White Whale Review: An Online Literary Magazine Untitled Document
WHITE WHALE REVIEW
Harmony Button
Harmony Button earned her MFA in Poetry from the University of Utah in 2007. Her work has appeared in Mantis: A Journal of Poetry, Criticism & Translation, AfterImage Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism, Prick of the Spindle and other literary publications. In 2006, she was awarded the Larry Levis Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets. She is currently teaches English and History at The Waterford School in Sandy, UT.

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Inversion

Harmony Button

I look forward to rain in January. It comes half-heartedly in mists and drizzles that moisten the streets and sidewalks – the city in a sponge bath: moisten, dab. The snow lies around in compressing piles with slick edges; wet salt eats its holes through ice. There isn't enough of anything to wash away the month stuck to the face: a moist towelette, it leaves a film behind.

I love the smell of grime sodden ground.

Above, the air is clearing. All week, the atmosphere has swirled and swirled, recycled air inside the pressure cooker of the valley floor, gathering more and more smog as it stews. From in the mountains, you can see the color: a sickly tan milk-skin congealing, a meniscus forming in the beaker of the valley.

 

 

It is a weird science, this air. They call it an 'inversion,' here. I don't know why. Maybe because it sounds more phenomenally acceptable than 'smog' – an anomaly of nature; an act of god. It could be an inversion of heaven and hell – the ungodly rising to hover in the lungs of the true believers. Is this a test of faith? The people here, they like their tests (as well as euphemism).

When the rain comes, it breaks through from the sweet warm air above, eating through the scum like salt through ice: tiny punctures, perforations. The particles that hovered in the desert winter air are soaked up the in the moisture, washed down to the valley floor, smeared across our streets, our sidewalks, city skin. The toilette comes away a satisfying shade of human filth; a brown-tan color


stains the cloth and it is fascinating gross to know more dirt is clustered in the pores, deeper than a single swipe could lift.

I love the rain in January.

I wash my face with rosemary scrub because it eats away at fleshy plugs in my pores – the way I sweat the world. I can't live here without sweat. I need to know my waste products have access to escape. I need to know

I can escape. The rain

is insufficient, and

it is enough.

 

~ * ~

 

Yesterday was “Spirit Day” at school. It was a stunted Saturnalia; the children wore fabulous costumes, spandex and sparkles, black boas, fishnets and drag, while the teachers stood by smiling in our same slouches of normalcy, our muted tones and functional shoes, pant-suits and business casuals. Usually, our students wear uniform khakis and polos, button-downs and sweaters, and, for the girls, the traditional little plaid skirt. I scorn this skirt. It is a throwback from an antiquated east coast prep image, campy and unflattering; most of all, it is a ridiculous imposition of modesty because all the girls hem it to be shorter than any skirt I ever wore to high school. Then again, I never wore skirts to high school.


Except for once. It was a jumper dress, a thick linen thing with buttons all the way down the front and a wide, stiff woven leather belt with a silver prong buckle. My mother bought it for me; I think she sensed that I wanted to be more feminine but didn't know how. The problem was, my mother didn't know how to help. We should have gone to Old Navy and bought a cheap pair of jeans and a baby blue hoodie with some corporate logo on it.

I didn't even know the word for “hoodie.” It was the '90s. I'd been at an alternative (read: “hippie”) school for most of my life. What could I do? Just moving on from stirrup pants and tie-dye was a leap of faith. The Lord & Taylor linen thing was my best effort.

 

A cloud is a cloud that looks like one

                                     writes Don Revell, but how

was I supposed to know

what a cloud looked like?


I wore the Linen Thing with an oversized t-shirt underneath. It might have been my dad's. I didn't know the word for “baby-doll” sleeves, and had only recently discovered “v-neck.” I had only recently discovered breasts, though, so you can't really blame me. The crowning glory of the whole ensemble were the shoes. They were navy blue pumps over flesh colored tights.

The word “pump” makes me giggle.

Cringe.

