Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman by Rebecca Tamás

Review by Peter Reason.

This elegant and engaging collection of seven essays by poet and critic Rebecca Tamás—her first prose collection—is beautifully produced as a slim volume by the independent press Makina Books. Tamás teaches creative writing at York St John University; her previous work has included collections of poetry with some emphasis on the feminist, the queer, and the occult.

Each of the seven essays is focussed as a reflective piece around a theme: On Watermelon, On Panpsychism, On Pain… and so on. Each essay draws and reflects critically on a range of literary and artistic sources, drawing out alternative meanings and making links between quite diverse sources.

This style is exemplified in first essay, On Watermelon. Tamás takes us back to the Diggers of seventeenth century England, to the ‘fractious, revolutionary time’ of the Civil War. She reviews Gerrard Winstanley’s writing, the theorist of this attempt to create a ‘form Christian proto-communism’—a radical, earth-centred ‘community of human and non-human’.

But this is not an essay of historical and nostalgic review. Tarnás quickly brings us to see modern Western capitalism as the sequel to the property-owning society of C17 England with its land enclosures and wage inequality. Then she quickly takes another radical step to show us that the underlying politics of equality expressed by the Diggers is fundamental: principles of life and liberty must be applied to all peoples; and further that radical equality might also come to mean equality for the nonhuman, ‘the animals and beings, the trees and the rivers’. For as the Diggers understood, ‘exploitation of the earth, and exploitation of people, go hand in hand.’

We live in a state of emergency brought about by climate collapse. But this is not new: ‘This state of emergency as been existent throughout history’ in the exploitation of subjugate peoples, the land and nonhuman creatures. As the Black Lives Matter movement and writers of African descent such as Minna Salami and Mary Annaïse Heglar are showing us, these crises are intimately intertwined. For many, human and nonhuman, this emergency is now: not in the future; not the exception, but the rule.

This question of equality, she concludes, is the one true question, ‘stirring and germinating underneath the ground of all the others…’

The other essays dance around this territory in different ways. On Hospitality invites us to consider the ‘terrible intimacy of the nonhuman within us.’ and suggests that ‘a radical intimacy of beings… transcends like and dislike’. On Panpsychism asks us to consider whether ‘anyone can really deny that thought and thinking comes from the outside as well as the inside? And that when the outside is terribly damaged, the inside will be also?’ This leads her to consider what happens as other creatures are forced into extinction, as the intimate web of life is thinned, as we lose the many different ways of being on the planet: ‘With the death of different spaces, different environments, different histories and different bodily forms of moving through them, forms of thought die to.’

And so we continue, as Tamás holds up, turns, disturbs and offers different perspectives on our world. On Greenness links the ancient British Green Man with the Cuban-American performance artist Ana Mendieta’s bodily earth art, to suggest ‘the human and nonhuman intertwined, bursting out of each other with discomfort, joy, pleasure.’  On Pain explores the parallels between violence toward women and violence to animals. On Grief, draws distinctions between grief and depression, agreeing with Aldo Leopold’s view in The Sand County Almanac that grieving for the environment means ‘living in a world of wounds’.  Finally, On Mystery, maybe the least convincing of the essays, reflects on the underlying unknowness of the world and concludes: ‘all the warnings and all the metaphors have already been written, waiting patiently for us to read them’.

I have taken much from this writing; it shows how much can be said in a focussed essay and in a small volume. Not that I was unfamiliar with many of the arguments Tamás makes, but she is elegant, articulate and convincing in her expression. This book was chosen as ‘book of the month’ on the Caught by the River blog; as ‘book of the week’ at the London Review Bookshop; and appreciated in a tweet by Australian critic and writer James Bradley.

However, as I wondered how to write this review, I realized something disturbed me. It took me a while to put my finger on my worry: these essays on the ‘human and nonhuman’ do not engage with the living world directly and viscerally. Tamás’ essays are about the human-nonhuman relationship, mostly through the literary and artistic work of other human persons: there is no messy entanglement with the more-than-human other. The closest we get is through the accounts of Ana Mendieta’s bodily earth art which, as Tamás points out, ‘unlocks the feral intimacy of human and nonhuman that contemporary Western society so desperately tries to deny.’ Mendieta covers her body in mud and lies in streams of water in a direct engagement of becoming ‘one with earth’; in contrast, Tamás’ critical essays still hold us at a distance.

This line of thought leads me to compare Strangers with Braiding Sweetgrass by plant scientist and indigenous plant woman Robin Wall Kimmerer (as does Kerri ní Dochartaigh on the Caught by the River blog). Sweetgrass is a much longer book, but like Strangers, is a collection of essays on the human and nonhuman. Like Tamás, Kimmerer pursues an intellectual thread running through her book, the exploration of reciprocity. The difference is that Kimmerer has spent her life ‘kneeling before plants’ both as botanist and medicine woman, as she puts it in Orion Magazine; and in chapter after chapter of Sweetgrass she invites us, literally and metaphorically, down on our knees in intimacy and mutuality with nonhuman persons—with Sweetgrass, with Squash, with Bean. Through this, as a reader, I find my own relationship with the other-than-human world gently transformed.

We will not find a way to the intimacy and interbeing that Rebecca Tamás so strongly advocates until we find our way out of the distanced genre of the Western intellectual. The other-than-human speaks its poetic metaphors in a material language of things, and it to these we need to attend.

References:
– Leopold, A. (1949). A Sand County Almanac: Oxford University Press.
– Mathews, F. (2013). “Come with Old Khayyam and Leave the Wise to Talk”. O-Zone, 1.

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Peter Reason is a writer who links the tradition of travel and nature writing with the ecological predicament of our time. He writes regularly for Resurgence & Ecologist, and has contributed to EarthLines, GreenSpirit, Zoomorphic, LossLit, The Island Review, and The Clearing. He has written two books of ecological pilgrimage, In Search of Grace (Earth Books, 2017) Spindrift (Jessica Kingsley, 2014). His most recent publication, with artist Sarah Gillespie, is On Presence: Essays | Drawings (The Letter Press, 2019). Find Peter at peterreason.net, and on Twitter @peterreason.

Rebecca Tamás, Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman (Makina Press, 2020). 978-1916060890, 116pp., paperback.

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