J. Marcus Weekley

J. Marcus Weekley has lived in Gulfport, Mississippi for the past seven years. He has exhibited quilts at venues ranging from The Gulf States Quilting Association Show in Louisiana to The National Quilt Museum, among others. He teaches college English at William Carey University, enjoys watching movies, and has published collections including his poems, stories, and photographs. For more about him, check out www.whynottryitagain.blogspot.com or www.flickr.com/people/whynottryitagain2.

Alizarin Crimson

When it’s on your fingers, thick as paste, think blood, think Christ, think Judas, think your own life liquid seeping from the gash on the top of your head. Apply it to any canvas: paper, a photograph, a half-submerged memory you grasp at, then stab it with the spear of your mind.

It’s the color of flags flown in parades of summer days, the waitress’s name-tag color and maybe even her lipstick, if she put some on that day; it’s madder, really, than any mosquito that can’t get into your pants, it’s a lonely fire hydrant wanting even to be pissed on; it’s lake algae and horror-movie goop, a clown’s costume, the true ruby slippered way home.

Put it on your fingers. Rub it around. Let it seep into your fingerprints. Everyone needs blood on their hands.

Some days are an empty bolt…

Some days are an empty bolt, flat and brown, and everything’s unfurled. If you stand out on the balcony, the wings of pigeons will tip you. My own tux is thick as I hear pets mating upstairs.

Today has small fingers. Today looks German and rich, his lips are hot with peppers and tart with lime, and I’m scared as he runs his silk over me. I heard the muskrats shuffling at the zoo when I was young. They ate grasshoppers and leaves and licked their paws clean.

I don’t know who I resemble now, insides cool as sherbet. I like strawberry rhubarb pie best. I hate apples. So, today takes them, a huge plastic bag from the kitchen counter: the open doors and lilies like a sanctuary, my fingernails etching phrases into my arms. The wind rushes over me, crisp as oregano. Hear it enclose me.

The Grafted Willow:
My Poetry Family Tree

Most poets can tell you who their poetic grandparents, cousins, brothers, and sisters are – maybe not every single poet who preceded them, but those whose work or style transformed or contributed significantly to their own voice as a poet, even if it was just with one poem. April is National Poetry Month in the United States, which makes it a fine time for me to consider my own poetic ancestors.

I realize my growth story as a poet isn’t uncommon. My mom diligently and passionately read to both my older brother, David, and me when we were children. She read The Swiss Family Robinson, the Bible, Sesame Street books, her own nursing books; you name it, and she either read it to us or encouraged us to read it ourselves.

The Psalms always stuck to my ribs. The Psalmists’ passion and range of emotion, not to mention their amazing imagery, comparisons, and figurative language, ignited me. I wanted the emotional freedom I saw available within those poems.

I started seriously writing poetry when I was fifteen, after an incident with my older brother. Later in high school, as I began reading more poetry on my own, I clung to poets such as Edgar Allen Poe, Langston Hughes, Anne Sexton, and Walt Whitman. Common enough figures in most high school English classes, they were also the poets to whom I returned, for various reasons. From Poe, I learned to cultivate an ear to hear the music which sprung from within words in a way I’d never encountered before. His Gothic subject matter was an added bonus for an already-somber kid.

Hughes, Sexton, and Whitman attracted me mostly for their subject matter: each of them wrote as a sort of outcast, or outside observer, who desperately admired the beauty they saw in the tragic world and within themselves. Hughes also played jazz with his simple diction and syntax, a musical style I hadn’t heard before. Sexton sang sad songs yearning for peace, God, and reconciliation with herself. I particularly dug her Transformations – fairy tales acknowledging the terror of being a wife and mother. And Whitman – he wanted it all, and I admit, he wooed me, too, with his lusty, inviting lines that spooled along forever.

