On Rachael Allen's 'Kingdomland' and the meatspace of contemporary feminist lyric
Everything about you’s a bit like me —
in the same way that North Carolina’s a bit like Ribena
but rhymes with Vagina, which is nearly the same,
but much darker —
brutal and sweet like disease,
sweet as an asphalt dealer.
— Selima Hill, A Little Book of Meat
“Indigo is a problem,” Dorothea Lasky asserts, asking, “is the possibility of indigo the possibility of the wild wind? The possibility of the wild wind in the space of the poem? Is it a wild animal, a being beyond?” Looking for possibility in the problem of indigo, a liminal color oft-forgotten in childhood iterations of rainbow (red and yellow and pink and green / orange and purple and blue), Lasky asks us to think about what kinds of elsewhere the poem contains. In Rachael Allen’s Kingdomland, shades of indigo and lilac leak through the pages like milk, in variant continuums of strangeness and shame. There is, however, a kind of “tint” to these poems that evokes not quite the Kristevan abjection of skin on milk, but something more like the translucent surface of a jelly left to slowly rot. An uncomfortable, incremental sensation of the “stuck.” Approaching Kingdomland, you sense something wobbling as though alive, if barely. These are poems congealed with the by-products of feminine selfhood and “humankind” in the context of the Anthropocene: a period in which anthropos becomes a geologic agent, affecting the Earth’s systems by dint of industry, mass consumption, and fossil fuel extraction. And yet, the planetary grandeur affected by many other poets of the Anthropocene is absent here: Allen, a Cornish-born poet, opts instead for the eerie locales of edgelands: anonymous zones of touch, encounter, austerity, and harm. In an age of digital mediation, Allen transplants our obsessive consumption of image to a weird, four-dimensional “meatspace,” where bodies undergo acts of force, erasure, and transformation. Her indigo is the sun-starved complexion of a girl on the brink of existential pause: translucent as she stands there, flickering between existence and myth. Her poems are slices of antinutrition, swathed in rushes of sugar and set to form in an airless space that longs for the all-consuming sea. She leaves you with a bloodletting lurch that demands the filling of words, as though words themselves could heal our tender flesh, our hollows with salt.
Meatspace refers to the physical world, in opposition to a virtual environment, frequently associated with the cyberspace utopias of the 1990s. We should of course question the derogatory, implicitly gendered binary set up whereby one world is objectified as a primitive, fleshly mulch in contrast to the smooth, “logical” terrains of digital space. In Allen’s collection, meat and space are recurring themes in their own right. The collection is chock full of livestock and their culinary destinies as dairy, gelatin, or meat: alongside “Dad the Pig,” “Beef Cubes,” “Porcine Armour Thyroid,” and “Cravendale,” there are barbecues, cannibalistic seas, mammalian glands, and octopuses “swallowed in kitsch restaurants.” To be held as flesh is to be silenced. Kingdomland, with its title of biting grandiosity, harks back to a kind of medieval grotesque that is firmly situated within the gendered ecologies of the present. It bears the labor of what it means to carve out a poem, a safe space, a cry of expression in the context of violence, decay, and shame. It is a title in excess of itself (surely a kingdom is already a land). It is, apparently, “an old name for Cornwall.” Its landscapes are strewn with situations held aslant, its cryptic narratives tightly held, on the edge of a cliff or a knife. It questions the boundaries that divide us.
It would be wrong to reduce Kingdomland to any sort of “confessional” collection. Allen’s speakers are the ventriloquized voices that speak out of playgrounds and kitchens and sunken houses, that apostrophize their suffering bovine kin with a twist of dialect (“purblind fatted cow” ), that share certain intimacies held in a lyric economy of vore, digestion, and intoxication. They are voices of witness, complicity, shame, and guilt. In “Nights of Poor Sleep,” a sequence lodged within the book and originally published by Prototype/Test Centre in 2017, Allen’s poems are dialogic responses to Marie Jacotey’s paintings. They explore the entangled territories of feeling, artistic production, and bodily tendency. Desire, intimacy, and cruelty flash together in a statement or question or plea: “tell me on the phone just once something that will feel like / a small match striking at the base of my neck / the immutable drawing together clichéd and true” (20). In “Nights of Poor Sleep,” there is more of a sense of stream, of enjambed lines accumulating the disordered consciousness of a chronic insomnia. Allen’s characters are surreal, intangible somehow, always disappearing in the fullness of their identification with objects, soaked in the intensity of a kind of realist magic of agency, affect, and aesthetic causation: “I map a constellation / I am a cucumber / made entirely of water / like my face-down sister / made also entirely of water / we’re so full of it” (19). We’re so full of it: Allen skirts the abject entanglements of water and shit, elusive materials teeming within us, cycles of wasted identity, scatterings of self mapped in the ontological geometries of a poem’s “constellation.”
