"what it is" cover: lynda barry



ICU2: On Lynda Barry’s What It Is

rachelle cruz

What is an image?

In the backyard, we couldn’t see them, but we could hear them.  Their chew and rattle.  The sound of digging in the wooden crate of their homebeyond the tulip bed, the tomato seedlings stretching into new leafy life.

Growing up, my best friend’s rabbits terrified me.  I can picture their red eyes, bloody in the dark of their crate, despite the clear summer sky.  An image that returns almost 20 years later, in a too air-conditioned cafe in Southern California while I down my third cup of coffee and doodle.

An image arrives like that sometimes.  As I write and draw, I hear the rustling of a memory -- it gnaws on grass quietly and I have to be still enough to listen.


I believed there was another world that would show itself to me in the smallest ways. The gray kitten in the picture by my bed would accidentally blink his eyes. The girl in the picture would breathe. I believed there was another world.
— Lynda Barry in "What It Is"


What is play?

Process everywhere on the page.  I throw crayons at my students.  

I find myself doodling more than ever.  Replicating the alphabet in notebookslower and uppercase.



After drawing a spiral veryyyy slowly, I dig into the material of the alphabet.

Somehow, writing it out makes it more physical, less intimidating.

But always/still fraught with history.

What is an image?

A reproduction of Renoir’s Mother and Daughter hung in my younger sister’s bedroom. This memory: my aunt and cousins moved from Sacramento into our house after the separation.  I was 12.  How we slept in my sister’s room, and how we wanted to fill this small space -- piles of blankets, books, diapers.  Garbage bags of clothes. The swirl of emptying one house into another.  How the room swelled with our own bodies; at night, telling stories, talking shit, applying nail polish, leaving the curling iron on overnight.

Mother and Daughter.  A woman wears a searing red hat, hands clasped on her lap.  The girl, blue-eyed; flowers pile on her head.  Her fingers grasp the edges of a fruit basket.  

It’s the motherher sidelong glance.  Her eyes follow you, especially at night.  Our own mother asleep with the Channel 2 News flashing blue in the mirror across the TV.

After going away one summer, the painting moved to the inside of my closet.  I don’t know how it got there.  I couldn’t sleep, felt the mother’s gaze slip through the closet doors, penetrating the slick of my forehead.  A kind of scrutiny I wasn’t used to.  

Her hat a smear of blood.  A light, sirening.

How do you recognize something?

I’ve assigned What It Is for almost every poetry workshop I’ve taught.

What is the past?

A bubbling up.  What it means to travel but a kind of sinking, a blanket of quicksand.  I turn the page and it’s another cephalopod holding a pencil, waving it in the air.  It’s that easy.  ICU2.  

A student says, “the book is reading you.”  Another shivers, looking around the classroom.  “Who’s watching us?”  

How do you recognize something?

My little cousin Rosie once made a book of drawings tied together with yellow yarn.  A Christmas gift.  She laughed when I bit into its irreverence, its loony eyes, and feet spilling hearts.

The next year, she blushed.  

The next year, I bought her a copy of What It Is and she held it out with both hands, away from her body.  A squirming image-body, I imagined an octopus tentacle grabbing her wrist before she could turn away.

What happens when we read a story?

What is this?  What genre is it (does this question matter)?  What is the structure of the book?  Why defy genre?  Does this take risks?  Does this mean to be confusing?  I’m confused?  Why do I love it?  Why do I hate it?  Is this a dream journal?  Why Lincoln?  Why octopi?  What is the monkey?  So are monsters imaginary creatures?  Can people be monsters?  Am I a monster?


...No one told me the print on the wall was just ink and paper and had no life on its own. At some point, the cat stopped blinking, and I stopped thinking it could.
— Lynda Barry, "What It Is"


Is it good?  Does it suck?

I see these questions in the hand covering paper, the hand pressing crayon lightly on the page.  The hand as armor instead of muscle and bone.


What is play? (A writing-drawing prompt)

Trace an image.  Make it yours.  Draw a picture of yourself (stick figures, yeah!) talking to/ interacting with /frolicking with this image.  Yeah, stick figures, yeah!

Ask a question.  Answer a question.

(Is it good? Does it suck?  Is it good? Does it suck?  Isitgooddoesitsuckisitgooddoesitsuck…)

Stop answering the wrong questions.


What is an image?

I don’t trust my memory about the rabbits, so I text my best friend Jessica.

One rabbit, not plural rabbits.  I suppose my imagination breeds them.

Sometimes the image multiples; someone has the bright idea of buying another rabbit to keep the other company and you know what happens.  The image replicates with my obsession, the attention I give it.


What is an image?

Don’t blink back.  

Wait, blink, please.  Blink once if you’re here.  Blink twice if you’re here.


Rachelle Cruz is from Hayward, California. She is the author of the chapbook, Self-Portrait as Rumor and Blood (Dancing Girl Press, 2012). Her work is forthcoming or has appeared in As/UsNew California Writing 2013 (Heyday Books), the Los Angeles Review of BooksYellow Medicine Review, Jet Fuel Review, The Lit Pub, The Bakery, Stone Highway, The Collagist, Bone Bouquet, PANK Magazine, Muzzle Magazine, Splinter Generation, KCET's Departures Series, Inlandia: A Literary Journey, among others. She hosts The Blood-Jet Writing Hour on Blog Talk Radio, and is the Podcast Editor at The Collagist. She is a recent recipient of the Manuel G. Flores Scholarship from PAWA (Philippine American Writers and Arists, Inc). An Emerging Voices Fellow, a Kundiman Fellow and a VONA writer, she lives, writes and teaches in Southern California.