Essays I Would Write If Not for My Chronic Fatigue
By Benjamin Blackhurst
1. On Poetry & Persons
We respond to language as to persons. To speak is to cry out for. And so poetry contains
the whole of the human condition—namely, the shared estrangement from all other
human beings, and the artful attempt to make oneself known. If you don’t believe me,
consider a selection of what I once, in front of my erstwhile professor and still poetic idol,
referred to as word salad: Gertrude Stein’sTender Buttons:
A CARAFE, THAT IS A BLIND GLASS.
A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color
and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not
unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.
When one can only glimpse the object through a mirror darkly and the sense not at all,
one must try to make meaning. “A kind in glass” must be a type of glasswork, but also it
must be “kind” because it holds the wine, and there’s a “cousin” to this carafe in your own
glass to your lips, a kissing cousin perhaps, and it is a “spectacle” in how it casts light
across a room and “nothing strange” because it is merely serving its function to hold and
keep still, and this sentence flows as easily and unobstructed as “a single hurt color” that
shade of blood-red like the wine that startles and then settles in glass. Is it grammatically
correct? No. Does it speak? Yes. As would the tongue of a child: belabored, incomplete,
and with universal force.
2. On Cats & the Essay
By at least two measures—number and variety of prey—the domestic house cat is the
greatest hunter in the animal kingdom (excepting humanity, anyway). Once the feline
rouses herself from a third afternoon nap, she will slip away and stalk, as Marlowe might
have put it, “all things that move between the quiet poles.” Rabbits, snakes, moles,
starlings, rats, squirrels, shrews, spiders, jays, frogs, cardinals, scorpions, and of course
mice—the domestic cat will hunt and kill them all.
The essayist, of course, is similarly cosmopolitan with its prey and can write on any
subject at any time. Speaking, for instance, of cats and the literary, let me tell you of the
time I was reading a Korean translation of the Old Testament and stumbled over the
I must have gone dumbstruck over the notion of the “lion of the Lord” a dozen
times before realizing that saja is a homonym—both “lion” and “messenger” (a calque for
the Greek term meaning “angel”). And now we’re speaking of mis-readings, where I am
certain any essayist would be pleased to learn that I mistook E.B. White’s supposition that
an essayist must be “congenitally self-centered” for “congenially self-centered.” I prefer
the latter. Perhaps the essayist’s egotism is an accident of birth, but even if his egotism is
not unpleasing, isn’t it more pleasing—and more pragmatic—to identify not its origin but
its aim? And speaking of aim, of purpose, let us listen to Andrew Lang (in “On Observing
Of all animals, the cat alone attains to the Contemplative Life. He regards the
wheel of existence from without, like the Buddha.
So, too, the essayist.
3. On Lists & Entropy
I am sometimes disheartened to think that perhaps the greatest list-maker in the world,
Sei Shōnagon, the Heian-period gossip and literary marvel who penned The Pillow Book,
lived and died over a millennium ago. We’ve missed out on appreciating her lists in the
moment (though The Pillow Book did circulate among many of her courtier contemporaries).
As proof of her elegance and relevance, I offer her insights on cats: “Cats
should be completely black except for the belly, which should be very white.” (As the
(sadly) former owner of a black cat with a white belly, I see eye to eye with her on this
fact.) Given only her words as proof, I would (if I had it) wager a princely sum that she
Consider the perceptual creativity required to consider that very painterly notion
of things that ought not to be seen by firelight: “Violet robes, wisteria blossoms—indeed,
anything of this color.” She was demonstrably a poet, and on topics for good poetry, she
shines yet again: “The capital. The kudzu vine. The water burr. Horses. Hail.” Among
contemporary thinkers, perhaps only Mallory Ortberg can rival her here: "Call me old
fashioned but I think poetry should be about three things: your friend at Oxford who
drowned, statues, & pastoral sex metaphors." I fail each woman’s measure, so I’ll avoid
any discussion of poetic topoi and instead offer you the following for your entertainment
Names for Cats that Pun on Literary Figures: Michel Eyquem de Meowntaigne, Aeschypuss,
Purrgil, Kitten Marlowe, Jane Pawsten, William Shakespurr, G. K. Whiskerton, Arthur Mewler,
Purrasaki Shikibu, Oscar Wildecat, Ezra Pounce, Stray Shōnagon, Joyce Feral Oates, Edward
Tabby, Tomcat Wolfe, and Catullus.
Words that One Should Savor in the Mouth: Earthshine, hipbone, violet, petal, radial, jangle,
and heart (if you mean, as in,“wants what it wants”).
