The Albatross | Rebekah Galbraith
Updated: Jan 26
A few times a month, I retreat to a sauna. It’s mixed, but I keep my bones and flesh to Women’s Only day. I don’t know what possessed me that first time, except perhaps a rabid curiosity, like testing a battery with my tongue. I thought to myself that if I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t be the first; I could always leave. I always leave. Oh, there she goes (there she goes again)—the familiar sight of me upping myself, spreading my wings when I don’t want to be there anymore. Something keeps me from sticking. I don’t reproach myself for this queer maladjustment but lately I have begun to wonder if I should.
Weary from the chase, Diana, down in a valley of cypresses, was wont to bathe her virgin limbs in cool retreat, her private haunt. Panting with heat, breathless from sport, she lifts her spear, her unstrung bow and quiver, and hands them to her nymphs, each one for their part undressing her; another loosening sandals; armour-bearer with her heavy robe. Crocale gathers her flowing hair in bundled knots, with a fetch of water unlade above the Goddess undrest. When Actaeon the hunter, as the hard fates would will, came through the rocky cleft to a fountain blessed of naked nymphs; and did espy the frightened virgins (whose shrieks thus echoed with the forest’s cries). But to Diana they flocked, the nymphs around her body clustered in surprise; she exalts herself in ruddy blushes, her anger the colour of Aurora’s dawn. She snatches fistfuls of water and dashes them in Actaeon’s face. Go on, she goads him, if the cat hasn’t got your tongue, you can tell them all what you saw—
He never gets the chance, Diana disappearing by slow degrees his fearful form to that of a deer. Wretched Actaeon! Panting with unimaginable fright, he groans with no voice of his own; shame dissuades him, his body lost while his mind remains; his hounds do not recognise him as they tear flesh from bone, eat him limb from limb. Words fail the noble huntsman; servants ignorant, their joyful shouts to their master go unanswered.
It’s my favourite part of Metamorphoses.
The first description of Rebekah appears in Genesis 28:10–19:
“And Rebekah went out toward the Father. And she lighted upon the place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and she took one of the stones of the place, and put it under her head, and lay down in that place to sleep. And she dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to Oblivion; and behold the angels of the Father descending on it. And, behold, the Father stood beside her, and said: “I am the FATHER, whose Name is Like God. The land whereon thou liest, from thee will I take it. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee whithersoever thou goest; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.” And Rebekah awaked out of her sleep, and she said: “Surely he is in this place; and I knew it not.” And she was afraid, and said: “How full of fear is this place! This is none other than the house of the Father, and this is the gate of Hell.””
My father’s father once killed a man. It was an accident; he was driving a bus and a man walked out across the street.
Don’t read my diary when I’m gone
OK, I’m going to work now, when you
wake up this morning, please read my
diary. Look through my things,
and figure me out.
Kurt Cobain’s journals are arranged more or less chronologically, but as he never dated his entries it’s difficult to say whether the composition has a tangible form. Sketches of violence and grotesqueness, Cobain’s self-portrait of an emaciated torso, concentric swirls for Dante’s Vestibule of Hell; early concepts for music videos and protean lyrics; his favourite bands and tracks in listicles—The Stooges, The Beatles, The Clash, Pixies, Sonic Youth, The Vaselines, Black Flag and Black Sabbath, Violent Femmes, Sex Pistols, Velvet Underground, and more; your pal Kurdt ironically decorating mock-up Nirvana Order Sheets for T-SHURTS with the dumb, stupid, ugly faces of the band (“Don’t buy this one”); tabs for chords—F4, F6, F7 (moveable)—with diligent instruction on which calloused fingertip should press and where; and a custom-designed left- handed Fender “Jaggstang”—half Mustang, all Jaguar—slipped and reshaped, a thinner neck and Les Paul gut switches; letters of madness and humour, drafted and unsent; his journal entries of piss, vomit, shit, urine (and Charles Bukowski); altogether an obscene confessional box of abject torment, tender grief, and the mechanics of pain. “If you want to know what the afterlife feels like”, Cobain tells no one, “then put on a parachute, go up in a plane, shoot a good amount of heroin into your veins and immediately follow that with a hit of nitrous oxide then jump. or, set yourself on fire.”
