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The Unspeaking ‘Thing’: A Review of Rowan Evans’s freak red.

By Samuel Stolton.

Rowan Evans, freak red, Projective Industries (Chicago), 2015.


If, as has been alleged by certain sociolinguists since the 1960’s, the human ‘voice’ is inherently bound to a historicity of power, control, and subjectivity, what then happens to such a voice when it becomes crippled, torn to fibers and rethreaded through the skin of an other? What if this skin of ‘an other’ is animal? John Kinsella is correct to ask of Rowan Evans’s freak red chapbook, a sequence of short lyrics focused on the themes of urban foxes, fear, territory and hybridity, whether ‘Human speaks fox, fox speaks fox, fox unspeaks human?’ Somewhere in this triumvirate, Evans’ words circulate. His voices waver between a relatively comprehensible poetic tonality and the pulses of an ungrammatical incoherency that serve themselves well to the purpose of conceptualizing an animalistic undercurrent of thought:



One may align Evans’s style here with a Beckettian attitude to expressivity, focusing on the moments in the text that allow for the slippages of tongue to manifest ‘the animal’ beneath. Following along Carter Smith’s axis in his essay, “Beckett and the Animal: Writing from No-Man’s-Land”, when he observes that the animalistic troupes in Beckett’s Murphy neither ‘animalizes the human nor anthropomorphizes the animal’, it is not ostentatious of us to note how Evans’s imperative to hybridize the poetic tonalities within freak red may parallel with such a Beckettian imperative, occurring out of the disturbances and the inconsistencies of standard textual composition.

Carter Smith’s extension of Eric Santner’s concept of ‘creaturely life’ in regard to Beckett’s work is particularly helpful in analyzing Evans’s poetry. Carter draws our attention to a passage taken from On Creaturely Life:

‘The paradox at work here is that only animals that have been “deterritorialized,” removed from their natural habitat, become creatures in the sense I have been elaborating. In a word, we get a glimpse of creaturely life not by seeing or imagining animals in “the open” but by observing them in various states of disorientation (these are, we might say, animals whose instincts have mutated into drives). What I have been calling creaturely life, then, does indeed mark our resemblance to animals, but precisely to animals who have themselves been thrown off the rails of their nature.’

Santner’s analysis is emblematic of the approach Evans takes in freak red. We have as our subjects, urban foxes, animals who have been deterritorialized from their ‘natural’ habitat. Yet can urban foxes be considered creatures of nature or creatures of the city? Do they have a multifarious palate of accents and intonations that metamorphose depending on the social and cultural environment that they are in? Are their screams and shrieks fiercer when consumed amid the misted chambers of the nightly metropolis? Perhaps, but these are technical considerations for the anthrozoologist, not necessarily for the poet. Yet that which Evans does successfully lay out for us is perhaps that these animals, disoriented, as Santner writes, have been (de)territorialized by the environment of the hominal kingdom, and express themselves, as we do, in utilization of a lexical based semiology. If, as freak red would happen to suggest, this is Fox-Writing, then the general form of the words of course follow the logic of employing a Latin based language, punctuated by the oft howl of the midnight rambler, together with an unngramaticality that would suggest anything but composure by a purely sober human mind:



I find this aspect of Evans’ work incredibly moving and at the same time achingly tragic. Here we have a voice, spoken in relatively coherent English, yet occasionally pursed open and released from the trajectories of a standardized language by the inability to ‘be’ the voice that one is speaking. The trace of the voice shows that, while the wider human environment has colonized the lexicology of the fox, the natural impulse of the animal remains latent and is prepared to rear its head in the event of an intrusion of instinctual drives, displayed above in wild grammatical glitches. In this scenario, to duly return back to Kinsella’s words, the ‘fox unspeaks human’. The fox punctures his primitive tongue through the mouth of man.

A liberating tract is pursued open in instances such as these, as we realize all that has been done to subjectify the individual amid an empire of language suddenly becomes unstable. Ungrammaticality is the key to dissembling the domineering bastions of language. To see language ‘undone’ in this way is a truly Beckettian keynote. The anonymous, disembodied, purely vocal voices we hear throughout the pages of freak red represent a bow from Evans to the hybrid textualities of 20th century avant-gardism. To be ‘thrown off the rails of nature’, in Santner’s words, is to be coerced into a territorial domain in which language imposes itself on the voice of the other, while still destabilising the authority of that same voice.