There is a clipped lack of affectation throughout Kingdomland, and yet the intensity is all there in the language, as in a Plath poem, a dash of mysticism, some absence cutting chiastically into substance: “The kind of dark you find inside a body / The kind of darkness you find a body in” (32). Allen knows when to make a space and when to break it: like Sophie Collins’s recent Faber debut, Who is Mary Sue? (2018), Kingdomland abounds with white space, so much so you often feel as though in reading it you were traversing the eerie landscapes of somewhere lost and forgotten, in the process of a fragile transcription. “The Girls of Situations” comprises elliptical, prose-poetic narratives. A paragraph is chopped by a break: “I didn’t want to see the bastard black legs of the largest tarantula, he called it King, it slept in a plastic container with air holes at the top / and my protests were nothing” (42). In that break, we get the space of a sleep, a blip in consciousness giving rise to political implication, resistance: “my protests.” In that break we imagine the spider, sleeping, its illegitimate limbs peeking out, perhaps through the air holes. It is like a lurch in your belly. The ecosemiotics of the spider cast a web toward Louise Bourgeois’s giant, grotesque sculptures, made in honor of the artist’s mother, a weaver. There is in that break what Fred Moten calls “a phrasal disruption of the sentence,” which “is crucial; so poetry remains to be seen and heard, so to speak, and in excess of the sentence because it breaks up meaning’s conditions of production.” In the work of a break (and many of the poems are sculpted, free-verse stanzas or short waterfalls of lines), Allen fosters this space for semiotic disruption and desiring intensity. She places pressure on the lyric to ask what it means to have a voice at all, to “be seen” in a poem and to make oneself present or heard.
Certain images recur like impressions from a fever dream, the slumbers of a distressed endocrine system. The lusty, condensed lines of “Beef Cubes” are like cortisol spikes of “hot tight Penny,” “a meat clown” whose adolescent sexuality identifies her with leftover scraps, a thinning self whose “Muscle memory / from her panic attacks / kept her off the beach / where the whale cut in half / exudes its yellow fat” (29). A sort of gross, fleshy excess, laden in the dead whale, parallels the decline of Penny. I think of oestrogen leaking into the sea, a girl afraid of that vast space where she might be swallowed in too much body altogether. “Beef Cubes” ends in anaphora: “by the large blue carcass / by the large blue sea” (30), as though the poem itself were washed in the licking folds of repetition, perpetual violence. “Large” connotes a kind of passionless appraisal of mass, a disaffection from the melancholy cliché of the beached whale, whose identity blurs into that of the equally “large blue sea.” Allen uses anaphora elsewhere to engender excess, in “Landscape for a Dead Woman,” where “colossal guilt” about the disappeared woman is situated alongside “the size of buses end to end / the size of blue whales spilling from wounds” (65). Allen’s surreal mingling of scales and feelings evoke some sense that the “wounds” in question might well be those of the Earth itself: agential wounds that “touch the children’s cake,” that mark ceremoniously a moment of departure or arrival, attracting attention by dint of their “size” (65). Wounds that must be hidden. Poems whose lines are scars of the unsaid.
The last time I saw Allen read, at the University of Glasgow’s Creative Conversations back in January of last year, I wrote down the equation “Milk = Shame / Meat = Guilt.” In The Sexual Politics of Meat, Carol J. Adams points out that “[m]eat eating measures individual and societal virility,” with masculinity reinforced by gorging on heavy red proteins while women stick to a lighter, more vegetarian diet. Allen situates the association between women’s bodies and meat (as objectified bodies to be consumed by men) in relation to questions of agency, guilt, and desire. Sometimes it comes down to the simple fact of bearing a contradictory animal ethics, as in “Sweet’n Low,” where the speaker admits her anger on behalf of the culinary octopus, but also that “I still wear the skin of animals / every day” (28). It is perhaps unusual to read a collection that entrenches itself in the gelatinous economies of mutual consumption, that, in Donna Haraway’s terms, stays with the trouble of meat rather than reaching for airier ecologies, exotic zoopoetics, or a green aesthetic. Frankly, most of Allen’s animals lack charisma: they are already dead. The women and girls of the collection are equally on the brink of a silence, disappearance, or dissolve. Something of their voice has already been swallowed, awkwardly, like those fat “Beef Cubes” that silence “hot tight Penny.”
