The Catalogue of Unsatisfied Desires by Isabella Streffen
Printed Authority Edition, 2021
Limited Edition (Sold Out)
The Catalogue of Unsatisfied Desires by Isabella Streffen is an exquisitely beautiful and cathartic exhibition of wanting. Initially a hybrid work, it started off as a collection of tweets with a strict 140-character limit, specifying something Streffen wanted but didn’t have– a collection of desires which grew as they circulated on social media.
From the opening page’s bold ‘I Want’: followed by ‘an impeachment/ a road trip / not to have a stress headache/ pine and lily and frost and what stars smell like’ we are seized by a breath-holding myriad of human desires. Wanting for America’s justice, for open space, for celestial fragrances, for pain to go, wants we know implicitly – the intrinsic, the instrumental and the occurrent. They are all found here, voiced aptly in short elegant bursts that chime with brevity and the sort of language that holds a Technicolour luminescence.
Elegance is close friends with play in this catalogue where we find the erotic, the botanical, the academic. The text is ribboned through with rustic simplicities: ‘a poached egg’, ‘a breath of cedar’, and we find gratifying shards of luxury: ‘a Jewel swimsuit in emerald’ ‘a 1918 Fortuny scarf’. There is also a deeply humanitarian perspective in this 72-page list of longings which lays out political failings with careful subtext: ‘universal basic income / to stop thinking about resuscitation / a list of touches, implied, promised, expected.’ For such a slim book, it leaves readers holding their faces with knowing and draws out rapturous pleasure for these are wants that evoke such a deeply personal instinct: ‘to surrender to it / to crawl right into the ground / quiet, kind / the rushing chill of the shadow of an eclipse.’ The big of the sky and our smallness as humans is boned out with linguistic precision. It feels quietening that another can know all that the heart gallops for, and articulated with such economy.
Streffen uses juxtaposition with a dexterity that is wounding: ‘to read the email titled ‘dick jokes’ / to be in bed without lugging my suitcase up three flights of stairs / to get wi-fi from that bed/ for everyone to be able to breathe.’ Coquettish goes back-to-back with the essential need for technology then stuns readers with that respiratory metaphor: a claustrophobic relationship, perhaps, or worse. We find ourselves amongst the terrain of lungs failing – in some collective struggle – resonant of Covid-19 and the intolerable bid for survival.
At a time when Covid-19 has forbidden many of our pursuits of desire, never has a catalogue of them felt more invigorating. In our efforts to protect the vulnerable in society, desire has become ever more complex and closely associated with guilt, with excess, that somehow our wanting to break the new social taboos is selfish instinct rather than a need. This work serves at a deeply therapeutic level: a provision of space for human longings which can suture us if left too long unmet.
Arguably, each micro-text can serve as a stand-alone piece and yet the absence of full stops brings climactic pulse in the collective reading of it. A culmination of wanting climbs page after page and we find the desire process within the very form itself. There is an expanse of white space which provides vital silence and room to inhale the language, but it also provides a physical area for readers to run after their own wants, a safe void, if you like, in which to desire. Streffen sets out a frisky game of cat and mouse, inviting readers to pursue her. I want: ‘to intellectually pirouette across page / you to be slightly breathless trying to follow me.’
A collection which puts the language into desire with startling beauty and elegance, The Catalogue of Unsatisfied Desires is a critical space for wanting. Not only does it sharpen our desires by honing the lens on all that has been forbidden due to the pandemic, but it brings much-neglected dialogues of wanting into new light.
The Catalogue of Unsatisfied Desires by Isabella Streffen (Printed Authority, 2021) was published as a limited edition of fifty and is one of a bigger collection, the next: ‘The Divine Whatevers’ is due out this summer.
Rachael Smart writes fiction, poetry and reviews literature. Recent work has been published at The Letters Page and Prole. She is currently working on a collection about what the landscape tells her.