I. Preliminary Matters We Need to Address Before We Bask in the Enduring Radiance of Aracelis Girmay’s Poetry
As practical, contemporary Americans, we have gotten used to science in our lives, with all its quite remarkable ambitions. Just think about it. Everywhere in the media, we have men and women attempting to predict the future climate of the whole planet. In other laboratories, physicists are working to define the nature of the particles that make the particles that make atoms—which make every physical thing in the universe. Astronomers peer backward toward the very beginning of the creation, and calculate the temperatures that existed at something like 10 to the -10,000,000th of a second after the very instant of the Big Bang.
Closer to home, we have taxonomists categorizing the whole immense biological universe. These scientists have created a phylogenetic tree of life that starts with some common progenitor from which every living thing has descended, and then branches into three distinct domains: Bacteria, Archaea and Eukaryota.
I assume we all have a working knowledge of Bacteria: we have a couple of pints of them inside our intestinal tracts, and maybe two pounds of them covering our outer bodies. We are intimate with bacteria.
Archaea have had less attention in the popular press: they are single celled microbes that have no cell nucleus, and use a variety of energy sources, including sugars, metal ions and ammonia. These at one time were considered to be properly categorized among the Bacteria, but the reasoning lately has them separated into a distinct group–in part because of the unique means of deriving energy from metal ions and such.
Eukaryota is the life domain that most interests us here, and includes animals, plants, fungi and slime molds. The principles according to which these taxonomic categories are created derive from a variety of useful physical features, such as DNA sequences, skeletal similarities, or commonalities in the means of reproduction. In this way we can distinguish an animal from a plant, and both from slime mold. Easy. Among animals alone, we can use similarities in physical structure to group vertebrates together , and distinguish them from the invertebrates. Similarly, we can group placental mammals together, and keep them separate from marsupials. Thus we know that kangaroos are different than, oh, I don’t know, pigs.
Now, you might be thinking you already knew that. You might be thinking for sure you didn’t need both Latin and Greek designations to tell you a kangaroo was different than a pig. Fair enough. A taxonomist is supposed to be describing the real world anyway, so there should be no surprise when the nerd in the lab coat tells us what we already know.
However, even telling us this much is harder on science than you might think. Any given species is defined by what the members have in common with each other–but it is also the case that those members will have features in common with other species that we would prefer to keep distinct. The easy example, of course, is how to keep homo erectus (people) apart from pan troglodytes (chimpanzee), even though we share the preponderance of our respective DNA sequences, as well as most of our physical features. Or to take another example, there are phylogenetic reasons to suppose that cows and whales share a common ancestor somewhere in the dim eons past: whales and dolphins still have vestigial hind legs buried in the blubber and muscle at the rear of their bodies where they begin to morph into the tail.
Hence the image above with which this article begins. I love this picture. I can imagine sitting in my kayak in the Pacific Ocean somewhere sunny, and watching a pod of dolphins–plus one cow–arcing through the nearby waves, hurrying off to some underwater play date among all the biological cousins. The comedy lies in the juxtaposition of extraordinary grace in the dolphin, and the boney, ungainly, bovine panic of a cow in deep water.
II. The Radient Poetry
But a more reasonable person than I am–such as Aracelis Girmay–will find reason to take exception with the scientific machine that fabricates these bizarre kinships while ignoring the most obvious vital principles. In her most recent book, Kingdom Animalia, Girmay openly acknowledges the scientific community. Her collection is, after all, titled after one of the six phylogenetic kingdoms (Animalia, Plantae, Fungi, Protista, Archaebacteria, Eubacteria), and opens with an ecstatic quotation from Darwin in Origin of the Species:
From the war of nature, from famine and death…the production of higher animals directly follows. Whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
The poet finds in Darwin’s summary the exact point of her own departure. Darwin, and the science he has authored, offers a categorical means of organizing life, which nevertheless misses the whole point of living. All that natural war, famine and death may turn Darwin on, but they are hardly to be celebrated in Girmay’s world, because the creative principles they enact in the Kingdom as a whole are deadly to the individual people to whom she is related, and with whom she relates. Science creates an organization of families that is wholly useless to define any important relationship.
