Beasts of no nation
On the poetics of invasion and Marwa Helal
who made this taxonomy?
— Marwa Helal, Invasive Species
When they adopted the term “invasive species,” midcentury ecologists imposed a lexicon of human violence onto the migration of organisms, suffusing natural phenomena with political flavor. Invasion is a versatile metaphor for all kinds of unwanted arrivals and threats to national borders; the term supercharges crusades against overly dominant flora and fauna with xenophobic emotion.
In her first full-length collection, Invasive Species (Nightboat Books, 2019), Marwa Helal declares herself an invasive species. She uses this label to find her footing within the unfamiliar political ecology and threatening infrastructure of US border institutions. Born in Al Mansurah, Egypt, and raised in the Midwest, Helal arrived to Ohio at age two and was suddenly ejected at twenty-one due to bureaucratic processing delays that forced her to age out of eligibility for a visa extension. Invasive Species chronicles her attempts to obtain legal sanction to continue to live in the US, splicing together verse, emails, news clippings, dictionary entries, ekphrasis, free-floating punctuation, and autobiographical prose, assembling Chinua Achebe, James Baldwin, Jorge Luis Borges, Junot Díaz, Freak Nasty, June Jordan, Pablo Neruda, Gil Scott-Heron, and others as interlocutors. Helal strikingly grabs for invasion ecology as a rhetorical device to apprehend her own relationship to the States, a country with an especially bad national habit of using flora and fauna as alibis and synecdoches for xenophobic and racist panic. For her, the guiding metaphor of “invasive species” is part comfort object, part threat: it is a promise to overwhelm the ecology she finds on her eventual arrival.
Helal’s poems drew me into the thick cultural history of the term “invasive species.” Two contemporary parables of invasion — the so-called “Asian carp” in the continental United States and the marabú plant in Cuba — reflect the metaphor’s elasticity with special acuity. Both species show the adaptability of invasive flora and fauna as canvases for the narrative needs of people with very different political desires and fears. Alongside Helal’s work, these two episodes give a sense of the range of stories we use plants and animals to tell ourselves.
Helal’s poetry renovates the term to reclaim the means of classifying individuals from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, grabbing for the phrase to twist out of the grip of its legal-illegal binary. “Both terms [legal and illegal] inherently deny the immigrant’s humanity,” she writes. “So I made my own term” (88). Of course, the term she makes is a borrowed, flagrant auto-denial of that humanity — she wants to do the dehumanizing herself. Relegating herself to the domain of plants and animals, she mocks the degrading language commonly applied to migrants through parodic hyperbole. Helal dodges border institutions’ elision of her humanity by saying it before they can, asserting that the terms of the evaluation do not apply, that the assessment is redundant, because she is another species entirely. She refuses to engage in the performance of her humanity demanded by border agents equipped with taxonomic authority.
The consequences of classification practices are a key concern for Helal throughout the book. In “Invasius specius sapien reflects on the consequences of synthetic apertures,” she names her species in accordance with Linnaean naming systems. The designation swaps out homo, the taxonomic family of the human, for invasius specius. She thus removes herself from evolutionary sequence, stepping out of line with the steady march of human corporeal progress. She represents herself as therefore inconsequential: “i invasive species beast of no nation a being of no consequence.” “Of” is a hazy preposition: to be “of no consequence” is to not be a consequence of something else, and also to not have one’s own consequences, and to therefore not matter. Causal sequences themselves exclude her, even as she rejects their terms: to refuse to follow — to not follow a rule, or a thread of evolution — is to refuse to be a consequence (“but ah ah i was the one who became the consequence,”  she laments earlier in the poem). To be an invasive species is not to line up with the demands of a particular ecological system, to insist on elusive incoherence in a place that hasn’t evolved a predator to curb your roaming. It is a mode of escape.
First parable: carp
Asian carp are a group of four species. They are heavy-bodied cyprinid fishes that terrify the US public and government, which maintain that they are terrorizing native fish. The carp were deliberately imported in the 1970s so that wastewater treatment plants could take advantage of their feeding habits to control algal blooms. (Carp have no true stomachs, and therefore have to graze semiconstantly; they make good aquatic vacuums.) After arriving to the US, the carp escaped into the Mississippi River, and by the ’90s were smothering biodiverse ecosystems across the Midwest. When they made it into Lake Michigan, regulatory institutions began to panic.
