A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters

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Admist Otherwise Most Cruel Animals:
A Review of Cheena Marie Lo’s ‘A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters'(Commune Editions, 2016)

Cason Sharpe

George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.

I remember watching Kanye’s iconic off-script statement during NBC’s 2005 live benefit concert for victims of Hurricane Katrina. I remember watching the clip over and over again in the early days of Youtube. I remember news anchors discussing the incident ad nauseam. Can you believe he really said that? On national TV? A PR disaster within a natural disaster, Kanye’s comment critiqued the racialised dimensions of state neglect while undermining the discursive mechanisms which enable that neglect.

A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters, the debut collection of poetry by Oakland-based poet Cheena Marie Lo, throws a similar wrench into the discourse of disaster. The collection interrogates ‘how nature is layered on the manmade.’ The opening poem begins with a storm already brewing: ‘always already/ another/ an other/ as in, an Other/ as in, ‘different’/ as in, one of these things is not like the other/ and used to define ‘normal’/ as in, status quo/ as in, this is the way things are—/ a system.’ By opening with this systemic paradigm, Lo contextualises environmental disasters within the institutional, dissolving the boundary between the natural and the political. The poem TRANSLATE INTO DATA TO TRANSLATE, for instance, lists a series of economic policies enacted in the United States, from Roosevelt’s socially democratic New Deal polices to the rise of Reagan’s neoliberal reforms. The collection asserts that no disaster, natural or otherwise, exists separately from a history of institutional missteps and violence, a history of struggle and survival.

Lo takes the official language of disasters—phrases pulled from press releases, from medical documentation, from state statistics, from scientific data—and reconfigures this language alphabetically. Language may be arbitrary—there’s no reason A comes before B—but it is never neutral, and in the same way, the collection’s alphabetisation highlights how environmental disasters may be framed as random acts of fate, but their devastation is always connected to the political. The result of this rearrangement of language is a visual and symphonic repetition that runs throughout the collection, exposing the stock quality of these phrases and charging each poem with the distance between institutional response and lived realities. One poem describes victims of Hurricane Katrina as ‘poor black people/poor black people/poor black people/poor black people/poor blacks.’ This repetition creates a problem of magnitude—you can see the droves of people affected—but the repetition also causes banality, a dehumanising gloss-over. This hypnotic repetition caused me to disassociate from the significant, albeit reductive, demographic link between myself (poor, Black) and the subjects of the poem (poor, Black).

This disjuncture and disassociation are at the heart of the collection’s critique. Lo creates a similar effect with various number poems in the collection. By listing a string of numbers divorced from their context, Lo invites readers to skim over them, to disregard them, to distance themselves through statistics. What are these numbers? Death tolls? The number of displaced? Once I imbued these numbers with meaning, what did I do with that information? I turned the page. George Bush is not the only one who doesn’t care about Black people. Lo makes us all complicit.

The remixing of found language as a conceptual form is something worthy of interrogation. Language is never neutral and therefore neither is the speaker; if the rearrangement of preexisting text creates a new voice, it becomes important to consider the positionality of that new voice. Kenneth Goldsmith’s poem, The Body of Michael Brown is an example of the dangers of textual appropriation as a conceptual poetic. In using this technique, the poet runs the risk of exploiting, misrepresenting, or enacting violence upon the subjects of the original text. Lo skillfully negotiates this tension. The voice Lo builds throughout the collection erodes the boundaries between the institutional, the historical, the natural, and the personal: ‘because tens of thousands of mostly African-American votes displaced/by the storm have not yet come/because I have to keep up now with where everybody, where they are now/because they didn’t trust voting early or absentee/because of flooding/because of damage or flooding.’ The voice is multifarious, contradictory, public yet intimate; it is this fracturing of language that allows Lo to remix the way we talk about disaster without exploiting, sensationalising or speaking on behalf of individual experiences and traumas. In this way, each poem becomes duty-bound not to recreate the violence its language may have justified or enacted in its original form.

The result of this remixing is more than just an indictment of institutional negligence; it is a call for collective action. When Kanye said that George Bush doesn’t care about Black people, the implication was that he should care, that we should all care. The urgency of his statement is mirrored in one of the shortest poems in the collection: ‘the state is in danger of collapse/the phones have been shut down/there is no way home—/the people you love, every last one, are all on/the other side.’ The stakes are at their highest here: it is the collapse of the state, the collapse of technology, and perhaps more importantly, the collapse of nature and community. Yet at the high point of crisis, there is still optimism: ‘so what about the instinct to survive./so what about the birds and burying beetles./so what about support and what about struggle./so what about ants and bees and termites./so what about the field upon which tender feelings can develop even/amidst otherwise most cruel animals.’ Another implication of Kanye’s statement is that maybe George Bush will never care about Black people, and maybe it is time to collectively reorganise ourselves into a system that has the capacity for such caring. In A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters, Cheena Marie Lo puts forward a similar call for collective restructuring. The poems critique the way that language reinforces state inaction, but within them there is also the possibility of an alternative, a collectivity that moves ‘towards the shore/towards the sea/towards the trees nearest to the field/towards family life/towards the development of higher moral sentiments/towards each other/towards community.’

Cason Sharpe lives in Montreal. He is one half of the podcast Two Hungry Children. Find him on Twitter here.

Born in Manapla, Philippines, CHEENA MARIE LO is a genderqueer poet based in Oakland, CA. They co-curated the Manifest Reading Series, which featured mainly queer experimental artists and writers. They currently coordinate a youth art program at California College of the Arts, and co-edit the literary journal HOLD.