“Where Girls Go” by Catherine Chen

Today, Lise Quintana and Kolleen Carney-Hoepfner explore “Where Girls Go,” by Catherine Chen, submitted to Zoetic Press for the Viable chapbook series.

i.
At the airport I begin reading Carnival and Cannibal and almost immediately my body shuts down. How do you describe a cringe in reaction to the punchline of a joke that has strong-armed you into submission? I feel exposed. 20 pages in I have to do something else, like eat a bagel or check my email. Boarding call begins but I’m seated in the last zone. I try reading again.

In the book, Baudrillard’s proposal to abolish power is twofold: first to refuse to be dominated; then to refuse to dominate. He is writing in 2008 at the end of the Bush era but I substitute Bush for Trump and little changes. Actually I am more terrified because my political stakes are designated now in ways they hadn’t been before. [In 2008, I was starting high school and hiding in a closet after school to avoid acknowledging my politics, the body politic, etc. As always, selfish.]

But absorbing Baudrillard’s cynicism seems an appropriate preface for my flight to Atlanta, where I was meeting my friend for a road trip. Over the next ten days we’d inefficiently drive throughout twelve states in the Midwest and the South. Without Google Maps, I wouldn’t have known, but our route is one gratuitous detour after another. Car acrobatics, fearless mileage. Total nonsense. Is this infinity? My friend calls it cruise control.

Apprehensive of the South yet eager to be its witness, I had prepared by scrolling through Yelp reviews. Baudrillard jolts me out of that haze of BBQ sauce and cupcake bakeries into a reality I know little about. If the South as a belly of hegemony, then I want to locate myself in its messy map, its historical playground.

When my flight lands, I feel something invisible, a collective pulse, focus on me then pull away. I charge my phone. We check into a motel for the night and eat at Bojangles.

 

ii.
From the passenger seat, I watch the trees transform and displace themselves along an endless interstate highway. Forests in Alabama give way to Kentucky bluegrass to the bundles of tall, skinny branches that populate Missouri.

Kansas has green patches, creeks, and wind. We hit land. I send a picture of Kansas to a coworker back home who says the land seems pretty though its true character is reminiscent of the show Courage the Cowardly Dog.

What makes a flat bed of land terrifying, I think, is its embedded technology: roads. The road is not a metonym for land but I continually mistake them anyway. For technology produces the road. Construction flattens hills, evens ditches and canyons, levels mountains, redistributes foliage but none of these topographical manipulations can help me understand the land and people who exist beyond the visible horizon. The horizontal sky is overwhelming. I cannot articulate this unfolding except as a movement: the operating snowplow.

I sit all day long and still feel very tired. I ask my friend how he’s doing. His responses are generic, direct.

Listening to K-pop, we pass a billboard advertising the nation’s largest town square. Have you heard of Iola? 1:13pm. The clouds expanding like someone’s billowing skirt as she sits down at the table. Sunlight after it is filtered through a kaleidoscope. I fall asleep with this image imprinted in my mind. This morning we left Kansas City and its red brick alleys, numerous yoga and healing arts centers, and gentle hills.

Suddenly at sunset the sky collapses into indigo black. This relentless wave of black consumes the Ford Hatchback. Our orange headlights cannot fully pierce the night.

 

iii.
I want to talk about the Midwest city. St. Louis in the morning, afternoon Tulsa. The Midwest city is an empty city, a completely functional structure that conveniently lacks people.

I linger in this negative space. Capitalism without consumers. The automated business. Dull, ugly, and anti-productive. For instance, Tulsa feels like the city endless, the city whose point of no return was never fully determined. You walk past office buildings and churches and street signs named after east coast cities and institutions. If you blink you just might miss the Art Deco details of notable buildings or the cellular blocks of clouds hanging over the Bank of America tower. Once we leave the city the clouds disappear, replaced by an opaque mauve; I don’t know where they’ve gone.

I like walking here: imagine if you walked through Manhattan and there was no one so you were not catcalled/harassed/devastated into existing for the purpose of someone else’s gaze. That is what walking in these cities has been like.