These four imported species of common carp were dubbed Asian carp because they are native to habitats ranging from southeast Russia to China and Vietnam. Invasive species often are named in accordance with their place of origin; as usual, the practice turns these four species of common carp into racialized avatars of xenophobia. The carp-related media fury was a clear surrogate for anxieties about immigration: in a 2010 article for TIME entitled “Asian Carp in the Great Lakes? This Means War!,” Brian Walsh described the carp as “illegal immigrants on the loose in the Midwest.” Helal herself concludes “Immigration as a Second Language,” an epic thirty-three-page dictionary of words you find when border-crossing, with the abstract of a scientific paper on the control of the carp in Michigan.
Carp’s arrival to a new habitat has substantial effects on the local aquatic ecosystem. The carp becomes legible to the state and the economy as a host of commercial and infrastructural consequences, including “crop decimation, clogging of water facilities and waterways, wildlife and human disease transmission, threats to fisheries, increased fire vulnerability, and adverse effects for ranchers and farmers.” Anticarp “control methods” include “the use of fish poisons, physical barriers, physical removal, habitat alteration, or the addition of predators, parasites, or pathogens.” These methods are imposed by a plethora of agencies distributed throughout the state and federal government and the private sector that have sprung up to combat ecological invasion. Federal efforts include participation from the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Transportation, the Department of State, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Park Service, the Geological Survey, the Coast Guard, the Forest Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and (perhaps most notably) the Army Corps of Engineers. The various agencies’ anticarp limbs collaborate and form coalitions with other subgroups, regional panels, state national resources, task forces, and private groups. They have names like the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force, the National Invasive Species Information Center, the National Invasive Species Council, the Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Program, Asian Carp Integrated Control and Containment, and Asian Carp Control Strategy Framework. These efforts have given rise to “previously unknown levels of inter-state cooperation and national governmental and technical support.”
The media has used rhetorical strategies that unnecessarily represent carp as an immediate, hyperlocal threat. Government and activist groups warn the public that carp “can leave a trail of environmental destruction in their wake.” They cite numbers: “More than 6,500 of these harmful, non-native species cause more than 100 billion dollars in damage each year to the US economy.” Awareness campaigns sound the alarm: if you find a fish, the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committeeadvises, “do not release the fish back into the water … freeze the fish in a sealed plastic bag, note the date and location, and call your state or provincial natural resource agency.”
Carp phobia is largely an aesthetic concern couched as an economic one. The carp makes visible people’s tacit attachment to the peculiarities of a local ecology. Plants and animals provide the sensory specificity of a place amid an increasingly totalized, smooth, neoliberal world. The invasive species jeopardizes this site specificity by endangering native biodiversity. It refuses to stay within its bounds, threatening to overwhelm “fish people like,” i.e. familiar fauna that emanate associations with home. Flora and fauna seem like sites of direct encounter with a place: they are accessible to the eyes and ears, tangible, touchable, everyone’s, forming a common landscape and visual vocabulary among all the people who live in an ecosystem that largely transcends political and cultural divisions. They are a crucial component of the texture of the ordinary. Plants and animals form the backdrop to the everyday, the hum of the landscape. They are the faces of the pastoral, embodying the fantasy of a respite from political and economic struggle.
Second parable: marabú
Plants like marabú lead double lives, both tropes and political agents. Native to Africa, marabú arrived to the Caribbean in the nineteenth century and spread gradually in Cuba over the course of the twentieth. Its growth accelerated rapidly in the ’90s during the economic downturn of the Special Period following the Soviet Union’s decline. Since 2002, when the state moved to dramatically scale back the sugar industry, it has swallowed between 50 and 70 percent of cultivable land and 10 percent of the nation as a whole. Every bit of land evacuated by sugar farmers became a stronghold for marabú, and as it gained ground it picked up enough momentum to overrun actively cultivated lands. Out-of-control marabú was listed as the official reason for failed sugar harvests between 2007 and 2011. As Rachel Price argues in Planet/Cuba, marabú “is often both material evidence for, and a symbol of, state power — and its failure.” Marabú is scrappy and holds its ground: if you cut or burn it, the plant comes back with a vengeance. You need petroleum to kill it, and the severity of the marabú epidemic has sometimes been attributed to the national scarcity of the hydrocarbon. Through the cipher of the plant clogging Cuba’s agricultural supply chains, economic slump enters a positive feedback loop.
