A review of Caryl Pagel's 'Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death'
Caryl Pagel’s Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death concerns itself with liminal states, the between and beyond that haunts the here and now. It is apparent from the opening lines of “Levitation,” the book’s first poem, that the very experience of having a body is going to be difficult and complex in this world of ghosts and shadows:
It is night & I am lying — my body level — low along the floor until I take a hold of me; I slowly rise Each scientist in the room reaches for his pen (breast pocket) at once (13)
The speaker’s levitation is experienced as an uncanny split in her self-awareness; an “I” takes control of a “me” to produce the mysterious motion, rising from the floor and eventually floating “out an open window & into the evening” (13). The scientists, meanwhile, behave in machine-like synchronicity, reaching for their pens in unison and drawing the standard, unanimous conclusion that everything they’ve seen “is made: string smoke mirrors” (13). So who is pulling whose strings? The speaker is eerily both present and absent, the object of the investigation and woefully unable to investigate herself: “Tell me how that is possible; I could not see it but I was there” (13).
In this poem, and throughout this collection, the body appears uncanny and alien — both to those inhabiting it and those observing it. A series of poems called “The Botched Bestiary” draws on a variety of source texts and replaces the names of specific animals with the word “body,” to intriguing effect: “The body from North America was considered . . . extinct in the 1980s but recently it has resurfaced. Little is known about the body, but what is known is very strange. It can grow up to three feet in length[,] and when handled gives off a smell like lilies. The body is believed to be able to spit in defense” (16). These archival assemblages challenge us to think in unusual ways about our own human bodies, but their cumulative effect is curiously deadening: instead of a rich and varied “bestiary,” these animals are stripped of their identities and appear as blank “bodies,” which perhaps they are. Like the levitating woman and the mechanical scientists, animals are animate without awareness — a state that suddenly appears uncomfortably close to “undead.”
In addition to bodies without names, Pagel gives us names without bodies in a poem titled “Common Plant & Animal Names (Existing & Not Existing).” This alphabetical catalogue begins this way:
Abandoned Eyelet, Absenting Fact, Absolute New Bus Stop. Alarmwireseed, Amberweed, Appalling Forgotten Flavor. Army Ant, Arson Day, Asphalt And, Awe-to-Death With Breakage. (28)
Some of these names are real (“Army Ant”), some sound real but are not (“Amberweed”), and many sound (and are) completely absurd. The poem works as an amusing, fanciful litany — but to read it is also to realize how much humans have projected themselves on the natural world, understanding it in their own terms. If there is a plant called “Forget-Me-Not,” why couldn’t Pagel’s inventions “Lie-To-Me” or “Magnificent Not” also be real? If such names are arbitrary, they are also intriguing, inviting questions about both the namer and the named.
Each of the three sections of this book begins with an epigraph about names, suggesting their centrality to Pagel’s concerns. Perhaps the most interesting is the one from Jacques Derrida, who writes that names inherently signify their own longevity beyond their bearers, “announcing a death to come” (33). All names, that is, are destined to end up on tombstones — or printed neatly beneath a specimen in a naturalist’s collection. In one poem called “Herbarium,” which Pagel explains was written with Emily Dickinson’s girlhood gardening album in mind, the identities of the namer and the named are perilously intertwined. In this section, the specimen seems to speak on its own behalf:
CORRECTION OF IDENTIFICATION:
I is stem with no leaves I
is body with
no mind I blooms in sight of pressed stem still
yet blooming When first did I
body that pressed this body I mean when
first did I inhibit it
Mis-named have I (40)
The pairing of the first-person pronoun with third-person verbs (“I is,” “I blooms”) suggests an object struggling to understand itself as a subject. Like all specimens in an herbarium, it is suspended in a two-dimensional imitation of life, its fleeting bloom fixed for eternity in “living” color. The shift from “inhabit” to “inhibit” shows how serious misnaming can be: one letter makes the difference between the presser and the pressed. Pagel’s investigations of names, bodies, and classification systems reveals them as a complex series of containers “inhabited” by the elusive spark of life, constraining it while also being its condition of possibility.
One reviewer has read Pagel’s frequent use of gaps and caesuras in this book as similar to “a moth-eaten journal or ancient scroll,” inviting the reader “to wonder what may fill the space.” But I don’t see anything missing in these spaces; syntax, ideas, and even words flow smoothly across them. Here are the final lines of a poem called “Occult Studies”:
one more soul could crack the surface (No) Why not collect your own throat in order to
answer yourself later from beyond We are a scientist We say: “you are not
your body you inhabit it” No name can contain this in- visible protest (65)
I read these gaps instead as the thresholds with which the book is so obsessed: the chasm between life and death that is so profound and yet so narrow that Pagel can write “I held his hand / I did not / know when it was over” (53), and the chasm between subject and object that collapses in a construction such as “I blooms.” Particularly in the several poems that are both right- and left-justified like this one, Pagel seems to have created separate spatial regions where words can interact with one another along a different axis, in new combinations, as though in another world alongside the “real” one. From start to finish this book howls, rattles, and whispers like a ghost trapped in the walls, reminding us that a different, stranger world may be closer to hand than we realize.