Beastlife by J’Lyn Chapman — Tomoé Hill

Where would I go, if I could go, who would I be, if I could be, what would I say, if I had a voice, who says this, saying it’s me?

Texts for Nothing, Samuel Beckett

Meditation, in literary terms, is a much obscured word. No doubt this has more to do with the word in wider use at present—where once it signified a reflective, contemplative, even philosophical or religious book, now we are more likely to be presented with it in terms of neo-spiritualism and the cult of wellness. So within a few pages of J’Lyn Chapman’s Beastlife, it struck me as quite powerful that meditation was the word that seemingly sprang from nowhere in the full, classic literary sense.

This is a presentation of nature as reflection, told in stories, essays, and fragments—of what we are and are not as humans, a complex contemplation of life and death rather than a linear observation of other species in the style of Pliny’s Natural Histories. More than anything, it shows us as longing for the animal in life, but lacking life in death—reaching for some understanding of how to maintain a kind of motion that will carry us beyond, even though we cannot define it. Perhaps that is the reason I found myself going over and over the sections “We Continue to Unskin: On Taxidermy”, and “Our Last Days”. The concept of something from nothing—specifically the greed for life when it balances on the edge, the rush to understand in a fragile handful of last moments, the obsession with capturing a movement or breath so that it may save life, bring to mind both Beckett, and DeLillo’s most recent novel, Zero K.

The Beckett will come as no surprise to anyone who reads Beastlife—indeed, the author references the “zero” of Endgame (amongst many others: Barthes, Derrida, Sebald) as well as the idea(s) of transformation in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It is the attempt to understand transformation in the grey area of life and death, as the maintaining a grasp of the former while in the state of the latter—a kind of un-state, that is so fascinating. “There is nothing so artificial as resurrection, but artful preservation suspends our repulsion” says Chapman. Because we are not bound by instinct alone as humans, there is a need to suspend both that repulsion and fear, as well as seeing beyond as another horizon to travel towards. But in order to suspend, we must first come to an acceptance of the silence inside, the one that is to fill us completely when our eyes flicker for what might be the last:

“when you become quiet, you experience all that is empty within you, the absence that has accumulated since light. … But until you understand that life is spent as if it is held in a delicate husk and that the sound of this husk is zero, then you will never find peace in the time that you contain.”

Likewise in Zero K, as Artis is slowly brought into cryogenic sleep—a kind of metamorphosis from something to nothing in the hope that there will be a return, a beyond—she contemplates in half-conscious fragments:

“Why can’t I know more. Why just this and nothing else. Or do I need to wait.
… Is this what makes me whatever I know and whatever I am.
… I listen to what I hear. I can only hear what is me.
… But am I who I was.”

She is, as Chapman says, “going deep”—examining her life via death-in-progress. But what of the body itself, prepared for the known-unknown? It is distinctly human that we preserve ourselves in the utmost rigidity, a present from our past selves to future ones. From mummification to cryogenics, the reverence applied to the physical body seems more for the benefit of the thing we cannot define—or rather, define with scientific proof instead of mythology. Yet in Beastlife, the difference in our death-treatment of beasts and birds is markedly different—here the reverence and emphasis is on imagined movement: “cognitive dissonance connects changes. We call this animation … our love for one another is connected to movement”—the display of death-as-life, a hope that a motion stopped is not permanent, a reminder of wildness/wilderness. But unlike our treatment of each other, it is held in a specific living moment: extended wingspan, an open beak, a specific perch. There is an element of wanting to transfer ourselves into the animal body to realise what it was in life, and in doing so, reconnect with the feral, break free of the rigidity of human ritual.

If we care to listen, there is an innate need to go back to the natural world in times of crisis, observe that which has survived on nothing but instinct for so long, relatively untouched by the artificial state of man. In it we find zero, and realise how small and static our created world seems in comparison. That insignificance does indeed bring its own peace: “[w]e could feel ourselves come apart, disperse and circulate … [t]he look of things has great power: stippled shadows, a cooling breeze.” Here is the metamorphosis, the movement, the meditation—where we are perpetually balanced on the cusp of this life and beastlife, one moment televised destruction, the other bone talismans and musk. We shed our voice and use the ones of those that fly and crawl around us instead, wrap ourselves in the wings and fur that show us wisely how to live and die.

J’Lyn Chapman grew up and currently lives in Colorado. She is the author of BEASTLIFE, published by Calamari Press in 2016. The digital chapbook, “The Form Our Curiosity Takes: A Pedagogy of Conversation” was recently published by Essay Press and is available online. Additional work can be found in ConjunctionsZone 3, DIAGRAM, Fence Magazine, Denver Quarterly, Two Serious Ladies, and Caketrain. She teaches at Naropa University.

Tomoé Hill is an editor at minor literature[s] and associate editor at Dodo Ink. She has reviews, essays and non-fiction in minor literature[s], 3:AM Magazine, Numéro Cinq, New Orleans Review, The City Story and Berfrois.

Image: Carroña, Paul Cooper, Creative Commons