An obvious comparison here is of course Ariana Reines’s The Cow, a work which enacts its poetics of slaughter, rage, gristle, madness, and blood in a way that intersects historical traumas (notably, the Holocaust) with the global meat industry and ideas of poetry as “machinery” (to quote Daisy Lafarge’s amazing essay on the book). Yet where Reines tends toward volatility and clustered assortments of discourses, poetry as sounding board for various industries and histories of abjection, there is something relatively contained and controlled in Allen’s lyrics. This is where the “shame” comes in: where Reines’s intense poetics, rife with capitalized outbursts, provocative questions, and stunted declarations, evoke a constant noise of seduction and friction, Allen’s affective unsettlings are more like tinnitus, coming in and out of focus. You think of the body in all its senses, ghosting consciousness beyond it. In The Second Body, which features a visit to a butcher’s, Daisy Hildyard argues that in an age of ecological awareness we develop a “second body”: “your own literal and physical biological existence,” which exists in global spacetimes, the body which affects the Earth’s systems and is thus affected, as “at some microscopic or intangible scale, bodies are breaking into one another.” Second-wave feminist ideas of the female “split self,” caught between inner desires and the necessary outer performance demanded within patriarchy, here become the biological doubling of our embodied lives and the geologic and biological (after)lives of our body elsewhere. There is something in Allen’s depiction of feminine shame that speaks to wider contaminations, hormonal corruptions, or chemical smouldering. In “Many Bird Roast,” “someone says” to the speaker:
you weren’t like this when it was broiling away
smelling like history, smelling like
the deep skin on your knee after playing in the sun all day
skinned with good dirt and your under-blood just showing through
smelling like warm dry firs after burning and the outdoors
after fireworks and Novembers after tea
you eat and smell like the rest of us
dirty rat under your armpit
dirty bird in your stomach (26)
This unlikely monologue, with its iterations of memory as bodily trace, is a kind of transcorporeal litany of materials, animals, and landscapes scored within the body’s blood-warmed churn. Italicized, the lines appear as though from many times and contexts at once, echoes of events in a generalized personal history, producing disorientation. Dirt, as the old Mary Douglas adage goes, is simply “matter out of place.” Allen dissolves the figure/ground configurations of human/environment: the eaten bird is in her speaker’s stomach; she also bears the pollen-rich, scented tint of the firs, the ashen smell of chemical smoulder and gunpowder, the dirt “skinned” in her knee, with its “underblood” exposed to the world. Allen is interested in an almost camp evocation of these extremities of childhood play in the context of meat, consumption, and gendered identity. “Many Bird Roast” begins, after all, “I came in, dandy and present” (26) — “dandy” implying a queering of attitude, an aesthetic impulse. Her speaker sweeping in with an air of the effeminate. I can’t help thinking of the often derogatory use of “bird” to refer to women, especially in sexualized contexts. So and so’s “bird” belongs to so and so. Whom do these birds belong to? Could they take flight? What does it mean to be “out of place?”