But in high school, I also read a lot about the Vietnam War. I’d been molested by two different guys at two different times in my life, and so I shared some of the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Reading poetry from Vietnam Vets in the anthologies, Unaccustomed Mercy and Winning Hearts and Minds, and other factors, enabled me to deal with my own issues and inability, and yes, initial unwillingness, to express myself vocally. I was also struggling with reconciling my religious beliefs and my desires and feelings. So poetry was for me, as it is for so many others, a much-needed outlet. But thankfully, I didn’t stay in the expunging stage of writing.

A good family friend, Dr. Sarah Bell, first read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to me in her office in Athens, Georgia. I’d graduated from high school and was planning on attending the University of Georgia. I’d passed over T.S. Eliot before, but wow, this was amazing-the sounds, the imagery, and the loneliness mixed in with sadness, wistfulness, and mystery; holy crap, how cool! I guess I got hit with Eliot at the right time, and maybe Sarah knew enough to see when the time was prime.

After Eliot, I started revising more – or rather, I had a slightly firmer grasp on the function and necessity, the power, of revision. And Sarah’s constructive criticism helped, too. I still kept at the Vietnam Veteran poets, and Sexton, Hughes, and King David. I continued writing consistently, too.

Fast forward to my last couple of undergrad years, now at the University of Southern Mississippi, studying under the guidance of Angela Ball and Dave Berry (one of the vet poets I’d idolized). Ball introduced me to James Wright and Frankie O (Frank O’Hara), while Berry encouraged his workshop students to laugh a little, to make jokey poems with serious punches. I had a lot of time to fail in my writing, to wriggle in various skins, most of them not my own. Wright taught me how to use a seemingly-simple image, and to whittle that image down through the process of the poem, to get to the heart of what I wanted to understand through images. Frankie O taught me to say it plainly, but that even saying it plainly can be complicated and fun. “It’s okay to be yourself,” he seemed to say. “If you like Cherry Coke, throw a Cherry Coke in there.”

At USM, in my own research, I also began focusing on contemporary haiku and senryu written in English. I admired the work of Gary Hotham, Stanford Forrester, and ai li, but I also looked back at older masters including Bashō and Issa, and the contemporary Yamaguchi Seishi. Haiku and senryu taught me the value of concision, of dynamite created when you pack words tightly.

Then, I moved away to the Ph.D. program at Texas Tech. I’d somehow gotten into this place poetically where I felt like I had to be smart because I had studied contemporary graduate school poems, and I included little of myself but my brain in the poems. One of my fellow poets, Aaron Rudolph, suggested that I put more of myself into my work, that I take those emotional risks which effective poems take.

So I did. My poems grew surprisingly more tasty, and less like sawdust. As an added bonus, an anthology of prose poetry, No Boundaries, fell into my lap. After researching the genre, I kept returning to Charles Baudelaire, Russell Edson, and Mary Koncel. I laughed at how Baudelaire’s flaneur treated people like crap and then, in the very next sentence, talked about how a beautiful cloud shone. The contrasting tones tripped me out. Meanwhile, Edson and Koncel challenged me to work in a magical realism with emotional significance, spiritual possibility, and interesting props.

Since Tech, I’ve incorporated prose poetry into my set of skills and have moved on. I’ve written, over the last five years, a book of poetic responses to others’ poems, in both verse and prose poetry.

I can’t say where I’m going poetically, and I’m not worried about it at all. I like where I am, but I don’t plan on staying here. Yet what does this mean for you? What do I want you to get out of my story?

I hope it inspires you to consider your own story, to think critically about how those who have worked in your own discipline before you have affected you, and what you’ve really learned from them. I hope to pass along these poets’ lives and works in the spirit of giving, with the chance that they might contribute to your own life and work. Finally, I hope this lights a flame of desire within you to create, to make the next poem, next song, next quilt, which future artists can warm their hearts and hands by.

