Will over reflex: Prose and poetry

Will Over Reflex: Prose & Poetry

By Casey Jarrin

Belief:  A Primer

At her First 
Communion
she whirled 
her head
around 

and mouthed
the words
Does anyone 
believe this

as crumbs
of blood
tickled
the ends
of her lips

The Gallery: Disappearing Acts

I’m not sure how it began, but soon my tongue started falling out of my face.
At first it tingled, I pulled it lightly, then it kept unraveling until there it was,
looped in a single pile on the ground, what looked like miles of tongue tape.
Red rope or fire hose or skin. A sculpture of tastebuds. And I wasn’t bleeding.
Just stood there, mouth emptied, tongueless.

What did it feel like?

I don’t remember any feeling, stood numb dumb mute, mouth open and empty.
Watching. And then the other bodies faces gathered to watch. It was a real show.
The Tongue Gallery. That’s what they called it.

What happened then?

After the show, after the clinking of glasses and the murmur of watching, a man
stepped forward. He stood next to me, before the pile, and pulled a Swiss Army
knife from his front pocket with the flourish of a magician beginning his act. All
became quiet.

Everything blacked out, everything but the man, the pile, the knife – visibly dull
from too much whittling of wood or gutting of trout or carving off skins. Slowly
he circled and began to unravel the pile until it lay flat across the room, one
continuous track of tongue.

He sliced cross-sections, slicing quickly down the line.

A woman in a white suit assisted the man with the knife, delicately holding a tray, expertly collecting each slice. Slices lay atop the tray, layered in pinwheels the deep pink of medium rare, not bloody but far from the taste of live tongues flapping; pink slices fanned across the tray with catered delight. She offered them up as a delicacy and a souvenir, a reminder of the show that had been so sweet.

And then?

Each guest took a cocktail napkin and a slice, sniffing their morsel, then risking a small bite. Chewier than I expected, but such flavor shared a woman in ruffles and gold hoops. Best to take the whole slice in your mouth at once advised another woman in silver taffeta and knee-high boots. When the tray arrived before my eyes, I paused. Not wanting to be rude, but knowing I must refuse my slice, I held right hand over stomach and shook my head side to side. Must’ve eaten something strange for lunch whispered taffeta into white suit’s ear. And the tray moved on through the crowd, offering up its pinwheels of tongue, fanned delicately into infinity.

And then?

Grasp onto limbs
hold onto the present-tense of bodies
slough off past and future pains
breathe in this room of shared skins

tonight we fall asleep in calm tides of this lullaby.
But sooner rather than later, we will awaken to a loud
cloud of smoke and tears, a towering pile
of the nothing left behind.

Seeing Them for the First Time
(For Cherie)

i. 1989

I took the day off
from earth science
and algebra and clay
to drive over the
George Washington Bridge
and cry with people I didn’t know and some I did.
We looked inside the casket thick red carpets muting
a roomful of swallows and gulps the corners alive with whispers.

Cousins twenty years older
are myths, a stolen whiff of
what you might someday be.
They kiss and drive
and die before you, usually.

He was young: electric eyes
long lashes, a smile.
My brother and I held
each other saying nothing
and later drove home across the river
in a quiet I can still hear
remembering Eddie.

ii. 1963

You know the sound
someone makes
when they feel pain?
That’s what it sounded like
at my Cousin Joanne’s
open casket funeral
as they lowered her into
wet Wisconsin ground.

Everyone said we could be twins.
That afternoon I climbed
upstairs to her room
and while I was running my
hand over her hairbrush
her sister walked past
and screamed But you’re dead!
That day I was her ghost.

Their house was on a farm
at the top of a valley, their well
downhill from the pigpen.
To make a long story short:
as it flowed down, they drank
the shit and she got cancer from it.
Dirty water gets you every time.

iii. Outside Time: A Dream

There were toilets on every floor.
Each overflowing, though not
how you’d expect.

Each overflowing with
hard-boiled eggs.

We worried but how to make it
stop?
and when the worrying
became exhausting we stopped
and ate and dreamt and ate. 

The Swallower’s Art

The Sword Swallowers Association International – codename SSAI –
is a non-profit organization home to a hundred or more amateur and pro
swallowers world round.

Swallowers must learn the art of taming their gag reflex, a spasm of muscles
where throat meets esophagus: the esophageal sphincter, if you must know.
When you think about all the pills and spills we’re expected to swallow,
our gag reflex is a throwback to another time and place and Life on Earth.
What began thousands of years ago as an act of divinity morphed into a bawdy
entertainment, then condemned as dark art in dark times of Inquisiting minds,
resurrected with circus sideshows carnival tents World’s Fair Coney Island
spectaculars by the shore.

Swallowers train for years: the triumph of body over nature, will over reflex.
They begin with small household objects, spoons and knitting needles, before
moving onto wire hangers and knives. Then the solid steel swords begin,
at least half-an-inch wide, fifteen inches long to pass snuff with the SSAI.
An oft-cited affliction of even the most skilled swallowers – other than death by
impaled aorta or burst stomach – is affectionately called “sword throat.”

All fun and games until your left lung explodes from a 16-inch steel rod.

Most celebrated swallowers are middle-aged men once-upon-a-time boys
catapulted into lifetimes on a late-night dare. Never as simple as: one day
I stuck the blade in. For the burgeoning performer, there’s a first audience,
the clinch moment – to walk or stay, intoxicated by this little death so near.

It all begins with that first swallow, the plunge.

Casey Jarrin is a writer, photographer, and educator whose creative work cannibalizes her experiences as an adoptive Southerner and Midwesterner, once-upon-a-time New Yorker, and Jewish-Catholic mutt navigating the horrors and pleasures of 21st-century bodies. She taught literature, film, and queer aesthetics at Macalester College before escaping academia to found Live Mind Learning. She’s contributed to Éire/Ireland, Bright Lights Film, and the Walker Art Center's Third Man Project, and is completing a mixed-genre collection, Ice Cubes Melting in Your Hand.