In conversation with Nadya, a “senior researcher” within a laboratory, Hildyard reflects: “She was trying to get at something bodily. How is this communication, which overarches between things, embodied on its different scales?” We might ask similar questions of poetry, thinking about how Kingdomland “overarches” between bodies, objects, and the language between, the language we also embody. In Scottish dialect, “roaster” can mean an objectionable person, someone who makes a fool of themselves: there’s a distinct sense of an inward, trembling shame throughout many of Allen’s poems — a shame nevertheless externalized in the flesh. “Many Bird Roast” moves between the raw and cooked with its dandyish fetish for meat-eating rituals: “and the compacted layers of the various meats / will collapse away dreamily as a rainbow melts down” (26). The ululation that flows through the center of this poem — “will / we’ll / layers / dreamily / slipping / melts / brilliantly lit” — dramatizes a kind of savoring, a licking of the lips, a lilt before the bite. The poem as a cut on the brink of a knife. The poem ends with a “pure white dove” transformed into “a plain black dove” by “a small pot of ink,” a black dove the speaker learns to cook (26). There’s the idea of poetry as a kind of necromancy, not to mention cooking as metamorphic process, the transformation of one material into another. The speaker comes in “arguing for a moratorium on meat” but ends up surrendering to the almost mystical act of learning to cook the stained thing, its purity and peace tainted by the black ink of writing as disturbance. Allen is trying to get at something bodily that is more than just this body, suggesting the body in the act of writing is also some other body, a collective, a strange assemblage that scratches and flaps and gnaws in your belly — a “dirty rat,” a “dirty bird” (26), a multitude without recourse to origin. After being called out on her hypocrisy, trying to be pure and dandy with her history of earthiness, blood, and “history” that smells like skin, the speaker enters a desperate impoverishment: “we got so poor we had to eat them too” (26), referring to the various strange birds that fall into her life.
In Kingdomland, Allen dramatizes the gendered “meatspaces” of the Anthropocene as a lived condition of bodily awareness, desire, guilt, and shame, centered on the practice of preparing and eating meat. I want to argue that this evinces a kind of gelatin poetics. If gelatin is a translucent, flavorless ingredient, derived from collagen taken from animal body parts (often the skins of pigs and cows or demineralized animal bones), it is a kind of placeholder material, a setting agent, for thinking through the complexities of existence within the patriarchal and anthropocentric economies of daily life. We might say gelatin poetics is an offshoot, a by-product, of what Jed Rasula in This Compost (2002) calls “necropoetics”: “a pledge enacted between the dead and the living,” a kind of compost modality whereby “[t]hought itself, like an animal snout, roots passages, sniffing its way in to that constant circumference, that spatial and temporal surround of the ‘realized.’” Allen’s poems are constantly navigating that difficult “pledge” between the lived, objectified body and the body of the proximate carcass, soon to be someone’s dinner. Sometimes, subject and object, the consumer and consumed, the living and dead, are flipped or confused, as in “Promenade,” where the speaker concludes: “I’ll just lie down, / my ribs opened up in the old town square / and let the pigs root through my chest.” The poem begins with the speaker “[o]penly wanting”; if the poem takes place on a promenade, it takes place on the open stage of the sea — that ancient metaphoric space of feminine longing. Desire’s bittersweetness is the salt sting of “the vinegar wind” and the “chocolate.” The speaker’s ribs are “opened up,” her heart exposed on the public stage of the “square.” Surrendering to the pigs’ snuffling, flesh-deep interest, she offers the meat of her body in a curious act of assertion: the pull between the “I” and “you” in this poem is a power struggle of the poet’s hypothetical conjuring, “[i]f I were walking” (4).
We make subjects and objects of ourselves and each other in a flicker between silence and noise, movement and stillness. Allen’s is a lyric voice which holds its own erasure, recognizing a desire for presence in the vanishing of others on the brink of some danger: “Come away from there, I am yelling” (5). As Eleanor Perry puts it in her poetry sequence Meat • Volt • Interruption, “and what / follows is a structural muteness, a talking / into stillness.” Allen’s meatspaceis the poetic stage of this transcorporeal tension, this moving across and through bodies, making objects of one another. I think of the parenthetical title to Jacques Derrida’s seminal essay on animality, “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)”: this sense of a still-to-come, an imminent thickening, the idea that what we see now is but a fragment. The speaker’s surrender to the pigs (and of course, there is also the derogatory slang “pigs” for “cops,” suggesting another level of state intrusion into the self) is a willful admission of transcorporeal intimacy, a shameless bodily exposure, at the level of subjective annihilation. She becomes what the pigs become in the abattoir: something to merely be cut and cooked and sorted. But what degree of this submission is structural violence, what degree a kind of crooked lust?
On contemplating the shame experienced when his cat glimpses him standing nude, Derrida writes:
One thought alone keeps me spellbound: dress myself, even a little, or, which amounts to the same thing, run away — as if I were chasing myself out of the room — bite myself, bite my tongue for example at the very moment that I ask myself, Who? But, Who then?