I knew, the minute I stepped out of my mom's minivan wearing the linen jumper / t-shirt / pump affair that I'd made a mistake, but it was too late. I couldn't go home and throw on my old corduroys and waffle cloth long sleeves from LL Bean, my decrepit Adidas. My mom was driving away; I clomped my way to the side library door and started what I knew would be a very, very long day at school.

 

~ * ~

 

Last week, another teacher offhandedly told me that my students think I'm, and I quote, “cool.” I was genuinely shocked. I have never been cool, not in grade school when I spent my free time building giant snow-snails in the front yard and then riding them, by myself, while singing made-up, tuneless, snow-snail riding songs; not in fourth grade when I was the only girl in the entire school to have braces and glasses, and play flag football with the boys; not in high school when my first love was the school's biggest nerd, a sweet boy with albino blonde hair and a stereotypically gigantic head; and definitely not in college. It was during college that I resigned myself to permanent un-coolness. The best I could aspire to, I decided, was to be considered quirky, lovable. What I lacked in allure I could make up in gumption. Even the language used to describe such a qualities was awkward and unattractive: gumption, chutzpah, spunk.

 


~ * ~

 

It was rowing that clinched it. Crew is not a particularly feminine or feminizing sport. It was more than sweat and water, more than becoming part of something fast, small breath tiny gliding through in sleek cut boat – it was the rain-wet metal >wrenches in my hands and up my sleeves, cool mornings crouching underneath or reaching around dripping, mist and morning riggers, gunwales, top knots, gates. It was the slide, the nuts, the bolts, the washers, hard wear boxes, extra seats, the ribs, ribbing, ties, the buckles, names: Vespoli, Wintech, Hudson, Schoenbrod.

I liked the tools, using or just holding, stuck inside the waistband of my shorts the cold against the skin, a leg braced casually around the cross rib on the trailer heft and lift to haul the men's 8+ up to the top rack. Up at dawn and often earlier, loading – moving, prepping, rigging – and having at all times at least three varieties of tape (electrical, medical,

duct) in pockets and the weather making my hair curl at the temples, sun-kiss freckled, salty and soft, softly –

This is what made me

and into

a decision – a revelation I was

spunk and if not beautiful

I could do at least this –

 

~ * ~

 

In the 1920s, girls aspired to spunk. There were lots of words for it: grit, sand, moxie. If I lived then, I would be cool: I would chop my hair into defiant boyish curls and dance the Charleston while wearing bright red lipstick and men's overalls. Spunk was sexy.

“Ms. Button,” a 6th grade boy asked during a discussion of how dressing in men's clothes and making herself look more boyish could possibly be a woman's assertion of feminine power during the 1920s, “what's a classy gal?”


I am constantly surprised by what they know and don't know. I'd provided a list of 1920's slang words, including the term “bearcat,” which I defined as “a classy gal.”

“Well,” I said, “Class is elegance, as opposed to sass, or spunk. It's actually a fairly elitist term, tied to ideas of wealth, propriety and social standing.”

He picked at the sole of his shoe: the rubber flapped at the toe.

“It's the difference between Nicole Kidman and Drew Barrymore.”

“Oh, okay.” He turned back to his paper. I started away, but turned back when he whispered my name. “What's Miley Cyrus?” he asked.

“You tell me, buddy,” I said, and we both chewed our smiles shut so nobody would notice.

~ * ~

When I took my first teaching job, I was quickly drawn into friendship triangle. It seemed natural: we were all displaced women, young and lonely and beautiful. We knew no one else in the city. We clung together out of love and defiance and desperation.


The female trio is a dangerous and powerful structure. I'd never been part of an all-girl clique before; I observed early in life that friends should not convene in threes because there will always be a shifting balance of power, a vying for position. If there are two of you, there can be a pretense of equality, but in a trio, each individual will constantly fear that the bond between the other two is stronger than that between herself and either of the others. The same is true of siblings: I only have one brother; he is the not-me, and there is no other. We are two sides of a coin, making difference only difference, without value. Pairs come with the capacity of balance while trios will perpetually be aware of possibility: there are options inside the “not-me” of siblinghood. Options create

judgement

choice, mindful of

alliances, self-aware, awareness of

Other and the other Other – mind full

to hold the oddly shaped

together, together, together?

