Late Humans and Other Animals
A review of Jean Day’s Late Human
There are a lot of bears in Jean Day's Late Human: some rendered "at HO scale" are "hardly threatening" but one turns up "near the visitors' center," and another "from all fours / stood full to her terrible height." The nearness of animal life, and its alternation between familiar and alien, cute and unknowable, pervades this dense and exquisite collection of poems. Though we often do our best to forget it, we are animals—and like them, our lives center as much around eating and finding mates as anything else. Our thinking minds run alongside this activity of survival, in the occasionally gorgeous form of background hum: jokes, songs, insight, philosophical and otherwise. Plenty in the mix, if that's what makes us who we are. But who's to say it's not eating and mating that defines humanness, or that a bittern (or a she-bear) has no interior life? Anyway: what's Late Human? A type of person? A style marked by the time of its composition ("late Dylan")? A geological era (named, perhaps, by children)?
"I don't want to speak for you / but we have to start somewhere," begins "A Sentimental Education." It's one of three "Obvious Elegies" whose titles have been lifted from French novels (the other two being "In Search of Lost Time" and "Lost Illusions"). The deadpan appropriation of these titles, alongside the sumptuous, strange, and very American language out of which they're composed, distills a certain aspect of Day's writing that I've been drawn to for years. The first poet to be published in Lyn Hejinian's now legendary Atelos series (1998's The Literal World: note the subtle still from Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man on the cover), Day is well known in the Bay Area, but this latest collection (three serial poems and two long poems), recently out on Ugly Duckling Presse, ought to bring her marvelously sharp, mysterious poetry to wider audiences.
Humans do (perhaps we 'late' ones most of all) have a fraught relationship with our own animality; among the numerous threads running through these poems, that's one of its brightest and most visible. On the first page, the speaker riffs—humorsously, dejectedly—on the tired trope conflating the avian with the feminine:
It's a rough life
for a bird on a plane
Day returns to the absurdity of this sexist trope elsewhere, particularly in "Early Bird," which closes the collection. Sexism, not sex; capital, not food's scarcity or abundance; work, and a dull faith in numbers—these have come to separate us from the animal kingdom (not souls, whatever that means, and certainly not brains):
Why have they set us knaves to hauling
the embers of other members? Amount,
amount, O fellow fur-bearing creature;
live up to your college degree!
It's riotously funny, in some ways, but also dead serious. What makes us human, and to what extent have our late technologies (including, perhaps, French novels) come to define us over and above the traits we share with other animals? Throughout, the poems change and give pleasure, but they also return to certain very real realities: to technology, poverty, sexism and war; to the wreckage of climate disaster and the ugly glaze of bureaucratic tech-speak which is employed to polish it over. In that sense the poems are also abstract—they draw forcefully from a sad, all-too-familiar world in order to embellish their supreme fictions. And they are certainly more than mere abstractions.
Also (again per Stevens), these poems teem with an exotic and gorgeous vocabulary. The words feel nonchalantly littered through the poems but they're in fact perfectly placed—I looked up bombilating, lazzaroni, beta waving, antinomian. Hebdomadal, propaedeutic. Miscibility is another one I learned (adj., chemistry: capable of being mixed), and it seems particularly relevant. Often, an elevated, even Romantic poetic diction abuts a kind of zany cartoonishness:
yet shall we quail
with the silly birds?
whose legs in flight shoot pencil-like
from their rumps?
There's a wonderful measure in the imagery, which, as in Ashbery (to whom she glancingly alludes: "The double talk of Spring"), flips registers: serials, soap jingles and cartoons emerge from out of the static, and bump up against allusions to the Tempest, Old Navy, Abbas Kiarostami, Voltaire, and The Children of the Corn, just to name a few. However in some ways, Day's poems feel more urgent than Ashbery's, and certainly more urgently political.
The three "Obvious Elegies" grouped under the heading "Sojourn" perhaps best epitomize the collection as a whole. They animate and queer their titles, brazenly plucked (as mentioned above) from those three pinnacles of French literature, with something which is still darkly glittering: baroque, realist, and humane, but much more riotous, way less male, and deeply American. Funny and intelligent, full of dark laughter during the very shortest of the geologic eras, they seem even to anticipate whatever's next—a post-Anthropocene.
Apart from their titles, it's not at all clear what's "obvious" about these elegies. They resist, quite beautifully, 'critical interpretation.' They seem to kaleidoscope from a projected end of human history back out to before we arrived on the scene. Like the "hummingbird" of Lawrence's Birds Beasts and Flowers, you feel as if you're looking at the scenes where these poems take place "from the wrong end of the long telescope of Time." Immediately after asserting, "the bombshell arrives in the form of DNA," the speaker interjects a question: "that Delaware you thought you were?" First I thought, "Small Wonder," but no: that's Rhode Island. "The First State." Through a self-perceived firstness, humans now vie to become earth's last species, seeing ourselves as Alpha and Omega. We may have named a geologic era after ourselves, but French realism and iPhones, along with melted glaciers, will be our legacy.
