“the locus of agency is always an assemblage”
It’s been 468 years since the publication of Copernicus’s On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres, and just over 400 years since Galileo first observed that Jupiter had its own moons. These two discoveries not only confirmed the heliocentric make up of the solar system, but also offered the first glimmers into the vast complexity of the physical universe. We have since learned that we live in a cosmos populated by numerous systems and subsystems, each with its own structures and heterarchies. At the time of these discoveries, the known world, with us safely nestled in the center of God’s concern, was suddenly overturned and humanity thrust from the center to its cold peripheries.
Though contemporary industrial and consumerist practices still betray our strong anthropocentric bias in which “our” needs trump other species’, the rising tide of environmentalist discourse inflecting public debate suggests that we are truly beginning to adopt a more equivalent relation to the world around us. The upside of this equivalence has awakened in us a new respect for difference across life forms. In this new configuration, life generally has come to occupy the sacred greatness once solely ascribed to reason and humanity. We’ve exchanged our cosmic centrality for a new version of wonder—one that replaces magnanimity with marvel. That we are one of a plenitude is both strange and beautiful. Anyone who has observed Sir David Attenborough’s documentary series, The Blue Planet, for example, will recognize this phenomenon.
Generally, to ascribe to life (not just human, but all forms), implies a more ethical mode of being. Many people refuse to eat meat out of respect for animal life. Some even strain their drinking water to avoid inadvertently swallowing a bug. This stance claims a higher morality, a grander ethics than a strictly anthropocentric system of values can allow. But can even this frame be expanded upon? Is life the end of our purview?
I say all this by way of introducing what I feel are the pressing considerations underpinning Cara Benson’s newest book, (made). Benson is not a physicist, but her book invites us to reconsider the conceptual frames with which we structure the universe and our relation to it. In (made), Benson’s radical ecopoetics proposes that the values we attribute to life—such as agency and sentience—cannot be affirmed without recognizing their construction within and among a vibrantly active, dense universe. Time, thought, matter, sentiment—all appear with equal consideration in the turning planes of her pages to suggest the world as a gathering, full and ordered according to a logic of burgeoning and decay. Nouns appear like gravitational depressions in psychological fields, concavities around which other feelings and associations collect. And we of that collection, too.
Primarily a gathering of prose pieces, (made) begins with an epigraph from A.R. Ammon’s Garbage: “…within limits the made thing accepts / its revelation and dissolution….” Drawing her inspiration from a text that sought to reclaim linguistic and social refuse as the life force of poetry, Benson offers a renewed take on how the made materials of the world press upon us and populate our psyches as surely as our own thoughts. Rather than looking at waste, however, Benson is also interested in the thingness of a matter, of its being and imprint in the world: “Long pricker fingers stretch their hold on a yard winding through the unwanted growth. Threat, all unexpected grip.” The growing plant (implied), is an active participant in its environment; it shapes the world it also inhabits. The landscape is literally in the plant’s “grip.” By transforming the verb, “prick” into its adjective form, “pricker,” actions become attributes of materials, revealing how object’s conspire with and contribute to their surroundings. Benson insists that landscapes—whether physical, psychological—are made.
In this sense, Benson resonates strongly with philosopher Jane Bennett, who espouses a “vital materialism” that questions the last frontier of western binarist thought: organic/inorganic, subject/thing. What Bennet proposes is not some New Age animism of the world around us, but a radical reconsideration of what constitutes being. Where I feel Benson and Bennett intersect most is in their understanding of the environment. In an interview for GAM, Bennett writes that
a landscape possesses an efficacy of its own, a liveliness intermeshed with human agency. Clearly, the scape of the land is more than a geo-physical surface upon which events play out. Clearly, a particular configuration of plants, buildings, mounds, winds, rocks, moods does not operate simply as a tableau for actions whose impetus comes from elsewhere.
Benson might respond that the universe is made, collaboratively and continuously, and that this making is both dependent upon and oblivious to our contribution: “The cross-country mile. The tea was had roadside while semis and cycles hurt us with their dusty abandonments minute minute minute. An interlocked figurine, infrastructure. We’re just the suit-makers.”
Revelation and dissolution operate like twin parameters for Benson’s collection, whose primary structures depend upon emotional harmonics, the density of the observable world, Benson’s mind’s plea. We can see these poles at work in the tension created by her text’s appearance on the page—the pieces resist normative relationships between “title” and “poem,” with most prose blocks followed by a single word or phrase, printed in super large script. These “titles” (for lack of a better word) press on the prose, casting their own associational, sometimes definitional, shadows over the writing.
The spark that starts the going itself gone. Sacrificial combustion. A hot alphabet soup spells over the sun starved night. Usual bull nostril spout, bound muse, gods fill linguistically while townies try their two-doors. Tourists, too. Babies only all of us. What travel will come. What standstill. Such ruckus amok. Such rendering.
