(SPAM Cuts) ‘Therianthrope’ by Jane Hartshorn
In this SPAM Cut, Maria Sledmere explores Jane Hartshorn’s shimmering revisioning of the selkie myth in ‘Therianthrope’, a poem which you can read for free here in the new amberflora.
> ‘Alterity’, Elizabeth Grosz argues in Volatile Bodies (1994), ‘is the very possibility and process of embodiment: it conditions but is also a product of the pliability and plasticity of bodies which makes them other than themselves’. Jane Hartshorn’s poem ‘Therianthrope’ reads like tendrils of breath exhaled from a creaturely consciousness which spreads, coils and drags across the space of the (web)page. ‘Therianthrope’ refers to the mythological ability of human beings to shapeshift and thus metamorphose into other animals; for instance in the case of werewolves, or, as in Hartshorn’s poem, the selkie. Just say it, softly: selkie. In doing so, you whittle the gorgeousness of skin into a click of consonance, you stretch something of a flesh which is or is not yours.
> Like myself, Hartshorn grew up in South Ayrshire, Scotland, in a town where, as Burns put it, ‘Auld Ayr is just one lengthen’d, tumbling sea-’, and homesick I listen for the brittle west coast, fraying at the skeins of her lines: at once a ‘slippery’ confession, an unravelling of myth, the breath of an animal joy, captured in hydro flight.
> Arranged on the page with the undulations of white space, making full use of that horizontal sprawl which speaks of oceans — of expanse and limits — ‘Therianthrope’ enacts the habitus of the multiplicities it contains. It takes a while before the ‘I’ in this poem surfaces, and when it does, it is in the mode of desire: ‘I loved him yes’, and so — Molly Bloom pushing her bedclothes aside — I think of the affirmative splash in which the mouth gasps for air above the water, and the gap that is time’s to own. When the speaker compares her kin to ‘the sirens / who lure poor men to their watery deaths’, there is the spectre of T. S. Eliot’s ‘Prufrock’: whose song of course is a ‘Love Song’, concluding in underwater chorus; where the ‘we’ is an uncertain signifier, subject to ‘drown’ in the wake-song of ‘human voices’ — ‘wake’ of course a summons and ceremony of death as much as awakening, and life. Is that ‘wreath[ing]’ of meaning a tangling of desire that threatens to strangle? Who is doing what to whom, and how to give poetic space to such perilous love?
> The transformative push and pull of violence or wildness slyly directs ‘Therianthrope’. There is a kind of abject, bodily horror that runs throughout, emerging in stringy, proteinous tendrils of line:
Alterity in the body is a condition of mingling affects, love being the pharmakon that binds and separates, poisons and cures. The ownership of ‘a body’ is ambiguous, but parts of the body can be identified: ‘my head’, ‘my thigh’. If there is a Kristevan horror in the semen-like ‘dribble of egg-white’, we might see this stain as the marker of an epimorphic semanalysis which the poem, in all formal elasticity, invites: this idea of an emerging, dynamic signifier which is engendered in the selkie’s transforming body. After all, are not eggs the property of women’s bodies? The narrative arc of Hartshorn’s poem is familiarly mythic: following the violence of desire in which the animal is split, parted from her skin to become a kind of mousseline female, bearing from her ‘thin membrane’ of trembling humanness several children to the man who stole her seal self, until one day she flees the nuclear home and the man becomes more animal: devastated with desire and lack, ‘he knelt on all fours tore at clumps’. Yet despite this mythic structure, the poem itself dissolves at the point of its many obsessions with form: ‘a biscuit cutter pressed’, ‘the triangle of my tailbone’, ‘the coming apart’, ‘triangles of greaseproof / paper’, ‘the shape of me’. In these lines, we glimpse the violent geometries which impart upon bodies a fixing identity. If woman is essentialised as soft, animal, subject to capture and ravage, then there must always be ‘a kind of contradiction’ where that which is edible, sprawled and malleable turns back on its terse hunter: ‘anthrōpos’ and ‘therion’ may demarcate humans and beasts, but Hartshorn’s poem renders the fluidities of desire and affect that pass between each.
> Despite the poem’s obsession with peelings and cuttings and hardenings of form, the selkie’s body remains the most elusive thing: by definition, it slips. The many cuts of this text, those lines spread into flows of gasp and breath, mark attempts of the voice to stammer in a field that threatens its swallowing. The collation of human and nonhuman materials — liquid, enamel, bone, skin, mud, membrane, grass, flesh, vegetable — indicate the loosening of natural hierarchy and identification, perform a textual navigation by which the speaker navigates the craggy hostilities of the world she’s forced into. Her voice, depending on a speaker’s interpretation, might be read as fluid, lilting or jagged, snipped. It is the breakaway of the tide’s interruption: it speaks the sea as much as a ‘feminine’ body. It is a hurt thing, cascading lines to regain its power. I think of sea level rise, floods, the shifting shape of solastalgic landscapes. I think of what Charles Olsen in ‘Projective Verse’ says about the open field as the expression of ‘breathing’, ‘an energy-discharge’ attentive to myriad forces. Particles of syllables collapse like the crumpling of skin; their arrangement the kind of aftermath of a plundering, in which the agencies of lyric voice are disseminated through the body’s metonymies: where a line is a cry, space is a breath, skin is human treasure, human is beast, beast is flesh, love is a shape and the poem is woman. And she is so much of so many things, reflected in the pared lamé of Hartson’s doubling, elliptical lyric: ‘the pain / of making a space for myself within this other’.
Text: Maria Sledmere