It’s spring in Maine. Pollen powders the windshield. Apple trees burst, and narcissus and tulips, too. A few wood ticks, caterpillars: harbinger of summer scourges ahead. I’ve been making my way through Lidia Yuknavitch’s remarkable new novel, The Book of Joan. Our protagonist is Christine Pazan: sexless, snow-white skinned, in the last year of her life on a space station orbiting a ravaged Earth. Here, in this last enclave of humanity, bodies engineered free of their sex organs, hair, and skin pigment are tricked out with ornate skin grafts as fashion and status statements: grotesque layers, wings. Christine is a body-artist committed, in the book’s early pages, to burning a story into her own skin: a record of the life of Joan, the resistance fighter who destroyed the world rather than bear witness to the desecration and suffering humanity was inflicting on itself.
Yuknavitch’s writing is lyrical, disturbing. Her fascinations with the body, sexuality, gender, and human and natural ecologies find astonishing voice in the novel. The Book of Joan stirred me in a way few books do, whether memoir, poetry, sci-fi. But I had to set aside the novel, for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate to myself.
In a New York Magazine piece about a European research study into physiological and neurological reactions to hearing poems read aloud, I came upon lines of Rainer Maria Rilke that held a clue. In his first elegy, Rilke writes: “…For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror / which we are barely able to endure.” This sounded to me like a description of anxiety, and I know something of anxiety. I struggled for years with a species of disordered anxiety, my brain and body’s struggle to process the stimulus and data of my environment. One of the ways I tried to manage the disturbance I felt between myself and the world was to write, and to read. The poems I made were, I have come to realize, attempts to endure Rilke’s beauty and terror; my reading became an increasingly urgent search for evidence that we are capable—as individuals, a species—of weathering the changes we have wrought.
The poems in this Dispatch of Tongue don’t ostensibly present images of apocalypse, social collapse, ecological degradation, or any acute terror of our world. Rather, each poem is an intimate glimpse into human sense-making, into the tentative joy of seeing, the difficulty of speaking truly. But the world has my brain tuned darkly and I find threads—little brown tail moth caterpillar hairs, capable of burning the skin—running through them. “You’ve created the crux / of all your fears, “ writes Khairani Barokka in a new poem since the publication of her collection of poems and art, Indigenous Species. “I am my own best / vampire,” writes Kathy Fagan: a fear of the light, perhaps, sucking yourself dry, becoming some undead iteration of the self. In Mary Jean Chan’s haunting “Inheritance”, we glimpse a story of one of our families—human, animal—preparing meals from the Earth’s other living things: “their death brutal, yet profoundly ordinary.”
Still, everyday brings new reports from the field: an increasingly likely cataclysm at the Antarctic ice sheet; a baleen whale—at first a terrifying, unidentifiable kraken—found dead in Indonesia, far from waters it could survive; our doomsday vault at Svalbard flooded by the melting permafrost, our emergency library of seeds no longer safe. When science fiction veers dangerously close to reportage, when a poem gives you news you can hardly bear, how do we keep opening ourselves to these texts, these poems? Can we take solace in the old trees, those trees captured so vividly in Robert Zhao Renhui’s photographs, knowing that no matter what we do, the Earth will survive us, even in some terribly beautiful, almost unrecognizable form?
Summer in Maine means lobster and clams, mussels and shrimp. The coasts are not flooded, yet. We search each other’s bodies for small punctuation, the tiny animals carrying disease, trying to keep down that anticipatory howl, panic, hardly able to believe it when we find nothing nestling in the skin of our beloveds, our children. I carry around Yuknavitch’s beautiful, haunting story in my bag waiting for the moment I can expose myself to her pages again. I read poems and try to open myself fully to them: “My tongue glad the way all beasts are / when allowed to eat their fill.” We watch the maple threads in the breeze, and imagine a burning to come.
For Tran Dan, who enjoys frightening fellow artists
You are calm that these woods lack safety.
Silver motifs and swaying cats; where are
the parents? Human children easily sway
themselves into the path where eyes are
devoured by what’s been brushstroked up
in the leaves. While you wait for each layer
to dry, tree spirits crawl thick into painted
globules. Such representation is alchemy;
cursed potions too run chemical. Take two
parts of advice with you in archipelagic old
growth. One: my father taught us to speak,
upon entering a new, hilly forest, alone, an
offering of Assalamu’alaikum. Peace be for
the fanged ones Allah might set upon us.
A second warning: repeat this when you lock
up the studio for the night. There are ghosts
for whom a gentle salutation might balm an
urge to escape the cut of stretched-out flax,
to pull to the world you’ve created the crux
of all your fears. Lustrate the oils with voice.