There's a Mid-Atlantic smallness, a specialness, in these poems, which plays out against the hindsight (foresight?) of California time lag, a gaze back over the darkening continent, or a life—to register some sunset that's already happened. One thing I've always secretly loved about Jean Day's poems is that you can hear them, if you squint, in David Berman's voice. That droll mid-Atlantic oracular drawl, a laconic deadpan series of sibilant slow declaratives. But only if Berman was less impatient—both more generous and also more knowing. It's there, too, in the way she bends colloquialisms, generatively queers them out of their tendency toward reinforcing a dull status quo: "Hasters gonna haste," she writes, and, with terrific directness, "talking of taking / the bull by the balls." More ominously, "Let's not cry over spent rods" propels childhood's spilt milk thousands of years, as radioactive waste abides in post-human landscape.
But that's the way
of the sentence
and our job to call a spade
At times the beasts that prowl the poems seem to have become Operating Systems ("connected via Leopard, Lion, Lamb"). A mountain range "we had hoped to scale" turns into an error code: "(not found)." "Having never got the hang / / of track changes," the poet's surge of "ridiculous pleasure" is just the sad result of inhabiting "a new cubicle." A sense of all that's been lost suffuses the book: from the heights a Proustian elegy might conjure, but also at the level of ongoing mass extinction, and at the scale of a human life, too: "we are at present in a long wave / of stagnation—struggling at a dress / for which we are too old." This loss is marked by its fatally human (particularly capitalist, male) misrepresentations—women as birds, animals as Operating Systems, a whole mountain range as a 404 error.
"Early Bird," which closes the book, opens,
The music had already begun
I can't go on
slaving for bread, sir
though sunup boasts
an egg in its fat
a worm in its skin
See the way that Beckett-like line (a direct quote, really) "I can't go on" is torqued into song: in this case, Desmond Decker's rocksteady classic "The Israelites." The darkness and lateness that pervade the poems is fended off with what the mind finds immediately at hand: jokes, scraps of song. Later in the poem another lyric from the tune pops up again: "so that every mouth / can be fed." The image conjures equally mama bird feeding her young, and a defense of (animal) mutual aid as against capitalism's brute logic of starvation. It branches from Beckett into reggae, from a disappointment in beginnings into a beginning, nonetheless.
The word "propaedeutic," which I looked up while reading "Early Bird," means "preliminary to the study of." It's useful in thinking about this poem, and about Late Human more generally. The poem seems in part to assess of the (im)possibility of beginning, or, in having begun, of continuing: "Having again not yet begun," "but that's the way / of the sentence" "I run out I run out I run out." Sunup, in this context, is as good a place to begin as any, and just as arbitrary. At the outset of the poem, the sun trembles like a gelid, yellowy yolk: both bird's own egg, gruesomely externalized, and worm-filled reward for being an "Early Bird." It's calamitous, absurd: a landscape in which the bird's own egg is its reward, or where getting "the worm" is shown in human terms (gross). It put me in mind of Elizabeth Bishop's "All the untidy activity continues, / awful but cheerful." To begin, to begin with, or to begin again: these are the rewards for being an early bird.
If beginnings are impossible, or never-ending, one way to "go on" then is through the lyric, or, literally, in bits of song lyrics. Songs are woven throughout the book: not just "The Israelites," but "I'd Rather Go Blind," "Love Train" by the O'Jays, even David Allen Coe's novelty country classic, "You Never Even Called Me by My Name." Day's poems are intensely musical, lyrical, but they also show how—if a poem is the "graph of a mind moving," as Philip Whalen put it—the poet always has a song in her head. In the grimness of this late landscape, music is a refuge, on rotation, like humor. Another way of going on is in asking questions. "Early Bird" pivots on a tremendous cascade of startling, funny, heady questions, including:
Do I have time to squeeze my kidneys? Have you been crying?
Is that fair? What Marx would call "wet"?
Why didn't I think to call the air "floaty"?
Did you see the sky? Are you bowing or just tipping over?
Why do the males of some species sing so many different songs?
Do I hear free verse?
Why, whom, what? Questioning, like attention to the lyric, like humor, engages deeply with the world, no matter how damaged or late it has (or we have) become. Like other poems in the collection, "Early Bird" carefully attends to and remarks upon its own progress, amending itself from time to time as it goes, often in the form of questions it asks itself ("How came we / and whence?"). A capacity for grossness (those squeezed kidneys) remains alongside wonder ("did you see the sky?"). The poem delights in its capacity to let all in. Music is always there for you to head afresh into the mess; the questions you ask yourself provide company to go on in the darkening gloom—
then drowned by the roar of the surf
we toast ourselves
unable to fathom its limits