by Betty Rosen
The coffee blushes. Ready to be pressed.
The mesh lattice makes contact. The plunger creaks, croons, exhales—fits. Settles to the grounds. Press, deep.
There’s resistance. It wakes me up.
The plunger spindle is lean fingerlike. The mesh gridded with life lines. An article told me that drinking five cups of coffee a day is healthy. I decided then to believe everything I read.
Pastiched Coffee Shop in my head: a sewing machine in rainy Dalston. A crowded booth in rainier Covent Garden. (It’s London.) Brooklyn coffee bowls and Black Eyes. Prague jelly rolls. Trying to make an espresso last in Nice. A styrofoam cup along a highway in Jordan, blanched floured scorched road, white cup, blistering steam, two eye-shaped wizened almonds bobbing bloating on the black.
The press brings everything into focus.
There’s resistance, then it’s down.
Café Madeline, Ditmas Park: ART IS A MOSQUITO WITH A THOUSAND WINGS
(“L’arte è una zanzara dalle mille ali”) is a 1981 work by Joseph Beuys. German, 1921-86, Taurus, Fluxus member. I fell in love with Beuys when I discovered “Fat Chair.” The way the fat would begin a slouching manish thing, then Wicked Witch of the West into formless pinguid. Very real, I decided. That was in a college course taught by art historian Benjamin Buchloh, who it turns out is a notorious Beuys-hater.
Here in Madeline, I’m in high caffeination, pressing on down the rabbit hole of Beuysprose. Just saw a retrospective on his later work, where, at the bottom of a spiral staircase in a white-white fish tank of gallery, I found “Mosquito,” all four pieces. One especially: indecipherable amoeba/siglum blotches, color: coffee post-digestion.
Are the blotches forming or unforming? A friend and I had that debate.
In Beuys’s thought, Gestaltung, “the putting into form,” is everything. It’s the “invisible” process of “social sculpture,” the viewer processing the image, pressing it apart into meaning, that matters.
The back room at Café Madeline is social sculpture of its own. Makes you believe what you’re reading, and order another coffee.
(Beuysian) anthroposophy: trinity that appears in different guises—culture, politics, economics; head, circulatory system, heart. The spiritual experience of art is creative, productive, political, activist. It does things. Fattens you up: a strength by blubber layer, fortitude against the chill of passivity.
In “The Crisis in Culture,” Hannah Arendt wrote that the Greeks distrusted process—everything might become a means to an end. Eric Michaud quotes her at the end of his paper “The Ends of Art According to Beuys.” She’s a good woman to have on your side—ask Martin Heidegger.
another time, Café Madeline, Ditmas Park:
Heidegger, “The Thing,” Poetry Language Thought:
“The frantic abolition of all distances brings no nearness; for nearness does not consist in shortness of distance. What is least remote from us in point of distance, by virtue of its picture on film or its sound on the radio, can remain far from us. What is incalculably far from us in point of distance can be near to us.”
It’s amazing how quickly the effects of intimacy evaporate. Loneliness floods into its mold. By breakfast time, or by the walk home from the coffee shop, it has set. Moments, or days, leaving a scuttling mouthing craving to plunge, skip now and arrive at Next Time.
Most of Hannah Arendt’s responses to Heidegger’s love letters have been lost.
Amazing how a coffee cup is one moment a thing almost too hot to touch, the table so firm it might bruise a wrist bone, then there comes the wash: joyful caffeine wash or sizzling aroused wash or blue-black lonely wash. Things are things only for seconds at a time.
I always get the sense that Heidegger looked straight through things. Things for him were dilute sprawls of sort-of-color that were sort-of-there. This must be difficult for romance.
I could write that some of the things I think about Heidegger were influenced by Richard Rorty, in that thrilling way of mentioning someone you love (“my friend says,” “a guy I know says”). A writer I’ve read gets this so perfectly in a story, which I retyped word for word at work one day.
All right: The writer was Donald Antrim, the story was “Ever Since.”
Verb Café, Williamsburg:
Trying, trying, trying
to think of the Arabic word for “press,” or “pressure,” an easy one! which I must have learned even before that summer in Morocco when my teacher, flexing unflexing jitter fingers, penciltwirling, feetleaping, window open to the endless windless Fez cyan sky, declared that because he didn’t smoke, he got to drink twice as much coffee as everyone else.
