even flesh seems a formality

or: Vi Khi Nao’s organic oscillations

Steve Barbaro

How might the partakers of cynically sensible deeds be freed in the very course of their yielding? “The virtue of ecstasy robs reality of its synthetic robes,” Vi Khi Nao answers by way of her first book, The Vanishing Point of Desire (2011). And in this novel-in-roomily-white-spaced-prose, the bleh ritual of a two-person interview in a conference room is rejigged, via the 1st person narrator’s eros-engined mid-interview reveries, to encapsulate Charles de Gaulle Airport, of all earthly backdrops.

As if said hub of hubbub might indeed prove a kind of ideal destination, the interview-ensconced interviewer-narrator recurrently muses—so as to ground the novel in an escape-dense space—upon “the city made of arrivals and departures.” Not to be ensnared however, the narrative is thence redirected into the interviewer’s own paintings which dangle, for some reason, from the airport’s ceiling. Weirdly convincingly, and via the descriptively-consummated engine of latent interviewer-interviewee attraction, the interview’s constituents thus assume the very space of inert canvases. The proper remedy for thwarting the soul-sapping ceremonies undergirding much of “normal life” is as such a redoubled dose of fiction; and the-novel-according-to-Nao, in all of its self-propelling self-corrections, manifests as a sensorium where incompatible-seeming entities perched at not inconsiderable removes attain astonishingly urgent correspondence, up to and including “the torment or equanimity they must feel having to exist with one another.”

In the seven-some years since The Vanishing Point of Desire, Vi Khi Nao has persisted to chart a singularly protean course through seven-plus books of poems and prose, with the latter’s component pieces often mixing the lyric, the essayistic, and the fictive. But even prior to the cross-genre autonomy there is an innate textural slipperiness to Nao’s work, something Megan Jeanne Gette keenly diagnoses in a vibrant 3:AM essay on Nao as “molecular architecture.” To focus however for now on Nao’s earlier oeuvre—and to again monitor the way that Nao subverts contemporary life’s sundry supposedly urgent ceremonies—it is worth pondering the consistency of space in Nao’s punchily dexterous, poem-speckled fiction collection, Oh, God, Your Babies Are So Delicious! (2015, Per Second Press).

A profanely diffuse cosmos wherein the wedding of piety and conventionality births brisk breeds of everyday extremity, Oh, God, Your Babies Are So Delicious! conjures characters who are as self-subvertingly proverbial as a home invasion carried out by the home’s very constituents. There is a daughter who sabotages an impending family dinner by resolutely vanishing. There is a shopper intent on urinating mid-grocery-store and there is a middle-class man named Tom whose handsomeness is offset by a lawnmower. There is even a fella named Eugene who asks a coroner if the latter might not de-skin Eugene’s recently deceased wife so as to re-render her hip bones into the perversely practical memento of a walker. And where injurious ideology may well have created the corporeally-cruxed world of these characters, each story seems part and parcel of a kind of post-intellect economy of pure body to which each character—with terrifying gradations of credulity—succumbs, as if as a matter of fate.

The daughter-narrator of “On Flesh (or, Propulsion)” for instance details the atavistic sensorial invasion she feels upon hearing her mother screaming after being pierced by a sewing needle. “Sonic flesh has none,” Nao writes, apropos of the yelling, “only pores.” So it is that where the meeting of cold utility and sensory shiftiness in The Vanishing Point of Desire is generally liberating, the world of Oh, God, Your Babies Are So Delicious! renders the ears and eyes and their ilk into such profoundly vulnerable sieves that bodily harm seems an intrinsic facet of a more general doom.

In the story “The Baby,” for instance, an adult relates the play-by-play of prepping an infant as a matter of culinary necessity. Within the narrative there is zero question about the feasibility—let alone the ethics—of eating a child. In fact, the narrator crosses a supplementary threshold of the grotesque by imbuing the act with no small sense of aesthetic glory. “I begin to peel the baby’s skin,” the narrator states, with a characteristically perverse pedestrian tone. “The baby doesn’t scream when I place the blade on her. This does not surprise me […] I love how smooth she whispers her skin out from her flesh. She is throbbing with orange hues. So naked and vulnerable.” 

This sense of everyday brutality is pushed to yet further organically profane extremes by the way that Oh, God, Your Babies Are So Delicious! often imbues inanimate objects—modern machines, frequently—with sentience and even desire. One story is dramatically hinged upon a living breathing (even boredom-capable) Xerox machine, say, self-conscious of its own obligatory power of reproduction. Likewise, another fiction has a sexualized vending machine serving not merely as a stock sci-fi sort of supra-corporeal substitute for bodily need, but instead quite literally incorporating—and yet again in the way of horrifically casual practicality—the bodies of nine women. 

Perhaps the eeriest proof of Nao’s uncanny capacity for creating syntaxes of corporeal conjugation however occurs in the story “Three Hours.” A sparely-personed yet astonishingly intense sort of word-map of a domestic-space-become-body-of-suicide-inclusive-water, the narrative depicts a setting wherein a “doorknob breathes unhumanly” and where “doorframes are very sexual,” and where the emotive capacities of objects appear to have generally eclipsed our own dynamism of sentiment. Indeed, when hyper- (and very much pre-digital) interconnectedness is a matter of seething self-consciousness, even bleh units of the built world come to seem vigorously vulnerable. “Near the roof,” Nao writes, “a skylight implodes into the mental state of the garret. A window below with white frame and gray trimming elevates its untelevised, electromagnetic sexuality into pre-launching positions. Dusk is making the sky descend. The silence is so military.” Here, as throughout the book, Vi Khi Nao gains terrifyingly assured torque via the wont to depict, as it were, not only the deliriously organic and reality-ridden singular tree, but also the trees comprising even seemingly unassuming phenomenological dynamics in such a way as to recreate—as if via secret byways between words and the senses—the root-networked and perversely pragmatic forests constituting much of modern “reality.”

