March 30, 2011
The Organs Become Art: A Review of Rae Bryant’s The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals
Just as being human means possessing both positive and negative, so it is to be both animal and intellectual. Our analysis, our theorizing, is balanced with instinctive needs and reactions. While bringing to light issues of right and wrong, Bryant asserts the baseness of the human body, its meatiness, its flaws. "Intolerable Impositions," the second story, is perhaps the clearest example of the merging of mental and physical desires. In it, an unnamed man and woman spend the night together, and the woman is so disgusted by the thought of being touched by the man's one in-grown hair (which has become a "bulbous infection") that she chews through her own arm to break free of him. The man asks her to take care of it, trying to push the emotional side of things; his mother has just died, and now he has no one, no woman to help him. But the woman isn't interested. She "had not consented to affections." She was there for sex and sex only, and is willing to sacrifice her arm - she leaves the man cradling it like a teddy bear - to avoid an actual romantic relationship. After all, it's only flesh.
And that attitude isn’t all that strange for Bryant. The idea of the body as mere muscle, something unattached to thought, comes up multiple times throughout the collection. “Stage Play in Five Acts of Her: Matinee,” which I previously mentioned, features a female puppet as a specifically separate character from what “lives inside her.” The puppet cannot cry and barely speaks or reacts even though the stagehands “fondle and move her from the trapdoor” and their nails are “dirt-caked and sharp.” But the other woman, the essence disconnected from the porcelain body, is capable of remembering and wants to find her way back inside the puppet’s head to make her complete. “I Keep a Vine Woven Basket by the Front Door” begins with a woman removing her head to empty out all the old blood and bad remnants of the day. By the end, she dismantles her entire body, putting each piece in its proper drawer. Though we’re not told what exactly is left, we know there’s something. Some soul (or higher thought, or mind, or skeleton) is left with power enough to feel sympathy for the uterus, the distinctly female part of the body that has experienced loss in the form of, presumably, a miscarriage. The piece that was featured in WEAVE, called “Collecting Calliope,” describes a mythical brothel run by Tiresius, in which there is a prostitute named after the famed muse of epic poetry. Calliope, the “Jigsaw Lover,” has detachable, interchangeable parts, meant to suit the fancy of any hard to please customer; she can be a redhead or a blonde, have green eyes or blue, and be taken apart completely. The reference to Calliope not only ties in with the brief, more poem-like pieces in the collection such as “Man-Beast” and “Spyro Gyro,” but also emphasizes the despondency of the modern world, in which a personage from Classical Greek history has been relegated to nothing more than sex doll with “velvet” between her legs “where she vibrates when you touch her.”
So why the interest in the line between corporal and spiritual? It could have to do with the disturbing, at times almost post-apocalyptic scenarios in which the characters exist. They are starving, sweating, surrounded by death and lies and rape and covered in a layer of filth. Most of them have been through something life-altering, whether it’s abuse or the loss of a loved one, and as such their disassociation may be reactionary. That the characters capable of literally breaking down are all female highlights the feminist undertones present in the collection. The female puppet and Calliope are both undone at the hands of men who take advantage of their unconsciousness, their inhumanity, referencing the common female experience of being treated like a piece of meat. Bryant plays with the 50’s-era misconception that the “ideal” woman is meant to be quiet, thoughtless, and built for sex. The junkie in “Solipsy Street” doesn’t speak. Calliope is chosen from among the other prostitutes because she is a “perfect specimen in height, weight, hip to bust ratio.” The puppet in “Stage Play” has a clownish red wide-open mouth that she “learned” from years of what her unnamed lover called “practice.” Through her dehumanization of these female characters, Bryant asserts that such women don’t exist in real life. They are lacking in spirit or conscience. They feel no pain, mental or physical.
Anyone with both mind and body intact seems stunted by the world around them, forced into inaction even when they try for change. The young Addie in “City in Spires” wants only to take care of her ailing brother while their drunken mother remains immobile on the couch. Addie has to resist prostitution, sneak past a monstrous homeless woman living in a garbage can, and watch a group of hungry boys tear a dog to pieces, only to be ultimately punished. When her accidental magic ability to summon huge herds of animals (meaning endless supplies of food) turns sour and she draws in nothing but children for days, the city sews her mouth shut. It’s somewhat nonsensical since Addie used touch and not speech for her conjuring, but it serves its purpose as a permanent reminder of her witchery. The various references to drowning, like that of “Sublimity in Turquoise Blue,” fit in well with this theme of inaction, of numbness imposed on the characters by something greater than themselves. The protagonist’s near death experience makes her recognize that “the ocean is more powerful than [she’ll] ever be.”
All in all, Bryant creates a vivid portrayal of what it means to be human, in its gritty glory. A few pieces have a sort of unfinished quality, either due to strange syntax or endings that are a bit too open-ended. The poetic pieces I’ve already talked about break up the length of the collection nicely, being only one sentence each. As a whole, it is at times disturbing in its bleakness, and we could question Bryant’s switches between cerebral and bodily, her casting of both men and women as evil depending on their situations, but maybe that’s the point. If morals are imaginary, then there is no definite. Each of us can fluctuate between good and bad, high and low, with almost impressive fluidity and skill as only a human can.
Review by Robyn Campbell
The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals by Rae Bryant was published by Patasola Press in 2011.