Bad Zoo: A Travelogue Review
by Scherezade Siobhan
by Joseph Spece
Fathom Books, pp 83.
Downward Dogs: “An Advisory of Debris”
I land at Heathrow and am met by my blistered checked-in bags. Somewhere between Muscat and London, Oman Air had managed to transfer our luggage straight through the jaws of hellfire. It is early morning and terminal T2 is a can of sardines. In a sea of strangers, I push back my tears while I stroke the skin of my bag like it were a dead pet. At the immigration desk, I meet a man who possibly exists just to give credibility to words like “jolly” and “cherubic”. In unmistakable scouse, he recommends I wait for J at the Costa right opposite the exit. He is warm in the same way that slightly overheated doughnuts are: oozing with a gooey softness but the diabetic sweetness can sometimes get all over the place. I am thankful nevertheless because after 8 hours of a layover and an uncomfortable red-eye, any sign of syrupy care is welcome. I feel slightly less frazzled after the immigration check only to encounter two other custom’s officials on my way out. They randomly stop and ask me at least 4 times—
“Do you have any cigarettes or any alcohol on you?” This is not official, just a casual round of questioning while almost blocking my way. They spot a turbaned youngster and instantly drop me and start with him. I am firmly aware of my brownness in this moment. My gaze scatters itself along the trajectory of cleaning staffers hobbling about the corridors and mostly they are also brown like me. I feel exposed and invisible at the same time. The first sight I catch of in the waiting area is that of an older Chanel-clad woman and her perfectly coiffured poodle. She smirks as middle-aged Indian woman mopping the floor tries to extend a hand to the dog that is fairly regal in its own right. The animal kingdom fusing with human social hierarchies is an assemblage that is never more obvious than at an airport. In a “post-colonial” world, I wonder if every airport is some permutation of a Bad Zoo.
“quanta of injureds / may never figure”
I am captured by the idea of “injureds”, not necessarily universalizing the “injury” but instead creating a community of “injureds”. When the noun shifts from its abstraction to shaping its woundedness into a decipherable figure. A sort of stigmergy; a zombie swarm.
“long paws to lope / like a really starving thing”
I avoid eating on flights because I am afraid of getting sick. Especially getting sick in a foreign country. At the Costa’s where I wait for Joseph, I get a coffee and try not to eavesdrop on a conversation between two sales executives behind me. The guy is mansplaining the unfairness of long maternity leaves to his female colleague. I only get to see her face once and I am amused by a distinctly hungry fury crouching behind her somewhat frigid composure. J’s flight lands 3 hours after mine and in totality I end up waiting for a good 4 hours before catching the first glimpse of this half a sliced iceberg and another half of a quaking aspen making his way towards me while dragging a suitcase that is roughly the same size as an affordable apartment in Tokyo. He looks calm even though he has a tiny complaint about how lengthy his journey from Boston to London has been. As usual, I roll my eyes and hex him inside my head as is the habit of our companionship. However, we are finally here, in the same place at the same time after months of alternating between daily affections and arguments. After months of building a rare relationship that abandons all known configurations of resonant emotional togetherness. We are here as a gift of what brought us in contact with each other right at the beginning – poetry; namely to present a panel on “Othered Quotients” where we intend to discuss the marginalized sections within contemporary poetry at the Saboteur Awards, 2018. He has brought along with him two unicorns; blue and pink. We each keep one.
When Osip Mandelstam writes about being alive in “the blizzard of the blossoming pear—”, I imagine a storm of red rising from under Picasso’s “Pears and Apples” to swallow the whole canvas, leaving the bodies of fruits only as shapes diminished from their contents. I have felt this survival often for myself when I crawl out from the hollow of the sea-pit of my clinical depression. Depression that Joseph is possibly most familiar with than any other person in my life. Depression that arrived as an inheritance of sorts, that wriggles its prehensile tail inspecting an arboreal darkness when hope is too quiet to be alive. Joseph Spece first hustled his roguish way into my line of sight by informing me we were to skype about the implications of authenticity following a René Char quote I’d posted on my twitter timeline. Little did he know that he was planting himself as my own “warm attendant mirror” for the long haul. Cortazar talks about how we can only see ourselves in the face of another. A year later, he has often been my rock of Gibraltar through phases of personal and professional trauma. Just like any weather-tested, ridged rock that summarizes itself in a peculiar composition of molluscs, forams and coral remnants, he too is an idiosyncratic mosaic. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his writing.
“And God made me a gutter for waters / that would well”
I memorized this line under my breath in an auto-rickshaw hurtling through Bombay’s Western express highway. Cement dust from the ongoing subway construction sites clogged my nostrils with unchallenged gusto. I realize the futility of deep breathing to calm your anxiety in a country like this. I now chant it when depression digs its claws into me. To have a stomach for “reimagination”; that the gutters we so perceive of our conditional faith can be deepened into an amaranth of wells. In my head, I recollect how Lévinas disengaged from the presence or absence of God and instead called Faith the belief that Love without reward is valuable.
