Editors' Note: This essay by Megan Fernandes is followed by her interview with CM Burroughs.
“Have I treated my girlfriend like my couch?”
Mel Chen raises this question in Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect, discussing a memory of recovering from a toxic state of mercury poisoning. Chen cannot remember if the comfort of being cuddled earlier in the day was actually within the arms of Chen’s girlfriend or the arm of the couch. “Bodies” (both the girlfriend and the body of the couch) are conflated and become transient and ontologically indiscernible. Chen ponders, with such sincere and philosophical alarm, “Have I treated my girlfriend like my couch? Or have I treated my couch like her, which fares only slightly better in the moral equations? Or have I done neither such thing?”
What is a subject, speaker, and muse if a couch has replaced a lover and vice versa? How does toxicity alter our ability to relate to other vital bodies/objects, as we are always assessing vitality in relation to our environments? What does it mean to delineate subjects and objects in weak space? This essay discusses the relationship between vulnerability and illness in CM Burroughs recent collection, The Vital System (Tupelo Books, 2012). By drawing on theories of intimacy, I ask the reader to consider that elusive phenomenological realm of illness and how it pushes at poetic idiom.
Chen, for example, discusses toxins as queer agents that racialize bodies and mediate the ambiguous boundaries between life, death, and disability. Queerness is theorized as a transgressive vitality (or animacy, as Chen puts it) that “violates proper intimacies,” interrupting the proper exchange between bodies, exploring the relationship between death and vitality, and considering new spaces where the body is “geared not toward continuity or productivity or reproductivity but to stasis, to waiting.” This word “continuity” strikes painfully at a missing discussion about poetics and subjectivity, specifically, how half-abled, vulnerable speakers consider their disappearing liveliness and agency. It is what we all felt, perhaps, reading Donald Hall’s Without, about the slow death of his wife Jane, or much of what Franz Wright has written in the past few years throughout his own illness. It is what I felt, certainly, sitting across from Alice Notley in Paris, listening to her talk about her sickness while writing In the Pines, or seeing the relief on Carolyn Forché’s face when she announced at a reading in upstate New York that this was the day she finally entered remission.When we teach poetry, we tell our students of unrequited love, war poems and epics, and different modes of address and form. But what I am interested in here is that intimacy that comes with the utter vulnerability of uncertain illness or certain impending death, and also, how we think of vulnerability as a spectrum of energy, agency, and humanness. It is why I always cry when I read Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night,” which expresses not just rage against death, but the helpless frustration with the weakness in which one enters death. The demand to “rage” is so impossible and humiliating, for the father cannot rage, but rather, must crawl to his death. Illness is quite literally an altered state.
The speaker reminisces and strokes the scars on her belly, meditating on the interaction of bodies to bodies, instrument to body, technology to body.
Judith Butler explores the condition of vulnerability in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence: “In a way, we all live with this particular vulnerability, a vulnerability to the other that is part of this bodily life, a vulnerability to a sudden address from elsewhere that we cannot preempt.” Butler discusses how vulnerability is distributed globally, and moreover, what the United States in particular has done to give itself security at the expense of the vulnerability of other lives and nations. What Butler suggests is to turn to the productive mode of grief, an overwhelming emotional state that teaches us about the ways in which relationships “compose” us, and therefore disorient ourselves to ourselves, making us inscrutable and allowing us to acknowledge the vulnerability of others. For Butler, this point of departure opens up a new politics of trans-corporeality, the dispossession of one’s own body in the wake of new emotive interactions between bodies. Specifically, Butler talks about the condition of primal vulnerability in referencing support needed for newborns, conceptualizing it as the phenomenon of “being given over to the touch of the other even if there is no other there,” and insisting that lives are “supported and maintained differently” across the globe. For Butler, the image of the newborn invokes one of the most helpless states in human life and provokes an ethical encounter that offers vulnerability as a primary precondition of humanism itself. Part of Butler’s argument demands us to think about the event of loss, and not just loss as in death, but loss as an acknowledgment of dehumanizing practices. Mel Chen’s description of his phenomenological state as an ill subject, a less than human subject, illustrates Butler’s theoretical exploration of the complex relationship between humanity and fragility, and not just of newborns and cancer patients, but also of prisoners, animals, and those subjects we have regulated as less than human. As my brilliant student Hannah stated in our classroom at Brown University this past fall, “The more we expand our definition of vulnerability and mourning, the more we expand humanity itself.”
