Issue 35, Final Fringe

All Speaking Was Like Singing: a literacy autobiography

by Leigh Phillips Issue 4 07.08.2006

This will be the room of many hours. Color out and over the white noise electric hum. The bad dreams of my memory, what I’ll have to do. If writing isn’t written out of desperation, I’m not sure I’ll ever have any interest in reading it, I thought once in a colorless sick room. But I couldn’t paint over, and so I wanted to sing. I wanted to make sounds out of the soundless atmosphere, but someone had already done that. In the country there was a bird, the move of leaves, the rumble of faraway jets. I could sing over, but there wasn’t any other beauty and the city, any city is imbued with the music I want to become. I decided to make music out of my tongue’s translation to a story. The story of a thousand broken film reels. The fractured lens, broken canvas, the breaking of the already broken–daylight breaking would be what it is always–solid as a Picasso, then the impressionistic blot of a lover’s fingers stretching into the chords of me that make me sing. The precious things. What I want to say before the saying is done.

I don’t remember when I started to read. I don’t remember much at all, really. The story goes, I’m told, like this: my thirty-year-old mother was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and two weeks later was in a wheelchair. A couple of months later, she went into the nursing home. I don’t remember this. I don’t remember her. And I don’t remember when I learned to read. I suppose reading was this. When she went away, my father said I never stopped playing. I never stopped, never blinked, but something started. The hunger for color. A sense of urgency. Emergency.

All life and love was brittle in between my teeth and tongue: there was a word for this I didn’t know. I took time in stride like so many communion wafers, waiting for enough words to change the world. I was six and I liked God then, prayed long diatribes to a deaf sky over our pasture, stretching grey gone wild and so I was because I had legs and arms and knew how to dance, laugh, scream, fight–this language was the love of life, and I was living every touch of sunset screaming and God this is God the God is so beautiful in the—

I am eight years old and I don’t know what I’m writing. There is writing—I can’t stop. My father stops by my room to replace the typewriter ribbon, but I don’t know what I’m doing, there’s just this fun thing to do in the country where there is no TV and when I’m bored the world goes still and when I’m still, it’s not enough.

I am twelve years old and it is Christmas. I’m in the nursing home, wrapping paper scattered across my mother’s hospital bed. “Open another one, babe” she urges me, and so I do, smiling, gratefully and guiltily. “Just like you asked for.” And the paperbacks with the glistening colors, fuchsia, blues, they smell like progress. My grandmother, who has done the shopping for her this year, and every year, hunches over the bed, gathering scotch-taped wrappings in her rheumatoid arms. What the books are and were are not important, and as an author, I can tell you now: they may or may not have featured certain sun-dappled suburban twins with Anglo-aquamarine eyes and a perfect size six. I would come to learn three years later, I was not one of those girls, never would be one of those girls, and at sixteen, I no longer wanted to.

I want another hour of Lights-On and I am five years old. “Lights-On” is what happens when my father reads the ‘miles to go before we sleep’ song and the story of Goodnight Moon. When lights are off, the reading stops and I say, goodnight moon. Tomorrow there will be lights on again. Until goodnight again, the world dreams because I dream.

I am eighteen and not in love yet, because being in love is a lot like language, and there isn’t a single word, but a series of sounds and that is all and all is one.

I am in love with The Bell Jar and I am sixteen. This is probably a good thing, because I haven’t changed my clothes in a series of days and the sky has stopped speaking. Something starts. Sylvia Plath is the sound of sad, “the sound of colossal things breaking” dad says to me as he hands it to me, knowing I’m already written for.

At eighteen, I’m going to college and I am scared that I am dumb. The future goes something like this: I will get an associate degree if I don’t fail math and science and will do copyediting at the Saratogian newspaper. I’ll edit adds for four-wheelers and prosthetic limbs and work my way up to the Local. But as a first-year English Major, this is what I get: Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, lightning storms that make me cry. And now it won’t stop raining: Carole Maso is water down the face of my greatest love. “Viciousness in the kitchen, the potatoes hiss” is inscribed on the collages I build and build along the walls of my dorm room, dumb girl murals on every inch because there couldn’t be any white. The future goes something like this:

All day, I was writing. All night, I was reading. Early morning, I was dancing, reaching hands higher into the neon strobe lights in Bacardi nights of being twenty-one and untouchable by every midnight. I wake to paper, and instead of a poem, I put Dear Mom, I miss you. And this is the past: I am eleven years old and feeding my mother. It is lunchtime. There isn’t any past. I am always here with the spoon half raised in the air because it is a bad day; she is trembling; there isn’t an orderly in sight. My light is wincing from her pain, how embarrassed she is that I should even have to try. My ribcage is holding my heart in place. We’re alive. There is music everywhere.

The horns outside reach through my windows and I am twenty-five, a poet living in a shit-for-nothing shack. I smoke too much, I swear too much, I’m too gay, I’m beautiful. My mirrors are covered with lines from Neruda, my walls with poems from friends. The radio is always on and I’m dancing. My hair is pink and I am singing. I’m in love with my dreams last night; I’m broken by my dreams last night; the phone rings and it’s not my friends, the phone rings and it’s not a friend, there isn’t any, only this–the static of the phone, my father asking if I am okay, the city sheds its skin and splits in half in the palm of this receiver, and for a moment there is nothing–no car, no touch, no breath or earth and she is gone and I am young and my weeping body is a wanting word: a variation on the concept of a song.

Everything is permanent because nothing is permanent.

And this, the only way.

