For Beauty is Nothing

It’s spring in Maine. Pollen powders the windshield. Apple trees burst, and narcissus and tulips, too. A few wood ticks, caterpillars: harbinger of summer scourges ahead. I’ve been making my way through Lidia Yuknavitch’s remarkable new novel, The Book of Joan. Our protagonist is Christine Pazan: sexless, snow-white skinned, in the last year of her life on a space station orbiting a ravaged Earth. Here, in this last enclave of humanity, bodies engineered free of their sex organs, hair, and skin pigment are tricked out with ornate skin grafts as fashion and status statements: grotesque layers, wings. Christine is a body-artist committed, in the book’s early pages, to burning a story into her own skin: a record of the life of Joan, the resistance fighter who destroyed the world rather than bear witness to the desecration and suffering humanity was inflicting on itself.

Yuknavitch’s writing is lyrical, disturbing. Her fascinations with the body, sexuality, gender, and human and natural ecologies find astonishing voice in the novel. The Book of Joan stirred me in a way few books do, whether memoir, poetry, sci-fi. But I had to set aside the novel, for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate to myself.

In a New York Magazine piece about a European research study into physiological and neurological reactions to hearing poems read aloud, I came upon lines of Rainer Maria Rilke that held a clue. In his first elegy, Rilke writes: “…For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror / which we are barely able to endure.” This sounded to me like a description of anxiety, and I know something of anxiety. I struggled for years with a species of disordered anxiety, my brain and body’s struggle to process the stimulus and data of my environment. One of the ways I tried to manage the disturbance I felt between myself and the world was to write, and to read. The poems I made were, I have come to realize, attempts to endure Rilke’s beauty and terror; my reading became an increasingly urgent search for evidence that we are capable—as individuals, a species—of weathering the changes we have wrought.

The poems in this Dispatch of Tongue don’t ostensibly present images of apocalypse, social collapse, ecological degradation, or any acute terror of our world. Rather, each poem is an intimate glimpse into human sense-making, into the tentative joy of seeing, the difficulty of speaking truly.  But the world has my brain tuned darkly and I find threads—little brown tail moth caterpillar hairs, capable of burning the skin—running through them. “You’ve created the crux / of all your fears, “ writes Khairani Barokka in a new poem since the publication of her long, illustrated poem, Indigenous Species. “I am my own best / vampire,” writes Kathy Fagan: a fear of the light, perhaps, sucking yourself dry, becoming some undead iteration of the self. In Mary Jean Chan’s haunting “Inheritance”, we glimpse a story of one of our families—human, animal—preparing meals from the Earth’s other living things: “their death brutal, yet profoundly ordinary.”

Still, everyday brings new reports from the field: an increasingly likely cataclysm at the Antarctic ice sheet; a baleen whale—at first a terrifying, unidentifiable kraken—found dead in Indonesia, far from waters it could survive; our doomsday vault at Svalbard flooded by the melting permafrost, our emergency library of seeds no longer safe. When science fiction veers dangerously close to reportage, when a poem gives you news you can hardly bear, how do we keep opening ourselves to these texts, these poems? Can we take solace in the old trees, those trees captured so vividly in Robert Zhao Renhui’s photographs, knowing that no matter what we do, the Earth will survive us, even in some terribly beautiful, almost unrecognizable form?

Summer in Maine means lobster and clams, mussels and shrimp. The coasts are not flooded, yet. We search each other’s bodies for small punctuation, the tiny animals carrying disease, trying to keep down that anticipatory howl, panic, hardly able to believe it when we find nothing nestling in the skin of our beloveds, our children. I carry around Yuknavitch’s beautiful, haunting story in my bag waiting for the moment I can expose myself to her pages again. I read poems and try to open myself fully to them: “My tongue glad the way all beasts are / when allowed to eat their fill.” We watch the maple threads in the breeze, and imagine a burning to come.