Bodies and antibodies

Multispecies writing in Karin Bolender's 'R.A.W. Assmilk Soap' and Jen Bervin's 'Silk Poems'

soap made from assmilk
Rural Alchemy Workshop (R.A.W.) Assmilk soap, by Karin Bolender (photo by Karin Bolender).

As uninvited interlocutors, other creatures have long been writing their way into the metabolic conversations of human life. As vectors for various parasites and viruses, mosquitoes, for example, have exerted considerable pressure on human evolutionary and cultural history. They have killed approximately half of the humans who have ever lived, Timothy C. Winegard points out in his book detailing, among other things, the cascading connections between the mosquito and the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the transatlantic slave trade, the spread of Christianity, and the development of modern democracy.[1] Beyond the consequential molecular inscriptions of an insect bite, however, how has the metabolism of other creatures informed conceptualizations and approaches to writing itself? How have writers worked with the metabolizing bodies of other creatures, inviting them to participate in imagining new forms of kinship and sustainable relationships with place and multispecies community?

Lynn Keller devotes a chapter in her recent book Recomposing Ecopoetics: North American Poetry of the Self-Conscious Anthropocene to three contemporary poets who work with nonhumans in ways that invite reconfigurations of kinship, entanglement, and communicative forms in the biosphere: Jody Gladding’s Translations from Bark Beetle: Poems approaches insect carvings as poetry, Jonathan Skinner’s “Blackbird Stanzas” are modeled on spectrograms from birdsongs, and angela rawlings’s Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists reads the development of moths through the stages of human sleep. While the lifecycles and sensory capacities of the various creatures under consideration inform the language and translational poetics of these fascinating works, it is perhaps rawlings’s work that is most specifically attuned to multispecies metabolic intersections. The language itself is metabolized into the somatic experiences of a multispecies body. As Keller points out, “A.rawlings creates a first-person plural that is not appropriative, but inclusive … this ‘we’ acknowledges a commonality of embodiment, hunger, and desire, but within a context of also recognizing mutual alterity.”[2]

Book cover: Angela Rawlings, Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists 

Other recent writing experiments turn to the earth itself and its microbial communities as a site for metabolic activity, with particular focus on decomposition as an active agent of inscription. Decomp, by Stephen Collis and Jordan Scott involved the placement of copies of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in five distinct biogeoclimatic zones in British Columbia. The books were left for a year to decompose, after which the authors produced poems out of the remains.[3] Similarly concerned with decomposition, or more specifically, composting, Mathew Cooperman’s SHOSH NE NS is the first release of grama magazine’s “Plantable Chapbooks” series. The books are designed to be “returned to the earth,” their decomposition facilitated by covers made of plantable seed paper. 

While the texts I have mentioned above concern aspects of local and global metabolic forces, my focus in this post is on works that engage with human and nonhuman metabolism in ways that intrinsically involve experimental procedures enabled by laboratories, animal husbandry protocols, chemical reactions, and technological innovations. I am interested, for example, in Amanda Ackerman’s The Book of Feral Flora, in which plants are invited into compositional methods through the author’s own metabolic interventions. While she worked on the book, as preliminary preparation for writing, Ackerman inhaled the scents of irises, put them on her skin, and ate them. In addition, with the technical assistance of poet Dan Richert, she recorded herself reading a selection of poems and developed a method whereby the plants could respond to the sound frequencies of her voice and, consequently, rewrite the original texts: “Dan hooked up sensors to various plants in order to record their compositions … through their electrical impulses, the plants autonomously wrote their own version of the texts, given the sensory capacities that were available to them.”[4] Here is an excerpt from “Shipping (written by Iris)”:

dream. I brain. soul, a blossoming, banter, Sparks, a flare, flare, a flare, key beam, key, beam, blossoming, a a a banter, Controlled, banter, a found, a pale, dream, control, the arc, sweet pale, face, chameleon, blank, bare, the eye, the a arc, eye, eye, canvas, face, field, banter, chord, copy, rest, a beam, dream.[5]

The Book of Feral Flora attempts to write for and with plants as a form of “cross-species collaboration” focused through sensory points of metabolic contact.[6] She describes her process in creating the book as an attempt “to expose the co-evolutionary nature of language and [acknowledge] that human language has not been fashioned by humans alone.”[7]

Prettiest Little Shotgun Wedding You Never Saw. Paris, Tennessee, 2002. Photo by Sebastian Black. 
Prettiest Little Shotgun Wedding You Never Saw. Paris, Tennessee, 2002. Photo by Sebastian Black.

