Monday, December 2, 2013

ADVENT 12/2: Ander Monson: Short Lessons in Hybridity

[Well, our neighbors have dropped the Christmas bomb all over their yard, as they do each year. They keep adding inflatable Christmas decorations, no duplicates between the two houses. This means it's advent. And as you may have noticed, our yearly Essay Daily Advent Calendar is live & up & running, featuring an essayist each day essaying a bit about an essay, the essay, or an essayist, leading up to Christmas. If you missed Phillip Lopate's great post on December 1st, read just below this one. This here is December 2nd. Keep an eye on this space as we mark the days. —Editors]
Short Lessons in Hybridity: Four Introductions

Ander Monson


1: Lia Purpura

A hybrid is a thing that is also another thing, a double thing, or a thing that first appears as two but resolves into one. Or a thing that, under intense pressure such as an hour spent reading alone or a weekend without speaking, yields a doubleness. Well, perhaps we are rushing things: all of us, at our best, like the beasts we love, are multiple things, are capable of multiple things, of becoming more than just the one, we hope. Otherwise, how boring. We should fear too much unity.

Only those who live in fear should be troubled by a hybrid’s doubleness: yes, a horse with wings, a gleaming thing part eagle and part lion, two truths lying down with fiction and fogging up the windows some. Interspecies dalliances generate a lot of heat and sometimes shame: so says the lonely minotaur deep inside the labyrinth. Even if they’re fun, these dalliances, they arise from need. We wouldn’t still be growing citrus in this country if someone hadn’t thought to remix it. The roots of the tree that should in nature grow the sweet oranges that most of us enjoy eating or juicing are susceptible to a bark-destroying virus. The roots of the sour orange tree resist the virus. So top one with the other and you get a growing, thriving, brilliant thing, a tree with rings that do not always match from stump to branch. Or a bison with a domestic cow, add a nice night, a little Teddy Pendergrass, and boom, a beefalo.

By the time you’re seeing two Lia Purpuras there are at least three or four, and probably a whole lot more. They’re everywhere. Teach Lia Purpura in a class and you recruit another pair. You can use her as a dowsing rod to predict your favorite students. One suspects that a Lia Purpura is simply faster than the eye can track and that her capabilities exceed our descriptive grasp. That is, we lack the language to say what it is she does or even specify where she was when we last caught her out of the corners of our eyes. My Monster Manual lists Purpura as a kind of displacer beast, which, as you may know but not admit, is a “vaguely puma-like creature” with a pair of dead black tentacles. “The molecular vibrations of the displacer beast are such that it always appears to be 3’ from its actual position.” They are very hard to fight and “hate all life, but particularly blink dogs”. Well, this Purpura is somewhat the opposite: her work exalts all life, even the blinky parts, the ones we skip, the undersung, as in her “On Coming Back as a Buzzard”, in which she celebrates “plump entrails crusting with sage and dirt tighten in sun: piercing that is an undersung moment, filled with a tender resistance, a sweetness, slick curves and tangles to dip into, tear, stretch, snap, and swallow.”

That’s quite a sentence. So much so that it’s not just a sentence but a time stop tool. As a critic noted of her work, “Purpura...puts readers into a state of aesthetic arrest.” Yes. Everything is an opportunity for attention, an afternoon for a dalliance, for a convergence. Here she is from the last essay in Rough Likeness: “I believe our best work on earth is in service of likeness. I don’t know what to call it—moments of interpenetration? To feel the exchange across borders.” Bravo to those moments. Bravo to that exchange. Ladies, gentlemen, hybrids, others, please welcome Lia Purpura.


2: Maggie Nelson

In the genre of the introduction the convention is to list awards, which I refuse to do. That’s what genre often is to the hybrid heart: a guide of what not to feel obliged to do. The hybrid may crave constraint, knowing that in being bound we free another part of self.

In this series, we will see that sometimes the writing is the hybrid (I am thinking strongly here of Jenny Boully, our visitor two weeks from now), pitched between the seams of genre, perplexing those of us who try to describe or contain the thing we’re seeing with a label. But then sometimes the writer is herself the hybrid.