Like an outline, he admits to using bits and pieces of others personalities to stencil his own: it’s a stoic admission of form, made in bullet-point. In fact, there are 11 in total, but the final three are left blank. I think more about what he didn’t scrawl down on this page, want to ask if he had other ideas about himself, something more that he couldn’t bring himse[incomplete entry]
I can’t remember that I was ever a girl; if the aftermath of my strangled childhood outlined my adolescence and ran in pursuit toward an unyielding adulthood. “IF THERE IS A GOD”, writes Kathy Acker, “GOD IS DISJUNCTION AND MADNESS.” Cobain has something similar: I miss the comfort in being sad / I miss the comfort in being sad / I miss the comfort in being sad. Do I create myself anew, survive because I choose artful exile? Or is it that there is no church for an incomplete woman and her matchless need, however hard she prays—hey, wait, I’ve got a new complaint!
I like to think about anger as a place of origin, the selflessly rich landscape of a furious woman. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to fuck the pain away, an ill-tempered bloom seething with violence.
(This kind of beauty is not submission.)
I’m not the only one
I’m not the only one
I’m not the only one
I’m not the only—
Once upon a time you lived in a brick house with an orchard. Apples, mostly, but pears, too, and wine grapes on a vine at the back. Over the fence, the neighbour’s black doris plums dropped in their dozens, sucked one after another into your greedy mouth. It was late January; the blueberries had soured.
This afternoon though, you’re lying in the back of a sedan, parked on the street outside your house, clothed and damp with sweat. Everyone has left, gone back inside, but you’re still here, heaving the stink from the fall, your own voice crying Look what you’ve done to my mother—
My mother went to see the white priest in his parsonage.
He saw what was left of her sanctified face and gave her heavenly benediction: Why don’t you go home and cook him a nice, hot meal?
A man, a total stranger in a bar, asks if you’re a lesbian, adding, I bet you love the taste of your own pussy.
How to tell my story?
1. Believe that habits should be as profane as they are profound. In this divided space, there is a great deal of satisfaction to be had in sourcing something novel from the sighted and commonplace, replacing the blissfully familiar with the naked and strange.
2. Yield; do not submit.
One year on my deathiversary I saw Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts at The Embassy. It’s always a pretty shit day and I couldn’t believe it was screening that night. It would definitely cheer me up. I hate thinking of something to do every year, but I’ve learned it is best to make plans. Lucky for me that the 2018 New Zealand International Film Festival was a real bonanza for Lesbians: Sally Potter’s Orlando, Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Sebastian Lillo’s Disobedience, Wanuri Kahui’s Rafiki—and there I was, starved for content. It’s not a question of form; we’re always hungry, us dykes.
I thought they must have been a social club or something; the end of the first row reserved by a soft butch chapter. They all looked adorable, boots and bomber jackets, craft beers. I saw them first; no woman ever sees me first. But when I sat down behind them, and saw two gently crane their necks in secret—you’ve forgotten this.
What providence of the deity passes over us all; how implausible it seems that we should expire. Of our volatile nature, David Hume argues that while a house built by the hands of men may fall by its own weight, no self-governing individual incurs the indignation of its creator in throwing away a life while it is worth keeping. What a disturbing tempest it makes, this trembling empire of self-destruction—Hume is resolute where Donne is less clear on the zealous martyr, exposed to charity and self-indulgence; that Christ’s passionate embrace for the glory of the Father occasioned His own death. Donne gives up the ghost. But it prickles us that rattling in the throes of oblivion, mankind still yet insists upon all that remains of its mortal paradise; where no one shall take my body from me, but lo, that I should lay it down myself. A celebrated emission: Death, be not proud—
It’s like Cay Rivvers tells the pearl-clutching Vivian Bell, we all have to draw the line somewhere.
Soy un perdedor—
I'm a loser, baby
So, why don't you kill me?
You’re [illegible] woman[?] without [illegible]
I’d use nothing but my bare fists. I read somewhere, once, long ago, that after you first fracture a human skull, the bone fragments are so thin that there’s really no stopping the damage one could do to the brain. There’s a pocket, behind the eyes, that is particularly vulnerable; if you push the bridge of the nose up, up, up into that squishy consciousness, you’re well on your way to fulfilling your fierce appetite for butchery. Like flat little grapes you can puncture the eyeballs, hook your fingers inside and heft them from their sleep. Let it dangle there a while; wonder what He sees? Teeth, false and real, pummelled to dust, jaw clean ripped away beneath the ears for good measure. Face to liquid, a congealed mass of blitz and blood.
Here is something you can’t understand; How I Could Just Kill A Man.
Elle est mord, elle est mord—
>>Adieu! Adieu! Je sais le jeu!
>>Oh, mon demi-dieu: regarde tes yeux!
<<pourquoi l'eau éteint le feu?>>
C’est la petit mort d’auteur!
“Well, if you’re like me, then you read it and thought, God, I don’t want to see that happen to another pair of breasts!”
