Many Lives, Many Deaths

Marina Blitshteyn on Irene González Frei’s Your Name Written on Water

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sometimes as a source of comfort after therapy i go to this little used bookstore on the upper west side called westsider books

it’s small and dusty and usually takes a bit of a stroll to get to but that’s always half the fun

i’ve found a number of treasures there, just happened upon them, and each time feels more magical than the last

when i first moved to nyc, and in the peak of a deep depression, i found moyra davey’s long life cool white there, tucked away upstairs for a reasonable amount of money

i was interested in domestic space, having just moved in with my bf

the world seemed full of possibility in the smallest details

then 2 summers ago i happened upon rosalind krauss’s bachelors, a book of art criticism that explores body and form in art by women

at the time i was interested in gender fluidity and poetic form, i was spending a week on my friend’s couch in flatbush, and something about the essays spoke to me

i read through them between talking about love and men and the promise of my long-distance relationship that would break my heart months later

then last month another miracle—i wandered over the different sections till i got to a corner i’ve never really been to before, where the erotica is kept

it’s a thin little shelf in the back left, you have to squeeze yourself against it when another customer walks by

there i found an old copy of the story of o and another less familiar work, your name written on water by irene gonzález frei

i start from the beginning but she starts from the end. let me jump to the middle

i can’t say what it is that speaks to me when i pick up a notable book but something speaks to me

it might’ve been the cover, a purple backdrop with some stock photo of a woman’s torso, her hand covering her private parts, very ’90s softcore

once i flipped the book over it might’ve been the mention of anais nin, the mention of the story of o, or most likely the thrill at seeing my own name in the plot description

your name written on water is about a woman named sofia who, though already married, by chance meets another woman named marina

the two look like they could be identical twins, they instantly fall in love and set out on a journey through europe together

never mind that my mother’s name is a variant of sofia

never mind that i’d just completed a manuscript of a series of dialogues between me and my mother

never mind that i was entering a phase in my life of sexual exploration and liberation, that i was hungry for a little magic and literature always led me there

i bought my 2 books and took them to have dinner with me

scribbled in my notebook next to a window overlooking broadway

a man ate his burger with relish and i was turned on

i felt the book had a message for me but i didn’t know what it was

late at night while my friend from l.a. was in town, and in my bed for lack of viable sleeping space, i cracked it open:

“Wherever you are now, Marina, don’t ever think I’ve forgotten you…. We were more than Sofia and Marina; I was you, and I will be you, once again.”

i start from the beginning but she starts from the end. let me jump to the middle—

all month i anticipate my own death. 2 years ago a prophecy from my grandmother, she came to me in a dream and told me i only had “a couple more.”

for 2 years i mourn myself like the end has already happened, like now is just waiting and watching, seeing how i get there

all month i’m driven by a corporal hunger that keeps me charged every night, keeps me masturbating twice a day, leads me into a renewed hunt for pleasure

i figure while i am alive i want to feel bodily love

i want to see what it’s like to give myself and let myself be taken

for weeks some men come over and we go through the motions

sometimes it feels like i mime what i’d do if i loved them

i want them to love me, care for me, i want to trust them with my body

sometimes i also want them to be violent with me

my own desires make me uncomfortable

part one of the book begins with the sort of sexualized violence i’ve spent my adult life flirting with but mostly avoiding

women tied up, raped, and, as we find out later, even murdered

i read these pages in bed and tense up, thrilled and worried

this was weeks ago

the more i love a book the slower i read it

once i entered sofia’s world i didn’t want it to end

i loved the cosmopolitanism of madrid, that she worked at an art gallery, had artist friends, and was super frank about her relationships, especially with men

i trusted the voice because it sounded honest with me, which attests to the writer’s skill in weaving spoken language with passages of sheer poetry, and the agility of the translation by kristina cordero

from the beginning it ran wild with the kinds of observations and references that i would traffic in

i also couldn’t help but imagine that it was speaking directly to me

the inscription read:

“For Marina who,

of all the people in the story,

is the only one whose name

I did not have the courage to change.”

to think, somewhere in another part of the world there lived a woman named marina, could still be alive in fact, and now i sit here empathizing with her ghost

—a quiet moment, a quiet thought

it’s after midnight and i can’t wait to climb into bed with you, irene

irene, that’s not your real name

(i should’ve been an anna)

you say between sofia and marina there evolved this third body

you called her clara

that’s not her real name

“Clarity in the sense of silence.” (oppen)

clarity in the sense of light, svet in russian

a good reader writes half the book—

“If happiness means deserving to be happy, then you and Marina are happy.”

