According to the American Academy of Microbiology, the human body contains about three times more bacterial cells than human cells—to say nothing of viruses, fungi, or other protozoa. These invisible beings are not neutral inhabitants. Rather, they mold our moods, perceptions, actions. Studies of microbiota have found, in fact, that perhaps hope is not (as Emily Dickinson wrote) the thing with feathers after all, but rather the one with lactobacillus.
As a result of this science, the idea of a human self for many has been replaced by the “human biome” or “human habitat.” Each of us is a pervious wild place on the make, being changed and effecting change; and this activity is what ecocritic Timothy Morton, in The Ecological Thought, calls the “nonself” in “the mesh.” Science theorist Donna Haraway describes a nonself in her book The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness: “Through their reaching into each other . . . beings constitute each other and themselves.” Each entity is formed in conversation with its voluble and responsive context, all concurrently receiving feedback and adapting; there are no selves separate from these constitutive exchanges. Everyone and everything are roiling, perpetually evolving: “Beings do not preexist their relatings. . . . The world is a knot in motion.” It’s a new/old idea, suggestive of Buddha’s enlightenment under the tree. Perhaps what he realized was this nonself: how tree and human create one another through their respective breaths.
The “nonself,” however, is not a pastoral organic place set apart from industry. In addition to living microbiota, our bodies now harbor microtechnologies such as pesticides and plastics, and to such an extent that 92 percent of people in a random sample, as cited in “How Plastic We’ve Become,”1 tested positive for BPA. Meanwhile, every breath we draw into our cells bears not just arboreal oxygen but also industrial particulate. Haraway’s lovely phrasing, “a knot in motion,” belies a sinister reality reflected in an emerging artistic stance, what Joyelle McSweeney dubs the “necropastoral” and describes as “a political-aesthetic zone in which the fact of mankind’s depredations cannot be separated from an experience of ‘nature’ which is poisoned, mutated, aberrant, spectacular, full of ill effects and affects.” Science and systems theory are revealing a nonself who (or should we say that?) does not so much contain multitudes, per Walt Whitman, as multiply and contaminate; metabolize, mutate, and migrate. The companionate species with whom we co-evolve include not only the beloved canine but also the loathed carcinogen and, as contemporary poetry often seeks to reveal, the innocuous consonant: language is as much constitutive material as any other microbe, and literature inquiring into the “nonself” can help us see “the mesh” language makes.
Sarah Vap dives into the tropes of religious and economic discourse to see what is wed there in Viability, a collection of prose poems selected by Mary Jo Bang as a National Poetry Series winner. Yearning for a sense of connection through a logic of accumulation rather than generosity, a lyric speaker expresses metaphysical longing. But the Dow rather than the Tao informs the basic religious impulse:
I want fusion, as in a joining together. As in confusion. As in thermonuclear. I want to become mixed together with something infinite, together at my smallest and my greatest part. Fused, for example, with exponential growth. Fused with exponential decay—or fused with the passage of fish across time. Fused with the generous field, leaning always toward me. Or fused with the animals of increase.
The same invisible force crafting this desire issues edicts:
Where there is no love, put abstract animals. Where there is no love, put lipstick. Put mascara. Put lipstick down the throat of a rat. Where there is no love, put information.
These poems ask by implication, how did we build a logic that replaces love with abstract animals, cosmetics, labs, and Google? Vap composes a kind of answer interrogating the Judeo-Christian ideological lens as formative in our imperialist history and contemporary mindset. Appropriating and collaging such disparate sources as the Kama Sutra, a Guardian article “Trafficked into Slavery on Thai Trawlers to Catch Food for Prawns,” economic definitions from the website Investopedia, and Alfred H. Conrad and John R. Meyer’s “The Economics of Slavery in the Ante Bellum South,” among others, and punctuating the collection throughout with words falsely attributed to John of the Cross, Vap’s poems are by turns wry in their ironies and heart-breaking in their assemblage:
If we need to determine the profitability of slaveholding from the slaveholder’s point of view, if we need to use the word procreation, if animal spirits motivate people to take positive action, if animal spirits also generate human trust, if the wire that the Index has wrapped around the animal spirits were also the rigging of the Santa Maria, if the wood from the Santa Maria was used to build the fortress called La Navidad, if La Navidad refers to the birth of the infant who grew to the man we are to eat eternally or is it relentlessly, if the wire wrapped around the animal spirits is wrapped also around the animals, wrapped also around the infants, wrapped also around the continents, wrapped also around the most important slave markets, wrapped also around the brains, wrapped also around the mouth, shoved also into the vagina, wrapped also around the testicles, hanging also from the anuses, tied also to each of the four boats, is it eternal or is it relentless. —John of the Cross
Here, the poet disrupts Western logic represented by the “If, then” statement, giving a sense of linear history and its Messianic underpinnings as artificial linguistic constructs. She interlaces the secular—profitability and Index—with the historical: slaveholding, Santa Maria, and La Navidad, connecting contemporary economics with its imperialist origins. Seemingly disparate realms are bound through “the wire,” which becomes a visualization device for articulating a nonlinear history: economic discourse, “the profitability of slaveholding,” connects slavery to “animal spirits,” shifts to the very contemporary “Index,” into the earth and our minds and bodies, and then quickly back to the historical “Santa Maria.” The time dislocation articulates history as a three-dimensional roiling, a “knot in motion.”
