Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Dakota Garilli and Michael Walsh: On Darwin and the Ecoqueer

Recently we (Dakota Garilli and Michael Walsh) guest-edited Queering Nature, a special issue of The Fourth River. Dakota suggested the idea to Chatham University’s MFA faculty, and they reached out to Michael due to his eye for landscape and nature as well as the ecoqueer direction his new poetry is taking. In the process of editing the issue, we discovered a fascinating hybrid piece that swerved between poem and essay in its mapping of lust, flower sex, and scientific notions of correct and incorrect sexual uses for the body: Ed Madden’s “Adapted in the most perfect manner to each other’s forms or Reading Darwin.” As two queers in different positions on the spectrum, we considered this piece to be an exploration of how queer bodies and sex have always violated traditional religious and scientific notions of normal, natural affection and sexual function. Even a vanilla kiss between two white men who belong to the 1% can still elicit the ick response of those with fundamental notions about nature, that slippery concept, in which the queer body still exists as malfunction, not beautiful adaptation.

And yet, despite the heaviness of its subjects, one of the most striking elements of Madden’s piece is the playfulness of its images. The essay begins in darkness on the first day of 1995, in the aftermath of a forgettable sexual liaison. Almost immediately, we’re plunged into spring of that year and then jump forward in time to Volcano Village, Hawaii, 2007. We are presented slabs of purple eggplant topped with orange and pink epidendrum blossoms, “a profusion of small, bright things.” Color becomes celebratory despite accusations – coming from even Darwin himself—that some couplings are illegitimate.

Whatever Darwin illegitimates, Madden reappropriates and defies, beginning with the idea of adaptation in the piece’s title, a quotation from Darwin pertaining to how a flower and a bee evolve together “in a perfect manner.” In a reimagining of the flower as mouth, Madden’s bee enters and stings the tongue, and after this bloody exchange, the bee “moves/in the mouth like a grub in dark dirt[.]” Instead of evolving, the bee devolves into a larval form, and the erotic sinks into the humus. Then the idea about queer adaptation reaches its maturity: “My man’s mouth/is a flower, bristle of pig/whiskers, a thistle, my tongue/a slug, a bee pushing in.” We are left with the sense that Darwin would disapprove of such an orgy.

Disapproval is central to the queer existence, as in external disapproval aimed at the queer body, relationship, lifestyle, politics, etc. But as the drag queen Alaska Thunderfuck 5000 noted on the fifth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, “The best revenge is just to do better.” When we begin to explore queer nature, the world reflects back to us a diverse set of thriving successes: baker’s yeast and corals which reproduce by budding in order to feed us and amaze the senses; giraffes, for whom homosexual sex makes up roughly 94% of their observed sexual activity; or even the simple earthworm, whose movement and digestion can recycle dead organic matter into fertile soil.

For all these seeming oddities of consumption, reproduction and pleasure, people are, by no measure, more normal, not even the straight, blonde, white ones. It is too base and lascivious for most humans to be mindful of how we consume the sex organs of plants: sunflower seeds, tomatoes, and plums come to mind. If these plants were other human beings, laws would have outlawed these acts as oral sex long ago and “berry-eater” would be a long-lived historical slur. Just think of all the children you’ve seen with their mouths smeared ecstatic in sticky, colorful fluids. What fiends.

Of course, we are being playful with this presentation of a perversion. There is no shame to being equal parts animal and mechanical urge. Ed Madden and many of the other writers featured in Queering Nature know the question of the unnatural that arises when one struggles with such urges. Should we even want to be natural, unless we get to define that term? Whatever the answer, like Darwin, we are nonetheless called to gather together all the little, monstrous flowers.


Michael Walsh is the author of The Dirt Riddles (2010), recipient of the inaugural Miller Williams Prize in Poetry from the University of Arkansas Press as well as the 2011 Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry. His poetry chapbooks from Red Dragonfly Press include Adam Walking the Garden (2004) and Sleepwalks (2012). As lyrics in compositions by Marcos Balter, his poems have recently been performed in New York, Berlin, and Paris. His short stories on rural queer life have appeared in Fiction on a Stick from Milkweed Editions and in Fiddleblack. A graduate of the MFA program at the University of Minnesota, he teaches at the Loft Literary Center and in Chatham University’s MFA program. He lives in Minneapolis.

Dakota R. Garilli is a queer poet and essayist originally from the great state of New Jersey. He has taught creative writing at the Allegheny County Jail, the Environmental Charter School in Regent Square, and Chatham University. He currently works with the youth literacy program Reading is FUNdamental Pittsburgh. Dakota is a founding and managing editor for IDK Magazine and his work has appeared in Weave, Two Hawks Quarterly, The Good Men Project, Pretty Owl Poetry, and Pittsburgh Poetry Review.

1 comment:

  1. I have had an opportunity to read Fiction on a Stick - it totally corresponds to the remittee of competence of its author. Let your blog be blessed - it drives to us a proper materials! :)