Nadia Wolnisty is the founder and editor in chief of Thimble Literary Magazine.
Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in Spry, SWWIM Every Day, Apogee,
Penn Review, McNeese Review, Paper & Ink, and others. They have chapbooks from
Cringe-Worthy Poetry Collective, Dancing Girl Press, and a full-length from Spartan.
On "Outline of Silence" by Kay Sage
1. Strip excess foliage from flowers and cut stems to desired length (no shorter than six inches). To help flowers retain their color during the drying process, make sure to remove them from sunlight as soon as they're cut. Hang flowers individually or rubber-band stems together to hang a bouquet like a spider hangs a fly.
Consider the dung beetle. A small creature, given to extraordinary feats. Our reaction is somewhere between Wow and Oh dear, which is where most human reactions lie, if we gave anything enough pause.
Dung. Lowly, earthy, essential, universal. Industrial, hard-shelled soldiers take what is left and build homes.
We, of course, could never live in such places. We can picture ourselves a bee, a beautiful, hard-working bee, making something intricate and sweet. Or even a spider—noiseless and patient, cunning. But never in a dung-home.
Home. What a big word. How much does it weigh? In Ancient Greek, there was a word that means a journey home by sea: Nostos. Think The Odyssey. Odysseus was gone for so long, faced trials, and then came back. How nice, how linear. But it is interesting that he had to leave again. It very much ended with him leaving again. He will meet the people who have never seen the sea and tell them what it is like. He will bring an oar.
Kay Sage's "Outline of Silence" moves like a husk that was always a husk. Like someone looking back right at the moment of transformation. No, not their own transformation but someone else's. I looked back and you were turning into a tree. I looked back, my eyes didn't strain too far, but I saw you turning into salt.
Here, Odysseus might say, Imagine the sands are water. You've seen the puddles after the rare rainfall. Imagine that but bigger. However large you are imagining the puddle, do that but more. That is what stands between you and home.
But if you had to live in dung, consider your options. There's dung from herbivores and dung from omnivores, for one thing. The lowly beetle prefers the omnivores. I don't know why. But I read that, and I thought it sounded right.
And it's good to do something useful. Dung beetles take shit and recycle it and benefit the land. Grassland, wetland, desert—there is nothing that cannot be improved by small builders, making homes out of dung.
Anne Carson wrote once that you can make history a thing that carries itself. Your home and your history—are they not the same thing? It is impossible to think of yout history without thinking of childhood homes. I worry about the state of mine. My parents keep cramming it full of more and more junk. My mother sleeps in what used to be my bedroom.
My father will refuse a nursing home, and my mother will stay with him. I can imagine the house collapsing, years of delayed repairs. All the tools turning into trash. For years, my parents didn't fix the leak in my sister's bedroom. A drip through the sheetrock made bubbles like volcanoes.
2. Find a dark, dry area with good circulation, such as an attic or unused closet. Use the sort of place that one would hang themselves in if they ever got the urge. With unflavored dental floss, secure the bottom of the flowers' stems to a hanger so that they hang upside down to dry. Any kind of small string will do the trick, actually. I used twine on my sunflowers from my wedding. Leave flowers for two to three weeks until completely dry.
There are several species of dung beetle. There are burrowing dung-beetles, chiefly in parts of Africa. They go to a pile of, you know, a pile of dung and burrow tunnels. Stippling it. Blasting something full of light.
And of course, there is the rolling dung beetle type. They don't burrow into mounds of shit with their families. They take segments—I saw this on a nature documentary—and roll it. Like Sisyphus in reverse. On and on until they get a ball of it. And they carry someone else's shit on their back. Like the sin-eaters of old, they get called dirty, disgusting, for doing what must be done to keep the world in balance.
Looking at the painting now, I moved my left arm in front of my chest and splayed my hand out in paralyzed reaching, an awkwardly balanced pose. No, no, don't do that, meaning myself but someone else as well.
In the middle of the painting, we see what appears to be a cloth tumbling over scaffolding, in red, white, and sulfur green, which is standard for a Kay Sage painting. We see paralyzed force without gesture.
Silence is always on the end of something else. Silence must always have an outline. It cannot be boundless, even if you don't see the edges.
3. Remove flowers from hangers and spray with unscented hairspray for protection from time and other disrupters of plans.
In Arizona, it doesn't rain too often, but every August, there are monsoons. Leftovers from tropical storms that knock out the power and force buckets of rain through shitty roofs, over collections of stamps, over model trains, CB radios, rooms piled with unread books.
In "Outline of Silence" did Sage mean a silent band you carry with you, like a talisman, or did she mean the hem of a vast, immovable silence? The former sounds like peace, the latter is threatening. I think Sage meant both.
And that is what it means to have a home, a history that does and does not carry itself. It'll keep you safe—a little shelter of soft, like tumbling laundry against scaffolding you could fall through. And something looming in the background, like a monsoon, you can only see its shape.
And so, Odysseus might add, the sea is a history, and in my telling, I have brought you a piece.
I know that when writing a lyrical essay, you're supposed to end on the tonic, hit the note you started on, make it one big ball. But I wake up crying for no reason—everything feels heavy and far away. My breath smells terrible, and I drink more than I should. Sometimes I know the floor is slanted but cannot decide if it's slanted up or slanted down. So I just want to tell you this: In Africa, there is a dung beetle, and it is the only insect known to navigate by star.
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