The gestural and initially obscure logic at work between each sentence necessitates my adopting a phenomenological approach. “Clay” floats in the margins of my field of vision while reading the text. Such a humble matter–earthly, inert, shaped by hand and fired into use. Another way of considering it: what remains when “the spark that starts the going itself gone.” Yet another: clay, the material that stops when made. Clay, fire, then something else. “Ignition, then.” This “then” leads into an end, a silence. Perhaps clay’s silence. Revelation leads to dissolution when such strong associational readings lose purchase: “bound muse,” “babies only all of us.”
By inviting such reading strategies, Benson perhaps seeks to enact the sort of dynamic dissolution between self and landscape, object and subject, that an ecopoetics of vital materialism calls us to. Intriguingly, I found that her approach differs from the collaborative meaning-making exercises invited by other “open” texts. Benson’s nouns have a deliberative insistence, much like her “titles” on the page, that reckon with their referential materiality. They are resolutely present. From a conceptual perspective, I found this incredibly engaging. From a readerly perspective, though, I found that there are dangers: when her lists come too quickly or densely, as in a few other sections, the reading experience transformed into a dense array that ejected me from the work. How patient and present was I willing to be? Sometimes more so than others. When it works, though, Benson is aptly mirroring the mystery–the absurdity of human logic–in the dynamic fields of experience and matter.
Here’s a short excerpt from another page. I feel echoes of Stein’s Tender Buttons in Benson’s leaps, the beautiful, human asymmetry in her metaphorical logic.
Fawn, love. Nighttime is for touch. Milk neck. Cotton belly. Ocean, ocean.
Draped lace words, scarlet. Grant light.
Benson’s imagination isn’t as domesticated as Stein’s, though. As an ecopoetical venture, (made) vaults, pulls “inversion hemisphere to atmosphere to anthill.” Seasons change, even geologic epochs accrue, over the course of the book. I find that Stein’s cubist sensibilities worked for presenting how the mind’s dynamic processes take hold of a static object. However, time, aside from a sense of duration, drops out of Stein’s work. Benson’s insistence, however subtle, on time’s dynamic characteristics, reflects the complexities of our material and perceptual realities. Things change.
Furthermore, Benson is not the sole thinking and feeling agent in the work. Other minds and lives mingle together, casting their own dramas into the sky.
Companions settle themselves in a rosy embrace. A hug off the horizon while her face-mask covers desire too cold to be discovered. What she can’t hold, she’ll havoc. A bathtub of surprise silk waiting.
One pink baby writhing in linen.
One colon working.
In this piece, Benson creates micro-narratives in her intercutting of statements and images. The threat embedded in her use of the word “havoc” manifests more clearly in the images of a baby, “writhing in linen,” followed by “one colon working.” It’s a potentially familial drama, intimate but also rendered abstractly through the lack of any detailed or personal signifiers. Despite this abstraction, human emotions don’t drop out of the frame; Benson’s diction (particularly “havoc” and “writhing”) insists upon the immediacy of feelings.
I recognize that my reading of the abstracted drama above hinges on a potential mis-reading of “one colon working,” which also refers to Ammons’s penchant for using the colon in Garbage. However, the colon, in Ammons’s work, was a way of marking a relation, however arbitrary it seemed. And this might lead us to ask Benson, what holds these ideas in concert? Is the “colon” truly working? I feel that the better question would rather be, not is the colon working, but are we?
Unlike Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, (made) doesn’t offer a promise of regular structures to assist in creating a systematic coherence across the work or to better assist in performing its project. There’s an unruly, arbitrary willfulness in the pages–some of which were blank or had only one word–that refutes any expectations of what ought to follow next. In this unruliness, however, (made) also reads like an intensely personal book, one that collates her notes and personal observations unedited for us, offering perhaps a glimpse into how one mind’s folds casts and recasts the world around it: “Goose Down. Misanthrope in line at the electronics store. Rugged vitamins. Filamentary comment. Aurora borealis of the parking lot.” Importantly, as comforting as it may be to encounter another’s thoughts in a densely packed world, the subjective mind appears simply as another denizen of the spotted universe, given no more weight or credence than what it observes.
I can see how, objectively, (made)’s project could be terrifically deflating regarding the human condition. Such a stance could lead to an absolute nihilism in which all human action is meaningless. We are, and we are among many. What is the meaning in being of a plenitude?
Bobbed sunflower head heavy from the yearning fulfilled. What effort to make love to such a star. Yellow sight, beholden to those who reven in brief, yet luminous day-night. […]
[…] What to survive. Morning arrives.
The beauty of (made) is that it doesn’t even bother with such questions. If it asks anything, it is to leave questioning aside and to observe, to feel the broad calamity of being around us. The universe is infinitely full, full beyond reckoning. Just look at how we are surrounded, held.