Gut Botany, by Petra Kuppers, is an avowedly difficult collection of poems. Kuppers writes, in the indispensable “Field Notes” at the back of the book, “My writing grounds itself in surrealist and situationist techniques of dérive and freewriting: losing myself in land, letting my attention drift as I wheel myself through space, notice how the land heaves, the lines of my wheelchair’s glide, how strata of occupation shape urban and rural scenes” (85). The “Field Notes” are not presented as poems, but the sentence just quoted works the same way that many of Kuppers’s poems and lines do. There is a making and crossing of boundaries, for example, in the colon that promises an elaboration on dérive and freewriting. After the colon, the sentence structure shifts unexpectedly: “losing” and “letting” are parallel verbs, but we have to hunt for the parallel to “notice” (“as I wheel” parallels “[as I] notice”) and then we hunt again for the parallel to “the lines of my wheelchair’s glide” (“[as I] notice how the land heaves” parallels “[as I notice] the lines…”). Kuppers’s sentences, poems, and lines draw us ever inward. They are difficult to parse, difficult to interpret; they are nevertheless inviting, even enrapturing. They are to be experienced as we read them, and they produce a dizzying and disruptive range of affective responses.
Kuppers’s sentences are to be experienced as we read them, and they produce a dizzying and disruptive range of affective responses.
The collection opens with a “Sucker punch, the knife in the street / fear of being sheared out of the stream / into the backwater” (1). In three lines, road becomes water and we are—or Kuppers is, someone is—in peril. We are liable to be transported quite suddenly into a new place or even a new body, and the opening poem tells us that “the party is always elsewhere / a shadow in a canoe in a photo / likely put on Facebook tomorrow” (1). As soon as the “elsewhere” is marked, we go there; we go there and find it diminished and deferred, but also preserved. The point, as I take it then, is not to arrive at the party. Rather we are invited, instructed, to feel the anticipation and the going and the mixture of feelings in whatever follows: “vibration / sensation / red note rising/white” (8; the last slash is Kuppers’s).
This point is developed and complicated in “House Concert,” where we encounter the proposition, “Everything you feel is appropriate” (36). By itself, the line might offer comfort in the form of universal absolution for
even the worst feelings. But I think the line does not offer the clean comfort just suggested. It appears in quotation marks, in the voice of “the theatre anthropologist in her Sun Ra door blinds” who “sashays across the ceiling tiles scattered by a hurricane” (36). Distance and natural violence thus attach at once to the maxim and to the maxim’s speaker. We have to feel out the idea, to wonder whether “Everything you feel” is—or is not—too much for the poem to contain.
Elsewhere, Kuppers’s poetics casts doubt on the justice of many kinds of traveling-through. The poems traverse landscapes of disability, sexual violence, colonial violence, and environmental violence. Whatever we feel moving through these landscapes, to judge whether our feelings are appropriate we must first answer the difficult questions, Appropriate to what? and Appropriate to whom?
Kuppers refuses to orient us clearly. In “Found on the Other Side of the Pond,” for example, the “you” slips and slides among possible targets (47). At first “you” is most plausibly Kuppers’s collaborator in “armchair botany,” Sharon Siskin, who brought Kuppers the mushroom cap that the poem speaks of (and to). The mushroom’s “[m]antle erodes while you look, tears you can use for ink / these are not black marks, in your book, not the liquids deliberately mingling with your blood.” This structure of address is disrupted, however, in the syntactical slippage that follows: “If your system can’t / take transformation, desist, curl your fingers around fluffier / stuff, the cat tails’s losing it, too, melts down and pollutes / fine dander with seedy edge.” After the cat tails lose it, it becomes too hard to say what “melts down and pollutes.” A beat later, “We deliquesce, bloom out of line,” and I imagine the speaker bringing herself into and out of line with the mushroom itself, the “inky cap,” which may be addressed as the poem closes: “Your marks edge deeper, compress: / matter out of place accumulates, grooves a canyon, / stiffens your mood.”
The poems in Gut Botany stiffen moods. They make their meaning out of fleeting feelings that suddenly sit up and hold their forms. There’s pleasure to be taken in the examination this makes possible, but there is danger, too.
Ezra is the author Habitat of Stones, which won the Patricia Bibby First Book Award. He has published in RHINO, Crazyhorse, Lambda Literary, DIAGRAM, and other venues. He teaches American Literature and Science and Technology Studies at Williams College.