‘Hieroglyphs: a review of Chelsea Hodson’s “Tonight I’m Someone Else”’, by Emma Marie Jones


When I was in love with someone who didn’t love me I went to a psychic because I needed to be told otherwise. I was young, I was captivated by the narrative of my own longing. The psychic told me I would have a baby. I knew it would be his, I knew we were connected. We must be. I loved him so much I had gone looking for him in my future and so he would be there, it was certain.

While the psychic told me that his reasons for not loving me were circumstantial, I imagined what he might be doing. It felt necessary to make my movements anticipate his movements. There was, in my body, a desperate blind faith in the kinetic. I would cast myself into ancient forms that would supplicate me to him, that his eyes would understand but his brain would not, that would make him love me. If I put my arms this way—if I painted my lips this way; if I held objects in the ways I had been taught—I could become the figure that was loved by him and him alone. I could change the future even in the moment that the psychic was making it concrete.

I told the psychic: circumstances can be overcome. I know that this is true because I took home an audio recording of the session. There was determination in my young voice! But he never loved me. He got a different girlfriend.

I have lived like a hieroglyph. I have stared out of windows with a face composed especially for staring out of windows. Do our bodies speak languages, or are they their own languages? We are messages, forces, we pull near to one another, we orbit and collide. Our bodies surge with secret power like rivers after rain. Desire, admiration, aspiration, envy: the essays in Chelsea Hodson’s collection Tonight I’m Someone Else know this surge, they ride it effortlessly. The writing is turbulent, fluid. As the surge passes from one body to another, both bodies change; sometimes they don’t know that they are doing it, the passing or the surging or the changing, although of course, sometimes they do.

Of all the essays, ‘Red Letters from a Red Planet’ perhaps does most overtly what the collection does, implicitly, as a whole: it takes bodies and turns them into signs, it makes the bodies communicate, implicitly and explicitly, with each other and with the reader. In ‘Red Letters’, two of the bodies are the body of Hodson and the body of her bad-boy boyfriend Cody, which orbit one another in Tucson, Arizona in a way that is normal, predictable, human. The other two bodies are the body of NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander and the body of Mars, which interact with one another in ways that make a lot of humans—both in the essay and in memory, in the real world—hold their breath and watch, amazed.

Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University.

In ‘The End of Longing’, Hodson writes, “A poem is a way of talking to the person you’re not supposed to talk to anymore”. Hodson’s poems are breathless and surprising. I didn’t think it would be possible for an essay to do what a poem does in a way that is somehow wilder and more human but then—there is knowing that a Martian day, a sol, is forty minutes longer than an Earth day—there is loving a man for the very brutality with which he does not love you back—and there are swift, broad strokes of voice that draw these things together so that they become necessary to one another, so that there could not be a photograph of Mars in my mind without a Tucson I’ve never been to, without a Cody I have never met or loved.

I read my horoscope, and it tells me there is more power in surrender than in the illusion of control. I think about Donald Trump looking at the total solar eclipse without those special sunglasses. I think about the psychic, telling me my love was unrequited. The planets move vastly, with or without arcane power, around us. I will never touch Mars, maybe I will never touch Arizona, but they both impact me every day, in ways unknown to them and to me. Are Donald Trump’s eyes more invincible than the eyes of other people? Are horoscopes only rendered impotent when you think they are trash? Or can you just become immune to powers that you don’t believe in?

If such disbelief is a force, conviction is its necessary twin. My bodily certainty, at the table of the psychic: but he loves me back. Saying something aloud doesn’t always make it true, but then again: Mars is dusty and the Phoenix is searching for water. It has this one robotic arm that is always reaching. Hodson recalls overhearing someone at a press conference say: “We will find water; it is there. It was the same tone I used”, she writes, “to announce that I loved who I loved”. With what certainty I have loved! And Hodson loves, certainly, she loves Cody. She loves him even though…yes. She loves him anyway.

As a teenage girl I had one of those friendships that ruined me while at the same time giving me concrete form. She was someone I loved, someone I never stopped loving, yet she filled me with a hatred and envy so deep and profound I thought I would die. She was bold, she was pretty; I don’t know what I offered the friendship, perhaps in retrospect I was clever and the boys who adored her appreciated my jokes. I don’t know what she does now, it would be easy to find out but I haven’t tried. Her pull is surely still greater than my resistance.

It’s a classic trope, it’s Lila and Lenù, it’s Cher and Tai, it’s Heidi and LC. Every teenage girl has situated herself somewhere on that spectrum of toxic, urgent intimacy. In ‘Small Crimes’, Hodson enters such a friendship with Bianca, made fleeting by the confines of summer camp. Summer camp! I was a bookish child, I was always reading about wealthy girls in the American wilderness, restless in their cabins. I learned from them about pining: pining for boys across lakes, pining for friends at home, pining for the lost limbs of childhood, limbs that would be cumbersome with womanhood by the end of summer.

The body of Bianca is like this, arrested by Hodson’s curious gaze in its moments of transformation. Doubling, Bianca is arrested again by Hodson’s retrospect; a retrospect still tinged with curiosity, because of course even though Hodson later went through changes of her own they were foreshadowed by what she had already seen. Tampons in a duffel bag, words like dick and rape, lipstick on the rim of a glass. The two girls set out into the darkness, led by desires Hodson doesn’t yet feel or understand. But the body wants to want. The body orbits its models and learns how to become its future self. In ‘The End of Longing’, Hodson writes, “A theory my friend has: sleepovers are where girls learn to wake up in love. Remember when we knew our friends’ bodies as well as our own?” My teenage friend would sleep in her bed, and I on the floor, I would fall asleep by matching my breathing to her breathing. A thousand secrets hung in the air between us like living things.

Proximity, maybe, is the surging force, the secret power that pushes our bodies around like they’re dumb things at some casual mercy. There is a scramble for proximity in the magnetism, orbiting, and harm of ‘Red Letters’; there is an urgent proximity in the mirroring and learning of ‘Small Crimes’. Proximity becomes gendered in the collection’s exploration of themes of touch, beauty, and looking in ‘Simple Woman’.

Hodson was a model. In ‘Simple Woman’ she writes about it in a way that is blunt and deft and clean, there is no filmic glamour. What Hodson remembers about modelling is the touching of her body, how makeup artists and hairdressers would pat or brush her in ways that felt maternal. There is an equation implicit in this recollection: being beautiful means being touched. What Hodson thinks about when she turns her face to the camera is touch. She commands us to try it: “Think of the electricity between two hands about to touch, the language that exists in that silence.” It is this private anticipation, the imagining of another person’s skin and its nearness to the boundary of the self, that makes a face worth photographing.

A body is an object – yes. A body is a spectacle – yes, too. In Tonight I’m Someone Else, all bodies, the motionless body and the object-body, the celestial body and the mundane body, the growing, changing body and the celebrity body, have their own power and allure. All of them speak differently, and all of them have proximity to, or perhaps momentarily engulf and become, Hodson’s. And as I read, mine.

Emma Marie Jones is a Melbourne-based writer, and the author of Something to Be Tiptoed Around, a work of experimental memoir shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers in 2015 and to be released by Grattan Street Press in June 2018. She's a PhD candidate and teacher of Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne, and is currently working on her first novel.