Excerpts from J’Lyn Chapman’s cross-genre manuscript, Our Last Days, a finalist for the 2015 TS Book Prize.
WE CONTINUE TO UNSKIN: ON TAXIDERMY
I know you, you’re the one bent over low,
You dreamt that you were burying a house. That at moments it was small and large, it was shifting into dimensions possible and impossible. And you were burying it out of hot shame. Memory can be stern when it comes to our refusals. Something burns near your liver as a house burns.
Like the past belongs beside or inside, but cannot be put behind. The self is fused to the density that is the confluence of all time, all history, its matter, its urgencies and necessities, and also the spontaneous. Time is heavy, but the smallest atom experiences much space, the space of complete solitude and buoyancy. When you become quiet, you experience all that is empty within you, the absence that has accumulated since light. That is one way to spend your many lives, here and into the future. But until you understand that life is spent as if held in a delicate husk and that the sound of this husk is nothing, then you will never find peace in the time that you contain. It is an act of kindness to let them fall away. You—completely, completely real—resume. And in your hand, restore the vein of light that courses through all things made.
Truth told Petrarch that he had already spent enough time—more than enough—looking down at the ground with his clouded eyes. If mortal things attracted him so much, what may he not hope for if he lifted his eyes to the eternal? Petrarch wanted to know how an honest man could shrug off worldly impediments and rise to higher things, and Truth answered in supreme radiance and youth, “all that is needed is what I mentioned in the first place—constant meditation upon your own mortality.” It’s one thing to mention death out of sheer habit, and repeat “nothing is more certain than death, and nothing is more uncertain than the hour of it.” But to really go deep enough one must watch something die. And if you are not greatly troubled every time you think of that death, then you will know your thinking has been in vain. Going deep is the miracle of immortality.
No one wants to be accused of paying attention to the wrong things and so one pays attention to everything. Especially as one thinks the point of her life is to in each moment deny it. To burn as both fuel and fire. But you frequently feel unwell, and you tell yourself that you must learn to look away or to become a fatalist because you question if your reality is worth losing for a world that would not give you its.
I learned: a light is not more bright than any other light. I mean, a single day with its sun cannot strip you more than any other day with that same sun. Whereas, a room could become very dark, very thick in its darkness. I mean, Truth is not so much dazzlingly bright as your eyes have scales, and her deep speaks unto your deep and the silence is so accurate.
and I, the one pierced through, am in your need.
This felted mauve is sky. That sky is silvered light. We stand in a field in a city. These lights are our tender hands. Those silences are dry fountains. You ask for the dark movement, and I will give you that. Our crow is a pattern for the coming night.
For you, I take on the attitude of February. That is, I become something quiet and waiting. Tomorrow it snows and again the next day, and the weather goes on like that, interrupted by periods of melt and freeze. Formations of geese fly against the thick face of sky. But that is not time. That I am witness to it does not make it history. I become something stern and tense, infinitely patient, wounded by brown, wounded by the thickest gypsum sky, the absent sun, by whole fields of decomposing leaves, by fantastically redolent soil, by decomposing leaves that cover the bodies of birds, by mudslide that swallows mouths in a painful suck. One might say it is an immemorial urge to express one’s position in regard to the universe, and, while this might be true, I position myself to speak to you with uneasy longing.
Where flames a word to witness for us both?
Opacity is the gesture of science toward the world. Questions are answered in curt neutrality—the brevity of scientific welcome (as in, “please enter this cold space”). The scientific voice draws attention to the light that exists already in the world but neither absorbs nor reflects that light, and is neither coy nor purblind in that light silence. It is a barrier that protrudes from the opening.
The archive of natural history is a place of climate and appetite accumulated into a single drama of breathless light. A model of the hypernatural. The glass eye, lacquered snout, and Plexiglas barrier refract and multiply electricity. These torpid surfaces simultaneously quicken the archive and remind us that we are visitors, projecting an image of our absence. Nature-as-exhibit exaggerates the “cool disengaged air of natural objects” (Emerson). It’s their aloofness that we envy. In it, neoclassical regularity and universality perform a romantic sense of wildness. From the clearly defined borders of human space, the museum offers the spectacle of what animals do naturally, perpetuating the myth that to look is to know. Yet, in the excess and detail as well as the basic infidelities, the exhibit is ultimately a lapidary barrier, its anatomical translations revealing the impossible.
Unlike living animals in zoos, marked by “their own lethargy or hyperactivity” (Berger), the mounted animal represents a quality perhaps more true of animals than of humans and, therefore, more real: they exist in their spaces, that is, they are. In their “superficial anatomy” animals resemble man. They “are born, are sentient and are mortal” (Berger). And while various displays unambiguously depict their habitats, hunting, and procreation, they fail to tell us how it feels to be animal. The rest is unknown, a privacy so radical in its impossibility that the only response can be wonder.