—Roland Barthes, Fragments d’un Discours Amoureux (1977)
Compulsory heterosexuality is a false conceit, a perpetual mistake; it is living with the assumption that everyone is just like you.
For every single man who reduces you to another pair of breasts: not for love, but lust, his life’s work nothing beyond grotesque self-parody. His certainty is delusion; he voyages out from solitary pleasure with no thought but for himself, outlining the bad object of your form with inappropriate ease. His desire is artifice, prejudice; have you ever needed emasculation as urgently as you needed his?
“Well, if I’ve offended or upset anyone, then I apologise unreservedly—but it’s a real shame if we can’t teach with a bit of irony.”
—Wayne C. Booth, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (1988)
“We have no recourse to living bodies in art”, writes Siri Hustvedt, as a woman looking at men looking at women, where the self in a painting is reversed, inversive: the relationship between object and subjectivity is measured by a sensory distance. Thinking about her own relative positioning, Hustvedt determines that “without a viewer, a reader, a listener, art is dead. Something happens between me and it, an “it” that carries in itself another person’s willed act, a thing suffused with another person’s subjectivity, and in it I may feel pain, humour, sexual desire, discomfort. And that is why I don’t treat artworks as I would treat a chair, but I don’t treat them as a real person either.”
The rude obsession with the female nude in art history, its hidden condescension and wretched history—his-story—part of the canon: the prevailing impurities of our collective perception paralyzed by absence. Of course, we can speculate about the identity behind a desperate man’s modelled origin of the world, but it isn’t her face to which we are invited to down our pledge. This isn’t a reversal of self but a reflection of our beginning, Lacan’s chiasmus of the cunt: there is no absence in the Real.
(And what of the Actual—?)
Consider the compositional unity of my sleepy form beneath an oil: Is the bold stroke of my thigh powerful, toned muscle rich and vivid? What can be said of the loose arrangement of figures, lying above and below, crouched tight between? How subtle the pattern of heads and limbs, our framed supplication a symbol of our shared cultural experience, a silent gesture toward the surrounding discourse on the female body. Prone and alone on the heated panel do I find a contained site of meaning, a radical, aesthetic experience of my own gender? Or do I isolate corporeal beauty: order, symmetry, and definiteness?
Why does common decency require that a woman’s head be severed from her body before she can speak? I am not a work of art; I am never nude. I am easy and unregulated: a womxn, naked and asleep.
Cult of Personality
1 GALBRAITH, REBEKAH. “MOTHER OF MANKIND.” 2018. CANON EOS 1000D. JPEG FILE
1 ‘there she goes (there she goes again)’: “There She Goes” by The La’s, music and lyric by Lee Mavers. Originally released in 1988, the cult song has gained a reputation for its hidden ambiguity; being about Mavers’s drug use (heroin). Described by author Matthew Macefield as “The JD Salinger of Pop” (The Guardian, 3 Dec., 2003), Mavers disappeared from public life after the song’s re-release in 1990. Formed in Liverpool in the 1980s, The La’s only released one self-titled album in 1991. Macefield’s biography of the band, In Search of the La’s: A Secret Liverpool (2003), was reviewed by Alexis Petridis for The Guardian, where Petridis notes that Maver’s eccentric and chaotic performances and interviews were overshadowed by an “impenetrable Scouse psychobabble”.
