After-Cave is the narration of “an adolescent female who may or may not be human,” an odyssey feral, feminist, and ecopoetical. More pressing than hunger for this speaker is the need to know what “cruelty” means and how one might live in its absence. In this way, After-Cave is a book about the impossible and how to make it hospitable, and thereby prepare oneself to meet one’s friends: human, animal, the always alive and the already dead. Using language that moves over the speaker like weather systems and migratory birds, troubling notions of linear time and traversing the spaces of human-made and “natural” disaster, Detorie in this first book introduces us to the distinction between a state of being and an act of being.
“Michelle Detorie betrays the false presumptions of our times to vivify and reinhabit the very spaces they have denied and marred. However ‘marred’ is language already discarded here. Without old-fashioned judgment, she sets us inside her testimony, which is a scored preamble, an alchemical cartography, girl-spirited and dense with data, all-atune. The book’s dystopian ferocity and knowledge make its bearings even as it trembles with a deep and feral hope. Hers is the tenderest, the most specific report.” —Elizabeth Treadwell
“Like Helen Adam before her, Detorie sings this afterlife-life, often via attention to noise, meaning that ‘voice’ here picks up some unnatural instruments: ‘Tumbleweeds or / teeth? [ . . . ] Fur / for a mouth.’ I make my way through After-Cave as I’d enter a woods where ‘the trees have decided to grow underground’—certain that finding my feet will involve a death to one nature or another. In this kind of apocalypse, it’s the ideology of ‘the natural’ that’s haunting the house—not any actual fact of organisms. Or (if you like ghosts) maybe it’s the natural’s propensity for systematic violence that leaves us with such fiery spectral lives.” —C.J. Martin
“Michelle Detorie writes through the animal to reach another place; there, we encounter ‘reluctance,’ ‘kindness,’ trailing ‘ribbons.’ I was very moved by the link Detorie makes between feral life and the ecology of shelter. As she writes: ‘Digging underground, I disrupted homes that did not belong to me but wound deep and tethered together.’ How this profound non-belonging is in relation, always, to the sensation of touch when it comes; touch that in After-Cave precipitates encounter, like the stages of soft palate growth and experiment that precede language: ‘Your hand like a little lock reached through—.’ What a tender and complicated book for someone to write. A book that is ‘silky, frayed, gleaming: a continuance.’ A book that hurts a little bit to read. A book saturated in the kind of longing a girl might typically not admit; a desire, in other words, that starts to change the outline of the body: ‘my glass jaw bobbing.’ The intensity also lies in the way Detorie takes us close to what is not us and what will change us to be with in another way, across the species frame: ‘I thought of taking off my clothes and sleeping with the wolf.’ Communal, imaginal, soft—the book goes on and takes us further in, until we reach the ‘meadows still blue with the asphalt glitter that rained down.’ And get to go. And get to lie down.” —Bhanu Kapil
from “Fur Birds”
I’ve forgotten all my songs. The garden
rows like swamped in ruins. Dust
in gates, mesh wire swinging. We’d
cling to ours if we’d only known.
She thought this to herself before bed
every night for a week.
* * *
did you become
one thing could
the other: mouse, bird-
wing. glossy black
tail to feather
because I am
afraid of breaking
there is water
a body in the hand
someone is kind
to me I feel
* * *
It was about forgetting and hurt feelings & beginnings. We worked in rows, our arms swinging back and forth, the needle hemming slow and long, the stitch singing. When I closed my eyes she sings a song. She is my twin scissor. We swing and twitch the tune, the lungs brimming. At first it felt like all I ever wanted was a hug, and a lung. But now the burning coils of plastic unspool the glossed rots of synthetic hair and combs, watering cans, and crimson boots. All these others out there—out here— hand to hand we almost touch. No matter how we look at it—we are either all together or else we are all alone.
Copyright © Michelle Detorie, 2014
Listen to Michelle Detorie read at the Indian Springs School Visiting Writers Series.