 

iv.
In Tahlequah, the capital of Cherokee Nation, I stand above a creek facing Northeastern State University. Across is the campus bookstore. It is past sunset, windy and cold. Earlier that day I thought about how I tend to find one thing that I like about a new city. The thing is the vector of my meaning-making; it contains the memories and associations I have there. So Tahlequah is a creek just as Kansas City is an Arab market. Nashville is a multi-colored bridge lit up against the night sky. Atlanta is abstract graffiti of a man or is it a nozzle.

68 miles away from Memphis, the road color changes to clay. Cheeto dust. Meanwhile a lush green has returned to the trees. Green: the dark green of an assured forest shifts into the grassy green of my childhood colored pencils set. On the radio, an Indigenous environmental biologist called Robin Wall Kimmerer describes the language of trees. What are they saying: right now? The sky, tinged with pink. Memphis itself is saturated in Elvis nostalgia.

Of Little Rock I remember little aside from a hillside of dead grass adjoined to the Clinton Presidential Library. A plastic bag tumbles down. It reminds me of American Beauty, and that’s what Little Rock is: American Beauty but poorer and slightly more upfront about its racism.

 

v.
By the way, what is the road trip’s metric of time?

I watch the sunrise over Crossover Bridge, the world’s longest suspension bridge. We cross endless bridges from New Orleans to Baton Rouge to Lafayette. Soon we’ll be in Texas. My friend says that the beams of the bridge’s barrier reflects on the water so as to appear infinite. Lake Bigeaux. A body of water, a body of infinity. I’m silent. What other words are there for infinity? Despair. Wandering? How boring.

NPR is running a segment about All for Norway, a reality show that connects Americans to their Norwegian roots in a reality show competition. The winner is reunited with their living relatives. It’s a bizarre concept that is awfully steeped in a passive form of white supremacy. I don’t know. I want to cry, listening to Beth from Minnesota speak glibly of how much her newly recuperated heritage means to her. When you are white, reclaiming culture rarely requires embracing the violence and trauma that is so often inseparable from cultural production and ethnic heritage. When you are white, recalling your Norwegian ancestry seems to be mostly about skiing and eating gravlax. I couldn’t imagine an Asian version of the show, for example, that was not mostly taken up by screaming, miscommunication, or abuse. Map out our histories of migration. I have grievances not clarity. My mouth is dry and I am drinking coffee.

I already miss you in part because I think you’d recognize, or at least validate, this quiet hysteria of mine. It annoys me how easily heritage is packaged, it annoys me how one can benefit from participating in such a venue. Fuming, breathing, I listen to white folks talk about going back to the old world.

 

vi.
In Houston I recalled a dream:

I wrung necks into the ground last night bled until your unblinking then blinking eyes captivated then distracted me from the blow. I could not resist. Going very slowly I fell into your arms but I also wanted autonomy. Said “This is power” on loop: the power of tendered touches of touchiness of the feeling I do not like to be touched but I shock you innately: I do not have the prerequisite experience to handle either cash or devastation. I will labor to the point of illegibility. I read the capsized body. Is it mine? Cyan lights flirt across the highway. A glimpse of nighttime halos. Halo: the crimson-gold blinding my commute. I turn left two streets too early. The corners blur into/against the city peaks. I am a terrible witness poet to be honest. In the morning I am anxious to tell you my dreams so I type them into my phone only to forget to save the file. But in the one I remember there is a dog with an artificially bright egg yolk splattered across its forehead who, feral and utterly exhausted, yawns.

At the Texas State Capitol, I ask my friend how one destroys a word. He says: come up with a better word.

At the Capitol there is a statue commemorating Confederates who gave their lives for states’ rights while families enjoy the leisure of a Sunday afternoon.

 

vii.
whiteness wasn’t supposed to make sense
whiteness is disappearing
and returning 20 years later to a family
who still remembers and cherishes you
there is no diaspora of whiteness because the return to a homeland or the old country is state-sanctioned in so many cases
it is incentivized
Baudrillard says that capital disappears and it returns in a white body
you are brought back into heritage
you are bought back into culture

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