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On Theresa Cha, kundiman, lost books, why moving hurts, Sappho and archaic love poetry, food poisoning, The Bacchae, Tom Hardy, Hisham Matar, more Veena Das, exhaustion, indebtedness, speaking, showing, writing.

If I were in the NYC area on March 5th, I would try to go to this:

Belladonna* and Kundiman Celebrate Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

Saturday, March 5, 2011; 2 – 3:30 pm

On the weekend of what would have been Cha’s 60th birthday (a full life cycle event in the Chinese/Korean lunar calendar), Belladonna* and Kundiman gather nine poets to perform a staged reading from Dictee. Cha’s best known written work, Dictee focuses on the life of several women framed with the art of the Greek muses, yet in the cosmos of Shamanism and Daoism. Their struggle to speak and overcome suffering is enacted through a mixture of media which destabilizes the notion of a progressive and seamless history.

Participants to include: Anne Waldman, Tamiko Beyer, Sarah Gambito, Laura Hinton, Cathy Park Hong, Soomi Kim, Nathanaël, Alison Roh Park, Sina Queyras, Jen Shyu, Zhang Er

Join us for an afternoon of projected images, voices, pictorial characters, scholarly contextualization, a birthday cake, and surprises.

Event is being filmed for Woo Jung Cho’s documentary on Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, The Dream of the Audience.

Curated by Cara Benson and Sarah Gambito

When: Saturday, March 5
Door: 1:40pm; Show: 2pm to 3:30pm [PROMPT] Where: Bowery Poetry Club, 308 Bowery, NYC
Cost: $8




One of the books I took with me here to Glasgow was Theresa Cha’s Exilée and Temps Morts: Selected Works. It’s my second copy; I had to buy this book again online because it was one book in a massive box of books that disappeared in transit to me between California and England, when I first moved to London, where I no longer live. The books were lost during the Royal Mail strike, so I comforted myself with the knowledge that at least they were lost for a good cause. I like to think that some striking postal workers were tearing open my box of books and reading Derrida’s Le monolingualism de l’autre or Shklovsky’s Zoo: Or Letters About Love, which was one of my favorite books—the actual, specific body of that one book—ever. I bought it again, it’s not the same. There were books in there whose skins I will never again be able to retrieve, books the buying and having of which were totally suffused with the people who bought them and had them with me, next to me, for me. The tracks of love that were in these books. People I loved who are now dead.

Life of books being so ridiculous because at once fragile and hardy. For almost four years I could barely think anything except: how the hell do books survive. Why the hell do books survive. (That’s not true, I still think this, even though those four years are over. The high school of my abject grief. It’s a simplistic and reductive way of thinking about books, I suppose, but my emotions are almost always singular in that way. Not uncomplex, just: stark.) I was thinking (and then, in tiny increments, writing) about someone who survived longer than her books. And thinking that it was monstrous and unbearable that I had books and no people. No person. This one person. Thinking it was monstrous that I could still write. So I didn’t, mostly. Didn’t read, either. Feeling tortured by words on a cereal box.

So reading and writing now feels to me like coming out of one kind of hibernation, only to slip deeper into another kind of hibernation. Only the place I’m presently hibernating within is transparent and porous. Or like a limousine window or the one-way mirror for police line-up (In the UK: an “identity parade”), but in reverse: I think it’s all opaque around me, I can’t see out of it, but it turns out people can see into it.

It. The seeable it of writing. The survivable it of writing.

Theresa Cha, from “White Dust from Mongolia: Related Poems and Journal Entries”

could not bear to say          could not

could not bear at all all bear it to this           to say
to this to this

it would not have come       to this to be able to be
said       unbearable to say       not to say

perhaps hands should before mouth could move perhaps
whole body limb to limb before starting again to be
torn before would have to say ever again perhaps head
eyes derobed blinded before it is necessary to say again
to speak to utter to tongue even to tongue even to

without a single sound without a single voice
removed broken tied irreparable

there is no wind to carry
vow to muteness
for words to be inconceivable.

(One day I will post the full list of the contents of this lost box and ask you to please tell me about the books that you’ve lost, too.)

(I want to also post the books I read while someone I loved was dying and then ask you to please tell me about the books you read while people were dying.)

