Calamari Archive, Inc, 2016
When this little book arrived and I stripped it from its packaging, it almost hummed in my hands—electric and charge, something I’d felt once before, when I accidentally and fortuitously discovered Margaret Wertheimer’s quirky A Field Guide to Hyperbolic Space and it turned out to offer the structural underpinning to a project I was writing. So even before I opened the cover of Beastlife, my hopes for it were high. The Table of Contents alone is tantalizing, with section titles like “The Good Beast: Five Essays,” “We Continue to Unskin: On Taxidermy,” and “A Catalogue and Brief Comments on the Archive Compiled And Written by the Ministry of Sorrow to Birds.” I was drooling after just a quick flip through.
Living in Europe I don’t often get the physical weight and page of new, English-language, small-press books in my hands. And Chapman’s book, as it unfurled its pages and the words tripped and tilted in the dust-mote haze of afternoon sun, proved the perfect complement to the heavy summer fields as they drape this Dutch landscape: golden where the wheat has already dried, green where the small shoots of corn are only just beginning. The muscularity of the ruddy horses as they sprint, nuzzle, wrestle in the fields across from me. The clouds of blackbird that swirl up at evening, swell and narrow and tunnel across the sky. But this book is also the decaying worms, driven by flood to concrete, now feasted on by clustering dark slugs. The humid stench of things dying, rotting, and growing all at once. The swarms of small biting flies hovering at head-height, glinting in the sun.
It is a sumptuous feast and a rotting; grotesque and greenly lavish all at once. Published by Calamari Archive in 2015, Beastlife is a beautifully designed book, delicious to the eyes as it is to all the other senses. Pages with fading traces of graph paper around their edges. On some, the ghost of an image, a spirit: so faint you think for a moment you’ve imagined it, by suggestion of the words above. On others, photos of dead birds, a series of black-and-white photos taken by Chapman but also collected from others—Eleni Sikelianos, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Danielle Dutton—for the “Ministry” essay in the book’s center.
Beastlife is also a dense and philosophical book, heavy with language and concept, at the same time as it is bursting with fecundity and fetid detail, with lush green overgrowth and the stench of death and feathers. Chapman’s stated influences range from Derrida and Celan and Barthes, to taxidermy magazines and Charles Darwin and The Iliad, and beyond. (And the Notes section is lengthy, perhaps even overly-assiduous at times, but ripe for the reading and inspiration.)
The book’s first section, “Bear Stories,” opens with writing that is immediately rich with sound-play:
The blur of fur caught in the image is coincidence, emergence. Scaffolding becomes architecture. Intentions double like light lost in folds of fabric. Palimpsests, our lack of focus. Two palms crack wasps nest. Oracle of entrails tells us nothing about the way to live, what to do when we meet crescendo and it is over. (7)
Chapman’s language here is high-lyric: light, fur, palms, dusk, filament, pond, “the auspices of bones and chalk.” There are birds everywhere. Minnows are “early moons,” “flashing by my thighs,” and the “wood floor is soft with moss.” This is a world of grasses, green water, ticks and deer and bear and fish and blood. Bones and sky-constellations. Dying, seduction, rapacity. This is a piece to dip into, over and over, as one dips into the glossy cool of pondwater at night, beneath the moon, knowing there are leeches but also there is the silk of the water against your skin. It is romantic, in a fecund, heavy, earthy sort of way—replete with dead fawns and doves’ rib cages, ticks and blood—but there is an edge of the brutal, of emptiness or violence, present from the start.
