Weekly Prose Feature: Two Lyric Essays by Anna Journey

March 1, 2013

Isabelle’s Tongue

I just bought the plum-colored, bisque tongue of a broken, antique Kestner baby doll on the internet. I don’t know why, exactly. I’m not a collector. I don’t have tables draped in doilies or cabinets glistening with crystal figurines of cats. I didn’t play with baby dolls as a child. I preferred small, plastic jungle animals. All I know is that as I did research for a poem, scrolling through online listings for bisque head French dolls, I scooted my swivel chair closer to my computer screen to stare at the following listing: “Tongue from a damaged antique large Kestner baby doll, marked with the NO. 16.” The tongue was five dollars. It was plump, an inch long, linked by a mottled black hinge to a little pancake of flesh-colored bisque, the latter of which had once formed the hard palate inside the now-shattered—and vanished—doll’s open mouth. On the smooth underside of the tongue, a factory worker had inscribed the number sixteen. “Am I a freak if I buy an antique doll’s tongue on the internet?” I called out from my office to my husband who typed in the back bedroom—the former sun parlor—of our Craftsman bungalow. David—also a writer—appeared in my doorway to scrutinize the image. He flicked his thumbnail through his beard, nodding. “Oh,” he said, “you have to have it.”

*

I’ve learned that the J.D. Kestner doll company produced dolls for over ninety years, from the early 1820s to approximately 1938, in the Waltershausen, Thuringia, region of Germany. This makes my doll’s tongue at least seventy-four-years-old. I’ve also discovered that, in addition to a mold mark and the phrase, “Made in Germany,” Kestner designers inscribed their dolls with a number that specified the size of the doll. Thus, my doll’s tongue was once hinged to a bisque baby’s head sixteen inches in circumference, the approximate skull-size of a child who’s larger than a newborn but still less than a year old.

*

In five days, my husband will drive ten minutes to a hospital in Santa Monica to have a vasectomy. “I’m never going to have children,” I’ve said for sixteen years, since I was a fifteen-year-old girl. “But if I ever did have a kid—in a parallel universe—I’d name her Isabelle.”

*

Three days until the vasectomy and my tongue hasn’t yet arrived in the mail. A woman who collects doll parts has already shipped the package, from her home in Rushville, Indiana. I learn this information by checking the tracking number courtesy of the USPS. I’ve discovered that some of Rushville’s other notable residents include Wendell Willkie, the dark horse Republican Party nominee who ran against Roosevelt during the 1940 presidential election, and a high school student named Tyell Morton, who was arrested by Rushville police last spring, after he left an inflatable sex doll inside a restroom in his school.

I like to imagine my tongue-sender—whose online username is “katydid22”—lives in a red-brick Victorian with cream trim, on the quiet and iron-fenced Perkins Street, like the picture of the house I found when I searched for images of Rushville, Indiana, on the internet. Her name is probably Katy. She may be twenty-two. She may have inherited the house from her grandmother, who had also collected dolls. Katy may have replaced the rows of porcelain knobs on her two antique walnut nightstands—one on either side of the bed—with small, bisque doll heads, their necks screwed to the right so those pupiled blue irises point toward the doorway. This way, Katy’s guardians keep watch while she sleeps.

*

Her name is Kathy—with a “th”—says the first class mailing label. Kathy J. Williams, from Rushville. I knife open the tiny cardboard box, unwind the tongue from its layer of rose-pink bubble wrap, and sit the mock-muscle on top of my desk. If I press down on the tongue with my fingertip and then let go, the piece flaps back up, like a piano’s sustain pedal. I leave the object on top of my desk for months, unsure about how to display it. Earnest and spare within a bell jar? Ironic in a bright, ceramic dish of butterscotch candies? Arty in a cabinet, sat between a cast-brass hummingbird skull and a holographic set of illustrated folk myths from the Museum of Jurassic Technology?

*

I went through a phase in childhood where I named everything that came into my possession Charlie, no matter the thing’s species or distinguishable sex: the black-and-white female rescue cat with the ripped ear; the Chinese fire belly newt I ultimately freed (irresponsibly) in my neighbors’ creek; the pet rock with the glued-on, wobbly eyes; the stuffed golden lab; the potted aloe. “Have you seen Charlie?” I’d ask my mother, breathlessly, as she suppressed a smile and wiped her hands on a blue dishtowel looped to the fridge. “Which one?”

*

I’ve wondered why I waited so long to use “Isabelle,” why I finally bestowed the name on an impulse buy, a random fragment. Why did I give away my prized name to a partial object, the rest of it crumbled out there—someplace? Even the aloe was whole. Even the pet rock had a face.

