JOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN Reviews
After-Cave by Michelle Detorie
(Ahsahta Press, Boise, ID, 2014)
To become is not to progress or regress along a series. Above all, becoming does not occur in the imagination, even when the imagination reaches the highest cosmic or dynamic level, as in Jung or Bachelard. Becomings-animal are neither dreams nor phantasies. They are perfectly real. But which reality is at issue here? For if becoming-animal does not consist in playing animal or imitating an animal, it is clear that the human being does not “really” become an animal any more than the animal “really” becomes something else. Becoming produces nothing other than itself. We fall into a false alternative if we say that you either imitate or you are. What is real is the becoming itself …
-Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus
I am an animal. There is no becoming.
-Michelle Detorie, “Fur Birds”, in After-Cave
And yet … And yet …
“To our indigenous ancestors, and to the many aboriginal peoples who still hold fast to their oral traditions, language is less a human possession than it is a property of the animate earth itself, an expressive, telluric power in which we, along with the coyotes and the crickets, all participate. Each creature enacts this expressive magic in its own manner, the honeybee with its waggle dance no less than a bellicose, harrumphing sea lion. Nor is this power restricted solely to animals. The whispered hush of the uncut grasses at dawn, the plaintive moan of trunks rubbing against one another in the deep woods, or the laughter of birch leaves as the wind gusts through their branches all bear a thicket of many-layered meanings for those who listen carefully. In the Pacific Northwest I met a man who had schooled himself in the speech of needled evergreens; on a breezy day you could drive him, blindfolded, to any patch of coastal forest and place him, still blind, beneath a particular tree -- after a few moments he would tell you, by listening, just what species of pine or spruce or fir stood above him (whether he stood beneath a Douglas fir or a grand fir, a Sitka spruce or a western red cedar). His ears were attuned, he said, to the different dialects of the trees.”
-David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology
Everyone ate well that night. Anyanwu ate better than anyone, because for her, the flesh of the fish told her all she needed to know about the creature's physical structure — all she needed to know to take its shape and live as it did. Just a small amount of raw flesh told her more than she had words to say. Within each bite, the creature told her its story clearly thousands of times. That night in their cabin, Doro caught her experimentally turning one of her arms into a flipper. “What are you doing!” he demanded, with what sounded like revulsion. She laughed like a child and stood up to meet him, her arm flowing easily back to its human shape. “Tomorrow,” she said, “you will tell Isaac how to help me, and I will swim with the fish! I will be a fish! I can do it now! I have wanted to for so long.” “How do you know you can?” Curiosity quickly drove any negative feelings from him, as usual. She told him of the messages she had read within the flesh of the fish. “Messages as clear and fine as those in your books,” she told him. Privately she thought her flesh-messages even more specific than the books he had introduced her to, read to her from. But the books were the only example she could think of that he might understand. “It seems that you could misunderstand your books,” she said. "Other men made them. Other men can lie or make mistakes. But the flesh can only tell me what it is. It has no other story.” “But how do you read it?” he asked. Read. If he used that English word, he too saw the similarity. “My body reads it — reads everything. Did you know that fish breathes air as we do? I thought it would breathe water like the ones we caught and dried at home.” “It was a dolphin,” Doro murmured. “But it was more like a land thing than a fish. Inside, it is much like a land animal. The changes I make will not be as great as I thought.” […] And she was moving through the water alongside the ship, propelling her long, sleek body forward with easy beats of her tail. She was seeing differently, her eyes now on the sides of her head instead of in front. Her head had extended itself into a hard beak. She was breathing differently — or rather, she was not breathing at all until she felt the need and found herself surfacing in a slow forward roll that exposed her blowhole-nose briefly and allowed her to expel her breath and take new air into her lungs. She observed herself minutely […] Finally, she directed her attention from herself to the other dolphins. She had heard them too, chattering not far from her, keeping alongside the ship as she did. Strangely, their chatter sounded more human now — more like speech, like a foreign speech. She swam toward them slowly, uncertainly. How did they greet strangers? How would they greet one small, ignorant female? If they were speaking among themselves somehow, they would think her mute — or mad. […] Swimming with them was like being with another people. A friendly people. No slavers with brands and chains here. No Doro with gentle, terrible threats to her children, to her. As time passed, several dolphins approached to touch her, rub themselves against her, get acquainted. When the male who had touched her first returned, she was startled to realize that she recognized him. His touch was his touch — not quite like that of any of the others as they were not quite like each other […] Her male dolphin came to touch her again and drove all thoughts of Doro from her mind. She understood that the dolphin’s interest had become more than casual. He stayed close to her now, touching her, matching his movements with her own. She realized that she did not mind his attention. She had avoided animal matings in the past. She was a woman. Intercourse with an animal was abomination. She would feel unclean reverting to her human form with the seed of a male animal inside her. But now . . . it was as though the dolphins were not animals.
