INSTRUCTIONS FOR USE
This index is a memoir of dyslexia, which distills, palimpsests, or perhaps kills the real and unreadable primary text. What's re(a)d pools and beams here. This index leaks and stains your hands as you hold it in mind; it stutters, sounds out, backtracks and questions itself as it attempts to organize the chaos of illegibility. The text hopes you will join it in these acts of vocal color. The italicized definitions of each hue give way to a memory, meditation, or narrative that colors a life the way an inability to read colors a text. Each entry struggles to bring text into the body as something it is capable of digesting, something the body will not reject, something physically pleasurable.
I have always loathed to read directions; I get anxious about sequentiality and the tiny print. Who follows directions to the letter anyway? The owners of things do. Fluent readers and affluent people. Please feel at liberty to read this aloud to your pet or a ghost; read it out of order or homophonically. Try to mentally turn each page a different red to mark it as "read." Color is indexical, both linguistically and visually. Red is the first color named in most languages therefore a primal way of shaping vision. Look for holes you can dive into, look for images you can use; move your eyes backwards or in concentric circles as you resist the text's chronology and linear logics; believe in its undulations; misread and daydream your way through. To this there is no conclusion, no summary, no resolution. You might read this sentence or just as well Johnnie Walker Red it.
The artificial preservation of a color in language. When my family moves near a park with cherry trees, I spend whole weekends climbing them; my daybreak fills with little birds and the spaces between leaves where the sky breaks through. I invite my own reasons to be there: the antelope, frog, rabbit, whale shapes the sky takes between branches. There, I can breathe. I spot my first real cherry and don't hesitate to devour it. These between-spaces hold meaning, which holds me there. On the page, however, negative space is what must be ignored in order to read. Sometimes I'll do anything not to face a full page of text. Not to see, instead of words, eyes on the page—the animals staring back at me. Not to see the white rivers and black outlines of ghosts in the trees. Look over the contents, the notes, the index, the blurbs, the bio—stare at the author's photograph. Ask it, please, to read to me.
The dark, transparent trance of trying to read. At the kitchen table, my grandmother holds a flashcard. Its red word blares at me, pins me to it, my mind stuck and burning. While my mother's in the hospital and my dad is overseas, I am hers and not hers. A retired school teacher from Southern gentry, she waits for her triumph, but I am where things go awry. "Um," I say drawing out the vowel as if searching for a sound to bite off and fill my mouth like blood. What my grandmother wanted to remember and what she wanted to forget shuttle back and forth in a sanguinary churn. Blood is a motherfucking genius—it's the body's social organizer and memory tank. It remembers the tides and its plasma maintains the sea's deep recipe for ions. Yet it is poised to clot, to become solid if need be. We stare at each other. Her hand holding the card begins to shake slightly. "I don't know," I say, "alizarin crimson." She keeps her eyes fixed on mine, clenching her jaw. Then she says as if finishing a thought: "YET."
The color I imagine my living human insides to be—warm, muscular, toxic. Reading seems like a magic trick staged for others, or an act of divination, a holographic illusion. My body turns inside-out when I try it: heat on my neck and cheeks, sweat-skin, red stammer in my throat. My blushing pushes light years between me and the page; my viscera becomes the magnetized pole of yes-no. I get by on hunches and luck, figuring and refiguring. I assume postures of reading as if it were a kinetic activity. I pretend I can see through objects, see past the surface of things and into the future. Sure, I can imagine my own my gruesome death. I'm dead here on the page, where I rely on you in another time zone to bring me to life. You and a circle of bystanders begin to form like skin around my body, flayed on the pavement, guts spilling out, luminous viscera spelling out the next omen. When hidden reds are brought into the open—like ax oxide mineral extracted from a mine, like an ancient red ochre fresco found buried under a church floor—their color immediately dissolves into the blank light of day, already forgotten.