1 The Myth of Diana and Acteon, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Book III, lines 131 - 253.
2 Jacob’s Ladder (or, Jacob’s Dream at Bethel): Genesis, 28:10-19.
2 Cobain, Kurt. Journals: Kurt Cobain. Riverhead Books, 2002.
2 ‘I miss the comfort in being sad’: Born in 1913, Frances Farmer was a Seattle-born American actor and writer, her life in Hollywood and experiences in several psychiatric hospitalised infamously memorialised by biographers in several sensational accounts: the erroneously ‘autobiographical’ Will There Really Be a Morning? (posthumously published in 1972), and the Kafkaesque Shadowland (1979), a biographical novel by William Arnold. Much of Farmer’s life is open to scrutiny, the self-reporting account of herself dangerously, highly fictionalised: Arnold is responsible for making the false claim that Farmer, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, underwent a transorbital lobotomy. No evidence of the procedure was ever uncovered, and Arnold later admitted that he fabricated and fictionalised most of Shadowland. Similarly, though Frances records the following in her ‘autobiography’ Will There Really be a Morning? there is doubt over the validity of the account, and confusion over whether Farmer’s friend and room-mate, Jeanira “Jean” Ratcliffe, ghost-wrote the text: “For eight years I was an inmate in a state asylum for the insane. During those years I passed through such unbearable terror that I deteriorated into a wild, frightened creature intent only on survival. And I survived. I was raped by orderlies, gnawed on by rats and poisoned by tainted food. I was chained in padded cells, strapped into strait-jackets and half-drowned in ice baths. And I survived. The asylum itself was a steel trap, and I was not released from its jaws alive and victorious. I crawled out mutilated, whimpering and terribly alone. But I did survive.” Nirvana’s “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” is inspired by Farmer’s persecution by the press for her increasingly erratic behaviour, the chorus of which repeats the paradoxical line, “I miss the comfort in being sad”. Cobain became interested in Farmer after reading Shadowland as a teenager. In an undated interview on YouTube, Cobain refers to Farmer as a “foul-mouthed sort of person” who “hated the whole Hollywood scene and expressed her hatred for them publicly”. An instrumental exists for an unwritten song by Cobain, “Letters to Frances”. Frances’s award-winning 1931 essay, “God Dies”, which she wrote when she was 15, had a profound impact on Cobain’s developing sense of nihilism and the private self: “I felt rather proud to think that I had found the truth myself, without help from any one”, writes Farmer, “It puzzled me that other people hadn’t found out, too.
2 ‘hey, wait, I’ve got a new complaint’: Originally titled “Heart-shaped Coffin”, Cobain’s open-ended love-letter to Courtney Love, “Heart-shaped Box”, was released in 1992. Later, in a 1993 interview with Ben Mothersole for Circus, Cobain claimed the line “Hey/Wait/I’ve got a new complaint” was less about his turbulent relationship, and more about his fabricated portrayal—Cobain as “the whining anarchist millionaire”—by the media and paparazzi: “That’s just me giving an example of how I’m perceived.”
3 ‘I’m not the only one’: Nirvana, “Rape Me”, released in 1993 as the second single from In Utero.
4 ‘I hate thinking of something to do every year, but I’ve learned it is best to make plans.’: Generally, in Catholicism, a saint’s Feast Day is scheduled for the day of their actual death, though occasionally the Church will assign an alternate date (if the date of death is unknown, or already allocated to a number of saints). Locally, pupils at Catholic schools across Australia and New Zealand celebrate the Feast Day of Saint Mary of the Cross on August 8, attending liturgy for Mary MacKillop, known as Mother Mary of the Cross. In 1870, MacKillop and the Josephite sisters reported instances of child sex abuse to the Church, which saw the return of Father Patrick Keating from Adelaide to Ireland. That same year, MacKillop was excommunicated from the Catholic Church by Bishop Laurence Bonaventure Sheil, OFM, for “insubordination”. MacKillop is the first Australian to be recognised as a saint; she was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1995, and canonised in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI. On Thursday, August 8, 2002, I attended service, where the homily was a commentary on MacKillop’s life: she was of Scottish descent, emigrated to Australia, and worked as a governess to support her family before joining the Church, taking the name Sister Mary of the Cross, after the Feast Day of the Presentation of Mary. That evening, while my grandmother was out getting dinner with my sister, and my mother was asleep, recovering from spinal-fusion surgery, for her neck my father broke with his fist, I tried to kill myself. I remember Paul Holmes’s voice coming through the television, speaking to the nation as if nothing was happening at all. It was two weeks before my thirteenth birthday.
4 ‘Soy un perdedor/I'm a loser, baby/So, why don't you kill me?’ Beck’s “Loser”, released in 1993, is a nonsensical parody of Generation X’s slacker attitude, the lyrics a schizophasia word-salad.
5 “Here is something you can’t understand/How I could just kill a man’: The debut single from Californian hip-hop group Cypress Hill, “How I Could Just Kill a Man”, was released in 1991; reissued in 1999 with Spanish lyrics; later covered by rap metal band Rage Against the Machine in 2001.
6 ‘Of course, we can speculate about the identity behind a desperate man’s modelled origin of the world, but it isn’t her face to which we are invited to down our pledge.’: It is not known who, exactly, is the model for Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde (1886), though correspondence between George Sand and Alexandre Dumas posits that it is likely Constance Quéniaux, a dancer for the Paris Opera Ballet and, later, courtesan. Courbet’s eroticisim obscures the subject’s face: a close-up of her genitals and lower abdomen, the nude form with legs invitingly spread, ‘she’ has been displayed at Musée d'Orsay since 1995.
7 GALBRAITH, REBEKAH. “DISCORD.” 2018. CANON EOS 1000D. JPEG FILE
Rebekah Galbraith (they/she) is a writer and poet living in New Zealand. They hold a PhD in English Literature.
For mobile users, see PDF with original formatting below.