The Operating System

4th Annual NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: Day 25 :: Charles Theonia on Joe Brainard’s I Remember

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Wearing Green and Yellow on Thursday

Joe Brainard’s memoir I Remember could be a list, a series of prose poems, an associative diary of recollections about growing up queer in the 1940s and  ’50s of the Midwest, with some Lower East Side young-adulthood woven in. In his recounting, Brainard doesn’t analyze, process, or narrativize, nor does he retreat or distance himself from the unpleasant. The past stands in the light of the more recent past and the present, and sense is made relationally:

I remember one very cold and black night on the beach alone with Frank O’hara. He ran into the ocean naked and it scared me to death.

I remember lightning.

I remember wild red poppies in Italy.

I remember selling blood every three months on Second Avenue.

I remember a boy I once made love with and after it was all over he asked me if I believed in God.

I remember when I thought that anything old was very valuable.”

In his memories of how he understood the workings of the world, he digs into the misapprehensions of childhood, about everything but especially sexuality, where what you know is what you’ve gleaned from your observations (I remember staring at the collectible Spice Girls sticker I’d harvested from a lollipop wrapper and saying to myself, Ok. So you don’t have to cover your whole boob, just the tip), while you pretend you aren’t totally befuddled to anyone who might notice that you’ve haven’t actually got this all figured out. Brainard’s memories of his early sexuality are frank and gross and funny, and just like he calls up my own uncertainty and mystification around bodies and desire, he brings me right back into the supreme confidence of immaturity that allows you to unabashedly fantasize about enrapturing an audience with your singing voice, being discovered as a child-genius fashion designer (his fantasies, before he became a painter) or breaking the gender barrier of major league baseball (mine, before I realized that I was: 1. not that talented at baseball, and 2. not female).

He creates an emotional landscape out of long-gone objects:

Liberace loafers with tassels,” “pop beads,” “driftwood lamps,” “wax fruit,” “very long gloves,” “fancy yo-yos studded with rhinestones.”

and movie stars like Jane Russell and Rock Hudson. The book’s structure of repetition and association somehow encourages relation – even though its specificities are firmly grounded in another time than mine, there is so much here that is immediately recognizable to me.

Though it is largely peaceful, his past isn’t golden, filled as it is with memories of the kinds of casual, almost environmental, racism and homophobia that children absorb and then turn in on themselves and outwards onto others. His method is to repeat what he knew, or thought he knew, without remarking on how this affected him.  One memory, early in the book: “I remember when, in High School, if you wore yellow and green on Thursday it meant that you were queer.” 

At another point, his remembrances become almost a litany of interventions for the purpose of not appearing queer: hold the cigarette this way, cross the legs that way. One of the powers of this book lies in its non-linearity: by the time we get to the anxiety over how to hold a cigarette, we’ve already seen older Joe catching sight of Frank O’Hara’s gait, thinking him “very sissy” and liking him right away.  One of the things I most want to learn from Brainard is the tension he holds in moments like these, where we refuses to resolve himself by plotting a direct course from shame and fear to perfect self-knowledge and acceptance.

In a painting, Brainard returns to yellow and green on Thursdays, this time through the vehicle of Nancy, a comic strip character who originated in the 1930s. He and I have a shared fascination with Nancy, who fails spectacularly at the daintiness of girlhood. She is blunt and desirous, entirely literal and resistant to adult logic.  Brainard’s painted Nancies subvert again, as in “If Nancy Knew What Wearing Green and Yellow on Thursday Meant,” where, from her yellow bow, green shirt, set gaze, and broad smile, I gather that she most certainly does.

In a similar spirit, here is a poem of mine:


On my way to the video store a sheet of ice
covers puddles like wrinkles patterning
the corner of an eye. I’ve come to return
Paul Newman who’s just kissed
a parking meter like it was a girl
he’d been circling all night before deftly
beheading it.

And in the morning, too, more ice
on the glass panels of the bus shelter.
One panel reads your gay scratched there
through the thin crystals. Mine?

Still it’s hard not to see the two of us instead
only days ago with my shoulder steadily
encountering yours above the armrest at the movie
or early the following afternoon as you press
me up against the wooden panels of the door
and say it’d be a shame for me to lose my breasts.
I step back outside into the first inch
of snow that has gathered since we came in.

Already the snow is melting.
A clump falls from the branches
of the tall bush by the front door.
They shake up then down
like a trampoline evening itself out
after its jumper has jumped off.
It’s a short walk. My glasses fog
when I get in from outside.

Joe Brainard (1942-1994) was a writer and visual artist from Tulsa, Oklahoma and lived in New York until his death from AIDS-induced pneumonia. In addition to his experimental memoir I Remember, he created inventive assemblages, drawings, paintings and poem-comics. His process was frequently collaborative, often involving his life-long friends Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett. In 2012, Matt Wolf made a documentary about Brainard, which you can watch here:

Charles Theonia is a poet and teacher from Brooklyn, where they are working to externalize their interior femme landscape. They curate __4__, a series presenting queer and trans words and performance, with Abigail Lloyd. You can find their work online at Charles comes to us via Cristina Preda, who contributed this fabulous piece on Lillian Yvonne Bertram last year. (photo by Julieta Salgado)

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