Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Affect Feature—Issue 55, July 2015)

Divya Victor

I am not a painter, I am a poet.

Why? I think I would rather be

a painter, but I am not. Well.

“Why I am Not a Painter”—Frank O’Hara


A blister into which your own body pours itself to breaking point.

A cut through which your body separates from itself.

A heating of your flesh until it gives way to other flesh, fat, bone.

A wound, which is you and yours, at once.

A scalded wrist will cause my husband to flinch away from me when I rush to help; a chronically vengeful, arthritic knee will cause my grandmother to stay in her room all day and night. Whether caused by a child grazing her knee on a pavement or a soldier piercing the side of corpus christi with a lance, the “wound” is the area where a sharp or blunt object applied with great pressure causes tissue to separate from tissue. Then, as if an afterthought: pus and blood (and water, in corpus domini) flee the inside of a body and enter the world. Flesh off my flesh, blood off my blood. Or, alternatively, where pus and blood organize near the site of impact, causing a bruise—that eggy ochre or livid blush that a child calls an owie; that a prosecutor calls evidence.

We have been trained to announce our wounds; we have been asked to present them at court. And, yet, as recent events have shown, only some bodies are audible. In other words, our wounds have sought witnesses and have also been betrayed by them. Rubbing salt in one’s wounds, on the other hand, preserves the flesh, gives us a body that we can’t live with, as well as a body we can’t live without.

A wound is an opening you weren’t prepared for. You always arrive at the scene after the weapon does. If the wound is the area of the body where the “obscene conflation of private and public” is enforced, then pain is the reaction that privatizes the experience of the wound. Which is to say: the laceration leads to lachrymation—rips and tears; ripped to tears. Even as a wound opens the body to the public, extreme physical pain leaves a subject isolated, and with little hope for “camaraderie or shared experience.”1 It is the Lunchables of all traumas—all the makings of a feast, but nothing left to share with others.


Physical pain makes us by unmaking us. Some of the earliest scientific and personal documents describing bodily pain observe what we now take as common sense—that pain makes us fall to pieces. Philosophers have consistently suggested that pain’s constructive capacity revolves around the deformation of a pain-free subject. Augustine described it as “a sensation of our own decay”; Alexander of Hales described it as a “rupture in continuity”; Avicenna described it as the “sensing of a contrary thing” within oneself; Antonin Artaud wrote that pain “intensifies and deepens, multiplies its resources and means of access at every level of sensibility.”2 In all these descriptions, pain is likened to an entity—a dybbuk barbed on to your bones—disallowing commiseration between ego and identity, stalling you from answering to your own name.

A person in great pain imagines that her body has turned against her. There is a feeling that the body and the subject are in conflict with each other, or that one is estranged from the other. Even as it produces a subject, pain wedges a fissure within the subject to make them appear as “not oneself.” The greater the pain, the more insistent the wedge, the more split the subject. We are easily logged; easily dislodged. Pain accomplishes this by exhausting language of its abilities. Moderate pain “monopolizes language,” through complaining or endlessly describing the wound, but extreme pain decimates one’s ability to verbally project oneself. Whereas an ache makes you loquacious, extreme pain excommunicates you from the world.

Pain doubly alienates a suffering subject from self and from society. Elaine Scarry has described the phenomenon of this double alienation as constitutive of the suffering subject:

While pain is, in part, a profound sensory rendering of ‘against,’ it is also a rendering of the “something’ that is against, a something at once internal and external. Even when there is an actual weapon present, the sufferer may be dominated by a sense of internal agency.

She observes that when “a knife or nail or pin enters the body, one feels not the knife, nail, or pin but one’s own body, one’s own body hurting one.” And, of course, what I’ve just observed is that that ‘one’ is two—split. Pain makes villains out of the sore tooth and hang-nail; makes us fight tooth and nail with the closest of flesh and blood: ourselves. Our bodies, our hells.


But extreme pain not only splits, it consumes. In her novel Wetlands, Charlotte Roche describes her 18 year old protagonist waking up in a hospital room having just undergone surgery to excise a septic hemorrhoid—her irate ‘cauliflower’: “The pain isn’t directly on the wound, but all around it. A blown sphincter…it feels as if the hole is as big around as my entire ass.” The protagonist feels not the wound, but the absence it implies. Comical and melancholic as she is, Roche’s protagonist has lost all sense of scale and proprioception. She feels around and is afraid of disappearing into her own hole. She is wound into her wound.

