The Sad Autoerotica of Crawfish Etouffee

Matthew Gavin Frank Click to read more...

Matthew Frank’s next book, Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer, is forthcoming from W.W. Norton: Liveright in 2014.  His other titles include The Morrow Plots (Black Lawrence, 2013), Warranty in Zulu (Barrow Street, 2010) and Sagittarius Agitprop (Black Lawrence, 2009).  He lives in Marquette, Michigan.

When the old woman with no upper lip tells you, in the Faubourg Marigny, that to pluck a crawfish from the bayou is akin to the tying of a silk scarf around one’s neck, that, as these little freshwater crustaceans asphyxiate in our air—the breeze of which carries sassafras and olive spread, desiccated peppers, powdered sugar, greenish decoctions called herbsaint and Mississippi, drizzle begetting rain begetting flood—their feathery gills flex, the twenty segments of their bodies clatter like castanets, their eye stalks extend, antennae dance, and, most importantly, she says, their sperm ducts roil, gonads quake, the females, releasing their aphrodisiac urine, flare their oviducts in anticipation the males’ reaching swimmerets, one desperate and futile stab at (literally) breathless procreation with, as is typical, a mere fishing net, or the unresponsive human hand, you believe her.

*

When she tells you we all want one more go at ecstasy before the final smothering in the chocolate roux, the shellfish stock, the onion, the celery, the bell pepper, the garlic, she says, the butter, she says, the lemon, the cayenne, the thyme, you, hungry and horny, humid and sad, believe her.

*

Though the English translate etouffee as stifled, the French-speakers know better.  There’s more violence to it than that, more action, premeditation.  They know: etouffee means smothered, suffocated, the sort violence that’s allowed to titillate, that inspires us, here, to die with our genitals, like our lungs, gasping.

*

You know, because the old woman tells you: Louisiana is just compacted sediment having washed down the Mississippi River.  No matter how much land, she says, no matter how high the walls, all that biota will get inside.  We’ve made a state here.  So many parishes.  But we can’t choke out the water.  You know, because she tells you: so many things living in the river drown in our air.  So many things, but the water itself.

*

Louisiana—literally Land of Louis—is named for Louis XIV, who, according to the old woman, may have said the world goes pink with buffoonery, billions of crawfish running away.  In their cheeks, the waterworms arrange themselves like dog stars.  And he may have been speaking of the visions as elicited by his penchant for autoerotic asphyxiation, some hallucinatory crawfish speaking equations into his fat ear that it would take only a stocking to solve.  And the old woman stares at her hands as a brass band starts their set in a bar up the street, shakes her head and whispers Canicula.  Ligature.  And you wonder about the fate of a place named for a king who took his orgasms without oxygen, if a name can bear a clairvoyance—if only of the meteorological kind, if, in Louisiana, is both a dish that reminds us of identifying fetishes, and the sort of weather that will sweep our houses, if not our breaths, away.

*

I am going, Louis spoke on his deathbed in 1715, but the State shall always remain.  That his lips were slick with spittle, most historians can agree.  On whether he was speaking of this mass of compacted sediment, or of suffocation, or of the weather, or of orgasm, the jury’s out.

*

We chop through our celery without thinking of Louis’ ribs.  Stir our roux dark and thick without thinking of all that riverbottom sludge collecting in so many throats.  In it, so nutrient-rich, in the bodies of the drowned, the Louisiana orchids still flourish.

*

If we have the sexiest of flowers growing from our mouths, does that mean we can talk our lovers into the scarf, the stocking, the coital etouffee?

*

My own aunts saved themselves from drowning by hauling their bodies out onto enough of that sludge, the old woman says, undoing and redoing the clasp of her bracelet, the center of which bears an amulet of the Louisiana flag—a mother pelican crouching in her nest, staring down at her three chicks, their mouths begging at her bill.  And from her bill, three red droplets fall, the viscera of whatever she’s smothered to feed them.

*

We stuff our mouths full of crawfish and take in a little less air.  Things, you think, taste better this way.

*

If desperate, the pelican, the state bird, will prey on seagulls and ducklings, holding them underwater, drowning them, before eating them headfirst.  Unless the storm is too strong, they will open their bills and drink rainwater, their mouth-bags able to hold 13 liters at capacity—7 more than the human lung.   Beneath the pelican—on flag, on bracelet—whatever has been eaten looses its blood over words like Union, Justice, Confidence…, not a single one of which occurred to Louis as he shuddered like a crawfish into the stocking.