-Octavia Butler, Wild Seed
I am 15. Female. Human (I think).
-Michelle Detorie, “Fur Birds”, in After-Cave
And yet … And yet …
After-Cave is divided into three sections, “Fur Birds”, “Feralscape”, and “After-Cave”; I believe that are comparable to movements in a piece of music, and that this is a book-length poem, however fragmented; the fragments are cumulative. And yes, I am tempted here to quote A Thousand Plateaus again on becoming-music:
Becoming-Music. We have tried to define in the case of Western music (although the other musical traditions confront an analogous problem, under different conditions, to which they find different solutions) a block of becoming at the level of expression, or a block of expression: this block of becoming rests on transversals that continually escape from the coordinates or punctual systems functioning as musical codes at a given moment. It is obvious that there is a block of content corresponding to this block of expression.
Since I am a mashup artist, I could just compile quote after quote and be done with it. Were I to do that, the next up would be by Tim Ingold, and it would be about how western dualisms such as nature / culture are fictions reinforced by our habit of wearing stiff shoes. They cause us to forget that it’s our feet that are in more contact with the planet than any other part of us (except for our skin, which usually just feels air, and which usually isn’t very “aroused” by it). When we forget our feet we tend to wrongly divide ourselves into culture above the waist and nature below. Which is just to say that Detorie’s assertion that the (an?) I of this book is an animal is of course correct. And that there is no contradiction between that assertion and the rather more tentative one, “Human (I think)”, with is very near the beginning of the book.
So what is this book about? Besides the line I quote above, “I am an animal. There is no becoming”, there is another striking assertion: “No matter how we look at it – we are either all together or we are all alone.” And at the previous page I find
someone is kind
to me I feel
And then later: “When I walk away from the group I feel like hell.” So perhaps I can just summarize After-Cave by saying: this is a poem about the fraught necessary interconnectedness of all things, the falseness of boundaries, or at least of the boundaries we draw … this is a poem about taking the stiff leather boots off. All the stiff leather boots. All of them. All the way off.
But wait a minute. That reading can make sense of bits like “I give birth / to a dog”, but what about “we just saw millionaires in the gravel. They were still wearing watches. The last gleaming things along the flesh”? Or “The trains stopped running and the trucks stopped coming”? Or “There are four moons and an ocean full of lead”?
And even the very title, After-Cave? After what? Where are we? When? And what about the fur birds? Maybe they are no metaphor.
I begin to suspect that this is a “sci-fi novel.” Perhaps it takes place in the not-too-distant future, here on earth, after some catastrophe or other, after the term mutant loses all meaning, since there is no longer any baseline from which to apply the term. But four moons? Perhaps this is another “earth” altogether, in another solar system … but I think not. Too much overlap with this earth, e.g. the watches, the trains, the guns … So the answer to “where are we” is … here? I’m ok with that (even with the four moons). Still not sure about the when, tho. It could be the future. It could (almost) just as well be today. Conditions are that good … and that bad.
Which may all be / just be to say that Detorie has the chops to keep us hopping, to never let us settle down into a comfortable read. We know there are living beings (we don’t know where life ends and something else begins, tho). We know that these living beings have needs very similar to ours (food, shelter – no, home – companionship, memory …). What else do we know? That we are in the woods (dare I make the obvious comparison to Dante’s Inferno yet?). That perhaps hands have been replaced by scissors. That there are few divisions between species, anatomically speaking … that “It is evil, to imagine the self.” That “THE DATA IS FEMININE” (odd construction, that, since data is a plural noun … but we are in a strange-ish land).
It feels most right to keep this review extremely tentative. But I’m ok with that. Negative capability, etc. One of the most peculiar bits (in the sense of being least contextualized) is
Clock marking the cinders.
There was a procession
where profession to profession we crept, carrying branches.
Each was asked to speak, and it was with reluctance and
kindness that I lied.
