In Which Taylor Swift Becomes A Stranger

Iconoclasted

by JANICE LEVENS

Reputation
Taylor Swift
producers Max Martin and Karl Schuster
November 10th on Big Machine

When evening comes, I go back home, and go to my study. On the threshold, I take off my work clothes, covered in mud and filth, and I put on the clothes an ambassador would wear. Decently dressed, I enter the ancient courts of rulers who have long since died. There, I am warmly welcomed, and I feed on the only food I find nourishing and was born to savour. I am not ashamed to talk to them and ask them to explain their actions and they, out of kindness, answer me. Four hours go by without my feeling any anxiety. I forget every worry. I am no longer afraid of poverty or frightened of death.

– Niccolò Machiavelli

If Taylor Swift is anything like the person depicted on her new album Reputation, she is the most devious, complicated, multifaceted person ever to exist. Let us take our time with a line from “I Did Something Bad”, which I believe in the end represents everything this woman is concerned with: “I never trust a narcissist, but they love me.” Such a statement implies that every single association Swift has with other people is deceitful in some way. This admission is startling on another level, since it prizes the latter section of the clause over the former. The beginning of the lyric is a preference, the ensuing clause is a state of being.

Of course there is the possibility that this, like so much else on Reputation, is tongue in cheek, or simply written by one of the many co-writers Swift has worked with over the years. On Reputation, Jack Antonoff and the producing-songwriting team of Karl Schuster and Max Martin are present to work in the confines of Swift’s familiar sound. But the lyrical voice is distinctly Swift’s own, and the message is completely fucked up:

I stay when it’s hard, or it’s wrong
Or we’re making mistakes
I want your midnights
But I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you

Again, if this is true, it’s desperately sad and twisted. If it’s only a conceit, the expression of it is somehow worse. I know that massive amounts of money and adulation are capable of changing a person, but altering them to this extent is potentially what happened to Lady Macbeth. Of course, no one ever said Lady Macbeth was boring, and Swift is intent on focusing this aspect of her personality. On “Dancing With My Hands Tied” she explains, “I’m the mess that you wanted.” Uh-huh.

But no one could ever think Swift was, or has ever been a mess. So that part is a lie, and probably a lot else on this album. Swift’s last album, the more enjoyably pop 1989, sold ten million copies, and Reputation attempts to put it in the dust. The more considered, low-key elements of that album are completely submerged here, with Swift more often sounding like mid-career Madonna than any iteration of herself.

There is something dated about Reputation, which suggests that the 27-year old is becoming very old, very quick. The orchestrations are generally limited, leaving the focus on Swift’s sharp, bouncy voice, which is at its best when breathily intoning in something like speech. “Dress” is her most complete and exciting track in this vein, explaining, “I don’t want you like a best friend,” hinting at a story she refuses to tell. Instead, we receive the following blandishments:

Even in my worst times, you could see the best of me
Flashback to my mistakes
My rebounds, my earthquakes
Even in my worst light, you saw the truth in me
And I woke up just in time
Now I wake up by your side

It would be compelling to watch Swift take on various new themes in her work, including authentic estimations of loss and love. Instead Reputation is an extended revenge fantasy on no one in particular. “I’ll be the actress starring in your bad dreams,” she blurts out on “Look What You Made Me Do.”

When Niccolo Machiavelli retired from private life, he wrote his signature work, The Prince. The entire time he was longing to return back to politics, since it was what brought joy to his life. In The Prince, he explains that such a person must be able to change his views at a moment’s notice. He isn’t able to be honest, because it would mean losing his ability to defeat his rivals, and kill them when he can. This was what Machiavelli called virtu. I feel like Taylor Swift is articulating a new philosophy along these lines, which is essentially a return to the old.

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Janice Levens is the music editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Los Angeles.


 

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In Which We Display Modesty As A Form Of Arrogance

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How to Behave

The final diaries of Søren Kierkegaard occupy themselves primarily with an extended discussion of faith. Søren viewed most things through the lens of Christ, usually disdaining the paltry efforts of organized religion to represent the god he felt inside of him. Over his lifetime, he composed over 7,000 pages of journals on this and various other topics. His extended thoughts on his own belief may interest believers and non-believers alike, but he was much pithier and less sacrosanct about other aspects of his life.