For instance, Maggie Nelson is obviously a hydra, multiple draconian heads snaking up from the one body, extremely fearsome, entirely smart, and very rare. Still the best source for hybrid consultation, my 2nd edition Monster Manual says she may be “found in marshes, swamps, and similar places, as well as in subterranean lairs.” I imagine her like this: astride her cache of gold and gems, one head orating lineated poems (doing so well and often, including several books). Another munching on memoir, most recently The Red Parts, about media spectacle, murder mind, sexual violence, and her murdered aunt Jane. Another, odder head approaches Jane again as a subject, this time fusing verse and prose and found text, in Jane: a Murder. Often with hydras two heads fasten on the same subject and open it up in surprising ways.

Just when you think you’ve counted them all, another Maggie Nelson head rises wielding criticism (most recently The Art of Cruelty). It is certainly most fierce. I wouldn’t want to mess with it, so I wisely sheathe my vorpal blade. Then there’s whatever head made Bluets, her book that's most itself a hybrid, occupying the space between essay and poem, documentary, philosophy, personal, highly researched, and deeply, unreservedly passionate.

If you venture deep enough inside the poetry center’s subterranean lair, you may discover a hoard of rare Maggie Nelson treasure which she has been known to guard, including her first book Pacific, published (self-published!) eighteen years ago. You can’t find it anywhere else. The spine is broken. The pages fall from the binding when you raise it up to the rising sun in the map room like the staff of Ra. To read is to remix it like a beloved record. To read it is to damage it, like a sacred text. Well, to read a book at all is to grace it with your human trace. Books are yours and even when they are no longer the pages still hold a little you.

Follow the gleaming, swaying hydra heads down to the body underneath, the thing that all the mouths finally feed. It’s just a body. Turns out it’s just a writer—just a human—there. Maggie Nelson, I hereby free thee from this wack simile. So too, to you students of hybridity, be like Maggie Nelson, be the hydra, allow your heads to flex and go where they are drawn. Be otherwise fierce and we will fear ye too.


3: Jenny Boully

A hybrid is a seamed thing that lives above and subsists on the fire of seam itself, where the earth’s crust is thinnest and what’s below can serve as fuel. A hybrid feeds on seam, or the steam that emanates from cracks when something underneath gets superheated and must at last emerge.

Jenny Boully’s work is self-evidently seamed. If all text is a body, and I believe that it is, then Jenny Boully’s drawn to where that body splits and does not mend and becomes multiple: its open wounds, its amputations, a little voice floating in a field of voice, its sutures, its erasures. See, for instance her first book The Body, footnotes on an absent text. See, for instance, her not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them, a double narrative of Peter Pan and Wendy, one floating atop the other like concentric, descending tectonic plates. See also The Book of Beginnings and Endings, which includes just those, with the middles eviscerated. Or consider her newest book and her first of mostly lineated poems, of the mismatched teacups, of the single-serving spoons: a book of failures. What else but a hybrid would present a book of failures, offering them up, collected, to be dissected, seams and weaknesses and all?

Even her bio suggests the split: “Born in Thailand, she grew up in Texas.” She’s not fully either, nor both, exactly, not Thai, nor Texan, but somewhere in the split between—not located so much as dislocated, as in her essay, “A Short Essay on Being,” in which she writes, about her Thai-ness in Texas, “You don’t show others their errors—you let them eventually come to learn the errors of their ways and have them come to you for forgiveness later.” That is, you lair. You lay in wait. You take what’s given. For a long time you might burn or even eventually turn to stone.

So here’s the lesson: Find a seam and occupy it. Take strength from it like a salamander. I mean the fire-lizard from myth, not the cute wet thing that sings of slime. By seam I mean a crack in language or in genre or in form where there is some pressure. Or find a pair of seams, like the ones that run in lines down the sides of jeans, keeping our doughnut-lit-up thighs from bursting out like overeating eels. Once you have your seam, then straddle it.

When first you find your seam it might feel like there’s nothing there. Still, ask yourself: what is it that you do that is least like the others? How are you best an irritant, and to whom? Art’s not easy; it should produce some friction. If it doesn’t threaten someone somewhere then you’re doing something wrong. Emphasize that little heat you feel and try to kindle it. See what that means and why others resist.

Open up your seam. Slip a finger inside, then next a hand. It should feel warm and dark, long unused to light. With your hand inside of it, can you feel its pulse? That means there’s something moving, living here. This is your seam. There are others like it but this one’s yours alone. What does it abut? What does it hold closed? Slip yourself inside completely and see what’s there, what moves against your feet when you’re underneath. That is: your work is now to understand these pressures and give your voice to them. Write from it. Make this slit a home. Describe its movements well. Invite others there. Let it close above you at your own risk. In that case you may have to find a different exit.