Another of the books that was lost between California and England was Theresa Cha’s Dictee; so basically I lost all of my Theresa Cha books. I loved Dictee for too many reasons, but also because there was so much of Sappho in it and I had been writing around or into Sappho for so long, and it moved me to know that someone else saw the filaments transmitted between Sappho, between archaic love poetry, and all forms of pain, pain and speech, pain in speech, pain of feeling and pain of writing, pain of thinking and wanting, pain of speaking and living. Pain of exile from a lover and pain of exile from a country and pain of being a root without a soil. No happy glamorous life of transglobal nomad here. When people move, it hurts. It hurts to move. It hurts just to move.


“person has amnesia. marked by one strong incident—that of being left”

Diaspora is what Agavë, in a Dionysian rapture, does to her son Pentheus in Euripides’ Bacchae. Tears him apart. Pentheus comes from penthos. It means grief. And exodos means: the final scene. In the Bacchae it’s when Agavë comes to her senses. Realizes what she’s done. Realizes the head she’s holding is not a mountain lion but her son’s. And this exodos is indeed an exodus. She and her sisters go into exile. Diaspora and exodus. Tearing apart and going away. You tear apart or are torn apart. And then you have to go away.


“plumage flowering pilgrim vigilant to history. ancient ancient
not even dwindled to this day.
broken pulled and severed this act a perpetual breaking a perpetual pulling
perpetual severing from ancient history the history that lives that is
giving color to the skin excretes from pores cleanses and dirties from 0 to
infinity               then
          rebirths and destroys the present”

I’m writing this in Glasgow, slowly getting over being food-poisoned in Edinburgh. I’ve been sick, but I haven’t been actively poisoned in a while. I forgot what it feels like for your body to reject the entirety of your immediate past so violently and absolutely. I mean, my body has been rejecting a lot of things for the past few years, but that violence was always so slow and permanent, so thoughtful, so given to dreamy and enduring misery. With food poisoning you get to feel your body say in absolute terms: I REJECT THIS BIT OF WORLD NOW AND FOREVER OUT OUT OUT NOW.

I left Glasgow for a few days to go to Edinburgh with someone I’ve been married to since I was twenty. (Another thing I should write: “My Life as a Queer Housewife.”) Moving around so much I begin to feel not vertigo but: horizontigo. Terror and nausea of crossing too much lateral space. (Though I am reminded that Scotland is extremely hilly and given to causing actual vertigo and also given to reminding me of living in San Francisco.) My days of crossing too much space are over, I think. I’ve moved around too much already. Distributed my near-total aloneness in too many places.

In the hotel in Edinburgh, I saw the actor Tom Hardy on a television chat show. Covered in tattoos and practically pained in his sweetness and uncomfortable charm, he said that he was scared of everything. How not to be moved by this?

Maybe it’s difficult to remember how difficult it is to speak because it seems like everyone can do it. Even I can do it when I have to. I told someone recently that I live like a hermit and have no friends and sometimes I can go weeks speaking to only one person and am happy this way, and she looked at me in disbelief and said she didn’t believe me. Because I seemed very outgoing, I guess. I remember something Simone Weil said about being a gregarious person. She had to stay away from people because her natural gregarious tendencies were too strong. I wonder if Simone Weil was a mimic. I’m a little bit of a mimic. Picking up accents and habits of speech wherever I go. I think there’s only two people in the world who have ever heard me speak as myself. “Naturally.” One of them is dead now. If the other one dies, I’m going to die, too. Only the dead and the beloved can keep my secrets.

How to speak and how to not speak. How to write and how to not write. What can be brought into language. What has to be dragged into language. But sometimes you have to speak and you have to write. Sometimes you have to drag things into language. Things like a body or a hook. Fish hook for a fish. I don’t know if I have to speak but I have to write. Someone has to write the speech, too. Write the speech to overwrite the other speech.

Listening not-listening to the dictator-speeches: the Gaddafi-speech, the Mubarak-speech, the Ben Ali-speech. If I really want to know what monstrous speech looks like, sounds like: there it is. Gaddafi looks like terror and power have taxidermied his entire body. Just stuffed with it. Sagging with it. Rotting with it. If these assholes can speak, you have to start speaking, too. Have to drown it out.