A serious misogynist, Kierkegaard had largely abandoned relationships with women near the end of his life. It had gone wrong once, and he refused to let it happen again. His relationship with the media, as reflected on below, could hardly be said to be better. He sees himself so definitely that at times he does not even realize how dead-on balls accurate he is. The highly edited extracts below from his last years on earth display modesty as a form of arrogance, ascended to highest ideal.

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It is commonly thought that it is cowardice to flee from the world and enter a monastery.

Now perhaps it is sometimes the case that such a man doubts whether he can endure the bestial laughter and ridicule, the persecution and maltreatment which may result from his having to express the ‘spirit’ in the midst of animal creatures.

But the matter can be regarded from another side. Such a man flees because he does not have the heart to upset the others, of whom he knows very well that he will never entirely win them to his view, and so he will only be a torment to them. Would you not much prefer to be rid of a man who speaks only of one thing, of dying, of dying to the world?

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My task is so new that in Christianity’s eighteen hundred years there is literally not one from whom I can learn how to behave.

When I die, there will be something for the professors! These wretched rascals! And it does not help, it does not help in the least, even if it is printed and read over again. The professors will still make a profit of me, and they will lecture away, perhaps with the additional remark that the peculiarity of this man is that he cannot be lectured about.

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If I were a father and had a daughter who was seduced, I should by no means give her up; but if I had a son who became a journalist I should regard him as lost.

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Evil is always more horrible the longer it lasts. Cannibals kill a man and eat him – and that is that. It lasts only a short time and when it is over, there is as it were a hope – till the next time – that the cannibal become a different man, might become better. But the priest and the professor make their preparations (with cold calculation) once for all to live on the sufferings of those saints. They get married on the strength of them, they beget children, they organize an idyllic and thoroughly enjoyable life. They live on the torment of the saints.

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Is moral philosophy not, like astrology and alchemy, a science which has to do with something which does not exist?

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Everyone who has a little experience knows at heart that this is a rotten world. But just as it is the done thing in a prison to keep a stiff upper lip, as it is also regarded as the cleverest thing to do, and to pretend one is having a good time, and as it is in consequence the custom in prisons to tease and torment the man who lets it be seen he is suffering, so with the whole world or with mankind in the world. In general, anyone who wants to understand human life as the whole would do best to study the criminal world – this is the really reliable analogy.

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Surely not even my bitterest enemy would deny that I shall acquire a certain renown. But I am beginning to wonder whether I will not become renowned in a quite different sphere than I have hitherto imagined – namely, as a naturalist. For I have discovered, or at least made a very significant contribution to the natural history of parasites, I mean priests and professors, those voracious and prolific parasites, who even have the effrontery (unlike other parasites) to try and pass themselves off as the friends and disciples of those whose sufferings they live on.

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What a woman is most afraid of, where she feels that her being and her power are annihilated, is when she has risked the utmost in seduction, and it ends with the laughter of her opponent. And strangely enough, wherever they get it from – presumably from instinct – women seem to suspect that so far as I am concerned, just when they make the greatest efforts I would burst out laughing – and no woman will risk this at any price.

Alas, there is some truth in this, that it could end with my bursting out laughing. But the reason is neither my great virtue nor my great spirituality but – my melancholy.

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The daily press is properly calculated to make personality impossible. For it has the effect of an immense abstration, the generation, which has infinite power over the single person. It is a means which was unknown in former times. For in former times the battle between a personality and the abstract was not so immensely disproportionate as now, when an individual who is impersonal and scoundrelly can use this fearful weapon against the single person.

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Most men do not have enough self-esteem to be able to assert themselves in the face of other men, so their self-esteem demands that they have some people who obey them absolutely, whom they have entirely in their power, so that they also feel that they are the man and the master. These people are children. God pity what takes place in family life! What brutality and what egoism are hidden there. Is is unfortunately only too certain that the parents usually need more upbringing than the children.

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When his mother is cursing him, Richard III, in order not to hear her curses, turns to the drummers and says, “Strike up the drum.” Is it not so with us all? There is something in us we do not want to hear.

