J'Lyn Chapman - collection traces the uncanny coincidences and resemblances of the wilderness, mourning, the archive of natural history, the voracity for human flight, and apocalypse
J'Lyn Chapman, Beastlife, Calamari Press, 2016.
BEASTLIFE contains the out-of-print BEAR STORIES, a chapbook published by Calamari Press in 2008.
At once far and nearsighted, visionary and intuitive, this collection traces the uncanny coincidences and resemblances of the wilderness, mourning, the archive of natural history, the voracity for human flight, and apocalypse.
“We could nurse the wound of it or adjust. Beauty wants to replicate itself, and so I understood my craving to chew the blooms of flowers and to reproduce. It involved me and I was dripping with it, but when I reflected on my thoughts I found so much disfigurement. It was not so much that the bush burned without expending fuel but that the world provided endless fodder.”
When this little book arrived and I stripped it from its packaging, it almost hummed in my hands—electric and charge, something I’d felt once before, when I accidentally and fortuitously discovered Margaret Wertheimer’s quirky A Field Guide to Hyperbolic Space and it turned out to offer the structural underpinning to a project I was writing. So even before I opened the cover of Beastlife, my hopes for it were high. The Table of Contents alone is tantalizing, with section titles like “The Good Beast: Five Essays,” “We Continue to Unskin: On Taxidermy,” and “A Catalogue and Brief Comments on the Archive Compiled And Written by the Ministry of Sorrow to Birds.” I was drooling after just a quick flip through.
Living in Europe I don’t often get the physical weight and page of new, English-language, small-press books in my hands. And Chapman’s book, as it unfurled its pages and the words tripped and tilted in the dust-mote haze of afternoon sun, proved the perfect complement to the heavy summer fields as they drape this Dutch landscape: golden where the wheat has already dried, green where the small shoots of corn are only just beginning. The muscularity of the ruddy horses as they sprint, nuzzle, wrestle in the fields across from me. The clouds of blackbird that swirl up at evening, swell and narrow and tunnel across the sky. But this book is also the decaying worms, driven by flood to concrete, now feasted on by clustering dark slugs. The humid stench of things dying, rotting, and growing all at once. The swarms of small biting flies hovering at head-height, glinting in the sun.
Beastlife is also a dense and philosophical book, heavy with language and concept, at the same time as it is bursting with fecundity and fetid detail, with lush green overgrowth and the stench of death and feathers. Chapman’s stated influences range from Derrida and Celan and Barthes, to taxidermy magazines and Charles Darwin and The Iliad, and beyond. (And the Notes section is lengthy, perhaps even overly-assiduous at times, but ripe for the reading and inspiration.)
The book’s first section, “Bear Stories,” opens with writing that is immediately rich with sound-play:
The blur of fur caught in the image is coincidence, emergence. Scaffolding becomes architecture. Intentions double like light lost in folds of fabric. Palimpsests, our lack of focus. Two palms crack wasps nest. Oracle of entrails tells us nothing about the way to live, what to do when we meet crescendo and it is over. (7)
Chapman’s language here is high-lyric: light, fur, palms, dusk, filament, pond, “the auspices of bones and chalk.” There are birds everywhere. Minnows are “early moons,” “flashing by my thighs,” and the “wood floor is soft with moss.” This is a world of grasses, green water, ticks and deer and bear and fish and blood. Bones and sky-constellations. Dying, seduction, rapacity. This is a piece to dip into, over and over, as one dips into the glossy cool of pondwater at night, beneath the moon, knowing there are leeches but also there is the silk of the water against your skin. It is romantic, in a fecund, heavy, earthy sort of way—replete with dead fawns and doves’ rib cages, ticks and blood—but there is an edge of the brutal, of emptiness or violence, present from the start.
