(REVIEW) Strangers by Rebecca Tamás
Amy Clarkson is guided through material and temporal thresholds as she enters the portal of Rebecca Tamás' essay collection, Strangers (Makina Books, 2020), exploring issues of strange ecology, hospitality, land ownership, being, suffering, mystery and entanglement.
> It is uncanny to hold Strangers so easily within a hand; book fully opened towards face and chest, pages moving with breath and breeze as winged ants fluently explore the conjoined terrains of paper and skin. It’s almost as if the book grows from my arm directly.
> The moment that I finally opened Strangers from its paper printed wrap was the day after the intense swarming of flying ants, whose arrival to this remote shoreline seemingly coincided with my own. Carried alongside other essential supplies over long days of walking, the book now emerged to sit beside me on a block of driftwood: potent, imminent in its paper wrapping. A single ant— a lone straggler— crawled slowly across its cover design, lingering near the artfully watchful green-leaved eyes which had been peeking out from my twitter feed and the depths of my rucksack with an enticing pareidolia.
> I’d saved unwrapping the book until now, this transitional moment of exchange between months of inner-city lockdown and a first venture out to the more-than-human company of a ‘wild’ landscape, swapping facemask for midge-net in the absence of human others. Strangers was to be the threshold between these distinct ecologies and modes of being, with Rebecca Tamás as my guide.
> Released into the world in October 2020, Strangers arrives on the cusp of global transition: the betwixt and between of the collective shock of pandemic, and all the reverberations still to unfold. Our readings of texts published this year might well lodge into our subconscious, classified as those which were written ‘Before’, and those which have emerged ‘After’, but Strangers seems to take up the place of the threshold itself. It offers both a premonition of the ecological and social conditions which led into the pandemic, and then veraciously attunes to this ringing aftermath which is now our daily existence.
> A book is always an encounter between writer, reader and world, but some books demand a heightened reckoning of just when they are to be opened and of what might come to be included and transformed within the experience of reading. The serendipity of a particular setting can intensify the felt sense of a text, or the instruction to ‘read it somewhere beautiful’ travels with a book passed between hands. ‘Read it in company,’ I might say, when urging others to make their own acquaintance with Strangers; an invitation not of having to beanywhere or with anyone in particular, but more a summoning up of awareness towards the ecological company we perpetually keep, in reading and living, regardless of any propensity towards self-isolation or social-distance.
> Tamás’ seven short prose essays move through their pleasingly broad (6x7 inch approx.) format with a font and wrought graphic design which calls a contemporary Gothic to mind. Like the stone-carved columns of cathedrals which mimic the tree trunks of earlier places of worship, there is a kind of timeless recall at play within the spacious layout and the beautiful sequential design work here from Makina Books. It seems to ask, what lifeforce still stirs within the core of that which might have hardened, or been paved over by the industrial forces long internalised within our cultural psyche? The circular pupil from the leaf-eyed design reappears between essays, darting playfully over a grid-like backing and landing in not-entirely-predictable positions — creating that unnerving primordial sensation of being watched and witnessed by the living world, watching here the expansion and re-animation of our capacity for ecological thought as the collection unfolds.
> Strangers has been hotly anticipated. As the first collection of prose essays from Rebecca Tamás, this partly comes from the anticipation of witnessing a poet traverse forms, but it is more than that too. With a particular attention honed through her previous projects, Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry (2018, Ignota), of which Tamás along with Sarah Shin was editor, and WITCH (2019, Penned in the Margin), her widely acclaimed debut poetry collection, Tamás’ attentiveness of form and craft towards desire, ritual, and the linguistic possibilities towards empowerment and transformative expression, coalesce into something not easily labelled as ecopoetics, but towards something more intersectional, urgent and strange. Where Tamás defined spell-making as a feminist intervention, ‘a way of making physical change in the world,’[i] Strangers arrives in a moment where our sense making capabilities and relationship with the living world have been newly amplified: our human vulnerabilities made explicit and our capacity to meet the nonhuman anew felt more urgent than ever. Imbued with that same shape-shifting intentionality of Tamás’ previous work, Strangers arrives poised to bring our attention to that membrane of slippery interface: the relationality between self and other, human and nonhuman.