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In Which John Cage Believed He Was Not A Writer

Eating His Words

by MARK ARTURO

I have no piano now. But that doesn’t bother me much. What I want is time.

John Cage thought he was not a writer. This is a scary thought, because I sometimes wonder what kind of writer he could have been if he gave up music and focused on writing full-time. There is a whole class of people who spent their entire lives pursuing one thing when they should have focused on another talent they had. For example:

Mark Wahlberg (waste management)

Jesus (community manager)

Damian Lillard (rap music)

Thom Yorke (pro-Israel advocacy)

Maybe my list makes this sound like a distinctly male problem, but I guess this would also apply to Joan Didion, who would have been a hell of a full-time model.

Back to John Cage. Mr. Cage’s letters are completely unself-conscious, which is the mark of every great correspondent. He never bothered censoring himself, since there was nothing terribly bad in his heart. He would go off on people when necessary though. Since he knew a lot about music, and most people writing about did not, he felt it was his duty to educate them.

I appreciate your interest in my work and the trouble you have taken to write the enclosed article. For many reasons, however, I am certain the publishing of this article would not serve either your or my best interests. People are accustomed to saying that anything printed about anything is “good publicity”; such a point of view doesn’t interest me. I am anxious that the article you publish be accurate as to facts and present some true and sensible critical evaluation of the work in percussion and its objectives. I have not really delayed answering your note; I have instead written several letters to you, each of which attempted to point out the errors in your article. I have decided, instead, that it would be better for you to write a new article entirely; and that I could best help you by giving a brief statement about facts and objectives.

I think he was a lot more generous in person. He married a woman, then spent the rest of his life with Merce Cunningham after she divorced him because of all the gay sex. His love letters condense ardor into a fine, tempered feeling, that pulsing with an orgasmic joy of infatuation. He makes love into something so tangible it could be held on the tip of my tongue.

My own feelings towards you were always those of wishing to flow in where it looked like water was absent (mixed with an inherited missionary attitude, itself not practicing what it preached). At any rate I feel very free that you are loving.

I don’t know when it was that I found out how to let this month go by without continual sentimental pain. It’s very simple now, because I’m looking forward to seeing you again rather than backward to having seen you recently.

For Merce he saved his most exquisite remainders.

My whole desire is to run up and down the sea coast looking for you.

Send me some little twig or a hair from near enigma or a piece of grass you touched and sunbathed with, mon prince.

Cage usually condensed his formal writing into the form of anecdotes. It was an aspect of his overall respect for how form shaped his thoughts and ideas. In his private writing, he drops this entire pretense, and it is disappointing to know it is a pretense. As a vehicle for theoretical thoughts about subjects like politics and man’s place in the world, the terse aphorism remains very effective. Cage usually pared these observations with choreographed dance by Merce. He was a stickler for detail on any project he pursued, even if the eventual outcome of the project was something as hilariously conceptual as 4’33”.

Silence is generally conceived as Cage’s first and best book, even though all his other collections of essays revolve around roughly the same topics. His view of the world has held up very well today, because while it does put faith in a variety of odd places, like Schoenberg, Zen Buddhism, and the I Ching, it never settles on any one of them more definitely than the other.

It is important to bring the concept of random chance into my life, and I am usually bad at allowing such things to happen. Arnold Schoenberg had a fear of the number thirteen and then he died on Friday the 13th. I think my main fear now is putting everything I have into something, and it not working out. If you only let a part of yourself, into the venture, maybe you will be like John Cage was with writing. You will have published books, but you will not have said anywhere near enough.

Mark Arturo is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan.

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In Which We Can Come To No Other Conclusion

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Hard to Say is This Recording’s weekly advice column. It will appear every Wednesday until the Earth perishes in a fiery blaze, or until North West turns 40. Get no-nonsense answers to all of your most pressing questions.

Hey,

I recently spent a semester abroad in France. I did not have the best experience for reasons too numerous to detail here. Before I left for France I hooked up with a friend named Alex. We kept in touch throughout the time I was away and with the prospect of my return to campus nearing, things took a different tone in our texts.

