Dear Human Who Is Reading a Short Piece by Margaret Emma Brandl
Dear Human Who Is Reading a Short Piece by Margaret Emma Brandl,
In order to become the person to whom this letter is addressed, please read “Bones: A Letter to Walt Whitman” by Margaret Emma Brandl before going any further.
Letters allow us to sort through a collective trauma privately. Brandl’s speaker narrates a time immediately following the September 2011 attack on the World Trade Center. She begins by addressing the story to Walt Whitman, and maybe the invisible object—the thing the statue is staring at— is the collective aftermath of this event. Brandl uses the bones to carry it; she lists and describes bones vividly, repeatedly, tibia, skull, the scent of bone dust, the noun femur.
In order to shift back-and-forth between her feelings, the speaker turns to Walt Whitman, and calls him inside the text. “My hands were shaking, too, Walt Whitman…”, the speaker tells us. One can imagine Walt Whitman as a sort of patron saint of the United States of America, or the poet laureate of the dead during collective trauma, and this aligns with his role in the Civil War as someone who worked and took care of the wounded.
“It was so much, Walt Whitman.” The speaker continues to invoke him, repeatedly, to draw him down into this room with these bones. The repetition of the ending word – “death, death, death, death”— is spoken in response to the interlocutor. But it is also the first place in which Walt Whitman speaks – and he speaks as some words that she read, in quotation. So one imagines, the writer having an idea for a story, and then reading a line from Walt Whitman, and somehow framing the whole day, or finding a way into this whole day, as an event, which can only be described to him – because he is dead. And because he has seen bones.
Brandl includes fragmented clauses inside her story. This is appropriate to the epistolary form; anyone who disagrees has not written a letter of value to another human being or to Adorno’s phantom mullet. When I worry about using clauses in a piece, when I balk at violating the rules of grammar, this small note written by Clarice Lispector helps me put my work in the proper perspective:
To the Linotype Operator Forgive all the typing mistakes. First, it's because my right hand was badly burned. And second, well, I have no idea really. A request: please don't correct me. Punctuation is the breath of the sentence, and that's how my sentence breathes. And if you find me odd, respect that too. Even I have been forced to respect myself. Writing is a curse.
Writing is a curse, and punctuation is the breath of the sentence. Some sentences need gills to breathe underwater. Some sentences carry oxygen tanks. Each sentence has its own needs based on the context and environment in which it exists. When I’m trapped in stale conceptions of how sentences should breathe, I often shift gears and listen to music– I pair a prose piece with a musical one and let both tickle me. Margaret Brandl’s piece could be paired with a song addressed to Walt Whitman, via his niece.
Writing is a curse that tastes delicious, and develops gills or wings when we immerse ourselves in the sensorium of possibility. Music is part of that. Music brings the lyre to the mythos.