(REVIEW) Arboreally Speaking: Amy Todman’s Twig and Katherine Osborne’s Descansos
(‘I have a mind for puzzles but this is final / level for the win’ (Osborne, Descansos 2018, p. 5))
In this review, Rhian Williams compares the arboreal language, sprawling branches, vibrations, snaps and tactility of two rich and generative pamphlets: Katherine Osborne’s Descansos (salo press, 2018) and Amy Todman’s Twig (Amy Todman, 2019).
> When Katherine Osborne tells us that ‘Trees have advanced language.’ (2018, p. 2) Amy Todman might have been listening attentively. Druid-like with her divining rods (to call on a divining rod is to ‘work the twig’), Todman opens her Twig (2019) – a strange, unsettling four-part drama – with the assertions, ‘Twigs are not forming letters / Twigs are not characters’ (‘Act One’, n.p.). And yet, they are mobilised in the service of this intense, visceral engagement with utterance. Todman’s commitment to making her piece open to the communication of stubby branches (‘The Hum of Concordance’, Act 3) calls to mind ancient woody language – the ogham, the Welsh bard Taliesin’s Cad Goddeu – those early models of language as root and branch, as anticipating leafy protuberances, as arboreal mysticism. And yet, Todman’s piece is resolutely calm, steady, grounded (the epigram to Osborne’s collection, from Clarissa Pinkola Estés, perhaps provides some explanation: ‘There is a lot to be said for pinning things to the earth so they don’t follow us around’). At least at first, Todman’s twigs are entirely ‘twiggy’ – sui generis, they are twig; not branches anticipating growth, not decimated tree awaiting kindling, but insouciant objects, confident in themselves – ‘The twig is slender and I enjoy the way it looks, its natural curve and blunt hard end’ (‘Stick Meme’, n.p.). But in Todman’s avant-garde handling, the twigs become forceful conductors of bodily energy: ‘While twig balances page and chest I am contained, point of pressure located’ (‘Stick Meme’, n.p.), suggesting a materiality that feels reiterated in the chapbook’s haptic mise-en-scène of thick, creamy paper enclosed in a laid paper cover that combines digital printing with some kind of hand roughing: spots of pulp-y exposure allow the material’s woody origins to suggest themselves in glimpses that remind me of the fate of a book cover I once left out overnight and was trailed over by slugs. Twig has a seductive, analogue hand feel.
> This piece is odd and enigmatic; tonally it feels almost anarchic in its provocations – sad, absurd, funny, ominous. Each of Twig’s four acts begins with exposition – including quasi stage direction – in prose before slowly splaying out into ‘scenes’ of experimental poetics that utilise space and layout to create spare formations that suggest a kind of released breath in relation to the tight, pressurised scenes of poetic labour. For Twig seems (at least to me) to be a drama of expression. Its movements oscillate between an intense scene of domestic privacy and the seemingly public space of the theatre; its protagonists are a poet and a twig, bound together as bridge, and the twig and lettering, caught in a drama of takeover. In this absurdist theatre, humans (or at least, ‘characters’; I understand the pun here on person in a play and a written letter to be intentional) contort to manipulate twigs on threads, only to be eviscerated from the scene by Act Two as ‘The twigs are untethered and still’, leaving just a struggling voice that falters through letters that have been described in sticks and circles: ‘The stick is part of this descriptive process but we are not sure how’ (‘One Twig, One Edge’, n.p.). By Act Three the twigs are losing their material integrity: dissolving into letter sounds, losing their edge, ‘There is no twig’ (‘What Has Twig?’, n.p.) and at this point of dissolution we understand that ‘twig and human move closer, or human is closer to twig’ (ibid.).
> In this drama of mutability, even metamorphosis, the twigs are overtaken by letters in sticks and circles; before this, Twig has probed in its short, curious interludes the twig’s relationship to line, to words, and to curves, but concludes ‘A line that circles is not a twig’ (‘Words For’). All this is staged in relation to the private scene of effort that is the poet’s heroic struggle to write at the kitchen table, where ‘The twig is a bridge between body and table and I am careful with the pressure on my chest’ (‘Stick Meme’, n.p.). Here the effort of writing is dramatized as the poet moves the twig to inscription, awkward and unsteady always, and deeply breathing through restriction (one feels the breath of ancient lyric utterance in this piece’s respiratory poet machine). The deliberate setting up of barriers, obstacles (in the text’s own terms, awkwardnesses), wilfully works at revelation, intensity, or some kind of excavation of the act of writerly expression: ‘My movements are stilted and the words come with slow violence, attention beyond the capabilities of computer keyboard or pen’ (Stick Meme, n.p.). The piece is too physical to be nostalgic, but it certainly evokes the histories of writing, of ancient processes and poses the quality of their manifestation in the digital present as some kind of question.
