:: Article

Vi Khi Nao’s molecular agriculture: (something)—Looms

By Megan Jeanne Gette.

Review of Umbilical Hospital by Vi Khi Nao

Vi Khi Nao, Umbilical Hospital (1913 Press, 2017)

At just what point the animal fiber ceases to be wool and becomes hair is difficult to determine, because there is a gradual and imperceptible gradation from wool to hair.
—William H. Dooley

At what point does a sheep become a sweater. / When you look at something, is it always becoming something else. / Something the world has imagined it already is. / How many sheep would you say before “sheep” loses its meaning, de-ontologises, un-gathers its wool? Like the more you repeat un-gather, / it becomes a word, becomes a sweater. / How many times can you wake up to the same face every morning before it becomes a stranger? The river twice, / three times a body of water. As you come to “know” it. / Did you know the swastika used to be a sign of peace? / Do you know when sheep become sheeple, horror, Holocaust? Stand-ins for human. / When does simultaneity become ethically questionable? (Sheep Machine, 17). How many words does it take to describe a film of 00:02:52 minutes, for which there are no words nor plot? To describe the books / written about it? How many sheep before a person / falls asleep? How many licks—of a thread to get it through a needle? How many seconds on the loom?


I sat on this review of Vi Khi Nao’s Umbilical Hospital a long time—months? Months. / Then, out of the blue / or maybe because, as an insomniac, I have a bad habit of online shopping instead of counting sheep / I received a copy of Sheep Machine in the mail. Both books / respond to Leslie Thornton’s 00:02:52 film, Sheep Machine, 00:00:49 of a bootleg version you can find on YouTube. / Over the course of 00:02:52 minutes, Nao’s Sheep Machine responds to each second of kaleidoscope shifts in Thorton’s film, / knitting a sweater, of sorts, for each. The film is set up as a split screen, / as if we are looking through binoculars. In the left circle, / sheep walk around a pasture where a cable car passes over them. The right binoculous / is aimed at the sheep, transforming / all the images into molecular choreography. Perhaps Sheep Machine, / a hand-sized book of little essays, responds to the left binoculous, whereas Umbilical Hospital, at least two hands, whorls around a set of words / that emerge from a shattered right eye: asshole; clitoris; gravitational; sheep grass; ghastly; voluptuous; lips; earth; god; dying; legs; wheat; bunny frog; vulgarity; dis/illusion; doomed; emptiness; wrong; existence; nothingness; mean; predators. / Word-sweaters sown in response / to what doesn’t speak, so that Life is made ordinary and extraordinary by these common events taken out of context, frame by frame (SM, 144).

Looking is a practice from which genres diverge—the way mitosis reveals chromosomes to be haploid. On their way / to expressing a sex that might not fit with how it is felt post-womb. Mitosis—from the Greek, mitos, / meaning thread, becoming tangled up in people’s comments on YouTube, wind-obliging. / Wound-obliging. / The more you read them, do they unravel? Do you—if you think about it hard enough. In the sense / of the end of a relationship, characterised by a sudden split screen / a film severed at the middle without a hospital. / I rewrote this review several times. / I even wrote it as a sestina. / I wrote it as a tapestry and a sweater and a basket and a womb room. / I slashed groups of syllabled thought to resemble stitches / as I read and weighed the two books on a scale suitable only for books about Sheep Machine. / The asymmetry between them lead to an abundance of words in response to a film without words. Should silence / inspire an erotic apocalypse. Should silence / skim over a pasture replete with cable cars, it would create a form from which a thought might fractally emerge. 

Umbilical Hospital 2

Repetition is the appropriate response to extinction. Repetition and fury. / In the process of writing this review, someone told me / that DNA replication is powered by negative entropy. On the molecular level, / difference is driven by a lack of chaos. Did Flaubert whisper into these sheep’s ears his art mantra, “Be regular and ordinary in your life like a bourgeois, that you may be violent and original in your work?” (SM, 120). Should silence / inspire an erotic apocalypse, fury zooms in / like an anachronistic cable car. Ekphrasis / is the form fury takes when it names what it thinks it is looking at. Furies, in the Greek sense, were spirits of punishment who silenced / the guilty with stings of conscience. It is trying / to justify why you see what you see, and unraveling. / The opposite of a sheep / on its way to sweaterdom. Most sheep devote their lives to be de-skinned, de-wooled…What is the purpose of a human’s existence? (SM, 132). To comb the wool? Tease out the dirt from the fibres for factory submission? To exchange worsted fabrics for cosmic currency, / enough of which might fill the space of its emptied ontology? Time to bring out a comb. Time to bring out a comb, says Infinity (UH, 66). / I began to think of writing as combing, / Nao’s writing as wool or whorl, sweaters or sepultures she created from Leslie Thorton’s Sheep Machine. I changed / the rules of my sestina, exchanging rhyme for synonym, syllable for sense. Slashes / for stitches. I think a similar thing / happens in the two books that describe the Vulgate catastrophe / of a sheep-infected earth brought on by a mechanics of looking. How a sheep / becomes a revolutionary sweater. Grooming the animal husband. To wear a strategy of sheep’s clothing.




