‘By hunger I mean more’
by Feng Sun Chen
Black Ocean, 2012
Feng Sun Chen’s pulpy, wincing poems have a core of iron necessity. They are animated, punished from within, by an absolute demand. “I want to kill / you, with my glittering heart. I can never stop / until I do.” This line comes near the beginning of Butcher’s Tree, in “Fourth of July,” and the lines below appear in “Grendel is a Woman,” the long poem that ends the book:
But Grendel was hungry. He was hungrier than all the rest. His hunger
made his body magnetic with the rhetoric of hollowness.
… It was not possible not to act.
Grendel would be turned inside out. Hunger became the shapes
emptiness could take …
Yes, it’s that Grendel. Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk (there’s a golden-egg-laying goose), Journey to the West, and the stories of Prometheus, of Theseus, of Jael and Sisera, as well as Beowulf and the Odyssey and “The Little Mermaid,” display here not just their characters and relationships but their imperatives. Myth and fairy tale alike and alive share with these poems the sense that they can happen no other way. The child must knock on the wolf’s door. The vulture must return for Prometheus’s immortal liver: “I can’t say it. The word is ripped from me daily. / I have become a huge liver. A liver of it.”
The body in Butcher’s Tree is a departure point. The pivotal line “Take away the human” can be read in myriad ways through the book’s other lines:
Take away the human, leaving the animal or vegetable self. (“Though it is true that a mad squirrel lives inside my trunk.” And, “My true face is that of a potato. I have many eyes and see nothing … I drink with my eyes.”)
Take away the self, leaving matter. (“When the soul steps from the body // and the body is flayed.” And, “How could he believe in a self like a leaf / so easily crushed.”)
Take away the matter, leaving the hollow inside. (“Your hollowness to eat my hollowness. Your cave to link to mine …” And, “A howl does not need a body”.)
Take away the outside of the body, leaving the guts, which may be mutating, mechanizing or inhabited. (“They are jealous of the new tadpoles living inside my body. It is almost spring / and the red garden is sprouting. Tangles of subways run / frenzied through the new cities. …”)
Take away the other human, the need for them, or just their gross invasive presence. (“What can I say? His name? A name? Name of a muscle? // Can’t say it. Can’t kill it.”)
Take away the human that can be invaded. (“They are caught up / in the integrity of the body. / I think it is sweet / how the flesh curdles.”)
Take away human needs.
The body according to Chen is a trap undoing itself. Transformation, when it comes, cannot be resisted; the next form needs to be, to reach being. In particular, pregnancy and motherhood are counterfeited, substituted—a changeling uterus full of tadpoles, gardens, or livestock—artificially induced, forced across species, confused with consumption. Gestation and birth, which seize, which possess the body, are themselves seized and transformed in Butcher’s Tree:
when the child in the child or the child in the grown body
is cast under the surface.
Will I die alone?
I see tentacles,
little budding babies inside each round suckhole.
Dawn reminds me. Dawn is mindful like rabies.
You’ve been given milk mounds.
You’ve been given udder wisdom.
I pluck out the seeds.
I fry the eggs.
… I have a room for thoughts depraved.
I can’t turn anything away. It’s a farm in here.
Everything that waiting breeds.
It became a game of pretend-pregnancy. What is love, you ask.
What is the need, not just the impulse but the urge, the itch, the craving to destroy? When Chen invokes the gendered body and gender in story and history, a few women enter the picture. Their commonality is that they have suffered harm, like the “Lattice of gone mother. / Pulp of split sister” in “Geology”. “Hades” evokes the trope of the disappearing girl, the girl who never came back. The mothers in “Immunization” are to blame for their daughters’ urges to be trapped by reproduction.
With the title “Comfort Woman”, which refers to women kept in sexual peonage by the Japanese military during the Second World War, Chen hauls this porous and unstable body of work back into more conventional political territory, dragging it across legible historical references: “Fingers trace the railroads / of combat souvenirs.” “Comfort Woman,” more explicitly than many of these poems, seems to posit a body whose destruction was a shame. It responds to the assertion, “Violence is necessary,” with the counter-assertion, “This is what it will bring in its train.” The poems in Butcher’s Tree draw some of their tension and their lavishness from responses to deep compulsion. It’s not as simple or bifurcated as whether we resist our impulses or act upon them. It undercuts our concern for what’s ethical. The poems are not proscriptive: you should not attack; nor are they purely descriptive: one attacked another. They are what we are stuck with, landed with, transfixed by.
“Grendel is really a woman,” Chen writes. “He and his mother are one entity.” This long poem in numbered stanzas reminds me of Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red because both tell the stories of enemies who are also lovers and lovers who share death and destruction, because of its reimagining of legend, above all because of its bitter absolutes. There are changes, transformations, inflictions, but no moments of poise, no escapes, from the moment the story is ignited:
The story was so powerful it burst into flame, a wedding shower
of blueyellow blades. Browned to gold like a warm egg.