This will be the room of many hours. Color out and over the white noise electric hum. The bad dreams of my memory, what I’ll have to do. If writing isn’t written out of desperation, I’m not sure I’ll ever have any interest in reading it, I thought once in a colorless sick room. But I couldn’t paint over, and so I wanted to sing. I wanted to make sounds out of the soundless atmosphere, but someone had already done that. In the country there was a bird, the move of leaves, the rumble of faraway jets. I could sing over, but there wasn’t any other beauty and the city, any city is imbued with the music I want to become. I decided to make music out of my tongue’s translation to a story. The story of a thousand broken film reels. The fractured lens, broken canvas, the breaking of the already broken–daylight breaking would be what it is always–solid as a Picasso, then the impressionistic blot of a lover’s fingers stretching into the chords of me that make me sing. The precious things. What I want to say before the saying is done.

I don’t remember when I started to read. I don’t remember much at all, really. The story goes, I’m told, like this: my thirty-year-old mother was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and two weeks later was in a wheelchair. A couple of months later, she went into the nursing home. I don’t remember this. I don’t remember her. And I don’t remember when I learned to read. I suppose reading was this. When she went away, my father said I never stopped playing. I never stopped, never blinked, but something started. The hunger for color. A sense of urgency. Emergency.

All life and love was brittle in between my teeth and tongue: there was a word for this I didn’t know. I took time in stride like so many communion wafers, waiting for enough words to change the world. I was six and I liked God then, prayed long diatribes to a deaf sky over our pasture, stretching grey gone wild and so I was because I had legs and arms and knew how to dance, laugh, scream, fight–this language was the love of life, and I was living every touch of sunset screaming and God this is God the God is so beautiful in the—

I am eight years old and I don’t know what I’m writing. There is writing—I can’t stop. My father stops by my room to replace the typewriter ribbon, but I don’t know what I’m doing, there’s just this fun thing to do in the country where there is no TV and when I’m bored the world goes still and when I’m still, it’s not enough.

I am twelve years old and it is Christmas. I’m in the nursing home, wrapping paper scattered across my mother’s hospital bed. “Open another one, babe” she urges me, and so I do, smiling, gratefully and guiltily. “Just like you asked for.” And the paperbacks with the glistening colors, fuchsia, blues, they smell like progress. My grandmother, who has done the shopping for her this year, and every year, hunches over the bed, gathering scotch-taped wrappings in her rheumatoid arms. What the books are and were are not important, and as an author, I can tell you now: they may or may not have featured certain sun-dappled suburban twins with Anglo-aquamarine eyes and a perfect size six. I would come to learn three years later, I was not one of those girls, never would be one of those girls, and at sixteen, I no longer wanted to.

I want another hour of Lights-On and I am five years old. “Lights-On” is what happens when my father reads the ‘miles to go before we sleep’ song and the story of Goodnight Moon. When lights are off, the reading stops and I say, goodnight moon. Tomorrow there will be lights on again. Until goodnight again, the world dreams because I dream.

I am eighteen and not in love yet, because being in love is a lot like language, and there isn’t a single word, but a series of sounds and that is all and all is one.

I am in love with The Bell Jar and I am sixteen. This is probably a good thing, because I haven’t changed my clothes in a series of days and the sky has stopped speaking. Something starts. Sylvia Plath is the sound of sad, “the sound of colossal things breaking” dad says to me as he hands it to me, knowing I’m already written for.

At eighteen, I’m going to college and I am scared that I am dumb. The future goes something like this: I will get an associate degree if I don’t fail math and science and will do copyediting at the Saratogian newspaper. I’ll edit adds for four-wheelers and prosthetic limbs and work my way up to the Local. But as a first-year English Major, this is what I get: Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, lightning storms that make me cry. And now it won’t stop raining: Carole Maso is water down the face of my greatest love. “Viciousness in the kitchen, the potatoes hiss” is inscribed on the collages I build and build along the walls of my dorm room, dumb girl murals on every inch because there couldn’t be any white. The future goes something like this:

All day, I was writing. All night, I was reading. Early morning, I was dancing, reaching hands higher into the neon strobe lights in Bacardi nights of being twenty-one and untouchable by every midnight. I wake to paper, and instead of a poem, I put Dear Mom, I miss you. And this is the past: I am eleven years old and feeding my mother. It is lunchtime. There isn’t any past. I am always here with the spoon half raised in the air because it is a bad day; she is trembling; there isn’t an orderly in sight. My light is wincing from her pain, how embarrassed she is that I should even have to try. My ribcage is holding my heart in place. We’re alive. There is music everywhere.

The horns outside reach through my windows and I am twenty-five, a poet living in a shit-for-nothing shack. I smoke too much, I swear too much, I’m too gay, I’m beautiful. My mirrors are covered with lines from Neruda, my walls with poems from friends. The radio is always on and I’m dancing. My hair is pink and I am singing. I’m in love with my dreams last night; I’m broken by my dreams last night; the phone rings and it’s not my friends, the phone rings and it’s not a friend, there isn’t any, only this–the static of the phone, my father asking if I am okay, the city sheds its skin and splits in half in the palm of this receiver, and for a moment there is nothing–no car, no touch, no breath or earth and she is gone and I am young and my weeping body is a wanting word: a variation on the concept of a song.

Everything is permanent because nothing is permanent.

And this, the only way.

Leigh Phillips

Leigh Phillips

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Leigh Phillips is working towards her PhD at Binghamton University, focusing on contemporary feminisms, political discourses, and experimental poetics. Her poems have appeared in Harpur Palate, Long Shot, Lodestar Quarterly, Shampoo, and Ugly Poets, Beautiful Poems: An Anthology of Fusion. She is circulating her first poetry manuscript, Naked in the Heartbreak House. Leigh also has articles in the Encyclopedia of Third Wave Feminism, and in the forthcoming Encyclopedia of the Modern World.