There was a lot of talk about being physical, which I did enjoy — it was great feeling close to Alex and I genuinely care for him. My concern is whether or not this represented a sincere desire on his part to be in a relationship. I’m not sure I know what he expects is going to happen and I feel weird bringing it up on skype or through text. 

How should I approach this?

Karen C.

Dear Karen,

Alex seems genuinely interested, but this is not surprising in itself. Straight men want to be with women, and setting up a expectation of a relationship through texting is a great way to make that happen.

The ensuing relationship will take whatever form you want it to. If you act cool towards Alex, he will not assume you are going to hop into bed with him, and how he behaves from then on will tell you everything you need to know about what intends for you two. It’s quite probable that he did not spend an entire semester pining after you, so find out what he was up to while you were away. I mean, don’t hold it against him. A private detective gets pricey quick, so start reading his e-mails while he is in the shower. Most people hide their passwords in plain text in their browser’s settings. Fucking idiots.

Illustrations by Mia Nguyen.

Hey,

My girlfriend, who we will call LeAnn after legendary country-western singer LeAnn Rimes (sp?), has put on quite a bit of weight over the past year. It has definitely affected how attracted I am to her even though I have tried everything I can think of not to let that happen. But I need to be honest — when I look at her, she doesn’t look like herself.   

I haven’t mentioned this at all to LeAnn, but she is definitely aware of the weight she has put on and she talks about it quite a bit. Drawing attention to the change has not made it go away, and only serves to remind me of the stress that caused it and that things are different. 

I have mentioned working out together and stuff but LeAnn’s schedule is not really conducive to this and she does exercise, but it is not really helping at this point. Is there any conceivable solution to my issue?

George M.

Dear George,

Over time, it is completely reasonable to change your view of a significant other. You are not going to be able to have the novelty of sexual discovery you possessed when you first met LeAnn. Sure, some people are so easily stimulated that the mere presence of a woman is enough to express lifelong devotion, but in most relationships you have to work to have that stimulation come from within and not the surface.

Whatever the reason, getting to know LeAnn better has no doubt thrown a wrench in your view of her. Extra weight is not the entire story; you will find that even if she suddenly discovers hot yoga, things will never quite be exactly how they were.

I would try finding the thing that is holding you back from loving LeAnn as she is. Once you find whatever that thing is and remove the obstacle, you probably won’t care very much about the weight, and you will need further therapy. Maybe get out of this relationship now before it’s too late.

 

In Which We Marry A South African Model Of Sorts

 

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Purple Hills

by JANICE LEVENS

Screen Shot 2017-11-05 at 6.45.58 PMRed Pill Blues
Maroon 5
Adam Levine, Jesse Carmichael, James Valentine, Sam Farrar, Mickey Madden, Matt Flynn, PJ Morton
producers Jason Evigan, John Ryan and Noah Passavoy
November 3rd on 222 and Interscope Records

Now that they are Maroon 7, you might imagine that this band’s new album would be less of The Adam Levine Show. But this is not correct, since Maroon 5 is convinced (perhaps justly so) that the source of their success is Levine’s supreme voice. On Red Pill Blues, Levine makes a habit of abandoning his trademark falsetto in favor of showing his complete range. His fantastic vocals frequently carried the backing instrumentation, and nothing has really changed in that respect on this new album.

Lyrically, Red Pill Blues is more mediocre than bad, but boy is it condescending. On “Denim Jacket” Levine announces

Someone else is taking you home, yeah
Hands on the waist, I used to hold
And I know it’s my fault
I’m late to the dance
‘Cause you couldn’t wait for me and I understand

Things don’t get better when Levine duets with the generic Julia Michaels on the Diplo-produced “Help Me Out.” The track is meant to divorce itself from the sonic landscape Maroon 5 typically impose on their listening audience, but it just comes across as awkward and dated when Michaels’ huskier and darker voice intones, “I need some uncomplicating.” It is difficult to parse exactly what she means by this, or if she’s referring to Gwyneth or what. The sexist undertones practically pulsate. Perhaps sensing that this collaboration with another white artist was a mistake, Red Pill Blues features a number of extremely brief guest shots with African-American artists, including SZA and A$AP Rocky.