Detorie extracts a poetics "against dying" out of a landscape of ruin and wilderness in this spirited full-length debut. The book comprises three long sequences concerning questions of shelter, destruction, and agency, which, though formally mercurial, remain linked through a single speaker who describes herself as "15. Female. Human (I think)." Materiality becomes a place of confluence for the bodily and the external universe, the man-made and the feral: "we are skin, snow, unpacked/ boxes opened like petals, skin// ... I held a line, a pail, my pockets/ becoming full, the moon/ blood red and lined with fur." The poems remain grounded in the subjective "I" but resist a linear sense of time, leading instead by sensation and image, and sometimes using formatting and typography to invite the reader into an unconventional experience of text, page, and physical book. This sense of play is punctuated by moments of direct assertion. "To insist that something—someone or some being—cannot be imagined is, in fact, its own form of oppression," Detorie writes. Indeed, her poetics struggles against such insistence in service of possibility. Where "The failure to occupy/ breaks apart like soap/ sand salt all/ the things we need/ to name," Detorie wrests a vocabulary of compassion. —Publishers Weekly
There is an open world in After-Cave that I have not yet capably explored. Water seeks its lowest point by cutting through, over time, the rock and landscape, to reach the center. The hallmark of quality is, as always, the ability to find within it something new every time you return to it, to allow the water to cut through over time by returning again to the text. Here, though, it is as though I have found something within myself with each reading—something new within those around me—and an understanding of how we all relate to one another and of how I relate to myself and my being. —Amish Trivedi in Sink
Michelle Detorie lives in Santa Barbara, California, where she edits Hex Presse and coordinates the Writing Center at Santa Barbara City College. She is the author of numerous chapbooks including Fur Birds (Insert Press), How Hate Got Hand (eohippus labs), and Bellum Letters (Dusie). In 2007, Michelle was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts literature fellowship, and in 2010 she won a direct-to-artist grant from the Santa Barbara Arts Collaborative for her public art project, The Poetry Booth. After-Cave is her first full-length collection.
After-Cave is a book about what it is to be alive. It is about what happens when we begin to pay attention to the act of living. That is to say—it is a book about noticing the difference between a state of being and an act of being. After this noticing there is little room for passivity.
After-Cave is also about how we are part of and separate from and rub up against the non-human world, what some might call the “natural” world or the “wilderness.” These words go in quotes because conceptually and linguistically they are made things, and what I am attempting to describe is the world that isn’t made by humans but is rather made or co-created and shaped by creatures or weather or other forces that we may or may not be able to detect or name.
The world of After-Cave is a feral landscape, a haunted place of shelters and ruins, burrows and houses, thickets and churches, mountains and factories, mud and schoolyards. Familiar and ethereal structures create incidents of habitat and erasure, wondering about the borders of the feminine, the human, the animal. In other words, it is full of mirrors.
The narrator of After-Cave begins by telling us: “I am 15. Female. Human (I think).” Right away she wishes to be known to us as she is known to herself and others, but she also needs to tell us that her relationship to those terms is uncertain, those categories and markers troubled. She is at the threshold of seeing through language, of knowing and feeling what is most difficult to say, and of knowing and feeling that what is said often hides what is truly known and felt. The parenthetical gesture of disclosing her own confusion is therefore a gesture of intimacy to the reader: she wants to tell you the truth.
Formally, After-Cave is a hybrid text that contains poetry and fragments, sentences and paragraphs, visual poetry and cartographies, and engagements with sound as sense. The page is a flexible space where language works to touch the pages’ outsides and insides, durations and rhythms, margins and edges: a sort of enacted echolocation which also troubles linear time. In this way it is, like all language, “experimental.”
In political terms, After-Cave is a feminist, feral poetics. An infiltration. A stealth poetics. Quiet, tenacious, seeking to de-domesticate language in order to render it hospitable. Tracing trajectories of power, making daisy-chains around sites of human and creaturely suffering and conflict, mourning incidents of state violence and corporate crimes against humanity and nature, while also silvering the scars of my own tiny traumas. Also: seeking potentials and hoping.
