:: Article

Trial of ____/: a review of Valerie Hsiung’s EFG

By Megan Jeanne Gette.

Papyrus of Ani

Valerie Hsiung, efg (Action Books, 2016)

I am looking at a human-headed bird—no. I am looking at the virtual representation of a 3000 year-old palimpsest. The original was cut up into 37 pieces by a thief—a Sir E. A. Wallis Budge who brought the 78-foot Egyptian scroll to the British Museum in 1888, where it is still kept today. Budge intended to translate the scroll, but could not figure out how to transport it without cutting it to pieces. So I am looking at the reassembled parchment, pasted together, photographed, uploaded and reproduced indefinitely on the internet. The human-headed bird, I learn, is called Ba—the word for a soul, now separated from its body. Ba is instructed to circle the Nile by day, to float around collecting earth’s pleasures, then return to its mummy by night. A breath on the wind. The image I look at on the internet shows Ba perched above a human whose form resembles the species at present. The head of the human and the bird are of equal size. It is called the Papyrus of Ani, for Ani, a royal scribe of Thebes—although the palimpsest suggests that only 16 of the 78 feet were written for the particular Ani. The rest is text written over, stock language grafted from other texts written for other dead scribes. Papyri were reproducible as death and photographs. The author who was supposed to write Ani’s particular dedication did not leave enough space to write “Osiris” to finish the phrase “Ani victorious before Osiris” (a charm before trial), so instead it says, “Ani victorious before.” Before what? Before when? Before whom? Other errors suggest that despite the royalty of those he wrote for, Ani himself was unremarkable. In the image, Ani stands beneath a large balance scale held up by Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummies. On one plate rests Ani’s heart. On the other, an ostrich feather.

*

Lately I have been thinking about vitalism and virtuality, of cyclic time—virtual reality without the awe. Like—perhaps Twitter is today’s Book of the Dead, a scroll whereby absent gods mediate an ethics of the living figure behind the screen. We are human-headed birds. Google tells me the Egyptian Book of the Dead can also be translated, less commonly, as The Book of Going Forth by Day, or even Book of Breaking Forth into the Light. Instructions for the human-headed bird on how to manage the afterlife. After judgment, will she travel with Ra along the celestial meridian? Take root in the Field of Reeds, a paradisal simulacra? A throng of followers awaits her. Whereas the bad bitch with an unbalanced heart gets eaten by Ammit, the Devourer—chimera with the head of a crocodile and leopard-hippo body mash-up. Remorseless animals devour the remorseless corpse. I wonder why the virtual bird must return to its corpse at all? What tethers her to the corpse drying out in its sarcophagus? In front of her laptop computer? Or: if the human whose heart weighs more or less than a feather is deemed unfit for the afterlife, what happens to her human-headed bird? Perhaps the corpse is a kind of food for the carrion birds of history, a mnemonic device.

*

How the virtual-symbolic grows over the real like unimpeachable moss. Valerie Hsiung’s EFG (exchange following and gene flow): a trilogy begins with an epigraph from The Book of the Dead. Ani (written here as Anonymous) speaks to their heart, “…neither shall I have a boat wherein to go down the Nile, nor another wherein to go up, nor shall I be able to sail down the Nile with thee.” Ani’s plea here (“May my heart be with me!”) indicates a desire not to be separated from any piece of himself after running the gauntlet of subterranean hells. If he is to be judged, he is to be chimerical, a human-headed bird with heart intact. I take the chimera as a guide for reading EFG. Though skinned: with grafts and sutures. What to say about a book in the shape of a skinned animal? They say that in 1819 Englishman Thomas Young—known for developing the wave theory of light by observing the way water behaved as it rippled—gave up deciphering the Rosetta Stone. Could not make sense of the animal-headed gods and their pantheon of symbols. Ankhs held up as sandals? Or proto-Coptic crosses? Some fusion of male and female genitalia? Despite having made the leap to match the way light bathes with the way water bathes too, Young could not match the material to the symbolic in hieroglyphs, thus failing the animal-headed gods and human-headed archaeologists. He failed to translate. “The equipage I denounce but it’s the equipage that makes the activity so lithe…” writes Hsiung in ‘Je Suis une Americaine’, and later, “The equipage dolores the equipage dolores the equipage…” The chimera of colonial tongues in just one body hurts. Though what else can she do? (“May my heart be with me!”) The body cannot be separated from its language, but it is at risk of being written over, or erased, if misunderstood. Young left translating to someone else.