On “Who I Am”, Levine weirdly serenades Miami rapper LunchMoney Lewis, who sounds maybe four decades younger than Levine. Levine crowds Lewis out of the track, which concerns itself with how he enjoys being dominated by women until it goes too far. It’s hard to understand where this thematic work really fits within Levine’s experience, but since the song barely lasts three minutes, it’s sort of suggested no one involved with this garbage knows either. As on tracks like the lazy jam “Visions” or “Whiskey”, where Levine sounds like he is an entire Earth away from Rocky, the sparser instrumentation pretty much buries any chance backing vocals or instrumentation had to accentuate or otherwise improve the mediocre songwriting.

Also, perhaps I am simply naive, but how can something simply be like “whiskey”? That is not so much a metaphor as a word. (The song seems disturbingly engineered to be used in a liquor advertisement.) It is best to avoid such subtle incriminations in any artistic endeavor. In order to deflect from this pandering type of self-incrimination, Levine retreats to his most developed emotion — his anger at women from his past who contact him now that he is married to South African model Behati Prinsloo.

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On “Closure”, he completely abdicates responsibility for his past actions. “How did we end up in this situation?” Levine groans, “Guess it went exactly as you planned: I always give in to your manipulation.” While such indictments of exes seem to us, in this time, as excessively condescending, we may be underestimating how deeply women fall in love with Adam Levine. Sex with Adam Levine is like perching on the finest toilet imaginable, so much so that “Closure” drones on for a full twelve minutes with jazz soloing meant to make us forget the miserable lyrics. At some point, you just hope it comes out.

Red Pill Blues does have highlights, moments that make you wish Levine had written the entire album with the eminently consistent Pakistani-American songwriter Ammar Malik, his co-writer on the classic pop song “Payphone”. “Wait” nearly reaches those heights, with Levine singing about somewhat darker themes vaguely outside of his own experience (“Wasn’t trying to get wasted, I needed more than three or four to say this”). A ballad co-written with Charlie Puth and Julia Michaels, “Lips on You”, is similarly catchy, but as nutritionally empty as a soft-drink. Someone has to show Levine what a metaphor is.

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Janice Levens is the music editor of This Recording.

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In Which This Could Be A Normal Family

The following review does not contain major spoilers for the second season of Stranger Things.

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Life on Mute

by ETHAN PETERSON

Stranger Things 2
creators The Duffer Brothers
Netflix

11-stranger-things-s2.nocrop.w710.h2147483647.jpgIt would be nice of everyone involved with Stranger Things 2 to offer a cut of this limited series without the non-original music. The aural shitposting in this dull sequel to the brilliant original becomes overwhelming somewhere during the eighth rendition of a Duran Duran track that, I’m sorry, was not very good to begin with. The incessant period soundtrack is all the more disappointing and generic-sounding because the original music, composed by Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon of Survive, is so much better than the trash that horrendous decade emitted from its orifices. But whatever. Maybe that is the least of the problems in this meandering return to Hawkins, Indiana.

New this season is Max (Sadie Sink), a fetching redhead at the school where Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Will (Noah Schnapp) spend most of their time moping. Once these boys used to play Dungeons & Dragons and go on adventures. With the onset of early puberty, everything has turned to shit. Fuck Jim Croce, Duran Duran, Ted Nugent, Al Casey, Dan Quayle, Roy Orbison, Pat Benatar and Olivia Newton-John. Fuck The Police.

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Time is also out of joint for Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer). Nancy is already beginning to look like her mother; her fresh-faced joie de vivre has pretty much entirely vanished. She spends most of her time complaining to her sometimes boyfriend Steve (Joe Keery), who has given up his college ambitions in order to enter his father’s business. Hawkins is the saddest town in the world, and unlike the sonorous mystery of the original, here the main question is whether Will, who returned from the upside-down at the end of last season, will be able to sleep through the night.

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Winona Ryder has, for some reason, entered into a passionate relationship with Bob (Sean Astin). Astin is meant to bring us conjoined memories of The Goonies (Fuck The Goonies); instead he and Ryder have all the natural chemistry of a frog inside a shoplifted handbag. Ryder in particular is given almost nothing to work with this season. At least last time out she was believably concerned, driven to find her missing son. Now she is completely aimless, and financially provided for by a man who looks like a lugwrench.

