by Scott Russell Morris
You’re not supposed the judge books by the cover, but I totally judged this one by its title and partially by its minimalist cover. “Feral Flora” is just very fun to say. The idea is delightful, and a book that can delight linguistically and idea-wise in just one title is worth picking up. (The cover is neat, too).
Inside the book, things get much more complicated, even as they continue to delight both by the sheer genius of the idea and the linguistic play. The first things most readers will immediately notice—and probably get thrown off by—are the multiple tables of contents. The first is a straight- forward Table of Contents that accurately and in a standard format tells us you what to expect in the rest of the book. Then there is a Table of Contents “written by Iris” and one written by “Morning Glory” and one written by Iris “later in the day.” These latter Tables of Contents are jumbles, unrecognizable, practically unreadable remixes of the original. Flipping through the book, you also find other such remixes, all written by trees and flowers, all unreadable in the conventional sense.
But not without delight. There is a certain delight in the randomness, the feralness of the floral prose. My favorite—based purely on my aesthetic, because by what else can poetry written by flowers be judged?—is a stanza in “Feral Iridium Animate Matter:”
written by Iris (later in the day)
earth, else, you, interim? husband did and you B, and and husband and homes of of homes husband and of and what you and and forth between she was and A and do When When she in When When if B, did you, interim? […] If wished well, If the world to be would ars bare My ay bare appear apear of fists petals. of flowers. flowers. petals. of of with flowers. of arms would arms with appear of wished Buried flowers. I wished to to be
In the composition, I used several somatic devices, such as altering my body through the scent of orris root, physically touching the plants, or ingesting irises. I wanted to alter my own sensory capacities through direct encounters with the iris plants themselves.
The result, is that about half of the book is attempting to bring us into “direct encounters” with the plants themselves, altering our perception and our definitions of poetry. There are passages, like in the chapter “Short Stones”, where the page does nothing but repetitively list types of trees. It is hard not to skim over these passages. It is also difficult not to want to read them aloud repeatedly. There is something both engrossing and gross about the way the plants have (de)composed these pieces.
The first chapter—which is more like lyric essay than prose poem—says of the narrator’s garden, “I wanted to call them pretty but they were weeds.” You might think the same thing about many of the poems in this book. They are pretty, but not in a way you feel comfortable with. It is tempting to think these poems written by plants may be a trick of some sort. But you also can’t deny that there is a certain wonder in the thought of plants writing poetry.
However, the flower-written poems are only portion of the text, and though it is the most showy part, and I think the part that will likely get the most press, it isn’t the most enjoyable part for the reader. Ackerman has other tricks up her sleave that are just as frustrating and delighting, but more rewarding. Most of the other works are somewhere between prose poetry and narrative. As mentioned, the first chapter reads like essay, as do portions of “Short Stones.” Most of the other chapters, however, lean heavily towards magical realism or even fairy tale. In one, two sisters wait out their time in the belly of a whale. In another, the chapter reads like an essay about minimalism, household items, and the narrator’s uncertain love life. In another, a witch tells a girl she has the power to heal, but the girl doubts that gift. In my favorite of the chapters, Ackerman retells the story of Hansel and Gretel, weaving it with the story of a dissatisfied business man who ends up turning into the witch who eats the children. The chapter is called “One Heart Is Better than No Heart: Emerging Buds” and starts with the tantalizing line, “It is time the story changes for good because it is an old story.”
Then, the next chapter of the book is titled “One Heart I Better than No Heart: (To be Read Separately): Regeneration. The Stalk Re-buds.” This second story starts with the same line: “It is time the story changes for good because it is an old story.” And then proceeds to tell the exact same story as the chapter before it. Word for word the same. Or close enough—it becomes a tedious game to check every sentence, but I didn’t find any that were different. The only difference comes because the first chapter starts on the right page and the second on the left. The effect is disorienting, but pleasantly so. Phrases you didn’t remember reading you go back and check, only to find them there. Details you’d already forgotten feel odd. You realize that you remembered the details in the wrong order. Like all the chapters in the book, you can’t help wondering if it is a luxurious trick. But you also wonder if it is the highest form of art, which makes you question everything you knew about how narratives should be told and how poetry is shaped.
