Ahsahta Press ($18)
by Garin Cycholl
In The Middle Ground, Richard White explores the history of Great Lakes tribes in the seventeenth century and attempts to recollect colonization’s “story of fragmentation.” In Literature for Nonhumans, Gabriel Gudding offers a poetic work that explores another empire, one defined by agri-industry and the slaughterhouse. Gudding approaches his subject through “zoopoetics,” which eschews the false beauty of pastoral and attempts to recover the othered perspective of the billions of animals sent through America’s disassembly lines. Centered in “an Illinois” defined by Chicago’s offal run-off, the book is a history of blood and loss.
Some critics might be tempted to class Gudding here simply as a ranting vegan or a poet-gadfly buzzing around inside poetry’s corpse. Similarly, claims could be made that Gudding is too strident as he explores Illinois as “a class of sub-apocalypse characterized by melancholia... [with its] notable absence of nonhuman animal.” Yet, in an age of digital invention, is there any other way to invoke what’s disappeared? The poet takes sight of the hinterlands: “Beyond the barrel the whole west was soft.”
Gudding underlines the self-deceptions at the heart of a culture hellbent on technological and apocalyptic vision, a city on a plowed furrow with invulnerable, padlocked seeds and heavenly-rinsed waters. He writes, “Illinois is the history of at least two kinds of bullshit confronting each other”: “the increasing nonmateriality of agribusiness” and “the sub-notion that Jesus is an eschatological drain.” The real result of that vision, for Gudding, is Chicago’s “Bubbly Creek,” the waterway that contains the blood and offal from the city’s South Side slaughterhouses. The waters there extend commercially and ecologically into “the denuded shade-sucking waste here called farmland.” The killing floor, including its ecological consequence and human disregard, is Gudding’s real subject here, “an industry of the distribution of indifference toward the suffering of other beings.” In the poems, this indifference plays itself out as antipastoral, an index of species not seen in Illinois since the sewage-rich flow of the Chicago River was reversed and sent southwest into the Illinois River: the “Pallid Owl . . . Horsebloodying Watersnake . . . Least Lefteye Prairie Shinbreaker . . . Arrogant Shawnee Toad . . . Ironcolored Hellbender . . . Redspotted Madonna . . . ”
The writing confronts our convenient, collective nostalgia that forgets whose blood was spilled on our patch of ground. Gudding extends the definitions of “who” and “our” here to reconsider the ecological and personal impact of humans’ use of nonhuman animals. In the poems, this empathy’s loss results in none other than the loss of ourselves. Gudding shakes the language into memory, recovering the written and sung line’s consequence of shared breath. It also reclaims the “common ground” of waters. He writes, “in the modern world rivers mostly constitute edges, borders, the lines between maps, in a sense rivers are not really there.” These waters become a vibrant “here” for Gudding, a shared and contested space in which empathy can be regained with this redefined “who.” These poems are a diagnosis of American imperial self-deception and anger, the empire as a disposable and violent space; a spot on that map, Gudding’s Illinois is brutal and clear-eyed.