From the first section we travel to “The Good Beast: Five Essays,” with its recurrent motifs of wings and flight, the distortions and bending of light, and the slowing of time. The section opens with the 1969 Soviet Union film by Tarkovsky, Andrei Rublev, and the poet makes a curious turn into we, taking us with her and the Daedalus-like character as he lifts off the ground beneath a skin-sewn air balloon. Later, she freezes us in one of Tarkovsky’s agonizingly slowed moments: a horse that is shot and falls down a flight of stairs, forcing us to endure the view of a “contorted beast / pain in the prolongation of a single moment.”(31) “All of this life is the reflective index of a shimmering substance,” she writes, and light bends, refracts, scatters: “we see through distortions of atmosphere and ice”(30). We are carried forward from Tarkovsky to da Vinci and then to the temple of Ba’al in Syria, through “field[s] of red-throats, marbled teals, and black-wings,”(37) where “whole cadences are swallows tethered to one another / flying a circuit around electric light”(36)—this last line an echo from “Bear Stories,” and as we continue reading, we realize there are many echoes in this writing, some full phrases, but most imagistic: light is broken, light burns branches, light reflects like a ghost or scatters on opaque surfaces.
The rest of the book continues to weave in the threads of repeated lines and images, as it trips through an exploration of Eros and Thanatos, of metaphor and symbolism, nature’s violence versus tenderness in the imaginative “A Catalogue and Brief Comments on the Archive Compiled And Written by the Ministry of Sorrow to Birds;” then races across themes of silence, mortality, and time, past dry clinical archives which “fail to tell us how it feels to be animal,” to the anxiety of belonging to a body, and the necessity of movement and travel, in “We Continue to Unskin: On Taxidermy.” Finally, as though settling into a small pool at the end of a sprint, we come to “Our Last Days,” a beautiful, personal, more narrative section of the book whose pace is slow, rich, expectant with summer and hope.
Overall, one of the most intriguing sections in Chapman’s project is “A Catalogue and Brief Comments on the Archive Compiled And Written by the Ministry of Sorrow to Birds,” which makes up the middle point and arguably the heart of the book. In the book’s meandering between prose and poetry, this one tips toward the essayistic; it is interwoven with quotes (from Catullus to Tennyson to Sebald and on) that seem to mark turns or transitions in the writing, and speckled with photos of dead birds collected by various other writers for Chapman’s project. This piece is every bit as playful and quirky as its title, and the metaphorical frame Chapman has set around it is a pleasure to investigate and find one’s way through, trying to make meaning of all its layers. The piece opens on a personal note, with the anecdote of a road trip:
We drove, once, along unkempt highways, and the field doves flew into the beam of our headlight. It could have been a moth the way it flickered white, the way it was made small in the breath of our speed. But we did not stop in that summer night. We might have been crying, the complications of sorrow and a merciless machine. And we were alone because no one came when we waited, and no one chased us when we moved. (42)
Quickly, then, it lays out an identity for this “we” that is the Ministry:
We are secularists who believe in the charity of attention. We question if there is a god who knows the number of hairs on our heads. And if we are not watched, then neither are the birds. We count the birds in the way we would want to be counted—to remember the way we would want to be remembered. . . .We reason that desire is violent because it is predicated on absence, and absence is the only absolute. We believe in science and absence, the subconscious and minor losses. . . . You believe death is repugnant, but we do not or we no longer do. We concede our dynamism in the archive. We transform being into history. (42-5)
There is an undercurrent of tongue-in-cheek here, flashes of humor resting on the framework, the bureaucracy and impersonal distance of a “ministry” contrasted against the thread of sorrow, mourning, loss and death.
