The Historical paw-print: thoughts on Ariana Reines’s The Cow

the cow final (1)

Daisy Lafarge

[Spoiler alert: discusses later scenes of the 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Carrie]

 

“I’m gonna bash your little head in, and you don’t have to worry about the bomb no more!”

 

This is the character of Billy Nolan, talking to the pig whose blood will be used to prank the socially-stunted Carrie as she steps on stage to be crowned prom queen. The image of Sissy Spacek as the film’s eponymous anti-heroine – globing eyes and tensed nostrils, her round face a canvas dripping with blood and female rage – is not an easy one to forget. But of all the lines in the 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, it is this heckle of Billy Nolan’s that seems to stick and unnerve the most.

 

It is easy to forget that the pig is the plot’s first victim; the cruelty of its slaughter soon superseded by the cruelty enacted to Carrie, which is positioned as the ultimate provocation. The closing scenes of prom-goers barricaded inside a building and subject to Carrie’s murderous fury bear nightmarish resemblance to a slaughterhouse: once the doors are closed; no one gets out alive. Formerly inert objects become weapons, maiming the students and staff. Carrie bears what is left of the pig all the way home; it drips from the crown of her head like holy oil. Once inside, she soaks the pig from her skin into warm bathwater, before draining it away.

 

But by this point, the viewer has long since stopped thinking in terms of ‘pig’. Which could perhaps be seen (or rather, not seen) as the alleged blindness to or denial of the animal; part of its relegation to the questionable ‘natural realm’ by a process that environmental and feminist philosopher Val Plumwood refers to as ‘backgrounding.’ It amounts to

 

making the other inessential, denying the importance of the other’s contribution or even his or her reality, through mechanisms
of focus and attention. (Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, 2003, 46)

 

What comes then, of attempts to foreground the animal? While much has been made of the ‘animal’ or ‘posthuman’ turn in critical studies, consuming the attention of poststructuralist denizens (like Derrida, who condescended to ponder what his cat thought of him); any ethical discourse around animals is underpinned by one of the main contradictions of our age. Being that, although we exist in a time in which the rights and agency of nonhuman subjects – such as plants and animals – are being theorised and considered more than ever before, these same candidates are simultaneously subject to increasing exploitation and destruction at human hands.

 

But what has all this got to do with poetry? If certain strands of Western culture have indeed ‘backgrounded’ the nonhuman to stagger along a blinkered line of progress; perhaps poetic practices have differed in seeking to foreground the nonhuman through the very ‘mechanisms of focus and attention’ that Plumwood refers to. In this way, poetry could be seen as a temporal baton of sorts, around which human attitudes to animals are coiled and passed on through generations. This is not to say that poetry is immune from the ability to exploit; but rather that the methods through which animals are exploited in the material world such as ‘incorporation’ and ‘instrumentalism’ (operations which maintain the structure of dualism, according to Plumwood) are part and parcel of what a poem inherently does.

 

In a poem, the body of the animal can only be conjured by the poet, and is subject to their (anthropo-)perspective, objectified in writing to illustrate a point, or else fetishized in metaphor, hollowed out as symbolic vessel in which something else can be smuggled – whether that be emotion, event or a part of the poet’s own psyche. This ‘exploitation’ is so much the lifeblood of poetry that it goes largely unchecked; any semi-fluent reader knows that Hughes’s crow, Blake’s tyger and Coleridge’s albatross amount to ‘more’ than zoological studies.

 

But rather than paint itself as some kind of Cruella Deville style villain – in poetry the ‘damage’ done to animals is named and laid bare in such a way that the reader is made complicit in its dynamics, rather than spared by way of alienation. The animal only functions as a metaphor if both parties – poet and reader – uphold it as such. This project of poetry is perhaps akin to what Zizek describes as ‘overidentification,’ in which hidden, unauthorised violence of the state is re-enacted or represented in the public eye through a tactics of elucidation to prevent its hitherto invisible occurrence. Overidentification in this way ‘takes the system more seriously than it takes itself seriously’.

 

And yet for all its linguistic loftiness; the poem has always arrived in a material world. Oral traditions were dependent on the fleshy acoustics of tongues, lips, and teeth, and the earliest text would have found its way onto vellum; sheets made from the dried skins of animals. The historical paw-print of text and the materiality of poetry are amongst the concerns of poet Ariana Reines, whose first book of poetry The Cow reads like an alternate manifesto and eulogy for flesh, as well as a middle finger to the mind/matter shitstorm. As Reines puts it in the poem SECONDS:

 

Are you so intelligent your body doesn’t have you in it?