Inside the friendship trio, each individual will suffer “odd woman out” syndrome: you can't have two best friends. My sixth grade grammar book tells me so: “best” is a superlative, used when comparing two discrete things, but not more than two.


I was starting to write poetry; I ignored the rules of grammar. The three of us became inseparable. Soon, however, it started happening: the trio was crystalized into set roles and types, like Charlie's Angels: there was the dark, exotic, dangerous one; the witty, take-charge one; the bumbling but upbeat one.

One afternoon, the English department faculty playboy stopped us in the hallway and put his finger on it, quite literally.

“You're sultry,” he said, pointing to the tall dark one, “you're sassy,” he wagged his finger at Cameron Diez, “and you...” he bit his thumb, looking at me. I gave it to him.

“Spunky,” I said, resigned.

“Exactly!” he rejoiced, bopping Spunky on the tip of her button nose.

“I know,” I sighed.

To be fair, I've always crushed on the Drew Barrymores of the world. They are the wistful

 

tomboys, the girls of gumption and loneliness. They are the ones who seem so superficial that you have to believe there is something deeply sad inside, the easy laugh bubbling up around a thorn in the heart. I love them for the thorns, even when all they give is surface, surface, lipstick laughs.

 

~ * ~

 

In the practice of yoga, an inversion is any pose that lifts the feet above the heart. Turning the body upside down has several purposes: it refreshes the circulatory system, relieves stress on internal organs, and dislodges toxins from the lower abdomen, allowing them to be more easily burned and discarded by the body. More significantly, experiencing an inversion teaches patience and relaxation through times of new and potentially uncomfortable perspective. Turning the body upside down allows the mind to see the world through new eyes; in making peace with the possibility of alternative truths, we acknowledge that change is natural and desirable; when the


world seems most at odds with us, it might not be the world that is upside down, but rather, our relationship with it. As any 12-year old knows, being upside down is fun at first, but quickly becomes uncomfortable. Changes in perspective are moments of potential, not because they reveal the secrets of the universe, but because they remind us that our relation to the world is not static: any single position is unsustainable; adjustment is part of fully inhabiting any situation.

Still, welcoming discomfort is very different from a test of faith; there is no hardship to be patiently born or suffering to needlessly endure. People who choose to suffer needlessly are dumb. If discomfort teaches you something about yourself – good! But ultimately, discomfort is not an enemy to be suffered, but a signal, a means of communication between our bodies and our minds, a message that now is the time for change. Discomfort teaches us how not to fight; either adjust, get out, or make peace with feeling pain. As my crew coach says, “do not confuse 'comfortable' with 'fun.'

~ * ~

 

Sultry moved east, did some globe trotting, then settled in somewhere full of fun-loving, beautiful people. We rarely speak, but think fondly of the good days when we shared a coffee pot and a space heater. The intensity of friendship was eased by distance: first in separate apartments, then in separate lives. Our friendship was inverted, unsustainable and brilliant in its time. Now we lay on the floor and catch our breath and ask each other how we are.

Sassy broke my heart. Instead of easing down from our inverted state, we came crashing back to normalcy, getting a few good kicks in on the way down. This is what I mean by revolution. Why do people who love each other fight? Because they don't know how else to adjust.

Revolutions rarely land on their feet. Who pays reparations for civil disputes? Who decides on policies of reconstruction? At school, I ask if Samuel Tilden was an idealist or a misanthrope, and if it's possible to be both. We mention universal


health care and public programming. We play the KKK game and see how many African Americans still exercise the vote in 1868. I call Hayes a 'slimeball' and we all laugh.

Sass and Spunk join forces only in times of hardship and discomfort; amity in the face of suffering. What happens to politics in times of peace? Petty scandal, nationalist bravado and industrial competition. Normalcy slouches in like smog nobody notices.

