IN OTHER EDENS: On Amanda Ackerman's The Book of Feral Flora
In which I talk about reading Amanda Ackerman’s The Book of Feral Flora and Amanda talks about making The Book of Feral Flora.
Divya: Reading The Book of Feral Flora
Latin fera wild beast
Of an animal: Wild, untamed.
Of a plant, also (rarely), of ground: Uncultivated.
1659 Daniel Pell, preacher: “It is impossible to reduce this feral creature”
Lapse. Collapse. Prolapse. In which the organ forgets its present and reverts to a past that constitutes it. A lapse of time. A collapse of buildings. A lapse in memory. All of these involve a fall.
And of all the [capital F] Falls, the most famous and fruitful—more so than Rome—and civilizing—more so than Rome—is the Edenic. Eden is often deployed as the site of experience and trauma—the serpent is cursed to fall and crawl on its belly; the woman to feel pain during childbirth; the man to fill his belly with sweat and pain tilled from the ground. The curses spurn the snake’s ribbed core; the “woman’s” uterus; the “man’s” stomach—we go belly up when we try to fill our belly.
From dirt we came and to dirt we return, and in the middle, we eat dirt. Alas, etc.
The Edenic lapse places us in conflict with natural abundance—the feral excess—of the uncultivated garden, which, after the lapse, becomes a contested site of limited resources. The Apple, now bitten, is smaller, after all. The hermetic seal broken.
I’ve been thinking about the bite taken to break this seal—to bite down with desire; break through the shine and red; enter the white flesh—in relation to Amanda Ackerman’s upcoming Les Figues publication—The Book of Feral Floral.
The book rejects the traditional narrative of the Edenic fall and imagines a return to the feral—prelapsarian, Edenic relation—while deciding too, to eat the damned Apple. As Amanda says:
“My writing process: I eat plants. I have decided not to be hungry.”
The subject going belly-up might as well be full, no? The Book of Feral Flora is Eco-poetic and PoCo-poetic and PoGlo-poetic and unapologetic about all these things. Its central concerns: sustainable ecologies, the neocolonial territoriality of empire, the devastations of globalization. At the center of this nexus, as Williams would say, this book meditates on “a tiny purple blemish” in the framing utopian dream of “the wild carrot—taking/ the field by force.” It imagines rising up from the Fall. Growing up, one stem at a time, in other Edens.
No more the romantic flowers observed in awe from a distance—not William Blake’s weary sunflower, not William Wordsworth’s mob of yellow daffodils, not Oliver Wendell Holmes’ sleepily dreaming lily—nor the modern flowers approached shyly—not Harriet Monroe’s pure and virginal night-blooming cereus, not Gertrude Stein’s self-resembling rose, not Louis Zukofsky’s 80—but Amanda Ackerman’s Bearded Iris: a flower entering and entered into, eating and eaten by the subject until flora and femina are a knot of petals and flesh as if in asymmetric embrace and mutual ingestion performing a kind of frisky rococo that is as everdripping as the grottoes of Versailles, as plush with silk and pearlescent light as Fragonard’s swinging lady; as becoming as the wasp and the orchid in Gilles Deleuze’s dream of utopian deterritorialization in which the orchid imitates the wasp and the wasp becomes part of the orchid in an explosive circulation of codes syruped in the excess of mutual signifying and satisfaction. A feast is an orgy; an orgy a feast.
From The Book of Feral Flora:
I bring irises to the iris. In my eye’s reflection in the bowl of my eye my heart grew out of my brain, a rabbit-eared iris looks like a rabbit-eared iris
It was my reward to see the irises. I had a mother who had three husbands. This practice is called polyandry. It is remotely common. When she and I crawled together by the bog we were a single organism. Then we arrived. She pointed out rows of “flowers”; —She said they were tied down.
To get there we walked through dripping hedges. It was unclear who was the guide. Her body/the world/and everything not in the world is a paste of pigment. The first time the day was hot. There was a confusing light.
I bring irises to the iris. Something is over. The green flute body torso of a bearded—itwas. Before and after. Perhaps death is the wrong word? Here under all the speaking and crying they all die. Fatal mouth fatal ripping potent force. Replaced by something being born. Goodbye to the flat look of eyes sharing adequate music. My eyes see ribbon in water rays and the mortal stalk. The iris becoming another iris. The irises are becoming other irises.
The core of Amanda’s book takes root in a surreal, yet domestic drama between two sisters—Sorrel and Rose—who find themselves inside the Belly of a Whale. With every acidic churn in the muddy “ruined garden” of the oceanic pachyderm’s fleshy and volcanic guts the sisters collude and collide over questions of gender, art, fertility (of flora and fauna and sapien), eco-ethics, and the ecstasies of turning feral. Like Jonah, who lived inside a whale to predict Christ’s resurrection, this is a tale of re-birth filtered through the baleen of Western tropes and spouted out in refined slivers—in turn sincere and parodic.