*

I don’t remember exactly when I threw the tongue away. I guess I couldn’t settle on a way to display it. The tongue had become part of my desk’s clutter: four different kinds of post-it notes (bird-printed, leaf-stamped, plain yellow, monogrammed with my full name in red); a collaged strata of scrawled poem-ideas, to-do lists, and reminders; stacks of books—Rachel Poliquin’s Taxidermy and the Culture of Longing—which I keep meaning to finish—Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s searing lyrics in Reliquary Fever: New and Selected Poems, a monograph of Francesca Woodman’s disturbing self-portraits of the photographer crawling nude through the slot in a gravestone or lying sideways near a dead eel. I didn’t have room for a tongue that sat here for a year—mute, refusing to speak.

*

Before popping a five-strip of Mad Hatters to trigger an LSD trip, when I was seventeen, I carefully drew an upper lip and pair of cartoon eyes on the side of my right pointer finger, in blue ink, and then sketched a lower lip on the top of my thumb, between its lower and middle knuckles. If I braced my thumb-tip against my pointer’s underside and wiggled my thumb, the drawn-on lips lined up to form a mouth that moved, as if my hand now had a face that could talk. I hoped the face would magically snap to sentience during my acid trip, so I could have wild conversations with it at the Grateful Dead-themed music festival in Brandywine, Maryland, where I was camping with friends for three days. “It’s family friendly, see?” I’d told my mother, showing her the flyer with a picture of musical notes floating above a rainbow over a tent-covered field and the words, “Dogs and children welcome.”

*

“Are you and David going to have children?” my friend Sarah asked me as we walked back from a coffee shop on the Venice boardwalk about a week after I’d eloped. Sarah, a Montana-born third-wave feminist who’d met her partner at a sweat lodge in the desert outside Phoenix, had two kids and the longest hair I’d seen outside the parking lot of a Phish concert. I’ve found that if I answer too quickly in the negative when someone inquires about my reproductive plans, I risk seeming like a fairy tale villain who’d sooner make a child-stew than a child’s bed. “No,” I said simply, after a casual, non-child-hating pause. “I understand completely,” she said, nodding.

*

As the acid began to kick in, my friends and I had positioned ourselves in a clump on a purple batik blanket on the grass next to our four-person tent. “It’s a magic carpet,” my friend John declared in a conspiratorial whisper. The rest of us agreed, and began to sway from side to side, as if the blanket were flying and rippling around Wilmer’s Park, above the heads of people playing didgeridoos or hula hooping before that night’s music acts started up. “Hey,” my friend Erin said, looking at my hand, “is it talking yet?” I stopped swaying and stared down at the face I’d drawn. The blue ink stood out in an icy, nearly vibrating harshness on my pale, freckled fingers. The cartoon mouth had taking on a mocking, sinister pout as if to imply, “Did you really believe I could speak without a tongue?” I spit a long drool-drip of saliva across the lips and eyes and smeared the ink with my other thumb, until the place where the face once was became a fraying, cobalt stain.

*

I’ve begun to wonder if Kathy read the Rushville paper the day Tyell Morton’s arrest was announced, if she found his propping an inflatable sex doll in one of his high school’s restrooms offensive or worthy of an arrest. “Now they’re arresting people for making statements with dolls?” she might wonder. Maybe she isn’t as conventional as her Indiana grandmother, Mabel. Maybe, late one night, she drove to the police precinct and left a pile of bisque babies’ bottoms on the front step, their anatomically incorrect, anus-less buttocks tipped up toward the Midwestern dusk. Wouldn’t a woman who sells old doll parts for a living have to have a sense of humor? Or maybe she’s despairing, rage-filled. Maybe she couldn’t conceive all those nights trying between the cornfields and so sells smashed-up dolls to strangers. Maybe they wouldn’t speak back to her either and she no longer wanted to wait.

*

Rushville’s Wendell Willkie—the dark horse Republican Party nominee in 1940. I like the term “dark horse.” It seems too poetic for use in political jargon. It comes from horseracing, actually. It means “a little-known person or thing who emerges to prominence.” Dark horse doll-lady Kathy. Dark horse prankster Tyell. Dark horse sex doll swelled to human-size in the high school restroom. Dark horse absurd arrest. Dark horse Wendell dead just four years after running for president. Dark horse heart attack at the end of his phantom first term. Dark horse sperm cinched off in the infamous operation. Dark horse tongue I named and threw away. Dark horse Isabelle. Dark horse face. A whole dark horse year, another, as they race.