Certain conversations press you into definition. Increase the concentration of self in yourself, distill skin to skin. After these conversations, there’s less of a leap between imagined heart and weighty heart, red construction paper cleavage of heart and valvy pulp bomb of heart. Heavier hand on the table, thin wrist across the table. Denser intimacy across the table: sudden awareness of globy blue-veined eyeballs, casual unruly eyebrows. Conversations that settle you into white Moroccan mountain bone peaks, pink popping blood cells. Shadow reverse Peter Pan leadening into body. You know. After them you’re more yourself, but (Rorty) you’re never you again.
Café Grumpy, W 20th
or on the way back to work from, bag of boundary-pushing fruit-note coffee bean lambs for grinder in tow, avenue numbers ticking down, city-but-not brownstones (eyes Manhattan gridglazed):
Anthroposophy NYC (W 15th)
hutched back from the hard mud single-tree (lawnish?) recesses, the parka-wearing dogs.
Beuys was enamored of anthroposophy. He wanted to enter an imperceptible spiritual realm. Michaud quotes him:
Everything that concerns creativity is invisible, is a purely spiritual substance. And this work, with this invisible substance, this is what I call “social sculpture.” This work with invisible substance is my domain. At first, there is nothing to see. Subsequently, when it becomes corporeal, it appears initially in the form of language.
(Rosalind Krauss translated the article, but that compassionate grapple is invisible to us.)
“Work” (weorc): bludgeoning rapacious Old English brute Word. Rigorous übermenschy sort of language. Somehow, through some Weird—from wyrd (destiny)—ness, it becomes a lot sexier than anyone gives it credit for.
Buchloh calls Beuys chiliastic. It’s one of those clipped Greek words that press you outward against—Oh God let me hit some resistance, it’s too much, where’s the wall: chimera, caryatid, chthonic. Climax, for that matter.
Over the years, coffee—strong, opaque, bitter, black—has stopped being a drink and become an aesthetic.
Once a friend proposed “drown ourselves in coffee” as an evening activity.
Once being in love made me drink coffee with soy milk. I hated it. “Love it,” I said to myself. Eventually, I did.
That became an obsession—making myself love drinks I hated. Tequila, whiskey. Thai tea, mung bean tea. Ayran. Soursop juice, winter melon juice. Espresso.
Later I left out the soy milk.
Black berets, fat novels, Kaffehauslitteratur, Moleskins and pens.
Coffee shop intimacy: once I simultaneous first-sipped with the stranger beside me. Then he turned to me and said it for both of us: “It’s the best coffee I’ve ever tasted!”
Once, in a tea city, three of us shoulder-to-shoulder queued to squeeze into Monmouth’s back room. We spent the afternoon in an orgy of coffee and bookgushing. The shop feels like a wood lab. Grindsmoke or woodsmoke winding off the counter?
Sometimes my heart skids a little too close to my ribs. I worry about being ridiculous, but I always decide it’s less important than.
110° morning, Fez, 2010, four of us wilting over notebooks/waterbottles, essay about fate v. destiny in Islam: written. I’m eyeballing pencils of desert light that shaft stone walls threaded with cerulean and apricot, filigree and sun, stonework and naturework.
“You know what I love? Mumtis. Mumtissss. You know what I mean? In movies, when they come up behind you and sink their teeth into your neck and suck the blood. You know? Vampires! Vampires! Like if I come up behind Betty and sssssssssss”—mimed—“I love vampires! You know what else sucks blood? Buʿuda. Buʿuuuuuda” (with a thousand wings?). He’s been at the coffee again. I jot down the words. On the weekend I’ll bus up to Chefchaouen (Wikipedia says the name comes from the Berber word for “horns,” ichawen, but that summer the story was that it came from the Arabic, “shuf, shaun”: “look at the peaks!” which I did), where peaks will cascade, knock into form—pristine, pelagic—the subtle scoop chip in my espresso cup. I’m nineteen, don’t realize how that summer will press me just by my looking: figure-ground, you know.
Smallness can be a dangerous drug. One shot, then the clotting into gloom, the sky throbbing pied with grays over the East River. The coffee shop hunt diluted with a new desperation. Do less, say less. Ride your bike, small sweatered hunched; dismiss the urge to pass the others: it’s too much. Don’t sit down to write—the keys won’t miss your fingers.
flashback: Goldsmiths, London, 2013. Symposium BIOMEDIATIONS: ART, LIFE, MEDIA.
On the screen, yeast blisters.
I two-hour-traipsed tawny South London kebeb-shopped ways to get down here, losing the race to watchful squat teeth of houses, storefronts, upwardly stretched red buses with destinations like New Cross, Clapham Junction, Peckham Rye, Brockley Rise. Now masquerading as a back row student.
