Book Review: Butcher’s Tree by Feng Sun Chen
If, as Iris Murdoch may have said, “philosophy is often a matter of finding occasions on which to say the obvious,” perhaps poetry is often a matter of creating opportunities to mention our common, everyday experiences. As in Feng Sun Chen’s “Concerning Nothing,” whose seven sections each begin with an abstraction, which is then torn through until the emotion giving blood to the thought is exposed:
1. By finite, I mean a thing caught in time, thing that changes
and eventually loses the original qualities that made it such.
Starfish, one might suspect, are not finite.
They move decisively through the lava of time.
The cat on my lap is finite.
I will watch it go through the various stages of adorability, change, fatten,
perhaps wither, definitely die; and its body will become the worm or it
may be cast into a blue flame and turned into dust.
My pet rock will remain itself longer then I or the cat, but it is also finite.
I am sad.
The phrase “caught in time” is surprisingly optimistic. It suggests the possibility of escape. I’m being told my cat and I have essences distinct from our movement through time; this is something Heidegger would disagree with, and is perhaps at odds with what’s being said in sections two and three:
2. By infinite I do not mean unlimited, but a limitation incapable of change.
What is infinite is outside of time.
Our universe is not infinite.
Invisible things collide and this is called energy.
Souls are eardrums.
They vibrate and burst.
This noise that passes.
We hum an infinite number of times.
Love secretes reptile eggs into the ruptured drum nest.
This is what we hear.
“Souls are eardrums” brings to mind Blake’s words in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.” Feng Sun Chen has inverted Blake’s idea. For him, the body is an aspect of the soul; for Feng Sun Chen, the soul is an aspect of the body.
3. If knowledge hears the mind and if the mind hears the brain,
then knowledge is not infinite.
The egg hatches and the bundles fall out and scream diamond-mouthed.
The bundles have heavy holes and the holes know something.
Don’t touch it.
Don’t take it apart.
I am afraid.
Her reasoning could have easily gone the other way around. Maybe something like:
If the brain spans the mind and if the mind spans knowledge,
then the brain is not finite.
But that’s not what Feng Sun Chen writes, perhaps because after the massive successes of the natural sciences, our present epistemic situation demands that we make the material world the foundation of any belief. The poet has been abandoned on those grounds and must forage for a spirituality:
7. To mean is to entail is to intend.
The idea of this is
starfish begin to encroach on trees.
I didn’t mean monsters.
I don’t believe in what I mean.
The talons are beaks.
I don’t mean anything I believe.
To desire, one must believe.
This is not strong desire.
It is the life of dust.
In spite of.
I mean to believe. I miss.
As a symbol for life, the tree has been co-opted by the theory of evolution, so that at every branching we see the death of a parent. When we look back, evolution has us see ourselves as living the deaths of billions of years of Others. But the narrator has declared a new symbol of the eternal – remember, “Starfish… are not finite/ They move deceivingly through the lava of time.” So while this poem ends with another negative emotion lacking the consolation of a larger something being served, it does cycle back to optimism with “starfish begin to encroach on trees.”
Feng Sun Chen enjoys a good non-sequitur as much as most poets these days (as do I, apparently). These finite brains of ours are spread thin across distant parts of the world over the course of a few lines. From “Groceries:”
God was everywhere in Fern City. Browning declared him the perfect poet.
n smelled like baby powder and showered obsessively. God beamed upon him
with rays of golden light.
Leg of lamb: In lambda calculus, one cannot define a function which includes itself.
Nepenthe: I don’t know how this list became a theological query. I only wanted to say that n fell in love with someone else shortly before killing me because I was too much of a dreamer.
She has a face like Angelina. Big lips like a marine creature.
We go from 19th century literature to an obscure statement about formal logic to ancient Greece to contemporary pop culture.
A math major, I smiled at the mention of lambda calculus. Lambda calculus can be thought of as a way to study computer programs at a very abstract level. While it is true that functions in lambda calculus can’t directly call themselves, a function can indirectly do so by calling another function that, in turn, calls it. One way or another, every recursive system contains things that contain themselves. And one way or another, every system that makes limitless use of a finite means (to paraphrase Wilhelm von Humboldt) is recursive. Natural language, and in particular the poetry of Feng Sun Chen, depends upon functions that remember themselves.
Whereas nepenthe, or νηπενθές, cures grief through loss of memory. Maybe some of Feng Sun Chen’s non-sequiturs are not non-sequiturs after all.
When I read the line “she has a face like Angelina. Big lips like a marine creature” I didn’t know who or what was being referred to in the first sentence until I got to the second sentence. You might call this semantic cataphora. (Usually, cataphora is a pronoun that appears before the thing it refers to, as in “if you want it, here is the tape dispenser.”) This sort of thing, where there really is something to be deciphered, combined with the sincere use of ifs, thens, and therefores makes the experience of reading Feng Sun Chen as close to that of reading Donne as it is to reading Ashbery.
These poems contain a good deal of inquiry and scepticism. But poetry itself is a kind of superstition. Like the alchemist and tarot card reader, the poet believes that understanding can be had by meditating long and hard on coincidences. The poet is particularly concerned with coincidences of sound, words of disparate meaning (and usually no etymological link) that happen to sound similar. Feng Sun Chen likes to flesh out this experience, slow it down, observe it taking place. As in “Prometheus,” where through five uses of the word “liver” we incrementally become more aware of a second meaning of the word:
My livers could fill whole oceans, several planets worth.
Meaningless livers. Endless livers.
I can’t say it. The word is ripped from me daily.
I have become a huge liver. A liver of it.
Or in part sixteen of “Grendel is a Woman,” where the character Grendel literally cycles through similar looking words in the hopes of finding a better metaphor. Keep in mind that the sea water that blurs the word comes from Grendel himself:
Love is a hernia. The handbook said so. No, maybe not. Most of it had been blurred by spilt sea water maybe, love is a hermit. A hermit crab. A hearing. A herring.
These poems also have their hesitation about what we’ve been taught by the Romantics. Maybe it’s just me, but every second contemporary poet I read reminds me of Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality:”
Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.
But the he of this volume’s opening poem, “By the Dark,” isn’t sure what that travelling thither of the soul really counts for:
That his shame should come so far.
That none of this could release him.
The skin on his forehead is pulpy.
He could go back to the woods.
He could go back to the sea if he closed his eyes.
No going anywhere.
His two hearts are growing teeth.
And now that oceans have come up, I have to mention the appearance of that symbol again, towards the end of the volume, in section fifteen of “Grendel is a Woman.” This time, the narrator is wondering what, in our current epistemological situation, there is to get back to:
It seemed to Grendel that people hung onto secret without knowing
that it was only the hanging they wanted, and not the secret.
When he realized that he could move mountains, that it depended on the edema in his heart,
that the same building could be haunted
one day and not the next
due to the temperature of his skin, suddenly
the ocean froze. Identical took on a new outfit. Identity stripped for a living.
“The ocean froze” – these are poems I can dialogue with. My thoughts will be headed in one direction, but the poems will seem to have anticipated me, blocking my path, sending me in a different direction. Butcher’s Tree is Feng Sun Chen’s first full-length book. It’s published by the wonderful Black Ocean Press.