/k culligan

n. the quality or state of having the same sound

aural / oral:
Of the ears, of the mouth: the language tells us to treat it as a circle, as a water-cycle song with hand movements. I see this and it can all begin.

meat / meet:
Especially in an age of the internet, where “places” are “accessible” virtually in some 1% knockoff way, living somewhere is, by contrast, such a bodily thing; one that has so much to do with immediate and physical need fulfillment. When I think about living in a bigger city, I feel like I’m screaming “I want my body in the trains and the bricks and the scrape” in the middle of a business meeting. I feel a twitch of sixth grade soccer-cleat shame, of having just found out that endorphins are hormones. Of having just seen Jesus naked, and realized that we sort of look the same.

This need feels as sensitive and embarrassing as the coming-out that I never really did. My mom asked me once in a hot tub between frantic sips of plastic-cup ice water, “are you going to end up with a woman?” and I said “I hope so,” immediately. I was already in a hot tub with my mother. The body embarrassment quota for the day had been overwhelmed.

I went to Chicago for school, to draw charts of words and the brains that learn them. I thought looking under the hood would make me a better teacher, speaker, abider. I went for “sentences,” like a punishment, perhaps one’s whole life.

I made a lot of charts about my body, too, with few conclusions: Medically speaking, I have a body. Tubes that fill and color code and make numbers for doctors. Semantically, too. I have a body that is called head, skin, hair, girl-steak. Religiously, I have many bodies, all of them digesting. Physically, I put jeans on my body, hope for correct holes. Physically, I put my body on the train, hope for good stories, for destruction in one place, reappearance in another. Physically, I sharpen my sensors and wait for the sigh.

censor / sensor:
When you’re learning a language, every word sounds the same, which is to say it sounds like nothing. When I was in Chicago, I learned theories of language acquisition that made my brain shake, things like “word means it has become a picture flashcard in your head.” This meant that words must occur in two places for them to occur at all, and I could not ensure that what I was saying, the sounds I was stacking together, would always be met warmly, or even correctly.

I can understand the instinct, then, to keep your words to yourself, out of fear, out of ease. I kept a diary in school the way I kept my appointments with god; very sporadically, remembering only in moments of high volume. Reading through it, you would think that I was prone to realizations, fights with neighbors, big proclamations with no resolutions.

We called animal control again, and they hung up

Emily is a bitch and I weighed myself

October 31, 2012: I think I like girls

The fingertips, however, have brains and they know the questions to ask. They don’t know when language has failed or succeeded or offered us a clue. I have spent a few years sitting on my hands for warmth and for safety. But if there’s something in us that is still raw, still searching for gratification outside of our heads, something that knows itself outside of the laws and parades and family dinners, I think they want to take us there.

principal / principle / son / sun / vein / vain:
When I say principal, the other is implied. Sons are the light giving fulcrums. Why would I be thinking about someone else’s veins in a time like this? I convinced myself I could feel my veins last week really high at the Buckingham Fountain. They crossed like highways in an ill planned city. Not knots, but you need to call the city home to drive them at night. Maybe this is vain, to expect someone to call any part of me “home.” Maybe it’s just unrealistic, as I haven’t told everyone what my days have looked like from the inside, as I’ve been abiding by the order of the to-do list I must check off.

knew / new:
There is no new knowledge, just facts found dirt-caked and discarded in Barbie jeep glove compartments. This was the piggybank of things felt with a combination of story and body, a combination later abandoned in favor of sounds and meaning. If I think hard enough, I can trace every shame back to something I knew as that driver, a girl thought that the allure was not in the pink, not in the gears, but in both.

When I was in Chicago, my next door neighbor’s daughter had one of these tied to a tree with a nylon rope; every morning I nodded to it, professional and severe. It was none of my business. But in some inside place, I felt that I had seen my fetus self out in the world boldly showing itself to others. Seeing my secret-holder framed among the life and the city, I knew that there is a version of me who has always been free of connotation. One who has always felt that she had a right to share a suitcase home with the buildings, the aviators; one who allowed all of her belongings to be jostled together with the sunlight into one sense information. One sound. One new feeling, which I wanted to know.

bated / baited:
The journals we write are lies, or rather, we read them as lies. They read as accelerating, as watching a Jeep find its own inevitable way on the first try. The truth is that there is tissue in the meantime, and some of it is not in tact; sobbing-wet phone calls and google searches, eye doctors, frantic erasing and rewriting. It’s all a mess, which isn’t to say it’s all bad; just that none of it makes any sense.

One morning in a city where my body felt held, I felt like I was sitting across the breakfast table from the world. It wasn’t mine, but it was near me, and I wanted to hold it, finally, if it wanted to be held. Wanted to ask it to hold my hand, to spin, even if it meant I had fewer days left. Wanted to ask if it was nervous too, nervous about the thing we’ve invited in, the thing that has always been getting closer and closer.

queue / cue:
When the waiting is done, she opens her eyes, the stage directions said in italics, tilted, self-directing language.

eye / I:
I think of myself as a shitty colander, even now. A metal sorter, pissing out of holes. A cell phone tower moving the calls through the air. I’m just trying to make any sense of the things I am shown. A friend of mine in Chicago was planning a debate-style ESL class about organ donation, and I couldn’t pinpoint why I found this unsettling at the time, but I think this is why. The only image my mind plucked out of the cabinet was the head of the first sheep I ever slaughtered, her eyes still open during the skinning, lashes white and brushed.

The Catholic urge is to think about digestion, the Russian nesting dolls we must make of ourselves to live. The urge is to ignore all the bodies except the one cracked and scattered, donated to all of us, all the time. This is a story, words strung together, but it gets muddled with the calories, and soon we’re all in misery. This language we live in means so many things at once. But the sheep is not a metaphor; life gives life not for the poetry, but for the cells. I ate her, and I called her ‘her.’

How do we talk about this in any language? First, we tell our students, cut up the sentences. Then, the sheep. First, the story, then the bread. I worried about the ability of this language, with all its failures and gapes and repetitions, to fully carry the implications of the discussion of body, piece by piece. When the language becomes flesh, so do the shames felt inside it.

In English, meat and meet are said the same, and we are warned about the joining of skin. Boulder and bolder and we know that nature has more forms yet to take. Throne and thrown and all power can and will be moved. Eye and I and the picture flashcards that we attach to words are not only what they are, but what we are, too.

When the day comes that I need to sit somewhere and tell my people “I like girls, too,” I worry about the flashcard in the head, the questions and the silences. Talking about sexuality is talking about sex. Sex and religion and what your parents wanted your wedding pictures to look like when you didn’t even have a body yet.

On the plane ride home, I prepare for them the same tired answer as when students ask me why “bald” and “bawled” sound the same: Please don’t let it frighten you. I did not make the rules; these odd, malleable rules.


Katie Culligan (she/her) is an essayist and poet in Knoxville, TN. She is the winner of the 2018 Michael Dennis Award for Poetry and the Margaret Artley Woodruff Award for Creative Writing from the University of Tennessee. Her work appears in Columbia Journal and American Chordata Magazine. She can be reached at katieculliganwriting.com.