I was a desperately lonely child who thought love and lack were synonymous. If I loved, I’d only be reminded of what I lacked. I loved my father and he decided to never come back to me. I shunned the world because the world was akin a split vein that gushed too quick and too heavy. My body was being hurt to such a brutal extent that I wished for it to be painlessly erased. At the age where death should still be an act of fiction, I had tried to make real contact with it. When I turned 12, I found Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” in my grandfather’s library where I often hid to escape the abuse from my stepfather. I took turns to imagine myself as Max and the Wild Things. My only other friend apart from books was a rescued stray pup called Ruby. She faithfully listened to me talk about the creatures for hours on end. At that point, I decided I’d not end my life at least till I had finished reading all the books in that home-made library. That was the most important contract I could’ve struck with myself because even today when memories of past injuries flood my body and my brain, I usually pick a book and try to live long enough in order to reach its middle. From a gutter to a well, the knowledge of holding (on). First, I read to confront. Then, I wrote to alter.
Birdie Birdie Num Num
“I was / the half of peaches / put into pockets”
We don’t bruise like peaches, we bruise like coconuts, my grandfather would say.
“But coconuts don’t bruise, they break! With a lot of difficulty!”
We are in London to conduct a conversation about what is cast to the margins of present-day poetry—margins of colour, queer, gender and frontier. It is over an hour-long journey from the airport to our mod-inspired flat in Homerton which is infused with tchotchkes & a cooking range that demands us to become part Houdini, part Stephen Hawking. On the train ride, I try to count the number of languages within my earshot. Like every other city as culturally variegated, London’s sound universe is an aural menagerie of sorts. However, here people do not make distinct attempts to “un-foreign” themselves. Here I am seated next to a Polish mother-daughter duo discussing bras (the only word I can grasp) on my right while a woman standing by the door speaks in chaste Nepalese over the phone. English is present but its presentation isn’t mandatory to experience a sense of belonging. There is a sense of relief in this chaotic swirl. Your internalized alienation isn’t as loud now. We collect our key from a Turkish grocery store that is playing 80s pop music and outside my room —which is right above the car park— I hear a group of Caribbean men discuss Trump, the royal wedding and jerk chicken. These events of foreignness are uncensored so far.
In a tweet to me, Bhanu Kapil once declared— “I write to reverse corrosion, antipathy, bloodless love.” Joseph talks about the Queer and I talk about colour and gender. What does it mean to reverse bloodless love? Dismantling this habit of censoring our authenticities. We talk about how he as a queer man and I as a woman of colour do not want our identities to be merely summed up as neat little responses to the prevalent constructions of heteronormative singularity. How do we speak to and of the margins without delegating to its inhabitants a secondary status? This is at the heart of decolonizing writing; this reversal, this refusal. Bhanu’s line is firmly etched in me and I intend to walk its somewhat vernal rope-bridge. In my field of vision, Joseph’s question – “You think you can govern venm like these?”
The short and long answer: No.
Whether it is the woefully miscalculated journey from Hounslow to Peckham or the madeleines at the Salisbury cathedral or the snow-haired bus conductor whose instructions to us include such gems as “after you have descended a lake of petulant ducks” or the sumptuous meals at the bed and breakfast in West Tytherley where a retired transplant surgeon became our surrogate mother for a few days or the former punk band member who left London’s tonier parts to come back to his quaint village and insisted on driving us through a field of vibrant rapeseeds; we were always at the mercy of a certain animal intelligence that worked through an echolocation of emotions. There were interlocking layers of foreignness that slid over each other without friction. We were both foreigners in this country. We were both foreign to each other in a physical space. Yet, this foreignness was not isolating but glistened with a warm curiosity. The house where I spent the most peaceful part of this journey was starry with woodwork animals made by the owner’s deceased husband. These sentinels greet us stoically across spectacular distances. Their awkward shapes sometimes seem ill-fitted in the mammoth green of this 11th century house. Yet, they remind us that someone is watching over us especially when we least think about where we are going.
In Bad Zoo, the poems speckle consciousness like those wood and metal animals; the language invites you into its strangeness without weaponizing it. These words have grown comfortable with their warts-n-scales to not bother assimilating for the sake of a pallid smoothness. And as I re-read them sitting in a tea-hut in India, I think of a tired American boy and a sleepy Romani girl suddenly thrown into the most palpable aliveness on that crowded train leaving from Heathrow.
About the Author:
Scherezade Siobhan is an Indo-Rroma social scientist, community catalyst and hack scribbler of two poetry collections: Bone, Tongue (Thought Catalog Books, 2015) and Father, Husband (Salopress, 2016); and one poetry pamphlet, to dhikr, i (Pyramid Editions, 2017). She is the creator and curator of The Mira Project, a global, cross-cultural dialogue which uses expressive art and storytelling to dismantle gendered violence and street harassment. Her work is featured or forthcoming in Feministing, Berfrois, Rattle, DIAGRAM, Word Riot among other digital and print publications, anthologies, exhibitions, art galleries and sometimes even in the bios of okcupid users. She is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee for writing and can be found squeeing about militant bunnies at www.zaharaesque.com or @zaharaesque on twitter/fb.