At the same time, marabú fixes nitrogen in the soil and protects against erosion, storing up agricultural promise in the landscape. Even as it blocks access to terrain, it does reparative work on exhausted land, slowly priming it for future cultivation. Moreover, recently the marabú has shown promise as a source of biomass energy. It has also (oddly) become a promising luxury commodity: in January 2017, artisanal marabú charcoal was approved as the first legal export to the US from Cuba in decades (the Economist refers to it as a “miracle”).
The multiplicity of marabú’s origin myths resonates with its tropological versatility. In Planet/Cuba, Price tracks the tropology of marabú through contemporary Cuban art and literature. She discusses the work of Cuban artists Ernesto Oroza and Gean Moreno, who proliferate inventive (perhaps totally fictional) marabú myths in their exhibition Modelo de expansión: marabú, featuring a broadsheet they made entitled Tabloid #26. A Frenchman is “accused of importing the plant for ‘decorative reasons’”; the plant is named and renamed in the style of various colonial powers, and finally described as “an African specimen escaped from the Pinar del Río Botanical Garden.” The artists assign the plant intelligence, reading strategic intent into how it moves through ecological systems consuming maximum resources. For them, marabú interprets “the new territory as a source of nourishment, as a space for extracting energy.” Price reads their work as allegorizing the plant as an agent of capitalist expansion. Overall, as a metaphor, marabú is hyperelastic, readable as an index of state failure, a resilient emblem of resistance and protest, and a symbol of imperialist occupation.
Beast of no nation
Helal is not the first poet to use vegetal and animal tropes to stake out a habitable social position for herself in relation to dynamics of naturalization and alienation. Juliana Spahr opens her novel The Transformation with an anecdote about the naming and renaming of an invasive plant that dwells presently on the island: in the sixteenth century, Indigenous people living where the plant was native told a European doctor that it was called the maracuja vine. Forty years later, it was named Passiflora, the passionflower, by a European priest who saw the story of Christ in it. The plant arrived to Hawai’i in the late nineteenth century and overwhelmed the island ecology. Hawai’ians came to call it haole, a term usually used for “people who arrive from somewhere else.” The plant becomes the guiding metaphor for the novel, which tells the story of three human haole dwelling on the island as reluctantly complicit invaders. It turns out their social position is best articulated through vegetal tropes: her protagonists find “themselves describing themselves and people like them through metaphors of invasive alien plants.” Invasive species make their position communicable: ecological invasion fills out a lexicon of nonconsenting complicity with settler colonialism.
I have the sense that Helal’s adoption of the term is partly a desire not to have to communicate her position. While the border bureaucracy may cast Helal in the role of Asian carp, her seizure of the term “invasive species” insists upon the thick, tenacious, resistant symbolism of marabú as well. In “invasive species self-questionnaire,” Helal reenacts the exhausting displays of self that the border demands in order to certify her as non-invasive:
[…] this is a performance of my humanity. i am saying, “look,
look at me. how intelligent i am. look, see: how i am, how i am
avoiding death.” (16)
The infrastructure of the border throws one’s attention back on oneself, asks one to self-diagnose their worthiness for naturalization. Answering questions and filling out forms to self-diagnose one’s own worthiness for naturalization are prerequisite to the crossing of borders. Standing in for her own customs officer, Helal introjects the burden of making herself legible. Asserting her own invasiveness is a refusal to articulate herself on demand, a means of circumnavigating their interpellations.
In “Invasius specius sapien reflects on the consequences of synthetic apertures,” Helal is fiercely ungrammatical. Sometimes in the book she speaks with the clarity of journalism or the approachability of memoir. At other times, when she wants to draw out language’s combative capacities, she is more semantically resistant. This poem is a tough block of text with a “hip hop beat” and few conjunctions. The clauses blend into one another in both directions, individual nouns shuttling between subject and predicate positions, prepositional phrases locating multiple disparate events at once. Helal forces us to impose our own divisions on her ferocious wordstream, and then constantly corrects them with supplementary syntactical components. “isn’t it for the same reason they divide everything?” (109) she writes elsewhere in the book, ever skeptical of the “they” that makes “divisions.” She puts distance between herself and any reader who would try to slice and dice her language into singular syntactical integrity.