It’s a light show ballet of cells climaxing to color. The idea is the intersection of art and science. Someone is conducting little experiments on himself—homemade vaccines, rashes as art; okay—and animals—fuck that. Camera technique: roly poly bobbling from the pub four pints in. Someone else is making himself into a light show—rad. Virtual reality: visors, video not-games. A maybe once Ecstatic professor gives a Suicide Tuesday lecture that gloom-melts me. But otherwise. Pressing bacteria with glass plates, shepherding currents into winding tube courses, colorless powder lubes, fingering cells to a fever dance. “Smallwork”—we’ll come back to that.
This is a thing Rorty talks about and I think about: redescription.
Restating. The torture of wishing to redo.
Losing weight is a kind of loss that people don’t talk about, but it breaks life into eras. When I thought that, I had more flesh. The feeling of purifying loss becomes addictive. Wanting to taughten the messy sprawl of the past.
Redescription on a body: the terrain of chest and the tight rolls of sentences. That particular rib cage resistance, barely fleshed, palms, a longitude of little hairs, i dots, comma breaths, a chain reaction of sensations getting passed between and the only time when my brain empties of words, for a little while, a little meditation of pleasure, like writing but not. Minute tests, response, science experiments, writing and rewriting sentences, describing and redescribing sensations, redescribing out of language, pale dictionary pages of word blemish, skin blemish, that I am positive mean something, and if I keep redescribing it I’ll eventually pinpoint, by trial and error, trial after trial, a lifetime of palms and ribcages, it has to mean something.
1- O Café, W 12th
I’m reading about “blocking,” a phenomenon in linguistics: when you’re trying to think of a word, thinking of “similar” words actually blocks you from the one you’re after.
I like how human this paper is. It’s called “Architecture and Blocking,” by David Embick and Alec Marantz. Look:
“competition-based approaches to blocking effects”
“The losers of the competition are marked deviant solely because some ‘listed’ or ‘better’ way of expressing that meaning is found in the language”
“In line with lexicalist assumptions about the division of labor in the grammar”
2 – Café Nero, Seven Dials, London: first heard of blocking.
The scene: rheum frost film, hulking whale clouds misting a whale-colored sea-sky, halfhearted shiverers in hooded sweatshirts, whale-moan sea shanties “need coffeeeeeeeeeeee.” Two bleary sidewalk swimmers dawn-queuing for West End tickets.
My friend studied linguistics. She’d been telling me about blocking. I stepped into Nero for two large black Americanos no, no milk please, and princessed down a spiral staircase to the unwhite unartistic toilets, but well, it was sort of exciting. At odd times, Beuysy spiritual experiences—shocking green, algal, brined—do suddenly engulf me.
Not massa (“to feel, finger, handle, touch”), or lamasa (similar).
Not dafana (“to bury, inter, inhume, conceal, keep secret”) or daffa (“to flap the wings [bird]”).
I love tamasa (“to be effaced, be obliterated; to lose animation, become lusterless”), but that’s not it.
Something beginning with “m”: masaha (“to stroke with the hand; to wipe off; to clean, polish; to anoint; to deprive,” masihiyya: Christianity, timsah: crocodile)?
No, with “t,” the roof of the mouth “t” (Arabic has two): tarada (“to drive away, chase away, reject, repel”), tariba (“to be transported with joy”), taraha (“to throw, cast, fling, toss”), tirh (“miscarried fetus”)—now I’m dictionary flipping, is that cheating?—tarkhun (“tarragon”), tafla (“potter’s clay”), tifla (“little girl”), mutahham (“of perfect beauty [esp. as an epithet of noble horses]”).
Sweet Leaf, Williamsburg:
Capital and lowercase letters, the rugged topographies of sentences, are something Roman alphabet users take for granted. In English, the capital is a marquee peaking over a glass-brick cityscape. Down in its 2D world, the sentence holds the sensuous rounds and hard lines, the rolls and folds, the variegated canals of ashy m-dash alley, penetrating stoplight periods (jay-walked across), parenthetical wafts of kebab and weed, commas spermlike/bum-on-a-bench-like, tipsy stilletos stamping colons in the light snow, admonitions to keep on keeping on till full stop. Ambitious capitals force their way out of the routine, like the train beached in a morning landscape on the bridge: that moment of holy-ish light, oh that view.