CM Burroughs’ debut collection of poetry, The Vital System, invites the reader to consider what survives, and more specifically, explores the discourses of body-making and femininity by examining a speaker’s three-month premature birth as a 1 lb. 12 oz. baby. The collection weaves surgeons, mother, sister, and lover into a haunting choreography of dangerous gestures. The speaker is almost always on the edge of the “vital system.” When she is not, she reminisces and strokes the scars on her belly, meditating on the interaction of bodies to bodies, instrument to body, technology to body. Enacting Butler’s “vulnerability” of giving oneself over to another’s touch, Burroughs narrates in a sleepy but riveting state of trans-corporeal life in which “Bodies mapped as embroidery” figure a disseminating speaker.
Burroughs begins her collection with “Dear Incubator,” where the speaker contemplates her own bodily composition through a series of vague metaphors: “fabrication,” “[Figureless],” “so unformed” and a “black kaleidoscope.” With a focus on emerging shapes, the speaker asserts the lyrical mode. She sees “the shapes’ rise from your darkness,” with her own skin “translucent” and herself a “packaging of half-made sensory detail.” In the middle of the poem, the speaker references a “surrogate,” which is a theme explored throughout the book, the idea of a transferred vitalism, but also a “stranger,” someone outside the body itself. The “surrogate” is one of the remarkable “ensnarled” images of bodies in the collection, either highly sexualized or medicalized. This ambiguity between these two modes suggests their fundamental intimacy in their transformative outcomes, the invading of a body to keep it aroused, lively, breathing.
In “Dear Incubator,” the speaker also writes to her mother, saying, “I am trying to tell you something important. About after they opened you and took me out. / I was infected. Could command nothing of my legs. For years.” The use of the word “infection,” here linked to a form of disability, suggests a new spectrum in which bodies interact. The speaker is always teetering close to death throughout the collection, which is full of inscrutably violent scenes of choking, breaking, stabbing, tearing, and weeping. This closeness to death, this new transgressive space of intimate interaction between forms of matter, akin to Mel Chen’s confusion about the source of comfort, marks how the body’s inability to be fully lively alters the potential for representation.
In Aesthetic Nervousness: Disability and the Crisis of Representation, Ato Quayson examines this affective space of disabled characters in a range of literary texts. He argues that “aesthetic nervousness” produced from the interaction of disabled bodies with abled bodies functions as a kind of sublime, where “Aesthetic nervousness is seen when the dominant protocols of representation within the literary text are short-circuited in relation to disability.” This phenomenon is played out in Burroughs’ The Vital System, which treats the mangled, ever-forming body as a site of instability, and therefore representational limitations. The nervousness then acts as an excessive, uncontained, and energetic state that has the ability to produce a “systemic uncanny” or, as Quayson argues, “a process of internalization of these perceived disorders.” For Burroughs, this process is what the “ensnarled” image enacts, an amalgamation of partly severed or disabled bodies made even more limp, paralyzed, and yet earnestly sensitive in their trans-corporeal state.
