How to Be Human: Some Beheadings by Aditi Machado
I eat, I speak,
It is sexual.
So writes Aditi Machado in “Prospekt,” the first of twelve poetic sequences that make up her astounding debut collection, Some Beheadings. Indeed, despite the book’s violent title, these are poems that feature Eros far more often than they do Thanatos. Gardens and their particulars, mountain passes, deserts, and thickets—and the body—the tongue most of all—run through these mostly sparse, recursive, and quietly assertive poems. And yet, even as Machado leads us through this wide array of matter and landscape, she simultaneously leaves open the possibility that each location, each natural object, is principally a metaphor for language itself.
So wind is a textual experience.
One way to see grammar is to think fields.
Do I want to listen in the grove so loud
the grove becomes a loud speaker
a lyric wet.
But to call the relationship between wind and text, field and grammar, or grove and lyric in these poems metaphoric is to miss their philosophical thrust. In a metaphor, the vehicle is a stand-in for the tenor; we always know which term is “real,” which merely “figure.” Here the relationship between the routes and vistas of the natural world and those to be found in and through the sentence or line is not so hierarchical. Rather, world and word are mutually productive. Machado places herself between them, mediating and noting their interdependency.
In one scene, Machado’s “I” is tending to and pruning a shrub, an act that produces a corresponding word:
A shrub on the lowly
tend it to
& think no.
In another, she asserts that to observe the rising of mist is at once to see “discussion rising into dissolution.”
“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” as Wittgenstein famously wrote and as poets love to repeat. Machado will often explore the pleasures of language and the frustrations found in its limits within the same poem.
A bracken, a tongue.
A bracken, a tongue.
A tongue, a tomb
I move through
to arrive at word-like
Say that out loud and notice how the word “bracken” ends with your tongue resolutely pressing against your palate. Not only might the green frond of a bracken look something like a tongue, but also, the word will make us feel our tongue, demanding its prominence. But this tonguing of the living thing that “bracken” represents, becomes, through sound-play, a kind of tomb. This is because the act of translating world into word removes us from the world’s vibrancy (what she calls elsewhere “the gorgeous plant of movement”). Language, that made thing, is in contrast an “edifice,” an imposing structure.
Lest it seem that these poems are too heady, or too involved with their own linguistic matter, let us remember the book’s title. The “beheadings” here are not the lurid killings available on YouTube. Rather, they are the longed-for bursts of erotic encounter in which we are, perhaps mercifully and certainly momentarily, loosened from our head’s need to organize, hierarchize, and name.
One day there was no organization or I could organize nothing
& there was / radiance, a rare radiance from within, of saws &
metal in the hot works, a floral / incertitude moving like decay &
something about speaking to myself was unlyrical & / unspecial
so deeply private that
Here the poem breaks off mid-sentence, mid-thought, as if this reprieve of mental organization, in which the “rare radiance” of things is deeply and bodily felt, demands an abrupt silence. Of course, such silence cannot last. We turn the page and find the “I” and language again intact, “I were an I wending the garden, I there way out there / picking flowers in the heat.”
The erotic hint of this “floral incertitude” is elsewhere made more explicit, and is more directly tied to certain loss of “self,” a “decapitation.” Here is the last half of the poem “In the Weeds” that marks the book’s center:
Ambling in the winds, lost in perfections, 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.
This eroticized giving-over of the self, this embrace of an embodied way of knowing, a “thinking” that rises out of the feet, out of sensation, requires that the mind supplicate itself to the weeds. “& in the consideration of what is greater than I I / become lost in the folds of eros.”
But there is struggle here. For in contrast to this embodied and amorphous “I,” we find another version of the speaking self, which Machado provocatively calls “fascist.”
“A mirror / brightens the fascist in me,” she writes in the book’s opening poem. And then, “When I speak / the fascist in me speaks.” This fascist, made brighter by its own narcissism, announcing itself in speaking, is “hard,” “cold,” and “private.” This fascistic “I” is a braggart (“a great book I will write,” it claims), is tied to “countries & natives,” and lives inside a house. We all know this lonely, needy, aggressive, proprietary version of ourselves, but are generally reluctant to admit her presence. I find it stunning that Machado opens her book with such an acknowledgment; doing so makes the book’s search for relief from such an “I” all the more pressing.
Finally, however, the opposition between the fascist who speaks and the watery “I” who feels and touches is not so simple. For the desire to “become lost,” in something “greater” cannot even be articulated without the discerning, organizing “I.” Julia Kristeva, whose thinking I feel running through these poems, wrote of “the structural violence of language's irruption as the murder of soma, the transformation of the body.” And yet she also wrote that the “thetic” aspect of language, in which the I asserts its position as subject (against which all other things and beings are objects) is indispensable, is the “threshold of language.” It’s only through the assertion of our “I” that we can describe our longing to loosen our boundaries, to let go of our heads, to return our bodies to the world they move through. As Machado puts it:
& the fascist in I
on the dusty road
Poetry is the one genre of writing that can give priority to the non-sensical and overtly sensual ways that language makes meaning. Machado delights in the slippages between words, in the sounds they make together, and in their rhythmic play. And yet, these are thinking poems, poems about ideas—they are, in fact, philosophical poems (and as such, they are unfashionable and deeply needed). This meeting of mind and body, this dusty walk for I and I, is the road of poetic invention. But the stakes are higher than that; the call is urgent:
I thought this was a way a new way.
I wanted to call it human.