To comb is to untangle or arrange (the hair) or / to remove something from the hair to prepare (wool, flax or cotton) for manufacture, / or to search carefully and systematically, to scour. When I read Sheep Machine / I wondered was it swathed from the seeds of Umbilical Hospital. Each / is a kind of revolution of embodiment, or anti-embodiment (antibody?). Cultivating / linguistic particulars to be exported for the braids of readership. Molecular agriculture. Are the braids injunctions / of a language’s internal misbehaviours? / Methods of resisting entrapment / by the reader, who GMO’s its limbs, stacks on subfields? Perhaps postmodern films are sculptures in disguise. Quizás. Quizás. Quizás (SM, 120). Does the writer comb and braid another’s hair. Or is this thought anthropocentric—should silence / open my ears to animal tongues, who might express / how they’d like to be combed. In my research about the wool industry, I learned / the Noble comb requires a circular combing technique. / Something like a harrow, for crops. Between Nao’s two books is a fury gradient, quizás, through which a will / performs the harrow. The teeth / of the comb drag the wool’s burry noils. / Combing / “…is a mechanical sieve, and so will not remove any contaminant / with a form similar to the fiber being combed. Such contaminants / must be mended out from a final garment. / The manual mending out is a costly process.”1 / The manual mending is called rooing. / It is the choicest manufacture of available genres. / Culled from an ontological obsessiveness. / As a technology of spit. / The fingers that grease the thread, or the tongue / that licks it, must add to its value. A kind of reading that adds value because it is handmade. / In the language of sewing, wrinkles are called memory. / Patched, pleated, proliferate poems. / I am a backdrop against another backdrop (SM, 11). / If I rethink the value / of word-combs, a used sheep is not a means to an end of endless proliferation. / Instead I become a burr. Braid / tinsel into its Saxony dress, for my tender mercenaries. If you cease to exist, Observer, my exterior, my wool, and my light are the dowry for my wife, Perception (SM, 67). / If I cease to exist; / like Ruth Asawa emerging from her wire wombs. Post-combing / the superfines into blown, hanging undulations. If I cease to exist / their molecular architecture becomes the dowry for another’s perception.


I was interested in it because of the economy of a line, making something in space, enclosing it without blocking it out. It’s still transparent. I realized that if I was going to make these forms, which interlock and interweave, it can only be done with a line because a line can go anywhere.
—Ruth Asawa

If “I” ceases to exist, what do I become? / Exhilic forms are always competing / for the attention of exteriors and interiors / simultaneously. Transparency. As the “I” floats along like a flaneur, / testing the boundaries of the relationship to the text. / Emerging, unstitched, from its womb. When my sestina became tightly coiled / and unforgiving, it became a sweater unworthy / of the writing that inspired it. Quizás Nao’s two books function as a difference / in the way fibres are cared for. In Sheep Machine, for example, Nao absents her position / in favour of proposition. No “I.” Or hardly any. Philosophy takes the place / of Umbilical Hospital’s image-stacks. The writing / shifts slightly out of focus like light in a series / of slow-mo cinematic frames. / How many meanings in a word is commensurate / with the profligate number of readings. / A book like a balding dandelion.


Wool fibreRuth Asawa

“Combing is a mechanical sieve…” / and Nao’s writing is a Noble comb / for Thorton’s fury gradient, making jute, quizás, / or slug wool, even asbestos from its possible fractures. The writing scours microscopically. / A wool fibre under the microscope reveals scales of epidermis, the cortex (sheath) / of a hair, its enlongated cells. Its visible medulla or pith. / Microscope-writing, like women’s weaving, / is for those who have an appreciation for the small, / whose hands, they used to say, were better suited for it. As her mind / is better suited for the “complicated weaving patterns / for use in [the] mechanized looms”2 of computer programming languages. / In the case of Ada Lovelace, quizás, / who invented the first, and whose name / should not be lost on anyone, even if / she is Lord Byron’s daughter. / If you search “ram” on Google, the first result is a Dodge Ram. The second is Random Access Memory. The third thing is the disambiguation page for the male sheep.



