Leaving Tracks

Embodying the archive in floods and flesh.

How to tell a story about climate? By nature it is an average drawn over a long period of time. It’s not a fixed point. There is no inciting incident.

How to tell a story about gender? It is an average drawn over a long period of time. It’s not a fixed point. There is no inciting incident. 

Whole branches of science are devoted to telling stories, analyzing fossil shells and core samples of ice and earth for clues to how the world once worked so that a line might be drawn from A to B, then to now. From this, we know days were more important than seasons to bivalves. Instead of vlogs or tweets or novels recording daily monotony, clams laid down thin layers of their own cells called laminations, permanent records of the chemistry they lived that we’re still trying to interpret. 

A single piece of paper stapled to a telephone pole looks as weathered as ancient parchment after a few days outside. This alone gives me an appreciation for the impossible task of the archive. I’ve been wondering how a legacy is made now, whether I should be trying to write one or dig one up.

When it first occurred to me that I might be trans, I went spelunking through my old journals, transcribing and writing commentary on entries I’d begun when I was thirteen. Drilling through and analyzing layer after layer, I was looking for trace elements that marked certain atmospheric conditions, clues for what I used to think I was. When I lay down on the exam table and my doctor presses near my navel, she looks shocked and asks me “What are these lumps?”, and I tell her that’s where I’ve done my shot every week for the last 8 years. Those twin lumps of scar tissue on either side of my belly button are another treasured record like the clam’s shell, whose accretions are so precise a record of light and dark that we can tell a cretaceous day was 29 minutes shorter than the one we experience today. 

Beneath Portland’s World Forestry Museum is a core sample spanning the length of the Washington Park MAX platform for 300 feet. 16 million years of geological history we didn’t think to look for until we built a way to move more quickly about the city. Public transit gave us stories in rock about Missoula Floods and acres of basalt, though no one would have claimed that was the goal. Will there be a period in the fossil record of the future in which the rings of our teeth will show when we all had to hide in our homes for hear of fire, smoke, disease, war? What will it take for these grains of sand and shells and scars and words to change the length of our days? And what will archivists of the future think it meant to us? 

What I’m Reading

Contagions of Empire: Scientific Racism, Sexuality, and Black Military Workers Abroad, 1898–1948 by Khary Oronde Polk is the most engaging work of history I’ve read in a long while. There is so much here, but especially striking is his analysis of a play by Charles Young (friend of Du Bois and the first Black colonel in the U.S. Army) about the life of Toussaint Louverture. Kudos to University of North Carolina Press for publishing an affordable paperback at the same time as the hard cover. 

I’m also revisiting Voyage of The Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis, a personal and critical examination of the portrayal of Black women in art, from prehistory to today. The title poem is 79 pages long and composed solely of the titles of artworks. It’s a marvel.

What I Wish I Was Reading

Deep explorations of geologic time that do something weird, and that don’t treat the scientific record as an immutable source of truth.

Know of something that sounds like this? Writing something like this yourself? Let me know!

Publishing Opportunities

Poetry Project Fellowships. Emerge-Surface-Be Mentoring Fellowship, $2500 and one-on-one mentorship with Hannah Black, Farnoosh Fathi, Ariel Goldberg, Wayne Koestenbaum, or John Yau. Curatorial Fellowship, $1500. Free to apply, deadline August 16.

Ploughshares blog is accepting pitches, paid by word count. Pitch guidelines & email for submission here: http://blog.pshares.org/index.php/contribute/

A series of free generative writing workshops centering queer and trans Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, led by the wonderful Tanea Lunsford Lynx in conjunction with Strut. Thursdays in July, online, sign up here.

Publishers Weekly is looking for freelance reviewers. Details on desired expertise and how to apply here: https://www.pw.org/job_listing/freelance_reviewers

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