Madam Aminah and rubber tree at Masjid Petempatan Melayu, Sembawang, Singapore - Robert Zhao Renhui
No doubt they’re streaming.
In one episode, sun backlights the roses and the rosemary.
In the next, it turns birdfeeders bright as lanterns.
In the third (I’m binge-watching now) mist withdraws
slowly from the grass.
Such a long time since morning
meant no nightmare, no bellyache, no sleeping
with sheets pulled tight round my neck in all weathers.
Yet I am still my own best
vampire. No matter how many times you die,
there’s always someone to take your place.
Just the check, please, I’ve said again and again, Just the check. Then I get so much more.
Liu Yong Jiang and raintree, Tua Pek Gong Temple, Singapore - Robert Zhao Renhui
Some days, I watched shrimp and prawns suffer: their deaths brutal, yet profoundly ordinary – the crisp snip-snip of scissors
through vein after vein, the ripped shells revealing pale grey flesh that glistened like some kind of revelation. My mother would
season the wounds with garlands of garlic, ginger and lemongrass; turning up the heat till the air itself became tinged with an oily
fragrance. I never refused the lightly charred flesh, my tongue glad the way all beasts are when allowed to eat their fill. Mother would
always have too much, her rice bowl emptying so quickly I would never forget the three years she became vegetarian: the famine leaving all
the trees bereft of their bark, the villagers so grateful for something, anything, to chew on.
Mr Tan and Mr Chua and bamboo grove, Commonwealth Drive, Singapore - Robert Zhao Renhui
About our contributors
Khairani Barokka is a writer, poet and artist in London. Among her honors, she was an NYU Tisch Departmental Fellow and Vermont Studio Center’s first Indonesian writer-in-residence, and is a UNFPA Indonesian Young Leader Driving Social Change for arts practice and research. She has presented work extensively, in nine countries, and is the recipient of multiple grants. Okka is co-editor of HEAT: A Southeast Asian Urban Anthology (Fixi 2016) and Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back (Nine Arches 2017), author-illustrator of Indigenous Species (Tilted Axis 2016) and author of forthcoming debut collection Rope (Nine Arches 2017). Work is published in Poetry Review, The New Inquiry, Asymptote, and other journals, anthologies and art books. She is a PhD by practice researcher in Goldsmiths’ Visual Cultures Department.
Kathy Fagan's fifth collection of poems is Sycamore (Milkweed Editions, 2017). Her first collection, The Raft, won the National Poetry Series; her second, MOVING & ST RAGE, won the Vassar Miller Poetry Prize. Recent work appears in Poetry, Numero Cinq, The New Republic, Blackbird, and The Adroit Journal. Fagan directs the MFA Program at The Ohio State University and serves as Series Editor of the OSU Press/The Journal Wheeler Poetry Prize.
Mary Jean Chan is a poet from Hong Kong. She won the 2016 Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition (ESL), and has been shortlisted for the 2016 London Magazine Poetry Prize, the 2016 Rialto Open Pamphlet Competition, and the 2016 Resurgence Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in The Poetry Review, The London Magazine, Callaloo Journal, The Rialto, Ambit Magazine, Bare Fiction Magazine, The Scores: A Journal of Poetry and Prose, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, QLRS, and elsewhere. As a PhD candidate in Creative Writing (Poetry) at Royal Holloway, University of London, Mary Jean’s article “Towards a Poetics of Racial Trauma: Lyric Hybridity in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen” was recently published in The Journal of American Studies. A former VONA and Callaloo Fellow, Mary Jean is currently a Co-Editor at Oxford Poetry.
Robert Zhao Renhui is a multi-disciplinary artist who received a Bachelor of Arts in Photography from the Camberwell College of Arts in London and a Master of Arts in Photography from the London College of Communication. His work addresses man’s relationship with nature and presents different modes of the human gaze on nature, frequently highlighting how truth is constructed through a false naturalization and manipulation of beliefs. Zhao was the recipient of the United Overseas Bank Painting of the Year Award, Singapore (2009); the National Arts Council Singapore Young Artist Award (2010); and the Deutsche Bank Award in Photography by the University of the Arts London (2011). He was selected to participate in the 2013 President’s Young Talents exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum. His works have been shown widely in Singapore and abroad, including exhibitions at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Japan; the Photo-Levallois Festival, Paris; the GoEun Museum of Photography, Korea and at the Singapore Biennale (2013). These images are from "Singapore, Very Old Tree," a 30-piece collection on permanent display at the National Museum of Singapore.
To read more work from these writers, view hi-res versions of images, and see archived issues of Tongue: A Journal of Writing & Art, pleasevisit tonguejournal.org »