All right, I’m no Margaret Atwood, but here’s my (somewhat belated) stab at last week’s Cubist Exercise. It’s a start.
Imagine a bar of soap lying by the side of your sink. It’s a flat, creamy beige block no bigger than a deck of cards, with edges that aren’t quite plumb, smoothed by hand and water. You made it from skin-scarring lye and olive oil in the pot you use to make soup, carefully weighing the ingredients on a postal scale, and whirring them together with a hand blender, watching carefully for the signs of miraculous alchemy, the puddingy texture, the marks on the surface that stay turgid for a moment before vanishing. You poured the soap into a shoebox mold, and cured it in the open air for a month, to remove its green bite.
This soap is anti-corporate. All its glycerine is intact, compared to the stuff so easy to buy at the store. In a stroke of marketing genius, companies sell you soap that robs skin of its moisture, then offer the the glycerin back to your dry hands in various lotions and creams.
Imagine the industrial soap used to clean up after suicides, the blood from a gunshot wound sprayed over a sheaf of fresh white pages, the chemicals burning into the desk as someone – his wife, perhaps, or an unfortunate maid – tries to obliterate all traces of his DNA, all traces of the grisly incident, making the room again fresh and impeccable.
Imagine the erstwhile surgeon who forgets to wash under his fingernails, the pustules his patient gets under the neat abdominal scar he stitches up.
Imagine that you have not seen your aunt, the increasingly rotund one who took you to the zoo as a child, the one who taught you macramé and knitted charming but unfashionable sweaters for you each Christmas. On a lark, you decide to go see the old bat out at the family farm, and you drive an hour or two out of town before turning down the gravel driveway. You walk up to the house and ring the bell. No one answers, although her rusty old pick-up is pulled up on the lawn, so you crunch through snow around the back of the house to her potting shed. The door is locked, but when you peer through the window, you see her, dead on the ground, potshards scattered around her where she must have dropped them as she fell
When the authorities arrive you are crying, begging to look at the corpse, and before they bag her, they turn her over onto her back. She looks like a statue, a horrible wax statue; her cheeks are covered in grayish wax, a natural soap, the undertaker informs you, that formed because she’d been shut up in the cool shed for quite some time, probably months, waiting for you to visit.
There is a legend about a cloister on an island, where a woman, some say Sappho herself, led burning sacrifices to the goddess of fertility in a temple on top of Mt. Sapo. The fat from slain goats, the legend says, would be wrapped and burnt at the top of the mountain as part of the sacrificial rites, and rain would sluice the remainder, white-burnt wood ashes and fat, down into the river at the mountain’s base. The ashes and soft water formed lye, that, when mixed with the fat, produced a rudimentary form of soap. People who worshipped Aphrodite would bathe in her water, and wash their clothes in it, benefiting from the soap with greater health. The story, an apocryphal one, is meant to explain why the process of soap making is called saponifcation, named for Mr. Sapo, or for the ancient poet.
In your bathroom, remove the bar from its aluminum dish and turn on the faucet, rubbing up a thin lather from bar and water. Can you feel the invisible subway grit leaving in a stream of water? The Mt. Sapo story is apocryphal, you’ve never seen grave wax, and you stay far away from the industrial stuff. But standing here in your bathroom, rinsing your sudsy hands in water, you feel suddenly clean.