Helal refuses to be a single animal. The poem is a montage of her i’s physical features, a string of iterating self-definitions that flow into one another. The features don’t line up: she is a fish with jaws, paws, scales, hind legs, saliva. The features seem to overwrite each other, one animal cannibalizing the previous animal into an incoherent chimera. She dares her reader to try to make her into a unitary creature, insisting on the advanced chaos of her invasiveness: “i thrice evolved quintuple helix amoeba bondt stoodt standing” (114), a radical denial of singularity. How to unmake a taxonomy: assert an untenable or illegible or unimaginable position within it and make it into a home.
When you’re invasive, it doesn’t matter what kind of animal you are. The fact of a person’s otherness is all that matters in the eyes of those determining their immigration status. This blindness to specificity inadvertently affords her anonymity, from which she derives capaciousness. In Invasive Species, the border is invisible but omnipresent. It has been relegated to nondescript airport hallways and questionnaires and consulate waiting rooms, embodied as a pair of glass doors outside customs. It therefore is unsurprising that “Invasius specius”roams through senseless, placeless atmospheres of abstraction.The speaker’s body is only rarely situated in a coherent setting. The infrequent prepositional phrases place her to dwell in abstractions: “an empire of skinned accusation,” “above the clouds,” moving through “their theories of evolooshun,” living in “an era.” The most concrete settings are often transportation infrastructure. These nonplaces belong to the amorphous “they” of the poem; she ruptures the boundaries set up by these infrastructures, clawing her way into “their tall airconditioned bus,” spaces populated by “plastic window and conveyor belt,” leaping through the “tinted windows” of their car (114). The features of her nonhumanity enable her to traverse these nonplaces and infrastructural boundaries in ways that a human could not. She uses the language of invasiveness to manifest these features: in words she can be as protean as she wants, with whatever weaponized features she needs to rupture the hermetic enclosures of nations. She uses it to elude the reader as well — her hybridity makes her resistant to a reader’s imaging capacities. You cannot build a coherent compound image. She posits herself as both the ultimate, generic invasive species, encompassing all possible features of invasiveness at once, and an unstable creature comprised of a sequence of mutations still unfolding across time. Both cases slip through the fingers of visual imagination, exceeding its capacity.
Though it’s quiet about its ekphrasis, “Invasius specius” was commissioned to attend to a 2016 installation by Matthew Angelo Harrison at the Studio Museum in Harlem called Hole 1.005 The Consequence of Synthetic Apertures. The installation includes a zebra skull smeared with automotive clay in an acrylic case with a large cylindrical tube penetrating through the skull from one side of the case to another. Synthetic aperture is a form of radar that produces an image or three-dimensional reconstruction of an object by synthesizing snapshots across time and space. It’s a bit like echolocation. The radar device travels around the landscape, sending out a series of pulses and receiving their echoes, which tell it about the relative positions and contours of other objects. The United States military relies heavily on synthetic aperture radar to surveil possible targets. Though she is “speared by film and video through their tinted windows,” Helal renders herself immune to synthesizing visualizations, “theirs” or yours. As an invasius specius sapien, she is able to dodge surveillant eyes through her physical ambidexterity and linguistic agility.
Invasiveness is rendered as a form of corporeal excess, a cacophony of features that conveniently open the world to you. The teeming corporality sometimes seems to even get in the way of her speech, which becomes “garbled” and littered with extra t’s and d’s. By contrast, the metropolitan “they” — the poem’s antagonist — suffers from corporeal inadequacy: they do not have “eyes enough” but love to watch themselves (114). Eyes have never been an adequate tool to read Helal’s work. The first poem in the book, “poem to be read from right to left,” tries to force you out of the default eye movements of normal reading. Trying to read from left to right, you find the poem ejects you, vehemently refusing your attempts at meaning-making. Moving your attention from right to left provides a word order that makes sense, but reading becomes oddly nonvisual, demanding a cognitive rearrangement of words that takes place behind, rather than in front of, your eyes. The poem, bearing its pedagogy in its title, coaxes you out of visuality into something else, until you cease to be an animal that needs to see to read. “Look, I’m trying to show you something,” she writes.
The history of invasions
The term “invasive species” took root with the publication of English ecologist Charles S. Elton’s The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants (University of Chicago Press, 1958). The book is generally acknowledged as the starting point of the subfield of invasion ecology, which aimed to “develop reliable generalizations regarding the mechanisms and predictability of invasions.” Elton’s book popularized invasion rhetoric and remains the field’s most cited single source, but in the eyes of many contemporary ecologists, the field has failed on its own terms. His work hasn’t really borne fruit in the form of new understandings or techniques for managing the “invasions” it derides, but his terminology won’t quit.