 

~ * ~

 

To be spunky is to be buoyant, upbeat, resourceful, quietly independent and resilient. To be sassy, however, is to talk back, cleverly and aggressively asserting power. Spunky struggles to fix a flat tire, falls on her ass, and eventually bumbles her way through to victory. Sassy picks fights with big dudes in bars and walks away victorious, righteous, and angry.

“Spunk” has expanded its meaning from the 1920s to take on several additional definitions. It

can be used as a noun to mean not only moxie, but raw cannabis – an unusual skip of language, seeing as pot smokers, in my experience, are anything but spunky. Other definitions include a Swedish liquor (pour me a shot of spunk), a cute Aussie guy (oye, he's a real spunk), or, most unfortunate of all, semen (ie, there's spunk on those sheets). It can also be used as a verb meaning to ejaculate, usually with crude or pornographic connotations. Still, to say a man is “spunky” is blatantly patronizing; despite the fact that only a man can spunk, be a spunk, or create spunk, only a woman can be spunky. It is the difference between having and being: as an adjective, spunky remains a feminine quality defined in relationship to the masculine. “Spunky” is only considered a compliment when used to describe the tomboy feminine – the woman who practices masculine acts without threatening to actually become masculine. Spunky affirms masculine power because she seemingly strives for and mimics it without any hope of actually possessing it. Spunky is cute: she is a puppy fumbling with oversized paws and big eyes; she is Lucy at the assembly line in the candy factory. Men


who are attracted to spunkiness in a woman are often drawn by the combination of independent capability (the “I'm doing fine by myself” attitude) with a sense of inevitable failure – spunky is the underdog, and although she's doing admirably well, she's still waiting for somebody to give her a hand. How very strange, then, that “spunky” has a strange connotation with its near rhyme “to spank,” i.e., “That girl is so spunky I want to spank her.”

This is disappointing. Why do men want to smack any girl who shows spunk, grit, or independent spirit? It strikes me as a misdirected high-five, a “you go girl” with darker undertones; it reasserts masculine dominance as it seemingly celebrates feminine power. It is an underhanded compliment; a gesture towards inversion that always flips back into normalcy.

 

~ * ~

 

I no longer aspire to spunk. I'm done being spunky. Without sultry and sassy to hold me to it, spunk has fallen by the wayside. I am no longer defined by contrast; my others are endless,

unknown. I become permeable, vulnerable and strong; I become many things. The kids at school misread me; they forward me Christian Right campaign emails by Jim Dobson and they come in eager to tell me jokes their fathers heard on Rush Limbaugh. At Whole Foods, the cute cashier girl mistakes me for a lesbian, or at least ambiguous enough to flirt with over my reusable grocery bags. A man in the park mistakes me for the kind of girl who wants to be told she has a fine ass while running. A sixth grader slips up and calls me “mom.” My boyfriend and I attend a spoon-bending class and he spends the next week trying to twist silverware while I google “spoon-bending: hoax” on the internet and fight with him in bed at night about the legitimate definition of “energy.” Salt Lake is a strange, strange world, a culture bubble slowly burping toxins from the bottom up. It is an insulting compliment, an unexpected high, a place of peace in the midst of turbulence.

 

~ * ~

 

Outside, the air is clearing. Slowly, the sky


readjusts her hips, a pleasure sigh as relief swills up her spine. The smog blows into Colorado.

A student writes about leaving her church; another asks me how I do my hair; another tells me that she likes my shoes. They are green with sequins, pointy toes, and I would not call them 'pumps.'

In sixth grade homeroom we do “eagle arms” and I say this is to gather and ground your 'energy.' I know I misuse 'energy.' They giggle and a peace descends: they tip and shove each other, arm and leg twists, youthful power, over.

I delete an email petition to keep prayer in public schools. I throw virtual rotten tomatoes at AIG in an online game from MoveOn.org; I play Guess the Font on Facebook.

Is what I'm doing really all that far from prayer? I don't think so. I stand on my head and feel my legs draw upwards –

I question what it means to

gravity.

 

 

 

Copyright© Harmony Button. White Whale Review, issue 2.1


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