about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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The Book of Feral Flora
A Review of The Book of Feral Flora
by Amanda Ackerman

Spencer Dew

To start, some of these poems were written by plants. Or composed by plants? The plants played a role, that role being somewhere between the role of a prepared piano at a John Cage show and the role of GG Allin on stage. They mediated verbal noise, but did they also bleed? “Plant-generated” is how Ackerman describes them, these pieces, the remixes of text also presented in this book. A computer helped. Such we have a poem, “Structure,” penned by Ackerman (“When my mother was driving back and forth in between the homes of husband A and husband B, what do you think she did in the interim?” and so forth). Then we have “Structure” as “written by a Gerber Daisy” and “written by Iris” and “written by Rhubarb” and written by all three “(later in the day)” (which makes all the difference, as another poet, fond of plants, once nearly-said). Here’s Rhubarb’s opening line, in the afternoon or early evening: “suffering. at interim? homes she A husband husband and the husband...” Cut-up via botanicals.

Cut-up is a tactic endorsed in this hybrid text, which features, among other elements, a list of tactics for dismantling narrative (“TAKE A RULER AND RAZOR BLADE,” “WILL YOURSELF TO HAVE A DREAM,” “ERASE”), a questionnaire (for weeding. Sample question: “Does conscious intent, or design of any kind, automatically mark a system of inclusivity or exclusivity?”) and an inventory (of necessary possessions, the objects that mark our extensions of our conscious selves—this, too, is a remarkable exercise, stuttering longer and longer). There are also facts about flowers (“Back when people thought bathing would make them ill, they used irises to mask the scent of the armpits and the loins. They used the powdery balsamic scent to mask the odor of their greasy hair rumbling pores and rough glands.”) and more banal bits of human domestic drama, like relationships and jobs at heirloom seed companies, like seasons and sunblock and esprit de corps.

Ackerman is interested in the overlap between the biological and the mythological, which leads, on the one hand, to the twisting vines of well-told tales. In one such re-imagining two kids are shuffled off to exile and death, by their parents “(it was a bad economy; their parents could no longer pay for the children’s meals.)” They are sent into the forest, “a sexual place because it is wild.” And there they encounter a candy house. “The roof, made of sweets, smells like sugared lemons and hard cherry candy. A cinnamon stick. Coca-Cola. Lip balm. A woman in her early 20s is sweeping her porch. She is not pretty but the boy still wants to touch her.” These stories are dreams, like that of two sisters swallowed by a whale: the biological unfurling, fiddlehead-fashion, into the imaginary.

On the other hand, that the biological is the mythological means that what we take as natural, as given, is just claims all the way down, a spiral of knowledge and power and ideological norms. We think we have lungs, but, in truth, we’re always already wearing a subtle corset. A flower should just be a flower, but, instead, “A flower, they say, is a sex organ, a speech act, a caller, a sense organ, a scent.” What grows up from the ground gets categorized (what is a weed, and why?) and constructed within culture (“The irises in Detroit are not the same as the irises in Nashville.”).

The biological is mythological, too, because of words, the verbal. We—whatever “we” are—are buried like seeds under an archaeological mulch of divorce decrees and triplicate forms, inventories of needs and “sealed jars. Erratically labeled: mica dust, the sculpture of a zygote.” Ackerman engages in a sort of tropism, a bend, a dip, a slow rise and pivot toward that sense of a raw, pulsing, (preverbal?) reality of meat, “biology” as our experience of a tongue, before its cultured use. She can only begin to get back there, of course, through words, inducing the amniotic, that “full of silk” feeling, cradled in the “azure, cerulean, indigo” of the ocean’s “weightless tidal foam. A saline sensation in your nose.” or attempting to unravel the shred of the body in order to speak the bodily, or—even, like those mystics who repeat the name of the divine until engulfed in light, spasms, holy lack of oxygen—reciting the names given to species (“Yew Spindle Furze Spindle White Poplar Elder Willow Holly Furze Ash”) for half a page at a time. Yet the most successful effort to defy the verbal comes, of course, from those of a radically other biology, the plant collaborators to this literature project, those for whom the words are merely, one assumes, signals, electrical impulses across the surface of cells, of leafs, of stems. In the quest to language our way out of language, plants here are the central foci and also, if not active agents, at least agents of accidents, living tactics for the disruption of rationality’s distance: “Their minds, alembics, chlorinated swimming pools, distilleries, sieves, evaporating salt water. But not mute.”

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