HARRIET: Dispatches from an Ailing City in a Dying Empire

HARRIET was first published in Staatstheater Hannover Magazine in 2020.

In The Pure Lover, American novelist and memoirist David Plante records his experience with his love through what he calls “A Memoir of Grief,” moving through the Greek alphabet to spell out the life of his partner Niko Stangos, who died of cancer that spread from his lungs to his spine and finally to his brain. As ferocious as the cancer must have been, so was Plante’s desire to keep the memory of his love legible, as he assembled what seemed like all the notes and recollections he could to craft “an invisible Greek amphora, larger than all the assembled fragments, shaping the larger invisible whole.”

I can’t help but think of Derek Walcott’s words in The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory:

Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole.

What makes this kind of love possible is the attentive mourning that takes place at the site of loss: the break, followed by the collection of pieces, and then the assemblage. What becomes most legible in this instance is the spirit of the work—the container, an amphora of recognition and care, endless in its capaciousness because of the necessity for an expansion of capacity.

We need more room.

Like a cousin of breaking, expansion is made up of a series of tiny breaks that simultaneously work together to uphold the whole. To stretch, two things must occur at the same time: breaking and opening. This newly achieved capacity welcomes another qualitative measurement: beyond. Past the border. After the old wall.

In the Beta chapter of The Pure Lover, Plante recalls an untitled love poem by Trumbull Stickney, a 19th century American poet:

Making love, we were beyond desire: we had each other.

To be beyond desire in making love!

To be among those, as Stickney longed to be, “who love too much to think of love”!

To have broken and opened so many times together that you have gone beyond, together.

To, in essence, become a sea.

A grieving man remembering his Greek lover makes me grieve those who have drowned in the Mediterranean, remembering, always, those who drowned in the Atlantic.

Love encourages us to go beyond, first and foremost, the limits of our bodies in reach of another. In this space between bodies the imagination takes over. Capaciousness expands and it is now entirely possible to become the sea, to break and open again and again, to return, to be still while in constant motion, to be one’s self simply by being with an other.

The notion of loving too much to think of love has stuck in my mind since I first read The Pure Lover years ago. What does it mean to be so beyond where you are that you are exactly there—where you need to be? To love so much you can’t even think of love. To be so capacious that you become space.

And to know that such a perfection lies entirely in the imperfections allowing you to assemble this particular state of being: a gathering of breakable, but capable bodies thirsty for the spirit.

Beyond in its exact opposite direction is “far away from.” We are so far away from each other, from the opening breaks, from the sea. We work restlessly to tear ourselves away from the reality of what is happening in the Mediterranean and its undeniable link to what happened in the Atlantic. We walk further and farther away from ourselves in the name of, ironically, what Trumbull Stickney’s ancestors stewarded: American ideals of life and liberty. His mother, Harriet Champion Stickney, was a descendent of colonial governor of Connecticut, Jonathan Trumbull. If too many streets and cities are named after dead white men, then surely too much of our understanding of things like love and freedom have been shaped by them as well: rights first deemed unalienable by people who founded a nation in a way that did nothing but alienate all aspects of humanity, through genocide and slavery. This destruction and its consequences, a violently recurring nadir, is the worst kind of breaking—so absolute and enormous in its effect that it does not expand so much as it engulfs.

To love too much to think of love in this country today is a feat of persistence in spite of forces trying their hardest to convince people that love does not matter or even exist. Of the broken vase, Derek Walcott goes on to say:

The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of its original shape. It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments, the cracked heirlooms whose restoration shows its white scars. This gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the Antilles, and if the pieces are disparate, ill-fitting, they contain more pain than their original sculpture, those icons and sacred vessels taken for granted in their ancestral places.

Anything good about America is the result of the work of people this nation will never deserve. People who have blown the dust off burnt and broken pieces, working with care, through pain, to craft something anew—even when those pieces don’t quite fit, even when they are all separate parts. People who refuse to forget the glue, remembering time and again that any opportunity to make a life, any opportunity to love, is in direct opposition of an original container not capacious enough to imagine the kind of endless expansion that actually keeps us all alive. An expansion that strives to open and not overtake. To exchange and not merely consume. To love too much to use love as an excuse for poor imagination!


I write from my lover’s kitchen in Brooklyn, New York. The early evening sun blasts through our living room making long shadows out of days we can no longer measure the length of. There was a day last week when 799 people died from COVID-19. I think about how the nuns taught me to spell out numbers in prose. That is the proper, writerly thing to do. Seven hundred and ninety-nine. What is proper in a pandemic? What is writerly? We find ourselves in yet another global moment requiring the kind of capaciousness that only love and care can deliver. On this Easter Sunday, I wanted to write about how forty years of neoliberalism have gotten the U.S. here: a country of people who are lonely and sick, dying alone and sick as those in power try to convince them that the cure lives in capitalism. The cure lives in adoration of the state. The cure lives in the thing farthest away from freedom. We need so much more room.

I write from the kitchen of my love who I am partnered with solely by choice, by the space we have given ourselves apart and together to continue to walk toward and into each other until we choose something else. The state wants us to declare our love, to sign contracts that calculate our resources and do the math of what we mean to each other. I am terrible at math, but I know when things don’t add up. If I am guardian of a breaking, breakable body, then I have to know that a country attempting to sell me immortality through total investment in its ahistory and non-future must be lying. If that country is lying, then what is it actually asking—demanding—I do?

I wanted to write about how partnership in these times is a question of resources and how comfortable one wants to be in a dying world. I wanted to write about heteropatriarchy and the shame we feel in the security of a gender we know is responsible for creating the very violence we seek shelter from. Even when our couplings are absent of men, their ghosts are always present. Someone must always wear the pants. I wanted to write about how infidelity might not be about betrayal located in emotion, but about a fear of the resources we have invested in being stolen by someone else. I wanted to write about love in capitalism. I wanted to write about the private lives we build, sanctioned by the state, with our one true loves because that seems less risky, less precarious than any other arrangement the heart and body might dare imagine.

I couldn’t do any of that because I am seated in love’s kitchen, being fed by a capaciousness that sees a love beyond capital worth, a love too much in love to border itself within a dying empire, a love that insists on imagining total, other, care-full futures.

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