The field is judgmental; part of its mandate is a cost-benefit analysis of the presence of introduced organisms in a given ecosystem “with reference to human value systems,” such as (but not limited to) human survival, aesthetics, and capitalism. The field primarily focuses on anthropogenic ecological shifts: changes where human activity is the medium of organisms’ movement and the resulting ecological changes. In other words, in “invasions” as defined by Elton, the invading species has been brought, but is nonetheless held semantically culpable for its own behavior.
Over time “invaders” ceased to be the unhappy miscellaneous subjects of human-mediated movement and became an essentialized category in Elton’s taxonomy. By the time of his later book’s publication in 1966, Elton “now appeared to view invaders as a distinct group of organisms.” Again, the substantive noun ascribes agency and malintent to organisms transported through commerce and settler colonialism.
Elton relentlessly anthropomorphizes, gleaning his lexicon from the violence human communities inflict on one another. Elton uses the vocabulary of colonialism to begrudgingly valorize the most vigorous species: “Four kinds of birds stand out as really successful colonists.” His description of mosquitoes implicitly construes an actual colonial town as the victims of colonizing animal activity:
About 1929, a few African mosquitoes accidentally reached the northeast corner of Brazil, having probably been carried from Dakar on a fast French destroyer. They managed to get ashore and founded a small colony in a marsh near the coast — the Mosquito Fathers as it were.
He hopes to “give a feeling of urgency and scale that is absent from the drier summaries of text-books,” leaning heavily on hyperbole for affective thrust. Mere examples, he claims, do not “quite convey the tumult and pressure of species that have been and are escaping from the confinement of their ancestral continents to range the world.” Elsewhere he deploys literary allusion:
We are seeing one of the great historical convulsions in the world’s fauna and flora. We might say, with Professor Challenger, standing on Conan Doyle's “Lost World,” with his black beard jutting out: “We have been privileged to be present at one of the typical decisive battles of history — the battles which have determined the fate of the world.”
Elton’s lexical choices, even in the context of scientific field formation, were deeply inflected by the political anxieties at the time of his career. Anti-invasion efforts took root for Elton with a nationalist, militaristic bent. His book is full of war metaphors: “It is not just nuclear bombs and war that threatens us,” Elton writes at the start of the book in 1958. “There are other sorts of explosions, and this book is about ecological explosions.” His reviewers note that “the war may have transformed Elton’s perspective on the invasions,” prompting his sudden fascination with them in the years following. As a biologist during World War II, Elton was tasked with finding means of controlling four species of rodent, all of them introduced and posing threats to the national war effort. It’s probable that the mice and rats came to embody the Nazi threat to national boundaries for Elton. His reviewers imply that he used his role as controller of the mammalian threat to shore up a sense of self, a feeling of usefulness in the face of public hopelessness, an attitude he failed to shake after the war ended. Plants and animals continued to represent a rupturing of the safe enclosure of home.
These first anti-invasion tracts were therefore inflected with wartime nationalism. The field was forged in the psychic milieu of an intense political moment, seizing ecology as a projection screen for geopolitical anxiety. A plant or animal moving through space, traversing continents and biomes, does not recognize borders; nonetheless Elton describes one category of invasions as “those that occur because a foreign species successfully invades another country.” Animal and vegetable apathy towards geopolitical organization makes them a threat to normalcy. Elton expresses concern about an apocalyptic end to biodiversity that also seems like an anxiety about the integrity of the current political order: “Instead of six continental realms of life, with all their minor components of mountain tops, islands and fresh waters, separated by barriers to dispersal, there will be only one world. He interprets the current “invasions” as harbingers of a coming uniform global distribution of organisms, reading the breakdown of biomes as the collapse of borders entirely, a fear that plays a little too cleanly to midcentury Western anxiety about the spread of communism. It falls in the lap of capitalist superpowers, then, to assure that organisms stay in their lanes, upholding clean aesthetic divisions between climes and thus the structural integrity of individual economies of flora and fauna.