A pool of testosterone
and flakes of ash at the end.
He had originated from the sea. Having no mother, sprout
from the inside of an eel-cave, peeled from living rock.
Part fish. Born whole, a woman.
A Darwinian marvel.
Grendel is “made fun of / even though the inside of his mouth was pretty, and he knew it.” Later, he makes a deal in order to seek the land and pursue love:
The sea witch took a pair of horrible scissors
and carpeted her lair
with the flush of Grendel’s castration.
Grendel was a woman, but the witch in the underwater night had mistaken
something he did not know he had
for something he did not know he could lose.
Later still, the people around Grendel use the language of illness to dismiss, reduce, weaken and control:
(That’s not a monster.) lectured the good father. (That’s a woman who is
very very sick. That’s why she has all those warts. She’s definitely not a tree.)
(Extreme case of compulsive eating.) they wrote.
(Complications: Ms. Grendel has a congenital deformity. Lack of excretory
system. Ambiguous sex and oddly shaped pelvis. Lack of birth-scar.)
Dr. Beowulf spent all the time by Grendel’s bed.
Grendel molted like a great tree by scales and scales, and finally the octave
extracted the truffle of golden health; Dr. Beowulf saved the day.
“Saved the day” is dulled and dismantled by the poems that follow. Love doesn’t save; it transforms, and not necessarily into something we’d want to be, or that we’d choose. It’s a twist on the fairy tale in the sense of a fairy-tale ending (which, actually, few fairy tales have), a happily ever after; health is not “better” than sickness, here, and love is not “better” than being alone. Using a familiar story as your armature means that anyone to whom it’s familiar will reject any change that goes deeper than flesh; you can make Grendel his own mother and the Little Mermaid and Odysseus’s sirens and Kalypso, and you can make him friends with Polyphemus and have Polyphemus be a whale, and you can even have Beowulf fall in love with him—what is the relationship between mortal enemies but hunger and obsession, but narrative interdependence?—but you can’t make him happy. In “Grendel is a Woman,” the destruction is figurative—rather than his life, it’s his monstrosity, his vitality, that Beowulf takes from him. He ends the poem in a state of dull distress:
Once in a while Grendel
returns to the beach
where he can gaze
vaguely at his birthplace.
Now he cannot remember
what had inspired him
to surface in the first place.
The smell of ruin flows sweetly.
Similarly, “Quest” is fairy-tale-like because it has fairy tales’ hardcore elements, nuggets of sex and death around which transformation takes place:
I filled the bad
wolf with stones
I filled the bad
wolf with babies
the wolf in the pack
the wolf in your clothes
You are the
the wolf a howl
howl a color
only I can see
I am made of howls
they nest in me
If “Grendel is a Woman” wobbles, smudges and fragments gender, “Quest” seems almost to dive and revel in its tropes. Chen shares with Carson and notable fairy-tale adaptor Angela Carter this restoration of passion and violence, including self-inflicted violence, to the stories we tell and retell. Envy makes Cinderella’s stepsisters willing to cut off their toes in order to fit their feet into Cinderella’s slipper; in some versions of “Sleeping Beauty”, she wakes when she gives birth to the twins with which the prince has impregnated her. In Carson’s version of Herakles’s tenth labor, the monster is the hero, and the two are lovers; in Carter’s “Beauty and the Beast” retelling, “The Tiger’s Bride,” rather than the beast becoming human, the human woman becomes a beast. As in Chen’s poems, transformation is as “essential”—as particular and necessary to the case—as sex and death.
Transformation need not be redemptive or triumphant. With fellow poet Lucas De Lima, Chen has quasi-playfully, quasi-aggressively articulated a poetic position called the “potatoesque.” In a blog post on Montevidayo, “The Potatoesque: Notes Toward a Queer, Convivial, Cannibalist Poetics,” De Lima writes, “Because queerness, in my mind, is not limited to non-normative sexuality or humanity or any fixed subjectivity, it must take ecological and bodily instability as ground” and emphasize “the collective and consumptive practice of living- and dying-with.”
This strain or seam of insatiability, and of resistance to stability (a stable sense of “humanity”) appears in the language of Butcher’s Tree as well as in what that language points us toward: images crowd and spawn, lines stack and stretch out. This isn’t the case with every poem. “Concerning Nothing” and “Ethics” are two cooler-headed, more methodical exceptions — progression does most of the work, whereas the potatoesque as Chen and De Lima have framed it cares more about proliferation than about progress, spreading exuberantly outward through space rather than moving forward into a “better” or “healthier” future. In a later post on the same site (“The Gorgeous Epic and Engorgement of the Potatoesque”), they write together:
A blind, asexual stem tuber, the potato expands as a rhizome. Its surface is a field of eyes or nodes. While blind, these eyes are sensate, part of a field of compost teeming with writhing, blood-stained worms. Each node opens a threshold for further feeding on decay, a portal through which tiny revolts breach out.
