A blood clot in the shape of a bronchial tree, a tree in the shape the air takes as we draw it into ourselves. Two trees, actually – one for each lung, upside down like branches reflected in water. (We are bodies of water too, mostly). A dying man in California, bringing up small clots of his own blood in a hospital suddenly, violently, coughed out a perfectly-formed, arboresque one. A cardiothoracic surgeon who attended to him called it “beautiful anatomy”. It is beautiful – and horrific – the way his blood filled the shape of his breath. I know we should not keep staring at this blood clot like it’s something between an art object and a talisman, without thought for the person who coughed it up in his final days, after his heart had failed but he was still alive. But as this strange year dwindles to a close, it feels like a perfectly-formed clot of blood is as worthy of meditation as any other symbol.
“A woman in the shape of a monster / a monster in the shape of a woman”, begins the Adrienne Rich poem for the astronomer Caroline Herschel and other unremembered women in the field. The delicate, brutal branches of that blood-sculpture evoke it. What shape would your truth take if it was expelled, whole, into the light of day? Would it be so monstrous, would it be so beautiful? (The two do not cancel each other out). The poem ends: “I am an instrument in the shape / of a woman trying to translate pulsations / into images for the relief of the body / and the reconstruction of the mind.”
For myself, I am perhaps hoping to do the reverse – to translate, relieve and reconstruct in ways so that image and thought become pulsations once more. I have been cerebral so long, and this being cerebral has compensated for what is in truth a loss of voice. I told an old friend: I lost my voice when my heart broke in the year I claimed my life back, and that helplessness manifested itself as thyroid disease. She didn’t know what I meant. She counted the evidence against my claim. And I said to her: I have not yet expressed what is truly within me, I have only brought forth echoes.
Echoes lack embodiment. I ground myself by considering the malfunction of the butterfly-shaped gland at the bottom of my throat. I place my fingers there and feel my pulse, the pace at which my blood fills me. I draw the infinity symbol in that place with frankincense oil. My friend went to the Pyramid of the Sun and the Moon in Teotihuacan, and she said that endangered monarch butterflies – those “daughters of the sun”, spirits of the beloved dead – throng and thrive there now. Our voice notes, disembodied, erase the distance between continents as if through flight. And one of these days, my voice will fill me again in the shape my breath takes when I speak, the shape of my secret passages. Arboresque like forking lightning, like the fractals of desert rivers. Fill them like liquid, like light.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 13th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.