The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Brokenness as Belonging: “lake-loop” by Mojave American Poet Natalie Diaz, in a Stunning Animated Short Film by Artist Ohara Hale

Brokenness as Belonging: “lake-loop” by Mojave American Poet Natalie Diaz, in a Stunning Animated Short Film by Artist Ohara Hale

In February 2019, Lake Erie became a person. After local residents banded together to compose a visionary bill of rights for the lake’s ecosystem, defending its right “to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve,” it was granted personhood in the eyes of the law. It was an ancient recognition — native cultures have always recognized the animacy of the land — disguised as a radical piece of policy. It was also the single most poetic piece of legislation since the landmark 1964 Wilderness Act, which defined a wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

And yet even the boldest visions for a more just and inclusive world, even the most aspirational endeavors to restore natural rights to those previously disenfranchised by culture, are inevitably bounded and blinded by their era’s unconscious and unquestioned givens. To have man stand for the whole of humanity was one such unquestioned blindness in 1964 (most brilliantly questioned a decade later by Ursula K. Le Guin), even though by then women had been legal citizens of the United States for nearly half a century. In fact, even the 19th Amendment that granted women legal personhood — one of the greatest legal triumphs in the history of this civilization, making women persons 100 years before a lake became one — cracked open just one of the Russian nesting dolls of exclusion that line the scales of justice: The 19th Amendment didn’t include Native American women, who didn’t become legal persons until 1924; their electoral votes continued to be excluded via various loopholes in the law over the decades that followed.

Natalie Diaz. (Photograph: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

How that nesting doll of exclusions breaks open into the living reality of this Earth, how it breaks into becoming, into belonging, is what Mojave American poet and MacArthur fellow Natalie Diaz — an artist exploring the permeable membrane between language and landscape — explores in her stunning, sweeping poem “lake-loop,” commissioned for the New York Philharmonic’s inspired Project 19 initiative and originally published in The Academy of American Poets’ lifeline of a newsletter, Poem-a-Day.

She writes of the impetus for the poem:

Part of the San Andreas fault runs along the Mojave Desert. We see and feel the fault, it has always been a part of Mojave stories and geography. We have always existed with it — in rift — part land. We are land’s action, maybe. I am always wondering and wandering around what it means to be part of this condition, in shift. What it means to embrace discontinuity, to need it and even to need to cause it in order to be — depression but also moving energy. The necessary fracturing of what is broken. The idea of being made anything or nothing in this country — “to be ruined before becoming” — the idea that this country tried to give us no space to exist, yet we made that space, and make it still — in stress, in friction, glide and flow, slip and heave. We are tectonic, and ready.

When Natalie kindly lent her poem and her voice to the 2020 Universe in Verse, I could think of no artist more perfect in bringing its spirit to visual life than Ohara Hale.

Ohara Hale (Photograph: Christopher Honeywell)

The month that Lake Erie was coming alive in the eyes of the law, Ohara — a Montreal-based illustrator, poet, animator, children’s book author, musician, and largehearted lover of this living world — was swallowed by a geothermal vent while hiking in Iceland.

She survived, with her body badly damaged but her singular, buoyant soul intact. In those first rawest days, as she surrendered her burned flesh to the caring hands of doctors and nurses, her spirit plunged into a larger surrender — into the deeper, unfathomed psychological and emotional burn of life, personal and collective — a sudden and powerful portal of empathy into the pain of others, of all that is alive; and, from there, into the transcendent beauty of all that is alive.

Throughout her long convalescence, skin grafts, the disorienting miracle of learning to walk again, the staggering joy of the first warm shower after the agony upon her last contact with water, all Ohara had to say about the experience was that Mother Earth had just given her an extra warm, extra close hug — a testament to an extraordinary spirit in an experience that would have embittered most, eager as we human animals are to point blamethirsty fingers. “And anyways,” Ohara tells me, “how can anyone ever be upset at her, the great mother of us all, the Earth?”

It is with tremendous pleasure and gratitude that I offer, as a special preview of the 2020 Universe in Verse, this countercultural braid of beauty and resilience by two remarkable women. Tune in at 4:30PM EST on April 25 for more celebrations of the wonder, splendor, and science of life by a constellation of other remarkable humans.

by Natalie Diaz

        , because there was yet no lake

into many nights we made the lake

        a labor, and its necessary laborings

to find the basin not yet opened

in my body, yet my body — any body

wet or water from the start, to fill a clay

, start being what it ever means, a beginning —

the earth’s first hand on a vision-quest

wildering night’s skin fields, for touch

        like a dark horse made of air

, turned downward in the dusk, opaquing

a hand resembles its ancestors —

the war, or the horse who war made

        , what it means to be made

to be ruined before becoming — rift

        glacial, ablation and breaking

lake-hip sloping, fluvial, then spilled —

I unzip the lake, walk into what I am —

        the thermocline, and oxygen

, as is with kills, rivers, seas, the water

        is of our own naming

I am wet we call it because it is

a happening, is happening now

imagined light is light’s imagination

a lake shape of it

        , the obligatory body, its dark burning

reminding us back, memory as filter

desire as lagan, a hydrology —

        The lake is alone, we say in Mojave

, every story happens because someone’s mouth,

a nature dependent — life, universe

        Here at the lake, say

, she wanted what she said

        to slip down into it

for which a good lake will rise — Lake

which once meant, sacrifice

which once meant, I am devoted

        , Here I am, atmosphere

sensation, pressure

, the lake is beneath me, pleasure bounded

a slip space between touch and not

slip of paper, slip of hand

        slip body turning toward slip trouble

, I am who slipped the moorings

        I am so red with lack

to loop-knot

or leave the loop beyond the knot

        we won’t say love because it is

a difference between vertex and vertices —

the number of surfaces we break

enough or many to make the lake

        loosened from the rock

one body’s dearth is another body’s ache

        lay it to the earth

, all great lakes are meant to take

        sediment, leg, wrist, wrist, the ear

let down and wet with stars, dock lights

distant but wanted deep,

        to be held in the well of the eye

woven like water, through itself, in

and inside, how to sate a depression

if not with darkness — if darkness is not

        fingers brushing a body, shhhh

, she said, I don’t know what the world is

I slip for her, or anything

, like language, new each time

        diffusionremade and organized

and because nothing is enough, waves

each an emotional museum of water

left light trembles a lake figure on loop

        a night-loop

, every story is a story of water

        before it is gold and alone

before it is black like a rat snake

I begin at the lake

, clean once, now drained

        I am murkI am not clean

everything has already happened

always the lake is just up ahead in the poem

, my mouth is the moon, I bring it down

lay it over the lake of her thighs

        warm lamping ax

hewing water’s tender shell

slant slip, entering like light, surrounded

into another skin

        where there was yet no lake

yet we made it, make it still

to drink and clean ourselves on

For other tastes of what is coming at the 2020 Universe in Verse, savor astrophysicist Janna Levin reading “Antidotes to Fear of Death” by the late, great astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson and Amanda Palmer reading “Einstein’s Mother” by former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, then find more of Ohara’s buoyant spirit in her art and more of Natalie’s in her gorgeous new book, Postcolonial Love Poem (public library).

Published April 22, 2020




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