clean & pretty
BY SOPHIE PAQUETTE
Finalist for the 2020 Adroit Prize for Prose
The women of Mitski’s songs are dirty. Their rooms are a mess. Their bodies run lawless. And they try, obsessively, to wash themselves clean. Her lyrics are consumed with this character: the untidy woman seeking salvation in neatness—not beauty, exactly, but the small, spotless aesthetic attached to well-tended girls. In “Last Words of a Shooting Star,” the speaker sings, I always wanted to die clean and pretty. In “Brand New City,” she laments, If I gave up on being pretty, I wouldn’t know how to be alive. Mitski takes a reductive girlish devotion to makeup, nice clothes, and shiny hair and instead reveals the depth of this ache. Mitski’s prettiness appears as a corpse freshly embalmed, a basket of plastic fruit resisting rot. If she’s no longer striving toward prettiness, then she has no intention to live; and true prettiness, the kind she seeks, will only be achieved in death.
In Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, she introduces the idea of FOOD LOATHING in her section on THE IMPROPER/UNCLEAN. To Kristeva, food loathing is an elementary experience—an act of innate preservation. THE SPASMS AND VOMITING, she says, PROTECT ME. She describes her own experience with repulsion, expulsion: WHEN THE EYES SEE OR THE LIPS TOUCH THAT SKIN ON THE SURFACE OF MILK I EXPERIENCE A GAGGING SENSATION. This loathing derives from our early recognition of the food as “other,” as death, as A PIECE OF FILTH, WASTE, OR DUNG. We extricate ourselves from food. We loathe it. We become clean.
The dog had been licking the carpet for as long as I could remember. Vets told us this was a nervous habit, his tick: situating his body around some swath of carpet and bowing his head to nurse the fabric until spit-hardened. The sound became a kind of metronome in our house, his insistent churn. Noises I had named “mouth sounds” caused me extreme discomfort for all of middle school and early high school—chewing, slurping, sucking, smacking lips. Anything that sounded like mouth. Even my mom at our kitchen counter, guiding the knife to bite into some fruit, shelling with a wet suction beneath the rind. I had to leave the room when my sister ate. The licking was villainous. Every morning, while I had breakfast at our kitchen bar, the dog lay beneath me. Drawing from the carpet. With one hand I stirred the oatmeal my mom had prepared and half-listened to its thick suck. With the other I buried my finger deep in my ear, tried to mute the dog. I let the oatmeal cool and cake. I paced myself. Every morning she watched me eat: preparing our lunches in the kitchen, eyeing me as I eased a bite onto the tip of the spoon and licked it clean. And when she turned to the fridge, or our far counter, I took heaps of the oatmeal and let it drop between my feet, land on the carpet—where the dog shifted, barely, and licked it clean. My only fear was the stain.
I slept with a man you know / Then in the morning I walked home alone / And the businessmen saw my bones
According to Kristeva, vomit is salvation. She argues, A WOUND WITH BLOOD AND PUS, OR THE SICKLY, ACRID SMELL OF DECAY DOES NOT SIGNIFY DEATH. Instead, such REFUSE AND CORPSES SHOW ME WHAT I PERMANENTLY THRUST ASIDE IN ORDER TO LIVE. THESE BODY FLUIDS, THIS DEFILEMENT, THIS SHIT ARE WHAT LIFE WITHSTANDS, HARDLY AND WITH DIFFICULTY, ON THE PART OF DEATH. We expel to be reminded we are alive. To prune the dead.