> The opening essay of the collection, ‘Watermelon,’ begins with the reverberations of land rights, as Tamás recalls the ethics in action of the True Levellers, ‘the Diggers’ of 1649, who tilled the land near Cobham, Surrey, in an experimental manifestation of radical co-operation and common land ownership. The ‘digging’ of their namesake became more than their action of tilling the land: it chimed too with the ethical discourse of their manifesto, which sought to ‘dig in’ against the ensuing rise of enclosure acts and social commodification.
> In turn, the digging of creative-critical thought is consciously at play here throughout the poetics of Tamás’ writing, as an act which couples both embodied action and a deep questioning: turning over, rootling, sifting through and re-earthing. Tilling. Digging beneath the surface of ‘normal’ reality. Preparing the ground for change. Currents and reverberations of these environmental actions percolate through these gathered histories, still felt despite the paving over and continued project of enclosure as decreed by capitalistic privatisation and social commodification. That the Diggers’ momentary existence — mere months of physical occupation — should resurface here, their manifesto towards common land ownership still holding true and as of yet unrealised, becomes testament to what Tamás names as the most simple, radical, and ignored ideal of all: equality. For this past project of ethics in action ‘will be destroyed by the present if we do not re-animate it’ (18), Tamás implores, revealing a course of intent that accords with the wider reclamation of the commons as found within Silvia Federicci’s Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons (2018).
> As a project of re-animating, or re-enchanting, it becomes clear that the commons in question here is not only that of externalised ‘environment’, but the medium of thought itself. Seeking to change the parameters of what is thinkable, expanding the ecological thought we are capable of, Tamás allies the actions of the Diggers to her own project of reclamation, the soil analogous with our cultural psyche. By re-inhabiting the occasionally used slur of ‘Watermelon’ (green on the outside, red in the middle) that is levelled towards eco-socialists, Tamás opens the collection of essays with delicious subversion, seeding through teeth and dripping juices a thriving, joyous, vital celebration of nonhuman-human into the freshly tilled soil of these reimagined commons where ecological, social and climate justice might grow with reciprocity into an unstoppable force.
> The essays appear not as fragments but as portals, dropping deep into the currents of contemporary ecological thought and lived experience and swirling within the root systems and uprisings of historic and mythic influences, with a voice that insists on the positioning and reckoning of climate change within our shared cultural fabric. Working together, they prepare the ground of thought and expand outwards in explorative pathways; their ambition and scale of impact revealed within their entirety. Actively evoking Timothy Morton’s ‘Strange Stranger,’ (offered up by Morton as a signifier towards our relational understanding of the non-human animal, with which he portends: ‘lifeforms are irreducibly uncanny— this means the more we know about them, the stranger they become; science doesn’t make it better, science makes it worse’[ii]), Tamás’ inclusivity of personal narrative and philosophical poetics finds a way for such intimate strangeness to exist, situating the essay form as the very grounds for such relationality to thrive.
> Several essays in the collection exist in direct relation with the creative practice of contemporary writer/ artist/ poets whose work explores perception towards non-human other: respectively, Clarice Lispector, Ana Mendieta and Ariana Reines. Through developing such modes of companionable creative-criticality, Strangersdevelops a body of inter-textuality that is both generous and generative, creating a symbiosis of deep reading and writing-with which, as a mode of relationality, feels inherently ecological. Within this poesis/politics of care and mutuality, a sphere of influence and resonance develops within the discourse, rippling and arising, using the agency of creative perception to understand the nature of encounter itself. That such a groundswell of creative response to the text exists prior to its publication, with MAP magazine featuring a series of artist responses, it seems that Strangers offers up a starter-culture for a particular concoction of creative-ecological co-flourishing.
> ‘On Hospitality’ grows in relation with Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H and the cockroach encounter of that novel, developing a questioning of how to be a friend to a stranger, calling on rituals of hospitality and the terrible intimacy — or even horror — that confrontation with the nonhuman can demand. The experience of being bodily swarmed by the swirling, tickling all-pervasive explorations of the flying ants whilst reading was perhaps an appropriate training ground for such understandings: their occupation of page and skin caused no harm beyond the uncanny disconcertion of being engulfed by other life, a low-key subliminal terror. Later, the evening ritual of seeking out the presence of ticks on my body, whose faces burrowed into flesh and bodily contours with such unnerving intimacy, was loaded with the additional risk of becoming host to Lyme’s disease: the horror of the visible amplified by the unseen potential for such debilitating impact. Later still, re-reading Strangers back in Glasgow, where hosting human others within our domestic spaces has been deemed more dangerous than meeting in public, our innate understandings of hospitality, risk and nonhuman intimacy are warped into new configurations. As Morton portends, symbiosis, how lifeforms interconnect, is full of all kinds of uneasy relationships, ‘where beings aren’t in total lockstep with one another.’