> Act Four’s soft, gentle, wetting rain, when it finally comes, feels like an irrigation… or a flood; the kind of rain that the chapbook itself perhaps has been left out in, following its touch-driven logic. And so Twig’s absurdist theatricality dramatizes a coming to language – earlier there was ‘Release soft as butter’ (‘The Edge of My Body Where I Write’, n.p.) – with all the ambiguity of the theatre’s space’s intersection of subjectivity with spectacle. The murmurings and stutterings of the text gather together in the final exquisite line, ‘It is a fine rain of the uncertain forming of shapes in the mouth of the narrator’ (‘Twigs Are Not’, n.p.). I feel I have been through a drama myself, through an effort of comprehension. This perplexing, probing piece worries at the act of writing – William Carlos Williams’ famous maxim that ‘the poem is a machine made of words’ is refigured as visceral commitment: ‘my body / a machine that breathes’ (‘Dead Wood’, n.p.). Gesturing at the langue/parole dyad through its generic modes of drama and lyric, Twig engages dialectics of abstraction/materiality; community/individual; expressed/repressed. I’m not entirely sure what this strange piece looks to stage, what it mourns, what it divines, but I found myself caught on its branches.
> Twig foregrounds methodology, taking us through the active processes that might allow us to discern ‘Fallen lines and heavy human traces’ (‘The Hum of Concordance’, n.p.). For Osborne such traces have already been marked; the poet’s work, as intimated in Descansos’s recurring motifs of communication, is to notice the markings and to tune into the presences that endure to accompany all our wanderings. Named for the small shrines of tokens that mark sites of sudden death, often at roadsides, Descansos is a collection of lyrics – some prose poems, many more fragmentary, but still left-aligned pieces – that register as aftermaths, as records of anguished grief, hot-tempered responses to deadening methods of assimilation (‘Take me to your Research Team. I will give them. Evidence’, p. 2), as insistences on the persistence of spirit, of the potency of portals (arboreal again):
Your tree is out loud & the party going on is a disappearing act / is the portal we can afterlife through (p. 19)
> Despite its more apparent occasion, and its leading trope of visually enshrined memorialising, Osborne’s collection too is indirect and enigmatic in its method. Descansos is preoccupied by ways of knowing, by epistemology; littered with tokens of correspondence (dreams, telephones, omens ) and processes of attunement (vibrations, magical thinking, automatic writing, spirit guides, Shaman), the collection is in a continual, sometimes-disorientating, process of discerning, channelling, conducting: ‘I am driving. Divining a message / from the hearse in front of me’ (p. 12). In this commitment to engaging the unsaid, the buried, the suppressed, the lifeworlds beneath contemporary accounting, Descansos feels like a collection for our times. To read it is to join with its commitment to storytelling, to swerve with its movements between narration and lyric expression, and to listen as command of the lyric ‘I’ shifts between voices, speaking from now, speaking from before, insisting on ontological disruptions: ‘I was an astronaut showing up at the funeral. I was lava pouring down into the village’ (p. 14).
> Perhaps most strikingly, this is a collection that engages – complexly, sometimes covertly, sometimes overtly – with the work of reckoning with America’s colonial-settler past and present, its status as stolen land. We are confronted with frontiers, with the landscapes of capture and extermination – Omaha, ‘gateway’ to the West, the Great Plains on fire – and with the violences that mark the distinctions between animals as companion/spirit species, the stolen cattle, those being ‘meadowed / to death’ (p. 16), and those mere simulacra in New York apartments: ‘where there / are no animals, just pictures of the / animals in calendars sold half price’ (p. 16). The scene is post-industrial (‘Oil fields up in smoke’, p. 1; ‘on a planet being mined to death’, p. 13; ‘I sign to the crops that alibi the pesticides driven into their lyric’, p. 14) and not post-colonial enough (‘Drums are circling / with this Message’, in ‘(Biloxi, MS)’, p. 16, historical site of civil rights activists swimming in resistance, and location of a memorial for those lost in Hurricane Katrina). In this way, Osborne weaves an intense sense of personal quests for reassurance, for answers, for explanations – relationships with a missing mother, an appetite for learning that teeters into a distracting voraciousness (‘I can only pay attention if I think / it has to do with me’, p. 19) – with the maddening effects of a nation’s disregard for the duty of acknowledgement, reparation, repair. The earthy contents – fire, animal, woods, water – in relation with Descansos’s beautiful cover art of constellations, seems determined to focus, even if unevenly and mysteriously, America’s relationship with territory, the dysfunction of its relationship with space (both terrestrial and ET).
> As with Todman’s Twig, Osborne’s Descansos – like all the best poetry – does not determine its contexts entirely, does not restrict its vibrational affects. Both texts seem intent on the intensity of poetry as a means of enquiry, as a ‘way into’ something, as a tool for both enigma and expression. In its offering of itself as a series of Latinx shrines, Descansos points abstrusely to the missing, to the lacunae (all too material in the numbers of missing persons from Native communities in North America), to the exterminations and evaporations of American history. To the stuttering analogue tapes of record (the grammar of penultimate stops in the prose-poem sentences makes this textual), Descansos draws our attention, asks us to: ‘Rewind. I know nothing at the beginning and. Here. Pause the video. Did you catch that? The start of knowing’ (p. 8); we are compelled to advance. And yet the collection is ominous, foreboding, anthropocenic. The archer draws back the string, the arrow quivers, the horses hooves thunder. And still we are drunk on certainty, on mapping:
With some laughter between
Trees we map with all I know About trees A boat could rescue us So we go deeper into the woods (p. 13)
I sense Todman listening again. Somewhere a twig is cracking.
Amy Todman, Twig, Chapbook, 32pp, edition of 100 (Amy Todman, 2019)
Katherine Osborne, Descansos, 32pp (salo press, 2018)
Text: Rhian Williams
Images: Salo Press/Amy Todman