When I get the call about my brother,
I’m on a stopped train leaving town
& the news packs into me–freight–
though it’s him on the other end
now, saying finefine—
Forfeit my eyes, I want to turn away
from the hair on the floor of his house
& how it got there Monday,
but my one heart falls
like a sad, fat persimmon
dropped by the hand of the Turczyn’s old tree.
I want to sleep. I don’t want to sleep. See,
one day, not today, not now, we will be gone
from this earth where we know the gladiolas.
My brother, this noise,
some love [you] I loved
with all my brain, & breath,
will be gone; I’ve been told, today, to consider this
as I ride the long tracks out & dream so good
I see a plant in the window of the house
my brother shares with his love, their shoes, & there
he is, asleep in bed
with this same woman whose long skin
covers all of her bones, in a city called Oakland,
& their dreams hang above them
a little like a chandelier, & their teeth
flash in the night, oh, body.
Oh, body, be held now by whom you love.
Whole years will be spent, underneath those impossible stars,
when dirt’s the only animal who will sleep with you
& touch you with
This is not only the title poem of the book, but also the first poem with which the book opens, and so both the poem, and the collection of poems as a whole, start with an emergent threat. The poet receives a telephone call about her brother, whom she has just left at home in Oakland, and what she is told prompts both her shocked agitation, and (apparently) her own phone call back to her brother to check in on him–who is then able to offer her some reassurance (finefine). She receives bad news, in other words, that her brother is then able to play down. Neither he nor his love (this same woman whose long skin covers all of her bones) has been harmed, at least not in any crucial way: he is fine, and her long skin is unblemished by injury, all of her bones intact. That’s good. The poet can catch her breath, can breathe again. They have evidently been threatened by some force that remains off-stage of the poem, so we don’t know how likely it is to return for a second attempt, but on this one occasion at least the family unit has avoided destruction.
Nonetheless, they inevitably remain in harm’s way. That vulnerability is the ineluctable condition of life that Darwin celebrates with his distant Victorian love of order and industry, and that Girmay feels she, too, must accept as a given. But she could hardly be more unlike Darwin in the attitude with which she assents to those ominous and demoralizing natural threats. They do not represent any creative principle that can shape a recognizable future which she will find meaningful. Sooner or later, Death with its dirt mouth will have her, and have as well all that she has loved—and that pending obliteration remains a profound, fearful sorrow.
Because, listen up, she is not a species, thank you; she is a particular, unique, thinking, feeling, poetic woman who loves her brother with all her brain and breath. She also loves those whom her brother loves—as well as an extended family of relatives, friends, community members, cultural leaders, and mentors. We are introduced to the poet’s mother after surgery, to her Aunt Zewdit, to Ms Lucille, Ade Haragu, Aboy Kaletu, and others to whom I will simply allude without concretely naming here. But you can see my point: the scope of her affection is plain throughout the book.
Indeed, her recourse to evolutionary culling is to extoll the defining asylum of human affection. Oh, body, she pleads, be held now by whom you love—and in this she invokes another Victorian, Matthew Arnold, who in Dover Beach also pleads with his beloved in 1867 to love him in the way Girmay thinks of loving: with her entire being. Ah, love, the older poet writes, let us be true to one another!—not for any intrinsic faithfulness, however, but because they are alone on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night. The consequence of all this ignorant struggle is to bestow a world to the survivors that, sadly, Hath neither joy, nor love, nor light,/Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.