From The Book of Feral Flora:
The painting that Rose re-paints everyday is semi-mimetic, full of shapes that could be trees or humans or animals or houses or areas of commerce; or, it could be semi-abstract, just color and harmonic alone, with semi-recognizable symbols.
Day 17. Some revived esprit de corps. It is hot and dry inside the whale, muggy without being humid. Everywhere there is a terrible amount of mud. All the big questions remain unanswered. Why did this happen to them? Are they alive? Are they not alive?
The days are full of nectar and venom. One should be generous with one’s thoughts, always. But speaking the truth is a matter of timing and patience. Why does the truth sting so terribly? On this day, day 17, when the two women feel they are being held prisoner in the belly of a whale, if you offered any answers to any of the big questions, the sisters would hate you.
On that day, they hated the snake. On the next day, they would love the snake.
Some days Rose and Sorrel go through the formality of full proper dining, charcuterie, silver utensils, napkins, candles, assortments of raw vegetables. Remnants of civility. On other days it’s the opposite. Scooping food into their mouths like it was salt water.
Besides the yellow triangles that float around in the air, there are other triangles being formed over the course of these 6 months:
The snake’s tongue–its venom–its beautiful green back.
I have exhausted myself while telling you this story about these 2 sisters and how they lived inside the belly of a whale for 6 months. I can annihilate myself in the process of telling this story, expel everything and all that I know, reduce myself to nothing but a flickering blue ember. I will continue on because I am searching, hoping to clasp something. A revelation. A plan for a better life. An actual better life.
There are two world views: either you think you’re not good enough for this earth, or you think you’re too good. I have many problems, to be sure, that I would like to change. But I’ve already talked too much about the heart’s weight.
What else can I expend? Sorrel’s husband dressed like a husband.
Amanda’s book takes on an inexhaustible and fecund lushness—a wild aesthetics cultivated into discreet, interactive sections that arouse and unnerve me in surprising ways. As I read this book, I have an eerie sense that I am trapped in a small closet wallpapered with baroque botanical frescoes. But in this closet, the wall paper is alive: every interlaced filament of lichen unravels and draws tight around me; every blade of damasked frond waves near my flesh; every dewy fleur de lys is alive and photosynthesizing the light from my own eyes. The bucolic fever is thrilling, and disorienting—feral.
The Book of Feral Flora seems to be slowly undoing the aesthetic stylization of the symmetry of the plant-form—which removes us from flora and carries us to florid—and returning it towards the unpredictable feral place of the weed. Like the climbing kudzu that can take over a sleeping person, like the fluffy blowballs of dandelions that cling to your stockings, and like the milkthistle bursting out of cracks in the pavement, the book ruptures with characters that resist eradication; that thrive in difficult habitats and survive the relentless weeding of poetic discipline.
Amanda: Making The Book of Feral Flora
Senora, do you like poetry?”
“No, I detest poetry,” she answered me in an excessively critical voice, without turning towards me.
“You should drink a cup of tea; this will calm you.”
“I don’t drink; I don’t eat. I do that as a protest against my father, that goat.”
My writing process: I eat plants. I have decided not to be hungry.
I wrote The Book of Feral Flora at a time when the feral seemed to be forming on a host of other women’s tongues without our speaking to each other explicitly. To share community is to share a dreaming space, and so it is no surprise that we become-with each other and find ourselves in intimate, ardent, indirect conversation.
As Michelle Detorie states in “Notes Towards a Feral Poetics,” we also must embrace ferality as a social practice, a life’s discipline. While writing this book, I sometimes wrote notes to myself in a diaristic voice. I will share some of them now—they are not particularly confessional, but hopefully they will still be pleasurable:
- What I am thinking about today: how hard it is to take care of one body, my body, all the items I have to purchase for its care and maintenance, am I doing the right thing with my time? uncertainty and mystery = maneuverability. How should I spend my time, how tired I am, my friend recommending a book about hyper-sensitive people and how we need more sleep than others. I don’t want to be doing the labor that others will benefit from when they should be the ones doing it. Whether pleasure is perverse or a right, throwing all the world’s injustices into the blue star fire because I’m tired of them, I’m tired that people are trying to dig up the Great Barrier reef and I’m tired of the existence of Fukushima and the damage to the ocean’s creatures and I’m tired of GMOs and factory farms, and I had an epiphany that I am not selfish, and I waste time watching tv but that might be a mark of fatigue. If I can strike a balance then maybe life will maneuver and will change and good things will happen to me and all of my friends.
- I was sick last night with a terrible sinus infection. I’ve been sick on New Year’s eve before.