i am talking to myself again

it seems to me the gatekeepers of the literary canon do not take erotica seriously because it is largely written by women

if it’s written by men it’s just called literature, isn’t it

it must be terrifying for men to read about male sexual ineptitude, or for a woman to take charge of her own orgasm, grab a guy’s head and ram it against her cunt

i suspect it’s also a linguistic issue—sex in american english is either comically pornographic or comically clinical

think “throbbing member” or “phallus” etc.

moreover on a woman’s body, already a political and social battleground, the erotic is reduced to her cunt, her sex, her vagina, her clitoris, her lips

these words are so inadequate in fact that sofia and marina devise their own language for things, a hybrid of sofia’s catalan with marina’s argentinian spanish

“’And what do you call this, che?’ I asked once, pointing to her cunt, stroking it as we lay naked in bed, like a teacher and a student in a libertine novel.

‘The concha,’ Marina said.”

a lovely alternative, left untranslated

“shell” in english wouldn’t do, rings lifeless, just an echo of a living thing, a husk for a ghost, no water runs through it

from the middle of this, already at the end of the book, i’m thinking a lot about narrative form, how can we write from within an experience, not knowing how it will end

i am not yet the ghost here, still very much bodied, but i know where this is going, we all do

jenny boully, from the body:

“Everything I do, I do because I know I am dying.”

and here, everything written because our loved ones are

“This grave contains all that was mortal of a young English poet. Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

—keats’s tombstone, which sofia and marina visit in rome

sometimes when poets say to themselves “i have time to publish, i’m still young,” a stance encouraged in some mfa cultures, other poets like to remind them “keats died at 25”

i use it as shorthand for how much time is up already, how much i may or may not have left to write what i want to write, as futile and underappreciated as it is

right now i’m at the kitchen table typing this into a gmail box, looking out 2 windows over a busy street

the sun is setting slowly but too soon

it’s too cold and quiet and i’m alone

“…till love and fame to nothingness do sink.”

is it my fate, sofia?

can we change it?

we say at the new year “may your name be inscribed in the book of life”

on new year’s day it is written, on the day of atonement it is sealed

you spend the days of awe in between prayer and consternation

is my name more permanent in a book than in water?

is it more like writing in sand, a desert of white

and is the ink white too, or is it more like stone

who gets to write the end that will define me

maggie nelson, from bluets:

“229. I am writing all this down in blue ink, so as to remember that all words, not just some, are written in water.”

and all names too, every year a new book, another desert, the same thirst

i was waiting on the corner of east 8th street and broadway, reading about cosmic love, metaphysical love, a love so profound no end could shake it, not even death

i was waiting for a date with a boy i’d never met before and feeling wistful

the wind was blowing my hair around and i had bright red lipstick on

i was thinking i must look beautiful, people were staring, there was still a bit of daylight out

but isn’t it wasted on the boy who showed up, maybe looked at my face and my hair wild around it, just intrigued

will i never experience that kind of love books are written about or for

doesn’t this just pale in comparison

when he showed up i wanted to make eye contact so intense he’d have to look away

i wanted to hug him or throw myself into his arms like help me help me

this book is so intense and i just came from therapy

help me figure out how i’m supposed to live this life and love myself

i didn’t do any of it, instead he asked me stilted questions as we walked to the restaurant, my arms crossed over my chest, not just from the growing wind and cold

i protect myself first, give myself later

this is normal, i had to remind myself, this isn’t a story, not fiction

it ruined me to read about the love between sofia and marina

a man will never love me like this, my mother will never love me like this, i might never even love myself like this

frei talks about narcissism in a way that i think is useful for women

after all sofia first masturbates to her own reflection in the mirror, then transposes this lust onto her spitting image, marina

is it shameful to love yourself this much? does it border on incest?

indeed sofia & marina like to pretend they’re siblings, like to imagine alternative narratives in which they could’ve shared a father

this is to be closer to each other, but even closer to themselves

“I once heard someone say that all love is selfish. Maybe that’s true, but how beautiful selfishness can be when it emerges from itself to satisfy its vanity through the happiness of its beloved! And how complete it becomes when the gesture is reciprocated! How can you say Narcissus loves himself when he only wishes to satisfy his double?”