 

More of Reines in a moment, before one last glimpse at Carrie. It’s tempting to see her as an enraged votary of Mother Earth, the protector of all things ‘natural’ spurned by those around her: the arrival of her first period, the pig slaughtered for a joke. However, as Reines’ poems explore, any human position on the animal – whatever end of the ethical spectrum – is presupposed by the dynamic that keeps the human from perceiving itself as animal, of being able to perceive itself at all. In this view, all behaviour towards the nonhuman – whether ‘barbaric’ or ‘humane’ – can be seen as degrees of the same fundamental positioning. So is it the rage of an animal we see, channelled vicariously through Carrie when she gets treated like one? Impossible to say. Although we’ll keep her abject figure in mind to guide us through the carcass strewn, amputated and bleeding poems that comprise Reines’ first book. There she goes: walking in rage through a burning building, dripping with animal blood…

*

Despite enjoying enigmatic success in the US and Canada, there is still something underground and cult-like about reading Reines’ books in the UK. I first came across her via semiotext(e), while reading authors like Chris Kraus (of recently re-released I LOVE DICK infamy), and other female writers in the Native Agents series. I inhaled Reines’ poetry in the same breath. It seemed on some level to chime with the narrative, confessional and often violent and visceral tone of these writers; but there was something, for me, that set Reines’ voice apart. It was fierce and raw and uncompromising in a way I hadn’t encountered before; a way that made me feel after reading that my poetry brain had, until then, been existing in some weird Cartesian vat, and was now reunited with a body I’d previously lacked guts for:

 

Get over writing. How. PUNCTURE ME SO I CAN RESEMBLE BEING / ALIVE Now. A gloss shimmers below what happens and acclaims it. The / luster
of something … I think some sodden will means continuity. To become an ash- / sieve, a bowel that processes things. A real institution.

 
Calling her ‘prolific’ would be patronising and stuffy; however apt a description it may be. Barely into her early thirties, Reines has authored three books of poetry, translations of Proust, Baudelaire and the controversial Theory of the Young Girl by secretive group Tiqqun, (or enfants terribles of contemporary French theory). As well as writing, performing and teaching, Reines is also a medievalist and professional astrologer; the mystical intertwining of which go some way towards understanding her sibylline poetics that shift fluidly between multiple styles, epochs and registers:

 

Maybe you don’t need an I. An I’s a dress literature can wear / to be everything.

 
Even before reading Frank Guan’s caveat that ‘quoting from The Cow is a fool’s errand’, the prospect of writing about Reines’ volatile first book is not so much an intellectual challenge as a digestive one.[1] It is the meatiest book you might ever read: soiled with the muck of slaughterhouses, digestive tracts, inherited cultural trauma, diseased mammalian bodies, and that most scatological of substances; the first person narrative. Death and abject materiality become the means of slippage between the ‘great divide’ of human and animal: cattle trains are repurposed to transport relatives to a concentration camp; a disease affecting the brains of cows becomes an obsession in the brain of the poet’s schizophrenic mother.

 

As body after ambiguously-specied body is encountered in the text – oozing blood and shit, getting fucked, slaughtered, reconstituted, consumed – it becomes clear that Reines’ poetic interest in the animal is an attempt to somehow reach beyond metaphor. In her own words, it is trying to ‘get to the other side of the animal.’ The Cow’s approach to the animal is excruciatingly aware of the overlaps and gaps between how animals are treated by both the ‘machinery’ of poetry and that of the global meat industry. Reines’ naming of the machines by which animals are ‘rendered’ read like a postdiluvian riposte to Adam’s naming of the animals in Genesis:

 

The WR2 TISSUE DIGESTOR SYSTEM EFFECTIVELY AND RELIABLY / ADDRESSES INFECTIOUS ANIMAL CARCASSES AND INACTIVATES / PRIONS.       
THIS TECHNOLOGY IS USED SUCCESSFULLY / WORLDWIDE.

To address a carcass is to liquefy it. This is real poetry. The tissue / digestors come in all sizes. “Cadaver” sized digestors are perfect for /
humans or animals of similar size.

