Giving way to a knot
A review of 'Anemal Uter Meck'
Anemal Uter Meck begins with an amnesiac transformation, the “anemal”/animal of the title seen immediately in the dedication “for raptors everywhere,” and in the first lines of the book: “you forget you were someone/something / else. you forget your beak. your.” We may start there, but we certainly do not rest there. Mg Roberts moves quickly between a fistful of strands and conversations, never showing the whole of them.
Anemal Uter Meck seems to belong to a group of books in contemporary poetics, popular especially in the Bay Area, in which all spheres of lived experience are active, so that the domestic, the political, the social, the environmental, the sexual, the familial, gender, race, class, illness, etc. are all reported as stemming from each other or interacting with each other. Recent books like The Braid by Lauren Levin, Face Down by Brian Whitener, and murmur in the inventory by erica lewis might exemplify this form.
While not laser-focused in nature, this structure allows for parallels and convergences to haunt, where in a narrower form they would only glimmer. For Anemal Uter Meck that means that the reader finds quickly the mirror between a pelican with a ball of plastic in its stomach, a pregnant woman, and a person with a tumor. A description of pollution that reads “plastic lapping plastic // a bundle of bottle caps plugs into the / wet / of the / wet // & // grows” (35), for instance, highlights an organic nature to the inorganic, letting it “plug” and “grow,” connecting it to the aberrant cells of cancer and the developing bundle of a pregnancy described in other sections of the book. Or how when Roberts describes “giving way to fibers, dense tissue, a knot, a lump, a speck [now] growing” (10), the reader is unclear if she is referring to a fetus, a tumor, swallowed plastic, because all three have been referred to as lumps.
In a statement published in OmniVerse, Roberts describes Anemal Uter Meck as “an exercise in translation and misinterpretation.” These lumps exemplify one mistranslation or misinterpretation of the physical world in the rhetorical one; another such mistranslation is the origin of the book’s title. In the book, there are images of graffiti by three artists named Anemal, Uter, and Meck who tagged their own names in various locations. The title doesn’t have a clearly discernible translation, but instead a constellation of meanings to each word and union. Roberts reports in an interview with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop that, while living in Berlin, she saw the words “unter animal” tagged on walls commonly, meaning “under animal.” Switching the two, we would have “animal under,” but the German word “unter” has been changed to “Uter” and “animal” to “Anemal” after seeing the graffiti in Oakland of Anemal, Uter, and Meck. It distorts the original protest of “unter animal,” while adding a layer of significance from “utero,” one of the threads that passes through the book. And finally, the most difficult of all to find a direct meaning for, Meck. In the same interview, Roberts writes that she saw “Meck” as a bleat, a sheep’s cry, or a “wavering cry of protest.” These layers of distortion, mistranslation, create a title full of rhetorical white noise made from tags in the physical world.
Graffiti plays another role in the book: a sign of someone once present. In this way, it matches with the image of “shoes hanging in pairs on wires at intersections,” (8) tagging the physical with a sign that one was there. Roberts refers to these as “signifiers of ownership” and as “the most auspicious path” (8). And this is the relationship made clear between Roberts and her own book, each line a tag proving she was there. I think she would call these tags a mistranslation of her self into a line, the same way she mistranslated graffiti. And the error of translation comes from the aspects of grammar itself, the way “a verb lays waste” (6) and how “even before a syllable begins, it begins to stink” (17).
The project, and the most difficult task, would be to connect the dots within a book that contains so many: to connect birth, race, gender, cancer, environmental devastation, and situate them within mistranslations. Perhaps where Roberts does this the most effectively is towards the end of the book, where a seven-part numbered series describes both her daughter and a scene of destroying her first manuscript. One example:
I imagine her beginning: plate-like, cells forming an elaborate ceiling, arranged and molded like the toy shark seeking to eat her in the bath, its mouth placed transversely.
c. So, I burned the book, its pages wet only smoldered (68)
The contrasts here do exactly what they need to, placing the formation of the body and the destruction of it in direct dialogue; making jumps across time (real or imagined); describing development in the same language as Roberts has earlier described tumors; placing the materiality of the book in the center of the rhetoric around the physical life of the daughter. Here, and throughout Anemal Uter Meck, Roberts is displacing description across form and across imprints of physical presence.
Roberts’s attention is the center of the technique in Anemal Uter Meck:what is reported and when. In the middle of a highway, three misspelled words. In the middle of the city, a bleat.