In “A Burning Hill” Mitski vows, Today I will wear my white button down / I can at least be neat / walk out and be seen as clean. The song belongs to the 2016 album “Puberty 2.” The album cover displays a similar image: Mitski standing in a field wearing only a loose, form-erasing white t-shirt. She positions herself once more in the awkward arms of teen girlhood—face blotchy white with what looks like benzoyl peroxide or face powder painting her skin pale to the point of transparency. Either represent a desire to appear so shiny and colorless that the world can see itself reflected back—like she sings in “Last Words of a Shooting Star”: And you’d say you love me and look in my eyes / but I know through mine you were looking in yours. Mitski makes herself a perfect surface, a mirror. Repeatedly she becomes the vessel through which others can see themselves, bathe themselves. “Washing Machine Heart,” opens Toss your dirty shoes / in my washing machine heart. In “I Will” she promises I will wash your hair at night / and dry it off with care / I will see your body bare / and still I will live here.
The summer the dog got sick, the habit persisted. Our house was lined with remembered bile—faded splotches on our carpet, ghosts of past expulsion. He couldn’t keep anything down. With a sick jealousy I watched his body undress from his bones. I watched my mom boil chicken and rice. She carried the bowl and placed it expectantly before him. She watched him eat. A loud, wet chewing. He licked the bowl clean. When he was finished, he’d lie down to lick, but gag—the meal would return. He’d try to lick it back up. Drawing from the carpet. Body rowing forward, back. That wet churn. And my mom would shout, clap, grab him by the collar or the thin folds of his neck and usher him into our backyard. Once inside, she would take a wet cloth and soap, kneel by the bile. She scrubbed the cloth against the carpet, body rowing, an insistent damp pulse, attempting to clean what had already stained. Weeks later, the dog died.
I’m all used up, pretty boy / over and over again, my nail colors are wearing off.
SUCH WASTES DROP, Kristeva claims, SO THAT I MIGHT LIVE.
Mitski’s obsession with the neat is not only a resistance of bodily filth, but of atmospheric disarray. When even a woman’s body is not clean enough, she must extend this emptiness, this extrication from mess, into the spaces around her. Mitski’s characters clean and clean their rooms. In “Happy,” the speaker, the morning after having sex, sees All the cookie wrappers and the empty cups of tea /I sighed and mumbled to myself, again I have to clean. Her characters yearn for vacant spaces—rooms so sparse they can remain until fossilization. I’ll live in the bathtub, the speaker of “Humpty” vows. It’s cool and clean. And later, surrounded by tiles / I’ll die in their cool, cool arms. The bathtub, an ideal resting place: its inhabitant forever immune to waste. When the speaker in “Last Words of a Shooting Star” awaits death, she sings, I am relieved that I left my room tidy / They’ll think of me kindly when they come for my things. But in “Bag of Bones,” when the fluorescent store lights illuminate [her] pores, Mitski declares, I know my room is a mess / Over and over again, I tell myself I’ll clean tomorrow. Here, the external excess—the store, the pores, the messy room—exposes an internal disarray, the character’s rejection of her bag of bones.
In her section THE HORROR WITHIN, Kristeva elaborates on THE BODY’S INSIDE, the guts, the bones, the bile—its arrival IN ORDER TO COMPENSATE FOR THE COLLAPSE OF THE BORDER BETWEEN INSIDE AND OUTSIDE. Kristeva tracks collapsed borders, transgressed edges. Inside to outside. Alive to dead. Food to bile. Like the milk, once so lively, that sits on the counter until it grows a pale film, a fragile skin. Until it festers. Mid-death. IT IS AS IF THE SKIN, A FRAGILE CONTAINER, NO LONGER GUARANTEED THE INTEGRITY OF ONE’S “OWN AND CLEAN SELF” BUT, SCRAPED OR TRANSPARENT, INVISIBLE OR TAUT, GAVE WAY BEFORE THE DEJECTION OF ITS CONTENTS. The breaking of the container—crossing the line. When the fluorescent store lights illuminate my pores, make me porous, permeable, both inside and out. Clickety clacking through the night / I’m carrying my bag of bones.
Mom, would you wash my back this once, Mitski begs, in “Class of 2013,” and then we can forget.