 

Notes for a Fugitive

My cousin Kenneth can’t slip from the safe soil of Mexico and step into Texas without getting arrested. Redneck turned English teacher. Acne I could see from a satellite. High-school-educated, haphazard pot farmer and (former?) racist. Slur-hurler now married to a woman with a brown face—a Mexican doctor. Two biracial kids and a stucco place. Kenneth fled his mother Beulah’s doublewide in Greenwood, Mississippi—and his arrest warrant—after he shot off a guy’s kneecap at a dive bar. Some argument over a girl. I haven’t seen or spoken to Kenneth in over twenty years. The last and only full memory I have of him is this: It’s 1990. I’m ten-years-old. My little sister Rebecca’s seven. Kenneth’s eighteen. He’s leading us through the buzzing kudzu to a dry creek bed behind our Papaw’s hand-built two-story. The rusted cherry-picker overgrown as a Mesozoic ginkgo. Snare of blackberries in our red hair. Where are we going where even the water got up and fled town? Where the cicadas wrest themselves up from themselves, leaving their old halves behind—faux golden and glued down?

Kenneth walks ahead of us in this sliver of memory so thin I could slide it under my tongue. The pin oaks’ wiry roots, once submerged, now crosshatch the dry creek like whitened crawdad cages. We walk in silence, until we find an empty shell of a tortoise lying on the cracked, apricot dirt. Rebecca and I are afraid to touch it, but Kenneth picks it up, turns it over. There’s a backbone in low relief that rises from the inside of the shell—the dirt dusted between the vertebrae. In just months my mother will plunge through our attic floor and shatter her back. But I don’t know that yet—in this space—the heat swaying from the humidity that claims its own partially visible weight. We take the shell with us and I begin to pick at its layer of taffy-and-olive-flecked-brown to reveal the bare patchwork of bone beneath.

The picked-clean carapace is more skeleton than shell, is a boat for my Barbies, is a musty relic, is a lost piece of my Mississippi visits. But who is Kenneth? Who was he and who is he now? Who changed the channel when Rebecca and I watched shows with black faces on TV, as we happily rapped along to the theme song of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”? Who had oily, dishwater hair we called, in whispers, “Captain Mullet”? Who used words that made my mother say in a low tone of fury, “Never around my children”? Who had a lattice of spades and pitchforks thrusting up in the front yard instead of asters? Who called the four pit bulls and three obese cats “Little Girl” instead of granting each one a name?

My father’s middle name is Kenneth. He was supposed to be called “Ken,” for short, except my aunt Beulah, as a child, couldn’t say the “k.” Instead of “Ken,” she said, “Tim,” which became his name: “Kenneth” vanishing like my cousin vanished after blasting off that man’s kneecap with a Smith & Wesson. When the kneecap popped off, did it resemble the tortoise shell, spinning across the dive’s tiled floor? More likely, it shattered like my mother’s spine, like the rules of grammar long fractured in my cousin’s mouth. I don’t know how a man who couldn’t speak a single sentence without sounding like a backwoods Mississippi hillbilly could now teach English classes in Mexico. Apparently, though, a woman savvy enough to complete medical school must have seen something redeeming in him. Has he replaced “spic” with “cinnamon-skinned pediatrician,” “wetback” with “the curves of her spine”? Why did he become a teacher in the field of English—my field—which he filtered through his ignorance and maligned? How can I judge someone I no longer know—never really did know as a kid, following a future fugitive down the skeletal street of an evaporated creek? As I held out my hands to receive the tortoise shell, I saw it was empty and wondered how the living meat had freed itself—for good—of the Greenwood dirt.

Anna Journey

Anna JourneyAnna Journey is the author of the poetry collections Vulgar Remedies (Louisiana State University Press, 2013) and If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting (University of Georgia Press, 2009), which was selected by Thomas Lux for the National Poetry Series. Her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, The Best American Poetry, FIELD, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. She’s received fellowships for poetry from Yaddo and the National Endowment for the Arts, and she teaches creative writing in Pacific University’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing program.

Each Friday we will publish a new essay, review, or interview for the 32 Poems Weekly Prose Feature, edited by Emilia Phillips. If you have any questions or comments about the series, please contact Emilia at emiliaphillips@32poems.com. Note: The Weekly Prose Feature will go on hiatus for the AWP Conference in Boston, Massachusetts. We will resume the feature on Friday, March 15th. Be here the Ides of March!

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