Positive Space: an Essay in Simultaneity

Katie Jean Shinkle



“Dune” by Joan Mitchell


“Because the leaving is the worst part.” –Joan Mitchell


What You Said at 1:00AM

Three years ago: “That sounds reasonable:” a response to a text message from my current girlfriend while I am in the childhood bed of your childhood home with you. The text message is telling me not to come back to her apartment in the morning as was the previous plan and that she needs space, this new arrangement that was fully worked out is no longer applicable and that she is going to hold all of my belongings hostage until she decides she will give them back to me. I will have to threaten to call the police, something I never do—threaten or call—to be able to retrieve my things. Since we are in a long distance relationship, everything I have with me for this trip is at her apartment, I no longer had access to anything.


What You Said Through Your Teeth

Before I see you again, I spend time staring at “Dune” by Joan Mitchell: a painting of squares, white space. I get lost in the green, black, ivory. I feel so deeply staring at this work. Joan Mitchell says “There has to be meaning to what you are putting on.”

Three years later, we are in the city where you still reside to this day. I am sitting on your adult bed in your adult bedroom in your adult apartment that feels like a hotel in a gentrified neighborhood of a large city. Even in this moment, a moment I have been waiting for for a long time, I am escaping feeling. I say all the things I have wanted to say to you: how my emotional landscape is so large and how I hold all of these feelings in place, how you changed my life years ago, and how my life would not be the same without you. I tell you how incredible you are, how if I could go back in time I would do a lot of things differently. You say nearly nothing in return. You apologize for “being a dick” back then. I bring up the break-up email you sent me: Yes, remember, you broke things off through email, not even to my face, or a phone call, or something decent. You say “I don’t even remember what it said.” The words from that email are burned brazenly inside of me. I will never forget what that email said, even though I have long since deleted it and then deleted it permanently.

The question on your lips years ago was: How Do I Become A Better Writer? and my answer was Read A Lot, Write A Lot, Read More Than You Write. That was not the answer you were looking for, you got so angry. In this new moment you ask again How Do I Write a Poem? Do You Have Any Advice Or Tips To How To Write A Poem? and I say Sit Down And Write, There Is No Other Way. You are annoyed with me. Annoyed and angry into perpetuity.  I realize in this moment there is no real meaning here.


What You Said Too Quietly

When you ask about poetry, I begin to cry. You say: “Maybe, let’s focus on the moon.”

We are not even outside. This is completely out-of-context and inappropriate. Joan Mitchell says “Don’t be worried about rejection.” I think of the green and black squares.


What You Said Over the Phone

Three years ago: “I’ve been thinking of you a lot lately.” When I think of you, it is these words that ring the loudest. Your voice straining in competition with the Lake Michigan wind around you.


What You Didn’t Say at All

How absence makes the heart collapse into one million pieces scattered over weather of time itself, how it shuts off or is a ouroboros. How the blank space should be the positive space or it shouldn’t be at all. Joan Mitchell says if the blank or unpainted space isn’t positive, it isn’t working. I am expected to care about the today of things. Today things are not working. The ground/figure isn’t satisfying. I can’t keep up with the plot. But today you are so happy with another person who shares my first name, which is weird, but not the first time in my life someone I loved ended up happy with a different person who shares my name and not with me.


What You Said Under the Stars

Three years ago: The last night we had together. My girlfriend and I have broken up and here I am with you to reclaim some sanity, or so I keep telling myself. We walk arm-in-arm and kiss on a bridge under Christmas lights, Christmas a few weeks away. The cold turns to deep chill and then nothing. The memory loses all feeling here. Turns negative. When an absence happens while in someone’s presence.


What You Said When You Were Driving

Three years ago: “I would give anything to know what you are thinking about,” you say and I am thinking about how this is what you do when you fall in love with someone, I’m finding out, you bring them home to this mud and water. You drive down dirt roads of southwest Michigan. You show them where you come from and what made you. How, in the understanding of these moves, I understand sinking before swimming, and what relationships do when they are destined to sink, anyway.


What You Said When I Continued Crying

“Let’s think about the moon, ok.”


What You Said After You Kissed Me For the First Time

“Let’s go look at some abandoned shit,” and I thought, you are looking at something abandoned right now, the weight of the crumble so deep.


What You Said With Too Many Miles Between Us

Joan Mitchell says “Everything returns.” I am sitting at an interactive exhibit at the museum, using pliers and taking screws and nails out of little pieces of wood, before I sit in front of “Dune.” I think of you so often that in this moment I wasn’t thinking of you and I remind myself that I forgot about you for a second. You continue to live in my nervous system. I wonder about when the day will come when I am not thinking about you at all, how I have worked so hard to banish you, and how I am so invested in longing. I think of all the moments in my life where this is true, my investment in longing so much a part of who I am. How I am searching for what Joan Mitchell talks about as “feeling, existing, living.” Searching for the thing in my life that is timeless, without end. All time is simultaneous. Today is now is years ago.

It seems I am no longer remembering the actual event itself but the memory of the event. Walking up the stairs of the museum, I am also  inside the weeks with you, the nights we spent together.


What You Said With No Space Between Us

Three years ago: “I think I’m falling in love with you” you say after I send you a love letter taken out of context by Edmond Jabes: “…I did not look for you, I did look for you in the labyrinth of my night, in the heart of total night, where mere apprehension of wounds had by and by turned into wounds, an enclosure of wounds not be bandaged, but endlessly reopened.”


What You Said I Wish You Hadn’t

Everything: May your mouth be sewn shut forever.


What You Said When It Was Over

Today I fretted about things out of my control and drove to this museum for escape and while staring at Joan Mitchell’s “Dune” I only thought of you intermittently and I thought that was pretty good, the intermittency of it all. Today is the anniversary of the first of two nights we spent together three years ago. Today is the day I got a text message from my girlfriend while in your childhood bed in your childhood home that said to not come back to her apartment, that she was holding all of my stuff hostage, or no, she had decided, she would leave it outside of her apartment in the hallway, which I didn’t know yet. When I get this message, it is 1:00AM, and all you say is “that sounds reasonable.”

Some memories between us I try not to live inside, I try with all of my might to forget: Your consent is bad. And that is the truth of the matter. Consent is more than asking permission for what you want. Consent is agreeance, clear communication, boundaries that make both parties feel safe, good. I wanted the lights off and you refused. I wanted to keep some of my clothes on and you got mad when I didn’t want to comply. You asked if we could have anal sex and I said no, you got annoyed. I was so withdrawn from my own body with you that I didn’t want to change clothes in front of you. Instead, I went into the bathroom to change into yet another black hooded sweatshirt and you even commented on it, “Did you just go into the bathroom to change into another black hoodie?” you asked and I was so embarrassed because yes I did, I didn’t want you to see my body because I was afraid and you made no attempt to comfort me. The empty imprint left over. The negative space.



Joan Mitchell: “Sometimes I am afraid of ruining of what I have.” But what would I have ruined? In front of this canvas, the white positive space, the orange square, the soft and thin lines, I am reminded I didn’t ruin a thing, because I wasn’t actually losing anything. How Do I Become A Better Writer? you asked. Anger & annoyance in return.  How do you become a better person? I wonder. “In some other place, I exist differently.”


Joan Mitchell interview with Yves Michaud (1986)
Joan Mitchell interview with Cora Cohen (Bomb Magazine)
Jabes, Edmund, Rosmarie Waldrop (trans.). The Book of Questions, Vol. 1, Wesleyan, 1991.