Murk of a place: A Culture of Petra Kuppers’ Gut Botany – Reviewed by Shane Neilson
On July 6, 2017, Jacket2 published a fairly comprehensive review of PearlStitch, Petra Kuppers’ second collection of poems. This smart review by Declan Gould engaged primarily with Kuppers’ work using the lens of disability studies, leaving a discussion of form and sound mostly on its margins. I’m going to borrow from Gould a little in order to leave academic interpretation behind, meaning that I’m now going to opportunistically quote Gould as if they were also writing about Gut Botany: both books are somehow about “the meaning and mutability of a body’s form, how bodies constitute one another, and the kinds of alchemical social processes that can alter the makeup of those relations.” Furthermore, as the back cover blurb by Brenda Iijima attests, Gut Botany offers “fierce and tender resistance” to “gendered, sexual, ableist, ecological, and colonial-settler violence.” Because Kuppers is so important to my own concept of pain scholarship, is an academic hero of mine, and because identitarian analysis on Kuppers has been conducted so extensively already, I’ve quickly sketched the politics of her third collection at the outset so that I can focus this review on aesthetics. A discussion of craft is important, and it’s out of poetic solidarity that I approach the book in this short space – though I feel it would be a mistake not to mention, before spending time with craft, that Gut Botany’s political valencies should not be ignored. As Kuppers writes in the “Field Notes” section of the book (that acts akin to a traditional notes & acknowledgements section), “[h]ealing from sexual assault by a body-worker is central to Gut Botany’s journey.” I therefore do not intend to elide the pain, but rather to think about the book as craft.
Gut Botany is composed of eight sections that are impressively various. The sections range, in sequence, from a mix of surrealist-columnar, surrealist couplet poems (“Gut Body”); to a very carefully lineated erotic poem of the body (“Contours”); to a heartbreaking long poem based in a legal experience around the aforementioned sexual trauma, replete with intertext (“Court Theatre”); to a list-like sensory compendium that’s largely unenjambed (“Asylum”), to an imaginary history of objects written in sonically lush lyric “Moon Objects”; to a fusing of all the aforementioned methods with “Craniosacral Rhythms”; to a linguistically dense, precipitated-out series of quatrains “Bug Junction”; we’re brought home by columnar lyric elaborations on a single scene (“Drag Kings”). As one might tell from this description of chosen form at the macro level, Kuppers keeps switching the means of her singing so that the body she so faithfully represents is never taken for granted, is not skipped.
At the level of the line, I’d like to linger with the “Moon Objects” section simply because it sounds so wonderful to my ear and feels so fine on my tongue. There is, of course, a procedural story behind its composition, but you don’t need to know it to enjoy the poetry, meaning I’m going to perversely not tell you as proof of life in Kuppers’ work. Instead, I’m going to draw as much out of one of its poem as I can. Consider “Found on the Pond Deck”:
The husk of a tiny dragonfly, translucent,
clings upside down on a yellow spear of grass
its roots clasp the dry wood of the deck.
Tiny white fibers everywhere: the planks, breathing,
expectorate their innards, wood weeps and uncoils
what it knew when it stood, tall in a wet Redwood forest,
before the chains of a truckbed, dark and long, bite, here,
where all trees are twisted into themselves against
the prevailing winds. On that white-spun deck,
I remember my watery nature, pour my liquid body
to wash away the pain of the shorter years,
to wash away the pain of a hollow embrace,
the feeling that we all will slide, not into the clear pool,
but into the murk of a place that should not be settled.
On the level of prosody, Kuppers’ here feels like an ever-unfurling breath. A heavily-commaed splicing starts at line 4 and continues thereafter in a natural, periodic way that most often caps the poem’s lines but which also demands placement at the middle of a line. The effect is to orient the reader to lyric with a compositional structure that bears specific punctuational coordinates that order and direct its observations. Before line 4, a single word, “translucent,” is graced with commas before and after itself at the end of a line – a rare instance that isn’t repeated until line 7 in a poem that otherwise ends its sentences or splices its thoughts at the exact middle and ends of lines. The weight, then, placed on “translucent” is great, just as the corresponding weight placed on “dark and long” and “bite” and “here” is great in line 7. A possible conclusion is that the confluence of illumination (“light”, “dark”) as it affects the body (“translucent”) and as the body strikes back (“bites”) is the actual nexus of life, of moral action and bodily resistance making and cleansing the self. Further interpretation: the sensory specifics of body and world are themselves being spliced, are being fused Without resorting to the superstructure of theory (valid, but I’m focusing on craft and close read) I prefer to emphasize that, based on the regular punctuation otherwise used in the poem, Kuppers is carefully signaling a disruption with the deviations in line 4 and 7. Besides, the case builds as interpretative capacities naturally intensify as the poem continues: a lyric subjectivity known as “I” wishes to be clean, wishes to lose the traces of previous encounters, and instead become affectively free from compromised being (not “slide . . . into the murk of a place that should not be settled”). Rather than end up in a problematic place suggested by previous history, the poet represents the body as “liquid” that itself can be poured deliberately, consciously, and with her own consent (“I pour”) into a self-cleansing reservoir.
Beyond sense, Kuppers’ work offers the sonic delight of words alone: we can take pleasure from the single perfect end-rhyme of “here” and “years,” the consonance and assonance of “wood weeps”, the tongue tapping the roof of the mouth with “trees are twisted into themselves.” The poem reads like a mournful warning, and I do not think its ecosomatic messenging would be nearly as effective if Kuppers hadn’t taken as much care with craft. Therefore: poets, academics, poet-academics, and my favourite kind of people, readers: Kuppers’ intentionality has remained strong but her lyric gifts have increased with time. Culture Gut Botany yourself and apprehend the growth.
Title: Gut Botany
Author: Petra Kuppers
Publisher: Wayne State University Press
About the Reviewer
Shane Neilson is a disabled poet, physician, and critic. He lives in Oakville, Ontario. He completed his PhD in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in 2018. His previous book, Dysphoria (PQL, 2017) was awarded the Hamilton Literary Award for Poetry in 2018. He is currently completing a postdoctoral position at McMaster as part of the $50,000 ‘Talent’ grant awarded by SSHRC in 2018. Shane published the first book of literary criticism on Canadian disabled poets titled Constructive Negativity with Palimpsest Press in 2019. Other good things to happen to Shane include receiving the Governor General’s Gold Medal for his dissertation work in disability studies and the Regional Dean’s Award for Excellence in Medical Education which was also bestowed for Shane’s championing of disability in McMaster’s medical faculty. He is the festival director of the AbleHamilton Poetry Festival which just successfully completed its second run. Finally, he is also the Poetry Advisor for the Canadian Medical Association Journal where he actively works to include poems by disabled writers.