By Mandy-Suzanne Wong
Welcome to Kiskadee, a yellow-breasted, black-masked, ruffling and squawking celebration of nonhuman vitalities. In this column, you’ll find true stories of nonhuman beings living extraordinary lives, defying human comprehension, and inspiring masterpieces.
I’m going to be like one of those taxi drivers who knows perfectly well that all you want is to get to the public rose garden but meanders all over the city with you in tow on the most circuitous route possible as if ingenuously but really kind of on purpose because there are things I hadn’t noticed that I need to show you, perhaps most importantly not breathing; however, I can’t show you the Bramble Cay melomys (Melomys rubicola), because according to John Platt, editor of Revelator, the US Center for Biological Diversity’s online magazine, that little rodent “was officially declared extinct in 2019, making it the first mammal extinction caused by climate change and sea-level rise.”
“We lost a lot of species in 2019,” Platt wrote; and part of me resents that “we” because neither the little melomys nor Cichlocolaptes mazarbarnetti, Fissidens microstictus, Achatinella apexfulva, all of which became extinct last year, nor even the last Yangtze giant softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) who died in captivity when humans tried to force her to become pregnant, were ever “ours” to lose because they never belonged to “us”; and believing that they did, that these once-living beings were the property of the human species — that they were resources or capital which would survive if humans insisted on it in some “sustainable” fashion — is one of the great ideological presumptions that caused their deaths.
But the fact is humanity is, indeed, to blame for the deaths of most, if not all, the individuals of all these diverse kinds of which most of us have never heard, and what Platt is doing with this “we” is attempting to make their deaths our personal losses, as if they were beloved relations; which in fact they are, sharing their Earth with us and surely related to us on some microscopic level, despite that many humans don’t know they ever existed, could never have met them—especially, for example, in the case of the sequestered softshell turtle or the “Lost shark” (Carcharhinus obsolerus), which probably succumbed to overfishing in the 1930s but, you know, for our species, as they say in Russia, hope is the last to die—and probably most people don’t care, as most people do not care about the other people whom the US keeps killing in Iraq, using unmanned bombers in an attempt to disavow all responsibility; and you might say it’s even worse because, really, even in the grip of the deepest derangement, no human could claim, and expect to be believed, that Etlingera heyneana, a Javanese flower killed off by urban development, threatened our access to oil or world domination.
And though it isn’t really a paradox, it feels like one: nonhumans don’t belong to “us,” they never did and never will, yet we are responsible for their total annihilation, and their dwindling and absence, which is rarely sudden, causes “us”—as in “we” humans “in general,” insofar as there is such a thing, which there isn’t really, but which is necessary to imagine or invoke as Platt does—to feel deeply . . . what, exactly?
Just as nobody wrote, “There can be no poetry after Abu Ghraib, Hiroshima, Manzanar, Xinjiang,” nobody said, “To write poetry after Megupsilon aporus, which went extinct in 2019 thanks to extractivism, is barbaric”; on the contrary, as a Chernobyl survivor told Svetlana Alexievitch, after the extinction of the Catarina pupfish “‘I’m going to keep yelling at the coach-driver just like before, I’m going to keep growling like before.’ Then why do people remember? So that they can determine the truth? For fairness? So they can free themselves and forget? Is it because they understand they’re part of a grand event? Or are they looking into the past for cover?”
Let’s be clear: the extinction of the Catarina pupfish is by no means “a grand event” on the scale of things considered by humans to be grand events, like for instance the World Cup Finals; there will be no memorial to those millions of cute little pupfishes, no vast space will be lined with concrete and left as if empty but really full of prejudices and imperialist bombast to lament the killing and absence of this Mexican fish species; the popular media may pay attention for a little while but is likely to emphasize relevant humans, as in Ed Yong’s story for The Atlantic in which biologist David Sischo said, “It’s happening,” meaning the extinction of the Achatinella apexfulva snail, “It’s happening right before our eyes”—and in popular parlance it’s either as if extinction “happens to” the abstraction that’s whatever species, as if by terrible mischance and is not, in fact, a direct consequence of humans importing cannibal snails who, in a familiar refrain, get all the blame; or it’s as if extinction is somewhere this abstraction “goes,” the Chinese paddlefish (Psephurus gladius) “went extinct” like a couple going off to Disney World, when, in fact, fish after fish was killed by humans to the point that there will never be another such fish ever again—my point being that if there’s to be any feeling at all for the victims of extinction, if it’s possible to get a sense of or get a feeling for this global, irreversible, irreparable crime that is the extinction of Achatinella apexfulva, Philydor novaesi, and so many others (at least two dozen species in 2019 alone, according to Platt, which makes how many dead individuals?), it may be only poetry, that is, art, that is able to specify this feeling with any precision: art, in whatever form, may be the only practice in which humans would even dare to try to look that feeling in the face and linger with it, take it in, and let it hurt.