 
Like the Bible, The Cow’s structure is bipartite; its poems fall into two books or ‘testaments’ that share theme and content in different stages of digestion, much like two compartments of the same stomach. Grafts of text are lifted from sources as diverse as veterinary journals; the King James Bible; the writings of Baudelaire; Proust; Rilke; Deleuze and Guattari – amongst others – to permeate the poems in both sections. The seventh (Sabbath?) poem in the first half, THE SEED IS ROTTEN UNDER THEIR CLODS, confirms a mimicry of Genesis, problematizing its account of the world:

 

Sunday has been inaugurated but the facts suffer.

 

Which raises the question of who, or what, are the seemingly sentient facts that are ‘suffering’. The poem is filled with such questions, questions that overflow from a scriptural account’s simplistic reduction of the world. It seems to suggest these facts constitute everything, but that animals are of particular import here as the poem ventriloquizes the indifference often espoused towards their suffering:

 

We don’t care what the fucker feels. Sensation that is something wholly / other.

 
It is this indifference that clearly augurs the next line’s ‘long night of the guts’; whose queering of ‘soul’ upends a longstanding tenet in Western metaphysics. We have Aristotle’s revision of earlier dualist traditions to thank for a hierarchic body/soul dualism that associates the inferior ‘matter’ with the female body and the transcendent ‘soul’ with the male. Reines’ reversed ‘long night of the guts’ then is like a weapon turned back on its wielder. It sets up a kind of material agency that ‘fights back’ against the processes of devaluation, de-souling and objectification to which animal and female bodies have been subject. A later poem in the RENDERED sequence chronicles such corporeal rebellion in the guise of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) or ‘mad cow disease.’ Reines’ text describes its development in cattle by their being force-fed ‘PRION-INFECTED MBM (meat and bone meal)’ of their own species, which results in various fatal neurodegenerative diseases in humans once infected meat is consumed.

At points, the conflation between animal and female speaking bodies seems to act as a kind of solidarity between the two (is that a flash of Carrie’s ‘animal’ rage leaking through again?). In KNOCKER the subject position tells us:
 

Boys rinse their / arms in what falls from my carotid. My body is the opposite of my body / when they hang me up by my hind legs.

 
In which the speaker’s identity is still somewhat ambiguous. This is poetry after all; what’s to stop a female subject referring to her ‘hind legs’? Isn’t feeling strung upside down, helpless as a hunk of meat; a perfect metaphor for being subject to the male gaze? But later in the book we find out exactly what the ‘knocker’ of the earlier title refers to: in the poem ITEM the knocker is a job title, an employed cog in the ‘humane’ slaughterhouse designs of the abattoir authority Temple Grandin:

 

The Knocker is first: The Knocker administers a stun: a stun / is a metal bolt shot unto the brain, so that she won’t feel any pain … 
After the Knocker knocks her, / she is hung up by her hind leg and her throat is sliced open. She is bled / on a moving conveyor belt. 
Everything happens very quickly. An animal / is costly. Industry has an aesthetic.

 

But as well as contemporary slaughterhouses, a vast swathe of The Cow’s land and time-scape seems premodern, peppered with an antiquated vocabulary to match, flaunting ‘wimple’ and ‘kirtle’ ; ‘dirndl’ and ‘carillon.’ As previously noted, Reines is a medievalist. While it would be tempting to focus exclusively on the deep medieval rhythms of her work, it’s worth indulging some context to enable a reading of the dense temporalities at play in her poems. As Umberto Eco puts it, looking at The Middle Ages means:

 

… looking at our infancy...Our return to the Middle Ages is a quest for our roots...the Middle Ages have never been reconstructed from scratch: 
We have always mended or patched them up, as something in which we still live. We have cobbled up the bank, as well as the cathedral, 
the state as well as the church. We no longer dwell in the Parthenon, but we still walk or pray in the naves of the cathedral. 
(‘Dreaming the Middle Ages’ Travels in Hyperreality, 1986)

 
The Middle Ages saw the acceleration of a (circulating, text-based) literary culture that we still, to some extent, inhabit. For medieval religious culture, the corporeality of the Bible’s cataphatic ‘In the beginning was the Word’ and ‘the Word became flesh’ were not taken lightly. In the earliest scriptoriums that re-produced manuscripts of holy texts, the transubstantiation of sacred text and Christ’s body blended literality and metaphor in such a way that is difficult to disentangle from a modern perspective.