There is this idea of the chase, the hunt, the entrancing. To dress oneself and to run away are to equally surrender to a certain shame, to turn from the animal’s gaze. To ask where the voice even comes from. To become animal, chasing oneself “out of the room,” to separate, to bite at the word that failed to articulate, that stammered an animal language. This “then” of the more-to-follow. In Kingdomland, it is tricky to tell sometimes who is doing the looking: is the speaker even human? How much animal are we exactly? Allen’s work invites an uncomfortable voyeurism that veers between the gaze and its refusal: “I can’t take my eyes off him,” “I spit in his blind eye / it is an affectation / like my own blindness” (22).The ocular politics of objectification are further blurred in Allen’s movement between chiaroscuro poems of light and shadow (“Kingdomland,” “Volcano,” “Tower of Masks”) and poems which are splashed in color (“No last kiss,” “Prawns of Joe”). There is the sense of something tactile and rasping, a speaker biting her tongue with the end-stopped line, the cautious caesura, the exactitude of syntax, the sense that in her slanted way, blinking, maybe she is always asking this question of who? Who is she, not to mention who is complicit. Who is the “someone I love,” “jogging into the darkness” (5) of an unfinished story or subjectivity?
Allen’s poetics is often one of ellipsis, aporia, the possibly “impassable.” “To follow and to be after,”is, for Derrida part of “the question of what we call the animal.” Recurrent images of glass and salt recall places of conservation and preservation: the zoo (animals trapped behind glass walls) and the salted, refrigerated storage of meat. And yet, in the title poem “Kingdomland,” “glass and salt” are the “share” offered to the speaker’s “petulant daughter” as her “crooked pathway” (5). We break ourselves on the materials that contain us. We excoriate thought. These are poems to get your teeth into. New weird tales of, as Roger Luckhurst puts it, “unexplainable dread,” remixed with the occultive zones of the austerity-riven English countryside, its wounded fields and silenced histories. What distinguishes Kingdomland, if we consider it within this British (more specifically, English) tradition of eeriness and the new ecological weird, is its persistent insistence that the body is the environment. I read “Remedies,” for instance, as a poem about the bodily pains of hormonal experience mapped through the object world: “the cramping tide and waves” bear the rhythms of a distinctly gendered pain, one that pulses its menstrual tides in the womb on a cyclical basis. Water is a conduit for unspoken affect or a force that is lost: “a best friend with green eyes / as shallow as a harbour pool” (45), “she couldn’t breathe / and out to sea” (68). Elsewhere, there’s the meat of a sunken “marsh” (26), the “man / who circles the perimeter / with a baby in his arms / unmoving” (49), the gland, teeming with blood cells and spawning endless other glands in loquacious infinitude of glissading process.
From its flame-orange cover to its opening lines, “Watch the forest burn / with granular heat” (3), Kingdomland smoulders with process, the transcorporeal events that blur the raw and the cooked, the dead and alive, subject and object — taking us back to primitive, corporeal condition. The speaker implores us to “See the trees on fire / char simultaneously” (3). This is one of many extinguishments. There is the “burnt daughter / in a genealogy” (70) of oil spill and species damage in “Apostles Burning,” the “burnt five-year-old / without eyelids” who “turns quick cartwheels / through the heat wave” (49) in “Prairie Burning.” The injured child’s performative loops of play, incongruous in the bruising gyre of the landscape, form a demented scripture of the Anthropocene: genderless, the child bears the charred inscriptions of a violent future, a necropoetics, a dance with death — warped in the blaze of something nevertheless inevitable. Published not long after last year’s wildfires that raged across everywhere from California to the Arctic Circle, the holocausts of Kingdomland are less historically acute as Reines’s: there’s more an ambient sense of a world already in cinders, and the bodies most at risk are the young and the feminized, “all the dead women […] in a document” (68). And yet should we not “burn all documents” and “rescue the women?” (68), the collection asks reflexively.
