The Ants by Sawako Nakayasu. Les Figues Press. $17.00, 93 pp.
In The Ants, we receive a study of existence through ants. That is, there are ants everywhere, ants substituted in every segment of the landscape, yet their behavior seems to reveal something altogether human. Too human. The ants are crushed and disappointed. They are warm and many. They are involved in gang wars and live inside carrot cake. The unique quality of the language is in the precise nature of the “seeing” that occurs throughout, the observation and attention to detail that the narrator’s eye affords us with such startling precision and exactness, the shifting perspective that lunges us around from space to space, body to body. The pieces too are tragic, full of anxiety and survival and death and isolation and catastrophe. Alongside this tragedy, though, is the delight that figures in the tone: the language seems playful at times, the revelatory joy that comes from a child holding a magnifying class over an ant for the first time: Look, look! An ant! And the almost immediate realization of death, of intention: It’s dead.
For the dream spectator, the lines between things often blur into a precise exactitude. That is, the ant is at one moment the human, and at another, the ant, this confusion of identity or body or size something that ought to be a surreal distortion, but, here in the world of exaggerated cognizance, the unsolved contradictions of bodies in a space become anchors: concrete, certain, heavy, transitory.
If I had to pick a prerequisite poem for this book, it is e.e. cummings’s “pity this busy monster, manunkind.”
pity this busy monster, manunkind,
not. Progress is a comfortable disease:
your victim (death and life safely beyond)
plays with the bigness of his littleness
— electrons deify one razorblade
into a mountainrange; lenses extend
unwish through curving wherewhen till unwish
returns on its unself.
A world of made
is not a world of born — pity poor flesh
and trees, poor stars and stones, but never this
fine specimen of hypermagical
ultraomnipotence. We doctors know
a hopeless case if — listen: there’s a hell
of a good universe next door; let’s go
It’s almost appropriate to substitute “manunkind” here with “the ants,” the bigness of one’s littleness as another line upon which to perch. Author Sawako Nakayasu’s ants constantly undergo changes, corrections, alterations, become humans at some points, or perhaps, the reverse. We even see the narrator refer to the “p word” with disdain, the duration of returning to a familiar space the same duration of becoming an other.
The duration, too, for anything to turn into any other thing. The ants bend definition, reveal a concealed passion for duality and uncertainty and gesture. What happens when you are tiny? When you are so unnoticed? When you can just slip by, fit into the cracks, hide under anything? What happens too when you are an ant? Very small, yet often very noticed. What happens when perspective shifts, in an instant, the lens shift a reminder of the lens’s existence. The level of being noticed is at once proportional and completely unproportional to the size or volume of the subject. The uncertainty of anyone’s course manifested in the gestures that hold it all together. One of my favorites in the collection comes towards the end:
Very small and at the foot of a large window, I am worried seeing that tomatoes are falling from the sky and landing directly on the ants, except that no one has told me that at the very last moment, out of my frame of vision, the tomatoes turn into red flowers and all the ants are not only safe, but happy.
And the cause of those gently thudding sounds goes unknown, for as long as I can keep track.
Here are some of the threats that appear throughout the rest of the book: First, the threat of catastrophe—the threat of annihilation peeks out from behind every corner. The ants often don’t mind. Death is living is part of existence. In another poem, they long for a wound to live in, unaware that perhaps the world is already a large, warm wound, as safe or unsafe as any other wound. Creation enters a scene only to exit destroyed, subtle gradations of meaning only reminiscent in the layers of decay and decomposition left behind.
Then, the tomatoes here serve as a strange, almost absurd, image. One might imagine the tomatoes thrown upon stage in protest. One might then imagine something like The Muppet Show, and with the way substitution and transformation become such regular and expected processes, one might remember the muppet man, a technique used by the muppets to pile upon each other under a large coat and to move synchronously like a giant muppet “man.”
