by Aaron Boothby
“How queer everything is to-day! And yesterday things went on just as usual.
I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night?”
(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Ch. II, ‘The Pool of Tears’)
You wake up in a bed, in a hospital, having to remember why you’re there and what has happened to you. You wake up in your bed in the not-hospital, having to remember why you’re not where you were before. In the differentiated days of childhood every day is entirely other, like every person you meet. Everyone is curious, strange, queer. You wonder why what’s happened to you doesn’t happen to another, as if all bodies might be the same body. You learn they’re not. This state doesn’t end after childhood, but you forget that it doesn’t.
Alice is a who to follow because she dreams a less certain self back into curiosity. She cries a pool of tears while large and suddenly shrinks enough to be swimming in it. Remembering a childhood reading with Alice the speaker of a poem wants to reach “the river, where I will stand / tall in clammy boots and feel the current whip and twist” but it’s not an easy journey and “I crawl,” she says,”because the story demands my submission” (“Chapter II: The Pool of Tears”). She wants to go there because it’s a site of origins where something may be recovered.
Read Alice-like and one can move through the texts with awareness of wonder, terror and wounds. The poems in Kilby Smith-McGregor’s Kids in Triage have voices and memories of their own particularity of growing up accessed by movement down tunnels into rivers, into corn fields, into dreams Edison or another is having; into views of what a later self may be estranged from. It’s a question of how to re-arrive at inventoried psychic stains. It’s simply a decision, like Oppenheim’s furred teacup, “It is not so difficult to be an Alice, epoxy…It is not so difficult to make the fur adhere” (“Oppenheim’s Object”). You follow the rabbit without a thought about how to get out again.
Suddenly strange circumstances compel the composition of inventories. Hold the image of an operating room to a mirror in order to read it and say, “I want ammunition. I want proof of life. Hack off those appendages and keep right on sending them” (“Spontaneous Human Combustion and Alcoholic Proof”). Medical realms feel unreal to anyone for whom they are not banal. Lines lifted from reports of spontaneous combustion read like fictions with the residue of fact: “the remains of Mme Millet in an unburnt chair.” Proof that the fable wasn’t quite a fable like what a child learns when flesh is first cut into. Even benevolently, even when perfectly done. “Snapped into sharp relief, / my immaculate Y / incision / now recast as gash” (“Untitled: NO RADIO”). An inventory keeps track of what might be lost.
There’s a game game kids play and you feel you know it, but the song is different and its menace erases what you ache to remember. Shot through with melody comes a another kind of demand for proof: “Black matter, black matter; call Iphigenia / over: out-scream the cattle” (“Black Matter”). You know why Agamemnon calls Iphigenia over and what’s done to her. You know why the nurse calls the child over and what scars might result. It’s what can happen when a name rings out and why as kids we play games that imitate the worst things with an innocence that isn’t ignorance.
It’s why Alice has so many questions. There are so many oranges in the poems, why so many oranges, enough to smell them? A speaker comes back to consciousness, to an apartment as a scene of distress, “Remembering oranges, not gas left on. To lie / a little – easier than I thought. The shock of waking up” (“Wake Up Remembering Oranges”). In a moment of exhaustion and crisis there’s a grasping at a focal point of oranges that are a memory preceding other things. What comes after is “compose a list of things we need to buy,” a moment where wonder ends. The inventory is lacking, always. It’s not like Wonderland is kind.
Oranges appear even in the medical settings forming many spaces of the book; in one a session where the firm flesh becomes something with which someone “Practised until you could feel the correct amount of pressure to apply / in entering, always remembered that skin is tough and will resist the needle” (“Practice”). Alice, what’s the usual use for an orange, what associative realm’s been entered? Not peeled but punctured. Practiced on. As orange, you want to assert, not something else. You ask why about the game but the game continues because the world has rules you cannot alter. The story demands submission.
“Piecework” begins with, plays with and reassembles four lines from a Patricia Lockwood poem where oranges proliferate. “For the life of her she abandoned / on the orange assembly line // awful flesh knots, rough sectioned ends / of oranges, plaited strains of ‘Hurt.’” It’s the kind of song a resident past the mirror might sing, a formula of wound and despair. Oranges with awful flesh knots are navel oranges; their form repeats a fact of human bodies. Here’s the sanctioned hurt where by other hands a cord was cut and a knot was tied, a dismembering after exit from the watery dark of womb, memorialized. On the assembly line the things you need to buy are made and oranges are another commodity. “There is no agrarian economy / Only economy” reminds another poem, “Made.”
Finding a way back to the river is finding a way back past the knot. If you get there, it’s also to learn that “treading water is movement fighting movement.” It’s why “you must / invent a surface your body made flat / must create resistance in the water” (“Amniotic”). Replace water with text. Replace text with water. Invent a surface as a way to create resistance. Alice begins by following but soon things are way past that.
To pause, briefly, to consider. In a book without designated sections there are repetitions like oranges which fade into medical histories which fade into a diving into waters. These are plaited together the way strands from documents and poems, songs, and games are woven. Only one poem in the collection is purely assembled from another text but most are conscious that a fact of composition may be dismemberment. Time in triage: “If that doesn’t work they cut it off” (“Amputation, Shotgun”).
Lessons are learned, or better to say patterns. Alice-like you observe what’s played out and discover the rules are cruel because they’re indifferent. Those we call lessons. “The shape of the heart is not the shape of the heart / But February is cold enough” (“On the Occasion of St. Valentine’s Death”). To be open to things like wonder after being wounded is something easier to give up on than continue with. Adulthood is hardening. After being wounded? While, for it’s continuous and “Everyone needs something to cure, you’re sure of it” (“Room 257: I Eat Your Ice Chips”).