Get (Emotionally) Naked?
Three Films and Nudity

Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen

It’s interesting to hear an audience’s reaction to naked people onscreen. Kate Winslet’s Hanna in The Reader begins to undress her newfound captive Michael, and then dares to stand behind him naked, and the audience gasped. Dr. Manhattan reveals his blue penis in Watchmen, and many (guys) laughed. When Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk and James Franco’s Scott Smith passionately made out, the audience watched mostly silently. Those reactions certainly depend on the audience, but they also reveal something about these films’ uses of nudity.

In Milk, director Gus Van Sant exposes two nude male bodies together to acclimate viewers to homosexual intimacy far more successfully than more mainstream-minded gay-themed films such as Brokeback Mountain and Philadelphia. Viewers of Brokeback Mountain could think, “These are two closeted guys having an affair (so they’re not like me).” The sexual content was generally rough, animalistic. Watching Philadelphia, viewers could think, “This guy’s dying of AIDS (so he’s not like me)” – and the film contained scarcely any nudity. But in Milk, the audience more easily identifies with the characters onscreen. These scenes are tender, funny, romantic, playful. Van Sant forces the viewer to empathize with, and thus, normalize, gay men acting out their sensuality and developing romance.

When portraying men being physically intimate and vulnerable, Van Sant is unashamed, but he also treats it as if he knows he’s pushing the boundaries, and realizes where the limit between tasteful and trashy exists. He knows that to gain acceptance, or even acknowledgement, you have to push, but not too hard.

When characters in Milk are naked, they expose themselves emotionally. The physical parallels the emotional, and in this, also, Van Sant attempts to gain empathy and sympathy from the audience. When his characters are nude, their nudity functions the most conventionally – in the interest of relationship intimacy – of these three films.

The Reader
(Warning: here be spoilers. If you want to skip the spoilers, go ahead to the Watchmen section)

In Stephen Daldry’s The Reader, the function of Hanna’s and Michael’s nudity develops over time. At first, Hanna controls Michael as she undresses him and brazenly exposes herself to him, which might partially explain why this nakedness is so shocking – a woman controls (and to some extent, exploits) a young boy. She acts as the prison guard in their relationship, not only as the older woman controlling the young man, but also as the one in the relationship who decides when they will have sex. She even gruffly scrubs his entire body in the bathtub, as she might have done with her former prisoners. But this nudity is also ironic. They are physically vulnerable to one another, but emotionally, they couldn’t be further apart.

Michael has a teenage crush on Hanna, yet Hanna remains closed off, unwilling to reveal anything emotional or spiritual about herself. Despite their nudity and sexual intimacy, she is an impenetrable wall, emotionally and psychologically. Yet over the course of their interaction, the nudity in their relationship comes to signify their gradual revelations of self.

As Hanna reveals more about herself, she seems to want to put on more clothes, and she’s less interested in being naked with Michael. The two separate, and Michael is left with memories of their physical intimacy. By the time he reaches adulthood, he has learned from Hanna the same ability to be physically intimate and emotionally absent.

On the other hand, Michael begins the relationship by revealing himself entirely to Hanna. He’s embarrassed by his physical intimacy, but has no qualms about opening up to her emotionally. Later, he learns to be embarrassed about his feelings, yet jumps right out of his clothes and into bed. Hanna teaches him to unlearn his willingness toward emotional intimacy.

By the end of the film, Michael is as emotionally controlled as Hanna – and he regrets it. Hanna’s end helps Michael to awaken to the choked relationship he has with his own daughter, and he begins the process of emotional revelation by taking her to Hanna’s grave. He begins the return to his former self.

Dr. Manhattan’s nudity in Zach Snyder’s Watchmen conveys several ideas. First, it reiterates Manhattan’s lack of concern about human mores. Members of the audience laugh because there’s a huge naked blue dude onscreen, but depicting Manhattan as consistently naked also reinforces just how much he doesn’t fit into humanity. Yet ironically, his near-constant nudity (except when he meets the President, or attends a funeral or fights a war) also highlights precisely how human he is. He’s a well-built guy, almost a perfect physical specimen, and through constantly being confronted by his physique, the audience remembers see how human he is – even though he’s colored blue. He is a living oxymoron: extremely human, yet eerily not.