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It is kinda weird that Stranger Things 2 focuses so much on the romantic aspect of the show, because that is exactly the kind of material the Duffer brothers cannot write, like at all, even if you gave them a million pages. First of all, love between middle schoolers ain’t exactly the most fertile territory to begin with, and high school ardor is barely better.

When Nancy drunkenly tells Steve how little she cares for him and that their relationship is bullshit, the show just has her pretend her subconscious was doing the talking. That way she is not actually a functional character, but simply a Mary-Sue-esque projection of what men require from their women. At one point I thought if I saw Nancy in one more turtleneck I was going to scream.

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Stranger Things distinguished itself in the way it wrote believable and meaningful storylines for young people, brought to life by a substantial and broad cast of child actors. All that is still present, although the acting of Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is clunky and poor overall. Stranger Things 2 could have used a whole lot more imagination regarding what young people actually feel and think. The boys of this story are either bracingly mature and completely naive, sometimes within the same scene. Mostly it is hard to tell, because the Duffer brothers are focused on the more pandering, comedic side of what they created.

Well, that was all a mistake. Instead of a generic shadow monster, they had a chance to actually make something that blended horror with a realism of time and place that added to, rather than subtracted from that intrinsic aesthetic. Instead, Stranger Things 2 is a watered-down retread of the first, chock full of the fan service that should have only come after they ran through their original ideas. Or did they have any in the first place?

Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.

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In Which We Used To Love Her Almost Completely

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In the Garden

by MARK ARTURO

You were the painted face, the considered night, three black stallions on a march. I was the peeled-back rind of something discarded, repurposed as a hat. You had seven weeks to answer one simple phone call. You did not fail at the task, but it could not be said you completed it, either. A cage can have openings, more than one, invisible to the eye but whole in themselves. You were the winding clock, I was each movement of the hand, and that is what I miss.

Your sister Leslie had this tiny boat she used to go out on as a girl, long before the cancer. I still get Christmas cards from her. There is a diligence in certain people which feels like tracing a finger against that long, white wall. Those individuals break themselves against incontinence, instructing us that nothing is ever really unbearable. I want to imagine a better person than myself.

Leslie featured the gifted dress, paeans to songbirds so unexpected beaks shut in response, an animal smell, not unpleasant but still worrisome. You had the clean scent, the arched neck, the light sweat misting on an exchange. I had the bottle.

In our purpose, there is an accounting of deed and voice. You talked too much, on the phone, at night. You made me feel apoplectic with your nonsense worries. Not angry at you, or me, but the corruption of the world. Sweetness always reverses itself. That is why I never take it seriously when someone believes that I am cold.

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You rolled the magic die, ending the game too early or not soon enough. I was the wizened epoch, managed as a tragedy and destined for repose. Leslie was the ancient crutch; her daughter is the swirling phantom. No more adjectives left now. Only people, and their nightingale eyes.

Here’s what I can do: wrap the old engine, shiny and clean of grease, in a red plastic container to hide it from thieves. Glove the sky and hold tighter than you believed you could when you found something you wanted, or loved. The only firm grip is that of God, she said, but I did not believe her words: only acts.

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Calm is an additive, something you put into it. From here, isometric, symmetrical.

Here’s where we can go: Portugal, or further down on the peninsula. To your mother’s house. I’d honestly love to see her garden. Over to the campus, where you waited with coffee all those hours. Tibet and Mali, whistling over a new ocean. Stand outside the house, wondering if the human beings inside of it are nice, or if they turned. Ireland. Bermuda. The tall hill in that photograph of you.

Making visible the hours in the arbor. Holding a small object rather than a long, thin point. Stars in her throat, face against the ground. The sea of the formerly inconceivable. A key frame redrawn on paper.

This is the last attempt, until the next one. You were all the condensation. Leslie was the morning rush, her daughter the ancient tome. I made a few things with my hands just to show you they could still work. I won’t touch anyone with them again until you say they do.

Mark Arturo is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in New York. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.

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