Conclusion: on naturalization
The opposite of an invasive species is a naturalized one: a nonnative species that has been successfully domesticated. In “Immigration as a Second Language,” Helal dedicates the letter “I” to explaining the former name of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, “Immigration and Naturalization Services.” A definition of the word “naturalization” takes up most of the page: “1. to confer upon (an alien) the rights and privileges of a citizen. 2. to introduce (organisms) into a region and cause them to flourish as if native.” This second, ecological definition dates to 1830, over a century before Elton applied the term “invasion” to stigmatize what is basically the same phenomenon. This was a period of fixation with exotic plants and animals: the term was first used one year after the invention of the Wardian case. The Wardian case was a hermetically sealed glass container which enabled plants to survive for long periods by keeping moisture levels stable and protecting them from sea salt or pollutants. The invention made it possible to bring exotic flora on the long journeys from colonial territories to Europe, where the retrieving explorer would receive a reward for his enterprising acquisition. While plants said “home” to those at home, to colonialist explorers they embodied the exoticism of a place “discovered.” Exotic, out-of-place plants were all the rage in Europe: those with the means had collections. “Naturalization” expresses the colonialist fetish for collection, for swallowing the spoils of elsewheres into the fabric of one’s home.
Though the two terms basically refer to the same phenomenon, in contrast to invasion, naturalization is valorized. It was a thing to “attempt”; to succeed was a triumph of “man’s agency.” To naturalize a plant is to assimilate it. Naturalization implies an insinuation into an ecosystem, a becoming-natural, an ingratiation such that the plant is no longer a threat.
By asserting her invasiveness, Helal refuses to dissolve herself into the US social landscape. Helal asserts her status as ecologist of her own milieu, her right to self-classify in the face of performative taxonomic practices bent on using its own names to bring her in or keep her out. To call yourself an invasive species is to refuse naturalization as a paradigm — to refute the naturalness of borders, and reject the slotting of those who traverse them into sanctified ecological niches in the food chain of Western social positions.
1. Marwa Helal, Invasive Species (New York: Nightboat Books, 2019), 16.
2. She announces her invasion — “I, Invasive species” — in the last poem in “Immigration as a Second Language,” “Epiepilogue.” Here she presses her lyric I close up against its predicate with nothing but a comma to hold them apart. Refusing to pad her statement with a copula, she denies the possibility of any clarifying distance between herself and her claimed identity, opting instead for a fragmentary assertion. Helal, 88.
3. “Introduced” is the blander, more neutral term preferred by the inheritors of Charles Elton’s legacy, evoking plants and animals shaking hands and being told each other’s names and titles.
4. US Geological Survey, “What is an invasive species and why are they a problem?”
5. US Fish and Wildlife Service, “Asian Carp.”
6. Rachel Havrelock, “Chicago River Tour,” November 2, 2019.
7. Aquatic invasion ecology has a strange visual modality: the effects take place underwater and are thus largely not visually accessible except in the public’s ecological imaginary. Perhaps part of the carp-specific panic is due to the fact that these species are able to leap meters out of the water, thus emerging into the visual field (and producing concerns about human bodily harm).
8. USGS, “What is an invasive species?”
9. USGS, “What is an invasive species?”
10. According to Havrelock, carp anxiety has helped to shore up the Army Corps’s authority in the Chicago region, as people turn to the Corps for support and leadership amid ecological panic.
11. Justin Mando and Garrett Stack, “Convincing the Public to Kill: Asian Carp and the Proximization of Invasive Species Threat,” Environmental Communication 13, no. 6 (July 18, 2018): 820.
12. Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee, “FAQs.”
13. USGS, “What is an invasive species?”
14. US National Park Service, “Asian Carp Overview — Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.”
15. Havrelock, “Chicago River Tour.”
16. But it can also be a site of settler-colonialist bypassing of local culture: settlers can show up and “discover” plants and name them whatever they want.
17. Rachel Price, Planet/Cuba: Art, Culture, and the Future of the Island (New York: Verso Books, 2016), 49.
18. It is hard not to see the irony in the need for the state to get fossil fuels to keep the ecology workable.
19. Sarah Rainsford, “Cuba sugar cane marabu weeds ‘could be turned into fuel,’” BBC News, December 8, 2012.
20. “The Miracle of Marabú, Cuba’s Wonderful Weed,” Economist, June 1, 2017.