Arabic and Hebrew have no capitals. French capitalizes less than English does. German capitalizes nouns. What gets to stand out?
majuscule: “Of a letter: capital. rare.” (OED). Opposite of “minuscule.” Both appeal to me: The Majuscule and the minuscule; extremes, contrasts, oppositions.
Saturdays, Crosby St:
Talking about typography. Serifs, the tails swimming off letters. The East Asian analogue is called “fish scales.” Apparently thinking about the shapes of letters is nothing new to graphic designers. Fascinating, obsessive fontcraft. Maybe each Beuysblotch is a not-quite-formed letter.
In The Flame Alphabet, Ben Marcus does creepy and beautiful things with mysticism and big catastrophes and small fixes (“smallwork”) and the shapes of letters, and silence. We’ll get to that.
SCENE. Joe Coffee, Waverly Place. Early. Sopping, April. My hair drips blotches on the floor.
Barista: There are two types of house coffee. This one takes a two-pronged approach, and this one takes a sort of one-pronged approach. But there’s not really any difference.
Milk and Honey Café, Ditmas Park:
Rorty, talking about Donald Davidson, in Contingency, Irony, Solidarity:
“[My interlocutor] and I are coping with each other as we might cope with mangoes or boa constrictors—we are trying not to be taken by surprise… As Davidson puts it… ‘what two people need, if they are to understand one another through speech, is the ability to converge on passing theories from utterance to utterance.’”
In the same book, Rorty argues that each of us has our own baseline “final vocabulary,” our rock bottom set of words that can’t be argued or redefined.
What I love about Contingency is that it makes me find something to love in everyone. It made me begin thinking of philosophers as people; actually, people who really recognize things about pain and compassion and listening and pressing gently up against strangers, which is something you can’t do in the real world anymore, really, unless you’re on the L at rush hour and then it becomes necessary but creepy, and rightfully so.
I love the way Rorty writes. The movements of his clear, no-frills sentences. Showing you the good in a whole host of theories and ideas, skimming them of what’s not useful, manicuring into clean utility. His arguments about ideas as tools, about use, sound chilling and callous when you try to paraphrase them.
Since I read Rorty, I’ve stopped believing in paraphrase. Distilling, condensing, but the moment you restate: poof, sea-change.
An exercise in Shambhala meditation: the dyad. I sit across from you, and our gazes converge at some point between us, not digging at all, just gentle pressure, me against you.
When writing, I sometimes feel I am cradling a little handful of words. I nudge them gently one by one out of my palm. I coddle (luke-warm brew) them, then kindly press out a tincture of new meaning.
(The bridge’s curve, cupping a sky bruising to peach.)
That’s the best kind of writing. Scalding/stomping, unfortunately, is also an option.
KGB Bar, East Village:
Ben Marcus is reading a short story. He’s hunched over the book, and I’m sitting at the bar so I see him only peripherally. I’m a few whiskeys in, the atmosphere is Dungeon Chic, I really am in New York.
The Flame Alphabet is a beautifully horrifying meditation on silence, compassion, communication, faith, the quiet strength and violence of privacy. I want to ask him about it but what would I say?
Rorty says redescription is active and creative. The thing I like best about trust is that it is prescriptive. Saying “I trust you” is less a statement of fact than a commitment to a course. A challenge that’s a gift.
No one in The Flame Alphabet trusts anyone else. The religion of silence that the characters practice is designed to annihilate trust. Annihilate the challenge.
But I think Ben Marcus got that. So much recent fiction doesn’t. It doesn’t dare anything. It chooses “truth” every time, but a diluted depressed New York truth. Real truth would be a dare.
The book is ambitious. It’s one of my favorites now.
That’s what I want to say to Ben Marcus and everyone else.
Brooklyn newcomer, January: up to Greenpoint I went. Wind whipping slush to a stinging froth. I’d Googled “roastery, Brooklyn,” and now I was hunting quality coffee in a blizzard. Manhattan Avenue a stronghold of frizzed lights, a lighthouse of scents (pierogi grease, cocktails named after French Symbolist poets), salt cells bursting and streaking, a footprint-freckled strand to a white-white No Man’s Land if you turned off, which I… had to. A challenge.
I finally arrived and immediately felt like an imposter. Why? Armed with the requisite laptop, skinny jeans, boots, I was totally out of my element. The back-up barista was a buff red-bearded tattooed specimen. Approach. Ask for a recommendation: “The darkest and strongest.”