Sometimes, like right there, in the elegy for Alan Turing titled “Morphogenesis,” a lyricism appears that can speak a “sluice of stars down a garden drainpipe – escaping – logic / of night scythed and sieved for last kisses.” Later comes a summation of the work being done throughout: “Broken / syllabics bent over the face of the fairest of speculum sequences – / a kind of cold rhyme. Fruit flesh wound.” Luce Irigaray, the French feminist philosopher, replaces Alice’s looking-glass with a speculum (someone, listening, says I feel it when you say that word): the curved, mirrored instrument that reveals what’s hidden. A point of entry like the “fruit flesh wound” like the “awful knot” and the sequences that expose them. Another remembered fable of a mirror asking who’s the fairest one and where that question led.
Perhaps to “Red,” the heart-poem in a book where hearts are cut into. A statement poem that lays claim to a femininity that is absolutely conscious of violences and histories and the narratives obscuring both. It’s many things: an associative game of accumulation around a word, a history of sensations and acts where bodies are “Set on fire, skinned alive, red is the currency of desire”, a surgical instrument to religion and notions of purity (“Red is a reflection, a fetish, transgression”), an “I’m sorry but it’s anger” against “Masculine attention. // Medical attention” that self-appoints as management and cure of wounds, and, importantly, a refusal: “I will not go on about wounds, scars protracting the red-white / continuum through time.”
It is defiant, oppositional, aware of Dickinson’s lines in “The Zeroes” without saying so: “Of Opposite – to balance / Odd – / If White – a Red – must be!” As if to say red is no longer obliged to become white, erased, blanked out in mimicry of invented purity. The antagonism to white reappears later, in an assault on Plato’s ideal Republic; “White beach of / sociopathy crammed with, stripped / of strangers. // Which we christened pristine” (“Plato’s Bruise”) but here red is an argument of cumulative force. The last lines should be taken (“DRINK ME” “EAT ME”) together:
It is history and injury. The history of injury.
I will not go on about wounds, scars protracting the red-white
continuum through time.
This is not a productive conception of time (toward white) –
it is a concession.
Someone else’s idea of healing.
Yes, the apple.
It was a Red Delicious. Even the flesh was red,
blood apple. They write that out of the Bible.
White is an invention of History.
Read: erasure of differences, aversion to menstrual blood, aversion to the interiors of bodies, aversion to history that is messier than the idea of history, aversion to skin colours likewise less pure, aversion to the stains on the artifices of the otherwise perfect republic composed of white towers, white columns, white social pillars of men. The last line is a damnation whose impact isn’t reduced by knowing it before it is uttered. Yet another line rings the bell of wounds even harder: “Someone else’s idea of healing.” The one that they prescribe without asking to know. A white healing prescribed to red.
Poised alongside this reading of histories is a knowledge that, if nothing else, they exhaust their inventions. “More Heat Than Light” is a speculative epitaph for a society literally burning itself towards a kind of extinction of history, something mournfully (how can one not be, faced with loss) hopeful. With relief, then, “so much history has been wasted / over heat, spinning / on spits above fires without an ounce / of foresight.” So much dismemberment, cutting, called healing too, so many sacrificial acts (“Call Iphigenia over!”), so many ways to burn down whatever can be found in hope of a little material luck. “Thank God, I think, we will not / have to burn forever.”
Surprisingly, though he does show up in the most curious places, these inventions and concerns coalesce within a poem that recombines the text of one by Wallace Stevens. It’s also his line “a violence within that protects us from a violence without” that’s placed as the epigraph to the book. In “A Postcard from the Volcano” (borrowing Stevens’ title) the text is disrupted, an elegy projected into an anticipated future where the speaking we is the children Stevens imagines picking up our bones: “We children of, we look as if and much is left: / our bones, the hill that saw; the windy were of things.” Here, they pick up their own bones, as if arriving to their own future.
Isn’t this what Alice does when she interacts with texts (for each character met is certainly a text, a formula, a riddle – an other) past the mirror, disrupt and remake them? Stevens conjures a world where the present we is bones but is grounded in the image of a mansion, even if it is a ruined one. In Smith-McGregor’s work the solidities are even further displaced, “out above what is…once spirit-speared – blank.” What’s left but residues of games played with the cruel innocence of children, trying to “speak the tatter.” An echo from the original haunts; “And what we said of it became / A part of what it is.”
What’s happening as Alice moves, remembers, dreams, is the opening of wounds that were scarred white and called healed but remained and those who bore them could not forget. After this, like after flame, she wants to enter into the currents in order to feel them, to mimic the strange properties of water. “Spread thin, unmaking, disclaiming, un-naming. Water breaks. Warm vibrates longer than cold. Churning” (“Anomalies of Water”). It’s an act of recovery from the Alice-framed poem that traverses the pools of tears where the speaker, taking Alice’s words to end each section, wishes they hadn’t cried so much, expects to be punished for this response to history and asks for protection (from the rubber boots she’s remembered to wear – inventory) from drowning in their own tears.
It’s this I, speaking into being, who is and isn’t Alice, that claims red, the wounds, the water, can say that “Red is the taste you’re seeking that doesn’t exist.” Amniotic, the red-rich waters, a site of history from which one’s been dismembered by an ideology (masculine, purifying, white) that’s proven most apt at burning itself out and others with it, at laying blame for tears at the body who is the site of tears and so must learn to swim, but in doing so finds a way out that’s back in.
Aaron Boothby is a poet from California now living in Montréal. Work has been published most recently in Liminality, Axolotl, and The Puritan along with a chapbook in 2016 with Anstruther Press. Tweets appear @ellipticalnight and a website can be found at secret-interference.info.