Pliny the Elder tells us that the salamander, “an animal like a lizard in shape, and with a body starred all over, never comes out except during heavy showers, and disappears the moment it becomes fine… It spits forth a milky matter from its mouth; and whatever part of the human body is touched with this, all the hair falls off, and the part assumes the appearance of leprosy.” The Monster Manual assigns this hybrid beast a “copper-colored head and torso... copper colored, with yellow glowing eyes...its lair is typically at least 500 degrees...and such treasure as is found there will be the sort to survive such heat.”

Well, what treasure we find in Jenny Boully’s work has survived such heat and in facts subsists on it. To that end, before I am set aflame for boring you, I give you Jenny Boully.

4: Thalia Field

By now you may agree that it may be time to blow up hybridity and insert something more solid in its place. Yes, we’ve seen the fire-seam and how it fuels Jenny Boully’s work, and how multi-headed hydraosity keeps the Maggie Nelson hungry, and how Lia Purpura’s displacer beasting makes her impossible to hit or track or tame. Yet every series has an end, and thus we arrive tonight at our temporary terminus.

I say temporary because, though it’s not officially blessed with the Hybrid Series moniker, the Prose Series is bringing another pair of hybrids in February, Arianne Zwartjes and Aisha Sabatini Sloan, so I hope you’ll return for that. And I would like to take the opportunity to thank Cybele Knowles, whose dark arts have given life to this series. Please: applause.

But: tonight! Maybe the better question is not to ask what makes a hybrid hybrid but to ask what writer of any worth is not? What does it mean to be a poet? A novelist? An essayist? And which tools are you not allowed to use when you are forced to pick a team? All to say that we hope you all transcend the categories you’ve been saddled with and are more magical and fierce than you think or know.

Back to our game. Of our smallish set of four, Thalia Field seems to me the least easy to metaphorize, monsterize. You can certainly call our other visitors essayists or poets, and they can live for a while in those cages—let us not forget how genre is a cage for the convenience of the marketer and the bookseller, and to some extent the academy. But I don’t have any idea how to pen one like Thalia Field. But from an interview, there’s this: across her work, she “attempts practices where hardened concepts can be softened.” These hardened concepts: objectivity, the unassailability of the I, genre, conventional understandings of story, “sanctified syntaxes and predictable forms.” She reminds us that the work we do in being, in naming and assuming, is a paradox: our sense of self is like a being afloat with a little life vest that we call I in exceptionally stormy seas, except the vest itself is dissolving as we move, are tossed, and as we think about our situation.

There’s an idea. In this case we have two great beasts from which to field. First, the rust monster, which corrodes metal weapons and armor at a touch. I really wish it could be so, but second, and I think better, is perhaps my favorite beast in all of Dungeons & Dragons, the gelatinous cube, a slow-moving 10’ motivated chunk of powerful animal jello, always on the move, sliding slowly toward you, more translucent than transparent, so you see through it but slant, and if it touches you first it paralyzes, then it consumes, then it digests you and your gear, rendering most of you a mush. The process is unpleasant but illuminating: oh, these blood, those bones, here’s who we loved and how and when until we didn’t anymore. There’s those words, that book we wrote, that crappy cloak, the paradox of I and being, part of and apart: these are our component parts, on which so much depends.

Her work reframes questions more often than it offers answers. Reading a text by Thalia Field is losing our balance and falling into wonder. First, Field is a reconfigurator, a recombination machine, a questioner, a dissident. She is perhaps a field of haze. A cloud of gaze and birds that somehow constitute a philosophy at a certain time of day. If held to the light her words seem a gauzy scrim through which we can see—but only partly, and what is seen is transfigured by the filter. Strangeness and irreducibility: isn’t that what we ask of art? Instead let’s just ask Thalia Field.


A note on the text: these four short introductions were delivered as part of the Hybrid Series at the University of Arizona Poetry Center, in October and November 2013, a collaboration between the UA Poetry Series and the UA Prose Series, which met for a short time and birthed another little something powerful and weird. You may view and listen to them all—though they may take a couple months from this original posting date to be digitized and made available—via the UA Poetry Center's VOCA archive


Ander Monson is the author of six books, including the forthcoming Letter to a Future Lover (Graywolf, 2015). He is one of the curators of this site.

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