My room too served as a surrogate body. The plants went uncared for and died. I never pruned the dead. Dregs of food I’d consumed alone drew ants to their dishes. Wrappers and trash flattened beneath my mattress from nights I’d ended up too hungry to sleep. My pillow collected benzoyl peroxide bleach stains, haunted by past faces I’d worn, streaks of mascara and foundation when my skin went unwashed. IF DUNG SIGNIFIES THE OTHER SIDE OF THE BORDER, THE PLACE WHERE I AM NOT AND WHICH PERMITS ME TO BE, then my teen girl bedroom was a mausoleum. If waste, filth, decay exist to remind me of my life, exist to be expelled, then THE CORPSE, THE MOST SICKENING OF WASTES, IS A BORDER THAT HAS ENCROACHED ON EVERYTHING. For days I’d lie in bed and fester. My mom carried my meals up the stairs. She placed the food expectantly before me. If I was alone I would lick the bowl clean. After an hour my mom would return, kneel, retrieve the dish and go.
In “Square” the speaker observes, Your room was square / I once noticed from there / In your bed, as you slept / And I held my breath. Breath holding: an attempt to reel the internal in and keep it. Everything had its own place / And I wondered what space would I take / In the order you kept. She is another item to be consumed, arranged, and for that she must consume nothing. SUCH WASTES DROP SO THAT I MIGHT LIVE, Kristeva claims, UNTIL LOSS FROM LOSS NOTHING REMAINS IN ME. Kristeva’s cleanest state—vacant and far from death. Even breath is an excess. I tried to eat like your girlfriend, just tea / In the night, I’d end up too hungry to sleep. This is clean eating.
If Mitski writes about the teenage ache for beauty, then she does it more honestly than any artist I have consumed. There is nothing clean about teen girlhood. Mitski is at home in the mess.
If appropriation is its own form of consumption, regurgitation, is this my practice? To fill and to empty. To repeat.
If home alone, over the toilet. If not, in the shower—vomit collected in a tupperware to dump and flush after. I scrubbed and scrubbed. I had two toothbrushes: my clean one for cleaning my teeth and my filthy one, for expulsion, for filling my mouth with rot. My bathroom was not cool and clean. The toilet smelled sick. A ring hardened around the basin. Eventually even looking at food—smelling it, hot, or imagining the thick, wet churn of something chewed—was enough to make me nauseous. An experience Kristeva describes as SPASMS IN THE STOMACH, THE BELLY; AND ALL THE ORGANS SHRIVEL UP THE BODY, PROVOKE TEARS AND BILE, INCREASE HEARTBEAT, CAUSE FOREHEAD AND HANDS TO PERSPIRE. I gurgled and spit. An experience Kristeva describes as PROTECT ME. I sucked mints. But always my mouth tasted like mouth.
I always wanted to die THE CORPSE I purged clean and pretty the bathroom of all remnants—I cleaned the toilet bowl, extracted the food from the I’ll live in the bathtub, it’s shower drain, coated the back of my toothbrush in soap cool and clean. I purged my closet, emptied the trash, did the laundry. I consumed less. I ate clean. It was not salvation IS CESSPOOL IS DEATH if I gave up on being THE CORPSE pretty I wouldn’t know how to be THE MOST SICKENING brushing my teeth and spitting red suds did not remind me I was alive. Clean and pretty hands did not hold my hair back OF WASTES alive. I can at least be neat, A BORDER THAT HAS ENCROACHED walk out and be seen as THE CORPSE clean IS DEATH INFECTING sometimes the vomit hit the water and splashed back into my face. The mint did not taste like mint—fresh and cool and neat. The mint tasted like negation of flavor like your girlfriend, just tea like bile like vacancy like mouth LIFE. SUCH WASTES DROP the dog continued like this: filled and emptied. Repeat SO THAT I MIGHT LIVE He lost I am relieved that I left my room tidy and the stains remained, pale ghosts on our carpet THE SPASMS AND VOMITING a ring still around my toilet and a smell in the drain they’ll think of me kindly weeks later the dog PROTECT ME died.