Resetting Our “Creature-clocks”: Michelle Detorie’s After-Cave

M.P. Jones IV

Boise, ID: Ahsahta Press, 2015. 96 pages. $18.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

From its first line—“I am 15. Female. Human (I think).”—we know After-Cave skirts the lines of being and becoming. Consider the subtlety of “Human (I think),” through the Descartian question and possibility of one existing as human. These lines command our attention through the sheer ferocity of their immediate, feral lines—I am—but the questions they raise always want to turn on themselves like frenzied ouroborobi. Detorie asks not just what would we be without this self-conscious apparatus, but where could we go? She takes us on journeys to these impossible places, realms within and without. This book is full of interiors: “our / little world in our little / world” and “A book is a room, / I am a house.” The poems shine at us like bright reflections, but what we see looking back isn’t just human. In fact, “[t]he mirror doesn’t have an eye, / it needs us to see it: to see it / we see ourselves.” Detorie’s blending of teen girl and animal gives voice to marginalia as it explores the liminal of what Donna Haraway calls the (com)post-human.

These poems reveal with the haunted, romantic spaces of the vanishing American wilderness, a poetic inheritance of Dickinson and Thoreau, Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Plath—all brought to bear on David Lynch and Haraway. Her lines like “Will it be easier to not have known the / blue sky and the tacky quotidian contours of groceries and laundry?” resemble the forceful introspection of Wallace Stevens. They resist the allure of nostalgia, always aware of the vicious and turbulent world, with its boundaries, lines, and limits. After-Cave snarls in the face of violence and silence. It recognizes and bends the lines of demarcation, poeticizing South Carolina as “shaped like a heart: / like a fist.”  She refuses to sentimentalize or romanticize the brutality of her landscapes, which are as much portraits of decay and pain as they are of blossoming and beauty. Yet, this frees her poems from the weight of the past, providing the chance to move forward, to grow, because “pain is a window filling up with wings.”

The blending of human, animal, and machine resists Descartian anthropocentrism in every way. Recalling at once Susan Howe’s Souls of the Labadie Tract, Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, her work pushes us ever toward the posthuman ecopoetics of the present. After-Cave gets us beyond the ideological shadows on the wall, outside the walls of the failing city. The sections of the book propel us forward, toward any imaginable possibility. This book is densely populated—home to deer and “Creature-clocks,” worms, foxes, and birds of all kinds: made of paper, of words, of flesh, of pure imagination. Like them, Detorie’s speaker is flighty, shifting her gaze—as when comparing girls and birds, she remarks parenthetically that “we write about them / TOO MUCH” but that “We write / about them because they / disappear.” These disappearances haunt her poems with traces, repetitions, and silences. The poems dance along the lines of what, exactly, poetry can reveal—and more importantly, what still “you can’t see through / the feathers.” Her lines veer from the pastoral odyssey of “Fur Birds” to the techno-lyrical “Feralscape” with its untamed geographical lines:

smell    of honey + meat
taste    of burnt hair/fur
touch   of hot, sinking asphalt—tar
sound  of locusts, their chiseled drone of scissor-saws
view    of a milk white morning.

The book’s cover suggests the kind of magic of which Detorie is capable: the blast of color and wonder that reveal just the outline of hands, the shadow of a face, the edges of the speaker, “a charade of the proper / angles arranging themselves into an appa- / rition of what was when, when we could spell, when we could / remember—conjure.” The labor of these poems is always to hover in the magic between being and becoming, and much of this book’s pleasure comes from that willingness to dally or fly at a moment’s notice.

Though these poems are urgent and wild, they are also revelatory and richly descriptive. She is able to use formatting and font to convey powerful womb, matrix, and cave images in the beginning of “Feralscape”:
Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 4.07.44 PM
And these techniques create an urgency and an invitation to move forward, to seek truth or to revel in the darkness. Like Plato’s description of cities as caves, as traps for the mind, After-Cave forces us toward the ever-outside. The unique use of formatting and design also endows her lines a cartographic quality. Her future-looking ferality enters an elegiac mode similar to the pastoral, but her resistance to nostalgia and the pull of the illusory past lets her dwell in the possibilities of the present and future tense.

The final section, “After-Cave,” has her taking presents and “unwrapping them, making the / boxes into new houses, filling them with dirt, hoping that birds / or worms or foxes would come to find them, us.” Her poetry can be seen as a refashioning, a breaking down of the old to make something new. In Genevieve Kaplan’s interview with Detorie, she talks about how many of the poems in After-Cave began as a larger constellation of notes, drafts, pictures, maps, reading, research, and conversation dating back as far as 2003. In that interview, she shares some of those artifacts of her process:

Photograph of an early conceptual draft of the poem “Fur Birds.”
Photograph of an early conceptual draft of the poem “Fur Birds.” (Screenshot taken by Madison Jones from the Kaplan interview.)

It is obvious that the visual elements of her work are fused with the very process of her poetic craft. The effect of this reweaving of lines, written and recomposed, is what she calls a “sort of triptych,” and the poems themselves richly reflect this form. Lines like “I let myself soften after hunting” crop up throughout the different sections, refracting and connecting images like tangled branches of consciousness.

Out of the ruin and decay, out of the pain and the darkness, Detorie finds life in After-Cave. She says that “Tomorrow we will weave the bones of a cormorant into our / dresses, and we will borrow the feathers. Nothing gets ruffled / and everything is reused.” In this costume of death, we can finally get past the past and beyond the selfish self—away from the ego and toward the eco. The book constantly unveils, strips bare, defleshes, re-furs, sprouts wings, and flies. These poems turn the interior into the exterior, and they move through time and place with untamed lyric force.  The strength of After-Cave is its wildness—it teaches its readers to see that “Time is with the animal” (49).

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