In this SPAM Cut, Alice Hill-Woods explores the intricately woven body-as-text and pliable semiotics within Maia Elsner’s poem ‘Transnational Zoo’, which you can read here in the latest Blackbox Manifold.
> Reading ‘Transnational Zoo’ is like peering closely at the fabric of a hessian rug: at first glance it looks safe, almost predictable. Nevertheless, the longer you stare, the more complex it becomes, a spectacular weave of interconnected threads. On the PDF, the orderly prose segments flow in strange contradiction to Elsner’s dynamic cross-fertilisation of language, the detritus of imagery a testament to her textual innovation. Animal bodies coalesce with political bodies. A partridge arrives and departs, an emblem of femininity and hunting that functions as an omen for what is to follow. It is clear at this point that Elsner’s text sponges up the sticky symbolism of beasts, and uses it to spur on her vision.
> In ‘MAMMAL’, the deep red of ‘cochineal thread’ is a soft murmur of corporeal spaces, and gestures to the female body-as-text, which may be perceived in terms of a dyed watering hole, dishrags soaking up liquid and figs ripening. Is the subject’s body, as it ‘lengthens into a hide’, an accretion of ‘tormented cities’, or is she more like the rain falling in different languages, resisting containment? I delve for answers and come up with notions that lend moods rather than solve obscurities.
> The lengthening and toughening of this materially complex being is then subjected to painful dissolution. She is joined by a ‘he’. His destruction is owed to Artemis; he is hunted. Or does he hunt? The distinction between predator and prey begins to dissolve as he tracks the washerwomen to the border. The littoral – aquatic, impermanent, a site for the washerwomen to perform their tasks – nudges up against the urgency of intercourse.
They say the moon lost her virginity, that night, and the sun shred itself against the rocks. She was dragged. Dragged through Juarez, Zapata, past General Anaya, spread out, finally, at his foot.
Commas, rapidly accumulating, exert dominance on the page, each tiny incision a rhythmic severing of names, places and movements. The ‘shred’ and ‘drag’ of the poem offers the spectator an unsavoury vision, formulated and delivered with sandpaper roughness. Her body, so carefully constructed and fortified, is torn apart, the insides drawn out, ‘antlers removed, her hide skinned’. His body is ‘torn by hairless dogs’. The intensity of this scene invokes horror with its methodical separation of the constituent parts of a whole, removing and disintegrating, ‘trying to unwrite’ the body-as-text. Elsner delivers the blow with potent lucidity, and it brings to mind Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (1985), in that ‘physical pain does not simply resist language, but actively destroys it’. In a similar way, the zoomorphic self is attacked and reduced to chaotic matter, seemingly analogous to the fleshy fragility of language.
> The speaker states that ‘in old manuscripts, small difference there is between sand f’, alluding to the Middle English illustrated manuscript, Cotton Nero. The ‘skin’ and ‘membrane’ of this penultimate prose segment is an echo of earlier vellum; casting a thought to the skinned hide of ‘PREY’, I am reminded of the violence encoded in the history of literary expression. The italicised letters ‘sand f’, appear as configurations of ‘a great, rusted hook’. Fast forward to an image of the Anthropocene: sewage, sea-scape and children interfuse, and deposited fossil fuels glimmer with rainbow vibrancy.
> The last segment, ‘CAGE’, motions to the pliable putty that is lexicology. Names are given, erased, forgotten or washed away. In the same breath, we witness a final metamorphosis: ‘the Authorities turn people into birds. Some nests are burned. Some wings are broken’. Elsner’s poem invites us to observe the vicious paradise she creates on the skeletons of disjunctive topography and intertextual cadences, and any rigid space/time linearity is weakened beneath the weight of her inquiry. The dusk of the text prepares for its next cycle, and it is in this hollow warmth that thoughts bask, or take flight.
Text and Image: Alice Hill-Woods