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Creative Engagement with Kari Larsen’s The Black Telephone (Unthinkable Creatures, 2012)


When I was young I played telephone too! The game is fun but also an enigma in regard to how the thing you started off saying in someone’s small yet eager ear is never what the person and the end of the line ends up hearing (if the channel between you and them is filled with the whispers of more than one other participant). In Larsen’s The Black Telephone there are many participants (some of which are): Anne Carson (“This terrible thing we’re witnessing now is / Not unique you know it happened before”), Laura Albert/ JT Leroy (“He was turned on sexually by the perversity and the abuse in the stories. So he started to turn our relationship into a sexual relationship”), Dori Laub (“The fear that fate will strike again is crucial to the memory of trauma”), Sylvia Plath (“The black telephone’s off at the root”) and the speaker (in this chap-length essay) ranting to and about their best friend (“I cried over something and so she cried”).

This book is the effort to both keep and learn to tell a highly personal secret (as rape always is: “I could say he raped me, and he raped me several times, but I do not care and what does doing say?” / “I am never more locked in with another than when we share a secret” / “What does a secret do when it does not really say anything?”) in a collective or shared space, in a burning tunnel of fervent listeners and speakers (“finding words and testimony that speaks to my secrets”).

An obscure effort to tell combines with the act of telling while that effort is being enacted here (“There is a lot of shame in the ordeal of telling”). The difference between a collective and a random group exists in the intention. Larsen intends as she “divulge[s] insofar as to retread the ordeal that telling can be.” It is a joy to hear the fractures of content (“I made her think about a fear she had of her father cutting her up and hiding her in the walls” / “In order to talk about something I have ignored so thoroughly that I have put myself in danger of damaging my health” / “I wrung out a drawing that went through the washer and, true to my defeatist impulse, cried all over it”) that slip toward us as we read and attempt to synthesize the ethics of telling (“I wanted to blur a boundary by divulging sensitive information”).

There are times in which “the images [a]re easier to live with than the words,” so to gesture toward one another in the form of words (in tells) even if so as a failed collaboration or a moment in which we are made aware that something profound has been lost, is brave: a type of chivalry.

Why spend an entire essay in wonder about the act of telling and it’s many nuances? Because “[we] do want to be known” and “nothing else gets [us] closer to others than to share an experience” (“Before I tell anyone anything, I wonder if what I’m looking for is solidarity”).

There are aspects that must be named prior to our “regressing in speech;” we are responsible for naming them. We owe our tells to ourselves and to others (whom are intending alongside of us). We owe, because “nobody else has what [we] have knowledge of” (“this wound over which I have control”). I think that it is totally appropriate to attempt (in the collaborative spirit that a collective ensues) and to fail therein. The attempt is what vivifies the tell. That is the point, even if it wracks us when (with our arms extended to others, and our intentions pure) our voice catches: a small, bleeding, croaking frog being crushed in the crippling privacy of our own lonely, still partially-locked throat.

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