The meatspace of Kingdomland is then a precarious commons of monstrous objects and broken forms, fragmented femininity held in the lapping breath of lyric. The opalescent milk of shame. As long as we breathe, it seems to suggest, we can speak; as long as we leak, we feel into, we live. And as long as we speak, we enter into something, we interrupt the world. The poem closes on an unnamed poem, “/” twinned with the opening unnamed poem, “/” with its burning forests, its titled implication of a slash, a break, its “black / and emergent pool” (73). These tactile, gummy images of suffering and confusion taking form:
The sea flames
A girl, strange beliefs
present in the water
turns through plastic
holds to the drift
bathing in the black and
caves with the weight
see the water’s charge
as the girls float up
to the billowing ceiling. (73)
Are we in a room or a landscape? Are we under or above — from where are we watching or being asked to watch? There is no “outside” position in the Anthropocene — we are all variously entangled and complicit in ecologies of harm — and Allen’s failure to provide us a comfortable position from which to watch reflects that. We are assumed inside the story, Allen’s short lines performing that billow or float as we read, feeling it. Gelatin is formed by boiling animal products to make a substance. The girl moves through familiar Anthropocene insignia (plastic in water) within “the black and / emergent pond” with its echoes of the oleaginous, pool-like entrance to the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks. “Emergent” implies a scale impossible to imagine: is the pool tiny, or growing voraciously, swirling like an insucking black hole? The whole of Kingdomland is scored by an understory of fire and water, mingling to a charge whose entropic result is the poetics of feminized viscera, soldered hormones, unspeakable inner lives expressed in the trembling language of the body. Another meaning of charge is to entrust someone with a duty of responsibility. The “water’s charge” might be us, those who seek to protect, as environmental “guardians,” what before we damaged. Or it might be that which the water is responsible for, what the water carries. It seems this poem contains all four elements: flames of fire, sea of water, black crude oil of earth, and “float” of air. Kingdomland closes on what Lasky calls the “possibility of the wild wind,” offering its “girls” “to the billowing ceiling” as though by failure, sacrifice, or perhaps transcendence. I think of Laura Palmer, trapped in the Black Lodge, alive and dead at once (a necropoetic heroine if ever there was one), escaping eventually in the charge of an angel.
Kingdomland is curiously a world with scant technology or evidence of modernity, beyond occasional mention of cigarettes, Steradent, plastic, and the sly reference to Slenderman, one of the most notorious internet urban legends, in “The Slim Man.” Yet even the latter appears in a poem almost without time, caught in its contingent stillness: “Sometimes he will stop and lean down, / and scrape the earth, / then earth and touch are knotted / for they are both cold” (50). Moments of such startling intimacy, closely held in Allen’s end-stopped lines, reveal again the entangling of bodies and landscapes. Just as a “net curtain” leaves its pattern in the speaker’s thigh in “Rodeo fun on a Sunday” (17), in “The Slim Man,” there is an overlay of garment and landscape: “the glowing pinstripe forest beyond” (50). Memory and trauma is the impress of pattern and trace; it is not confined to the heart but prints itself on the skin and trees. The Slim Man is not frightening — “No one is scared of him” (50) — but rather a presence whose eeriness is released in the knotting of the earth and his touch. As Mark Fisher puts it, the “eerie only persists so long as the status of the agent is unresolved.” Allen reminds us that most of us, monsters and all, are just seeking warmth. In this poem, it is the “pitiful rabbits’ / eyes” (50) who watch. What might it mean to release the eerie or weird qualities from the poem and see its wildness as a tale of attempted belonging?
Kingdomland is a world of falling backwards within the present, a world where “the sinking house and the land / are to be consumed” (58) like the bodies it holds, the dead and living. A world of rising darkness. This is Anthropocene poetics, but not “nature writing.” As Robert Macfarlane describes other worlds of English occulture, “suppressed forces pulse and flicker beneath the ground and within the air (capital, oil, energy, violence, state power, surveillance), waiting to erupt or to condense.” It is something like a “gothic bucolic” or Timothy Morton’s “dark ecology.” Among the shadow, the red glow of meat and pink of flesh, there’s an opening up toward something like a queering of intimacy beyond the mutual consumption of bodies that occurs in sex and digestion. I call Kingdomland “feminist poetics” with caution, hopeful that such a term encompasses the slippery dynamics of familial relation, desire and sexual identification at work in Allen’s book — “where is she / when she’s not with me?” (59). Lavender and lilac, mixtures of feminine red and masculine blue, are often associated with queerness, and purple is all over this collection. “No last kiss,” with its implied romantic refusal, features “lilac leaves of my drooping spider plant / moulting on the bath mat / so it looks like I’ve had my purple period” (23). As with the cramping waves of “Remedies,” the body finds its expression in something more-than-human, this time to leaf-shedding spider plant, feminist poetic kin to the tarantulas of “The Girls of Situations.” I don’t know what a purple period is, but Google tells me there is such a thing as “purple crying,” which is a time in an infant’s life that is characterized by inconsolable crying: the baby cries until she is purple in the face. She cries to communicate; often she cries for no reason.