Burroughs’ speakers in “Black Memorabilia” and “In the Personal Camp, Eroticism” dramatize the “infected” or “ensnarled” image by lingering on the tension produced by bodies entering bodies. Part IV of “Black Memorabilia” emphasizes the relationship between threat and comfort, stating “This is a treatise on loyalty.” Burroughs invites the reader to think about the limits of control and desire, using words such as “edge,” “careful,” “uprising,” “stealing,” “tension,” “bear,” “whip,” “cusp,” and “between” to demonstrate the fragility of agency. Always ready for the uprising or stealing of power, the speaker understands what it means “to be entered” and “to be exited,” a constant state of vulnerability and bracing:
BLACK MEMORABILIAIV.This is a treatise on loyalty. My beloved feature of the Black man is his edge, the tender shape of Otherness, careful valley of chain. When he fucks me, isn’t he uprising? Stealing back his mother/sister/woman bound by light? I let the tension move through me. Try not to scream. Try to bear the whip of umbilical cords, breasts, and bone. To be entered. To be exited. I lie on the cusp of our room. Between.IN THE PERSONAL CAMP, EROTICISMOnce I find the maze opening to the canebrake, I see weare still quite removed from Escape. You are black underthe chassis… detergent and oil puddling across your blackskin. You are so beautiful I say it, You are beautiful. Body.I join you, stick my fingers into the organs or engine, everythingso warm so dark I can’t tell. I move my hand in to the wrist, fix itwhen your mouth opens with sight. Your own wrist, rotal againstsome metal; one of us, man/machine/ovary, guns to life. I feel thatwe will get away.
This poem presents a cyborgian figure where “chassis,” “detergent,” “engine,” “metal,” “guns,” and “oil” merge with “black skin,” “fingers,” “body,” “organs,” “hand,” “wrist,” mouth,” “ovary,” and “life.” The speaker narrates a story of escape, trying to find a maze in a thicket of growing cane. She insists, “I join you,” echoing her desire for loyalty and commiseration in earlier poems.
The “ensnarled” image for Burroughs is also the “infected” image. In “Raving: I,” the speaker invents a poem of gigantic sensibility, “so tall the furrow of hair couldn’t be tousled, feet large as lakes,” later calling it a “Godzilla in parenthesis” while “Testicles lay in the streets / like confetti post-parade.” Imagining herself riding the shoulder of the poem, she exclaims “Not once was I tender. / I wanted them wasted–– him, him, him, him, him.” Raving, in her state of lunacy, the speaker invokes the language of madness, “salivating” and “salvaging,” both “malevolent” and “ridiculous.” Infected from her premature birth, the speaker absorbs other bodies, and often, the agency of other bodies and objects around her. In “Clitoris,” she personifies the clitoris (“Magnetic in-the-flesh”) welcoming sensation from rubbing “her chin” against a chair leg or table edge. In an erotic scene of cunnilingus, the speaker dictates to her lover the evolving face of her clitoris, not only her “chin,” but her “eyelid.” After climax, the speaker says: “She hangs. From the tongue, the tooth, the nail.” The speaker, in poems such as this, allows her body to “speak” for her, often the most vulnerable parts, such as her scars and recovering thin skin.
Representing an “infected” and partly disabled body, the language of Burroughs’ poems often lingers to frame the relationship between competing vitalities, from the tongue of her lover to the vibrations of the speaker’s clitoris, to the sense of unease in using the death of her sister as an emotional anchor in a poem. (See “Nights’ Large Fears.”) Burroughs’ use of the trope of “infection” throughout the collection explores the tension between vulnerable and competent vital bodies. The power of the surgeons in the hospital wing is only matched by the speaker’s sense that she actually “controlled the choreography of everyone around me (the check of vitals…).” In exploring the textured exchanges between real and virtual, haptic and optic bodies, Burroughs invents a novel poetic space in which to consider how scientific idiom and the scientific making of bodies is executed in these performative, artfully exaggerated scenes of (dis)abledness.