In the early nineteenth century, the naturalist is dynamic in her ability to stretch the terse structural line to accommodate attitudinal decency. Imagine a female voice describing something scientifically termed, “The Chace,” and you will understand the relationship between the terms “taxidermist” and “naturalist”:
A double barrelled gun is to be preferred; one of the barrels loaded with small shot, or the dross of lead, for little birds, and the other with large shot…When a bird is killed put a pinch of dry dust on the fresh wound…by raising the feathers with a long pin at the place of the wound. Introduce a little cotton or flax in the beak of the bird, to prevent the blood from coming out of this opening, and keep it as clean as possible. Place the wings and the feathers which have been disturbed in their natural position; rest the bird on the ground to give the blood time to coagulate.
The naturalist is a student of nature, one whose gaze casts a generous net over the landscape. It is not hungry or superstitious, so it is as if this net-like gaze is cast for the first time. It is an appraising gaze. It is motherly. But the gaze is foremost a sound, a detonation of sound in a dense and green silence. Looking and shooting form a process of what Darwin fondly calls “naturalizing.”
I want to help you understand what it is to kill something you have watched, but more so, what it is to kill something you have found beautiful. I want to say that we could kill something ugly. But we feel pity for what is ugly or we let it recede into the brutality of the beautiful world to die naturally. If we kill, we kill what pleases us. The obvious analogy is desire; the less obvious is writing. The association is more complex. It has to do with recurring dreams of execution. The beauty is my ecstatic calm. The radical destruction is that I wake up.
There is nothing more artificial than resurrection, but artful preservation suspends our repulsion. The taxidermist calls it rehabilitation, to “make-do and mend.” Radical destruction is reinvested in the archive so that the beauty that compels one to kill is capitalized in verisimilitude, the colors repeated under glass. In rows and in descending sizes and of the same hue. Or in an image of Eden, the predator and prey in proximity. No biting or agony, and something like complete silence, which is the penetrating part.
The taxidermist spends her days in the laboratory of natural science, which is to spend days inside of skin, to toil in a plastic landscape with arsenic and lime. That is, to remove skin from flesh and to arrange it over iron, flax and tow, while anticipating that the living germ of destruction not be shut up with it. She twists parched fingers under skin that is not her own, then writes about skin from a position of one who does not belong to her body longing. Linen is placed in the eye orbit and wet filleted linen is wrapped around the feet, while a damp linen cloth is laid over the bird. Anointment of oil makes the surface pliable. The surface shifts, then the surface throbs, then the surface strains. The naturalist makes incisions by dividing the feathers left and right and pulling out the down. Then drawing the fresh skin and body in contrary directions by gently holding one with forceps and the other under a scalpel, the naturalist pares the body, cutting tendons, powdering the flesh, and taking care not to disturb the eyelids.
The naturalist’s archive can do without: movement and sound. The body happens exponentially. An eye can only see one image at a time. It is questionable if the eye can see movement. The eye can see changes in the body but not movement. Cognitive dissonance connects changes. We call this animation. If you wish to make your bird flying, extend its wings as much as possible. If you prefer the moment of fright, the perch must be made at an angle; the left foot must be extended, the right must be very near the body, and bent; the body thrown to the right, the wing elevated and spread, the other less so and lower; the tail lowered, open and roofed; the neck raised and inclined to the right, the head leaning down, the beak open, the eyes fixed on the object of its fear. Our love for one another is connected to movement.
You cannot hear in the beginning. You do not remember learning sound. What is a word for sound equivalent to sight? I have sound. I have hearing. I am not deaf. But in the archive, the ability to hear is the least of all the senses if the pose is what you’re after, and it also has no brief noun. Thus in taxidermy, the mechanical operations have been terminated, which now gives place to ideas that spring from a knowledge of the manners and habits of birds; in short, to give to each species its peculiar attitude. Long and constant observations, practice, and love will do more for the naturalist than one can write on the subject.
Here is the taxonomy of here like Virgil’s meal of salt and bitter soils. Here, the body equals the count of breath, which, all surface, disturbs its origin, fear of falling, indigenous red.
You—wholly real. I—wholly mad.
I do not know immigration or exile, but I do know how to inhabit the cities I have been in, and I have recollected old identities and fashioned new ones without knowing what borders I have crossed. By cities, I mean states of mind. By event, I mean some thing recollected as something in its presence, as in this movement and the ability to recognize movement. I do not apprehend movement, which is a move into and around movement, because I can’t move into this body moving. Because prepositional belonging to my body is incredulity, as in apprehensiveness. It is an anxiety. I wish to understand the difficulty differently, as if this would make a best life. But my body in space and the desire to pull away, to invent a novel experience is a chaffing as a hand is chaffed.
And yet every sentence has its beginnings and each animal, posed as it is in flight or in fright has its past-tense. Beauty, eternal gesture. I want to write sentences that stretch on toward desperation, as in the fugal voices that become discordant but still lovely then recollected in harmony. At the apotheosis of the desperation, the line would break into clause or new sentence and the break would be the point of discord rather than calm, and still the dissolution would be reprieve, as when the healthy mind refuses any more annihilation and in its descent decides to rest. But there must be sentences that travel toward the desperate one. There must be travel.
