Pay Attention: T Fleischmann’s Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through
When T Fleischmann (or Clutch, as they refer to themselves in Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through: An Essay) reads aloud, they read fast. Super fast. Clutch’s nonfiction works are transparent and honest, but the essayist still gives off an air of aloofness and Joan Didion-like seriousness when they step up to the podium to read from their second book-length essay. So one might confuse this hyper-fast reading style as a sign of awkwardness or shyness.
But, after a few minutes, it becomes clear that this is a deliberate choice, one that works with Clutch’s style of writing. In Syzygy, Beauty, Clutch’s previous book-length essay, they stretched a narrative across neatly framed boxes of prose set in the middle of each page, a tight space to be filled with as much stuff—consciousness, chaos, whatever you want to call it—as possible. Some of it sticks and some of it doesn’t, which is approximately the same experience as listening to Clutch plow through a narrative that sporadically shifts between time and place, scene and meditation. As with Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, you get to see a mind at work, even though not all of it will necessarily translate—because how could it? So, when Clutch reads out loud, they toss out a reference to a modern artist here, a prolapsed asshole at an orgy there, all wrapped up in the archaic themes that are Clutch’s chief subjects: love and intimacy.
When I picked up Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through, after hearing Clutch read parts of it two years ago, I expected to be challenged. As with Clutch’s interviews, I expected to be assaulted with lovely ideas and only really understand about half of it. But this book is not that at all. While it still might fall under the ambiguous umbrella of “stream of consciousness” in the sense that it does not follow a neat, chronological organization or—thankfully—use signpost asterisk breaks to let us know when a thought has finished and a new one begun, the musings of Clutch’s narrator are largely easy to follow. Just as Clutch’s narrator finds themselves navigating through and between the cities they inhabit, we stroll along with them as if through a city block or art museum. Even when the narrative shifts from prose into verse without warning, I barely notice the change, which is perhaps the sign of an ideal hybrid form. “What I’m really writing is a love letter to prose, a book that is slutty about it,” Clutch tells us in the book’s early pages.
No longer confined to the boxes of Syzygy, Clutch fills out the pages of Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through literally and metaphorically, which makes for a largely accessible entry into its narrator’s head as they navigate various cities, romantic partners, historical queer figures, and the art of Felix Gonzales-Torres. Whereas Syzygy gives you white space to pause and decompress each block of prose, Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through holds your hand as it pulls you along, progressing so smoothly that you want to resist the urge to stop and underline sentences for fear of losing the engine of that thinking (though there are plenty of sentences that deserve marginalia).
It is easy to compare this book to those written by other essayists like Nelson and Mark Doty (Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, in particular), but Clutch also addresses another significant source of inspiration in Samuel Delany, whose book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue they reference several times. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, like Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through, is a book-length essay, but in a more academic sense; its goal is to make a point about the dismantling of numerous pornographic theaters in Times Square in the ’60s and ’70s, and it is mostly artful in a way that isn’t trying to be. Delany’s method of making his point is to marshal tangents and anecdotes filled with his own sexual experiences at these theaters—matter-of-fact hookups treated like socioeconomic data. It is a convoluted, rare thing, a book intensely about its author without explicitly trying to be. I can see that attempt in Clutch’s prose, too, these series of anecdotes and observations about art, history, and gender all supporting and revolving around an invisible thesis needing to be answered. In other words: an essay.
Delany proceeds argument-first; his intention is clear from the start, even if his methods are roundabout and nontraditional. Clutch’s intentions are less clear, but they do not hesitate to make a point. One of their most compelling arguments is about metaphor, where Clutch begins:
I’ve been getting bored with metaphors anyways. I’ve decided that I don’t like them because one thing is never another thing, and it’s a lie to say something is anything but itself; it’s ontologically and physically impossible, in fact, not even apple and apple can be each other.
I can see what they mean. There is something distracting about metaphor as a pretty thing to hide behind when writers are feeling too lazy or too afraid to bare themselves, say what they mean to say. But despite Clutch’s dismissal, the book is still ripe with them: ice, the moon, the works of Gonzales-Torres—metaphors that invade the narrative without boring us with the “why.” However, Clutch does not hide behind these metaphors, because their prose is naked and unapologetically so. For Clutch, gender isn’t something that can be symbolically represented, and sometimes a prolapsed asshole at an orgy is nothing more than a prolapsed asshole at an orgy. Rather, when Clutch uses metaphor, they use it in the way metaphor is meant to be used: as a way to analyze and understand these shapes and figures in our lives when there isn’t language available to describe them, and among Clutch’s chief subjects—gender, identity, sex, love—this is particularly true.
Despite the abstractness of the book’s major threads, much of the prose is grounded in observation. “Isn’t some information about being alive beautiful enough?” Clutch writes. “That we dry forks and touch hair and throw away a sock?” Clutch recounts a brief exchange with a stranger-child on the street corner, where the child calls out “Hey! I live in a house with a door!” just as they part ways. “Isn’t that so beautiful?” Clutch writes. “‘Hey, I live in a house with a door.’ I’m hungry for truth and kids are just spouting facts up and down the street.”
Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through is filled with these moments: of the facts, the information, the reality, all things beautiful enough to deserve the romance that is often not extended to them. “Sorry, no gang bang for me today…” Clutch responds to a new friend’s invitation, opting for a hike instead. “There are little bugs, the kind I can’t stand, but it is a gorgeous day of sunshine and shade.”
A gang bang, little bugs, sunshine, shade—the way these things, some heavy with significance and some not at all, can occupy the same thought, where there is no metaphor for the sake of metaphor, just the information about being alive and the beauty of that being enough. I am reminded of this Bashō poem:
under one roof
courtesans and monks asleep—
bush clover and moon.
In the liminal spaces these authors create, Clutch and Bashō juxtapose and challenge our preconceptions of what topics are deserving, elevating the mundane while de-romanticizing the exotic. “How absolutely silly that we name some things as romantic, / some as not,” Clutch explains towards the end of Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through:
I could not recognize a single key from my past were I to see
it now, despite holding each of them daily, despite each being
so necessarily unique.
Like the key in this passage, Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through forces us to pay attention to the things closest to us, whether it’s the relationships we have with each other or the relationships we have with art—or the ordinary miraculousness of living in a house with a door.