An example of this can be seen in the poem “Of a Larger Sequence,” which begins in media res, the speaker noting that her lover has named “a row of thistles at the birth of a field.” As is common in the collection, the poem begins with the speaker making a mild accusation disguised as observation. Her lover misunderstands something fundamental in his desire to name “kinetic happening,” something that gives conceptual structure to a phenomena, but utterly misses the raw, sensitive, and expressive matter occurring itself. The second stanza, in prose poem form, finds the speaker haunted by her dead sister, who “riddles” her body:
Ten years ago, when my bones were growing, she crept into my bones.A paring knife taken to me, drawn across my forearms and calves to theveins’ exposure. The veins then, one by one, threaded from my body tillthe dressing was done from the bone. All this as I breathed, watched,and detected first my trepid arousal then the deadening weight as sheriddled in, a tributary on flame. How to love a sister. How to want herat rest. Now she has a second name. Episode, he says. Eis. Hodos. Whenshe was living, I called her—never mind. She is changed. Now ends.Now begins.
The speaker meditates on her wounded body-in-the-making, aligning surgical and anatomical language (“paring knife,” “veins’ exposure,” “bones”) with that of an artisan’s craft (“drawn,” “threaded,” “dressing”). The spectral image of her sister is what alters the speaker’s lively abilities, creating a spectrum in which there is only enough vitality to keep one sister alive. The sister “creeps,” “riddles,” and is described as a “tributary on flame.” Her second name, Episodeor Eis Hodosetymologically means “a coming in, entrance,” as well as a “commentary between two choric songs in a Greek tragedy.” In contrast, as the speaker “breathes,” “watches,” and “detects” on edge, she summons a simultaneous and paradoxical “trepid arousal” and a “deadening weight” in her body. The speaker, a contrarian throughout the collection, often lifts and deadens the tone in a single line. She enjoys absorbing the estranged, desiring transplantation and the surrogacy of other bodies, and displays a strange gratitude and affinity for surrender. In “Knitting Bone,” the speaker again finds herself in an infected, ensnarled image with her dead sister, stating that she “is so close to the dead her arms hook around her sister’s back and she scales each rib, massages organs; flexing, swallowing, filtering organs.” The poem also comments on “liver,” “meat,” and “engine,” all the language of bodily materiality and agency. The rest of the poem plays upon the idea of “transplant,” which the speaker notes is a word for “stranger.” In the last two lines, the speaker exclaims that she is “grateful” to dream of the dead and to be haunted by her sister.
In each fit of surrender, the speaker does two things. She collapses, dies, breaks, or makes a point of differentiating between vital and awake ableness on the one hand, and a crushing, feverish languor on the other. This focus on energy or energetic states is articulated through figurative openings and closings, the creature “in-between” wakefulness and lethargy. For example, the speaker is always entering or allowing something else to enter her body, and in these states, she demonstrates gratitude, vulnerability, even loyalty, “One of Two Ways” begins with “You’ve jolted awake” and then moves between sharp images and language of alertness (“a door slams,” “teeth grind,” “arrive in fight,” “your ears raise on the first spit consonant,” “waking” “struck”) and diminishing language of “exhausting,” “collapse,” “sleep,” “dying,” etc. The poem ends with the speaker slipping into the world of inanimate structures in the back of her father’s car, among a “gather of artifacts.”
There is no passive matter in The Vital System, which narrates a system that is neither inside nor outside the body, nor about the trans-corporeal processes that take matter inside or outside the body. Rather, as from the first invocation of “infection,” Burroughs considers how a body surrenders and survives its own constituting. More importantly, Burroughs's work tells us an alternative story of entering the world, a story of entering the world literally open and even more vulnerable as a premature baby. From this experience, the speaker’s encounters with vitality are uncertain and bring caution. Every lid, breast, palm, cyst, and vesicle has the potential for her undoing.
Megan Fernandes: Could you talk about how vulnerability and intimacy function in your book, The Vital System? Are they in some way at odds with the title of the book itself? How does the title speak to modes of animatedness found in the poems?