Hisham Matar, from a Democracy Now! interview, which I can’t watch because the Internet in this flat is too slow for streaming:


What’s interesting is that everything—you know, there’s kind of—there’s, of course, specific different peculiarities about all the speeches that were given by the three dictators that we saw—you know, Ben Ali, then Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and Mubarak—and Gaddafi, I mean. But there are some similarities. And the similarities are that they all confuse the word “Libya” or “Egypt” or “Tunisia” for themselves. And so, when they’re speaking about the country, they’re really speaking about themselves.

Ben Ali/Mubarak/Gaddafi: a speech impediment in which they confuse the country for themselves.

No. Wrong. They don’t have the impediment. But are the impediment. The political task of speech here is of the same order as the political task in general: to take back the fucking country. Rip the name off like a badge someone stole to decorate his uniform. Steal it back. Unravel the badge’s yarn and distribute it to everyone. Hold the yarn. Hold the yarn with everyone else.


Cha, “i have time”:

the father god the son god the holy spirit
the sins documented and erased the constant tides of recording and
magic wand stick at its wave flying sparks make disappear this body into
another inside another with another from another into itself
its insides. organs. heart lung liver kidney
of course this time. banishment from present past to future
no sight     the absolute link chain eyes to mouth     voyage from eye to mouth
the secrets reinstated established bond traveling the inside face vein
stream from one mute to another mute   tubes scribbled messages dots and
lines. keep faith no betrayal by either organ       by holding ear to the other’s
ear do hear what other hears?


AMY GOODMAN: Hisham, your father, a political dissident in Libya?

HISHAM MATAR: Yes, my father was a political dissident, and he was kidnapped from his home in Cairo, where he lived in exile, by Egyptian secret service police, who then handed him over to the Libyans. There was a deal done. The Libyans also handed over other Egyptian dissidents hiding in Libya. And money was exchanged. My father was taken to Libya immediately. He was imprisoned in Abu Salim prison, which is an infamous kind of terrible political prison in Tripoli.

AMY GOODMAN: What year was this?

HISHAM MATAR: This was in 1990, March 1990. And he was tortured and imprisoned. And we didn’t know of this. We didn’t know where he was, because the Egyptians lied to us, said that he was actually—they were keeping him in Egypt, and it’s for his own good—the other option would be sending him to Libya—and threatened us to remain quiet. You know, “If you speak, we can’t guarantee his safety,” things like that. So, we were in limbo as a family and, you can imagine, incredibly worried, concerned, not really sure what is the correct thing to do. You know, if we speak, are we really risking his safety? And if we don’t speak, are we somehow becoming complicit with what is happening to him? And about three years into this terrible time, we received a letter that my father smuggled out of Abu Salim prison, in which he detailed everything that happened—when he was taken, the people that took him, and so on. And that’s when we started campaigning very actively.




Speaking and writing. Speaking and writing. I am thinking about this not only because I am always thinking about this, but because the reason I came to Glasgow in the first place was to learn how to make films, to see if maybe I should also or instead make films. Only to realize that I don’t or can’t do it. All my cells are writing cells. And I can’t even translate writing as I know it into some metaphor, like the writing of film, the language of film, the camera-pen (le caméra-stylo), or whatever. It doesn’t work. It’s not only a different technology, it’s an entirely different body and demands an entirely different body, a body that is not and probably never will be mine. I’m finding that it’s hard for me to point at things. To point, to shoot. I don’t want to shoot anything. Shooting is different from writing. They both have their violences but the violence that is mine chose me a long time ago. And has been composing me ever since. I can look at a film. But I can’t look at people through a viewfinder. This is why I don’t really like to take pictures, either, even though I tried to start again recently, buying disposable cameras at pharmacies. I find it nearly impossible to enter into this particular relationship with the world. With what is touchable and what is visible and what is recordable. I understand that this is also a very simple and naïve sentiment.

In Paul Virilio’s The Vision Machine, he describes a conversation between the sculptors Auguste Rodin and Paul Gsell.


Rodin retorts, ‘Have you ever looked closely at instantaneous photographs of men in motion? … Well then, what have you noticed?’

‘That they never seem to be making headway. Generally, they seem to be standing still on one leg, or hopping.’