Review of efg by Valerie Hsiung

*

To say that I am translating. EFG is divided into three sections, 1) Naturacide, 2) exchange following and gene flow, and 3) J’etais Enfant Jadis (I Was a Child Once). What blows through a torn mother earth is inhaled in lines that act as both channels and chatter, whose tone is unredemptive. The emotion comes from its clamour. Voices clang and chime. Violence clangs and chimes. I detect ventriloquism in nearly every poem—dead or disembodied voices laid into each other, sometimes lyric, sometimes scavenged. Sometimes the voices feel pained, other times they kid. They enact their history without making claims to it: “The sky had perforated for / a biological reason once again, / once again.” They offer the virtual not as a possible escape, but rather the process of turning inside-out. A body turned inside-out. Written on, scribbled over, skinned. Palimpsests to be read or translated by the living, who in the act of reading become conduits for the dead: “I was also just shot in a cafeteria / I didn’t know him I said please this place has a solid salad selection?” An American history seeks to extinguish the natural in exchange for the chemical, plastic or reproducible, the virtual—as a form of management. If I translate this I would end up with echoes. So I make use of material, like a scavenger bird back from the dead, floating around looking to reclaim earthly pleasures. In EFG Hsiung finds the vestiges of pleasure and pain in the arrangement of these sections, an excavated and ongoing, subtle or explicit violence—throughout time, despite and because of death. From borrowed myths:

Dear Persephone,
will you help those who cannot feed themselves,
will you let those who have lost
themselves beyond all peril
convalesce? …
the only way to describe such an emptiness? …
is to listen to the way that language, human language
has since spread through rape and murder.

And the impossibility of their reinscription without also doing violence: “To learn to feel pain by practicing to chew on your own tongue, the most of which was cut out long ago, the love-bite which was cut out of those of us a long time ago.” Passed on through the mother (earth) (tongue) engendered by the father (“He was a wise woman”), the gene flow is less haunted than inevitable. What do I mean by this?

*

Songs are made from static, inevitably. I mean EFG is a beautiful addition to what Joyelle McSweeney calls the “necropastoral”, a “spasmodic nonchronology”, of “strange meetings… in a lightless, mucoid, digestive, altering, mutating, flora-and-fauna-rich field of uncertain conditions that may not ever solidify into ‘outcomes’”. It would be easy to suggest that EFG belongs in a genre of eco or necropoetry, but by virtue of calling it a genre either moralises or ends nihlistically, i.e., “what else can she do?” A package of poetry. Trial of heart and ostrich feather. Control of nature. But there is no agenda here. Rather, EFG indicates the arbitrariness of the sign and its necessity (the subtitle is a “performance of poetry,” and aren’t we all?) performing, that is, writing:

Things that work,           like towels that dry. 
Like making a dead bug appear         alive by blowing it on the tile. 

A language must be used even if one is conscious of where it came from, even if it hurts…

if I’m just gaining consciousness now, what was I before?

If the poems are resurrected (Ba floating around denial) from a ravaged American landscape, the corpse-poems are likewise riddled with holes. 