This occult, (non)uterine (non)motherhood is the chorus of a thousand tiny
By occupying the black of censored lines—the shameful, hysterical symptoms of our infected bodies—our famine-ending orb speaks through and against capitalist realism’s ideological and material garbage.
The potatoesque is what produces the parts of Chen’s writing that feel like turning over a rock. The infection and infestation of ideas of motherhood I noted in some of her poems thus transform motherhood into a field of gross possibilities, as well as conferring upon it qualities that would make anyone trying to sanctify, sanitize, stabilize or humanize it—or use it to do those things to others—drop it with an exclamation of disgust. This wriggling consumption, this squirming hunger, means that nothing is reserved; nothing is restrained; all has the potential of compost. It treats sexuality as one of many axes of possibility, one of many vectors of ideological and behavioral infection. It resists the illusion that the body cannot die—or that some bodies cannot die and other bodies it’s okay to kill. I think again of the lines from “Inter”:
They are caught up
in the integrity of the body.
I think it is sweet
how the flesh curdles.
Much of Chen’s approach to language and its potential to create change—as well as the approach it pushes back against—is in those four lines. Her critical writings and many of her poems give shape to a desire to disrupt, to corrupt, to unbridle. The critical writings give that abandon a political gloss, asserting that efforts to preserve or purify the individual body are really efforts to control it, or to value some bodies over others. Rather than trying to resist dissolution and decay, we should recognize and encourage its power, should fling ourselves into its impulse, its compulsion.
But alongside this subtle, many-linked and sometimes buried connection between bodily abandon and political liberation, these poems contain a moment of political engagement so obvious it seems like a cheap shot: “Grendel’s life was a continual waterboard of discovery” is a line that leads into scenes of Grendel’s discomfort, ostracism and alienation. Writers who are also activists often target the crassness of using violence as a metaphor, like, “I really got raped on my taxes this year.” It seems possible to read the almost flip use of this comparison as flaunting and deliberate, reminding us how violence is woven into our dailyness, so much so that we are willing to use a violent act as a casual metaphor. By using this term, which entered the greater American vocabulary in the wake of the September 11th attacks and the Bush presidency as a synecdoche for the category of behavior—state-sanctioned torture—it belongs to, Chen invokes that willingness, that partaking that makes it incompletely true to simply deplore a violent act. Once again she is not simply describing or prescribing but revealing: given violence (which, in her formulation, follows in turn from “capitalist realism”), this is what will come after. I also want to note that this crass flaunting seems to be a big delight of the potatoesque—a kind of deconsecration or wallowing, a muddiness in avowed reaction to controlling narratives of purity and containment. This particular line is a reminder how volatile, complex and implicating language is, and how we are stuck with it.
It also feels like a handful of cultural waste, flung out. I’m not trying to stand on some sort of NIMBY-like “right” to have clean hands or protect my virgin ears from the language they swim in. My objection has to do, rather, with the choice to invoke this kind of power for this particular task. A better analogy than “cultural waste” for this line might be “dirty energy.” It produces a quick, hot response . It leaves a burnt and stinking trace. And what we get out of it (a metaphor for emotional suffering; a reminder of the poison in the well) might not be worth what it brings with it.
“Comfort Woman” is one of several poems in Butcher’s Tree to offer a more complex response to violence in general and state-sanctioned violence in particular.The “we” of this poem “like dark milk newts / swim through the anti-nights”:
All nose, the stink is creation.
The fume of promise, the snails
in their skin water
stink of men.
They are alive—they haven’t been destroyed—but it is a changed life, a torqued life, and not a human life. “Dehumanized” is another word we use loosely, to describe attitudes and actions that are both causes and effects of one group abusing its power over another. When these women move through the “cave” of their lives, they leave behind them the trails of violence and the consequences of violence. The poem has no desire to sanitize or to redeem them, or to imply that the world divides neatly into perpetrators and victims—“Still, just degrees / in a spectrum of innocence”—but, I believe more importantly, it doesn’t offer that spectrum as an anodyne or a reason for sufficiency. Nor is it satisfied simply to throw up and catch “capitalism’s ideological and material garbage.” If one of this book’s assertions is that we are continuous with one another, the butcher of the title may be the ones who try to cut themselves off, to make a killing distinction between their meat and another’s.
The desire to set things right, to feel okay leaving them behind in history as a result of progress, is powerful and crushing—and that includes the impulse to turn violence back toward its perpetrator, where winning erases everything you did to win. “The collective and consumptive practice of living- and dying-with” offers an alternative imperative. Buried in the potato dirt, Chen’s poems bleed back.
Kate Schapira is the author of four books of poetry, most recently The Soft Place (Horse Less Press), and seven chapbooks. She lives in Providence, RI, where she co-runs the Publicly Complex Reading Series, teaches at Brown University, and works as a Writer-in-the-Schools.