In a 1998 talk entitled Bewilderment, Fanny Howe discussed the poem as site of enchantment and disorientation, a way of stepping or perhaps even rushing beyond borders, directionless, beyond the known or expected world. Without map or compass or even stars to steer by, such poems make their way with remarkable clarity among the ruins, among the scatter and haze. They believe absolutely in their own process. “Bewilderment,” Howe said, “circumambulates, believing that at the center of errant or circular movement is the axis of reality.” The bewildering poem circles, circles back, interrogates what it thought it knew, asks again, challenging dialectical progressions and simple answers. If such a poem can be said to rest, it rests in startlement, fluidity and refraction, most at home with multiple ways of seeing.
The linked poems and sections in Michelle Detorie’s debut full-length collection After-Cave hauntingly illustrate a poetics of bewilderment by creating space in which a lostness that isn’t seeking to be found trembles and blurs. Taking place in the wake of an unspecified disaster, a post-apocalyptic after-time, these poems engage with disorientation and see in it new possibilities not for remaking the world but inhabiting the brokenness, what is. The speaker announces herself as “Human (I think.)” But this human goes on to say of herself & her companion: “We lived in a burrow and ate grass. I licked my paw, tasting only the slightest remnants of ash.” Distinctions collapse. We have lost our bearings, and the poems are unconcerned with finding them.
The speaker as possible human is also queerly other-than-human: “Sunday best was calico lace, glib feathers, underpinnings of sticks/and river ribbons.” She puts on the birdlike, the tree-ish in a place where the trees have gone underground, that which is of the land and water. But as the fragments and glimpses accumulate, suggestions of blending and merging and a reconfigured belonging give way to a surprising though not unexpected moment: “I give birth/to a dog//I make room/in the river/and the wet//the blood and fur.” As a reader I begin to consider all the ways of giving birth, none of which is excluded from this book’s territory of the possible.
Images and words cycle and recycle throughout the poems in After-Cave. Never static, conventional poetic images such as wings and birds are enlivened, made new. “Fur birds” is the title of the first section and also a recurring image. What is a fur bird? This much I know: it is a bringing-together, a meeting place, a spell perhaps, wyrd magick:
FUR BIRDS, the reeds
hems under wings
exploded so quick
in our lungs it’s like
the wings our hearts
Animal is human is animal. The speaker risks suggesting that birds and girls have been written about “TOO MUCH,” have perhaps become cliché, tired, only to surprise us with “We write/about them because they/disappear.” Certain uses of language—political rhetoric comes to mind—serve as attempts to fix that which is dynamic. Poetry that hazards bewilderment explodes the myth of language as stasis. Words are used to conjure even as what’s conjured resists, flits away, contingent.
Detorie is in love with language, its alchemy and lilt. Words have texture, materiality. And when the poems swing us past the edges of usual meaning, we feel how those textures, when applied to new ways of seeing, enlarge us. We, like the speaker, “ARE SO GRATEFUL TO BE ALIVE” in a world where catastrophe is neither the end nor the beginning but part of a continuum, human to animal, plastic to wood, dress to skin to petals to snow, oil-slick to ash to dirt.
When the known world has left us, or we have left the known world, what happens to our concepts of house and home? Inside us, outside us, ideas we hold “like running/when you’re only filled/with the idea of running,” the poems variously evoke houses which prove to be problematic until we shed what we think of as house. A bud is a house sheltering the blossom. Fur and skin house the body. And every iteration of house and body, including the house of language, is breaking down, all the time. “THE DATA IS FEMININE” a poem boldly asserts. That is, soft and of the earth, sensual, malleable and bewilderingly in flux.
In the final prose poem, the speaker and her dog “go out looking for sticks, for meadows still blue with the asphalt glitter that rained down from the other side of the continent.” I’m left with a sense that they will travel far and willingly, reminding me of Huck Finn lighting out for the territories. As well and perhaps more hopefully, I’m reminded of the one who emerges from Plato’s cave into a landscape not of forms and projections but of materiality and sensation. Certainly the speaker of these beautiful, shimmering and disturbing poems has discovered a kind of boundary-crossing levitation, a liberation from what restricts and deadens both language and the reality it signifies.
by Michelle Detorie