Thematically, Mikahail Bulgakov’s bracing polemic into New Soviet Man, Heart of a Dog, weaves a similar tapestry to that we are threading here. In this respect, the imposition of culture is aligned with an allegorical criticism, as Edythe Haber observes, of the Communist revolution’s ‘misguided attempt to radically transform mankind.’ A stray dog named Sharik is operated on by a rogue professor and is given a human pituitary gland as well as male testicles. The Dog-becoming-Human paradigm in this respect is explicated via a criticism of eugenics and biopolitics rather than that which Evans gestures towards in freak red, where the imposition of anthropological categories is established during the animal’s flânerie throughout the metropolitan domain. This event is synonymous to an ‘operation’ carried out on the animal that transforms his communicational standards from a purely creaturely ‘barking’ to some sort of a hybridized human-barking, not dissimilar to the odd human/dog crossbred behaviour that Bulgakov’s Sharik displays.

Such hybrid interplays are ever-present throughout freak red, and the text succeeds in its blurring of the boundaries between the human and the fox, bidding us to question exactly which exactly is ‘creature’ and which is ‘deterritorialized’. Yet is it is a provocative and highly erudite work that can wrench our considerations to such a degree that we feel the need to consider our own standardizations of speech and their relation to the tongue of an other. As Evans writes towards the end of the chapbook:



The voice that rears itself here is a violent and primitive barking, antithetical to the ‘Barking’ that Gilles Deleuze famously criticised as ‘the shame of the animal kingdom’. We are not dealing with those domesticated animals that Deleuze was so vehemently repelled by, this is a barking of another sort, altogether more ‘brutal’. This is a certain ‘brutal’ acquainted to a greater degree with the French etymology of the word: raw, gross, ‘non traité’. Quite so, the voice of the fox in Rowan Evans’ freak red is very much an ‘untreated voice’. ‘Untreated’ in this regard observes a prehexameral relation to the foundational scriptures; the ‘untreated’ voice is that which God has not specifically contracted to his own agenda. Along this vein, Tobias Menley has observed that during the six days of creation, while God attributed a direct object in his linguistic relation to human beings, animals were not afforded such a privilege. Adam’s penchant for attributing names to living creatures supposes a dominion over his ontological environment, clearly placing the human in a sovereign role over creatures, to that which the creatures themselves cannot duplicate. Under God’s terms, animals cannot ‘name’, and are therefore subdued by the ‘naming’ creature: man. We thus recognize the ‘bark’ of the fox as a laceration into the human voice that opens up a chasm of pre-adamic pangs of howl and belts of scream; a voice that cannot ‘name’, a voice without God.

It is here in which we have untangled the imbroglio that is hybridized in Evans’s verse. God-voice and Fox-Voice. On the one hand we hear the voice of man in the traditional lexicon originating from God’s original relation to human. This voice is altogether positive and signifying. As inheritors and participants of and in language, we are in receipt of referents in the wider world that correlate to a lexical semiology, analogous to Adam’s enterprising of ‘naming’. On the other hand, the Fox-Voice is negative and unsignifying, that is to say, there are no accessible referents in the wider world that we can correlate with the voice that the Fox speaks. In freak red, these two voices are entwined in a dizzying hybridization. The synthesis and the subsequent destabilization at play here both disarms language’s colonial motive as well as reinforces it: although language is troubled by the intrusion of the fox, just like the city is shuddered by the fox’s midnight ramblings, the fox eventually returns to its habitat, and, in the common light of day, the order, power and control of everyday language is restored. The flânerie of the fox into the urban metropolis is a ‘fleeting’ shuddering; the gentle yet petrifying chaos during the quiet hours, the disorientating pangs of tongue that lick the night-time air, the sound that reverberates from the ‘chatter of a beggar’s teeth’ in Artaud’s words. ‘All true language is incomprehensible’, is how Artaud preceded the aforementioned quote, and it is with an erudite style and poetic confidence that Rowan Evans bows his head to the logic of a modernist expressivity; a voice that essentially undoes, unspeaks, and destroys the imperial columns of language, if only for a few small hours every evening. His work in this text is bracingly imaginative; the verse delicate and vulnerable, and there is a dynamism to the writing that strikes a chord both rousing and provocative. To ‘unspeak’ oneself in the manner that freak red explicates would gesture to a vocality where the parameters between human and animal expression recede, and we would speak a language duly liberated from the categories of power, control and subjectivity that have predetermined our everyday communications. If we could only practice this for an infinitesimal flirt of time, perhaps it would represent the greatest freedom available to us: to ‘unspeak’ that which has already been spoken, to exist without history, to be and to live as an animal.



Samuel Stolton is a writer and editor living in Bologna, Italy. He is a co-editor for 3:AM Magazine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, April 6th, 2016.