After-Cave creates and reimagines itself, recurring through repeated phrases and images, attempting to teach itself how to be written and thus how to meet its reader. This is still happening. As a map unfolds to reveal the represented territories at different scales, After-Cave asks to be passed through and considered from variable distances and orientations. Geographic and temporal and affective markers emerge and overlap and point and pivot, paths return to themselves as lines traveling the surface of a Klein bottle both define and explore its insides and outside, which can be one or the other or both simultaneously depending on location, position, or perspective. After-Cave is a little book with a leash that folds.
I come to writing poetry as a practice, which is to say I’ve had a lot of practice making poems but also that now I make poems as a habit or a cultivated strategy for survival: an ongoing and continuous activity of experiencing and making and synthesizing and invention that occurs at even the most cellular level of my being. I wouldn’t say that poetry originates in exactly the same space as breathing for me, but is probably adjacent to that space—a sort of murky, sensorimotor space that is also responsible for walking and chewing and doing things with my body that express or communicate my aliveness and subjectivity. So poetry is an ongoing expression of my humanity and works both at the level of internal processing (and even self-soothing), as well as at the social level of signaling to others from heightened states of sensitivity and awareness.
This practice maps openings to spaces where objects related to ethical questions are more obvious—discernable despite the incalculable weight and noise and clutter of human politics and histories. Those structures and dynamics that perpetually renew and degrade and redigest themselves in our midst. A flux of faux greenery and ash and construction and demolition and birth and death. A tenacious attention to the animal: a with-ness as elasticized witness.
And it is here at this crumbly edge of language that I do my poetic work. One of my questions is: Can you say anything that is true? Poetry is a way for me to explore this question without being overwhelmed by the feeling that what I am saying is at best maybe only a little bit true. Words are at once the most common and practical and readily available and widely shared materials for communication, while simultaneously being the most complicated: materials of sign and semaphore, illumination and occlusion, description and camouflage, evocation and dissemblance. Also: for liberation and oppression.
I confess that, for me, poetry remains the most radical form of language. This radical character of poetic language can make it difficult, but “difficult” is also a way of saying: that most imbued with the potential for saying something true, or saying something that will change us, which amounts to the same thing.
There are some books of poetry that feel like a collection, a coalescing of discrete works. After-Cave is not this type of poetry book; it is rather a type of accretion. I have said that I germinated this book in my body—that it traveled along my nerves to gather its letters and articulate its word-roots, and that the act of writing has been analogous to an act of careful and persistent weeding and attempting to transplant the febrile rhizome of text into page space. The bulk of these networks grew in the flesh-space of my right arm, and there are times when I realize I did not get it all out or else perhaps it is beginning to regrow, but as a new text—different.
There are certain things I must do in order to make my way to the place where this type of work can occur. I think it is something one is most likely to understand a little bit if I call it a trance state. The other thing to say is that it feels like riding the edge of corporeal, sensory perception. An edge that intuits a different world. I cannot say whether it is always the same different world or many different different worlds, only that the edge is there, and that they quickest way to get there is to let go, which sometimes happens quickly or without preparation, other times comes slowly, and other times never opens at all.
So what then is the point? Ultimately the act of expression is a reaching out, an act that is both generous and selfish. Poetry is a place where I finger that frayed seam, those fissures between selves and others—seeking places of solidarity—the collective that doesn’t consume us. The community that doesn’t elide but rather protects, shelters, invites. My poetics is an attempt to locate and map these places, and in doing so is also a wish to make them accessible to others.
This book wonders: is there any way to be alive that isn’t cruel?
But then it turns on itself to say, look at all these openings of love and connection! And then it asks, where did you get this fantasy of a pure life? Other than self-sacrifice, self-erasure, self-immolation, is there any way to be pure? And who else is wondering about this question? And who hardly wonders about it or never even thinks of it at all?
What I hope is that this book will find you and engage you in a way that makes it feel easier or more interesting to be alive. In my collection of prose pieces about doing seabird rescue in southern California, How Hate Got Hand, I say very directly at the end, “I want everything alive to keep living. I don’t care if the world gets too crowded.” And so this makes me want to say that in the simplest terms that my poetics is a poetics against death, or at least of poetics of death and living that can be revisioned, as if the act of living and dying was as malleable and as process-based as the act of writing.