Placenta steak anyone?
I tend to see chopping the world into dueling camps as a sign of old-school hierarchical thinking, which has roots in colonialism (us vs. them), as well as old-God religion (sky vs. earth), not an often compassionate nor practical way to think given the swirling pea soup we live in, where chunks bob up and then down and melt and congeal into new chunks. I tend to see the world as all-soup, though not homogenous as in a Royal we soup but perhaps existential and very much biological. And it occurs to me now that my division of chunks and soup is itself a bifurcation, and that besides the childish problem of over-simplification, a speaker declaring a binary is, often, encamped with a side, and thus I believe I am performing something of the problem I began the paragraph set against.
But if I could slip into binary thinking for another paragraph, I believe that two different people will react to the question above about placenta steak: one may grimace and make assumptions based, perhaps, on a subconscious reverence of the life-bearing organ overriding the sensual possibilities of placental fine dining. The other voice may likely be over the gag reflex and believe itself immune to the shock value, and may even give a justified eye roll. But even in this bifurcation, I would like to posit a third (a trifecta!) camp of reactions, those who are at least willing to taste-taste or may have already done so. If you are here, like me, you may find delicious reading in Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s “Of Cannibals” in the mouth agape-stellar collection After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essay (University of Georgia Press 2015), edited by Essay Daily friends David Lazar and Patrick Madden. If you, like me, are in the third camp, you may have been the life-biology student dissecting your high school classmates’ fetal pigs when the teacher was dozing or monitoring halls as a favor to squeamish friends and because you simply wanted to see what was inside. Perhaps you’re a doctor. And perhaps you will be spell-bound, and frothing at the pages of Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s savory writing, both in “Of Cannibals” and in her book Don’t Come Back (Ohio State Press, 2017), out this year.
But it’s the essay that I want to talk about, though I’ll allude to the book too. Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s writing, if I may be summative, is aloof, removed, poised, some might even say sociopathic in the way it dissects, literally and literarily, death, memory, family, and once-living tissue. Because I know Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas I’ll say that while she is spontaneous and quirky (she once sent me Krampus cards for the holidays and didn’t sign them and I set about worrying for a week over who would possibly do that) I would not armchair-psychologist-diagnose her with sociopathy (high praise there, hey Lina?).
But if you’re also like me and wondered if surgeons must be spiced with sociopathy to do their jobs, (as maybe writers are), and wondered what that’s like, there’s something refreshing in Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s cold, steel-blade candor.
In “Of Cannibals,” Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s narrator works at the University of Iowa hospital system, one of a stream of odd jobs she’s had to support herself through school, or, as she puts it in her tongue-in-cheek clinical tone, “a haphazard arrangement of resume-confusing short-term employment experiences” (43). She rises from custodian to office clerk to placenta carver because, as her boss says, “It’s more, if you can, you can” and less med school and training. Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas can stand the sight of placentae and their reduction to meat and so gets promoted to scalpel-wielding researcher.
While at her job we find that, “A heart is a mystical shape, lungs have a sort of nobility. Kidneys are hilarious, and the liver is long-suffering, but placentae are bulbous and grotesque. Red-dead and dead-red. A scarlet jellyfish with one thick white tentacle protruding from its center” (47). Readers are then offered many rhapsodizes like these on placentae, a placenta which is an objectively strange and fascinating thing, an organ that’s not an organ, a part of a woman’s body that isn’t always, the stuff of life that becomes the stuff of smoothy recipes. It is the one part of humanity that we are approved to consume. The epigraph leading off “Of Cannibals” is from the essay’s original source, Montaigne: “Notice what you eat, and you will find in it the taste of your own flesh.”
And it is not just organs that Cabeza-Vanegas dissects, it’s also people, including her boss, described thus: “She looked at me with a face that seemed to dare the universe to impress her. Lines around eyes as if drawn on the sand, wide and tired and entirely accustomed to the smell and spill of human flesh on a white countertop” (44).
I would like to suggest that the last phrase, “on a white countertop,” is in part an essence to understanding Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s work. It’s that extra bit of concrete detail, a description stretched to its breaking, something she does often with scene-setting, character-building, and metaphor. It also creates a downbeat after so many alliterative “s” sounds in “accustomed,” “smell,” “spill” and “flesh,” alliteration that needs closing down. Also, it’s a nice pairing of the abstract and philosophical (daring the universe) with the earthy and fleshy. Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas jumps from the big to the small, the abstract to the particular, the hissing alliterative to staccato consonance. The movements strike me similar not necessarily in style but in gear shift speed to Annie Proulx in Shipping News or Lidia Yuknavitch in Chronology of Water.