In the monastic tradition, of the manner of reading sacred texts was referred to as ruminatio, literally to ‘ruminate’ or ‘chew through.’ The text was conceived as a kind of shell containing divine truth or revelation, so that through the act of ‘chewing’ or meditating on the elaborate and floriated text, its ‘shell’ would disintegrate and reveal its true meaning – knowledge of God – to the reader. For the monks then, reading was an active process that worked much like an enzyme to ‘break down’ the surface text. This active mode of looking or ‘extramission’ was part of medieval lay culture too, where the residuals of pre-Christian animism accumulated in objects that could be ‘taken in’ through the eye. This meant that to some extent, you are what you see; that you could be infected by looking at the wrong thing. It’s for this reason that many of the earliest incunabula of the medieval West are prefaced with what have become affectionately known as ‘carpet pages’; full-page spreads of Celtic knot patterns that were intended to snag demons in their contortions, to protect the enclosed body of sacred text.

Returning to The Cow, there is a shared focus on the act of digestion that is simultaneously bodily and cerebral; a processing of substances, information and experience that takes place in both mind and matter, (although the poems seem to corroborate an anti-dualist viewpoint that mind is matter; neither being opposed or reducible to the other). This is rendered explicit in ITEM, a poem concerned with bovine culture, behaviour and anatomy. It makes note of the cow as ruminant, detailing the fourfold physiology of its stomach. We have a description of the third compartment, the omasum:
 

The omasum is also called “the book” owing to its many leaf-like folds.

 
Which provides us with a visual comparandum to the medieval conflation of the body as book; dredging the premodern association of the stomach that processes matter, and the text that processes experience through a materialisation of language. The poem marvels at the transformative nature of this process:

 

The cow does not eat protein, she makes it. / Her stomach turns grass into her body. As in, meat, which is good to / eat.

 
This notion of interdependence between human and cow, cow and grass, grass and farmer, is crucial. The relationship that Reines invokes here is one often overlooked, but without which the sprawl of civilisation we find ourselves in would be unthinkable (cf. agricultural revolution; meat industry). Whereas in textbooks these relations would be envisaged as a cycle of discrete objects or entities linked by neat arrows indicating time or behaviour; Reines applies a premodern scope through which things are no longer fixed, separate and contained, but an interrelation of forces and matter in a constant state of change and becoming. In this state, the ‘safety’ boundaries between cow, human, grass, dirt, and the weather they all depend on, begin to blur. This sense of abjection runs throughout the poems: that the barriers usually holding back shit, blood, gut flora and other unnameables won’t, and can’t, hold:

 

An asshole with a mouth. A knot that goes on forever but that is not / ample. That is tight, impregnable, everywhere. 
I licked my own pussy. I ate my own shit. I lapped up my vomit.

 
It is well trodden ground that the construction and containment of the ‘individual’ depends on the rejection of all that is open, mutable and therefore monstrous. Sometimes the poems’ language can seem to overplay these tropes of the abject in their frequent reference to wounds, holes, shit, fluids, incest and bestiality. But it’s clear that the project here is not to ‘shock’ (and what’s shocking, really, nowadays?) but to push the rigidity of language to its limits, that in the naming of its openings some transference can really take place. The poem ADVERTISEMENT opens with:

 

Don’t they call the body the wound with nine holes.

 
Which summons not only literal wounds or openings, but also the way in which construing the body as a ‘closed’ structure is indicative of humanity’s hyperseparation from nature. Conversely it is this self-exclusion of the human mind from its body, environment and nonhuman species that inflicts the real ‘wound’ that plays out in the fragile human psyche, and its mistreatment of everything external to it. The poem accelerates with a manifesto-like ardency:

 

You have got to re-establish the integrity of your emotions so / that their violence can become a health and so that you can keep on / becoming.

 
The ‘wound’ is the punctuation of the body, the rupture between its intactness and the environment, inside and outside. An obsession with wounds has far-reaching echoes; medieval visualisations of Christ were obsessed by his wounds, which became the perverted objects of both spiritual/parental sustenance (some monks describe ‘sucking’ on them) and that of sexual desire (through which his divinity could be ‘penetrated’). Whereas the much venerated saint, Catherine of Siena, claimed to have worn a section of Christ’s foreskin on her finger in lieu of a ring for her mystical wedding.