From there, we travel to a commentary on metaphor versus symbolism: “Metaphor is a slip not to be avoided. Say, for example, a sparrow flies in one window and out the other of an open room. It is the soul passing through the world briefly. Not like the soul. It is the soul, but not exactly. The house finch is not exactly a house. But it is approximately a small comfort.” (47) The tone slips into confession: “We were unprofessional. We lacked scientific objectivity, our bulwark and bastion. We came to the body of a bird as if to a lover’s. We came with humility. We came for grace.” (50) The essay then moves to transcend its own framework, stripping the “we” of its plurality, by exposing it as a stand-in for the singular: “We wore a black sweater and you a plaid shirt.” (52) It takes a final turn into a question of semiotics, using the bird poems of a rather obscure writer named John Clare as its vehicle: “What is the difference between the dumb bird in a glass box and the word bird performed on the space of a page?”(56), and then exploring the role of the poem itself:
The poem is a way to stimulate and protect, to provoke and secure. It flirts by supposing that danger has boundaries, then draws near to softly jerk away. . . We are drawn to boundaries and the danger of boundaries. Flirting a boundary we resist our own death. Not the dissolution of the corporate, but of the corporeal. (58-9)
Though I found these last few pages an odd turn—the tone and language more of scientific reportage than of poetry or word-play, the idea of boundaries a new element in the essay, and the introduction of John Clare a bit abrupt so close to the end of the piece—I realized after re-reading that there were echoes here from both the first page of the book (“I regard my flesh, my tongue as stubborn boundary”) and the last: “We smelled water. We were corporeal and dissolving. . . . The air was saturated in the damp and light of it. We risked everything to touch this way.” (96) Though this did not entirely quiet the sense of an abrupt turn at the end, it at least made it seem more deliberate, as though eventually everything ties together. Despite the slight unsettledness of its ending, overall this essay constructs a delightfully-playful frame around an interwoven exploration of language, semiotics, and philosophy and a subtle narrative of personal experience.
Our journey through this book is similar to that interwoven exploration: it uncovers a vivid, occasionally brutal depiction of the natural world, wound into an understated and at-times surreal exploration of the personal, including relationship and its dissolution. The overall structure of the book is symmetrical: the first and last sections, “Bear Stories” and “The Last Days,” are the most similar to each other in style and voice, though the former seems to place a layer of mythology (replete with the symbolism of death, life, nature) over the personal, surrealizing and thus making it more distant. In contrast, “Last Days” is much more intimate, more grounded in the “real,” even mundane, details of a contemporary life, referencing the airport, political events, children’s classrooms, a friend bringing cake—a level of detail you would not find in “Bear Stories.” And the middle section, “A Catalogue and Brief Comments on the Archive Compiled And Written by the Ministry of Sorrow to Birds,” though overlaid with a playful, quirky structure related to its title, also feels grounded in a personal voice, a speaker who is in concrete relationship to others and to the world around her.
In contrast, “The Good Beast” and “We Continue to Unskin,” the offset sections between the three pieces mentioned above, are much more abstract, complex with idea and concept, referential to things external to the speaker: film, books, paintings, a Syrian temple, and the theory and practice of taxidermy. While they may weave in some of the larger themes referenced in the other three sections, they feel almost more like an ontological commentary, a philosophical exploration of the meaning of being, than like the personal narrative found—even if fragmented, buried—in the other three pieces.
The book moves between pieces that accrue, even if only slightly—at times what accrues is only a sense of the speaker herself—and pieces that offer little constancy, even between their small sections. The overall effect of this is intriguing: though the book’s use of pronouns is almost always slippery—never clear whether “you” references the same person, even within the same section—or at times using “I” for a singular speaker and at other times using “we” for what eventually becomes clear is a singular speaker—and any clear, coherent narrative is difficult, if not impossible, to pin down, there is always enough detail to be enticing, to keep us reading in pursuit of what meaning will accrue. And along the way, the beauty of the language and the thinkiness of the philosophizing are more than enough to make for a rich read; they alone make this a book worth returning to over and over again.
