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Reviewed by Melissa Kwasny
Etruscan Press, 2020. Paperback, 116 pages. $17.00.
Conceive: to plan or devise a plan in the mind, or, in biological terms, to become pregnant, as with a child. But what does it mean to be conceived, and a larger question, to be conceived 200,000 years ago as a separate species—with an astonishingly disruptive mind—as a human and a human community? These are questions Diane Raptosh explores and expands in her dazzling and far-reaching Dear Z: The Zygote Epistles. Presented as a series of verse-letters to a newly fertilized egg—not yet gendered, not yet viable—the poems convey the anxiety and complex hope inherent in any talk of a new child (“You are one glad-ass act of insurrection. Of joy’s terrorism.”) or talk of a future at all, in the face of cutthroat capitalism, species extinction, climate crisis, pandemics, and the threat of war, a time, as she says in a recent essay, of “patriarchy gone amuck.”
The Zygote Epistles is the last volume of a trilogy, which includes American Amnesiac, long-listed for the National Book Award, a dramatic monologue in the voice of an imaginary former Goldman Sachs executive who is found unconscious (in both senses of the term) on a bench in a park; and Human Directional. All three books are a response to the harrowing moment, and country, in which we find ourselves, and bring to that task the author’s signature toolbox of quicksilver language play, superhero intelligence, and sophisticated political understanding. Dear Z, Dear Zygote, Dear Life Speck: Raptosh has many endearing names for this not-yet-entity, including Zed, last of the alphabet; Zero; Mammalian I; and Butter Nugget, AKA Rich Jam (generated by submitting zygote to MyRapName.com.) “Today I will call you Conceptus,” she writes, posing as a cynic Cassandra, the zeitgeist’s speed-talking great-aunt, a smartass and witchy god-mother whose verbosity is an intent “to other Aunt Auto-fill.”
I first encountered a few of these poems when I published them as guest editor of Dark Matter: Women Witnessing, an online journal focusing on writing and artwork created in response to an age of massive species loss and ecological collapse. Raptosh’s mission here—introducing the zygote to the zeitgeist—is rife with warnings (“The public hip has heart dysplasia”), analysis (“every Ahab / must locate the beings / on whom he can offload the whale / of his torment”), and advice (“To counter this means / everyone must come to see // all residents as members of my group— / the pain of others, // our severest strand of anguish.”). An entire section focuses on the damage that technological oversell has done to our consciousness, in particular in our addiction to cell phones:
this eon’s gizmos
frack the peak mammalian
ministry of presence
The poet types the word fertile into her phone, “after which word / AutoFill Tarzan-types Earth Land Woman,” restricting her own thoughts and replacing them with patriarchy’s pre-formed, stereotypical choices, “as if in caveperson bass.” What can counter these interruptions of presence, these technological deep state assaults on resistance so a woman’s voice can come through? Awareness, for one, Raptosh seems to be saying, and irreverent humor, the laugh of the Medusa. Whole stanzas hold up for us the possible revelations inherent in this kind of scrutiny of language: “Autofill // Autocrat.” The first three suggestions on the blank keypad, she notes, are “I Yes You.”
Raptosh is a seditious sprite, a trickster. Other poets have compared her voice to Whitman’s in the wide sweep of her, albeit darker, vision of America, but I see her as more akin to the Joyce of Finnegans Wake: “Tonight I’m feeling like / forming ex-expletives, // something like apeshit’s / shapeshift of lippy blub happiness.” Her neologisms and puns, portmanteaus, and Auto-Fill rhymes are hilarious, yet they are also in service to something larger. The word comedycomes from Comus, a Greek fertility god, and also, according to the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics, the name of a ritual springtime procession, which was “a celebration of life in face of an incomprehensible world or repressive socio-economic order. . . marking some ready acceptance of human participation in the chaotic forces needed to produce Life.” Raptosh, like Coyote, like a court jester, wants us to laugh and also to see: “What / might be the animal-word for No not some nutso / warrior system?”
Lots of card tricks here: high jinx puns (“Would you rather real-life swim or live-stream?”) allusions, syntactic juxtapositions (she sets herself “opposite meanness exceedingly”), internet mistranslations, the concepts rhyming and multiplying their rhymes continually in order to offer her addressee, as a fairy godmother might, a gift, in this case, a door into the revolutionary power of language: “Let us become oblong / sans-nation transitionals.” A self-identified “word nun-cum-rapper” like this would naturally be in love with anagrams, with what the shared letters might point out, and there are lots of them here: prenatal/parental; being/begin/ and binge; verse/serve; the “O her” in the word mother.
The Zygote Epistles, in other words, is a book that rewards rereading, not because it’s difficult but because it’s overfilled with insights and lightning-quick connections that the poet’s intense and obsessive play with language has wrought. And yes, because Raptosh is very entertaining—funny, joyful, and unafraid to admit of doomsday dread, yet still excitable about the not-yet-formed in human consciousness. Dear Zygote. Dear Life Speck. Dear Z.
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