Ahsahta Press, 2014
I am animal; there is no becoming.
— Michelle Detorie, After-Cave
Michelle Detorie’s After-Cave scavenges a post-apocalyptic wasteland, fallout of a brutal misogynistic culture of privilege, to mine energy (magic) that has long been violently and systemically suppressed. Its wildness and visionary force deftly tap into the despair of navigating life in a culture of entitlement founded on “the mean shadows/ men made” and the way this privation has severed us from the power of the feminine and the resonant wholeness of the ecological community (“Fur Birds” 6). Finding allegiance with the plurality of greater ecological activity and in the weird reflective indeterminacy and generative slippage of language, After-Cave initiates a complex meditation on externalization as a gesture of healing. I want to answer in a way that corresponds to the nature of the text, teasing out threads and leaving them in play because this is a ferocious, tender, and deeply mysterious book; its force keeps with its commitment to opening and unsettling hegemonic framework: “In motion is how we live” (“Fur Birds” 5). Because After-Cave is also interested in the way folds and angles companion magic, I’m going to approach the book sequentially as a triptych, looking (primarily) at one section at a time: “Fur Birds,” “Feralscapes,” and “After-Cave.”
Detorie “[nurtures] sounds,” wild precursors to music, and After-Cave gives precedence to range and current: “I roam the various streams of information seeking the live/ bits—hoping something sticks” (“Fur Birds” 23). There is also a desire for solidity (footing), “to land on land like rest”—for intervals of reprieve that exists in suspension with the unnerving transformational hum of open-ended encounter (5). The context of “Fur Birds” simultaneously activates another reading/ slippage of “rest” (e.g. “like [the] rest”) as the want to land draws the speaker/ “we” into the community at large where they must grapple with the collective nature of language itself. Language draws the speakers back into the anthropocentric culture they have attempted to push away from; communion thwarts visionary gestures by making one “complicit” (6). Accepting group membership and the linguistic assumptions it depends on is so alienating that “kindness” hinges upon lying to perform “truth” and one of the speakers of “Fur Birds, initially, conceals the clarity of intuition with subversive double-speak (wears a mask): “Each of us was asked to speak, and it was with reluctance and/ kindness that I lied” (7). Identifying with flight, on the other hand, dislodges the very rhetoric of humanness/ classification itself: “I am 15. Female. Human (I think)” (3).
Beyond human agency and classification, “Fur Birds” garners a joyful and resounding plurality—an “I” that’s willing to look “outside” itself (4). The wakeful revelation “WE ARE SO GRATEFUL TO BE ALIVE” marks a distinction between imagined power structure and the “WE” associated with “the ruined dirt church where nothing dies” as it reveals the fact that the truth is known, dangerous, and empowering (8, 14). When a speaker in “Fur Birds” registers the suspicion of others, she also acknowledges that it’s justified: “They don’t trust/ us. It’s easy to see why not” (9). The truths of After-Cave are associated with a turbulent widening of perspective and they are radically anti-colonial/ entitlement/ culture of privilege because the speakers in the book ally themselves with ecological wholeness: “digging underground, I disrupted houses that did not belong to me/ but wound deep and tethered together” (11). That is to say, they ally themselves with the fecundity, entropy, and mysterious renewal of process. Announcing “THE DATA IS FEMININE” in all caps here clearly creates a concrete linkage between the positive plurality of the “we” and mystical rapture of feminine jouissance (19). The revelation of community and power is also inherently linked to a desire to embody/ (re)member instincts that the dominant culture has attempted to sever the speakers of After-Cave from: “I’ve forgotten all my songs. The garden/ rows like swamped ruins” (15).