> Incorporating the work of Cuban-American artist, Ana Mendieta, whose creative practice of breaking boundaries between body and earth, human and nonhuman, ‘On Greenness’ is brings a particular tenderness and passion. Images are layered, the lush descriptions of the artist in a creek bed, or with orifices sprouting with flowers, build throughout the text so when a Deleuze and Guattari citation later references the self as a door, the layers of imagery fold in on themselves, the readers’ internal senses keening towards a sprouting of their own. It is perhaps here where a poetic unfolding is most visibly at play. Heralding Mendieta’s work for showing us the ‘huge realm of possibility that lies outside of the container of allegedly ‘normal’ existence in late capitalism […] a space in which all can change, where the boundary between a wolf, a bird, a lizard, a woman is not as one might imagine, but open and liable to shift’ (52), the Green Woman resurges as a living potency of green flourishing: the shifting, spacious shape-shifting boundaries reclaimed as ‘a mode of becoming with, the world of which we are a part.’
> Strikingly, Tamás’ work never claims the experience of boundaries dissolving altogether. Val Plumwood’s Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (1993) painstakingly implores the case for deep ecology to reinstate the question of difference, instead of claiming the experience of other as our own, however ‘ecological’ the intention:
Acknowledging the other’s boundary and opacity of being is part of respect for the other. It is the master consciousness which presumes to violate boundaries and claims to subsume, penetrate and exhaust the other, and such treatment is a standard part of subordination (Plumwood 1993: 178).
When ‘merging’ occurs here, within ‘On Pain’, it is a fitful uprising. Companioning Ariana Reines’ collection of poetry, The Cow (2006), the experience of dissolvement of boundaries comes not as a utopian epiphany of ecological belonging, but within a ‘fiesta of pain,’ wherein the subjugation of the human female is conjoined with the suffering of exploited female animal bodies under patriarchal capitalism. The only redemption offered comes through the language of expression itself. Not as a righteousness of correction, but through the conviction that ‘to bring it into language […] that is a kind of reach for freedom’ (62). A reach towards that which will make us well.
> Contemplating the death and disappearance of species, of places, environments, histories and landscapes, Tamás adds a compelling consideration to the practical implications of such loss: that in addition, various forms of our human thought will die with these too. By situating the nature of thought itself within the insights of secular panpsychism, which understands that mind-like qualities have always existed in the world, it both encapsulates and negates the anthropocentric, reforming it into something radically ecological, animist even, a case that makes clear the cultural/creative necessity for such a poetic project. ‘Could it be then’, Tamás asks, ‘that nonhuman difference itself is necessary to our wellbeing and the possibility of our thought?’ (41). ‘Perhaps without the agency and indifference of the nonhuman, the capacity for thought curdles and gets sick.’ That there is such a shocking alterity bound up within our capacity for thought, surfaces with a revivifying force throughout Strangers inviting us towards a gasping culpability of interconnectedness, in which the forces of expression and ethics in action are paramount. Ultimately, the fertile grounds of thought itself, stretched and nurtured within Tamás’ tending, are permitted to return into that undefinable state of zen-like being, where ‘the word ‘think’ begins to crumble and fracture under the weight of itself, under all of these different beings.’ (43).
> Never grasping to a point of claiming, the collection ends with ‘On Mystery’, dispersing with a yearning for the circus, or the distant lilt of Transylvanian music. Strangers works as an invisible dance partner — the nonhuman is never othered, nor claimed as the same, but instead offers starting points of encounter, moving within and without, through the same symbiotic, amniotic fluids of gut, imagination, climate and universe. Reading Strangers, the self grips and dissolves in response, an ebb and flow of pulsing and reaching, rooting and lifting, wherein ‘the ‘natural world’ does not wait outside of us, but moves through the door of our being, connecting and reforming what we are, its sticky indifference impossible to excise.’ (52)
Strangers is available to order from Makina Books.
Text: Amy Clarkson