Blending forms such as the lyric essay, poetry, recipe book, and animal husbandry manual, Karin Bolender’s R.A.W. Assmilk Soap is a short book that concerns a writing and art project that has emerged out of an ongoing relationship with the various metabolic circumstances of a donkey (an American Spotted Ass) and its subsequent offspring. In particular, the work is focused on mammalian milk (assmilk) as a form of writing sensitive to place by virtue of the antibodies it contains to local pathogens and its capacity to serve as an archival reservoir of toxic pollutants. “Assmilk,” she declares, “becomes the most salutary material-semiotic substance I can imagine.”[8]  Published by the Laboratory for Aesthetics and Ecology’s “Parapoetics Series,” the book chronicles the author’s seven-week journey, accompanied by a pregnant ass (“Aliass”), through struggling communities and damaged landscapes in the southern United States. Entangling various semiotic systems, such as her personal history, with the word “ass,” which Bolender was brought up to regard as one of the dirtiest words in the English lexicon, as well as her conceptual relationship with “black milk,” a trope she uses (inspired in part by Paul Celan) to interrupt conventional taxonomies and syntaxes, the book focuses primarily on the biosemiotic potential of assmilk, and “its capacity to open imaginative space for holistic wisdoms of the animal body, known and unknown, and to remind us that our bodies are always bound to the places and others we find ourselves among.”[9]

RAW Assmilk Soap at the Multispecies Salon at the Ironworks in New Orleans in 2010. Photo by Sean Hart. 
Washing-station installation (at the Multispecies Salon exhibition in New Orleans in 2010). Photo by Sean Hart.

Following her southern journey, and after learning about the French custom of making savon au lait d’anesse (assmilk soap), the book describes how Bolender is inspired to maker her own assmilk soap using the breast milk of her small but growing family of asses. The idea was to find a way to “let wordless interweavings of bodies in timeplaces somehow be the text.”[10] The soap manufacturing performance, developed as part of the “Rural Alchemy Workshop” (R.A.W), embodies how human historical myths and memories are a part of landscapes, and how those landscapes are “inextricably intertwined with the fleeting, unwritten, embodied blood vessels and mammary glands of many species.”[11] Along with the foundational ingredients of breast milk, lye, and necessary oils, Bolender and her invited participants in the Rural Alchemy Workshop mix various personal or culturally significant substances into each bar of soap. Some participants supplement their bars with teeth from a road kill, or rain, or motor oil, or, in one case, a participant’s own breast milk. The bars of soap become poetic manifestations of biosemiotic relationships: “Each soap label reads like a dark little love poem to the complexities of our multispecies habitations. Each bar of soap is an experiment, an ongoing interrogation.”[12] Here is an example of a bar of soap prepared by the choreographer Emily Stone, who added, among other things, her own breast milk:


100% RAW milk (ass and human),

organic base oils; question; dust from

under couch (terra incognita); grass, leaves, and sticks

picked up by Athena at night; a green note from my Dad;

small portions of a nest that had two dead baby birds in it;

a burnt match and a small bit of firewood.

In this example, the metabolism of a breastfeeding mother is enmeshed within the metabolic flows of a family, a house, a landscape, and a psychological state inflected by the necessity and fragility of homemaking among multispecies.

The milk of compromised bodies bears within it an active healing response, an immunologically tuned defense, through antibodies and commensal microbial relationships, against whatever toxins or disturbances might reside in any local environment. These soap poems are not simply ornaments. They use the active protective capacities of breast milk to orient a metabolism toward health. The bars of soap become “a figural substance, a material-semiotic parapoetics that seeks to nourish imaginative action, holding forth a cleansing hope in the form of a rarefied solvent for our environments, languages, and psyches.”[13] Assmilk soap is a metabolic poetics that writes in the inscrutable idiom of another creature, a creature responding to the same world of compromised environments, beings, and ways of being that we find ourselves in.

Similarly situated within a laboratory context, Jen Bervin’s Silk Poems is more than a book. It is also a nanoscale poetic work on a silk biosensor designed to be implanted as a metabolic monitoring device into a human body. Conceived as a love poem written from the perspective of a silkworm to a human receiving a medical implant, the work enacts Bervin’s desire to write into the vulnerability of metabolic distress: “I empathized with the sensor’s future ‘reader,’ and imagined people with the sensor inside of them, in the anxiety-provoking space of monitoring it for abnormal changes in their health. I wanted to create something akin to a talisman, a powerful text hidden on the body to protect the wearer.”[14

