» Book Review
Her Affective Labor
Dear Z: The Zygote Epistles by Diane Raptosh
Etruscan Press, 2020
Paperback, 116 pp., $17.00
Diane Raptosh is the poet of the unlikely.
Of course, any creative act in itself is rather unlikely, whether it is the cosmic creation ex nihilo in which the universe is manifested out of an accident of strong and weak forces converging and dissipating, leaving some errant subatomic particles behind to crash together for the big bang, or the simple clapping of hands, a rhythm, a disruption, a repetition. A creative act is the convergence of everything, an impossibility, which only has to happen once, and there it is: the dreamy reverb by David Roback, the breath between H. D.’s lines, the abdominal contraction before Bill T. Jones’s turns.
Over her thirty-year career, Raptosh has produced wicked, loopy, political, surrealistic, and unforgettable poetry: experimental and wild, a free-roaming poet of the Idaho sagelands. Her work leaps madly into the mud-pools of language with a child’s abandon, but with an intelligence that is hard, uncompromising, and disturbing in its own playfulness.
Dear Z: The Zygote Epistles completes Raptosh’s verse trilogy, a project nobly supported by Etruscan Press. The first in the series is American Amnesiac (2013), a book-length, ghazal-sequenced monologue spoken by a former Goldman Sachs exec, who seeks to recover his identity, to reconstitute himself as an improbable and decent citizen. In the second book, Human Directional (2016), Raptosh leaves the individual to explore the collective and atomized human consciousness via a slapdash of prose poems, exploded catalogues, and single-line jokes. In her trilogy, we are stuck in the hell-scape of an American post-capitalistic society: racist, punitive, commodified, cruel, and degrading. Yet, multi-vocal and therefore hopeful, precisely because of the fissures and fractures that occur amid all the digital noise.
With Dear Z, Raptosh brilliantly answers this world with a set of letters addressed to our pre-embryotic, single-cell existence: a single fertilized ovum, a “love speck,” which drifts down the fallopian tubes. Perhaps finding purchase on the uterine wall and becoming, and perhaps just being flushed out of the system entirely and not becoming. We will find that in Raptosh’s poems this difference matters perhaps less than we’d think.
The voice is materternal, not that of the mother but of the aunt: intimate, loving, world-weary, and transgressive. It is a voice that is fully queered and unmoored, wholly original:
Most humans evolved only once—in what’s likely
East Africa, 200,000 years ago. So don’t freak
when I shout out We share the same mama:
Mitochondrial Eve. Unlike the one in the Garden
of Eden, mtEve was not the sole woman on Earth,
but the one who made her descent into everyone.
So pray tell, teeny homunculus, as the line
from “Time of the Season” by the Zombies,
that British Invasion band, goes: Who’s your daddy?
Please know that should you come be, Big Data
will quickly conceive you as processing stream,
a more or less numeral entity—lacking internal lyric:
that giddiest hymnal. That solemn bee. The think feeling
fist that is inwit. Queerest iota, does this kind of talk
smack of hokum-humanist seething on my part?
Our shared mother mtEve was mostly a kink of statistics,
a ringing quark of a person: a true lovely, who probably
knew to venerate horses.
Here is a whirlwind of what Raptosh does so singularly well: the careening slant rhymes and punning, the clack of assonant syllables against sharp end consonants, and the driving free associations that make perfect sense. But amid all this dazzle, Raptosh is in impressive control of her material.
In this passage, she isolates “inwit,” a word she introduces in Human Directional, and a word she parses out in her essay, “Poetry is Where the Action Is”:
. . . inwit suggests the inner senses and interior sensibility: that collection of inner faculties the poet sets store by. Inwit is, by my reckoning, the very womb in which the poet thrives.
It seems to me that the entirety of Dear Z is an exceptionally crafted articulation and enactment of inwit. Indeed, one suspects it is a quality deep in our mitochondrial DNA, somewhere in our circuitry, we just know we must somehow “venerate horses.” Our capacity to engage in affective labor—to love, to imagine, to be awed, to empathize, to connect—surely comes from that first “mama” that Raptosh names.
Throughout these letters to the zygote, the speaker faithfully accepts the binary of becoming and not becoming, and she celebrates this suspended (and free-falling) state. After all, even the zygote that does “not become” has “been,” a sack of genetic coding as ancient as the first evolution.
in the presence
of your latency—
that vacant shoe,
I think I feel
the sound of dots moving.
Our ancestral connections, both to the past and future generations, are but Morse code taps on our own genetic coding. We have the same mother running through us, the sound of dots moving. An un-extraordinary miracle-mirror. A tapping. Let.us.be.k.i.n.d.
Diane Raptosh gives us a speaker who possesses that womb-wisdom, who is generous and critical in her advice, especially when the news is harrowing. We have a great poet among us with commitment and daring and craft, who teases us and indulges us with her unconditioned and unconditional wisdom.