Alchemy for Cells and Other Beasts by Maya Jewell Zeller and Carrie DeBacker
Entre Rios Books, 2017
Reviewed by Michelle Runyan
For her third collection, Alchemy for Cells & Other Beasts, Maya Jewell Zeller partners with artist Carrie DeBacker to create a multimodal work that weaves together themes of ecofeminism, colonization, astronomy, medicine, biology, and mental-health, among other things. Zeller’s collection was released October of 2017, at a time when tensions surrounding women’s bodies and the environment (both the literal environment and the political one) are increasingly fraught, and she uses her poetry to create space for herself within those conversations. Though there is an unease that permeates the collection, Zeller and DeBacker inflect the poetry and illustrations with a playful magic that keeps me from despair.
Those unfamiliar with Zeller’s poetry and DeBacker’s art would do well to watch the video created by Rebecca Starkey for Entre Rios Books, which features Zeller reading “little spell for diagnostics” while DeBacker’s art comes alive via stop-motion magic, crawling out of and around a woman lying in bed. The video made me anxious and uncomfortable; Zeller’s poetry feels like an incantation that gives life to the illustrations, which are part of and yet still separate from the woman’s body and Zeller’s words.
DeBacker’s profile on the Entre Rios Books website states that by “exploring the connection between physical and psychological processes, her work uses imagined gestures to create a personal language of self-representation.” In this collaboration, her artwork does just that, complementing Zeller’s words to create a surreal dreamscape in which human bodies merge with natural and man-made elements: legs emerge from butterfly cocoons and ships and knives appear where heads should be. The imagery and poetry both display a distressing blend of beauty and anxiety, juxtaposing the natural world with the human-centered world of science and politics.
Zeller’s collection blends the languages of science, politics, and metaphor, as in “little spell with chest x-ray” in which she writes,
“Sweet girl made of dust & water / please
leave jewelry at home / wear open, loose
clothing / this will not hurt a bit”
This medical direction, which goes on to describe the “ionizing radiation” the patient will experience along with another assurance that “you will not feel it at all” merges with the natural, as the poem uses metaphor to link the cold of the medical table to the ocean floor, and the atoms of the body to “a blossom opening / on a beach / on a very warm planet.” These metaphorical connections between the sterile medicalization of women’s bodies and the natural world create a powerful dissonance that leaves the reader with traces of melancholy. The doctor’s instructions and reassurances that there will be no pain evoke a history of women being discounted by the medical profession, their pain ignored, their symptoms reduced to fantasy, and their voices silenced by doctors who are always sure that they know best.
The poems in the collection take on different shapes and forms, with some containing no white space, the words separated only by slash marks, and others careening wildly from word to word with white space interspersed throughout. Still others are arranged more traditionally or with small anchors in between breaks. This organizational chaos lends itself to the chaotic and anxious nature of the poetry itself, as well as to the accompanying images. By alternating between tense breaks and the manic rushing of words without breaks, Zeller creates an atmosphere of unease and a disquieting sense that I have had these feelings before–feelings that haven’t quite resolved, but only gotten worse over time. The final poem, “little spell with chest x-ray (3),” tells me “sweet girl you cannot stop the ice caps melting / so count the train cars full of coal.”
MICHELLE RUNYAN is currently pursuing her Masters in Literature through Western Washington University.
Featured image by Daria Shevtsova