in the first week of mourning we cover the mirrors

which are also like a book, they tell you a story about yourself

my mother never loved herself, a sofia

sophia, derived from the greek, “wisdom”


i dreamt once as a child i was lying on top of my mother, sleeping, when the reaper comes in through the door like a man, sticks his scythe through her skull next to me

i jump up and want to beat him to the door

it’s like we’re locked in a tango

only one of us gets out of here (alive)

and maybe something has to die for something else to live

the reaper, a man, my mother, myself

“I knew that Paradise’s perfume lasts until the rains begin to fall, that many lives require many deaths.”

i shouldn’t have finished reading it when i did but i had time to kill, a gruesome way of saying i didn’t want to feel this alone so i drowned myself in a book, still slightly buzzed from a date and about to go on another

it was at ost in the east village, a little cafe i frequent to write in a little notebook and drink cappuccino from a little cup

it was a friday night so most people were social around me, already drunk or about to be

it was too cold so it wasn’t as crowded as it could’ve been, i was mostly alone, tucked away in a corner in the dark, reading by candlelight like a romantic painting

it felt like that summer i finished reading madame bovary and threw the book across my room

i thought if a woman had written it she wouldn’t have given emma that kind of death, the most gruesome, most vivid death

that’s the fate men often give women who want more of their lives

i thought if a woman wrote emma she would’ve lived, and lived well

so why disappoint me irene, still not your real name

why describe the most sadistic, most elaborately sexual end, for both of you, both of us, sofia and marina, and clara, and marina, and sonya

again men as gods, as reapers, as death fugues, repeating old tropes, women objectified with sex then objectified as corpses

again an urgency to love myself before it’s too late, for the sake of my mother, my mother’s mother, the canon of murdered women before us, women who demanded pleasure, women in letters, women whose names were written on water, whose tombstones were built on sand and made of sand

how do we recover from that end, keep reading in anticipation of it?

eventually my friends showed up and joined me in the cafe, and soon it was 3 women instead of just one, a new trinity, 3 parts to one book, a way to diffuse the burden

or if, as freud suggested, we are everyone in our dreams, i must be everyone in my nightmares—the child, the mother, the killer, the man, the door

maybe sofia wanted to be forced from paradise

(it’s a trap, like love, like the body)

it was she who prodded marina to have sex with a man for the first time

it was she who dropped the breadcrumbs for the killer to find

it was she who played tricks on her husband

who desired the violence that plagued them both

maybe a classic feminine guilt at being so happy

maybe she wanted her better double gone so she could be the only one herself

like narcissus’s reflection, so alluring it kills its twin

in this sense marina is the living body, sofia her deadly other, a 2-dimensional trick

but we only get the mirror’s perspective

memory forged by survivors, monuments erected by whoever lives

some other is talking to me from beyond an end, a tomb or a book

another being written

now the sound of running water through the heating pipes

now knowing the end, the emergence of a new reader

already marked by death, changed by it, a living ghost

now an embodiment, spreading the gospel of the book

saying to myself, you are alive, you are loved, you want pleasure

and beautiful work is possible, even in eulogy, even in loss

a twin impulse, towards love and away, towards reading then

immediately out of it, putting it away somewhere, not yet knowing

how to read it, what it was supposed to teach me, what i’ve become

a literary figure, a writer, a muse, a reflection, an illusion, a scene

“The only true death is the death of memory. The other, the one that awaits me, doesn’t frighten me.

These pages branch off, they turn themselves, jumping ahead in leaps, gushing out, receding, stopping to look at what lies hidden in the folds of time, not because of some whim but because they are simply obeying the most basic form of my memory and my hope.

As I threw myself into the happiest days of my life, without losing the tiniest bit of my equilibrium I observed everything carefully, so I would be able to remember it after—to the point that I would remember experiences I was still in the middle of having, and would admire myself for acquiring those new memories even as I did so. To multiply that game of mirrors through a love stolen from mirrors, to close even more trunks within bigger trunks, like those Russian dolls, reminded us to record the steps, the efforts, the hesitations that had led up to our first encounter, because one of the sweetestacts of love occurs when two lovers evoke together the infiniteproposals, the daring plans, and the impatient vicissitudes of love’sevenings.”

a love story then, between irene and the reader, or me and my name

Marina Blitshteyn is the author of Russian for Lovers (Argos Books), Nothing Personal (Bone Bouquet Books), and the forthcoming chapbooks $kill$(dancing girl press) and Kaddish (Argos Books). She splits her time between Buffalo andBrooklyn and poetry and prose.

Your Name Written on Water: An Erotic Novel by Irene González Frei • Grove Press • 192 pages

Image courtesy of Helene Childs-Budelis

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