Sep 3, 2014
Wet Land by Lucas de Lima (Action Books, 2014)
A primal synthesis of myth, sex, death, and ecology, Wet Land is Lucas de Lima's freaked out elegy to his dear friend (named Ana Maria) who was killed in a 2006 fatal alligator attack (on Mother's Day no less) in central Florida. Strangely enough, the site of that tragedy wasn't far from where I was born and although I saw my fair share of alligators growing up, I never personally knew an individual killed by one. In fact, according to The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, since 1948 "only 17 humans had been confirmed killed by the huge reptiles." For Ana Maria to have perished this way is extraordinarily rare.
And so is the poetry of Lucas de Lima.
We go to great lengths to memorialize the dead. Ritual, ceremony, elegy. But as the deceased are eased into the earth (or scattered in the air or placed in an urn) we find (at least the honest among us) that much to our surprise we're envious of them, the way jealousy surprises us as a first response to, say, a colleague's promotion. To die is to reach ultimate potential, an end to striving, the body's final goal the dead achieve so absolutely. Furthermore, to bear witness to the cadaver's lack of animation, its epic stillness, is to confront the caldera in time the dead leave behind and from which the echo of their selves can be heard in our memories, thus reminding us that a person has been freed from the resentment we most repress: being constantly at the center of experience.
Wet Land is a book of drenched matter. In many ways, the book is perfectly titled. Surrounded by water on three sides, Florida is essentially a sponge. The state is home to over 30,000 lakes and ponds and swampland and for most of the geological history in the US, Florida was underwater. But more than describing the state's landscape, the book's title points to the pervious nature of de Lima's art and his treatment of his friend's death.
Most of de Lima's poems seem to be in a constant state of meltdown - both metaphorically and literally: fonts come and go, white space invades and retreats, lines unfurl and contract, and most of the poems are psychotically set in all-caps. The entire book is tortured with a saturated messiness, a kind of beautiful amorphous thrashing, and a porous syntax. But aside from the poet's convulsed style, its really the content of nearly every poem that's most astounding: here we find the indeterminate relationship that repeats itself throughout Wet Land: the sloshy triangulation between the friend, the gator that killed her, and the poet who remains painfully alive. Essentially, every page is the heartbeat of the deformed child born as a result of this harrowing love triangle. In this poem, whose title serves as the first line - "ANA MARIA PUSHED HARD SHELLS INTO MY SKIN" - we see one dramatic iteration of de Lima's complicated conception of writing into his subject:
& FLIPPED ON AN EVOLUTIONARY FEEDBACK LOOP
SO I WOULD BURST INTO ANTHEM
THOUGH I BATHED INSIDE GATOR HOLES, GURGLING NOTES
FOR OUR HOT PINK FLAG TO TATTER ALL THE TIME
A THRUSH MUMMY ON A LOTUS FLOWER, I'M SWARMING
WITH BABY GATORS
WHERE THE BOOK HAD BEEN BORN
SO YOU'LL IMAGINE
TALONS GLUED TO A FOSSIL IN ANA MARIA'S PALMS
THE GATOR WEEPS LUMPS OF COAL OVER HER SHOULDER
SCREAM FOR THE NATION
NOT ONLY AM I BLIND TO THE TRIANGLE YOU WEDGED OPEN
NOBODY HEARS THE ECHO
YOU FLESHED OUT OF MY CICATRIX
On the first page of Wet Land, the poet explains that "[t]hese poems mythify the alligator attack that killed my dearest friend in 2006" and he tells us that in order "[t]o write this book--to inscribe myself into its bloodstained ecology--I have to become a bird.//I transform into the airborne body that shares a dinosaur ancestry with alligators and remains their closest kin.//I do this as if the evolution of scales into feathers were an adaptation to grief." What I found most interesting in these disclaimers is not so much learning that the speaker becomes a bird in the book, but that the poet qualifies what it means to write it: "to inscribe myself into its bloodstained ecology..." Elegies are often characterized as meditations, which implies a certain reserve, or a form that invites the employment of high emotion, but de Lima seems to annihilate those two notions. By directly participating in the fact of the deceased individual - it's as if he knows no other way to mourn except to penetrate the very object of his grief - he impregnates the elegiac form with a new life-affirming allure. This is the great risk of Wet Land and what makes the work so extraordinary : will the poet's imaginative presence eclipse the historical fact of his dead friend.
But de Lima knows this, and he makes various decisions to assuage this potential for mistaking queering for narcissism. Perhaps the most compelling strategy utilized by the poet to this end is that he presents to us written notes, or phrases spoken directly from, the real Ana Maria: "LUCAS, I'VE THOUGHT ABOUT MY "CONTACTS WITH NATURE" ALL DAY, SINCE YOU ASKED IN YOUR LAST EMAIL." These apparent transcriptions, combined with all the others in the book, lurk next to the poems like tender ghosts, but also as a much needed counter-balance to the poet's own desperate self-exploration. Not only that though: we get to know Ana Maria and what we learn is that she was an artist and a caring friend. By including these snippets, one suddenly sees that while the dead certainly humiliate us, they also give us permission to heal ourselves by possessing them. Rather than feeling like self-serving gestures of elegiac conceptualism, Ana Maria's words feel like a balm instead, cooling not only the heat of the book's trauma, but tempering a reader's impulse to charge de Lima with opportunism. However, this view gets tested here and there and rightfully so, especially when we read passages like this attributed to Ana Maria:
I WANT TO INCORPORATE THE THEME OF GIVING FOOD, BUT I GUESS I'M NOT SURE OF THE RESULT I WANT TO TALK ABOUT. GIVING TO NOURISH ANOTHER'S BODY OR GIVING AS SELF-SACRIFICE. AND I'VE BEEN INTERESTED IN THE BODY ITSELF AS FOOD. THE CONCEPT OF WEANING OR BEING WEANED FROM THE BREAST.