‘Exactly! Take my “St John”, for example. I’ve shown him with both feet on the ground, whereas an instantaneous photograph taken of a model performing the same movement would most likely show the back foot already raised and moving forward. Or else the reverse — the front foot would not yet be on the ground if the back leg in the photograph were in the same position as in my statue. That is precisely why the model in the photograph would have the bizarre look of a man suddenly struck with paralysis. Which confirms what I was just saying about movement in art. People in photographs suddenly seem frozen in mid-air, despite being caught in full swing: this is because every part of their body is reproduced at exactly the same twentieth or fortieth of a second, so there is no gradual unfolding of a gesture, as there is in art.’

Gsell objects, ‘So, when art interprets movement and finds itself completely at loggerheads with photography, which is an unimpeachable mechanical witness, art obviously distorts the truth.’

‘No’, Rodin replies, ‘It is art that tells the truth and photography that lies. For in reality time does not stand still, and if the artist manages to give the impression that a gesture is being executed over several seconds, their work is certainly much less conventional than the scientific image in which time is abruptly suspended. . . . ‘




Writing and showing and enduring and telling. Veena Das, in Life and Words talks about writing that feels ghost-written. Reading scholarly accounts of “Partition narratives,” she had the feeling that the accounts were ghost-written. Then she talks about something Wittgenstein writes in Philosophical Investigations, about how telling is done. When do we tell, how do we tell.


Wittgenstein draws attention to the limits of a model of language that assumes the only thing languages does is to communicate… there is a boundary between what is being told and what is being shown. The distinction between saying and showing, though is not simply the distinction between word and gesture. Words can show one’s numbed relation to life just as gesture can tell us what forms of life, what forms of dying, become the soil on which words can grow or not.

The saying of writing and what writing says, the showing of writing and what writing shows. The time of writing and the time in writing. How can a writing unfold so that what it purports to capture always escapes from it. So that what it’s about ends up being what it’s around. What a writing touched by, as much as what it manages to touch. Ambient writing like ambient noise. Or diegetic writing, extra-diegetic writing. What is the doing of writing. What is the writing saying that is not part of of the order of saying.

Das also often writes about “the deep moral energy in the refusal to represent certain violations of the human body.” I believe in this. The film I wanted to make in Glasgow was about trying to obtain the testimony from a young woman tortured in the Philippines. About the people trying to “help” her, by producing a “witness.” In the story it’s based on, she only recites lyrics from Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” In the film she was going to bleed from the mouth. But then I found myself increasingly unable to make this film. Even a film that was supposed to interrogate representation was too much representation for me. I couldn’t do it. I can’t just “shoot the bitch.” Shoot the bitch and write a book. Or in this case, make a film. I already said. I don’t want to shoot anything.


My interest in this book is not in describing these moments of horror but rather in describing what happens to the subject and world when the memory of such events is folded into ongoing relationships. My wonder and terror is that it is from such fragile and intimate moments that a shared language had to be built and with no assurance that there were secure conventions in which such a language, in fact, could be founded. A possible vicissitude of such fatal moments is that one could become voiceless—not in the sense that one does not have words—but that these words become frozen, numb, without life. Thus there were men and women who spoke, and if asked, they told stories about the violence they had seen or endured on their bodies. Sometimes these words imbued with a spectral quality, or they might have been uttered by a person with whom I was in a face-to-face encounter, and yet I felt they were animated by some other voice. Contrarily, I describe those who chose to be mute, who withdrew their voice to protect it.

Sometimes I want to be mute and and still and indeed my tendencies are towards reticence and silence and yet: if I do not have to be mute, if I do not have to withdraw my voice to protect it, if I have, to be sure, less to protect than others—if I can still write, then. Then.

From Jan Verwoert’s “Exhaustion and Exuberance”:


But in what way do we experience the I Can when we release it from the demands of high performance and economic productivity? Giorgio Agamben argues that this experience is “for each of us, perhaps the hardest and bitterest experience possible: the experience of potentiality.” In one sense the horror of the I Can could be understood as the infinite challenge to truly face the reality of your desires in a state when no outside demands or prohibitions protect you from asking the terrifying question: Tell me what you want, what you really really want? In another sense, however, the challenge of the I Can is not simply or solely a reflection of your own desires. As Irit Rogoff points out, Agamben actually relates it to a moment of existential indebtedness to others.

