Sunday, July 20, 2008



The Anatomy of Oil by Marcella Durand
(Belladonna Books, Brooklyn, 2006)

Falling heads and shoulders into the histories of the earth (and “üs”) as indexed in literal and figurative sedimentations as well as the movement of tectonic plates, Marcella Durand uncovers the future of Homo sapiens in the mineral records (we would be lucky to remain fossils) of the past. A trip through a desert (by foot, boat and automobile) functions as a sign of our alienation from the “natural” world and an allegory of human history in general, to say nothing of a future where we will “exist” only to the extent post-human entities remain as “hungry” for knowledge and exploitation/exploration as we are.

The wars over shrinking oil, water and food resources—wars present and future—also serve as signs of our more general “thirst” for energy, for power, for control, first and foremost, over “nature.” Without digressing into a discussion of the various concepts of the term “nature” in anthropology, philosophy, and psychology (cultural construct? radical Other? exteriorized daimon?), we can say with Durand that human encounter with nature defines a history full of violence, death and destruction on both sides, as it were, of the ledger. Thus one achievement of this book-long poem is its refusal to sentimentalize, even as it strategically anthropomorphizes, nature.

Composed of some forty or so interlocked or stand-alone stanzas, culminating in an eighteen-quatrain coda, The Anatomy of Oil beckons, even as it refuses, epical stature. Conscious that “the floating plates under us” were “(…not written to us)/us with notebooks in hand,” Durand underscores mono-directional knowledge not as a sign of our superiority as sentient beings but as a sign of our historical immaturity; the earth is older and “wiser” than we are: “What we think is oxidation the sky here/feels at one with benzene and flammable/clouds noxious vapor at lunch/break clouds ignite and spread flaming drops/over school travels insatiable brilliant appetite radioactive denizens even, as with/us, on this boat, felling or going toward,/there is a place we have been before.”(11) The irony of that last line—from dust we came, to dust we return—emphasizes the priority of the mineral vis-à-vis the animal kingdom. Thus the history of the planet is not only the history of parallel clashes above (flora, fauna and human encounters) and below (those plates grinding into one another) but also perpendicular clashes between the below (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, etc.) and the above (mining, drilling, etc.). At least three times Durand even animates color with spirit: “colors will not be denied/as they reach through glass and cool air.” The anthropomorphism deployed by Durand puts into abeyance the sentient/non-sentient divide that “allows” us to objectify, and thus exploit, “our” natural resources.

Durand’s figure of choice for our desire or need to use the world about us is “hunger.” Hunger is general, universal and ahistorical. It is also, ironically, self-destructive: “Shoulder to shoulder we stand in our way/united and hungry our stomachs are full.” (16) The paradox of the last phrase—“hungry our stomachs are full”—echoes precisely the state of psychosis as depicted in The Stone Virgins by the late novelist Yvonne Vera. In this brutal, terse rendering of war-ravaged postcolonial Zimbabwe, Sibaso, a teenaged boy-soldier, lost but still in “service”(he has no other life), rapes one twin sister after beheading the other. We are told by Vera that he hunts—and rape is part of the destruction of the prey—because his stomach is full. Moreover, the invocation of martial rites in the phrase “shoulder to shoulder” alludes not only to the perpendicular soldiers ready to wage war but also to the dead soldiers and citizens whose bodies serve to oil the machinery of combat: “are not we us no we/but then what/is oil? but millions/of creatures crushed/one into another/shoulder/to shoulder.”(14) The enjambment of “shoulder” draws a line between, even as it links, the living and the dead: the first are vertical—“shoulder to shoulder”—while the second are horizontal, piled atop one another “shoulder/to shoulder.”

The enforced collectivism and spectacle of war and its martial cognates (e.g., the parade) is opposed by Durand to the invisibility of other modes of communication. Ecology in general has been concerned with bracketing the privilege accorded to the visual insofar as the significant networks of ecological systems operate at molecular scales. These too are, for Durand, forms of speech: Öur deserts calls to your desert./Across the earth, one desert speaks/to another, just as water wicks away/into sky.”(18) Perspective, as they say, is everything. What if we were to imagine being seen by the allegedly non-sentient as we see “them”? “These are just rocks falling down one/upon the other there/is no ‘we’ us here/on this boat and we/what are we but/separate me I you/another over there/no stone fits each.” (14)


Tyrone Williams teaches literature and theory at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is the author of two books of poetry, c.c. (Krupskaya Books, 2002) and On Spec(Omnidawn Publishing, 2008). He also has several chapbooks out, including AAB (Slack Buddha Press, 2004), Futures, Elections (Dos Madres Press, 2004)and Musique Noir (Overhere Press, 2006). Recent poems are in or forthcoming from Critiphoria, Laurel Review and The Nation. He is currently writing a book of poems for the innovative writing press, Atelos Books.

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