 

Although it’s important not to collapse the different constructions of what constitutes the ‘erotic’ in medieval and contemporary cultures, it’s hard not to look at an image of Christ’s side wound from Psalter and Prayer Book of Bonne de Luxembourg, attributed to Jean Le Noir in the mid-14th century (worth a google) and not think of its erotic implications. But to the medieval viewer, the holy wounds – whether understood as ‘erotic’ or not – were a kind of portal to accessing the divine, much like the way the text could be chewed through in the act of ruminatio. The affective bonds between body, book and whatever lay ‘beyond’, were irremediably knotted. How can we read these images, then, when our eyes are accustomed to unseeing such entanglements; when the rational view of bodies is that they are discrete containers of resources?  The opening to VAGINAL EXPLORATION poses a question in this vein:

 

What happens to the world when a body is a bag of stuff you can empty / out of it.

 
which manages to call both animal ethics and the project of deconstruction into its remits, without adopting a holier-than-thou tone that signals a massive turnoff in most animal rights campaigns, or the highfalutin tone of theory. Rather than showing us ‘insider’ footage of abattoirs, the poems describe its processes in a way that penetrates and troubles the reader’s own body. If a cow’s stomach is also a book, or as in some cultures – a sacred being – what does its subjection to mistreatment at the hands of inhumane mass industry mean? If deconstruction has chewed through everything, what is left? If poetry is likened to machinery? Perhaps this is one of the motivations behind Reines’ manic urging to:

 

Clean the language. Clean it.

 
Which although reminiscent of a modernist desire to sanctify language through reordering or collapse (one thinks of Dada ‘nonsense’ poetry, Marinetti’s futurist ‘fulmination’ of language, or even the poetics of Gertrude Stein, who Reines’ quotes at the outset), The Cow is a thoroughly contemporary confrontation with the muck of a material world, a world left remarkably intact in the wake of deconstruction’s giddy death-spiral. Through the fruitless emptying/exhausting/cleaning of language, Reines asserts Donna Haraway’s observation that ‘grammar is politics by other means.’ That it is both reducible to nonsense and the means by which atrocity is planned, structured, executed and historicised:

 

HOLOCAUST FLUFF she says. You don’t write that kind of stuff.

 
A sense of urgency with what poetry can do or be in the death throes of the 21st century seems to increase towards the end of the book:
 

How badly do you need / the book to estrange itself from “life” so that you can stand it, or how / badly does a narrative long to 
be beautiful. What does poesy care. Some / flotsam on the top of the lives of nice people.

 
In LODGE this ardency is heightened as the previously ambiguous ‘you’ addressed throughout becomes directed at poetry itself, telling it:

 

I want to live in a world in which everybody I know is not on pills because of their feelings POEM GET UP … GET UP GET UP POEM

 

But this indicative to GET UP ultimately returns to where it came from, the uncanny viscerality of an open body. It:
 

ends in a hole. The steaming world…

 

*

Ultimately, The Cow is not a book about animal ethics but it invokes them by handling the ‘waste products’ of industry, history and bodies that we would rather ignore. Visceral evocations of the premodern rise like surface disturbances on the here and now, re-placing us in a bog-like continuum that problematizes the fluid immateriality suggested by a world ruled by economy. The medieval book of animals – the bestiary – contained both real and magical creatures, and monsters located at the Eastern edges of the known world. It’s from these ‘fantastical’ books that we derive disciplines like zoology, but can also trace a deep-rooted anxiety at the atavistic animality of the human, illustrated by the bestiary’s monstrous hybrids that conflate the bodies of human and animal. Reines is attuned to this repressed anxiety; that through setting ourselves apart from the animals we consume, we partake in not just the ‘dumb meat’ of the cow but also the trauma we inflict on it; that it is us who are the hybrid monsters or cyborgs of human, animals, and the poetic and industrial ‘machines’ through which we process them. Carrie’s rage, then, is righteous. It is what Reines describes as re-instating ‘the integrity of your emotions so / that their violence can become a health.’ In which case, the animal – located inside us – becomes more than metaphor.

 

[1] https://nplusonemag.com/online-only/book-review/how-she-got-over/

Daisy Lafarge

About Daisy Lafarge

Daisy Lafarge lives and studies in Edinburgh. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Poetry London, Tender and the anthology Best British Poetry 2015.