To make this point, he recounts the story in which Russian poet Anna Akhmatova describes how and why she became a writer. Standing outside a Leningrad prison in 1930 where her son was a political prisoner, a woman whose son was also imprisoned, addressed Akhmatova with the question: “Can you speak of this?” She realised that she had to respond yes— indeed she could—and in this moment found herself both indebted and empowered.

Thinking through this link between indebtedness and empowerment may prove crucial, precisely because the thought goes against the very grain of high performance culture. Its demand to be ever-ready relies on the assumption that you could be. It is based on the illusion that each individual should be able to generate an inexhaustible potency solely from his own resources. This illusion is as self-aggrandising as it is fatal, because it is only through assuming you had such inexhaustible potency that you willingly accept the request to prove it, then take it to heart when you are reprimanded for failing to do so. To point out that the potential to perform is a gift and debt received from others involves shattering the illusion on which high performance culture is founded. But what does it mean to assume that we are always already deeply indebted to others when we perform? In what way is it precisely this indebtedness to others that enables us to perform in the first place? How could we develop the ethos of a mode of performance that acknowledges the debt to the other instead of asserting the illusion of the infinite potency of the self?

I think I like thinking of action and performance in terms of indebtedness. Although, my father once told me that the obsession with “utang na loob,” or “debt of gratitude” (literally: “debt of the inside”) was the downfall of what he called his “culture.” Of course, it is important to refuse and reject certain kinds of debt, as important as it is to reject certain kinds of bondage. But at the same time it is important to recognize other kinds of debt. Other kinds of bondage. Indebtedness as in: we are bound to things. Things here meaning mostly: each other.

Here is the relationship I have with debt: I am indebted to the world. Like everyone else. But I don’t pay. I can never pay.




Oh, no. I forgot I wanted to write about kundiman. Kundiman, which are Filipino love ballads. Why did I want to write about kundiman again. Because I love them. Because I listen to them often even when I don’t understand them. Some of the ballads that haunt me. Imelda Marcos, for example, had something of a theme kundiman. A theme song. Any musicians in the vicinity would play it when she walked into a room. The theme song is “Dahil Sa Iyo.” It means “Because of You.” It’s a love song. There’s a recording of Nat King Cole singing it. The audience is audibly astonished and delighted to hear him pronounce the Tagalog words. Their astonishment and delight both moves and annoys me. “Dahil Sa Iyo” was one of my father’s favorite songs. This probably does not bode well. For him. For the kind of person he was in the past before he was born, in the first life he died in, before he was born to me and I to him.

Songs and words and writing always being so easily rented. So full of rents. How can a love song be written over with terror then swing back to tenderness, all the way back to tenderness, carrying with it forevermore the terror that was written on it. I don’t know. I like “Dahil Sa Iyo.” I hate “Dahil Sa Iyo.”





When I began writing this, there was an irregular beeping sound in the flat that was driving me totally insane but I didn’t know where it was coming from or how to shut it off. The people who live in the flat came just now and shut it off.

The flat is enormous and beautiful. The shower is enormous and beautiful. The kitchen is the size of half my apartment. I’ve never been in such a beautiful flat. I am crashing on a couch that looks a little like one I think I saw Sofia Coppola sitting on in a fashion magazine. I am crashing here because I have no place else to stay until tomorrow when I can go back to where I was staying in the first place, and because people have been kind to me. Yes. People are very kind to me. Though I think they’re a little worried. Worried because I don’t move for hours. It’s a beautiful and sunny day in Glasgow and she’s not moving. Is she all right. This near-mute girl-thing on their very nice couch. Writing. Thank you for your worry, kind people. I am not all right.


this is a book. i have an excuse. any excuse. all excuses. this is a book. its
length, its content, fiction or no fiction, is true.
is. is forgiven. is given the sacrament of penance.

2 thoughts on “On Theresa Cha, kundiman, lost books, why moving hurts, Sappho and archaic love poetry, food poisoning, The Bacchae, Tom Hardy, Hisham Matar, more Veena Das, exhaustion, indebtedness, speaking, showing, writing.

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