A traveler feels as she bolts headlong into the dark trajectory of empire, the layers of lights gradually slough into paltry twinkling and tinsel, the dust of light. She feels the terrain flatten into smooth and then into snow and then into ice until the stars and the road recede into blue sheen and sometimes into expanses of terrible waters, and she hallucinates the small ostrich eating snow at the edge of the highway. And she maintains such self-discipline at the wheel—a kind of catatonic traveling into the hand that giveth and taketh away.
An early version of this essay was published in Saltgrass (June 2011).
The phrase, “completely, completely real,” derives from Beth Hawkins’ translation of the Paul Celan poem whose four lines serve as the section titles of this essay. John Felstiner translates this phrase, “wholly real.” In German the phrase is, “ganz, ganz wirklich.”
I reference Francesco Petrarch’s The Secret and use some of his language (Ed. Carol E. Quillen. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2003).
The phrase, “the silence is so accurate,” is quoted from a Mark Rothko expert who quoted Mark Rothko on the Special Features portion of Mad Men season 2 DVD. While I have found that this line is regularly quoted online, I cannot find its source. Rothko’s biographer, James Breslin, quotes it without documenting it.
The phrase “make-do and mend” comes from “On Necro-Ornithologies” in Antennae. Patchett is referring to a philosophy on taxidermy held by Peter Summers, taxidermist at the National Museum Scotland. According to Patchett, this philosophy emphasizes rehabilitation of the specimen rather than its resurrection. I found the entire issue of Antennae 20 (2012) extremely helpful in my understanding of taxidermy practices as well as in problematizing the archive of natural history.
The line, “One might say it is an immemorial urge to express one’s position in regard to the universe” derives from Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak Memory (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), in which he writes, “in a sense, all poetry is positional: to try to express one’s position in regard to the universe embraced by consciousness, is an immemorial urge.”
This essay borrows language from Sarah Lee Bowdich’s Taxidermy: or the Art of Collecting, Preparing and Mounting Objects of Natural History (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1820).
The reference to Charles Darwin’s “naturalizing” specifically references his March 5, 1832 Beagle diary entry in which he wrote about a “naturalizing walk” he took with the captain, Phillip Parker King: “During the walk I was chiefly employed in collecting numberless small beetles & in geologising. — King shot some pretty birds & I a most beautiful large lizard. — It is a new & pleasant thing for me to be conscious that naturalizing is doing my duty, & that if I neglected that duty I should at same time neglect what has for some years given me so much pleasure.” In other diary entries, Darwin refers to “naturalizing” as a largely unintentional dispersion of species by humans.
The lines, “The obvious analogy is desire; the less obvious is writing. The association is more complex” is inspired by Lyn Hejinian’s repeating line, “The obvious analogy is with music,” in My Life (København: Green Integer, 2002).
The line, “Radical destruction is reinvested in the archive so that the beauty that compels one to kill is capitalized in verisimilitude, the colors repeated under glass” is inspired by Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (trans. Eric Prenowitz. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996), in which he writes, “the radical destruction [of the Devil or death drive] can again be reinvested in another logic, in the inexhaustible economistic resource of an archive which capitalizes everything even that which ruins it or radically contests its power.”
The line, “Virgil’s meal of salt and bitter soils,” refers to Book II of Virgil’s Georgics.
Other references are obvious and can found in the following sources:
Berger, John. “Why Look at Animals?”Selected Essays. Ed. Geoff Dyer. New York: Vintage, 2001. 259–73.
Celan, Paul. Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan. Trans. John Felsteiner. New York: Norton, 2001.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature,” Essays. Reading, PA: Spencer P, 1936. 363–82.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
J’Lyn Chapman’s essays and prose poems have been published in Conjunctions, Fence, Denver Quarterly, and American Letters & Commentary, among other journals. Calamari Press published the chapbook, Bear Stories; the pedagogy-of-conversation chapbook The Form Our Curiosity Takes is available from Essay Press. She teaches in the Jack Kerouac School at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, and with Michelle Naka Pierce edits the online poetics journal Something on Paper.
Our Last Days is a collection of innovative prose that examines humanity’s troubled relationship with its nature through the lyric and epic traditions, intertexuality, and photographic images. A singular perspective binds the two prose-poem series and three lyric essays: at once far and nearsighted, visionary and intuitive, this perspective traces the uncanny coincidences and resemblances of mourning, the archive of natural history, the history of human flight, and apocalypse. Individual pieces can be read as fragments, efflorescence of the whole. While the title suggests cynicism, this collection is a product of the cautious hope that these final days might be inhabited by an “us.”
Other excerpts of the manuscript may be found in the following journals:
“The Good Beast” (in a very different form), Denver Quarterly 49.3 (2015)
Poems from “Our Last Days,” Caketrain 12 (2015) and Sleepingfish 12 (2013).
“Catalogue and Brief Comments on the Archive Written and Compiled by the Ministry of Sorrow to Birds.” Conjunctions. Fall 2007