From the first section we travel to “The Good Beast: Five Essays,” with its recurrent motifs of wings and flight, the distortions and bending of light, and the slowing of time. The section opens with the 1969 Soviet Union film by Tarkovsky, Andrei Rublev, and the poet makes a curious turn into we, taking us with her and the Daedalus-like character as he lifts off the ground beneath a skin-sewn air balloon. Later, she freezes us in one of Tarkovsky’s agonizingly slowed moments: a horse that is shot and falls down a flight of stairs, forcing us to endure the view of a “contorted beast / pain in the prolongation of a single moment.”(31) “All of this life is the reflective index of a shimmering substance,” she writes, and light bends, refracts, scatters: “we see through distortions of atmosphere and ice”(30). We are carried forward from Tarkovsky to da Vinci and then to the temple of Ba’al in Syria, through “field[s] of red-throats, marbled teals, and black-wings,”(37) where “whole cadences are swallows tethered to one another / flying a circuit around electric light”(36)—this last line an echo from “Bear Stories,” and as we continue reading, we realize there are many echoes in this writing, some full phrases, but most imagistic: light is broken, light burns branches, light reflects like a ghost or scatters on opaque surfaces.
The rest of the book continues to weave in the threads of repeated lines and images, as it trips through an exploration of Eros and Thanatos, of metaphor and symbolism, nature’s violence versus tenderness in the imaginative “A Catalogue and Brief Comments on the Archive Compiled And Written by the Ministry of Sorrow to Birds;” then races across themes of silence, mortality, and time, past dry clinical archives which “fail to tell us how it feels to be animal,” to the anxiety of belonging to a body, and the necessity of movement and travel, in “We Continue to Unskin: On Taxidermy.” Finally, as though settling into a small pool at the end of a sprint, we come to “Our Last Days,” a beautiful, personal, more narrative section of the book whose pace is slow, rich, expectant with summer and hope.
Overall, one of the most intriguing sections in Chapman’s project is “A Catalogue and Brief Comments on the Archive Compiled And Written by the Ministry of Sorrow to Birds,” which makes up the middle point and arguably the heart of the book. In the book’s meandering between prose and poetry, this one tips toward the essayistic; it is interwoven with quotes (from Catullus to Tennyson to Sebald and on) that seem to mark turns or transitions in the writing, and speckled with photos of dead birds collected by various other writers for Chapman’s project. This piece is every bit as playful and quirky as its title, and the metaphorical frame Chapman has set around it is a pleasure to investigate and find one’s way through, trying to make meaning of all its layers. The piece opens on a personal note, with the anecdote of a road trip:
We drove, once, along unkempt highways, and the field doves flew into the beam of our headlight. It could have been a moth the way it flickered white, the way it was made small in the breath of our speed. But we did not stop in that summer night. We might have been crying, the complications of sorrow and a merciless machine. And we were alone because no one came when we waited, and no one chased us when we moved. (42)
Quickly, then, it lays out an identity for this “we” that is the Ministry:
We are secularists who believe in the charity of attention. We question if there is a god who knows the number of hairs on our heads. And if we are not watched, then neither are the birds. We count the birds in the way we would want to be counted—to remember the way we would want to be remembered. . . .We reason that desire is violent because it is predicated on absence, and absence is the only absolute. We believe in science and absence, the subconscious and minor losses. . . . You believe death is repugnant, but we do not or we no longer do. We concede our dynamism in the archive. We transform being into history. (42-5)
There is an undercurrent of tongue-in-cheek here, flashes of humor resting on the framework, the bureaucracy and impersonal distance of a “ministry” contrasted against the thread of sorrow, mourning, loss and death.