Hilarious? Cruel? Both?
Once while visiting Gatorland in Orlando, on a boardwalk that stood high above the man-made swamp where scores of alligators rested, I saw a group of children dropping pennies onto the back of an enormous gator. The coins just bounced off and the creature never flinched. Alligator's are hard and still, armored, primordial. To see de Lima's treatment of such a beast is one of Wet Land's greatest pleasures. He takes what is otherwise an impenetrable and unknowable body and cracks it wide open. His poems drag the alligator from its natural habitat and makes it perform in ways so outlandishly moving and terrifying that he simultaneously mythifies and demystifies the creature. But rather than using the alligator as a prop in a revenge narrative, the alligator is both womb and guillotine, it's maw the site where nurturing and desire and death come together:
THE LIGHT WEAKENED & I TRIED TO BE STRONG. MY MUSCLES IN THE SWAMP
BREATH. I DID NOT WANT TO FALL INTO "LUCAS" & PRETEND TO HAVE LIPS.
THE ALLIGATOR TRIED TO TALK & HIS WORDS WERE A BROOK.
I PUNCHED HIM IN THE FACE.
THE ALLIGATOR WRAPPED HIS TAIL AROUND HIMSELF EVEN THOUGH IT HURT OR
BECAUSE IT HURT. HIS OWN PLATES PUSHED INTO HIM. THEY GLIMMERED A BIT.
O, GATOR, I SAID. OUR UNCOUPLING. THE ARK WAS BUILT IN THREE STORIES. THE LOWEST FOR WILD BEASTS, THE MIDDLE FOR BIRDS & DOMESTIC ANIMALS, THE TOP LEVEL FOR HUMANS.
THE ALLIGATOR FINALLY STAMMERED: S-S-SOBEK.
I KNOW SOMETHING ABOUT SOBEK, I SAID. SOBEK WITH HIS PLUMED HEADDRESS. SOBEK THE GAY EARTH MOTHER. I HAVE NOT BEEN TO EGYPT. BUT I TRUST YOUR FAITH IN SOBEK BECAUSE YOUR PICKED ANA MARIA. YOU KILLED ANA MARIA & THERE WAS SOMETHING AWFUL & ARTFUL ABOUT IT: A DEITY WITH A / CROCODILIAN HEAD. THEY SAID SHE LOOKED LIKE A DOLL IN YOUR JAWS.
FROM THE SUPREME VIEW OF THE KITE, THE ALLIGATOR'S JAWS
CRADLED ANA MARIA
SHE SCRATCHED HIM
SHE FOUGHT BACK
HER BLOOD MIXED WITH THE BLOOD OF THE FOREST IN A GREEN & RED
O, GATOR I KNOW THERE IS A HOLE INSIDE YOU SO MUCH LARGER
LACERATIONS YOU LEFT ON ANA MARIA
I KEEP CONFUSING THE BODIES
In this poem, called "Sobek", named after the Egyptian deity known for being both protector and destroyer, demonstrates the complicated picture of the gator de Lima paints. In one instance, the speaker assaults the gator and in the next seems to be having a polite conversation about the aesthetics of murder. Later, presumably in the form of a bird, the speaker sees that "THE ALLIGATOR'S JAWS / CRADLED ANA MARIA" a shocking and gorgeous image and a morbidly loving one. The poem continues:
I DON'T KNOW HOW TO TALK ABOUT
BOTH THINGS AT THE SAME TIME
BREAD AND BLOOD
THEY CUT YOU UP INTO
SO MANY PIECES.
I HOPE YOU HEARD A CHOIR AS THE SOUNDTRACK TO YOUR NECROPSY
I HOPE YOU HEARD A LOT OF
GURGLING IN THE WATER
THE HAPPY TIMES YOU HAD WHEN YOU FELT
GREEN IN YOUR BODY
THE HAPPY TIMES I HAD WITH ANA MARIA
WHEN I WAS BISEXUAL & WE MADE OUT, SHE GOT A NATURAL HIGH IN HER
SHE WAS ALREADY THE BIRD I WOULD HAVE TO BECOME
Throughout Wet Land, de Lima plays with proximity, telescoping in and out, both visually and emotionally, and one can see the usefulness of his bird persona. By calibrating and re-calibrating the scope of his vision, de Lima can see his subjects in multiple ways (and perhaps more honestly). Whether viewing the action from far above or down on the earth, the poet ensures a space to demonstrate his philosophical agility. In "Sobek", the speaker tenderly mourns the gator who was captured, killed, and cut open, while previously, in the very same poem, he depicts his friend's body in the gator's jaw as if the gator were a caring parent. Again and again, de Lima imagines the gator in different ways. Sometimes as deity, adversary, killer, victim, lover.
I spent all summer reading Wet Land and after getting over my initial shock of the book's premise, I fell in love with it. Raw, ambitious, and radically confident, I will return to it often. And since it deserves a broader treatment than I have time to give it here, I encourage you to check out Marty Cain's excellent review of the book at HTML GIANT. Sometimes you hear people complain that they want to read a book of poems where they feel like something is truly at stake. Well, Wet Land is certainly that book.
Posted by John at 1:40 PM