Poetry / Wendy M. Thompson
:: The Thing About Nature ::
You lie smooth on your back, a long pier. Each bone is a cliff overlooking skin, fatty tissue, the best parts around the hooked jaw. The hairs at the back of your neck, small tufts of alumroot, were singed by the fire, along with feathers, claw, and cartilage. Smoky with ash, your teeth, and an upturned skull in the debris were the only evidence they found of global warming. Because there is never a soft way to indicate that Man is responsible for the death of earth, they extracted the science first: a hair pulled from the lab, an entire species folded into extinction in the back of a leather-bound encyclopedia. What is science anyway but a wholly irrational, irrelevant, omnivorous, long-tailed thing? Instead, it was convenient to lie while looking for the match that ended the world: an arsonist, white male, about 30, wearing camouflage, holding a beer. It’s never the tire marks that mar your bed of sage, or the eventual highway that cuts across the height of your thigh, slicing through tendon, the fur still warm. New single family homes are being built in this development New single family homes are being built in this development New single family homes are being built in this development The deer that you carried, fractured by headlights, have migrated further east, onto new land slated for development. Every hour, the ocean drags you further away from your mother, your children, until there is no name left in the sand but, always, bits of shell and the people who come to collect them. Perhaps one of them will listen deeply enough to hear you calling for your family. It isn’t an echo, it’s an owl. It isn’t an owl, it’s a hybrid car backing out of the driveway. Night constellations map the fibers of your many homes: a womb, a nest, a meadow, a new three bed / two bath house inside of a cul-de-sac that was just built in this development. The sky is a quilt, is a mirror through which you look, and ask your ancestors, Who’s the fairest of them all: the gophers that dig up my lawn or my right as a tax-paying homeowner to kill them? Because after all is said and done, the wet membrane from which you crack, the yolk that runs down the scruff of your throat when you (try to) pick up women ten years your junior, the savage expression you hide behind giant luminescent wings when your coworker Eric claims full credit and is promoted over you, the sea cave that rages in your throat when your father tells you he’s getting remarried to a brunette your brother’s age, the territorial way you mark your job title, your woman, your assets, even the blood that fills your mouth when you make her lie smooth on her back, a long pier, each bone, a cliff overlooking skin, fatty tissue, your erect jaw and open teeth tearing through her best parts around the hooked jaw, is anything but fully human.
From the writer
:: Account ::
I wrote this poem after thinking about the interrelated relationship between American masculinity, power, property ownership, and nature. There’s this way in which the structure of European settler colonialism organized all four into a matrix of domination, possession, and (over)use that continues to shape our lives and world today. Through force and violence, the conquest of native inhabitants, flora, and fauna led to the aggressive amassing of land and resources with the ultimate intent being maximum extraction and production for profit. Today, domination, possession, and (over)use reside as core tenets that define a man’s value and worth in society: his ability to dominate all living and nonliving things using direct or indirect violence, his ability to amass great wealth or property at the expense of the natural environment, and his ability to extract maximum value from what he owns or possesses. It is an unnatural way of life that has been made to feel and seem natural. It is also the cause of tremendous detrimental stress on our natural world.
I begin the poem describing the human body as though examining a nonhuman animal, situating it in the midst of a landscape that is perpetually on fire and marked by human overdevelopment. Here, I wanted to link us back to the world we work so hard to distance ourselves from: one connected to trees and plants and birds and predatory mammals. I then move to emphasize the way humans have rendered our natural world unfamiliar, external, and pathological, an empty excess onto which we can build ever-expanding subdivisions and cookie cutter housing developments. While we look at natural disasters as violent disruptions to our idyllic lifestyles, we rarely recognize the violence that is present in our addiction to suburban sprawl, to widening and congested freeways and express lanes, and to the attack on nature when it shows up in the form of “invasive pests” in our backyards.
The rest of the poem interrogates how our man-made surroundings have left us unable to imagine or reclaim our linkages to our animal kin and natural world. Wildlife is disposable when it comes to building newer townhomes and suburban developments. And we find ourselves seeking out the calming and healing properties of nature, driving miles or flying to preserves and other wilderness sites far away to escape the mundaneness and monotony of our everyday lives. In writing this poem, I wanted to stress the fact that we as human animals have a responsibility to our natural world, that our strained relationship to/with nature must be appraised and remedied, and that our proximity to nonhuman animals is a lot closer than we’d like to believe.
I end the poem by playing with the notion of the “animal,” a pejorative term that we apply to humans who we perceive as behaving in ways that do not adhere to social norms or exhibit acceptable decorum. Here, I catalogue the ways that certain expressions of raw human emotion, responses, and behaviors are perceived as animalistic and can signal our inherent wildness, challenging us to consider how our instincts situate us always close to nature no matter how advanced and civil we strive to be.
Wendy M. Thompson is an assistant professor of African American Studies at San José State University. Her creative work has most recently appeared in Palaver, the Santa Fe Writers Project, Rappahannock Review, Jet Fuel Review, and Waccamaw Journal. She is the co-editor of Sparked: George Floyd, Racism, and the Progressive Illusion (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2021).