By Andra Rotaru
Reviewed by Olivia Cronk
he continues to wear that odd chunk of body,
that trace of a massacre whose ends he never
finds. he clothes his extremities
in period costume: under their time, in the rancid
odor of those having worn them:
here I am in all
my simulacrum perfection
When Danny Lloyd's Danny Torrance (of The Shining) rides his Big Wheel down the spooky dead-end hallways of the Overlook Hotel, there is a kind of tunnel of threat (achieved, often, through sound effect, but also notably through Lloyd's careful and contemplative face): the wallpaper rectangles of his movement are a kind of nostalgia-inducer, and those duplicitous sisters will arrive to taunt Danny's solitude (though, of course, Tony is there—a finger made sibling, the imaginary given bodily form), and the hallway will be made palimpsestic, and Danny will see and be everything all at once. Through his laced fingers (Tony turns into a collective here, a salve against seeing), Danny will glimpse the girls' axed bodies (and in the cheery wallpaper his own possible fate). And he will, in seeing them, be them; the palimpsest will show all of its layers simultaneously. An entire bloody world will grow out of the hallway.
Andra Rotaru's Lemur is about form, sensation, a gentle ooze of horror, otherworldly migratory movement, skins as materials/media, furs as skins, containers and embodiment, paratextual terrains, bodies alienated from themselves, prosimian (a lemur's classification) possibilities, pungency, collaboration, and possibly hybridity (the lyric mode and the conceptual mode, poetry with choreography, and what Rotaru's other work calls "wrong connections"). It's an investigation, certainly, but an intimate one. We are looking at its document, and so it's accompanied by a certain spectatorship. Rotaru's note, at the end of the poems, suggests a loose response to The Shining (she was writing in the Pacific Northwest, where the exterior of the Overlook Hotel was shot) and reveals that the work both bred and is a collaboration with choreographer Robert Tyree (distinctions between origin and process remain murky in her note). The images of the choreography are utterly wondrous, shocking in their invocation. You can witness, on video especially, the trembling/quivering effect of the body. You can see a kind of ghost in it all: a palimpsestic hallway.
I've recently become aware of Gerard Genette's Thresholds of Interpretation—I'm just now in the middle of looking at it, but, honestly, I'm mostly drawn to the generic definition, simply the notion, which makes such sense in the context of collaboration and lyric/conceptual overlap and hybridity and hallways with bloody ghosts. "Paratexts," Genette writes, "are those liminal devices and conventions, both within and outside the book, that form part of the complex mediation between book, author, publisher, and reader: titles, forewords, epigraphs, and publishers' jacket copy are part of a book's private and public history." It's the "complex mediation" that I'm interested in for Lemur. There are so many paratextual terrains here, and they all oddly cross one another like "wounds bob[bing] with . . . flotsam," "a fake décor of bodies," lips "made from children's skin" and brought to the forehead in a kind of cerebral-level kiss, if you can imagine such a thing. Can you "recognize this closeness"; can you visualize a kind of physical entity born of thought and desire but also itself an instigator of thought and desire (a poem written with and for and through dance, with no clear starting point)? From Rotaru's note at the end:
We conjured the entity using my voice and Romanian language without translation. We seemed to create and complete a Lemur from ground zero, a Frankenstein's creature who exceeded our expectations. Out of nothing, a ghostly voice arose and became Poetry and Choreography.
How eternally proliferating might we understand paratexts to be? In this case, we can cursorily catalogue: the poems, the choreography, the videos and images, The Shining and all of its attendant texts, the façade of Timberline Lodge (the Overlook) against Mt. Hood's side, and—this one is titillating—the fact of the translation into English (the leaps across and inside of paratexts that Bican must be making, and the turning of the Romanian text into its own invisible paratext, haunting the English text). And this all helps to further manifest the Lemur, the entity born of (and calling for its own birth conditions as rendered possible by) the poems' utterances and the body's gestures.
whenever there is nausea, there is a body, too.
it can no longer be removed from this one.
Giving form is an investigation of a thing's containment. When can a thing exist outside of its container? Somehow, distinctions between containers and entities are servants of horror. Somehow, this particular way of handling horror (the act of inter-forming) is gentle and oozy. Somehow, the tone is pungency. "[T]here, keep it up, it's alright, that's where fear disappears.”
I wanted to somehow get the Rotaru/Bican/Tyree text to align with Matthew Barney's Cremaster. I guess I thought it might work in the context of gentle ooze, and singularly unique world-making, a kind of embodiment-gesture, maybe? "[H]e digs into my gorge. carefully loosens the cuticles; / descends deeper still. the pulsating rhythm of progress, / the unstoppable heat.”
Or maybe it could align with Jane Alexander's Butcher Boys, which emit a baroque and upsetting ooze and are overtly concerned with perspective and dehumanization.
when feeding the torso I'm feeding wet mouths.
the peering muzzles harbor misshapen teeth.
they have been crushing bony carcasses.
in the hairs of their fur
milk laces abide. evening after evening,
in the wide-open bellies of prosimians
the shivering bodies of humans took shelter.
night after night, in the wide-open bellies of houses,
other shivering bodies took shelter.
in the afternoon it's corpse-gathering time . . .