In brief: Amanda Ackerma’s The Book of Feral Flora is a wild ride across genres and styles, a reading experience more than just a mere book of poetry or narrative. Not for the faint of heart, but definitely worth a read.
Buy if from Les Figues Press for $17.00
Scott Russell Morris is an English PhD student at Texas Tech University and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Brigham Young University. He is currently working on a memoir-in-essays about food, family, and travel. Visit him at www.skoticus.com
by Liz McGehee
Sandra Doller’s Leave Your Body Behind takes its reader on a ride through a series of compartments, as it interrogates gender or, more specifically, what it means to walk through the world in a gendered body.
Throughout the book women are likened to animals (mainly canine) and analyzed as such:
“No dog was ever shut in like a woman. The trauma of thinking. Well
aren’t you lucky…
Everyone wants to imagine themselves a girl. Beautiful, brown, saver.
There, isn’t that better. You didn’t even have to touch the middle.
Honey, you just bought yourself a dog.
Here, women equal faunae, while men either consume or abstain from meat and animal ownership. Additionally, many sections of the book begin with excerpts from environmental studies, psychological findings pertaining to gender differentiations, or quotes directly tying women to nature. Often, the relation between women and nature functions as a form of entrapment, conjuring typical images imposed by mainstream literature on women—flowers, softness, beauty, and delicacy—ignoring the human qualities that make women people. However, Doller picks up this culturally forged bond between the feminine and flora/fauna only to eviscerate it while we watch helplessly.
The form, too, doesn’t allow itself to be categorized. It isn’t clear if the text is meant to be essay, poetry, or some mixture of genre, adding another layer of dissection to the work. Separated prose blocks compose countless sections and other sections resemble a prosaic coagulation of sorts. Sentences sometimes drop off completely or change direction, leaving the reader uncomfortable, never quite able to figure out what rhythm the author is attempting to establish or what she will do next.
The prose itself is instructional and commanding, emulating the ways in which women are guided like dogs through the world, or it is disparately submissive, looking for someone to point it in the right direction. The narrator embodies this frenzied, uneven rhythm of the prose, oscillating between a hollow, instructive male, voice and an anxious, permission-driven, female voice. Both appear often within the same set of sentences, as if trying on a new gender.
In one passage, the narrator appears female-emulating-male in an attempt at adequation:
…Once I had a jacket like that but I gave it away. It was given to me. I gave it. Once I saw a boy fix a dock. Once in the middle of the room. Once I taped my mouth shut. For you. Flickered. Once I was handy with a hammer…
The female here transforms from receiver to giver, as well as becoming “handy with a hammer” after the boy is mentioned fixing a dock. The underlying voice throughout the book appears female, one attempting to escape female passivity and subservient placement through the emulation of masculine behavior and speech. But she is never quite able to escape this position as we see in this passage by her flicker and silence. Further, she encompasses this female attempt at masculinity and autonomy through participation in the destruction of other women when enacting the male, what feminist author, Ariel Levy, termed the “loop-hole woman.”
This narrator futilely attempts to leave her body behind with the ceaseless behavioral emulation of the dominant sex, a reflection of western, capitalist ideas of success. The world’s antiphon at her body—eroticization, subjugation, and dehumanization—is led by binarization of the sexes:
Man was here when he wasn’t. That is the style of Man. When the headdress of the bishop or the dovetailed wood joint configuration, the one I can’t figure, when that comes, we will all be matter together. Until then, until one word for two things can actually mean both things, I mean, until the thing can actually be both things its word is, then.
Doller’s book carries the futility of the female body in a world where feminization equals subjection, and with it the neurosis, Stockholm syndrome, compartmentalization, and self-hatred that ensues from dwelling in such a space. Leave Your Body Behind successfully makes its reader question modern, western impositions of gender and the potential for gender when it is no longer tethered to the body.
Les Figues Press.
Liz McGehee is an MFA candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Read another review of this book next door at The Volta.