In one poem, an ant is awarded a brand new car, though the car is of course human-sized, posing an entirely new set of problems:
The winning ant is now faced with the Herculean task of gathering enough fellow ants to band together and form a massive huddle, a complex collective large enough with which to operate the car. A pair of ants nearby loiter around the butt of a not-quite-extinguished cigarette, taking turns inhaling, and exhaling statements about how overrated winning is.
The ants, in “Tomatoes,” then turn out to be safe after all. The narrator of the poem is compelled to feel a strong empathy toward them, is worried about their safety, can imagine herself as one of them, perhaps. In another poem, she perhaps is.
Empathy becomes central in this world of the ants, both the existence and absence of it. In the very first poem, “We the Heathens”:
As we poke our chopsticks voraciously into the folds of the Crispy Fried Whole Exploded Fish, which is delicious, it becomes clear to me that we would have no right to be shocked or mortified or outraged or even surprised or upset, should some creature from another planet descend upon the earth, pluck our people off the ground and fry us up, tearing away at our flesh with relish.
First, the language is stunning here. Like there is simply no better word than “relish” for this occasion. But also, we switch around the scenarios of control. Humans as the controllers as the predators. Yes, usually in the position of God. We’re just eating Chinese food, we think. We’re just sitting in a restaurant eating Chinese food. The situation only has the opportunity to be reversed in this book. Yes, why not also poke our chopsticks into the humans below. Would we not be able to understand such an impulse? Would it be so alien? But then again, the humans in this book can’t even empathize with other humans.
We are sitting around the table eating and drinking and exchanging stories about flashers, gropers, underwear thieves, your general assortment of urban perverts. When I tell the story about the man who came up to me and opened up his bag and offered me one of a teeming million wiggling ants in his bag, the whole table goes silent and I am reminded all over again how hard it is to get along with the women in this country.
The question of what is relevant to our lives. The question not whether we can empathize with aliens, but even just each other. Indeed this is a world where empathy is quickly disappearing, is quickly being replaced by sympathy, is quickly becoming a more and more dangerous place to live.
In the absence of obvious safety, we abhor uncertainty. Vagueness becomes weakness. I’m not sure becomes You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. But the ants understand the importance of the blurred edges of the world, of uncertainty, of the seemingly irrelevant aspects of our world that band together into coherent images, swarms of ants against the walls like shadows in a cave that remind us of what we might feel if we just turned our heads a little bit. The ants let death make sense, the inevitability of any given thing’s end, the limits and crash, the staggering postures of those left behind. These prose poems become performances for humanity’s own constant negotiation with the unknown and the uncertain, with our own troubled relationships with belief in general.
In another Les Figues Press book, 2500 Random Things About Me Too, Matias Viegener remarks, “It has already bothered me that we have such a prejudice for things that exist over things that don’t exist. It’s a failure of ambition. It means we can’t imagine anything that isn’t already there.”
Indeed the kind of either/or mentality that seems to drive scientific inquiry seems to dismiss much of the potential beauty of life. In The Ants, there is often a tone that interjects with delight, one that contains the drive and curiosity of a scientific, inquisitive mind, but one too that doesn’t worry about whether things are possible, just whether they are.
The characters in these poems are often forced to confront their own subjective embeddedness in strange ways. Let’s think of playing God and control. Again, we are sent back in time to the kid holding the magnifying glass under the hot summer sun. Let’s think of Julio Cortázar’s axolotls, of who is living on what side of the glass, that at any moment in time, the tables can turn.
So here’s the delightful world where the stack of dead snails doesn’t seem so grisly but naturalized in a strange way. The world that is just a giant, gushing wound but is also beautiful in its intricacies, tiny legs traversing giant distances. The Ants reminds us that this great big world we live in, it isn’t just our own.
Janice Lee is the author of KEROTAKIS (Dog Horn Press, 2010), Daughter (Jaded Ibis, 2011), and Damnation (Penny-Ante Editions, 2013). She is Co-Editor of [out of nothing], Reviews Editor at HTMLGIANT, Editor of the new #RECURRENT Novel Series for Jaded Ibis Press, Executive Editor at Entropy, and Founder/CEO of POTG Design. She can be found online at http://janicel.com.
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