- 13 is a lucky number for the Mayans. I want to write a story for each of the enemies.
One day nature simply can decide to change.
- as it writes, accreting
- My head is full of cultural detritus. My head is full of junk. A woman like a walking tank of water. I keep retracing this in perpetuity. One lifespan is so short. No cultural cache here. The animal, free from life and death, now has the freedom to engage them. Humans really stress each other out.
I will readily admit that I can be very domesticated. I love how in Dodie Bellamy’s “The Feraltern” she struggles with those aspects of her nature that can only be tagged as wimpiness. I know I can be wimpy, and I know that sometimes my writing is wimpy. I also love cute creatures (have you seen a quokka?). In the struggle of wolf vs. deer, I will always side with the gentler among us.
In a similar vein, just as Bellamy swoons around the image of the goddess’s ankles wrapped in fur, I melt when I hear about a tongue which is an incredible stone—or even better, a living house covered in fungi.
The feral recognizes that language has become a series of closed symbols. As part of our domestication, we’ve recast language as a trauma, and we speak of it as system that has been fashioned to work against us. When we speak of language in this way, we collude with our own repression, and we collude with our narrow sense of humanity. The feral takes the closed symbols of words and opens them up again.
The earth is at a tipping point, and we need the intelligence, counsel, and wisdom of other creatures. My writing process for Feral Flora attempts cross-species collaboration. It attempts to expose the co-evolutionary nature of language and acknowledges that human language has not been fashioned by humans alone, although many humans have certainly attempted to stamp out the perspectives of other creatures within the linguistic system itself.
In the process of writing this book, I somatized a lot of plants, mostly irises. I worked mostly with irises because they work closely with language (not all plants do) and were willing to work within my form of American English (not all plants were) and because they gave me permission to engage them in this way (I don’t assume that all plants want to talk to me). I would take flower essences, smell orris root oil or put it on my pulse points, sit outside with the growing creatures. I also cut-up and re-wove a good deal of pastoral writing. I did a lot of sitting and typing indoors.
what I ate
most of my writing was done indoors on a computer
this was the fantasy, the plants overtaking the keyboard
I called the Book of Feral Flora a book because it does not greatly depart from the form of a book.
I also thought about how books, in ancient cultures like Egypt, held a very particular function: a person only wrote something down in the form of a book to hold the bridge between the As-Above and the So-Below. Books were also meant to be eaten. Priests would eat the words to become knowledgeable. In the Celtic alphabet, each tree was a letter. When I wanted something methodical to do, I translated letters into the tree alphabet.
Plants are probably the biggest feral population among us. All domestic plants foment and rebel against their domesticity (unless they are GMO’s or plantation forests, engineered to be unable to resist). We know plants are sweet, sexual, curative, lush, harmonic—but they are also fierce. Some pieces in the collection were written for plants as the primary audience. I may have succeeded or failed in this, but no matter. There was becoming-with instead of looking-at.
I do not know where you place your hopes, but here is where I place mine. I heard the sounds of other people’s gardens.
The Book of Feral Flora is forthcoming from Les Figues Press is 2015.
Some of the books I was reading roughly between 2010-2013:
- The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrrington
- Mute Objects of Expression by Francis Ponge
- Maria Sabina: Selections by Maria Sabina
- Creaturely Poetics: Animality and Vulnerability in Literature and Film by Anat Pick
- All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks
- (made) by Cara Benson
- Grapefruit by Yoko Ono
- Not Blessed by Harold Abramowitz
- The Mysteries of Udolpho by Anne Radcliffe
- The Monk: A Romance by Matthew Gregory Lewis
- Kerotakis by Janice Lee
- The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector
- Bodies of Work by Kathy Acker
- Anarchism Is Not Enough by Laura Riding
Amanda Ackerman is the author of the chapbooks The Seasons Cemented (Hex Presse), I Fell in Love with a Monster Truck (Insert Press Parrot #8), and Short Stones (Dancing Girl Press). She has co-authored Sin is to Celebration (House Press), the Gauss PDF UNFO Burns a Million Dollars, and the forthcoming novel Man’s Wars And Wickedness (Bon Aire Projects). She is co-publisher and co-editor of the press eohippus labs. She also writes collaboratively as part of the projects SAM OR SAMANTHA YAMS and UNFO. Her book The Book of Feral Flora is forthcoming from Les Figues press.
Divya Victor is the author of Kith (Fence, 2017); Natural Subjects (Trembling Pillow Press, 2015), winner of the Bob Kaufman Award; Things To Do With Your Mouth (Les Figues, 2014); Partial Derivative of the Unnameable (Troll Thread, 2005); and Goodbye John! On John Baldessari (2012); and the chapbooks UNSUB (2014),...