A round stain and a taste that changes the shape of your mouth. I curl up on our striped couch and hold a book in my lap. Reading was such a respected activity in my house, I could be sure no one would bother me; no one would order me outside or into chores. I could hemorrhage time in peace. I let my mind stretch into its own far-fetched treetops and windy sky. I did not make up stories because I could not imagine resolutions. I could not link cause and effect or create ligatures between flashes. As if reading were merely a physical sport, I run my eyes over the words in preparation for their holographic revelations. I may as well be looking for a station on a short-wave radio. There's nothing but static until suddenly I latch onto a recognizable phrase and plunge face first into a vivid experience. I hear the words, their sounds destroying vertigo, offering me solid ground. I slipped back into daydreams, white noise filling the page once again. I read entire novels as a sequence of discrete vignettes or poems, moments of sensation and narration rubbing together, erasing connection. I wandered into mundane and absurd moments. I knew how to free associate and dissociate with equal ease. If I could make a grown man groan, I could read a few sentences, surely. I did not think about my grandfather's hands down my pants, or up my shirt, his face on my neck, his weight on top of me at night while my grandmother labored daily to teach me to read. That part was easy to leave out. There were no words for it and the same scrambled feeling. Those afternoons I was abandoned by text, I was not on his lap then. And this story, if you can call it that, does not end that way.
The red you sleep through, the red that only exists in dreams. If red were to fall asleep, it would mock human dishonesty. It would use up time and dream of its opposite. Red runs ahead and cannot wait for me. My body is a dream that mocks its own imagination. Reading is a dream of my body flying. My body is a dream that produces red by itself. Sentences streak by: book, book, pen. Vivid swaths of red ink on the page, so vibrant it seems to hum just above its own stain. If red were to wake after two hundred years, it would find itself the object of Tender Buttons. Red doesn't bifurcate into subject and object; no: the word runs where the world runs out: "Out of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid same question." To put reading in the past tense means to turn the page red.
Nostalgia for a missing memory that colors all remembrance. Unlike most writers, I have no childhood memories of being lazily absorbed in a book, turning pages in the car, at the beach, out back, or in my room while the darkness gathered gently around me. I have no nostalgia for a favorite book and a favorite chair at the public library where I might find the person I waited to become: teenager, beautiful, living my own life. Remember, the child Jane Eyre reading her book of birds behind folds of scarlet drapery? Her reading is shot through with fog and rainclouds, and her own vivid sense of elsewhere. If I could have abandoned my own suffocating house, escaped or reclaimed my life by reading, believe me, I would have. A text might swallow me in long suffocating paragraphs, hold me under them as if I were buried alive. Instead, not-reading sharpened my own mental flights. Not-reading, I listened out and in, a voltage alternating through me. Not-reading, I reflected on my givens and imagined a future anyway. Not-reading enlarged and multiplied my senses, then contracted them powerfully. I don't whine and cry when I don't get what I want, I know how to steal.
A red that runs, like a finger along the edge of a flame, or a noise that escapes your own mouth. Pity the text that relies on me to perform it. I spew a palimpsest of guesses. My voice harbors remnants of disarticulation and consolidates the anxiety of writing itself. Can you hear my vocal stumbling as a gesture toward linguistic complexity? My voice involuntarily indexes the time of seeing and the time of reading, the time of thinking and the time of vocalizing, the time of my lips blitzkrieging through a chaos of phonemes and the time of my ears processing my own panic, the time of narrative flow and the time of the line break, the time of contented absorption and the time of agitated humiliation. Paradox shudders between temporal realms. Confected time lags behind annexed time, an emergency of minutes mismatches the daydreamt surplus of seconds, the book's time graphed over my own. Asynchronous perceptions of time create an inner out-of-sync feeling. When words run out into time, they create their own suspense. Every sentence is a plot. I hang on one word at a time. When I hear a word, it is already disappearing. Literacy, overhauls our temporal sense. Time to a literate person is a passage, time flows, it flies and unfolds like a river or a road. We mark time with words. To a literate person, time heals. Literacy creates a line of thinking, it strings you along with links of causality. It reasons and pretends there is always a reason. When you read, you see a phrase fixed in space, arrested in time, escaped into landscape. You create fictional time as you kill real time. You read to sense a doubling of time—then you slip into asynchronousity. Unlike being in a place, being in a text means keeping ourselves separate, distinct from the page, looking at it from a distance, where we can't help but consider it analytically, aesthetically. Yet when I read, I hear what I'm reading as if it were coming from inside me. I hear it in several diegetic and mimetic ways—expressed as sensual immersion in characters as well as narratorial voices, as an internal commentary responding to the text, and as a vocal imaginary that could never foist itself into "real" time—that run, blurring into one sound containing the buzz of everything around it. My thoughts speed ahead and sideways, every which-way, as the slow steady decoding keeps another beat. I tap my foot to keep the text in rhythm. My mind flies off and the text plods onward. Time stops moving as I move through it.