Chapman, who teaches at Naropa University, wrote this book over a number of years—the section “Bear Stories,” was first published as a chapbook by Calamari Press in 2008, and several other pieces in the book were published multiply in both early and later versions—and perhaps it is this slow reworking that has led to the creation of such a layered and deftly, densely worked project. Whatever it is, treat yourself and pick up this little book for one of your winter reads: the lush and gorgeous language, delicately and greenly layered with so many smells and tastes and shades and textures, will tantalize you with memories of summer, while the project’s intellectual complexity provides plenty of delightful exertion for your brain. - Arianne Zwartjes
In a recent lecture by J’Lyn Chapman at Naropa University entitled “The Emergence of Consensuality,” she announced, “I want to hold space for all of it.” And maybe she did not define her “all,” or maybe I busied myself with frantically scribbling in my notebook rather than keeping an ear open to memory, but I cannot recount what exactly her “all” encompasses. In saying this, I acknowledge that every “all” entertains boundaries set for it by personality and accountability—I am a person, and I feel accountable to blank. Thankfully, however, Chapman’s “all” is explored in her book, Beastlife. It begins by nerving a more generally adopted definition of “all,” a definition which burns on an overwhelming gust of ideas and desires longing to come to fruition. Chapman says, “It is a cold sound and you standing at the foot of the bed knee-deep in green water, telling me, this is the water from the ladle in my chest for you.” In this quote, the ladle overflows, the chest aches, and there’s too much love to contain within a subjective everything. This want to “hold space for all of it” causes the body to feel ill and project its love as unrefined flood, ironically threatening the things it wishes to protect. However, as the text travels through five sections of nature-logue, body play, and beastly attention to detail, the “all” is purified into a healthy and resonant breadth of concerns. I am a person, and I feel accountable to…
Beast and life frame the wings of the spectrum and maintain a range of evolved ideas: animal on one end, man on the other, and a beastlife middle ground. The cue to separate these stems from the quote, “To understand how men and animals live, we must witness how a great number of them die,” which recognizes men and animals, even though we harbor one and the same instinct. Consequently, one has to be named beast and the other life. An exploration:
Man as beast / animal as life
- Chapman says, “What is a lie if it can be corroborated by books?” Given that lies invite judgment strewn with criminality and danger, any form of life intelligent enough to write fiction–and through writing fiction, to validate lies–casts a beastly light.
- In speaking of Darwin’s affair with observing nature, Chapman states, “…A detail he notes then strikes.” Although seemingly contradictory to the statement condemning fiction writing, since noting observation can be seen as an event of inception, this particular statement only deepens man’s relationship with beastling. “Striking” is unnatural to the act of observation; either one sees something or one doesn’t. Therefore, Darwin’s practice reeks of editing, which can easily equal lying.
- The quote, “I watch the hunters leave their cabins in a line of bravest to new,” immediately paints man as hunter as beast, but it also does something else, more subtly. Although “line” initiates an image of strict order, an unbecoming business for a beast, the way in which the hunters line up depends entirely on fear. Beast acts on instinct, on fear.
- Categorizing the human as predator and animal, as prey, parallels human as beast, and animal as the life that feeds it. The quote, “My mouth is full of rabbits. Their taste is dust and grass. The sensation is moths,” projects these roles through the transparent, electrifying, and also papery taste of its image.
- The quote, “…Hormones smell supple as a bed,” delivers the part of life or life-giver to the human whose furnishings for a mating call rely on the devout comfort and physicality of a bed. An animal’s furnishings for a mating call, on the other hand, are much more primal and in this case, unmentioned.
- To compliment another human by saying, “You are so good. So pretty like an infant,” portrays the human as a child and again suggests a capability to bear children—“Bear Stories”—yet refuses one the ability to communicate ravaging, beastly desire.