And continue that overly reductive thing of comparing one author’s unique work to others, I would say there are hints in Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s work to Meghan Daum's sarcasm and edginess, Zadie Smith’s smiling undercurrents of sadness, David Foster Wallace’s potty-humor and maximalism, Maggie Nelson's lyrical, clinical aloofness, and Loren Eiseley's cold, million-year stare. Hedonists for language and sentence play will gnaw into her work.
Here’s a passage I quite enjoyed:
“The placenta is the most incredible un-alive thing I’ve ever held in my own two hands. Within twelve weeks of hearing the chemical call of procreation it has calculated the length of blood canals, the width of uterine walls, the number of tenants to host and feed and keep and grow. It stitches itself up between the walls and corridors of a fertile body—opens its own way, pulls its own boot-straps, parts its own seas. It is its own god, it makes itself in its own image and then expels itself from uterine paradise onto dirt floors, metal basins, soiled sheets, and splattered shoes. Ending, in this case, in my blue Styrofoam bucket” 45)
I’m a sucker for lists, and the beats that surround the repetitive “and,” as well as the narrative of something seemingly inert and without agency like a placenta. Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas is breathing life into the discarded organ; she is raising it through language from Styrofoam bucket to god (and back again). It’s a remarkable achievement.
Which makes me want to shift to Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s book, Don’t Come Back, a fascinatingly touchy, dark biopic that Augusten Burroughs was trying to pull off in Running With Scissors before settling for sensationalist bullshit. Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas goes darker and lets the reader make judgements instead of hamfistedly spoon-feeding and (to borrow Margo Jefferson’s phrase from Negroland) arranging angers at their most becoming angles. In Don’t Come Back, the title taken from what the narrator’s mother whispered to Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas as she emigrated from Colombia for school in America, Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas allows sympathy to arise from cast-off remarks and self-deprecation, complexity to shimmer on the surface, and the easy morality of so many memoirs to shut the fuck up.
The content is bracing. In her work, Colombian military men perish in helicopters en route to picnics on verdant peaks with beautiful women. The mother character plays with her children by teaching them how to dissect their recently deceased pet hamster with a box cutter. There is an atmospheric hint of constant danger, a robust specificity of morbidness: “My grandmother sits in the patio, crying over a dying animal on her lap, then the animal stirs under her hand, empties itself through its mouth and paints her feet red” (23).
The narrator works our empathy cords (never clunkily) with undercurrents of isolation and non-belonging, with scenes such as “random” screening by TSA agents as a Colombian flying within America (side note: the one time I flew with Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas she was “randomly” screened by TSA). But perhaps most surprising and refreshing of all, like “Of Cannibals” and Montaigne himself, Don’t Come Back is consistently playful, hinting at multiple layers of meaning while never taking itself too seriously (“My older sister kicked me hard in the stomach and I fell over yelling, ‘You’ve castrated me!’ Because I didn’t know what it meant, but sort of knew what it meant.” (121)).
Here’s one passage that I found startling in Don’t Come Back (in “Catching Moths”):
“Another man, another time —in Bogotá—came up to me once and showed me every wet, cavity-riddled tooth in his mouth. He was hard to miss, a man made of dust and scab and dirt with black streaks running down his face as if he were sweating engine grease. I watched him kick his way through cars at the intersection, spit on street vendors, and yell at the women selling umbrellas to suck his cock. He covered half the sidewalk with his gait and parted crowds like Moses did seas…. I should’ve looked away, because this is what you do, but I didn’t. I met his eyes and he fixed on me like he’d been waiting for me all day long. He crossed the street again, grabbed his penis through his pants and rushed toward me… The pink of his tongue and the sound of him snapping his mouth shut millimeters from my nose, like the moment when I finally caught a moth midflight and opened my hands to find bits of wings and specks of gray blood.
I didn’t blink, didn’t flinch. I just stood still, as if all human interactions were interchangeable and of equal value, and I watched him walk away, spitting and kicking and groping.” (41-2)
There is a surprising (to me) effort towards humanity, a resistance to wallowing in uncomplex victimhood, a hesitance towards fear, and a reliance on open eyes and lyrical association. This, to me, reads almost like inscrutable yet commonsense gods’ eye.
I chaff when reviewers or blurbs call a book “brave,” partially because it’s a cliché and partially because most writers aren’t coal miners or maquiladora workers. Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s writing is, I’ll say, threatening, because it stands apart in its own cold, not-naval-but-entrails-gazing edge. It does a lot of things you would honestly tell writers not to do. For instance, don’t resort to images of private parts or fecal humor. Resist excessive run-ons, wordiness, and maximalism (T.C. Boyle has written enough!). Resist concealing your “I” narrator (“readers want to know how this affected you!”). Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas seems not to hear and lets her eye and ear and nose and other organs wander on the page. Curious readers nibble along like pilot fish.