*

One reads EFG necromantically. Hsiung indicates, much like Alice Notley in Alma, or the Dead Women, Marvin Bell’s “dead man” poems or Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s performance and autobiography Dictee (among a spectral genre of dark ecopoetics that might include Action Books publishers Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Goransson, Aase Berg, Brenda Iijima, Lucas de Lima, Kim Hyesoon, Raul Zurita, Bhanu Kapil, Juliana Spahr, Leslie Scalapino, Aaron Apps and Gloria Anzaldúa, to name very few), that to live is to already be dead, to be inhabited by the unquiet and disturbed:

The only thing that sustains me now is your voice…
Because you’ve been decoding
the zombie poetry,
which are damp voices,
which are voices let
to break as they wail to be broken,
plants that are cursed by abduction and despair, by
the voice of a rain that went extinct awhile back on decoded and lettered and abducted
Venus perhaps.

As to scroll through a timeline is to animate both living and dead. To settle, historically, on unsettled land is to call up the dead. To fail to translate what you exhume as you tear the papyri into sheets to stuff into a suitcase for transport to your empire’s museum / “abducted”. Decontextualising. A review whereby the anachronism revises the present, rather than the other way around.

*

So that the link between language and life, if one speaks a violent tongue, is ontologically toxic. From ‘lingual by wood’, Hsiung writes:

Amid fledglings, 
the edge of
cloud mechanized
hand,
I want to shower
I want a shower
trial of ____ /
trial of ____ /
trial of ____ /
trial of ____ /
trial of ____ /
trial of ____ /
trial of ____ /

Valerie Hsiung

Hsiung cares deeply for the dead and the living who mourn them, evidenced in her attention to idiom, tone of voice, the diversity of roles within the performance. The holes reveal a reader’s lack of so many tongues to fill the holes, reveal things as they are, that is, incommensurate: “She over-toasts the toast on purpose / to be able to scrape off the over-toasted bread. / That’s how she interacts with humans and objects alike…” she writes in the poem called ‘I Love Lucy Played at the Same Time As The Twilight Zone’. In another poem entitled ‘missing in action’, “She couldn’t handle the excess of words. Everything / except the word / was excess / to her.” This abundance, met with an inadequacy of genre, of definition, of package, of word, is “The ocean letting us know the alien of abundance”. The holes are pleasurable, instil desire. What appears as surface, endless emptiness, or “nothing” is the abundant indifference of the sea—95% of which humans have not explored. And could neither understand if they wanted to.

trial of ____ / 
trial of ____ / 
trial of ____ / 
trial of ____ / 
trial of ____ / 
trial of ____ / 
trial of ____ /

*

The book the shape of a skinned animal offers an excess of sickening materiality, one polluted and postcolonial, chemical and alienated. “Essentially, mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise, hot sauce / all that was yesterday in the air, and I was reborn.” Yet those feelings do not arise in reading it. I am only ever surprised—like foods that make you cry. In a decontextualised space, whether real or virtual, everything is imbued with vitality or potential for making. A junkyard of could-be furniture. Could be art. Could be a path to the afterlife. “The terracotta warriors (from China) are now on exhibit in Indiana. / Go now. It’s one of the many reasons to visit Indiana.” Could be something to leave in the wild, lest it die in transit to the museum. It could be easy to read the autobiographical into the work, to recontextualise the displaced warrior as Hsiung herself. But the inhabitation—the channeling—feels more apt. The poet is not a scribe, nor a virtual stand-in for a corpse. The poet is a human-headed bird—a soul—separated from and always in search of her body.

I’ve been detached…
had to be…
it seems…
we were wretched, all body…
someone keeps blaming me
write this poem about empathy…
if nothing else run and do not scream…
lest they recapture you.

 

megan-jeanne-gette

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Megan Jeanne Gette
is a writer based in Minneapolis. She is author of the chapbooks Poor Banished Child of Eve (H_NGM_N, 2017) and The Walls They Left Us (Newfound, 2016), which won the Gloria Anzaldúa Poetry Prize. Other work has appeared or is forthcoming in Anthro/Poetics, Rooted: an Anthology of Aboreal Nonfiction, BOAAT, Carolina Quarterly, Tupelo Quarterly, Fugue, Indefinite Space and elsewhere. She is recipient of various awards and fellowships, and holds an MFA from the University of Minnesota. @808omega

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, June 28th, 2017.