By James Scales
Somewhere in the landscape of the Western Ghats a speaker stops to check a bike, stands on a hill, looks into the distance. For a moment they consume the view—green hills, glinting rivers, swaying lemongrass. Something (we cannot say what) is revealed, something else kept hidden: the uncanniness of landscape, with its interplay of strange and familiar, the leering sublimity of wilderness, the thrill of distances abruptly made visible. There is the compulsion to take down, give meaning; there must be signs: hill, trellis, downward, river, we. But sign and thing are forever slipping apart; the world will not stay pinned down long, it is too huge, uncertain, inexhaustible
And even in the midst of, say, a moving view, we are pulled back; we analyze, recall, compare, reflect. A split grows between the senses and the mind, between the presence of experience and the past of memory. Language, through which these pressures are expressed, is itself restless, full of restiveness: we are, as Lynn Hejinian notes, “off-balance, heavy at the mouth,” a body “whose center of gravity is not in herself.”
This is the voice of Aditi Machado’s debut book, Some Beheadings—heavy, restless, yes, but also absorbed, absorbing, excited, exciting. From “Route: Western Ghats”:
The top of this hill is called a viewpoint but is not figurative. We’ve made a philology of it which is immaculate which is as we are now, figural. Lemongrass on the slopes grows wild wind through it. The trellises are in places, the fences called eyes. There are rivers in the distance that milk. And we graze and check the motorcycle as it stays upon the slope. And we grow wild on the point through the downward sloping lemongrass and the notional. There are moments in which the condition of the mind approaches the condition of the body which we call ecstasy which now occur.
There is wilderness, and wild wind, and there are the fences, gardens, trellises that give order to it. Somewhere there is the experience of ecstatic approach, but it is one that can only be gestured towards, as if off-stage, just out of view, because it is not an experience locatable entirely in language and so cannot be reproduced in the poem, only circled near.
This circling produces an anxiety of naming, of its impossibility: “This is what it is like may not be said. This is what it is not like neither,” Machado writes in the first section of that poem. But the mind is nonetheless unable to resist this want to clarify, define and parse:
of grammar I cannot
She writes near the ending of the opening poem, and later in the book, “I think / I am not human, I’m grammarian.”
Yet this parsing, making structure, walling gardens from the wilderness, is precisely the condition of being human. Machado’s book is intensely human, deeply alive, and her speakers are thoughtful, delicate, and dazzling in both their sparseness and array of images. The questions she deals with range from the basic to the pressing—of being, of feeling, of phenomenology, how to “describe what it’s like to touch something,” to those of ecology, politics, migration and sexuality, which lie at the forefront of so much struggle today. Her book and the mind behind it are striking—and “utterly contemporary,” as one blurb notes—in that she remains both lucid and inclusive, dense and open, while tending to even the thorniest of ideas.
Like a thicket, her work offers no single path, no central point from which to navigate; I have traced some, but with each reading more proliferate. “Blessed is my gethsemane // of florid logic” she writes in “Blessed Is,” a fragmented meditation on divinity and lust. In “No, But,” a section of “Route: Thicket,” she reflects on notions of excess and overgrowth, linking them to the poetic process:
A shrub on the lowly
tend it to
& think no.
as you would pause,
Her work loves to play with verbal slippages—tend, attenuate, attend, attention—through which words are linked by sound or root over the course of a poem, a process that parallels both the historical development of words and languages through shifts in sound and meaning, and the evolution of species via small mutations. Here, the action of pruning a shrub, giving it form, blends with the poetic process, by which experience is transformed through attention and attenuation (at root, “thinning out”). Shunning the volta (or turn) of traditional poetic form, historically used for the deliverance of closure or epiphany, Machado opts instead for thicket, which
tarries & turns.