Throughout its five sections, the book commits to a prose form that’s interrupted solely by parts in which dashes signify line breaks. When I think about why this project thrives in prose, my mind reaches to what I find most interesting and critical to the form: the decision to compress in order to unfold. Chapman unites lines comparable with how she unites the creatures of this world, so that she could unfurl a beastly desire narrative in the wake of human intelligence. This narrative, which can also be extracted as her “all,” calls for the extension to peak beast and to peak life, affording fertile grounds for a planted fever. - Karolina Zapal
J’Lyn Chapman’s Beastlife is a collection in five distinctly different parts; two of these parts are prose, or perhaps prose poems, and three are essays. Some of the passages concern nature (human and animal). It includes illustrations, and among those are photographs of birds (some dead on the street, others dead and mounted in 19th-century museum displays). Beastlife is enigmatic.
The first part, “Bear Stories,” begins: “Once, I stood at the window and said, birds, come out of the ivy. They wouldn’t and they still don’t…” The narrator’s command or conjuring meets with refusal. We see glass again in the essay titled “We Continue to Unskin: On Taxidermy”: the exhibit barrier that separates us from the specimen. We see birds again, too: observed, dead on the street after a storm; collected, preserved by the taxidermist’s art. In the essay titled “A Catalogue and Brief Comments on the Archive Compiled and Written by the Ministry of Sorrow to Birds,” Chapman alludes to the poet John Clare’s bird poems: “What is the difference between the dumb bird in a glass box and the word bird performed on the space of a page?” The tone turns pleading, ashamed: “And when we photographed the finch with red on its breast and the soft, round head (slightly larger than our thumb), we felt greedy, and that we should make excuses.” The essay acknowledges that “…we are, in turn, satiated by our photographs, our lists, our elegies.” But those birds, the ones in the ivy, keep refusing to come out. Natural history museum exhibits of animals, those grand halls of taxidermy, “fail to tell us how it feels to be animal. The rest is unknown, a privacy so radical in its impossibility that the only response can be wonder.”
This statement may guide the reader of Beastlife toward a way of reading Chapman’s enigmas, written in elegant declarative sentences. The concept of wonder acknowledges the human gaze and the human desire to catalog, collect, and preserve, while not taking away the animal’s radical privacy. This may be why, in this collection, Chapman so often presents us with fur, feathers, or skin, a wing, an eye, or a snout. When she refrains from scientific names, the beast remains more itself.
Chapman gives so much weight, however, to antique forms of collecting and exhibiting animal nature (taxidermy, old-fashioned museums) that I wondered how, or if, her archive accommodates the beasts of modern social media and viral videos: the bear in the swimming pool, the bear in the dumpster, the bear walking on its hind legs in New Jersey…
If the life of animals is unknown to us, Chapman suggests ways for us to speak as human animals. Perhaps Beastlife as a title can be understood as a way of saying autobiography or memoir, (bringing to mind the ZYZZYVA anthology of autobiographical works, AutoBioDiversity). But the self that calls through a window to birds can’t make that barrier go away. In one of many visionary moments, Chapman observes: “Someone drove half a house down the center of the highway.” So what do we do inside that house, on our side of the glass? Perhaps the answer is suggested in this serene passage: “…I take on the attitude of February. That is, I become something quiet and waiting.” Is this a radical attempt to shift point of view, to get outside the house? It’s also uncannily impersonal, almost as if she’s become that glass barrier, mirroring the world and time.
Puzzling over the enigmatic Beastlife, whose title evokes medieval bestiaries, this reviewer thought of how some of the earliest writings in English literature are Anglo-Saxon riddles (called, in Latin, enigmata). In this riddle, the animal narrates its own transformation into vellum or parchment:
A certain enemy robbed me of my life,
stole my world-strength; afterward he soaked me,
dunked me in water, dragged me out again,
set me in the sun, where I swiftly lost
the hairs that I had. Afterward the hard
edge of a knife, with all unevenness ground away, slashed me…
This would seem to contradict Chapman’s idea of the animal’s radical privacy—in the riddle, there’s both a direct assault on the animal and the claim to speak as that animal. Perhaps the difference is that in those days there was no glass. Beastlife seems an ambitious attempt to get back to the skin of things. - Erica Olsen http://necessaryfiction.com/reviews/BeastlifebyJLynChapman
Once I became aware that this book existed, I knew I had to have it. So I ordered it immediately.