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Building imaginative worlds whose radiance both stems from and rivals that of our own, Vi Khi Nao has alas not filled some or other literary niche so much as embodied an itinerancy whose elasticity is so generative as to subsume genre. And if Nao’s practicality-jabbing fits of fancy run the risk of verging into aloofness—the contradictory-seeming boast by the vehement Realist painter Gustave Courbet that he even makes stones think comes to mind—Nao’s recent work serves as model rebuttal.

See for instance the errantly erudite fiction collection A Brief Alphabet of Torture (2017, FC2), where Nao’s uncompromising shifts of register prove not at all ill-fitted for prodding topics such as the war in Syria, suicide bombers, and the state-sponsored torture invoked by the title-story. Or otherwise peruse Nao’s cooly perilous collection of poems, The Old Philosopher (2016, Nightboat), where faith in realism itself seems disturbingly compatible with subservience. 

Nao’s most recent collection, Sheep Machine (2018, Black Sun Lit) is meanwhile her second consecutive book—the first being Umbilical Hospital (2017, 1913 Press)—prodding Leslie Thornton’s Sheep Machine. The latter is a two minute and fifty-two-second-long film in which the visual plane is bifurcated into two circular images—the one on the left consisting of sheep grazing beneath cables cars in the Alps; and the one on the right comprised of a digitally doctored kaleidoscopic dance. And where Umbilical Hospital embodies a more traditionally free-verse formatted (if topically diffuse) mode of ekphrasis, Nao’s Sheep Machine is at once more open and more precise in the way it sacrifices overt lyric form for a prose-poem structure while also literally reproducing—with each title devoted to one of the movie’s particular seconds, and with the seconds moving in a linear fashion—the majority of the frame-by-frame content.

As far as debased pragmatism goes, the wool-bestowing, milk- and meat-granting sheep stands as but one of Nao’s oeuvre’s many keen metaphors for the brute reduction of organic complexity. A long-time Vi Khi Nao fan of a pessimistic persuasion might even fear the preset dialogic mechanics of ekphrasis to be too circumscribing, capable of reducing Nao’s incomparable range something terrestrial. Yet Nao’s supra-book fixations prove anything but reductive, what with the way that the poems of Sheep Machine tunnel through Thornton’s own Sheep Machine until centripetal attention somehow breeds centrifugal musings and “the quotidian terrain begins to terrify the lens of perception.”

As duly frenetic as any setting in Nao’s oeuvre, the landscape of Sheep Machine both hosts and causes action, comments and is commented upon. “Even the grass, calm in a sea of sunlight,” the 1:07 mark has it, “can over exhaust our imagination when we don’t prepare for the worst.” And does it really come as a surprise that the-mountainside-backdrop-according-to-Nao (especially the vegetation through which the sheep graze) is rendered as if in competition with the cable cars? In fact, where the wheat is forced, for instance, “to overcompensate for its lateral, provincial demeanor with a more ballistic flair,” pathos is induced with supra-temporal exuberance, fostering an atmosphere of conjecture that is somehow both pre- and hyper-modern.

Amidst the film-turned-poem’s unfolding however, one thing is certain: the narrator’s voice roves with weirdly centering élan, at times weirdly personal—musing upon a nephew’s mid-bathroom-habit facial expressions, say—and at times studied, such as when Dr. Bhrigupati Singh is invoked to provide geo-philosophical contextualization. But if even, as Nao writes at the 1:30 mark, “the small organic gestures of life emulate the various efforts of modernization,” is not the natural world fated for uniform exploitation? 

“Most sheep devote their lives to be de-skinned, to be de-wooled,” Nao states as the movie-mirroring poem-sequence approaches its own conclusion. “What is the purpose of a human’s existence? If not to be breathing on earth, our soul deskinned, de-wooled for ontological certainties?” But as the film is all the while being ekphrastically peeled and peeled, it becomes apparent that the systematic nature of Nao’s own ordering principle would, with signature dexterity, subsume the very sort of interspecies power that the narrative is all the while critiquing.

The wont to simply break down a motion picture into its constituent parts—to return, that is to say, a kinesis-dense, stock unit of modern life such as a film to its frame-by-frame units of stasis—is itself a fruitfully intrusive stratagem granted extra vigor via the assiduousness of Nao’s attention. But if the overarching reality of early 21st century modernity is such that protracted attention itself seems exotic if not luxurious, Sheep Machine’s dispersed thematics also seem a subversion of the entrapment-conducive fixity of prolonged attention. Perhaps the reality ensnaring us—an overarching reality of our own making, legitimized anew each day by the cynical acts to which we accede and accede—is ripe for an ameliorating flux via our own rejigged will. “I have nothing to say to things,” Vi Khi Nao insists, elucidating a frontier in an otherwise brink-breaching oeuvre, “that appear to be not changing.”