This is not to say that her work lacks epiphany—it is lush with insight, revelation—but rather that the methods of deliverance are less definite, more open: “In the medial moments like a closing couplet I said one thing / and then another into a coliseum or seashell,” she writes in the middle of “Speeches, Minor.” This toying between medial and closing both is and is not incongruous. It fittingly describes the lived reality of thought (what thought ever feels final?), the self-paradox of being and having a personality (Whitman’s “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself…”), and the poetics of non-closure (Paul Valéry’s idea of the poem as never being finished but abandoned). “So I revel in its ambiguities,” Machado writes, “so may I in this manner feel felt.”
The question of feeling—of touch—is a vibrant thread which intertwines with so much else in the book. From “In the Weeds”:
I am thinking now to describe what it’s like to touch something.
What it is to rub off on someone.
When two matters interact should I hope to keep my skin.
Ambling in the wind, lost in perfection, those blips
along the odometer of time, my feet in the weeds –
my head capitulates to them. Little plants, little events. That’s how
I think. A decapitation, a lovely guillotine wind lays my mind
in the weeds. That’s how
I touch a plant. My water touches its.
We return to the release of ecstasy (at root, “standing outside oneself”), now in the form of an erotic loss of self by beheading or dissolution. The erotic-as-floral is a well-worn image:
Sexual organs, peeling
green parts, fruit
& thorn & thorning paths
But the use of weed, as in the unwanted, the invasive, the alien (as opposed to, say, the rose), disorients the expected, if only a little.
The violence implied in the book’s title, slightly reduced by the wry qualifier some (somehow more occasional, perhaps less vicious than the specificity of the beheadings), is also here opened to include the erotic and the ecstatic experience, losing oneself in physical touch and/or wilderness. Such a move opens the possibility for an ecological reading of the book. Not only do these speakers seem to identify intensely with the living world—“the weeds are weeds I would / bind myself in”; “How amid / the image of cows // can you not / be them”—they also seem to view the relation as, to some degree, communal: my water touches its. To lose one's head is to gain some access to the non-human world.
But the book is also aware of the risks and limits of such empathic relation. “Consider the continua that are vegetal & mineral. How they are you cannot be. You breakfast, you organize,” she writes in the lengthy opening poem, “Prospekt.” The image of the garden repeats throughout the poem as an emblem of orderliness: “I make an order… A garden, a pattern … I were an I wending the garden, I there way out there / picking flowers in the heat.” Against the human organization of the garden, the weed is, by definition, excessive, marginal, a “floral incertitude.” The gardener is one who chooses what lives and where, who picks, digs up, delineates, decapitates.
In this sense, the gardener may resemble (by admittedly thorny analogy) the fascist, who not only regiments, classifies and organizes the production of society but also designates the enemy, the unwanted, the alien, to be eliminated.
brightens the fascist
Machado writes (startlingly, boldly) in the second stanza of the book, and a few lines later, “When I speak / the fascist in me speaks.” Such a weighted term is provocative, incendiary, especially so early in a debut book. What helps it function in the poem is the way it suggests less an authoritarian politics than an unflinching self-reflection: it is in the mirror that we meet the fascist in ourselves, in our own subjectivity. Living as we do in a moment where fascism is on the rise, this may also be read as am indictment both of self and society at large, a naming of the shared responsibility for the climate and politics we all share: “One of the world’s patterns is collective.”
What this book reveals is a mind at war with itself; which is to say, a mind. Part of Machado's (ambitious) project includes a close investigation of the subject, how it thinks, what it tells itself about itself. Such a project is vital today, when some of the most basic and unanswered questions (about our relation to ourselves, to Eros, to sex, to other beings, to landscape) continuously churn back to the surface, often violently. What she achieves is not the rigor of a philosophical system—“I dare not be more precise” she says, sinking instead “into another elegant counterpoint”—but is the product of rigorous attention, of diligent thought:
If I am alive
If I am thinking
nothing has stopped
James Scales earned an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis. His work has appeared in Go Places, Sinker Cypress Review, and The Birds We Piled Loosely, and is forthcoming in the Brooklyn Review. He lives and works in New York City's oldest building.