As vision and other telekinetic powers (levitation) return, the threat that speakers of After-Cave pose becomes increasingly clear. These powers, conversely, conjure tremendous empathy and compassion that bolster the fundamental importance of community: “We are either all together or we are all alone” (17). The revelation of plurality and interconnectedness also summons an intense desire not to cause additional suffering: “I am/ afraid of breaking/ things” (16). It’s an edge that cuts in both directions because the openness and vulnerability of contact with others always reveals the fragility of identity: “every time/ someone is kind/ to me I feel/ like breaking (16). As “Fur Birds” evidences the estranging liberation of knowledge, it also gives way to a desire for connection that calls one back into the communal ecology of words:
If you’re singing there is the hoping that someone is listening to the words. The word shake down yellow from the trees, gather-scatter over concrete. There’s a fantasy of gathering them up in my arms, as if it were possible to hold them. (23)
This fantasy is, of course, complicated by the indeterminate weirdness of language as it reveals that the singer’s agency exists only in her ability to function as a conduit:
I towed a line
and dragged it through a river
toward an ocean. I held
a line, a pail, my pockets
becoming full, the moon
blood red and lined with fur. (28)
“Feralscape,” the second section of After-Cave, explores the permeability of boundaries as folding and unfolding (literally) collapses preexisting imaginations of internal and external space to create multiple possibilities for reading and meaning-making. It begins with the parenthetical representation of a gate or opening and the invitation/ command “come” is accompanied by an arrow that draws the eyes into an imagined interiority. The next line: “I’m full of ruins” remembers the “swamped ruins” of “Fur Birds” and marks a consideration of presence that’s layered by settlements, trauma, and previous organizations of power (37). These layers are unsettled (repossessed) by the physical act of folding. Detorie asserts that “A book is a room,/ I am a house” and as “this room” (the part of the house that can be spoken of) “folds in on itself,” we are presented with what appears to be two tabs that represent a fold:
Little Bloom The Comes | House When Sun Up
Are these options or simultaneities? Uncanny twins? Parts of the same whole?
Little House Bloom When The Sun Comes Up
There are so many ways to read and think of these words in relation to each other. “There are so many pink bones/ in the paper dress/ the girl wears into the woods” (41). Wildness disrupts sentences and the colonial violence of syntax: “in this story the trees are sentences that blow away _________ \\\\\” (41) Do these backslashes reflect folds?/ sentences as folds? Do they indicate separate (file) paths? Do they indicate sticks, more specifically, the “live/ bits” that stick (“Fur Birds” 23)? Does their graphic resonance conjure “pink bones” in the (“paper dress”) page (41)? While we’re at it, doesn’t “bloom” also recall Lyn Hejinian’s “a pause, a rose, something on paper” in My Life and isn’t it also implicated in an imagination of meaning-making that’s inherently unsettled in the cyclic resumption of process?
How does the text read? How does it read itself? It doesn’t. Detorie’s interest in mirrors (and mirroring) reveals that the mirror “needs us to see it” (even though it presents us): “the mirror doesn’t have an eye/ it needs us to see it/ we see ourselves” (44).
The fact that this section was made by folding a map (one side into another/ sides into others) rhymes with reflection and shows that the reflection and the original are, in fact, something more. Tabs A (“Little/ Boom/ The/ Comes”) and B (“House/ With/ Sun/ Up”) fold back to reveal a “bloom”:
Little rips out of the dark night. Mirror feathers Bloom around the lips. An ear for snow-blind The ses like worms writhing Here she Comes wearing the lipstick of sm udged sticks Smelling of Posession A window gives way to gravel ,undergarments the woods—the pines— yielded back to the House by the time When the Sun is Up
“Feralscape” continues to bloom, unearthing powerful gifts as speakers remember what we have been culturally conditioned to forget: “Girls can levitate” (41). This levitation is related to mirrors (“a telepathy of glass”) and it manifests itself by revealing the way folds are angles (42-43):
Holding a subject in one mirror (A) while shifting the reflection of that mirror with another (B), opens new spatial dimensions. Opening a book does. Little Bloom. Gertrude Stein: “a rose is a rose is a rose.” “THE DATA IS FEMININE” (19, 45).