Silk poem

Weaving together various strands of “silk culture,” the poem integrates research into extensive archival materials related to the five-thousand-year-old relationship between humans and silk, exploring in particular the intimate relationship between silk and language. The Chinese character for silk is a constituent component of a wide variety of words, including “paper,” “textile,” “compose,” “edit,” “weave,” “arrange,” and “write.”[15] Pronouncing such connections early in the book, the voice of the silkworm declares: “WEINVENTEDLANGUAGE.”[16] Moreover, as the experimental context of the poem makes clear, our intimate relationship with silk extends beyond language and into the body’s immunological sense of itself. Silk is biocompatible with human tissue; “our immune system,” Bervin points out, “accepts it on surfaces as sensitive as the human brain.”[17

The poem takes the form of silk at the DNA level, using enjambed lines six letters long in order to match the repeated six-character chain-like structure of the genome. The resulting filament shape is modeled on the pattern silkworms make “when writing their cocoon.”[18] The text in the book differs slightly from the nanoscale version on the biosensor (legible only through a microscope), in that the lines are not six letters long, but stretched out to accommodate legibility:





The metabolic processes of the silkworm translate mulberry leaves — the only leaves it will eat — into silk, which has in turn become translated into various forms human cultural activity. Bervin draws attention to some of these, such as the depiction of paradise in the Koran as one of silken cushions and carpets,[20] or the Malagasy ritual of famadihana, in which the ancestral bones of community members, after have been exhumed, celebrated, and consulted for guidance, are rewrapped “in freshly woven wild silk, and restored to the family crypt until the next celebration.[21

Silk poems, text spread

While Silk Poems is concerned with silk in the context of the metabolism of globalization — small of images of the filament on every other page move like a “Silk Road” through the text — the poem brings this larger historical archive into a self-conscious orientation to the intimate concerns of female labor, health, and taking care — the poem is meant to calm the anxiety of a biosensor implant recipient. Jayme Collins sees these various forms of affiliations, cross-species and cross-cultural, as articulations of “queer kinship and temporalities of place.”[22] In a fascinating conference paper delivered at the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) conference at UC Davis this past June, Collins positioned Silk Poems within what she calls the practice of “situated poetics,” which denotes “poetics that extend off the page and into the places of their making, and which rely on context as a generative force in textual production.”[23] Inscription, in such circumstances, goes beyond the representational and moves into the environmental and material. Collins argues that

placing a poem as a talisman interwoven with a vast, deterritorialized geographic and temporal record within the body poses archival knowledge as relentlessly situated and co-constitutive – and not only within discourse, but within the intimate materiality of an interspecies communion (here, between humans and silkworms) that encodes the wish for an “infinity,” a future beyond the bounds of normative organizations of time and bodies, beyond life and death, enmeshed in the thickness of a present bound up with the accumulations of its past.[24

One metabolism writes seamlessly into another (without tripping the immune system). In recognizing the reciprocity of this gesture, Bervin offers a metabolic poetics immunologically sympathetic to Karin Bolender’s concerns with the parapoetic possibilities of mammalian milk, one that imagines forms of interspecies community predicated on care, intimacy, hope, and health. 

1. Timothy C. Winegard, The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator (New York: Dutton, 2019).

2. Lynn Keller, Recomposing Ecopoetics: North American Poetry of the Self-Conscious Anthropocene (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2017), 153–54.

3. Stephen Collis and Jordan Scott, Decomp (Toronto, ON: Coach House Books, 2013).

4. Amanda Ackerman, The Book of Feral Flora (Los Angeles: Les Figues Press, 2015), 198.

5. Ackerman, 49.

6. Divya Victor and Amanda Ackerman, “In Other Edens: On Amanda Ackerman’s The Book of Feral Flora,” Harriet blog, April 23, 2014. 

7. Victor and Ackerman.

8. Karin Bolender, R.A.W. Assmilk Soap: parapoetics for a posthuman barnyard (Berlin: Laboratory for Aesthetics and Ecology, Parapoetics Series, 2016), 8.

9. Bolender, 14.

10. Bolender, 13.

11. Bolender, 16.

12. Bolender, 19.

13. Bolender, 16–17.

14. Jen Bervin, Silk Poems (New York: Nightboat Books, 2017), 166.

15. Bervin, 88–90.

16. Bervin, 50.

17. Bervin, 165.

18. Bervin, 169–71.

19. Bervin, 59.

20. Bervin, 159.

21. Bervin, 155.

22. Jayme Collins, “Silken Bodies: Queer Historiography and Archival Ecology in Jen Bervin’s Silk Poems (2017),” Future Archives: Queer Poetries in the Anthropocene II Panel, Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) Conference, UC Davis, June 28, 2019.

23. Collins.

24. Collins.