To read a book of poems about disaster in the middle of several simultaneous disasters is both an escape and a two-sided mirror. When I entered the space of disaster in Not Human Enough for the Census by Erik Fuhrer, I experienced an abject wonder until I exited the finely wrought space and realized that I was not looking at some faraway land, some apocalyptic horror. It’s here, it’s wild, and it’s unfurling.
I recently finished Elisa Gabbart’s collection of essays The Unreality of Memory. She writes about devastating, unforeseen disasters like 9/11, the slow unfolding of the climate crisis and ecological disaster, and the uncontrolled slippage of nuclear disaster, among others. It served as almost an almanac or guidebook for any other work I would encounter thereafter about disaster. There I learned the language of disaster, the terms to think about disaster. After, I revisited Fuhrer’s collection and found new moments lit up with a nuclear glow.
The epigraph of Donna Haraway is an important signpost for reading this book: “We are humus, not homo, not Anthropos; we are compost, not posthuman.” This book occupies the space that is decidedly not posthuman, but composted material. These are poems that trace voices through the slow churn of disaster, the decomposition of the human, and the release of order in an entropic system.
A striking feature of this collection is the artwork created by Kimberly Androlowicz that begins each section. Throughout, the same painted image morphs into different iterations with eerie color schemes and lightning. The first instance appears as amorphic shapes amid earthy tones, perhaps bodies among a landscape. But there is no foreground or background, all of the colors, objects, space is on the same plane, merging together, one becoming the other. By the time we reach Part Three, we see a darkened landscape—a black background highly contrasting with the red lifeblood of the landscape. The earthy tones become eerie here, body-like, but no less clear, still amorphic and anthropic.
The paintings mimic the space of the poem where disembodied and bodied voices jump from the trees to the ground to the expanse. In its next iteration, the painting begins to wash out and follows the long thread of disaster, like a nuclear death, or that of a bright mushroom cloud. Each layer of poems brings on a new destruction as we sink deeper into the desperation of the Anthropocene, “only one tree because the world had ended already / (it was nuclear war / it was the nuclear charge of the nuclear body / that shot its dust into the sun / it was the climate that never stayed static” (p.20). We sink into the layers of this destruction, amid voices, amid the detritus that goes on for forever. The end is already here, we are in the middle of the dynamic climate swirling with disaster material.
This collection overall seems to take place in some extra-bodily matrix, so it makes sense to read this collection as a suspension of material, outside of time, not as chronological, as time falls apart in disaster. The only signposts we have are the paintings that bring some structure as we read. But there is no definite beginning, middle, end, boundaries dissolve, there is only the now, even if the now stretches out infinitely in all directions. Perhaps this is why voices blend into each other, why the familiar becomes the unfamiliar: we have lost the reliability of a world we know. We are decomposing into our composite parts. The poems seem to be the afterimage of what is released when ecological destruction unlocks what is within. Such destruction can come in many forms, whether natural like a fire, or lab-grown: “they don’t want me to bite anymore / because / my signature is too familiar for any lab / because / I was born I was born I was borne” (p.17). The play of born/borne here underscores the release of internal material when destruction arrives. It is also a gesture at what happens in an apocalyptic time, as if sinking back in time to language – pre and post language.
I was also struck at how loud the poems read to me, the material debris giving rise to a variety of voices. For example, there are moments when one voice clashes with another — one compost-human calling out to another, and the response of some preternatural being composed of the disaster debris. The voice at the top of the page beckons and the italicized voice responds, “hello I am breathdust / a seashell broken in / your mouth I am / an angel with no wings / burnt flowers and ash” (30). The italicized voice feels quieter, perhaps an inner voice, grappling with the increasing entropy around them.
When we reach “(int/er?lud!!e),” it becomes clear that the entropy has reached a tipping point, what has been done cannot be undone, the unwinding of familiarity reaches a peak. The poems here crowd the page in a stark contrast to the airy poems before. Within the dense page, we read, “a thousand c/l/i/c/k/i/n/g fibers sewn across the landscape thunder is NoT welcome here / because all the static eLeCtRiCiTy has been swallowed and is now w/h/i/r/r/i/n/g within tiny war / machines with / ?mouths like swans mouths which aren’t mouths which are beaked peaked / pecked removed and displayed on the / WATERTABLE:” (p. 48). It is clear that we cannot escape the volume of disparate sounds rising in the atmosphere. The logic of the poem here is intriguing—thunder cannot naturally occur because static electricity has been swallowed. There is an emphasis on what may be subsumed into the body that causes some outward destruction and decay. Mouths like swans take us away from the human and brings us to an ecosystem that thrives on chaos. One where sound transcends the bodies that produce it.
In the poem “[stagger into / the horse’s body],” there is an interrogation: “how did god create the horse from light / from cloth / from the sun / from clay / from NEIGHboring / worlds” (p. 57). This moment is notable for the humor that surfaces with the horse pun. But the humor here does not feel shallow, it instead injects some relief into the heavy landscape. It also serves to speculate about the loss of order, as if the voice is trying to make sense of how one could create a lifeform from disparate material. Perhaps there is a bit of disorientation too,:
I have swallowed
to the beat
of the bottom of my nightmares (p.60)
The final section “treebutchers” opens with the final interaction of the painting we have seen throughout the collection, this time almost indecipherable behind flames. It may be tempting to see this as a sign that we are entering a space of rebirth. But that is not the case in these poems. Instead, the fire signals that the natural may have turned violent, turned against itself, and in doing so, broken itself apart. We are nearing a phase of ecological disaster that is not a slow decomposition but a self-destruction. Catastrophe is a blight that infects from within and the only future may be no future but a churning disaster.
of the treebutchers
infected them each at a different pace
some began to root whereas some
continued to cut
eyes were not needed to butcher
their bodies had its rhythms in their bloodstreams
This collection is immersive and forces the reader to confront disaster as a sprawling, volatile force that exposes awe, horror, and humor in the same vein. To navigate through these poems is to sink into each layer and listen to the voices that are freed when the human decomposes. The poems feel radioactive, charged with multiple force that clash with each other and make material that is unstable. This collection ultimately investigates happens when the human becomes compost, becomes indiscernible from the detritus of disaster, and speculates what remains when what is human morphs into decay.