As new dimensions of the text/ interior (map) unfold, “Feralscape” hinges on Detorie’s assertion that “[o]ne is another whose fur/ we pet in the dark/ tunnel of a house” (38). Folding and unfolding illuminates interiority by presenting it as exterior, exposes and conceals (protecting) its nature at the same time: (“
dark”). The revelation of change always conjures new and equally enigmatic circumstances. In After-Cave, “a feralscape” is indeed “a haunted place”; each presence is haunted by other possibilities (energies and the smudge of resonance) (44).
I am a house (“Feralscape” 38).
The ruined house was where/ we fell asleep (“After-Cave” 52).
“After-Cave,” the third section of After-Cave, begins by revisiting and tilting a declaration made by one of the speakers in “Fur Birds,” shifting the mirror, so to speak, as “I am animal; there is no becoming” (23) is complicated by the introduction of time: “[t]ime is with the animal: [i]t has politics” (“After-Cave” 49). It’s a move that initiates processing and Detorie’s emphasis on time seems to implicate us in thinking (reflection), which is, of course, inherently political. Processing is also immediately linked to pain: “On a scale of 1 to 10, rate your level of pain” (49). Coming to, the presence that manifests in “After-Cave” seems to second-guess the ecstasies of “Fur Birds” and “Feralscape”: “I looked out the window and pretended/ I was looking into your house” (50). A voice announces, “[i]t’s obvious: the whole/ world is haunted,” undercutting the force of the revelation that “feralscape[s]” are haunted. *Note: The break itself suggests the idea of wholeness haunts those who have been collectively conditioned to think of themselves according to “lack”: “Our lack is a fence” (51). Pun: offense.
Exploring the possibilities of community defined by lack, “After-Cave” offers a harrowing meditation on presence and responsibility, collapsing the ecstatic “WE” of “Fur Birds” to link the imperative of wakefulness to generative communal vision: “[t]he ruined house was where/ we fell asleep” (52). In moments where communal identity frays and breaks down, “After-Cave” is increasingly rifted by longing and disconnection that feels intensely personal: “See the deer tail bob through/ leafless trees. I wonder if you miss/ me the way I miss you. Remember/ how the ferns made the snow/ melt? (53). The individual (painfully specific) and collective (desired communal) you is associated with the radically unsettled and transformative energy of the woods and its increasingly difficult to maintain the connection/ find one’s way back: “Sometimes/ in the woods I still look for you” (53). Time is finally rejected/ pushed aside, but its impact stings (singing beyond intention):
Time’s to put away
until we forget
and open ourselves
accidentally; as if saying
‘I learned from it’ makes
a thing worth going through. (78)
Abandoned to read (& reread) traces like “floss left by antlers,” the speaker must acknowledge, “we sang to ourselves” (54)—a mournful realization that we are always, finally, our own company, one that relays the entropy of the perspectives each party has been cleaving to and sings out to other manifestations of presence (potentialities): “We break up, become ourselves/ In new arrangements/ Of sister, sister” (56). Perspective is radically disturbed by upheaval that baffles instinct: “paint chips/ eclipse the real moon/ or at least what’s understood” (57). The confidence of understanding is supplanted by theoretical suppositions that offer temporary footing: “For now, my theory is that the trees have decided to grow underground, spreading toward the sparkle-grit of psalms they say we’re floating on. Sticks become their own kind of treasure. We go out gathering” (62). As far as theory goes, this one is full of promise because it reminds Detorie’s speaker about ecological interconnectivity (and material transcendence), acknowledges traces as sticks (and lines) afford “their own kind of treasure,” renews her commitment to externalization/ naturalization and draws her back (“out”) into communal activity: “We go out gathering” (62). It’s also just a theory.
