Humanimal: A Hybrid Creature in an Underworld
“How does our umwelt -- our subjective environment -- physically shape us? How does it determine what we sense, digest, and understand? [...] In what ways do the jungle and garden act on us, as haven, as machine, as projection?”
—Christine Hume, from her review of Bhanu Kapil’s Humanimal in American Book Review, September-October 2009
“He had the keys to a place where we could practice
It felt almost like Dirty Dancing
Minus the United States and instead of a resort
it was the Folkets Hus basement”
—from Swedish musician Frida Hyvonen’s “Dirty Dancing”
“There were two kiosks like hard bubbles selling tickets to the show. A feral child is freakish. With all my strength, I pushed the glass doors shut, ignoring the screams of the vendors inside, with a click. I clicked the spaces closed and then, because I had to, because the glass broke, I wrote this.”
I am reading and reviewing Humanimal as a book of poetry, though the frame around it does not suggest such, precisely. But I made my community college Intro to Poetry students buy it for our units on Form/Antiform and Metamorphosis. I read their papers on it. I asked them to read Susan Sontag’s explanation of Happenings and to think about what happens to a reader immersed in the privacy of a metaphor. We read Ovid and worried over Daphne’s anxieties and tree-ness; we contemplated centaurs. We counted pieces of sonnets. We discussed metonymy. We got bound up inside of John Donne’s fleas and compasses and thinly beaten gold. We put these things all together -- awkwardly and sometimes by sheer chance and often with huge intellectual gaps. It worked out, though. Bhanu Kapil’s book does, indeed, make for a thrilling poetry read, especially if, as poet (and reviewer) Christine Hume suggests, you “have a taste for amniotic atmospheres [that] dissolve self and other...” I do.
I first read Kapil in a more “poetry-book” frame: the marvelously alienating The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers. The text is partially constructed from interview material with a variety of Indian women. They responded to questions like “Who is responsible for the suffering of your mother?” and “What are the consequences of silence?” Kapil is killingly good with source-material-poetry; she writes in such an odd way that you feel there must be some sort of trick or solution to the text. There is not, but there is immersion in its world. Sometimes, you feel like you’re reading someone’s letters or journal entries, like you are at a leaning-in moment, like just beyond a precipice, it will all come together. It is both formless and constricting.
Humanimal is certainly comparable, especially when you think about the graph-plotting Kapil is doing. The first frame of the text is that it is a sort of future narrative; it is storytelling for a dead child, “a blue sky fiction.” The second frame is that it is a book about two 1920s feral children, wolfgirls, Amala and Kamala. They are “real,” and their story is somewhat documented in primary sources, though Kapil makes her own way through the information. The book is certainly not a nonfiction text on the girls, but it is an authentic meditation on their experiences. So that framing of imaginary versus documented events and circumstance is one meta-framing act around the story-telling and the historical fact of the girls -- and then there is this: the book was being created while a French film company followed Kapil around India; they taped her poetry-research for their documentary-film on human-wolf relationships. Then there are memoir-ish moments, like her dad’s childhood and death (unrelated, logistically). There are layers and layers of metaphorical possibilities. And there are multiple levels of text (different formatting for different voices). One way in which Kapil achieves this massive graph and then makes it go all parabola and flip inside out is by constantly moving the reader into the “I” position.
The text begins with a kind of set. There are spatial relationships to deal with. There is a world to inhabit.
Balled up, her shaven head and spine visible through her skin, the wolfgirl was a singular presence, almost butter-yellow against the granular fabric of the Kodak paper. When she died, it was Easter, the hot dry month before the monsoon. Bowing to custom, the priest covered her face with marigolds, soaked the stems with olive oil then lit a match.
Behind the graveyard was a church, intensely white in the pale pink day.
Behind the church was the jungle.
At the edge of the jungle was a seam, a dense shedding of light green ribbons of bark. A place where things previously separate moved together in a wet pivot. I stood and walked towards it in a dream.
By the time Kapil gets to “I,” you’ve already entered the scene as your own “I” -- and so there is little difference from thereon. And when this realization takes place, you’re knee-deep in the frames and the forms -- and you are a hybrid creature in an underworld. “I slip my arms into yours, to become four-limbed.” Christine Hume: “In this feedback loop, Humanimal offers the body as a model of articulation, making a case for experience as a distinct form of meaning.”
One of the things I was trying to stress to my poetry students was that we might read texts at all levels all at once; to conduct a metatextual read, simply consider the possibility of projection: if the information and the mode of its articulation create a thinking-experience, then perhaps that is the poetry. Like a Happening, the poetics of this situation have to do with immersion. The “text” lies just beyond the consumption of the page. Christine Hume again: “The book is not as much concerned with transmission of ideas as it is with the creation of an atmosphere.” In other words -- as my students put it -- in this case, the poetry is the thought that is created.
This kind of reading had hilarious effects in the students’ reading response assignments. They’d be writing a little dreamily about “My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun” and then double-back: “But this poem is a regular poem and isn’t as exciting as the wolfgirls poetry book.” Some were excited to say that Humanimal was most certainly not a piece of poetry because it was “deeper than that.” Some called it “thought poetry.” Some called it history, and many, because this is what eighteen-year-olds call almost any text, said it was “a good story.”
I am really interested in the possibility of framing and projecting as text, even though this is a likely outcome of any writing/reading collaboration. One thing I like is that a metatext can be so muddily misread or misinterpreted that the option to misunderstand seems like intention. This seems less imperious than most texts. I am always confused when people say that “experimental” poetry is too “hard” to read, as it seems to me that it exerts much less control over the reader than a lot of other texts. Dabble in a little Robbe-Grillet for this sort of experience in fiction. While the reader-writer dynamics are still very much in place, the realm is wonderfully devoid of orientation.
Swedish singer Frida Hyvonen’s song “Dirty Dancing” exemplifies this potentiality. In the song, Hyvonen narrates a casual adult meeting with a childhood sweetheart. The backstory is told in quick, large strokes. The lyrics are overly simplistic. The content is not particularly winning. But the performance can be almost heartbreaking, the melody is intentionally referencing the sappy and loveable quality of “Unchained Melody” and other such ilk (the likes of which were re-packaged in movies like Dirty Dancing and Ghost, and which perfectly captured the imaginations of late '80s girls who were dimly aware of or actively masturbating to/lip synching such content), and the wit of the re-framed reference is great. The song is pure metatext, moving through culture, shared and not; imagination; gesture; and possibility. It’s not really a song; it’s a critical piece on nostalgia.
One of the most important things to say about Humanimal is that it allows the reader to metamorphose. There is plenty of vividness and language to take pleasure in, and feral children are undeniably alluring -- but the reading process really changed me, in an authentic and easy way. I was in the environment as truly as I have listened to a song or sucked down a snail or cut myself; I think that might be a new kind of poetics, one of “[r]eaching and touching as the beginning actions, reorganized in time as desire.”
Humanimal by Bhanu Kapil
Kelsey Street Press