Just in case you are wondering, after he wrote these lines Matthew Arnold lived another 21 years until 1888, which is to say that he did not immediately shoot himself after he composed them—though they express as bleak a vision as any to be found in literature. Even Milton’s Satan, having lost paradise, can find malicious purpose in hell. Macbeth’s claim that life is a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing is maybe as fiercely hopeless, but Macbeth at least had heroic ambition, and his concluding sentiments are an expression of his personal disappointments as much as a general philosophical conclusion. There are plenty of people in the play who are glad to be rid of him and his bloody idea of order. Arnold’s statement, on the other hand, is offered as the reasonable premise of a logical, disconsolate mind. Accept the materialism of the world, and refute despair if you can.
Girmay has other ideas. She is well aware that science belittles everything about her:
We were trying to refine the eye & brain
we had when we were pelicans,
but the wind came down, it had ten hands,
it had more mouths & took & took us far to sea.
The wind was not a fixing wind, not a fixing wind
who painted the door or fed the goats when we were sleeping.
It took us apart with its blue hands, this piece, this piece—
& delivered us to our simultaneous homes.
One home is there! One home is there! It said,
You have been this small before. Though you can’t really
remember it, you were not always, always tall,
small, small thing, plural thing—
Science establishes its operant principle of analysis, with its windy abstractions and universals, and then with these tools dismembers the poet and her community: It took us apart with its blue hands, this piece, this piece. They are reduced to small, small things—component minerals that are now worth about $160 (a price established on the Datagenetics blog)—and then dispersed among general, simultaneous homes, rather than allowed to live in their home. In short, the poet does not find science as helpful as she might have supposed in fixing up her community. It won’t feed the goats, or paint the door. Instead, it is a mental project that trivializes her community at best, and attacks her with its ignorant armies at worst to spread their remains across the landscape.
Science in Girmay’s view fixes its claim on the Truth of things in the same way that Columbus claimed the New World for Queen Isabella. In both instances, assertions are made with enough vehemence that no one thinks to examine the premises upon which those assertions are made. In the case of science, those premises constitute a mechanical materialism. What defines the classes of living things are their various physical attributes. In turn the members within the classes are likewise identified physically: for instance, the poet, her brother, and the rest of her family are mammals because of their bodily properties. They belong in the class of mammals because their physical being meets the criteria. Further, the thinking mind within each of those mammalian bodies is, by continued logic, the production of neurochemical and neuroelectrical activities arising within the brain’s gray matter. Neuroscience by now has decades worth of fMRI data to corollate the relationship between blood flow in specific brain regions, and mental activities such as reading, or memory function, or playing the piano. All phylogenetic categories, and every individual being within those categories, are each specified according to material distinctions.
Girmay doesn’t disagree, exactly: remember, she has explicitly framed her book within the biological kingdom, whose categories branch from its giant root to snag her and her family on a far-reaching limb. Nor is she at all ironic about the Darwinian forces at work in the living world. She is not one of our new Republican lunatics denying evolution and disallowing climate change. But on the other hand, she does circumscribe the domains to which the experimental method is pertinent. She confines the conquistador ambition of universalizing science to its mechanical operations, and celebrates other living virtues that thrive in ways other than those science can reasonably, or adequately explain.
Running Home, I Saw the Planets
On the way home, going,
with the hill & mammoth clouds
behind me, rushing to the house
before the rain, those beautiful Pakistani girls,
their faces happy as poppies, I thought, those girls
rushing home as I was rushing home
to beat the first small pieces
of rain falling down
like nickels in departing light. There
was the laughing of the beautiful girls,
shrieking gulls, five or six of them (depending
on whether I count myself), the bright
& shining planets of their dresses
lifting, just so, in the wind. & their black hairs.
& the black sound of horses, horses
hoofing it home, the click
& clop of their patent leather hooves—Still, it touches
my ear, this sound. I touch
my heart. I can’t stop touching
my heart & saying, Today is my birthday,
you see? For the beautiful clamor of planets
dressed as girls who, running home, have heads.
Whose heads swing black night, running home
on the black feet of horses, from the rain.
Now I understand. Today is my birthday.
It is Thursday, my day. My black day.