Ruddy or Ruby
Unacknowledged and acknowledged reds colliding: the hair of a witch; the ass of a spanked child. I learn to savor the capacity to read slowly, to practice contemplative reading, to meditate and mediate at once. I eventually savor the difficulty of reading first as a stay against the allure of "speed reading" then as a stay against screen speed and the accumulations of capitalist consumption. What is a good book if not consuming? It's unclear, though, if the book is consuming us or we are consuming the book. Is it fair to think of reading as a contagion or addiction? In the 18th and 19th centuries, when greater access to texts and education created conditions for mass literacy in Europe, explicit concerns about reading proliferated. Reading a novel might freak you out, change your mind, make you cry or seize the entire day. Many saw reading as a special threat to children and discouraged it with a swift kick out of doors. The sight of a child reading the morning away alarmed the pedagogues who warned: "compulsive reading is a foolish and harmful abuse of an otherwise good thing, truly a great evil, as contagious as the yellow fever in Philadelphia." 1 The implication is not simply that obsessive or unsupervised reading is damaging but that the example of doing it—reading in public—will lead others to want to try it for themselves and become hooked. In college, once I discovered poetry, the reading field leveled. Poetry's phenomenology, the way that it treats perception, tells the story of reading that's dense and deliberate, that's quirky, private, creative, playful, willful, materially driven, and temporally plural, the kind of reading I have always practiced. To read poetry well is to hear it because it teaches readers to listen sensually and analytically, semantically and structurally. Poetry makes use of differing somatic rhythms, it doesn't ask you to deny them. Poetry folds into itself the problem of reading, and each poem offers its own hermeneutics. To read poetry is to put yourself in the subject position of a dyslexic.
A process for experiencing time. The rooms in the dorm all contained the same four pieces of furniture mirrored on each side. I moved from desk to bed to chair to table and back again. I hung a secret mirror on the back of the door, where I could see the whole room reflected: I became a force of flatness, a Girl Reading (Picasso), assuming the shapes of furniture; I became Young Woman Reading (Cassatt), I became Woman Reading (Matisse) or Young Girl Reading (Fragonard) or Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (Vermeer). The effortless softness of those paintings made reading seem like sleeping, their red light, red cushions, red dresses, and their strands of red-hair coming lose. A book lends a girl the feeling of being lost. All of the girls and women labor together, silently sounding out the words. Many details go unrecorded. My eyes slip off the line, down the page. I saw my body in the painting, in the mirror, in the film, in the Instagram post, in the dream sucked back into another life or propelled forward so far out of mine, I was transported into my own desire. My mind sliding, my face in the mirror saying the words aloud in order to keep myself there, in order to exist beyond the plane of the book. A teacher once told me that he could read me like a book. I lived as if "well-read" meant "ready." I confused written language's elusiveness with eroticism. The blush of shame tangled with a sexual flush. I put the book down, electrified and exhausted by chasing language through my body, pursing it, longing for it. Inevitably language pools in my cunt where, I can to take it from there.