Threshing, shearing, serrating the edges / of a theatre in which each Saxony specimen / performs its duty as mutton, / …but in fact it brings symmetry to the workforce! (UH, 13).  Onward from the pasture to the shearer to the tender machines. / In industry-speak, a tender machine / is for the shearer who wants to avoid tender wool. / Tender wool is stringy and unsuitable for creating / warm armour in harsh weather. / There are numerous webpages / on how to avoid it. / Better pastures is one strategy. / “Maintaining a high percentage of subterranean clover, which offers nutritious burr…” / Is another. / “Where they can be grown, blue lupis and lucerne… crop stubbles and forage crops.” / Is another. / In her exposure to severe winds or lack of blue lupis, a sheep grows / a matted or felted together coat, “and is hard and brittle and almost worthless.” / Does a malnourished sheep escape the wire netting / that aims to un-felt its tenderness? / Does the sheep, internalising this verbiage, become likewise hard and brittle and almost worthless? To handle and to hold their own fragility, blades of wheat level their heads slanted high…What is it like to endure the bifurcation? (SM, 44). / If one splits, like a hair, a freedom to enact one’s will or a freedom from another’s, does one become half-free or doubly-free. /


What is a wool market? / You must forgive the way landscape unfolds / or creates its own symmetry of want. (UH, 11). / In her concern for metaphysical limits, the writer / must be aware of a desire to impose her will / on it. What can you do? What can you do? (UH, 12). / Lest she scrub the tangerinity of the tangerine, for example. / For example, when I decided to weave this review / as a sestina, a form which Stephen Burt says has “served, historically, as a complaint,” a form / composed of “signs for deprivation or duress,”3 I thought, / How appropriate for two books about the dystopic Now. / But critics agree the form creates more pleasure for the weaver / than the reader. She combs thoughts / along the grain—the landscape, Sheep Machine, worry, wool. / Sheep curves to the will of time, to the will of binocular vision…Wheat bends to the will of the wind, to the will of the camera, to the will of the painter (SM, 20). / The erotic apocalypse is like cotton combed for high thread counts, anticipating soft sheets and a more-than-mild devastation. / The breeding of sheep for similar outcomes, a wool of commerce in the name of cashmere sweaters, “plushes, velvets, astrakhans, and curled fabrics, also half silk goods and fine wraps.” / She advertises. /


A frame by frame breakdown of what got sown would go like: / If the sheep were to inflate by expanding its diameter two more inches—what purpose would it serve for mankind? (SM, 57). / Did you know wool money financed conquistador’s voyages to the New World. / Did you know a mouflon is a wild sheep found around Iran, ovis orientalis. / Did you know Galileo discovered sunspots by comparing the movement of small darkness to the clouds. / Do you know a better approach to phenomena than to interrogate the speed and volume at which it is consumed. / Beware the Ides of March that has no eyes… Beware of time lapses. Beware of the certainty that arrives with technology (50). / Do you know a better approach to phenomena than to become so intimate that it feels woven into you, a skin graft. / Have I become the sweater? / Imbued with the pastoral philosophy of intimacy, left sheep’s body merges with right sheep… (58). / Do you know what words are repeated so often that they lose meaning, / doomed; emptiness; wrong; nothingness; predators; asshole / that their combinations sculpt, for us, the shapes of bionic bones. / One wonders though, through this acquisition, this act of intimacy, this act of connection, if the sheep apologizes for its performance of amalgamation (58). / Do I look okay. / Or does looking turn the looker into a barnacle, vulture, parasite, contingency, flypaper. / They have landed on earth as predators, using the windmills as hosts like parasites using your body as their umbilical hospital (UH, 29). / As parts of you scatter, as parts of you conform… (33). …a disembodied body holding up a veil-less veil (34). / Do these fibers of meaning make synaptic paths as they adapt to new stimuli. / In a world where individuality is celebrated, perhaps connection is an act of defiance (SM, 58). / Or is it that. / It is unspeakable to speak of redemption when everything is dying (16)?


1. Unless otherwise noted, lines from Vi Khi Nao’s words are italicised and cited ‘UH’, for Umbilical Hospital, and ‘SM’, for Sheep Machine, respectively. All other quotations come from William H. Dooley’s TEXTILES: FOR COMMERCIAL, INDUSTRIAL, AND DOMESTIC ARTS SCHOOLS; ALSO ADAPTED TO THOSE ENGAGED IN WHOLESALE AND RETAIL DRY GOODS, WOOL, COTTON, AND DRESSMAKER’S TRADES, distributed by Project Gutenberg. Some images are reproduced here.
2. From the Wikipedia page for History of Programming Languages.
3. Burt, Stephen (2007). ‘Sestina! or, The Fate of the Idea of Form’. Modern Philology. 105 (1): 218–241.
All images reproduced under Creative Commons licenses.


Megan Jeanne Gette is a writer living in Minneapolis.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, April 24th, 2018.