When it arrived and I went down to the bookstore to retrieve it (that is, release it from the bookseller who could not refrain from glancing through it as if he was regretting having to let it go), trusting some odd intuition that it might hint at something I was looking for. But, to be fair, I had little idea what to expect.
J’Lyn Chapman’s Beastlife is very small, fitting into the palm of the hand, or better yet, a pocket. An ideal companion for a walk in a park or natural area. I bought it with the idea that it might offer an unconventional provocation for a process of loosening, prying open, the closed window between my loss and the grief that I cannot begin to touch yet. At this point, in the first months following my parents’ deaths, mourning feels more like an empty space. Written of the body, mine and theirs. Confused. Contorted. Corporeal.
Not everyone would look to a book containing photographs of dead birds (albeit small, grainy black and white images), to find a voice for sorrow. For me it makes a strange sort of sense. It sounds morbid, but hopefully, if I manage to put to word the images that haunt my memories of my mother’s last month and days, I will be able to illustrate the beauty. If I have learned anything yet in these early days following the first significant losses of my life, it is that making sense of the death of those closest to us is at once universal and specific. And I lost both parents. Two very different relationships, two different circumstances, two separate yet entwined experiences of grief.
Of course, there is much more to Beastlife than photographs of birds.
This collection of essays—poetic meditations—on life and death, birds and beasts, and our human interaction with the natural world offers evocative, yet insistent reminders that we should strive to observe, engage with, and exist in this world with grace and compassion. Not that we, as humans, always succeed. Sometimes we are careless. And sometimes we are unthinkably cruel—inhuman even.
Death is a theme throughout, up close and afar. And violence too. Chapman explores the ways we intersect with nature—as hunters, naturalists, observers of atrocities, and, most fundamentally perhaps, bearers of new life. This tiny volume challenges the readers to reflect on our place in the cycle of life, in the beauty and the pain.
For me, at this time, when death is very much on my mind, there is an odd comfort in these pages.
The volume opens with “Bear Stories,” a series of very short pieces; raw, visceral prose poems that draw on the intimate complexity of our connection to the natural world. Bound with water, blood, fur, and feather the beauty is shocking, brutal, sublime. Drawn from an earlier longer form chapbook, these “stories” invite us to consider the world at gut level.
In the dark, a body is a pond. The night birds make hollow sounds, and then there is a sound of the mouth, pulled back, curled out. And so on. Fur catches the moon as it comes out barbed and dark. A vertical cut whines under the ribs, and the long grass keeps it from you.
The micro essays and meditations that comprise the central portion of Beastlife are remarkably rich, drawing on a range of literary and critical resources. “A Catalogue and Brief Comments on the Archive Compiled and Written by the Ministry of Sorrow to Birds,” for instance, takes inspiration from Ovid, Heidegger, Barthes, Sebald, Tennyson and more. Despite its seemingly whimsical name, this is a more explicit meditation on death and dying framed against images, photographic and descriptive, of dead birds. The ministry of the title is an imagined institution dedicated to a form of archival lamentation, an understanding of death and mourning through the collection of photographic specimens. They seek and gather images into a growing chronicle of sorrow:
We were stopped, and looked down, in the walk by the bird, flies, cigarette, glint of coin. We saw the futility in keeping—the ornaments in hydriotaphia and their obsidian speaking something of its keeper. But the detritus we die alongside or do not die alongside, the litter jettisoned from our death and dying bodies or we die too quickly to regard, utter the currency of living things.
And there is this discomfort: the spectacle. Its hard edges. We have bodies too, we say, and we want them wrapped in webby husk, a film, a membrane huddled into self. But our bodies are still over-looked by our own flânerie, in which the world, and its subtle schism of that which is alive and that which is dead, becomes our final coup for all we have lost in the leaving. All the unmeasured ether, it flames with our light.