This is because physical pain does not seek a referent outside the body. Emotional pain does—it weeps itself soggy over lost objects. The object of physical pain is all too obvious—it is the subject. And that is the disaster. We see ourselves in the distorted, calloused portraits of Lucian Freud not because we resemble them, but because they appear to be themselves and nothing more than stretched canvas and paint.3 The portrait seems immune to seeking a reference outside of itself. Freud was clear from the beginning “that [he] wished his paintings to be of people, not like them.” This is no art of mimicry, but one of duplication: monkey see, monkey be. Paint, as Freud said, should behave like flesh: “As far as I am concerned the paint is the person.” And, the same goes for pain. Pain pluralizes the access to the subject until it “eliminates all that is ‘not itself.’”4 It is the only fullness of an emptied subject. Pain, in other words, is not figurative—it does not merely represent an experience—it is conceptual in the natal sense of the term: it makes you. It is, also, the ‘you’ it conceives. It is both Brundle and Fly.5

Which is to say, pain remakes the subject in its image—after all, “the suffering” are those who are suffering. Or, in the words of Regan, the pubescent girl possessed by the spirit of the Assyrian demon Pazuzu, in The Exorcist: “You’re going to die up there.” Regan is referring to herself. The first thing pain possesses is the pronoun. You are next.

4.Staying Awake and Watching

You hate it when others watch you in pain because you aren’t there to look back. And the witness can watch you because you can’t look back. There is no locking eyes with physical pain. Or as the speaking witness in one of Rob Halpern’s poem divulges—“Where no one’s body is I can be.”6 The witnesses to physical wounds watch from the key holey of holies—peeping tombs, all of them—still and grave with giant, worried eyes and dry mouths.

It is unintuitive and true that autopsy—from its root autopsia—means to see with one’s own eyes. The players are the seer and the seen—and yet, the game has room for only one body. The dead hold all the tr/aces. Thus, witnessing physical suffering demands something quite other than witnessing emotional suffering. The silent Zapruder film shows Jackie Onassis reaching for fragments of skull and brain as they bounce off the boot of the Lincoln Continental. Her response is action, salvage—articulation of wrist and arm, knee and thigh. Her words, right after, were “They have killed my husband and I have his brains in my hand.”7 And she repeated this statement several times, describing exactly what had happened and what she had done at the instance of wounding. There is absolutely no resort to metaphor here, as a witness to absolute horror. Onassis is lucid, clear-sighted, clear-throated—unnervingly so.

We have had a long time to prepare for an uncomfortable articulacy that always trumps any respectful silence we could offer the wounded and the suffering. We become loquacious when we speak of physical suffering, believing we are more useful to it with our mouths open—not agape, but mid-speech—with waking mouths. Though the difference is aspirational and unpredictable. Audre Lorde described pain, which she knew well, as the opposite of twilight sleep —as a kind of bright wakefulness.8 (Pain is, of course, a kind of battery: it keeps you alive and it beats you up.) But this wakefulness is also a kind of witnessing—a watchfulness over bodies (not persons) that escalates during the shatter or bone and brain; or burrows down into studying document and artifacts.

Open wounds attract flies, witnesses, cameras. They demand averted glances, sutures, vigilance. We borrow that word—vigilance—from the Catholic practice of guarding the corpse so it isn’t stolen, because we worry that it will leave us with nothing to bury but our grief. In contrast to condolences (offering and receiving), which are wordy, florid, vigilance is mute, repetitive—rarely expressive. Vigilance sometimes just means staying awake and repeating the words we have heard from our mothers and our mother’s mothers: Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with you, Blessed are you among Women. Or, as Jackie did, repeat after me: “They have killed my husband and I have his brains in my hand.”


1Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain, 53 (1987).
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2Esther Cohen, The Modulated Scream: Pain in Late Medieval Culture, 1–3 (2010).
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3My epigrammatic O’Hara shares a similar sentiment, addressing his lover in “Having a Coke With You”: “and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint/ you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them.” Yes, we do, Frank—we do wonder, and this is why.
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4Scarry, 54–55.
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5Pain is, however, not Jeff Goldblum. Fear not. Or, do.
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6Rob Halpern, Music for Porn, 71 (2012).
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7This is according to the testimony of Mr. John Bowden Connaly, Jr. the then Governor and his wife, as presented during the hearings of the Warren Commission.
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8She says this in an interview with Nina Winter (1976), while discussing a soporific drug, Scopolamine, which is typically a calmative now prescribed in weaker doses for digestive disorders. In the original context, Lorde is speaking about a fictional character consuming this.
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