*

…that sludge.  But they didn’t breathe for so long.  It affected their brains, their limbs.  They had to have their legs cut off…

*

The swimmerets of the crawfish, laced along the ventral side of the abdomen, are often mistaken for shorter walking legs, though they are so much softer, used not only to carry sperm, but to carry the subsequently fertilized eggs.  When preparing our etouffee, these are the parts most of us cut from the body first, discard into the nethers of the muddying stock.

*

The tubas up the street crush themselves out like cigarettes.  When the saints are legless, she says, no one marches in.

*

John Curra writes, “The carotid arteries (on either side of the neck) carry oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the brain. When these are compressed, as in strangulation or hanging, the sudden loss of oxygen to the brain and the accumulation of carbon dioxide can increase feelings of giddiness, light-headedness, and pleasure, all of which will heighten masturbatory sensations.”

And George Shuman writes, “When the brain is deprived of oxygen, it induces a lucid, semi-hallucinogenic state called hypoxia.  Combined with orgasm, the rush is said to be no less powerful than cocaine, and highly addictive.”

*

Overheard dialogue in Coop’s Place on Decatur Street: “Oh my god, this etouffee is soooooo goooooood…”

*

Autoerotic asphyxiation was the first documented treatment used, in the 17th century, for erectile dysfunction, the idea having been bestowed upon witnesses to public hangings who noted that executed males often developed persistent “death erections,” and early morticians noted that females who were executed by hanging exhibited engorged labia.
Peter Anthony Motteux, editor of Britain’s The Gentlemen’s Journal, died of autoerotic asphyxiation, as did the composer and virtuoso double-bassist Frantisek Kotzwara (who played for the King’s Theatre, and who, after a prostitute refused his request to cut off his testicles for two shillings, tied one end of a silk scarf to his neck and another to a doorknob, leading to a demise that the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology could call only a “sticky end”), as did Kichizo Ishida (whose lover, Sada Abe, then excised his penis and testicles with a razor blade and infamously carried said souvenirs in her purse for weeks afterward), as did Stephen Milligan, British political conservative, as did David Carradine, and Reverend Gary Aldridge of the Thorington Road Baptist Church (who was discovered some 300 miles from New Orleans, hog-tied, wearing two wet suits, a head and face mask, diving gloves and flippers, and rubber underpants, and with a dildo the coroner called “modest” in his anus the coroner called “unremarkable”), and Michael Hutchence of the band INXS (whose death in 1997 inspired you to buy your own silk scarf, powder blue…).

*

The old woman tells you that many crawfishermen uphold the superstition that a good etouffee depends on a good catch, and a good catch often depends on the superior quality of a single crawfish (not necessarily the largest, she stresses) who imposes this quality (sweetness, softness…) onto the remainder.  This one is often referred to as the l’écrevisse super, or Super Crawfish.

*

Long before it became the slogan of the U.S., Motteux used the phrase E pluribus unum as the motto for The Gentlemen’s Journal, translating it himself as “one chosen among many.”

*

Though they’re not quite as snag-resistant as the football jig, many Louisiana crawfishermen still prefer the “traditional roundhead jig,” even along rocky bottoms.  Though you believe the connection to be tenuous at best, you can’t help your titillation when reading the “rocky bottom,” of Stephen Milligan’s obituary in The Independent, the last line of which reads, “If politicians can be divided into cavaliers and roundheads, Milligan was very much a roundhead.”

*

And Carradine said, “You know, I’ve never actually really believed that death is inevitable…there’s always an alternative.  There’s always a third way,” and Michael Hutchence said, as if in response, “We’d have to suck away at oxygen canisters…just so that we can keep playing.  I’m the smallest fish.”

*

And you hold your breath—right there on Frenchmen Street—in mimicry or empathy, and you know that in a lack of breathing is a rush of blood, is engorged, is a shattering, perhaps final, orgasm, and if something shatters, that means it’s broken.

*

August 29, 2005, a Monday.  Some one thousand crawfish seep through a crack in the levee.  One of them is the smallest.

*

In mimicry or empathy, the old woman sneezes twelve cherries of blood into a peach monogrammed handkerchief.  You don’t ask about the significance of the L and the A, the silver script initials that are trying so hard to be absorbent.

