This post is part of the Found Poetry Review’s Book Review series. Questions or comments can be directed to the author, Douglas Luman. Photo credit: “Urban lights in the distance,” Flickr user Antti Kyllönen.
Roughly a third of the way through Laura Sims’ Staying Alive, terror grips me. As she writes “[t]he city teems. Above / It isn’t heaven: it’s / The ruin // Where / You shine,” a short section of verse set in the lower right corner against the negative space of the page, amidst the quietness which characterizes the collection, I picture a night-time approach to the city of Chicago, driving north on I-55 where apparatus of the oil and mining industries predominates. At certain hours (as on any highway) there are long stretches of roadway over which one travels alone—not seeing another car traveling in either direction. However, the distant landscape composes itself from the various factories, refineries, and chemical plants which operate on their around-the-clock schedules, seeming to be equally vacant of human life. These outposts shine as beacons in the tableau of the dark.
I recall a distinct sense of terror largely because this is how I picture the beginning of a time after humanity, when for a brief moment, the machines operate, the lights stay on but, as the clichéd saying goes, no one is home. However, this is an awe-inspiring and captivating feeling, not one of dread; it is a kind of soundless beauty which I grip onto as a strangely-hallowed memory. But, for anyone to have this memory, they need to, as Sims’ title asserts, stay alive. The crux of the collection comes in the tension between the language of the post-human, and the notion that for such language to have meaning, there needs to be some kind of post-human sentience which values it.
As such, it’s no shock that in reading Laura Sims’ Staying Alive, I thought of the work of Edward Soja and other post-humanist thinkers. Post-human philosopher Theodore Schatzki writes in the 2010 essay “Materiality and Social Life” of a connection of the concept of materiality as social “stuff”: an “equation of materiality with matter…materiality is stuff, that is, composition: the materiality of social life is its stuff. This construal can bleed into materiality qua physicality because examining something’s composition often bottoms out in physical entities and properties.” It’s strange that in imagining our un-existence, we must first imagine our existence; the only record of such is in the “stuff” about which Schatzki is concerned—the material made physical.
For my line of inquiry into this book to proceed, one thing must be agreed upon: that Sims sees language distinctly as matter and its absence not as anti-matter or lack of matter, but the physical space that matter inhabits. In the afterword to Staying Alive, Sims discusses this presence/absence dichotomy much better than I can using the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone as analogue as she writes that the “images of inanimate objects and empty places…allow [her] to project [her] own mourning for the loss of human activity onto the things themselves.”
As guiding principle in Staying Alive, Sims acknowledges that the discourse of absence is only accessible through the materials of presence, even if a scene depicting debris with the stage direction “exeunt human.”
In the end as Schatzki recommends, our dialogue abou ourselves always comes back to “stuff,” even if only summoned in language and the printed word being the only vestige of objects or persons who once were. After all, humans do have quite a history of leaving things behind as if to say, as Sims’ speaker does,
I am semblance
Of life I am
Shaped like rock like dirt vegetation and urban debris.
Staying Alive projects the future tense from the present in such a way that I can’t help but be reminded of the projects of Susan Howe, Lisa Robertson, or Ronald Johnson (the last being a connection which Sims makes in the afterword to the book). There is an archival acuity in the way that Sims samples language from a number of near-present and relatively reasonably “past” sources including (for the former) television programs such as Battlestar Galactica, and (for the latter) Little House on the Prairie, among others. From the “stuff” of humanity, Sims is checking in on what one post-human moment could look like, given a composite of material which recognizes that the material for language must come from some hodgepodge of originary sources.
But the relationship between humankind and environment, as Staying Alive recognizes, cannot merely be the product of human synthesis. For all that we make, there exists an irreversible effect which is marked by its inability to be erased. To invoke another parallel writer, I see much to a comparison with Leslie Scalapino, whose work treats language in a similar way to Sims—as a pivot point on which to investigate the moment at which an event occurs, and all its resident potentialities. Late in the collection, Sims’ speaker creates such a moment writing of
[t]he land. The grass. The wagon. The wind. The land. The road.
Animals. The trace. The wheels. The fire. Space. The bowl.
The planar tension between the still land, the natural force of wind which disturbs it, and the human force of the rider and the residual wheel tracks create a portrait not unlike the memory at the beginning of this review. It depicts the hallmarks of simultaneous presence and absence, bisecting it with the dual ambiguities of time and purpose, surfacing questions as to when these tracks were made; if we see the rider or only a phantom of one; how do we experience the land before the entrance of the human figures here? Silence and emptiness offers both a complete answer and no answer at once in a fire which effaces, space which is shapeless, and a bowl which, based on the lack of any kind of qualifier, seems empty—existing merely as a study in the ontology of “bowlness.”
However, as with the rest of the collection, the material questions whose answers we seek are answered with more material, even if only the shadow (the “trace”) of an animal or human actor in the scene. In any event, we’re merely left with the physical facts, the “mountains / Of carts full of junk behind,” the clues of the Anthropocene in which we find ourselves, a time of both “hunger and terror” that Staying Alive offers us leaving the reader to judge for themselves if Sims’ title offers us hope that we can live on through material or if we’re in a desperate struggle against and despite it.