I had much rather live and love in Girmay’s world than in Matthew Arnold’s: she is not defined by evolution and its violence, though she acknowledges both. Human prospects are not constrained by evolutionary purposes. Her taste in dresses, as she discloses in this poem, is not a matter of biological survival, nor did her delight in her Pakistani neighbors evolve as a matter of ecological pressure exerted over geological time. What a preposterous thought. In her universe, the human world defines natural being. (In this she is more in keeping with contemporary quantum mechanics, by the way, but that is another matter.)
Indeed, a species has nothing on her, not even a Kingdom measures up: she is an entire world—a whole planet, in fact, five or six of them who are clothed as girls in the way that, in other mythologies, the gods cloaked themselves in human shapes to disguise their intrinsic character, their essential properties. Girmay in herself embodies a universe of thoughts, ideas, perceptions, tastes, preferences, products, choices, disappointments, pleasures, and personal histories—one moment in which is the instance of this poem, which records the metamorphosis of her self-perception, her conscious birth. The sequence begins as she rushes home, running in concert with her Pakistani neighbors to avoid the rain, and in the storm of their concentrated energy the girls change in her perception to gulls shrieking as they are blown ahead of the growing wind, and then change again more powerfully in her thought into racing horses stamping with their black patent leather hooves on their way home.
The thunders of the horses and their commotion inspires yet another metamorphic change: as the clamor touches the poet’s childhood heart, she perceives in turn how the planets-as-girls have heads, and from them is shaken the black primordium, the elemental undifferentiated nighttime stew of particles and force that is the background of creation, the substance of creation, from which she is born. She is born on her birthday, which is perfect tautological reasoning. This is her day arising in the black horizon of everything that is possible. Her black day, her beginning time.
Elizabeth Bishop also writes—with her careful, precise magic— of a similar moment when, in the dentist office with her Aunt Consuelo, she realizes that You are an I,/you are an Elizabeth,/you are one of them. However, unlike Girmay’s delighted powerful birth, Bishop is dismayed by that moment of identification. Her epiphany classifies her membership in the community of human beings, which she finds unlikely at best. Nonetheless, she is indeed one of them, and accordingly she feels she is subordinated just like they are to the identifying forces of history, culture, language, education and the other weapons of social code. The War was on, Bishop grimly acknowledges, it was still the fifth/of February, 1918.
Girmay, on the other hand, is simply irrepressible. She does not find herself subject to an oppressive history as Bishop conceives of it, but instead is present within multiple intimate histories, and with widely varying levels of influence. In Kingdom Animalia, she records her history with her brother, her history with her extended family, her history in the neighborhood, and then, moving into larger forms, her situation within literary culture, her presence within Black culture, her wary movements through White culture,—though it seems to me that at this level we are beginning to get too abstract since it is not culture that instills anything, but the particular people with whom you associate, those you read, those you listen to, those who teach you, those you love, your friends, your professional colleagues, your encounters. This is a personal, if sizable, set of folks, whom you can group according to your thoughts about them—but the point is that you do the grouping, not the other way round. Who, for instance, just blithely accepts everything their teachers tell them to think? Don’t make me laugh. Everyone here obeying religious edicts? You all following your doctors’ orders? Seriously.
Nor is there one monolithic nature—which tends to be a white male concept anyway—but many natures, different emotional ways of moving in time and place, micro-climates, local influences.
Self-Portrait as the Snake
Silver snake slinking thorough the grandmother
yard, on my belly, without speech,
No one sees me, but the boy,
the boy is fat & beautiful
& he sits on the counter like a cake.
Outside my grandmother snaps
the neck of the chive with her hands.
It is my cousin. Long and thin,
the both of us, & the centipedes
& pinchers who blindly waved
their bodies at me
when I had hands & lifted
bricks in the garden. Back then,
like them, when the light touched me
I wanted to stand and hallelujah,
& I wanted to run away. Now,
the garden is a skin I wear. Somewhere
in the box of this old house,
my child-skin hangs quietly between the coats,
shed: a parachute or bag full of red dirt & teeth.
