reviewed by Amish Trivedi
After-Cave announces itself before we even come to the front matter, written on facing pages: “TO INSIST THAT SOMETHING—SOMEONE/ OR SOME BEING—CANNOT BE IMAGINED” and “IS, IN FACT, ITS OWN FORM OF/ OPPRESSION. These lines (which reappear just before the end of the book as well) function as a cold opening, a promise of things to come, a roadmap. Like the opening scene of a bombing run in Apocalypse Now, the lines which precede all but Detorie’s cover resonates throughout this work. This sentence, sprawled across the two facing pages, ends with the word “oppression.” Indeed, After-Cave seems to be urging us away from these dynamics of oppressor and oppressed, away from imagined and unimaginable.
Detorie does this in several ways, namely by signaling from the start a narrator who is decidedly unsure about the main aspect of their identity: whether they are even human. From here, the ensuing chaos can be traced back to this moment, traced back to the idea that whatever thoughts and formations exist throughout this book do not belong to someone who, based on identity, is defined by the most basic tenant the rest of us are. The narrator, female and fifteen, is free of all the things which make us human, free of the trauma of a common history, a common development, by imagining themselves beyond that very basic definition. Age and gender are not subcategories as every living species exhibits them in some way, so they serve here as an identity in and of themselves. By stepping out from behind the mask of humanity, the narrator frees themselves of all the things it means to be human, all the biological and cultural guarantees which serve to identify us as such. Ultimately, this is a convincing start: we must shed away not our humanity (our ability to be humane), nor our empathy but our humanness, our self-definition of species, in order to proceed here. We must in fact expand our empathy to each and every thing.
Of course, this is just the opening to the first section of the book, but it is difficult not to read the entire work with this declarative statement (followed by the uncertainty of humanness) coloring it. In its three sections (Fur Birds, Feralscape, and an eponymous section), After-Cave not only leaves us out in the wilderness, expecting us to remain, but not to starve—to assimilate to the wilderness:
I thought of taking off my clothes and sleeping with the wolf. I wondered, would it warmer? I struggled to see how the wolf and I could be different. (62)
We are to become feral, to give into our survival instinct and imagine life without the parameters of hyper-self-awareness which constitutes our humanness. And as the opening pages (before the front matter) explain to us, to believe this cannot be imagined at all means we are our own oppressors. At the cost of self, we are limiting those possibilities which come along with being highly functioning beings. That said, After-Cave makes it abundantly clear that we do not have dominion over all things and that we are to make our peace with this existence.
“Feralscape,” the second section, removes us further, in a way, from our comfort zones. Not just what we are reading but how we are reading the text changes, giving us turned texts, images gently generated, and a dynamic use of space which forces us to question just where we consider lines of humanness, society/civility, and poetics. These things break here because we remove ourselves from them in this in-between space, this haunted feralscape, where in the ruins remain the “I,” but where we exhibit the ruins in our turning of the book, in our imagining of the heart. The heart, though, is a fist, a violence that has come to fruition in the society that is breaking, incapable of holding itself together when we cannot agree on the basic premise of what we are. However, the heart is South Carolina, Detorie’s home state, in some ways and in others, a place to remove oneself from. It is a place with a history and so is the heart of the narrator. On page 40, we have two lines, both turned, but facing on another, lying together in a way: “Sleep in levitation/Girls can levitate.” How they are to be read, despite their obvious necessity for being together, is up to the reader, who has craned their neck to read the one line and must crane as far the other direction to read the second. We cannot even seem to agree on a direction we should be facing.
After-Cave forms a strange symphony of three movements. We begin at a declaration, come to a quick, if somber, breakdown, and then move into the last movement in which we come to understand how everything fits together. I am reminded of a line which Oliver Stone wrote for Nixon: “Everything is political: I’m political, you’re political.” For Detorie, time is political in that it is about inner workings, the way we relate to the world around us. Animals relate to time as well, but it is we humans who attempt to manipulate it, to use it and turn it into a tool for us to change the way the world impacts us.
It is this definition of politics that is crucial towards understanding this final, eponymous, section and, ultimately, After-Cave as a whole. In a way, “After-Cave” is the most personal, the most willing to try and define a new post-human identity, dwelling neatly among the things that can harm us but will choose not to unless provoked. “It is evil to imagine the self,” Detorie writes, imagining a space in which the oppression of the self into defining that self creates a dynamic that can be judged negatively. There are fears here, expressions of terror and panic that are universal and belong to all of us.
I think a good poem or a good book of poems (however one is to define any of these things) should go anywhere, be everywhere. In writing this review, I feel lost in a way, not because I am unsure about what I have written but because I am unsure if I can fully capture with my mind the range of issues, ones of gender, sex, a connection to nature, which Detorie is expressing through hers. It is not a lack of interest or concern on my part, of course, but rather an inability to fully capture those ideas within the space of my mind and properly articulate them with any meaning here. What is important is that the mind, like the book, is open, accepting, and willing. It can go anywhere and be anywhere. There is an open world in After-Cave that I have not yet capably explored. Water seeks its lowest point by cutting through, over time, the rock and landscape, to reach the center. The hallmark of quality is, as always, the ability to find within it something new every time you return to it, to allow the water to cut through over time by returning again to the text. Here, though, it is as though I have found something within myself with each reading—something new within those around me—and an understanding of how we all relate to one another and of how I relate to myself and my being.