Coming to rest in (identify with) the activity of salvage also marks a renewed commitment to healing oneself and others that requires sifting through the wreckage (“[s]and salt all”) of incorporation and futurity to begin calling what has been suppressed or overlooked back into attention:
The failure to occupy
Breaks apart like soap
Sand salt all
The things we need to name. (63)
Detorie’s speakers feel the immensity of this task perforating assurances; they admit, “I do not know how to begin”/ “[I am not open enough]” (64). Insight falls apart. What seems solid as “rack of bone” one wears for protection is really “nothing—just a figment of air and light […] a charade of the proper angles rearranging themselves into an apparition” (79). This doubt extends to imaginations of company as community begins to settle into form (stagnate). Part of what is being salvaged is, of course, the rites to power that will allow community members to name and, thus, culturally empower themselves. But approach quickly becomes an issue since the insistence on accounting for quantitative value squelches visionary potential because it attempts to fix things into an increasingly rigid context, allowing for the reemergence of hierarchy, pulling the speaker back into the time she would reject. It also requires the assumption of a would-be objectivity that sours into ego: “One day the task of counting was proposed. There was even talk of taking names, of making a list. Who would name themselves?” (76). The speaker’s inability to reconcile the colonial violence of “taking” what should be given freely ultimately leads her to terminate her membership as she becomes the very outsider the group requires: “When I walk away from the group it feels like hell” (76).
The pain After-Cave treads is isolating and incredibly lonely; company it finds is incredibly lonely, but the speaker of “After-Cave” is driven by desperation. She quits the group and keys into its pulse. She remembers (and embodies) their power: “[w]hen we could spell, when we could remember—conjure” (79). She knows that “[t]o insist that something—someone or some being—cannot be imagined is, in fact, its own form of oppression” (80). She also outsteps the possibility that empowerment will descend into mean egotism because she continues to look outside (to attend to and embody others), putting energy into new imaginations of community that are founded on the externalization of futurity: “Who can continue for us in our absence? Who?// I hope it will be you” (81).
As “After-Cave” moves into an increasingly visionary space, it also acknowledges that contact with natural ecologies and ecologies of words (by extension) allows for transformation, growth, and the acquisition of new powers:
I grow into a dog […] The figures grow
into letters—text tracks
that spell a movement
from one shadow-self
into the next. (66)
The word “next” resonates through the last section of After-Cave. It summons generational concerns that surpass the speaker of “After-Cave” and the scope of community she turns away from to ask, “The babies what will they know?” (67). It also demarcates an animal process of becoming that draws the speaker out into incredibly nuanced imaginations of ecological networking and, as she learns to nurture real kinship with a wide range of creature-life, the speaker also learns to acknowledge abandonment as a communal rite—a revelation of shattering tenderness: “We gathered in the grove of slippery elm and nursed the wolf cubs we recovered from the shallow graves excavated by the mother, the she wolf hasn’t returned, who we look out for” (67). As pain and flight (change) marry each other; the animal world eclipses the human register of suffering:
Pain is a window filling up with wings […] it’s a window full of birds
full of wings
everything else is smudged out
you can’t see through
the feathers. (73)
There is less and less certainty and there is less and less to hold onto. The speaker of “After-Cave” acknowledges her loneliness and her fear as she pushes through the border of trees, drifting further and further into the recesses of the woods: “I tie the dogs to the ragged rope belt around my waist. We go out wandering. Lately, I have become afraid that they will run away, disappear into the barrens and then not come back to me” (77). The dogs’ rope is “ragged” and it will give way as Detorie’s speaker is less and less tethered to her old life/ community/ imagination of herself/ understanding of who or what she is becoming.
After-Cave is a raw and powerful trick of mirrors that continues to mine the political edge of its assertions and tilt them to make another opening. Surely, something can be a trick and real magic. Unfolding a bloom changes the context to make way for a wild reimagining of presence and empathy grounded in an increased awareness of the range of ecological interconnectivity; it marks a departure from mean egotism (death) and the trap of binaires (death). Herein lies the full force and visceral tenderness of Detorie’s gifts and vision.
Nathan Hauke is the author of Every Living One (Horse Less Press, 2015), In the Marble of Your Animal Eyes (Publication Studio, 2013), and five chapbooks, including most recently Tinder is a Hatchet Job (forthcoming from LRL Textile Series). His poems have been anthologized in Hick Poetics (Lost Roads Press, 2015) and The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (Ahsahta Press, 2012).