If I could sum up her work in a phrase, I’d call Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas a Montaigne autopsying a cadaver. She questions, but pushes farther than where I would have thought curiosity was allowed to roam: “On the night of the worst beating, while blood ran from his chin, across his face and into the dirt, did he get bored?” (59). Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas reads as anti-easy morality, or maybe even anti-moralism. Which abstractly seems more questionable than when you’re in the throes of reading because her work is so captivating. As someone who is a freewill skeptic (a conversation for another essay), I admire how Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas recognizes the chemicals that are the human spark and how they ricochet in beautiful and sometimes ugly and violent ways. This is an easier philosophical view to have if you’re Wordsworth beholding the gorgeous, sublime valley around Tintern Abbey. It’s much harder and more admirable to my eye when you look at violence and child abuse and death and piece together the reality that created this puzzle. And when “why?” isn’t tinged with preconceived judgments and moral expectations, Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas tells us, you’ll get a more accurate, more nuanced response.
There is something else that keeps drawing me back to Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s work and to the “Of Cannibals” essay: it’s that the essay seems environmental. If you’ve been left out of the last decade of ecocritical conversations, this may strike you as a surprising thought (what? There’re no trees in this essay!) No, but there’s tons of mice being sliced and diced and a view of humans as dirt and discarded flesh. Flesh and dirt, by the way, like mice, are often seen by people as lowly things, yet dirt is a living organism that supports all terrestrial life. When I say humans are dirt and cast-away meat, I don’t mean to devalue humanity, but rather lift up the microorganisms and organic material that we trample yet depend on.
To get eco-lit-critty for a moment, I believe that Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s essay performs a move that the ecocritic Stacy Alaimo has called “Trans-Corporeality.” As Alaimo explains in her book Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self and in an essay fairly easy to find on the net, “Trans-Corporeal Feminisms and the Ethical Space of Nature.,” trans-corporeality is, “The time-space where human corporeality, in all its material fleshiness, is inseparable from ‘nature’ or ‘environment.” The point with this kind of scholarship isn’t a Kumbaya sense of the Circle of Life, no. The point is to flatten out the destructive dichotomy of nature and human culture, often maintained, interestingly, by nature writers who write “nature” as “out there.” Alaimo suggests humans are tied to their surroundings in a real dirt and blood and microbe way, not a mystical one. Not one that only privileged British poets standing on verdant hillsides can experience. This is not always a friendly cohabitation. Humans die, attract viruses, are assaulted by biological brethren. The stuff that surrounds us acts and is not passive. Soil, one of the lowliest things in our imaginations, is actually a life, a conglomeration of lives, each microbe separate yet as one trying to stay strong. Which really, and I think Ferreira Cabeza-Vengas recognizes this, is what human bodies are.
A lot of people who I talk to about environmental writing, even environmental writers, don’t like thinking of humans as dirt possibly because they’ve been cultured into binary and hierarchical thinking, the same kind of logic, feminists and de-colonialists have long pointed out, that is as work in spreading injustice and creating adverse social dynamics for populations who are not in power. To see humans as dirt and blood is, in my view (and this may be a bit utopic), a way to get over ourselves, to see us as biological beings in a material soup, responsible for that soup that we are a part of. Which is not to say we’re all the same nor equal, but that we’re all, well, pretty soupy. Especially when we’re born and when we die.
It occurs to me, as much as I wish Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers was a more lyrical book, with more metaphor and a deeper narratorial presence, it is a good companion piece to Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s cannibal essay. The narrator in “Of Cannibals” is a construction as is Roach’s, of course, but it’s a more performatively messier one (or, to use Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s term, “blood-thirsty”), which I find refreshing. Too many essay and memoir narrators seem to walk about on pages, either mostly invisible, curious, god-like apparitions, or hugging themselves, letting their insides leak through only so a reader knows how much they might be hurting. Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas lets her innards drop to the floor of the dingy clinic in Iowa and dares the reader to examine and maybe take a bite. Because on some level, and here I’ll speak for myself, I’ve always wondered what it’s like to be a cannibal.
Clinton Crockett Peters is the author of Pandora’s Garden: Kudzu, Cockroaches, and Other Misfits of Ecology, forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press. He has been awarded prizes from Shenandoah, North American Review, Crab Orchard Review, Columbia Journal, and the Society for Professional Journalists. He holds an MFA from the University of Iowa, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow, and is ABD pursuing a PhD in English/creative writing at the University of North Texas. His work also appears in Orion, Southern Review, Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, Hotel Amerika, Catapult, and elsewhere.