In Kingdomland, what saves us from the stark binary of fire red and water blue, immolation and drowning, is this purple ambivalence. The problem with indigo. “A foreign body is a frequency,” Bhanu Kapil writes in Ban en Banlieu, “[it’s] a body flaring with violet light.” Ultraviolet light: electromagnetic radiation, what burns our skin. A body that burns is not always visible: “Ban is a desiccating form on the sidewalk — her teeth, in contrast, are so white — turn indigo: when the headlights of oncoming cars strobe over her prone, barely visible/dark face.” Ban’s racialized identity is what erases her, leaves her bare, breaks her up in public like Kapil’s interrupting syntax, dehumanizes her into a problem — “indigo,” scorched and dried to a stop. As Ban’s lying down is a “syntax,” we might think of Allen’s speaker, surrendering to the ground of the promenade, as a similar kind of bodily ordering in social space. A necessary “move,” an arrangement.
By situating Kapil’s evocation of color alongside Allen’s, I want to gesture toward the potentially intersectional work of color in poetry’s meatspace. Color is what flags up a charge, often unspeakable: something of shame, silenced history, a voice (human or more-than-human) whose semiotic frequencies require a certain attunement. There’s an elasticity of perception required that I’m arguing evinces a gelatin or gelatinous poetics: a by-product of bodily condition, the protein economies of energy, but also the decorative excess imbued in many associated products of consumption. Gelatin in Haribo Star Mix, gelatin in wine gums, pastilles, and other candy. Yet gelatin also as salt, meat, spam. The gelatinous flicker of your eyes. The colorless substance, the undersong, the substance preserving. Silver gelatin in photography: “Grow up / girl in / silver” (25). In “The Indigo Fields,” the bees forget “that they’re supposed to / pollinate / flowers instead of / the roughly opened gland / of a mammal” (31). We might say this reproductive confusion is enacted throughout Kingdomland: a meatspace of desire and trauma, hormonal transference, substance and spirit. The known and unknown: “Bees are the hidden,” argues Lasky in a recent essay, they are “the things that we have done” but also “they create everything.” Poetry is increasingly about the bees: “Bees live in my screens, hungry with hazard,” writes Daisy Lafarge. I think of the gelatin jam jars we’d use to trap wasps in the garden; sadly, we’d sometimes catch a bee. Guilt and complicity and yet creation. The bees ask us how we can possibly speak. Always close to danger, Kingdomland holds a masticating language of subjectivity wrought in tangible metamorphosis, affective pull, atonal hum, draining viscous sugars: “and the heart is a hollow muscular / organ. intolerably porous. sucking / language from crisis to fill the empty space.” Its by-product is what we might use to hold a scream, a honey-orange sunset, lost and embodied in the long mysterious land beyond.
9. Defined by Stacy Alaimo in Bodily Natures: Science, Environment and the Material Self (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008) as an intermeshing of the human and “more-than-human world,” a way of “thinking across bodies” in order to recognize that the supposedly static resource space of the “environment” is in fact “a world of fleshy beings with their own needs, claims and actions” (2). Crucially, “by underscoring that trans indicates movement across different sites, transcorporeality also opens up a mobile space that acknowledges the often unpredictable and unwanted actions of human bodies, nonhuman creatures, ecological systems, chemical agents, and other actors” (2). It helps us to think the entangled consequences and complicities of an oil spill as much as bovine disease or contraceptive hormones leaking into the fluvial food chain.
16. “Occulture,” according to Robert Macfarlane, is a contemporary trend in which “hauntology, geological sentience and political activism” are mashed together in countercultural gesture.
17. A cultural lineage I am drawing upon from recent critical work by John Doran, the new weird fiction of Gary Budden and of course the “dark ecology” of Timothy Morton, with its emphasis on intimacy, the “strange stranger” and the ontological twist of the “Weird.”