It’s all so charming to write such things in a list. The list is the means whereby an
individual may assume, however briefly, order over nature. It’s positively absurd,
considered too long, but the list’s trajectory curtails all such thoughts and for a moment
all are in agreement that entropy can be overcome, which agreement is right and proper.
4. On Being Asked to Choose a Superpower
It would take several therapists several years for me to adequately explain my desire to
reshape reality. Would I like to create a world like the ones Peter Joseph describes in his
The New Human Rights Movement - Reinventing the Economy to End Oppression
? Yes, absolutely. Would I like to talk to cats? Again, yes, absolutely. Would I like to blip myself
and a bunch of NASA scientists over to Neptune and hear them talk about the marvels
they’re discovering? Yes, again I say yes.
But that’s what I wanted before I got my CFS/ME diagnosis.
Don’t get me wrong: I still wish for that. More and more, however, I’m realizing (or
remembering?) how much of the world’s inherent wonder is in its mystery, its
unknowability. Consider the names of flowers: who would order the world to give way to
embrace the orchid, named for its resemblance to male genitalia, and the iris, evidently
thought so lovely that it is named for that part of the organ of sight that makes it lovely,
and Venus’s looking glass, which is equal to that goddess herself in loveliness, and the
hog peanut, which must mean to sell loads of the stuff to domesticated pigs, and the
touch-me-not—so straightforward and upright—and crowfoot, which resembles not the
slightest those avian fixtures, which you will forgive once you’ve seen them, and even the
common daisy, which implies an uncommon daisy, a marvelous daisy, a daisy so strange
the world is not yet ready, never will be ready?
(Still, I would get rid of my CFS/ME.)
5. On Alexa Meade, Ariana Grande, Claude Monet, & an Illustration of the Human
Without knowing it, you may already be familiar with Alexa Meade’s work. It was she
who set Ariana Grande awash in that yonic pool of paint for the music video of the
singer’s “God is a Woman.” Meade describes her work as “reverse trompe l'oeil” because
instead of tricking the eye to see 3 dimensions where only 2 exist, she undoes our sense of
depth with her brushwork and makes the 3-dimensional appear 2-dimensional. Strangely,
she does this [undoes this] by magnifying the darks and the lights, leveling out the person
hidden beneath the layers of paint. So, the work of art illustrates the human condition: at
every moment we believe we see the whole of the person, yet a talented artist with paint
and a good eye can disabuse us of the whole notion. We are but a few splashes of line and
And yet, counterpoint: consider Claude Monet and his myriad paintings of those same
water lilies and shrubbery and quaint bridges of indeterminate length, and might we not
say that each of us is an incalculably valuable obsession that we, in our singular presence,
have inspired painters over and over to cast us in such lights?
6. On Sartre
What a buzzkill. Kindly note: Heaven, too, is other people.
7. On Dungeons & Dragons
Dungeons & Dragons cannot be accurately described; it can only be experienced. Ask
those who love it and you’ll get many solid answers: it’s a storytelling game, it’s about
killing monsters and hauling loot, it’s ever-evolving improv, it’s about being heroes, etc.
The crux of it is that no two games of Dungeons & Dragons are the same because each
game of Dungeons & Dragons includes different players who bring different things to the
table. The actors of Critical Role show a version of the game devoted to the growth of
their characters in response to each other and the world at large, its cycles of trauma and
healing. Matt Colville’s Chain of Acheron adopt few mannerisms of their characters, but
the game plays out as political maneuverings and large-scale war. Come to my table and
discover the world’s strangeness, its untold lore, which takes shape as I learn what you
wish to see. Each table creates its own kind of world, and the question becomes what kind
of world will you create?
8. On Libraries
And to begin it ought to be acknowledged that a library is nothing if not a lost cause. For
once you begin to collect books, you know you can never stop. There will always be
more—every day there are more and more books of worth—and what a dream it would
be to have it all in a single glorious abode. Just yesterday I consulted a list of more than
150 poetry collections published over a 9-month period beginning the middle of 2019.
That’s just one genre—and rather far from the most popular—among many. Every
moment of every minute of every day the sum of human knowledge breaks the scale with
But if you wish the world were fair and just, or wish that someone had lent you The Paper
Bag Princess when you were a child, or wish there were places where you might read even
a dozen of those poetry collections, then you must listen.
"It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free
to desist from it either."
- Rabbi Tarfon, Pirke Avot 2:21
9. On My Favorite Movies: Groundhog Day, The Princess Bride, and The Royal
The best of cinema clings to love and laughter and redemption in the face of indifference,
sorrow, and the machinations of the cruel.
Benjamin Blackhurst is a second-year PhD student at the University of Utah, where he lives with CFS/ME and (almost as pitiably) zero cats. You can find his work in letters, elsewhere, Western Humanities Review, and elsewhere.