From there, we travel to a commentary on metaphor versus symbolism: “Metaphor is a slip not to be avoided. Say, for example, a sparrow flies in one window and out the other of an open room. It is the soul passing through the world briefly. Not like the soul. It is the soul, but not exactly. The house finch is not exactly a house. But it is approximately a small comfort.” (47) The tone slips into confession: “We were unprofessional. We lacked scientific objectivity, our bulwark and bastion. We came to the body of a bird as if to a lover’s. We came with humility. We came for grace.” (50) The essay then moves to transcend its own framework, stripping the “we” of its plurality, by exposing it as a stand-in for the singular: “We wore a black sweater and you a plaid shirt.” (52) It takes a final turn into a question of semiotics, using the bird poems of a rather obscure writer named John Clare as its vehicle: “What is the difference between the dumb bird in a glass box and the word bird performed on the space of a page?”(56), and then exploring the role of the poem itself:
The poem is a way to stimulate and protect, to provoke and secure. It flirts by supposing that danger has boundaries, then draws near to softly jerk away. . . We are drawn to boundaries and the danger of boundaries. Flirting a boundary we resist our own death. Not the dissolution of the corporate, but of the corporeal. (58-9)
Though I found these last few pages an odd turn—the tone and language more of scientific reportage than of poetry or word-play, the idea of boundaries a new element in the essay, and the introduction of John Clare a bit abrupt so close to the end of the piece—I realized after re-reading that there were echoes here from both the first page of the book (“I regard my flesh, my tongue as stubborn boundary”) and the last: “We smelled water. We were corporeal and dissolving. . . . The air was saturated in the damp and light of it. We risked everything to touch this way.” (96) Though this did not entirely quiet the sense of an abrupt turn at the end, it at least made it seem more deliberate, as though eventually everything ties together. Despite the slight unsettledness of its ending, overall this essay constructs a delightfully-playful frame around an interwoven exploration of language, semiotics, and philosophy and a subtle narrative of personal experience.
Our journey through this book is similar to that interwoven exploration: it uncovers a vivid, occasionally brutal depiction of the natural world, wound into an understated and at-times surreal exploration of the personal, including relationship and its dissolution. The overall structure of the book is symmetrical: the first and last sections, “Bear Stories” and “The Last Days,” are the most similar to each other in style and voice, though the former seems to place a layer of mythology (replete with the symbolism of death, life, nature) over the personal, surrealizing and thus making it more distant. In contrast, “Last Days” is much more intimate, more grounded in the “real,” even mundane, details of a contemporary life, referencing the airport, political events, children’s classrooms, a friend bringing cake—a level of detail you would not find in “Bear Stories.” And the middle section, “A Catalogue and Brief Comments on the Archive Compiled And Written by the Ministry of Sorrow to Birds,” though overlaid with a playful, quirky structure related to its title, also feels grounded in a personal voice, a speaker who is in concrete relationship to others and to the world around her.
In contrast, “The Good Beast” and “We Continue to Unskin,” the offset sections between the three pieces mentioned above, are much more abstract, complex with idea and concept, referential to things external to the speaker: film, books, paintings, a Syrian temple, and the theory and practice of taxidermy. While they may weave in some of the larger themes referenced in the other three sections, they feel almost more like an ontological commentary, a philosophical exploration of the meaning of being, than like the personal narrative found—even if fragmented, buried—in the other three pieces.
The book moves between pieces that accrue, even if only slightly—at times what accrues is only a sense of the speaker herself—and pieces that offer little constancy, even between their small sections. The overall effect of this is intriguing: though the book’s use of pronouns is almost always slippery—never clear whether “you” references the same person, even within the same section—or at times using “I” for a singular speaker and at other times using “we” for what eventually becomes clear is a singular speaker—and any clear, coherent narrative is difficult, if not impossible, to pin down, there is always enough detail to be enticing, to keep us reading in pursuit of what meaning will accrue. And along the way, the beauty of the language and the thinkiness of the philosophizing are more than enough to make for a rich read; they alone make this a book worth returning to over and over again.
Chapman, who teaches at Naropa University, wrote this book over a number of years—the section “Bear Stories,” was first published as a chapbook by Calamari Press in 2008, and several other pieces in the book were published multiply in both early and later versions—and perhaps it is this slow reworking that has led to the creation of such a layered and deftly, densely worked project. Whatever it is, treat yourself and pick up this little book for one of your winter reads: the lush and gorgeous language, delicately and greenly layered with so many smells and tastes and shades and textures, will tantalize you with memories of summer, while the project’s intellectual complexity provides plenty of delightful exertion for your brain.
Arianne Zwartjes is a poet and lyric essayist living in the southern Netherlands, though soon to relocate to Colorado. She is the author of Detailing Trauma: A Poetic Anatomy (U of Iowa Press, 2012), a selection from which won the 2011 Gulf Coast Prize for Nonfiction and was a Best American Essays Notable Essay in 2013. Visit her and more of her writing over at ariannezwartjes.com.