On Death Styles: A Précis

—being a guide to parenting your live and dead children, featuring John Waters, Divine, Jack Smith, Mario Montez, Matthew Barney, and Mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria (the "Swan King").

My work-in-progress Death Styles investigates the essential contradiction between trauma, which compels us to repeat the past, and survival, which compels us to move forward. These poems ask: what is bearable. How does the present tense bear the past, how does it birth the future—and how might we survive that birth.


The title Death Styles makes homage to an unfinished trilogy by Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann, which struggles with the problem of survival in the aftermath of traumatic historical events (Bachmann herself did not survive).

To write the Death Styles, I developed a practice of daily writing inspired by such major poets of the daily as Bernadette Mayer (Midwinter Day), Hannah Weiner (The Fast and Clairvoyant Journals), Kim Hyesoon (Autobiography of Death), Marosa Di Giorgio (History of Violets), as well as forbears like Emily Dickinson (poems and letters) and Mary Shelley (letters, journals, and prose). Immersing myself in these exemplary texts has allowed me to investigate the profound expansiveness hid within the supposed limitations of the daily, while calling into presence these sister-writers gives me the stamina to undertake the work.

The three rules I've set for myself are that I have to write daily, I have to accept any inspiration presented to me in the present tense, however fleeting, and I have to fully follow the flight of that inspiration for as far as it will take me.


"Death Styles: Normal Love" opens its blue eye in the dark. The blue eye is a place where Art pools. It has infernal, paradoxical properties and follows Art's protocols. The blue tinge of day-for-night, a movie making principle of the 20th c. The 20th c. is where I came from. Up out of this hole—maybe. The blue eye is a stoma of the Underworld, through which it breathes. It breathes in all the light. It is opened and closed, solid and permeable, sordid and serene. It is blue because it is asphyxiate, and because its macula is clotted with the blue of the corpse-eye that falls open in Poe's Tell-Tale Heart, and the blue hole in the ground before the House of Usher. It is a place to fall, and it is made of Art.

Into the blue of the eye of Art falls the Swan King—Mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria who wanted to disappear into Art and who did. Obsessed with the works of Wagner, he built himself fairytale castles conceived by theatrical set designers rather than architects [1], and thereby bankrupted the state, was deposed and promptly drowned under mysterious circumstances in shallow water.

This seems to me an exemplary departure
if you can afford it, which I can't,
because I have kids, so I
"lock my ankles in the rushes/and stick around for now."


Exemplary behavior is also exhibited by Jack Smith, the underground filmmaker and visionary, difficult and convivial, shedding ideas like ceremental shrouds and grave-cave makeup, whose writing on Art I also love. To film Normal Love, he moved his ragtag entourage of junkies, hustlers, artists, poets, vampires, and performers out to the Long Island, where they bedazzled the grass to improve its green, got themselves up in bedsheets and grease paint. He shot them in lurid green and pasty pink, pure luxury, the more so because it was fake.

Synopsis of Normal Love, from a flier:

            In the confusion of the climactic roach stampede, the Lobster, in his final priestly
            disguise with the forehead-earring of exoticism in his back pocket, is drowned in Plaster
            Lagoon and now is hardened over.

Peering with the eyes of Jack Smith, we see the Mermaid (the drag performer Mario Montez, also the spider goddess from the opening scenes, in bandeau and wig) splashing like an asphyxiate, dishevel'd fish, "half-in, half-out of the eye. " Half-in-half-out seems and important quality for Death-in-life, a figure who appears here courtesy of Yeats's "Byzantium" and Shelley's "Triumph of Life," the poem what sunk Shelley's boat. To process, to go draped, to flop around, these are sublime behaviours.

Normal Love is Ovidian in its vocabulary as here all violences cycle, and are survived, by Art.

By Death-in-life,

now in, now out of the pool.


Now we're zeroing in. Now we're getting closer. Now the thought revolves, the circular Pasty Triumph continues, Divine marches through downtown Baltimore on a shopping day, Art requires plumbing, vocal pipes, gold apprentices, as it rises like song from the drains:

JOHN WATERS: We had no money [...] we lived in this place that had a plumbing school
underneath it. To get to our apartment you had to walk right through the plumbing
place. Divine would walk through in full drag—a gold lamé toreador outfit—while these
student plumbers would be working on their pipes. We called it a gutter film because it
really was filmed in gutters, alleys, and laundromats.

Art (the girl) can't help it.

The drug Artaine.


O Art: reversed shot, reversed drain: bilge of sublime and dreggy artworks and birds, lead that clots the brain, birdshot and lead shot, birdbrain Byzantium, Bronco Stadium where Matthew Barney stages the first installment of the Cremaster Cycle, Art bloats like a cyst in the cosmic uterine stadium and Chris Bell poses against like a Shelleyan pin-up against just one Alp (every night I tell myself / I am the cosmos, says the needle) all of these are the flavor crystals of Art, Chik-n-bisket, toxic trash intensity...

...A double ellipses like a set of punctures sends the bike wheel wonky and the spell is pierced. I'm [the poem is] dropped into the dailiness of parenting again—weather, laundry, reading the weather in one's child's moods, the mom-heart pierced, as was foretold in the tattoo, the weather-eye hot and welty, die welt, cherry-red, and the white rubber sneaker treads of the long American century, the squelching of wet toes. Can I vouchsafe her in some pink duct of Art, like a goddess in the Iliad, plucking pink (plaster-of) Paris out of the fray. Can I make her eternal by imparting to her Art's strategems. Can I dangle her by her ankle in Art's fatal flow.

Can she make her way without me.

Will she be safe when she goes.

[1] https://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/collections/departments/germanic-collections/about-collections/spotlight-archive/death-king-ludwig

Joyelle McSweeney lives in the Rust Belt and thinks a lot about the toxic and the lyric, ecology and form. Her most recent books are Toxicon and Arachne, poems, and The Necopastoral: Poetry, Media, Occults, a goth ecopoetics.