In death we are confronted with the fragility of the body—the body of the one who has died and, in reflection, our own. In her next essay, “We Continue to Unskin: On Taxidermy,” following Truth’s advice to Petrarch to constantly meditate upon his own mortality, Chapman contemplates mortality and the miracle of immortality which, paradoxically involves an engagement with death. Structured along lines from a poem by Paul Celan, this journey takes us through the a more familiar archive of natural history. From the delicate art of the taxidermist, preserving the form and imitation of natural life in the animal’s natural habitat, to the narrator’s own relentless search to find her place in the urban spaces she inhabits, the promise of immortality lies, of course, in language.
And yet every sentence has its beginnings and each animal, posed as it is in flight or in fright has its past-tense. Beauty, eternal gesture. I want to write sentences that stretch on toward desperation, as in the fugal voices that become discordant but still lovely, then recollected in harmony. At the apotheosis of the desperation, the line would break into clause or new sentence and the break would be the point of discord rather than calm, and still the dissolution would be reprieve, as when the healthy mind refuses any more annihilation and in its descent decides to rest. But there must be sentences that travel toward the desperate one. There must be travel.
The last entry, “Our Final Days,” echoes in form the contained short prose pieces of “Bear Stories,” but here the brutality is decidedly human—dispatches of cruelty, violence, and injury are played against the hope that some semblance of beauty in nature may preserve us. It’s a faint hope, a lament of an entirely different order. It’s too easy to get wrapped up in the disheartening news that floods our lives through our TVs and news feeds. Sometimes I find myself relieved that my parents will not see any more of the potential darkness that seems to ever loom on the horizon. But then I remember that I have two children. Life goes on. I reorient myself to the future again.
There is a woeful inadequacy that washes over me when I read more conventional memoirs of loss and explorations of grief. I keep peeking into odd corners, turning over rocks to see what crawls out. Reading books like Beastlife.
I keep the other poetic evocations of grief, the books I am amassing, close at hand. I read them to stir up and open the gates that are still secured against the flood of choked tears, the barricades of numbed sadness, that do not seem to be able to allow more than a slow leak in occasional shuddered gasps. At the moment mourning feels more like emptiness. I feel a need to find a starting point with death, with these particular deaths, with watching each one on their deathbeds, before I can find and begin to work through the grief. - https://roughghosts.com/2016/09/01/a-meditation-on-life-and-death-beastlife-by-jlyn-chapman/
Where would I go, if I could go, who would I be, if I could be, what would I say, if I had a voice, who says this, saying it’s me?
— Texts for Nothing, Samuel BeckettMeditation, in literary terms, is a much obscured word. No doubt this has more to do with the word in wider use at present—where once it signified a reflective, contemplative, even philosophical or religious book, now we are more likely to be presented with it in terms of neo-spiritualism and the cult of wellness. So within a few pages of J’Lyn Chapman’s Beastlife, it struck me as quite powerful that meditation was the word that seemingly sprang from nowhere in the full, classic literary sense.
This is a presentation of nature as reflection, told in stories, essays, and fragments—of what we are and are not as humans, a complex contemplation of life and death rather than a linear observation of other species in the style of Pliny’s Natural Histories. More than anything, it shows us as longing for the animal in life, but lacking life in death—reaching for some understanding of how to maintain a kind of motion that will carry us beyond, even though we cannot define it. Perhaps that is the reason I found myself going over and over the sections “We Continue to Unskin: On Taxidermy”, and “Our Last Days”. The concept of something from nothing—specifically the greed for life when it balances on the edge, the rush to understand in a fragile handful of last moments, the obsession with capturing a movement or breath so that it may save life, bring to mind both Beckett, and DeLillo’s most recent novel, Zero K.