A stain that cannot be removed or hidden with a rug. My professor's entire apartment was red—carpets, curtains, furniture, the kitchen cabinets were lined with hot sauces. Entering it took some breath. Her glassy-eyed dog greeted me with abandon, leaping around me like a flame. That sunless winter, while dog-sitting for her, an electromagnetic field of vermilions buffered me from the city. I was inside a fire that needed no stoking, a fire that smelled like flora, where eyes seemed to be hiding. I dyed my hair vivid auburn making a stain on her bathroom floor for which she later scolded me. My boyfriend could not stand to come over; he said he felt swallowed. He said he is not a boner machine. I slipped into one of her red robes and read my own sentences. Red erases "read," and reverses the vertigo of habit. Rimbaud says "I" is red, "smile of beautiful lips / in anger or in the raptures or penitence." True, "I" is a mixed bag of ambivalences, as attracted to linguistic confusion as "red" itself: a somber red ocher from Sinope on the Black Sea begat the medieval color sinople, which could be either red or green. On a shelf in her apartment, I discover a book she has written a book called Mood Swings. Living two months in that red apartment, though I felt simpler, I became saturated and ascendant. My body seemed stretched, gravity-resistant, like a figure in a mannerist painting and making the most of it. Or like one of those tiny female figures engulfed in Matisse's magisterial Red Studio (1911). Matisse says "A certain red has an effect on your blood pressure," and more: a fleet of reds speeds your lungs, stings your nose, it hollows bones. I walked her blind dog three times around the block three times a day; I sat in the red rooms and rarely left. When I did, green followed me, burst forth from a secret germination. Grassy snowbanks piled around verdant buildings, as I walked through the mesmerizing green stream of faces. After my excursion, I unlocked the little red door to my temporary Mars. Here was my booster shot, far exceeding the basic daily requirement. I became a chronic user of red.
An itch that can't be reached on sleepless nights. My daughter's tutor tells me that because my dyslexia went untreated, I probably never forged the neural bridges necessary to read in the most efficient way. I'm probably still reading like a first grader, but one with over forty years' experience. I recall a friend, in his first years on the job as a poetry professor laughing about a young woman in his graduate class who, he says, mistakes her disability for talent. She is a pitiful faker who vamps up her language deficits and regards her dyslexic tendencies as poetic techniques. I feel shame for her, caught in all the shame I have held back and all the shame I imagine she is not feeling. I missed out on remaking my brain into something more contemporary. I didn't exactly flaunt my difference, but by stranding myself in my incompetencies, I secretly strengthened of my blind spots. The instability of my reading offered possibilities for pluralistic insights and less habitual or brutal meanings. Skipping the practical skill and speeding right to the conceptual delights of reading, I not only gained an ability to imagine, I lost knowledge about the world, about real things, in equal measure. I come with a humiliated relation to literacy; I understood early how language, as a system of displacements and associations, is always screwing over someone. Yet as a writer and professor, I've devoted my life to reading. I was determined to discipline it, to counter-humiliate it: "It exhausts me to watch you / Flickering like that." 2
A red that thinks in blots and spasms. This is the essay of someone who doesn't know how to read or write, who almost doesn't know how to speak. Words flood my mouth like an onslaught, but they enter my eye slowly, stingily like wary strangers. I have no happier or more rational expectation of reading than I do of being dead, murdered by lack of belonging in text. Yet being ravished by what I read is my first disability as a writer: less red is less of a sign, more of an outburst, a pinprick on a map becoming the capital. Red is the beginning of being, a red cell accumulating meaning, when an animal was a kind of plant, reactive and self-replicating, a contamination that is a poem or a root crushed into ancient dyestuffs. Its discursive yield is to disclose eidetic consciousness. Yet. Yet the sorrow of reading's tangled magnetism stops me in my tracks, spectralizes me. Yet I read to feel myself fully emerge in the red.
WORKS CITED AND CONSULTED
- Eide, Brock L. and Fernette F. The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain. Penguin-Plume, 2011.
- Plath, Sylvia. "Poppies in July." The Collected Poems. Edited by Ted Hughes. New York: Harper-Perennial, 1981, p. 203.
- Polster, Arnim. "On the Use and Abuse of Reading: Karl Philipp Moritz and the Dialectic of Pedagogy in Late-Enlightenment Germany." Impure Reason: Dialectic of Enlightenment in Germany. Edited by W. Daniel Wilson and Robert C. Holub. Wayne State University Press, 1993, p. 466.
- Shaywitz, Sally. Overcoming Dyslexia. Knopf, 2012.
- Stein, Gertrude. Tender Buttons. Sun and Moon Press, 1991, pp. 17, 11.
- Wolf, Maryanne. Proust and the Squid: The story and Science of the Reading Brain. Harper-Perennial, 2008.
Hoche, Gottfried (1762-1836) quoted in Arnim Polster
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