I don’t want to lie here. This is a different ritual than the one in the book. There is something odd about writing a review, for me at least. I feel called on to “understand” something on a level I can verbalize, but often, very often, that’s not how poetry works for me. It would be a lie were I to tell you that I understand After-Cave on a level I can verbalize. I think it’s designed for a different kind of understanding. Or it could just be me. But the book feels rather oneiric / prophetic / sibylline, in some ways. I think confining my understanding to words would be do perform the worst kind of reduction on this text. I can’t help myself, so two more reasonably apposite quotes, as a way of consoling myself as not the first to confront a wonderful “text” and to be able to respond to it without reducing it to something less than itself:
Sometimes while she was sitting with them [nuns of St. Catherine’s near Saint-Trond], she would speak of Christ and suddenly and unexpectedly she would be ravished in the spirit and her body would roll and whirl around like a hoop. She whirled around with such extreme violence that the individual limbs of her body could not be distinguished. When she had whirled around for a long time in this manner, it seemed as if she became weakened by the violence of her rolling and all her limbs grew quiet. Then a wondrous harmony sounded between her throat and her breast which no mortal man could understand nor could it be imitated by an artificial instrument. Her song had not only the pliancy and tones of music but also the words — if thus I might call them — sounded together incomprehensibly. The voice or spiritual breath, however, did not come out of her mouth or nose, but a harmony of the angelic voice resounded only from between the breast and the throat.
-Brother A. on Angela of Foligno, quoted in Amy Hollywood, Sensible Ecstasy
At length my friend, who had taken up some of the leaves strewed about, exclaimed, “This is the Sibyl’s cave; these are Sibylline leaves.” On examination, we found that all the leaves, bark, and other substances, were traced with written characters. What appeared to us more astonishing, was that these writings were expressed in various languages: some unknown to my companion, ancient Chaldee, and Egyptian hieroglyphics, old as the Pyramids. Stranger still, some were in modern dialects, English and Italian. We could make out little by the dim light, but they seemed to contain prophecies, detailed relations of events but lately passed; names, now well known, but of modern date; and often exclamations of exultation or woe, of victory or defeat, were traced on their thin scant pages. This was certainly the Sibyl's Cave; not indeed exactly as Virgil describes it, but the whole of this land had been so convulsed by earthquake and volcano, that the change was not wonderful, though the traces of ruin were effaced by time; and we probably owed the preservation of these leaves, to the accident which had closed the mouth of the cavern, and the swift-growing vegetation which had rendered its sole opening impervious to the storm. We made a hasty selection of such of the leaves, whose writing one at least of us could understand; and then, laden with our treasure, we bade adieu to the dim hypaethric cavern, and after much difficulty succeeded in rejoining our guides. During our stay at Naples, we often returned to this cave, sometimes alone, skimming the sun-lit sea, and each time added to our store. Since that period, whenever the world's circumstance has not imperiously called me away, or the temper of my mind impeded such study, I have been employed in deciphering these sacred remains. Their meaning, wondrous and eloquent, has often repaid my toil, soothing me in sorrow, and exciting my imagination to daring flights, through the immensity of nature and the mind of man […] I present the public with my latest discoveries in the slight Sibylline pages. Scattered and unconnected as they were, I have been obliged to add links, and model the work into a consistent form. But the main substance rests on the truths contained in these poetic rhapsodies, and the divine intuition which the Cumaean damsel obtained from heaven. I have often wondered at the subject of her verses, and at the English dress of the Latin poet. Sometimes I have thought, that, obscure and chaotic as they are, they owe their present form to me, their decipherer. As if we should give to another artist, the painted fragments which form the mosaic copy of Raphael's Transfiguration in St. Peter’s; he would put them together in a form, whose mode would be fashioned by his own peculiar mind and talent. Doubtless the leaves of the Cumaean Sibyl have suffered distortion and diminution of interest and excellence in my hands.
-Mary Shelley, The Last Man
What I am refusing to do here is to transform Detorie’s text, to not have to write here that “the leaves of the Cumaean Sibyl have suffered distortion and diminution of interest and excellence in my hands.” Interest and excellence there is aplenty. I think that by refusing to reduce After-Cave to my explanation of it, by associating it with this collection of quotes, rather, I am doing it justice, the least it deserves.
John Bloomberg-Rissman has maybe six months left on In the House of the Hangman, the third section of his maybe life mashup called Zeitgeist Spam. The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making (Leafe Press, 2007), and Flux, Clot & Froth (Meritage Press 2010). His tentative title for the fourth section, which he is already planning, is The Giant Notebook of Harsh Noise Wall Bejeweled Barrettes Anything Sumak Kawsay OK The Orphaned Zag Kledonomancy Tome. In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project, the main other things on his plate right now are reading proofs for an anthology which he is editing with Jerome Rothenberg, titled Barbaric Vast & Wild: An Anthology of Outside & Subterranean Poetry, due out from Black Widow Press sometime early in 2015, and a collab with the visual collages of Lynn Behrendt, which will hopefully be published by the end of this year. He's also learning to play the viola and he blogs at www.johnbr.com (Zeitgeist Spam).