*

When the female crawfish releases her urine, it drives the males into such a frenzy that, depending, it can be interpreted equally as an invitation to sex, or to battle.

*

Thomas Breithaupt, the behavioral psychologist, believes that the female crawfish is most able to gauge a male’s size and strength (read: his suitability as a mate) only by inspiring him to aggression.

*

Here, the Spanish killed the British who killed the French who killed the Acadians who killed the Creoles who killed the Plaquemines who killed the Caddoan Mississippians who killed the Tchefunctes who killed the earliest documented Archaic-period mound-building culture in North America, whose mounds still exist and have been variously interpreted by archaeologists as being a neighborhood, a trading center, and a ceremonial religious complex, and perhaps it’s because we can’t determine exactly what this place is, or perhaps it’s because we think this may be the earliest example of a civil war battleground, or perhaps the earth here has been so compacted that when we press our lips to it, we can siphon no air, or perhaps it’s because there are no crawfish here, or perhaps it’s because the old woman tells you those who have the money needn’t worry about the water, or perhaps it’s something else that inspired us to name this historic monument, Poverty Point.

*

…which the hallucination?

*

You know, because the old woman tells you: The batons of Baton Rouge are red because there’s blood on them.

*

Here, we call our counties, parishes.  That doesn’t mean that our food is always incantatory, our sex lives bored, ecclesiastic.

*

Because of this weather, this history, we smother our water-dwellers with the good land vegetables.  In this way, we retain the breath required to blow our etouffee cool enough to stuff our mouths.  In this way, we fight back.

*

We serve it over rice—anything to soak up the roux, the sludge, the agent of the smothering.

*

The Hurricane, the old woman tells you, wiped out two-thirds of the city’s trees.  Certain wards lost every one.  You imagine the trees she once told fortunes under—the Southern magnolias and live oaks, the Cherrybarks and Sawtooths, the Overcups and Cows—trees you will never get to see.  In the aftermath of The Hurricane, she tells you, in regards to the decimation of New Orleans’ urban forest, Tom Campbell, spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, summed it up with all of the gentility a non-native Louisianan could never muster: “It looks like the dickens,” he said.

*

Winding among the above-ground vaults of St. Louis Cemetery Number One—so many thousands in just one square block—you watch a group of congregants alternately grieve and celebrate.  So many bury their faces into the necks of their loved ones, take in, for just a moment, no air—as if, in a momentary lack of oxygen is an honoring of the sort of sadness that, if left unchecked, if taken out of context, can kill us too.  Another vault, so little room…

*

You watch the congregants—mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and aunts, uncles, cousins, grand-this and grand-that.  There is something huge about them, and uniform—in their clothing, their grieving, their once-in-a-while laughs.  They accumulate like clouds, and you speak this aloud as if incantation: You accumulate like clouds.  Though you’re not exactly sure what it is you’re trying to summon, you do know that, taxonomically, crawfish belong Astacoidea and Parastacoidea, and you know that these classifications are known as “superfamilies,” and you want to interpret this as something as heroic as the weather, but you know it has more to do with prefix, dominance, missionary, on top of…

*

What else can we do to secure our place here than to make of the super the sub, the meat over which we spoon the thickest of our sauces?

*

You watch them stifle their crying.  You wonder about the intersections of grief and sex, grief and the body, the body and violence, the hanged man and the hanged woman, the poor beast who doesn’t know whether to fuck or to fight, who carries its eggs in its softest, safest parts, who drowns so we can eat.  You wonder about the parts of us to which so much blood rushes when we die by asphyxiation, as if searching a blind alley for any escape.  You wonder which role the weather plays.  The earth, you think, is the mouth-bag.  The old woman would like that, would say something constellar about all of these faces smothered in all of these necks.  As ever, it’s the neck that does the smothering.  As ever, and ever-odd, we’re hung by these parts of us and our pants and our dresses can do nothing but jump up.

*

Like the crawfish, we sometimes don’t want to be heard.  If the weather—like Louis, like Land of Louis, like St. Louis, like the comforted and comforting in St. Louis Number One, like all things for whom our homes are named—can’t hear us, maybe they won’t find us.  Like the crawfish, like every lover really, we wonder if we’re not breathing, enough.

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