‘Tyeb 76’ (on reverse) oil on canvas 44 x 35 in. (111.8 x 90.2 cm.))