CM Burroughs: The title references the belief that the body, no matter how set upon by itself or Others, has some power/protective impulse in reserve that can save it. The protective impulse might exist even in moments of the body’s inanimacy. Animal-like. Animal indeed. Exposure causes all confrontations in the book. Without it, there might be no risk/tension, yet it is inescapable/desired even—to be seen/revealed/lit/engaged/invaded. This is a book in which tension is erotic, a state of being trembled for and toward. The obsession in engaging others/situations of tension of course causes vulnerabilities, but intimacy is also expected. When the speaker invades other bodies and/or lets herself be invaded, she is really asking (even if in fear) for intimacy. The title, in addition to referencing a belief in the body’s fortitude, also references the body as the most important mode—the first mode—of any kind of communication, which is why the body always seems pressed/called/conjured forward and toward a circumstance of unknown.
MF: From the first poem, the book seems to set out to enact different transgressive methods of “bodymaking.” How did you conceive of this cast of half-abled bodies that still retain so much potent agency throughout the collection?
CMB: Survival is a primary desire of the speakers in the book. No matter how the body was birthed and what the body is as a result, speakers do not want to succumb to inanimacy. In some cases, as in the sister, this is unavoidable. Hers is the circumstance in the book in which the body, after failing itself, is invaded, rejects invasion and chooses to die. Dying, too, becomes articulated, in “A Young Girl and a Hooded Attendant,” as a deliberate, empowered, and informed choice. The speakers want control—even in giving the self over to an Other—will discover ways to have it. (See: “For the Circus of I.” Note: The “I” is to be read as pronoun.) Also, in poems such as “Power of the Vulnerable Body” and “For a Good Man,” the speaker knows that she is positioning herself in and for danger, yet she retains herself by being a participant rather than a passive actor.
MF: In another interview, you mention Cixous as an influence. Could you talk a little bit about which of her texts you found important for your own understanding of poetic language? What was the purpose of using medical and anatomical language in the book? Do you think those discourses have something important to bear on lyric poetry? Could you talk about your blending of organic/natural and inorganic/inanimate images?
CMB: Cixous’ canon is important to me in totality, but the text I keep closer than any other is “Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing,” which in part articulates the vital nature of writing toward Truth, writing toward and into the dark one might say. Cixous demonstrates lyric construction through her uses of language and also teaches what, in ideal manifestations, forms the impulse to poem—a writer’s pursuit of the truth. For Cixous, the most authentic way of writing is that the writer composes toward the unknown to articulate essentially unspeakable truths. Hers is an idea that I use to remind myself why I endure the difficulty of poetry.
Regarding the work of what I’ll call “genres of language,” the language of science and intimacy is a natural comingling—the hybridity is natural because both body and machine were involved in my making. The Vital System demonstrates tension in this language work, because to write the body away from the body (and toward/into the machine/the Other) is never accomplished without resentment. Yet I owe the process praise because of my own survival. Thus, I strive for a kind of communication, a kind communication between spheres of making, spheres of being made.
MF: I’m really interested in your focus on the wide spectrum of “wakefulness” in the book (arousal, lethargia, collapsing, sleeping, jolting, raving), not only expressed through language itself, but also through the formal choices. What do these different manifestations of energy suggest about the ability of our speaker?
CMB: I often understand my speakers’ states of being as a taut, trembling wire. This means that my speakers are ever in a state of wary and uncomfortable readiness to act—usually in protection of the self. All forms and fits of language are indicative of this state of tension toward release. Note: release may not always be satisfactory, as in arousal, but make move forward into further developed sites of agitation as in “For the Circus of I.”
MF: The word “surrogate” is mentioned a few times in the collection as well as references to transplanting. This seems like an important trope in The Vital System, which is much about strangers as it is about sisters. Could you comment on this?
CMB: I would say that the text references the stranger as much as the familiar. The sister is but one known, grieved and trusted organ of the book. It might be simplest to say that my sister (in life) received a liver transplant that she subsequently rejected, and this caused her death. However, the liver/transplant becomes both a figure (as does the incubator) to praise and resent. The truth is that my speakers don’t exist without the Other(s)—vitally, I mean, they cannot be. It becomes a natural vacillation, this flux between known and unknown, safety and danger, intimate and threat, body and unbodied.
Image courtesy of CM Burroughs.