Tracing the wire’s power across these domains creates an equivalence between the exploited human, the exploited animal, and the earth (continents), challenging the notion of the human as a creation divinely set above a lowly material reality. Anaphora, a biblical use of repetition, frames the writing within the lineage of sacred texts. This framing weaves together the profane—testicles, vaginas, and anuses—and the sacred—eternity, John of the Cross—advancing a nonbinary cosmology. There exists in Vap’s vision no divine elsewhere, only a complex everywhere that appears to be connected across both generations and geographies—as well as slowly asphyxiated—by the wire. With its pun on “wired,” this force may be the functional myth of disembodied rationality, a mind transcending the body’s affects to produce cold calculations such as profitability. Silencing and strangling, the rational mind writ large is feeding on what turns out to be its own body.
Vap’s challenge to the transcendent impulse has precedent in Alice Notley’s “tyrant” from Descent of Alette (1996), a book-length feminist epic wherein the protagonist journeys through the underworld to vanquish “the tyrant.” The tyrant is revealed as a force extending its shaping powers well beyond a particular person, migrating through the materiality of words, letters, and phonemes because all these linguistic protozoa give shape to perceptions. In Viability, we cannot get outside industrialized corporality and consciousness, but we can locate a nonself, a continually morphing site within the evolving world, a live participant in a responsive “mesh,” whose actions ripple in the larger field. Vap calls for active awareness of this nonself:
The Index we need is inhuman. Need: actual radiation. Need: the different kind of mind. —John of the Cross
Stacy Szymaszek’s Journal of Ugly Sites meets this need for a different kind of mind. Where there are abstract animals in Vap’s book, Szymaszek puts love. Where there is lipstick down the throat of a rat, she puts her dying dog Cass, “sleeping between our heads peeing on both our pillows during the night using towels for pillows.” The poet’s relationship to Cass, the beloved dog whose life and death create the narrative through-line, manifests love—love made real not by egocentrically shaping the world to reflect beauty but rather through ecocentrically allowing another’s suffering to transform the self.
Journal of Ugly Sites applies Bernadette Mayer’s writing prompt to keep a journal of “beautiful and/or ugly sights,”2 locating Szymaszek’s work within Mayer’s legacy of celebrating the quotidian extraordinary. Like Mayer’s, Szymaszek’s journaling includes a cast of characters and entities permeating and co-creating one another through their intermingling. In forms moving from skeletal enjambments to prose blocks, the poet’s random autobiographical fragmented ephemera accrete and provide an intimation of her daily interactions with a lover, a parent, a therapist, media outlets, the city-scape, and, most pointedly, her beloved and too-soon-departed pup. The subsequent work is amusing, irreverent, celebratory, tender, elegiac, and intimate:
taking pictures reminding myself to interrupt this impulse to narrate every experience pausing to be present with K//Cass getting rangy pulling her out from under industrial sized a/c unit K reminding me that they’re supposed to detach before they die//”we’re ready” isn’t true//. . . 2 young women securing catheter with leopard print tape//she snoring oh it’s a nap!//”we’re ready” isn’t exactly so//pink liquid going in it matching my shirt//kissing nose kissing nose Jess pressing stethoscope against her side “she’s gone not looking gone” . . .