Inside the child-skin are 6 men from Adis Ogdo
drinking boon beneath a giant tree they’ve carried with them
into the skin, fat & loaded now, with boon & Jalisco
accordions, their sad songs kill me, oh,
I am older now, but not old. I am looking back
to when I was a girl: now my body’s a flash
of poison on the floor. The weather of the house,
it shapes the body’s light. This is what
a girl has in common with the lightning.
I need to take a personal moment here and confess: I have wanted, without ever finding the words for it until right now, this minute—wanted my entire life, when the light touched me, to stand and hallelujah. What an invitation this is, and unforgettable as Girmay has written it.
I also should confess that, given my early exposure to Biblical imagery, and my later reptile encounters in adulthood, I have been less keen to identify with snakes. But they suit Girmay, because with them she can introduce a taxonomy of her own personal powers and attributes. The poet begins her self-portrait with a method common to a field biologist: she identifies salient physical properties that are held in common between individual organisms in the wild, and then uses those similarities to define a category to conjoin creatures who might otherwise be thought dissimilar. For example, to have a spinal cord connects whales, orangutans and tit mice—which in other capacities are wildly various. In the poem before us, the sinuous, legless shape of the snake calls the poet to her surprising cousin, the chive (Allium sativum), whose neck her grandmother snaps in the garden: Long & thin,/the both of us.
Using the same theoretical method, the poet next discovers in the multiple skins of the snake a second principle for classification. Not only is a snake long and supple, but it will also shed its skin as it develops emotionally and physically into an advanced form of itself. Skins are a sign of its maturity. Accordingly, at this stage of her development, the poet—who began on her belly in the yard— now comes into her own authority: she has expanded in the girth of her command, and can wear the garden itself as a skin, as a larger membrane to contain her greater vigor and weight. To accomplish this feat, the poet tells us, she had to shed her child-skin, and leave it behind with its adolescent intoxications of men drinking boon, and serenading her with Jalisco music on the accordion. Just like Ecclesiastes.
And having set aside her childish things to turn, in her season, into her prime, adult form (I am older now, but not old), she decides at the end of the poem to look back at her changes, and to offer a summary of her evolution. The form of her adult sovereignty is no longer that of the snake—not even the competence of a very large, dominant snake. She has transcended that particular snaky body to inhabit the shape itself of snakes—the form at large. She is ideal. She is now a flash (now my body’s a flash/of poison on the floor) of particular agency, which requires our respect. She is fast, and she embodies powers. She is threatening no one specifically, but is merely pointing out that her intrinsic qualities demand a due regard.
They also introduce her into the category of linear flashes that includes lightning: This is what/a girl has in common with the lightning. Note that she isn’t claiming to be lightning itself, but rather she explains that, in her adulthood, the changes she has undergone encompass more than bodily evolution to include a notable fire and radiance. They represent the growing independence of who she is as a person, who the girl has become as she has entered her maturity. This is as confident, as generous a declaration of her mandate, her autonomy as any I can remember ever encountering. Nothing grandiose or strident, no trauma, but like a faery tale we have a revelation of remarkable brilliance and dominion that originally appeared as a vulnerable, simpler life.
The mature poet does not subscribe to a material determinism that circumscribes her human capacities, which in Darwinian terms describes a process so immensely slow and general that it has no prerogative to regulate or otherwise curb her personal development. That Kingdom has no sanction whatsoever to affect who she is personally, nor to influence the nature of her character, nor to dictate the range of her insights, nor to assign limits to her mental power, nor restrain the scope of her vision. Indeed, she is notably free to navigate in the world, and to influence it as she will and can.
This is an adventurous life as she imagines it. There is nothing easy about the terrain she negotiates, nothing certain about the relationships she engenders, no guaranteed relief from pain—but that is exactly the source of the promise. Nothing is foreclosed, and if there are risks, as different beings cross her life, there is the excellent chance as well for personal beauties, unexpected covenants, satisfactions, and fun. Like catching lightning. Who’s up for it?