A Salivating Monstrous Plant
It heaves, lifting one organ at a time, every inch of the small intestines, followed by the large intestines, nudging and pulling, learning to use the rhythm between muscle and gravity. (5)
This quote, which appears on the cover of Tanya Thaweeskulchai’s book A Salivating Monstrous Plant, is entirely emblematic of the poem. It heaves and tears itself in multiple directions at once, yet relentlessly moves forward, as Sean Pryor, in the book’s 'Introduction', notes (xii). Made-up of five sections, each comprising multiple smaller prose poems, the work forms a cohesive whole, a complete organism, while never once allowing the reader to be blinded to the diversity of its parts. And it is here that I beg to differ from Pryor, who claims ‘Thaweeskulchai’s poem is not a puzzle’ (xii). I would suggest quite the reverse: for me it is a conundrum, the sort where if you shift one piece everything else changes. You’re at it all night, and think you’ve got it out, but you’re never quite sure and there’s no answers page. This, however, is what brings the work to life. It becomes an organic, living whole, writhing and boiling with possibilities; and that makes it fascinating, and far, far better than sudoko.
The tricky texts of the modernists, who played with the structures of language and favoured writerly ways of deconstructing language, have been much berated for causing poetry to slide from popularity. Thaweeskulchai indeed trains her Salivating Monstrous Plant by such techniques. It is not an easy book, and not one that will instantly appeal to many readers. It takes work, but I think that work repays the persistent reader well. As she says in the book’s 'Preface', Thaweeskulchai is interested in: ‘how … language and the body [can] interact to extend beyond communication, verbal or otherwise?’ and how ‘[t]hese metaphors ... [can convey] sensory experience rather than symbolism’ (ix). The lines with which she opens the poem suggest this intent:
The sounds that appear at five-thirty with the crackling leaves, dust and dried mud speak of morning and of a red sun-lit garden. These noises conglomerate, building like a nest of waking vipers, their hissing jolts the plant once more from its near-sleep. (3)
Pryor points to the metaphorical workings of Thaweeskulchai’s words: morning sounds become viper-like, foreshadowing an awakening monster and stimulating real frisson in the reader (xi). Thaweeskulchai experiments with horror, a favourite genre of film makers, but unlike film-makers, she discards visual imagery and aural soundscapes in favour of pure linguistics. She tests the capacity of words themselves to convey sensory or emotional feeling using qualities like their symbolic associations, onomatopoeic effects and physical expression. These, as she suggests, might stimulate bodily sensation and communicate meaning in an entirely different way (or simply operate, beyond our capacity to make meaning). From a neuroscientific perspective, this might involve parts of the brain, like the limbic system, that can function independently from the thinking part, or frontal cortex. For example:
… then they delve in, gut-deep and going, through the layers that divide the organs, the fats that are keeping them from crushing each other, into the bloodstream, the cells and the plasma And the secret to seeing, this clotting of blood and the sealing of injury with metal crusting over skin – here, the slight angles in which he tilts his head, how his torso shimmies and feels its way through the laughter. (25)
I’m not entirely sure how successful these endeavours are, but then I have notoriously slow reflexes. We are not all the same though, and a response that manifests as a slight pricking in the skin for one, might bring on nausea in another. It is the same with the possible emotional effects of Thaweeskulchai’s writing; I hesitate to claim an understanding of what Thaweeskulchai means by the ‘… violence present in the act of speaking …’ (ix). Is the use of a word like ‘violence’ an act of valuing something that merely is? As a person who has spent a lot of time in the nonhuman world (the Tasmanian wilderness) I find it challenging to read either the ‘monstrous plant’ or its consumption of boy and crow as horrible. It seems that what Thaweeskulchai has done, rather, is transform this act into a kind of animate sublime, enabling us to contemplate our insignificance as individuals at the same time as apprehending humanity’s intricate connection to a much-greater-than-human world.
Thaweeskulchai’s formal control of A Salivating Monstrous Plant reinforces this effect by sensitising the reader to the way words suggest associations with other words and networks of ideas. What arises out of the poem is a dense but fragile Deleuzean mycorrhizae of potentialities. This effect is contributed to by the prose format. There is no easy way into or out of lines of thought. The reader is constantly drifting between ‘listening’ to the semantic meanings of words, and to their purely sensory effects. They are coaxed into looking beyond the overt narrative (the horrible advance of a monstrous, omnivorous plant engulfing boy, bird; a strange sort of Pilgrim’s Progress) towards some subtext – and possible subtexts abound. I found myself thinking: am I reading about a boy, or about something that feels like a boy; a plant, or myself, feeling like a monstrous plant? The poem also ripples, of course, with a vibrant sense of biological interconnectedness. It constantly traverses liminal regions between subject and object, organ and organism, thing and ecosystem. The individual poems, for example, shift back and forth between narrative personas – first, second, third; back and forth; and these are both human and nonhuman. The effect of this is that the work manifests as a polyphony of voices, voices that speak both through their utterances, and their silence –
Half-boy, half-crow, maybe this co-dependence will finally kill him. The crow part of him sings, he feels the notes vibrate through his vocal cords, the caw-caw resounds and is taken up by others. Finally, he opens his mouth, and drawing from his diaphragm: it bellows, the long unending sound. … The calligrapher stands to the side, wonders at a world in pieces – there’s an honest question, but not one pretty or substantial or courageous enough to be uttered, not even in one’s head; so now, a crow and the no-longer-laughing-boy, a monstrous plant that crawls and brings with it a poisonous forest, they put their heads down to rest. It’s not muteness, no, but the decision not to speak . . . (68)
In Vibrant Matter (2010) Jane Bennett writes of the power of nonhuman ‘things’ to ‘look back’, making the observer aware that they have their own subjectivity, and empowering them to catalyse a response, or become actant (vii, 2, 9). Despite the ostensible implausibility of a giant salivating plant and the horror-genre, mesmeric appeal of Thaweeskulchai’s triffid-like creation, her poem brings to life a very realistic world that indeed ‘looks back’ at the reader, making us aware of its similarity to the actual world we humans occupy. It opens thrilling possibilities for wider study, but, unfortunately poetry books aren’t something you just stumble across when you’re browsing in the local newsagent; so getting your hands on A Salivating Monstrous Plant is likely to take some effort. This begs the question, who is this book for?
I have a history with toxic and carnivorous plants (I once shared an office with hundreds of them, and much work-time was devoted to rescuing skinks from salivating green maws). This explains why the title caught my attention. The cover is strangely cool though; like a sampling from a botanical specimen book. It contributes to making the volume look somewhat perplexing. A Monstrous Salivating Plant is, though, along with everything else it offers for those willing to read slowly and ponder, a gracefully told horror story. It is as unique and memorable, I think, as John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids or the Jan Svankmajer directed film Little Otik (Otesanek, 1996). It will surely appeal to lovers of the genre who also enjoy a puzzle and to think about our relationship with the nonhuman, as it is completely contemporary in its philosophical resonance, bringing to mind great speculative fiction like that of Ursula le Guin or Frank Herbert’s Dune novels.
Tanya Thaweeskulchai. A Salivating Monstrous Plant. Carlton South: Cordite Publishing, 2017. ISBN:9780648056843
Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.