Puncher and Wattman, 2020
Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit
Rebecca Edwards’ latest collection of poetry, Plague Animals, takes its name from its penultimate poem, “Plague Animals: 1985” (101). The speaker confesses to crying when she first saw the sprawling concrete megalopolis of Tokyo from the window of a bus full of chattering Australian teenagers excited to explore a foreign country under the comforting wings of their host families. The “entire vista” of cement, glass, flyovers, and neon lights “was an accusation: this is what it comes to / you clever, / clever monkeys” (101).
Not a single tree is in sight. Tokyo is the apotheosis of humankind’s quest to conquer nature, rendering it void of humanity:
I couldn’t believe that humans had created
something so desolate
a place where nothing could live
nothing except plague animals: rats, and crows,
and people. (101)
While many threads run through this sometimes simmering, sometimes striking, sometimes searing collection, the ideas of becoming human and unbecoming human are the most prominently embroidered. Perhaps these are sashiko stitches – a form of Japanese embroidery that means “little stabs.” Both decorative and functional, sashiko serves to reinforce old scraps of thinning material to render the old new. Like the process of becoming human, sashiko is a restorative practice but also a destructive one. The more you stab the cloth, the more you weaken it. Thus, the recycling process is finite, just as we are. These are poems of mortality and morality: a quality more personal, and thus more human, than ethics.
In “Becoming Human” (82-83), a girl tells her mother, “with all the gravitas / of nearly six,” that “Love never changes” (82). Although her mother is less certain “about the consistency of love” (82), she assures the girl “That’s why I will always love you” (82). What does it mean to become human? Are we born innocent and, therefore, inhuman? And is it the inhumane treatment – by others and ourselves – that turns us into fully-fledged homo sapiens? To be “fully fledged” is to have grown wings capable of flight; to become an adult who has fled the nest. Birds dip and dive and dart and swoop and swerve in and out of these poems – symbolic of the desire to escape our earth-bound selves. Earth-bound: tethered to the ground. Earth-bound: dust to dust, composed of clay, destined for the soil.
The young girl asks her mother about “the child now called Selam, three years old and dead three million years” (82). The speaker, the child’s mother, observes that a chasm separates people from monkeys and primates – it is the “lunate sulcus” a crease found in the brains of chimpanzees but not in humans. As we evolved into “Homo Sapiens Sapiens / ‘the cleverest animal in the world’ we like to think” (82), the fissure gradually grew shallower before disappearing altogether. Through the subtle tonal shifts of this poem, Edwards questions our self-worship: our solipsism, narcissism, and vanity. We revel in labelling actions as “humane” or “inhumane,” “monstrous” or “natural,” “human” or “inhuman.” To challenge the received wisdom of what it is to be inhuman, Edwards inhumes the “skeleton of Ebony” (82). Footnotes remind the reader of Ebony’s story – at only four months old, Ebony died after being beaten so severely by her father that her tiny body sustained seventy fractures (83). Ebony’s father was human. No matter how much the press might try to paint him as a monster, he was every bit a Homo Sapiens Sapiens, and therein lies our shame and our hypocrisy.
Edwards’ urgent message crystalises in this collection as she deals with grief, trauma, separation, and illness – both physical and mental. When we label a person mentally ill or deviant or vagrant or criminal or evil, we risk denying their humanity. We must recognise the self in the other even as we condemn the ill-treatment of others and ourselves. So, in “To Set Out on a Journey” (87), Edwards focuses on the comforting roadside statues of Jizo – a deity loved and honoured by the people of Japan as “Guardian of unborn children, pregnant mothers, / and travellers” (87). Each statue is “a stone standing up out of the desire to ease suffering / as human as the other desire / to cause it” (87). Our much-vaunted humanity is paradoxically both creative and destructive.
If we spend our childhood and adolescence striving for self-actualisation, to discover what it means to be human collectively as well how to become a unique human, an individual, then what of the other end of life? “The Dementia Ward” (48-52) charts the undoing of the human – or, rather, the unbecoming of our human identity. When patients lose their memories, they lose their identities – their sense of self and their understanding of cause and effect. The result is unbecoming behaviour. A loss of control over bodily functions jars with the vitality of the body that lives on even as mind / memory / identity dissipates. With no sense of object permanence, with no memory of where the toilets are, with no internal prompting to find the facilities before their bowels loosen, and with no recollection of having soiled themselves, each patient is “mildly surprised” when they find excrement on the floor of their room (48).
One patient stands for the many: a Jizo upright among the fallen statues. His name is “Zivaden” and “his clothes / are the clothes of dead men” (49). Just as a mother sews a label into a child’s sports uniform to mitigate against careless losses, the staff recycle the clothing of those who have died. His name, which means nothing to him, is merely a label applied by the nurses to distinguish Zivaden from the other dementia patients: “In the laundry they rip off the names / and iron on this one: / Zivaden” (49).
Between childhood and old age is the liminal space of adulthood: a time we may spend trying to find ourselves in the manner of Eat, Pray, Love, trying to deny ourselves like ascetic monks, or trying to misremember our own mortality through distractions, procreation, or preservation. Death is inevitable. As we age, our comprehension of this fact may sharpen or diminish along with our emotional capacity to empathise, narrativise, and persist.
In “Becoming Human,” a five-year-old casually asks her mother about a forever-three-year-old from three million years ago: “How did she die?” (82). In “The Dementia Ward,” the speaker concludes: “I know who lives here. / I look” (52). We are spectators of our own demise. We are voyeurs of our futures. We are witnesses to our shared humanity. Edwards’ poetry deals deftly with weighty subject matter. If it all becomes too burdensome to bear, the reader may turn to page 73 to find “A Definition of Bliss”– by far the most exquisite of these poems. It is radiant, joyous, and rapturous as the birds buoyed by the wind currents that flow through this collection. Fittingly, the poem begins with the word “Time” and ends with the word “breath” (73). While we breathe, there is still time. There is hope. And, as with the watchful presence of the witnessing birds throughout Edwards’s fine collection, the reader is reminded that, as Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers.”