But Dr. Manhattan isn’t the only naked character in Watchmen. The entire film continually emphasizes how people can become a shadow of their former selves; it’s incidental that the main people we focus on in the film are former superheroes. They’ve all lost a part of themselves because the society they live in no longer wants them, even though that same society still needs them.

So, when Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II make out for the first time, and Nite Owl can’t function sexually, it’s funny. This loser finally gets the object of his lust and love, and then he can’t perform. Only later, after they’ve saved some people while in costume, can he function. They strip, but they strip off their costumes – not their daily-living clothes.

In one telling dream, Dan (Nite Owl) envisions himself and Laurie (Silk Spectre II) standing naked face to face. They unzip their skins to reveal themselves in full crime-fighting costumes. They kiss as a nuclear bomb explodes and destroys them. Dan wakes in a sweat, and stands naked (also another point where many guys in the audience laughed) in front of his Nite Owl costume, where he reveals his mixed emotions about being a masked avenger and the tentative future. His nudity is a sign of his newfound vulnerability.

Laurie and Dan get naked for the second time because they’re finally regaining some of their former sense of identity. This nakedness is regenerative, and is completely unlike Manhattan’s nudity, which sterilizes his body in the minds of those who encounter him. This is exactly why Laurie can’t stand Manhattan any longer: his exterior and his interior match in a way that she is unwilling to accept. She wants Dan, instead, who is passionate, daring, and involved underneath both his everyday mask and his superhero mask.

Nudity in the Conversation
But how do these films’ uses of nudity relate to or rephrase the already-existing conversation about nudity in film, and art, in general?

Nudity in art can challenge cultural assumptions and objectifications. Consider the audience’s reaction to Gustave Caillebotte’s Man at His Bath (1884). Initially, Caillebotte had to show it in a back room, rather than with the other Impressionists, because its subject matter shocked viewers. The painting frankly and viscerally depicts a rear view of a nude man drying off beside a tub, along with a few wet footprints, a pile of clothes, and closed curtains.

Through depicting the nude man, Caillebotte forced (and still forces) his audience to reconsider the male body as beautiful as the female. His painter compatriots focused the majority of their attention on nude women, and in presenting Man at His Bath, Caillebotte says, “Hey, men are equally as beautiful, fragile, and noticeable as women.”

Similarly, both Van Sant and Daldry seem to be reminding us through their depiction of nude men that men, too, are beautiful. Furthermore, Daldry shows both the male and the female body equally, and embodies, through his film, this concept of equal beauty.

He’s not objectifying beautiful bodies, but using them to make statements only available to be made through the use of nudity. In fact, each of these three directors is using nudity in film specifically to contribute their own statements about naked bodies in art.

One of film’s primary tools is a narrative told over time, and it lives closely to our everyday sense of external reality. By contrast, paintings – in which nudity has long dwelt – generally depict static moments or states, as do photographs, sculptures, and most other visual forms of art.

Therefore, film as an artistic medium carries a degree of responsibility. Onscreen nudity is often something prurient – and sadly, in the United States, most nudity on film (or television) serves little purpose other than stimulation and shameless marketing. The scantily-clad person strolls across the screen and the viewer starts to salivate. And maybe buys the product. The end.

In great (lasting, challenging, beautiful, truthful, skillful) art – great film, great painting, great quilting, great photography – prurience has little place. However, nudity for a great filmmaker relates to film’s sense of time: it focuses on the impermanence of the body, while at the same time reveling in the beauty of the same body, as in each of these films.

Harvey Milk’s body, Hanna’s body, Dr. Manhattan’s body: each fades away, and becomes dead through the course of the films. As in a portrait, these characters’ onscreen nude flesh preserves their image beyond death. It reminds the viewer of his or her own impermanence.