I got exposed to Alexander through Christina Sharpe's Twitter feed. I mention this, in part, because Sharpe, in "Lose Your Kin," argues that kinships reify white supremacy ("Kin[ship] . . . means, all of those recognized by the self—in some fundamental, indelible way—as being like the self"). Forgive this creative misapplication of Sharpe's work, which is larger than what I am saying here, but: Lemur presents such a dismantling sense of self/other/inside/outside/body/being that I want to think of it as supporting some larger radical notion of leakage as rebellion. Artistic inquiry as action and rejection and all that. As Sharpe writes:
Slavery is the ghost in the machine of kinship. Kinship relations structure the nation. Capitulation to their current configurations is the continued enfleshment of that ghost . . .
Refuse reconciliation to ongoing brutality. Refuse to feast on the corpse of others. Rend the fabric of the kinship narrative. Imagine otherwise. Remake the world. Some of us have never had any other choice.
"Imagine otherwise." New enfleshments? Rending the fabric? Rotaru via Bican: "[W]e're leaving behind / the abandoned territories."
I think it's possible that we can sometimes (I note all the privilege that allows me to suggest so) think of artistic slipperiness as overtly challenging notions of "Man"; as Jennifer Tamayo's to kill the future in the present summarizes a Sylvia Wynter idea:
"Man" [is] a particular genre of the human [that] seeks to maintain delineations between 'the selected and the dysselected . . . these systems seek to secure categories of Man " . . . as white-heterosexual-breadwinner-and measuring-stick-of-human-normalcy-, or Man-as-human" . . . this definition of Man . . . generates lawful violences and brutalities that simultaneously inscribe and reify our limited imaginations of what human is and can be . . . categories of "Man" as we've come to understand him . . . are things we must contend with if we are to (un)fuck ourselves towards something else.
Tamayo advocates for an "unruliness." I read Lemur as an attempt at unfucking, as a playing with some very singular force that by its earthly impossibility defies.
My reading and looking of the past year or so, in fact, act as impossible and leaky paratextual arms embracing the lemur. The whole of my reading experience is made retroactively unruly by the text's demands. My reading of Lemur sometimes lately in the playground of my daughter's school—bodies dangling from metal bars and juvenile proclamations acting as walls around bodies—is arms holding the lemur.
Something I have failed to say or simply could not yet say: the book is so pleasing for its utter oddness. There are all sorts of strange tics in the language. Sometimes, they seem to be inter-lingual mutations, and sometimes they seem to be the result of writing that straddles different zones of time and space:
when he would come close enough he would squeezed my palms,
I've recognized you, he'd said.
The lemur is sometimes third-person and sometimes second- (and sometimes collective first-), and the shifts come as smoothly and as invisibly as do shifts in verb tense.
he smears butter all over himself,
the texture soaks into the wrinkles of flesh;
it takes a while until the quickened pores
gape even wider apart,
until their wombs erupt with new flesh,
until the torso merges
with the organs.
face to face we are watching each other—
the blood crust connects us
all the way to the wrists,
lips longing to be there,
for a vague moment or two.
you do not exist, I have told you today;
I do believe you are an incarnation of my psychic state; don't laugh,
by tomorrow we'll split,
I love you,
at times, you know it yourself.
Then a few lines later:
. . . within that particular time spanat that precise moment
my throat weighed no more than 75mg.
about ten percent of what a prosimian might weigh.
There is a kind of log quality to the text, entries moving pretend-chronologically. The lemur is thought into existence, addressed, observed, transcribed, described. The speaker and lemur are faces "dreamt by one another" and still alienated from one another and actually the same and actually distinct. It's impossible. The bodies all shift into new meanings that are acquired as the language rolls along. "[A]ll he remembered was that, in place of a mouth, / he carried a huge beak." Never allegory. But also not not-allegory. "There's the ghost of a wish." There's a kind of migration, with others, in, perhaps, a new kinship/new enfleshment. There are nests and cement and canopies of bodies. "[L]iquids / flow in slow motion prompted by heat." Opaque air. Underground animal tracks. I keep thinking that the tone itself is, synesthetically speaking, pungency. "I feel as if dozens of eggs have broken / over the vocal cords. they've become viscid."
Just before I opened Lemur, I'd finished Aditi Machado's Some Beheadings, in which she writes of "extreme listening in which the mind is a honeycomb," and this notion kept paratext-ing Lemur for me, wrapping its arms around us while I read and while I watched my daughter's limbs wrapped around the monkey bars at her school. But I think I'm swapping seeing or being for Machado's "listening." It might be that this book is about an experiment in the most extreme kind of seeing and being, in which our minds are honeycombed—this would account for the extreme and pungent impossibility/newness. Places that only brains can look at or be in: inter-formed prosimian places, for example. Wikipedia: "[T]he term 'prosimian' is no longer widely used in a taxonomic sense, but is still used to illustrate the behavioral ecology of tarsiers relative to the other primates." An ecology of seeing and being relative to others? Creative response to a text as production of and enactment of larger and more complex kinships? I'm not sure I have any good words to describe what might be happening here. But when I am reading this book, my "eyes are filling with the crumb of fresh loaves."