. . . seeing copy of Love’s Body seeing Dog’s Body
reading kernel as kennel
reading break as bark
the sound of licking was rain
In this passage, we overhear Szymaszek reflect on her compulsion toward manipulating her sensorial experiences through acts of representation, urging herself toward a different stance, “reminding myself to interrupt this impulse to narrate every experience, pausing to be present.” She collects snippets of sensory detail: the visual “leopard print tape” and “pink liquid going in it matching my shirt”; the auditory “she’s snoring”; the tactile “pulling her out from under industrial sized AC unit” and “kissing nose kissing nose,” foregrounding the sensorial intensity and materiality of the scene. Consciousness becomes a material object shaped by its situation—“reading kernel as kennel, reading break as bark”—and the poet reveals her subjectivity through the unfolding scene, until the two blur into one another and “the sound of licking was rain.”
On one hand, this book is merely a scrap heap of mundane details tossed from the poet’s life, but across the collection a critique of Western aesthetics emerges—the transcendent, immutable, eternal, and pristine soul being replaced by the earthly, evolving, and ephemeral foul body:
older guy with maritime tattoos walking puppy waiting at red light wanting to talk to him not having the nerve another older guy also waiting speaking the lyrics “you’re a bitch girl—you’re a bitch girl—you can get by on your old man’s money”//
Piss, death, old tattoos, and the anthems of Hall and Oates—all are pretty dang ugly, in keeping with the book’s title. They also constitute the world as it is. Allowing their presence into our consciousness, Szymaszek implies, makes possible right relation with the fullness of reality, helps answer the question: How can we truly love the world?
partially deflated dirty white balloon, may be more abject//yellowing condom that Cass sniffs//not much is really ugly when I eliminate litter//oh, herbicide in the park 7/5, no chicken bone hunting today, she feels this is an ugly break from routine//totally fried Bachelor’s Buttons//who has the courage to pull out their appliances//
I did, “let’s never let it get that bad again”
old queer’s spandexed package perched on the neighboring bike seat turns me into a rubbernecker, or is it his yellow tube socks//sugar, goodbye, shriveled organic produce, condiment shelf goo//disembodied hair//smell of Murphy’s Oil Soap, reminds me of when I had a house, the realty is what’s ugly//Cass likes to pee through the sidewalk grates, look down to see thick covering of absorbent cigarette butts//neighbors to ghost properties Preschool of America and Wonderland Kid Spa//children in the park gather round Cass, I think “Suddenly Last Summer”//
toe nail fungus of a shoeless man//the same shoeless man sitting where people have to step over his foot
In this passage, Szymaszek queries the category of “ugly.” She begins with a seemingly innocent “dirty white balloon,” but this sullied, childish party favor morphs into a “more abject//yellowing condom.” Confronted by another’s excrement, the poet invokes the “abject,” Julia Kristeva’s term (in The Power of Horror: An Essay on Abjection) for the human response to phenomena that create a threatened loss of meaning when the distinction between self and other is lost—such as can happen with fear of contamination by the microbiota present in another’s excretion. Commemorating the abject, the poet holds the page open to all passing moments, and this permeability asserts that her life is also the life of “the toe nail fungus of a shoeless man//the same shoeless man sitting where people have to step over his foot.”
The overlooked transient has been celebrated in the American prose poem since Gertrude Stein’s paeans to the domestic sphere, collected as Tender Buttons. From Stein through Notley, Mayer, and Susan Howe to this recent generation of writers like Vap and Szymaszek, feminist poets have been using the prose poem to challenge a boundaried subjectivity particular to Western dualism. They have used hybridity, collage, associative logic, intertextuality, polyvocality; they have refused to build a wall between the lyric and narrative, personal and public, sacred and profane, self and other. They have sung messy, ‘meshy’ songs of our nonselves—composing, in Howe’s phrase from My Emily Dickinson, “an ugly verse,” and—how beautiful!—they have persisted.
*An essay-review of:
Viability. By Sarah Vap. New York: Penguin, 2016. 176 pp. $22.00, paper.
Journal of Ugly Sites & Other Journals. By Stacy Szymaszek. Albany, NY: Fence Books, 2016. 96 pp. $15.95, paper.
1. Janet Raloff, ScienceNews, 17 January 2008.
2.“Bernadette Mayer’s List of Journal Ideas,” Electronic Poetry Center Digital Library.