The Beckett will come as no surprise to anyone who reads Beastlife—indeed, the author references the “zero” of Endgame (amongst many others: Barthes, Derrida, Sebald) as well as the idea(s) of transformation in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It is the attempt to understand transformation in the grey area of life and death, as the maintaining a grasp of the former while in the state of the latter—a kind of un-state, that is so fascinating. “There is nothing so artificial as resurrection, but artful preservation suspends our repulsion” says Chapman. Because we are not bound by instinct alone as humans, there is a need to suspend both that repulsion and fear, as well as seeing beyond as another horizon to travel towards. But in order to suspend, we must first come to an acceptance of the silence inside, the one that is to fill us completely when our eyes flicker for what might be the last:
“when you become quiet, you experience all that is empty within you, the absence that has accumulated since light. … But until you understand that life is spent as if it is held in a delicate husk and that the sound of this husk is zero, then you will never find peace in the time that you contain.”
Likewise in Zero K, as Artis is slowly brought into cryogenic sleep—a kind of metamorphosis from something to nothing in the hope that there will be a return, a beyond—she contemplates in half-conscious fragments:
“Why can’t I know more. Why just this and nothing else. Or do I need to wait.
… Is this what makes me whatever I know and whatever I am.
… I listen to what I hear. I can only hear what is me.
… But am I who I was.”
She is, as Chapman says, “going deep”—examining her life via death-in-progress. But what of the body itself, prepared for the known-unknown? It is distinctly human that we preserve ourselves in the utmost rigidity, a present from our past selves to future ones. From mummification to cryogenics, the reverence applied to the physical body seems more for the benefit of the thing we cannot define—or rather, define with scientific proof instead of mythology. Yet in Beastlife, the difference in our death-treatment of beasts and birds is markedly different—here the reverence and emphasis is on imagined movement: “cognitive dissonance connects changes. We call this animation … our love for one another is connected to movement”—the display of death-as-life, a hope that a motion stopped is not permanent, a reminder of wildness/wilderness. But unlike our treatment of each other, it is held in a specific living moment: extended wingspan, an open beak, a specific perch. There is an element of wanting to transfer ourselves into the animal body to realise what it was in life, and in doing so, reconnect with the feral, break free of the rigidity of human ritual.If we care to listen, there is an innate need to go back to the natural world in times of crisis, observe that which has survived on nothing but instinct for so long, relatively untouched by the artificial state of man. In it we find zero, and realise how small and static our created world seems in comparison. That insignificance does indeed bring its own peace: “[w]e could feel ourselves come apart, disperse and circulate … [t]he look of things has great power: stippled shadows, a cooling breeze.” Here is the metamorphosis, the movement, the meditation—where we are perpetually balanced on the cusp of this life and beastlife, one moment televised destruction, the other bone talismans and musk. We shed our voice and use the ones of those that fly and crawl around us instead, wrap ourselves in the wings and fur that show us wisely how to live and die. - Tomoé Hill https://minorliteratures.com/2016/08/12/beastlife-by-jlyn-chapman-tomoe-hill/
When we are in bed and you are on top of me, I think about the painting of the bear hanging over the great stone fireplace. I say to myself, bear, tell me a story about your tooth and your hide, about the three dogs that bare their teeth, and about the one dog that is so brave, he takes your flank in his jaw and hangs from it. Bear, tell me about the time it takes to put a sweater on. I want to know what it means to lie down empty. And bear answers, I have always been ashamed. I put on fish skin. They sometimes call the bear a lonely monk. The bear’s habitat is the gorge, the tree, the cleft of rock. If you open the bear’s stomach, you will find a rubber doll and a piece of canvas. I tap my upper and lower eye-teeth together. I refuse to eat. You laid yourself beside me, and I realized I was cold in my hairless skin. I wear wool in the rain so I will smell like bear, so that she will kiss my shoulder as I kiss the wood of our cabin walls.