Oana Avasilichioaei’s beasts
Oana Avasilichioaei’s We, Beasts (Wolsak & Wynn 2012) proposes a linguistic wilderness where her last book—Feria (Wolsak & Wynn 2008)—laid out a “poempark.” The wilderness we are returned to here is the one formed by language on the edge of wildernesses long gone—the liminal space of fairy and folk tale, where we stare back at the animals we try to deceive ourselves we no longer are. Voice drifts into voice, language into and out of language—words are birdcall in dense forest where a strange chimera called the Wolfbat (who joins other “characters”—the Tyrant, Dawn, a “maiden”) inhabits a “culture of creatures” and “pastures the pulsing of nontales.”
There is much to say about this book—its play with folk tale tropes and traditions, the wisps of narrative that dissolve into thickets of opaque language, its staging of gender and sexuality, reeking with hybridity, multiplicity and an animal desire to, well, fuck any and all comers. There’s also the book’s fascinating “beastly taxonomies” that graph aspects of a surreal world surrounding and sometimes intersecting with the book in hand, the interruption of a book-within-the-book (“Spelles”), complete with different paper stock, and the way the book’s serial poems entangle and interrupt each other (somewhat reminiscent, structurally, of Kevin Davies’s The Golden Age of Paraphernalia).
But what I want to comment on, briefly, here is Oana’s “we”—in her book’s title, the title poem, and, generally, its use to hypothesize an impossible inclusivity. First, I’m going to add a passage from a talk I gave on Feria at the Kootenay School of Writing, back in 2010.
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I am taking this opportunity to sum up and re-assess what have been my primary concerns as a poet and critic. Ultimately, I think these come down to a sense of the poem as a collective and social endeavour. This of course runs counter to the all too familiar sense of the poem as the domain of self-expression, introspection, individuation and the prolific poetic “I.” Poetry, like everything else, has evolved in the shadow of capitalism over the past few centuries, and it has often provided a stage for the owning subject to parade and practice. But poetry can very easily become the stage for other subjectivities, other senses of the subject—“flickering subjectivities,” as Rita Wong and Larissa Lai call them. We once again arrive at the relational: “language”—this is Lisa Robertson—“gives you and I to one another”—it is “the possibility of subjectivity,” which occurs between us and is only ever shared by us.
Touchstones for my understanding of poetry as a collective and social endeavour have been Jean-Luc Nancy’s concept of “being singular plural” and Marx’s early idea of the human as a “species being.”
Nancy: “Being could not speak of itself except in this unique manner: ‘we are.’ The truth of the ego sum is the nos sumus; this ‘we’ announces itself through humanity for all the beings ‘we’ are with. For existence in this sense of being-essentially-with, as a being whose essence is the with.”
I am interested in Oana’s “we,” which is the dominant pronoun in Feria. Her “poempark” forms a “garden of we,” which “anchors we to we.” “We collect and we are / collected into we.” In the poempark, near the book’s close, we find “one hand in the embrace of another hand citoyennes between us.” Here, in the space of Robertson’s “possibility of subjectivity,” the social itself—a feminine citizenship (“citoyennes”)—is found “between” the components of Oana’s “we.” In the book’s last lines the pronominal components of the collective again address the between:
Shall I fortress you
in my arms, you an uncertain ruin.
Here is the social lyric: an “I” addressing a “you” proposes a transformation—from “ruin” to “fortress”—via their unity as “we.”
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We, Beasts is very much a continuation and further development of Oana’s concerns in Feria, as it is also an extension of the collaborative contexts of Expeditions of a Chimera (2009—co-authored by Erin Mouré): the documentary, translation, polyvocality, space. The utopian gesture of this poetry is its call for, and instantiation of, a broad inclusivity via the ever-mutable instabilities of the linguistic sign. We, Beasts, like Feria, builds towards an explosive celebration of the first person plural pronoun. But where Feria imagined something of an interpersonal social space, the “we” in the title poem “We, Beasts” is an expression of “species being” (I’m extending Marx’s use of the term here, considerably!)—of what is common to all living beings, the imaginal space of the biosphere itself.
Nature turns to we, admits
to we nature’s horse, admits
to shedding the swaddles.
No trap this time, no saddle, the we unmineable
only the horse of nature.
The “horse” is a liminal being, and makes a number of appearances throughout We, Beasts. One of those other species human beings have long collaborated with, thus both connecting us to and at once (arguably, damagingly) separating us from other animals, the horse populates many folk tales and our earliest myths and legends. “Horse,” in “We, Beasts,” comes to represent all “the we unmineable,” the indivisible world (common, unownable, un-mine-able) that is no one species “resource,” but all a complex abundance.
Admittedly, I am giving only one small example here. But such instances of liminal “beastliness” are scattered all over this book. Where there are animals here, where there are fairy and folk tale creations limning the space between the human and “the rest” of the creaturely world, they are all instances of “cleaving”: holding us to, and marking our erroneous separation from, the beasty roar of all species being. The title itself marks the crucial caesura with a comma: “We, Beasts”—we who are beasts, and we who stand outside beastliness, recognizing our belonging there. Sometimes that connection/separation is a lament. Sometimes it is a frenzied (re)merger (“we remain here in the solitude of identity”). Sometimes it is a dialogue.
I will end with one other poem—from a sequence of “songs” dispersed throughout the text.
Song of the Hunt
—Tell me, where do you stir, my elk, where do you stir
between these hills’ torpid poles?
—Are you trying to catch me, hunter, with your sing?
—Tell me, where do you tame, my horse, where do you
tame in your gallop?
—Are your trying to verse me, hunter? Green the gorse
of these mounts?
—Tell me, where do you dawn your white fur my wolf,
where does the snow roam you?
—Only the elk seem silent in these mountains hunter,
and the water slopes furious and violent.
Never will the winds’ heights be my heights, never will
the elk or the horse or the wolf know me, never will the
water fury my hands the way it furies their hooves.