Quick dip into my soul by way of the eyes: “These two will be very comfortable for you. And this one will push your boundaries, be a very exciting experience. And these two are outside of your comfort zone.”
That’s what the man said.
The worst part was that he was right: the exciting coffee was just that, and the uncomfortable one… I’ll love it yet.
To press, to press (back against a faulty-suction memory that… nope, strays, into the blandness)
Minimalism is bravery, that’s for sure, but it’s hard to figure out how much to distill. Take out the “I think”s, the “it seems to me”s; hold the milk and sugar; whittle small bony paragraphs that keep their own counsel; turn off your phone and be spendthrift with your adjectives.
I envy people who can have a three-hour intellectual conversation while stingily sipping an espresso. Haiku give me chills.
But here’s an epiphany Rorty gave me—it’s not something that he actually said, it just got passed quietly in the kerning—about Nietzsche, whom I used to hate: Nietzsche seemed to know that the world needed a Nietzsche, and he went for it.
That’s brave, too, isn’t it?
Muhammad ‘Afifi Matar was an Egyptian poet, activist, intellectual powerhouse. His writing is known for being brilliant but difficult. He was educated at a village Quranic school, then studied philosophy at ‘Ain Shams University in Cairo. Later, he taught philosophy and worked as a literary journalist. He also joined the Egyptian Ba’th party and, after being arrested in 1991 as a suspect in a terrorist plot, moved to Baghdad where he edited the literary review Al-Aqlām. He died in 2010.
Matar loved Sufi mysticism, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. His worlds are made of language: words milled to nourish, aroused into a focused frenzy of sexual syntax, seduced into new forms, violently amputated into line breaks, raw nerves, indentations rocking and rubbing and driving motion across enjambment chasms. That’s the only way to talk about Matar’s poetry.
It often doesn’t translate well. But here, look, in “The Fourth Tattoo” (1974), translated (very well) by Mohammad Enani in the Journal of Comparative Poetics. This is what the Arabic letter lam looks like to Matar:
ل : A twisted scream, a woman’s body
Writhing with lust, the graceful
Flight in the wind, the fullness
The challenge of delivery,
A hook stuck in the heart
Of a whirling wave.
When the lam comes at the beginning or middle of a word (when it’s connected) that deep vulnerable below-the-line scoop gets pressed up, disappears. The letter just looks like a vertical line, a purely functional linkage. But ever since I first read Matar’s poem, lam has felt hollow to me, that wide wild long waiting laden ladle gaping wound: there on the page, every time.
Hannah Arendt to Martin Heidegger (Letters: 1925-1965):
“The path you showed me is longer and more difficult than I thought. It requires a long life in its entirety. The solitude of this path is self-chosen and is the only way of living given me. But the desolation that fate has kept in store… would have blocked my path, which, as it is wide and not a leap, runs through the world… The path itself is nothing but the commitment our love makes me responsible for.”
Breukelen Coffee House, Crown Heights:
Rorty writes kindly about Heidegger as a failure who tried to apply his private final vocabulary to all humanity, to get at terms that could be a common baseline for everyone. Good try, Martin. I’d like to think that in forty years, I’ll have had enough coffee dates— elbows on the table, leaning in, triangle of white space kerning between the two of us, eyes catching or pushing one another in silly joy, hand sides brushing bashfully—to be really kind.
There is a leanness to love (any love):
The “L” as corner, or the “l” as wall, gives definition to the white space around it, angles the page/screen, paper grain/pixel beach bubbling with possibilities—yet, anything spoken: extraneous.
(But describe it, redescribe it, write about it. I’m an optimist. We’ll each get at our own private intersection, the line bleeding together smears of wanting from different times, different languages, different lives.)
ḍaghaṭa (pronounced “darata,” with the “r” in the throat) – Hans Wehr dictionary: to press, squeeze; to compress; to exert pressure; to oppress, suppress, bear down heavily. Lane’s Lexicon: to overcome, subdue, overpower, constrain. Expression: “Ye shall assuredly be pressed… against the gate of Paradise.” Related ḍāghiṭ – “a tumour in the armpit of a camel, like a bag, straitening him.” Related ḍaghīṭ – “a well having by the side of it another well, and one of them becomes foul with black mud… so that its water becomes stinking, and it flows into the water of the sweet well, and corrupts it, so that no one drinks of it.”
A fledgling playwright, essayist, and translator, Betty Rosen is also a new Brooklynite, fresh from five years of studying Arabic literature and critical theory in Boston, Morocco, and London. Her work is also forthcoming in Intern Magazine.