Let's Memorialize the Dead Even More

Marie Buck

Leftists die and people post “so-and-so, presente” on FaceBook.

The internet right at this moment tells me that presente means that the person is present. “You are here with us, you are not forgotten, we continue the struggle in your name.”

This is the opposite of what I had imagined it to mean. Not knowing Spanish and not looking it up for years, I had imagined it to mean something more like “I present this person to you,” and I can present them because they’re dead and therefore finished.

The real version is much better but also sadder.

I watch United in Anger, a documentary about ACT UP, and in it beautiful people in their cute 80s clothes go to the AIDS quilt demonstration for World AIDS Day and then stage a separate protest, the protest that David Wojnarowicz suggests in Close to the Knives: they throw their lovers’ ashes onto the White House lawn. In How to Survive a Plague, the other ACT UP documentary, you just see little bursts of ashes-cloud as people throw their lovers’ ashes over the fence. But in United in Anger, you see a slightly different set of footage. Here you see people open the vessels they are using to carry the ashes and show the contents to the camera.

And the ashes seem thicker, there are maybe bits of bone. Remains look more like remains when they are in vessels than they do when they are clouds dissipating into the air.

It feels like the time I watched Stan Brakhage’s autopsy movie, The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, curled up on a couch with friends, and I saw the scalp pulled back to reveal that the brain is green, and I could not forget it.

I find it reassuring to think that the ashes aren’t really the only remainder: there must be many pictures, maybe some video.

The ashes in the boxes look like the lung that is crushed in a doctor’s hand in the documentary Harlan County, USA. Harlan County, USA documents a miners’ strike in the early 70s. In the segment on black lung, a doctor or perhaps a union man holds something black and small and crumbly, it looks like paper in his hand, and, closing his hand, he lets it crumble and disintegrate into something even more like old brittle paper; the bits of lung fall through his fingers to the floor.

Later in the movie, a woman stands before a crowd at a solidarity demo for the miners, and while she’s not a miner, she’s as close to a miner as you could get, she says, through her son, her father, her husband having been miners. She was there in the 30s for Bloody Harlan County. She tells the crowd they have nothing to lose but their chains. She sings the song she wrote back in the 30s, “Which Side Are You On?”

I.e., this woman is the woman who wrote “Which Side Are You On?”

Harlan County is an observational documentary that insists on giving you no context for anything, so I look her up. Her name was Florence Reece. Her husband was Sam Reece. They were strike leaders and their home was broken into and they were terrorized by the mining company and the law. I have never heard her or his name before, despite that I did a PhD that was largely about the history of social movements.

A lover tells me about reading Anna Karenina. “Are you reading it because Tolstoy was an anarchist?” I ask. “I mean, that’s related,” he says, “but I just don’t want to not have read it.” I tell him that’s how I feel about Moby-Dick.

If I don’t read it, it will never have entered my brain, I’ll die without having read it. My brain will go green without Moby-Dick or Anna Karenina in it.

Though unless you have an autopsy, maybe your brain won’t even have the chance to be exposed to air and become green instead of pink. What color is it when dead but not exposed to air? I’m going to assume gray. Your gray brain would never have registered Anna Karenina or Moby-Dick, and it would not matter at all. The brain winds up gray either way, and in that state cannot articulate what it once thought of Moby-Dick or Anna Karenina. It is very unlikely anyone will ever even wonder if you read Anna Karenina.

My lover, who is not available to me and with whom I am not in love, tells me about the plot. The plot mostly seems to involve people falling in love with people who are not available to them and being overwhelmed by sadness.

For reasons that are unclear to me, my conversations with this lover tend to circle back to work, exes, and prior sex we’ve had. His ex, he reveals, makes labor documentaries.

I like that the lung in Harlan County and the ashes in United in Anger live on in the documentaries, and I wonder what it would mean if they had lived on in the footage, but the documentaries had never been completed, and the footage had sat in a box in a room for many years until it too began to deteriorate, much like the lung.

So that, say, the lung was lost to history except for its documentation on a strip of film, and then that strip of film also crumbled like a lung—but this crumbling of the film strip was itself recorded, so that instead of watching footage of a lung crumbling in someone’s hand we would watch footage of footage of a lung crumbling in someone’s hand itself being crumbled in someone’s hand.

Sex fluids stain the comforter and look like dried salt; blood dries on a condom in a little silver trash can.

And now my pink brain creates fantasies as I rest.

In the fantasies I read a book called Moby-Dick. When I wake I want to write down the new Moby-Dick; in the new Moby-Dick someone is dying of black lung while I’m protesting outside, not dying of anything.

Inside people are very cold, while outside I too am cold but not nearly as cold; Diana is there and crying a bit; I make a video to capture the sound of the protest; this does not document anything and the hardware that creates the internet will rot the way that people are left to rot; I will only call it rotting if it could be made better but isn’t.

In the dream I go home and am fucked by someone who does not discursively describe the fucking as it’s happening, as the other lover, the one who’s reading Anna Karenina, tends to do.

It is unclear if dirty talk is a kind of documenting—there is no document produced—but saying that you’re fucking someone as you’re fucking them, and verbally chronicling wetness, heat, rigidity, the swelling of a clit, seems better than to not.

And so in this dream you arrive back from the protest, you’re being fucked and only the coming is verbally chronicled, the rest of it is dissolves more quickly than speech; in the dream your brain turns gray but in real life it is full of blood.