21. Ernesto Oroza and Gean Moreno, Tabloid #26, Navidad en el Kalahari (el continuo molecular), 2013. Paper and ink.
23. Oroza and Moreno, 4, quoted in translation in Price, 64.
24. Juliana Spahr, The Transformation (Berkeley, CA: Atelos, 2007), 1. Elton chimes in on the topic, describing the flora and fauna of Hawai’i as “rare immigrants that had to cross several thousand miles of ocean”; Charles S. Elton, The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants (Berlin: Springer Science and Business Media, 2012), 81.
26. Stephanie Burt, “An Arab-American Poet Asks What It Means to Belong to Two Cultures, or None,” New York Times, March 20, 2019.
27. This species ambiguity resonates with the book’s cover, designed by Seif Hamid. The cover is comprised of letters that spell out “Marwa” in Arabic, as well as “calligraphic-specimens traveling upwards as calligrabirds, or when read as migrating downstream, calligrafish.” Some are circled in red, “being targeted,” tagged as invasive, marked for removal. Many of these specimens are in fact the Arabic word for no; they are “speak[ing] dissent” (121). One poem ends: “let every letter represent a human standing in protest” (7).
28. ScienceDirect, “Synthetic Aperture: An Overview.”
29. This phrase is an interesting example of how Helal navigates architecture. “i with retracted scales spreadedt paws speared through film and video through their tinted windows i leapt and clawed” (114), she writes. The tinted windows form a hinge in the sentence: they are a barrier between her and “them” set up so she can just as soon rupture it. At first “through” locates the origin of the film and video surveillance, sketching the trajectory of the camera gaze, but arriving to the verbs the preposition is recast to describe her body’s trajectory, passing in the opposite direction to shatter the tinted glass obfuscating and protecting “them.” She inverts the sentence as she travels through it, turning the gaze of surveillant weapons back onto their operators.
30. Helal has used this right-to-left form in the past, and has referred to it as “The Arabic.” In an act of both “generosity and anger,” the poem “teaches us how to read it” through its own title.
31. The full line of the poem for the letter Z reads “Zoom in. Zoom out. Look, I’m trying to show you something,” as if she’s trying to guide your attention to something that just barely escapes your field of vision. Through the trope of apostrophe, Helal rhetorically aligns the reader with the antagonized surveilling “they” of “Invasius specius” through the apparatus of the camera that zooms. As the object of address, you find yourself behind the viewfinder, perhaps alongside those targeting her.
32. Though Elton made the field-founding contribution, he was not the first to use the term “invasive” to refer to ecologically overzealous nonhumans. The application dates to ecologist R.S. Troup’s 1921 book Leguminosae (Caesalpinicae) to Verbenaceae (cf. OED, which lists instead his 1928 book Silvicultural Systems as the first instance, though a facsimile of Leguminosae suggests this is incorrect). Meanwhile the use of the term “alien,” according to the OED, refers specifically to naturalized nonnative plants, and was first used in this context in 1847 by H.C. Watson. Watson writes: “I cannot properly reduce it to a lower grade of citizenship than is here assigned for it; videlicet, a species which may be native, or may be alien,” (my italics).
33. Mark A. Davis et al., “Charles S. Elton and the Dissociation of Invasion Ecology from the Rest of Ecology,” Diversity and Distributions 7, no. ½ (January–March 2001): 97.
34. David M. Richardson and Petr Pyšek, “Fifty Years of Invasion Ecology: The Legacy of Charles Elton,” Diversity and Distributions 14, no. 2 (February 5, 2008): 162.
35. Richardson and Pyšek, 161.
36. In Richardson and Pyšek’s estimation, “Invasion ecology is the study of the human-mediated introduction of organisms, especially introductions to areas outside the potential range of given organisms as defined by their natural dispersal mechanisms and biogeographical barriers” (161).
43. Elton elaborates, “I use the word ‘explosion’ deliberately, because it means the bursting out from control of forces that were previously held in restraint by other forces” (15).
45. Though one of them, the house mouse, was introduced in antiquity.
49. Lady Morgan wrote in 1830: “Having thus determined that these animals throve … in a climate … much colder than France … he resolved to attempt their naturalization in his own country.” France 1929–1930. “Naturalization, n.,” in OED Online (Oxford University Press).
50. Jen Maylack, “How a Glass Terrarium Changed the World,” Atlantic, November 12, 2017.
51. Darwin himself used the term in Origin of Species (1859), discussing “the naturalisation of plants through man’s agency in foreign lands.”