So, then. Poetry. I’m going to tell you about a poem by Joanna Lilley from her collection Endlings, but first I’m going to tell you about “endling,” the word itself, because if you try to speak about feelings or about nonhumans directly you won’t manage to do it, you won’t say any of what you haven’t said before: Elena Passarello wrote in her beautiful book of essays, Animals Strike Curious Poses, that in 1996 the last Polynesian tree snail died and, probably not in response, “two administrators of a Georgia [USA] convalescent center wrote the editor of the journal Nature, soliciting a name for an organism that marks the last of its kind . . . [and] the new word that stuck was ‘endling.’ Of all the proposed names, it is the most diminutive (like ‘duckling’ or ‘fingerling’) and perhaps the most storied (like ‘End Times’). The little sound of it jingles like a newborn rattle, which makes it doubly sad.”
“Endling” is mournful and even suggests something cute, something like a sad-eyed little puppy, and as such the word is not guilty: “endling” marks none of its own wrongness, witnesses no death, acknowledges not at all that a crime has taken place but instead relies for its appeal on Christian myths of the End Times, the Last Judgment, an event which being arranged by God is out of our hands; and like the Last Judgment, which besides being the apocalypse is the rising-again of everybody who has ever died, the pseudo-onomatopoeic “endling” seems with its sweet tinkle of babyhood to promise some rebirth, the promise of a lullaby that sings everything will be all right even when it won’t; so altogether it’s as if “endling” was precision-engineered to mean what it means without feeling it, an acknowledgment of an occurrence as if it’s only an occurrence lacking direct causes and visibly responsible parties, and so as pretty as “endling” is, it can’t bear witness to extinction all by itself; it needs the poems.
It needs the poems and so, finally, Lilley’s opening lines from the final poem in Endlings:
It won’t hurt / letting all the animals go. / That’s the surprise.
An endling, as mentioned, is the last individual to die in any species which becomes extinct upon the death of that individual; so Lilley is poeming about extinction, about total extinction—“letting all the animals go”—a grand event that doesn’t hurt, the Sixth Mass Extinction about and in which so many people rarely feel anything even though we are causing it and living it, which is precisely why Lilley wants the very idea of it to hurt, causes the poem of it to hurt; not for the dying, not even just for those who feel the horror of extinction not hurting which is Lilley’s opening uppercut, but for those who dare to accept her invitation, offered later in the poem, to imagine watching each and every individual vanishing fin by fin, leaf by leaf, imagine the brown shell, the naked tail, the tusk vanishing without pain if you must, though it’s very unlikely to happen without pain: imagine you are letting all the life out of your body in a great exhale, only don’t inhale again.
I lie here with no air left, my mind at first is full of the Corquin robber frog (Craugastor anciano) multiplied by zero, exploding into a million bits of nothing, but my chest is full of nothing, feels like nothing at first until its emptiness grips, grips my chest and the back of my throat and nose and then inside my skull, my diaphragm is desperate to rebound, desperate, I’m getting a headache, when will it end, but it has ended, this is what ending feels like, and yes it hurts and if I don’t stop it, don’t do the impossible and bring the life back in, then yes “humanity” will die out too, and that I will feel for certain as surely as I feel the ending I have taken it upon myself to feel, the ending of another, an antelope perhaps I’ve never seen, through a poem.
Yoko Ogawa wrote The Memory Police in Japanese in 1994, and certainly it has to do with authoritarianism and surveillance, which are human affairs; but I read Ogawa’s novel in 2019, when it was translated into English, and when she writes of nonhuman beings disappearing from the novel’s island setting I knew that even if she didn’t mean it she was talking about precisely what’s happening now, today, everywhere on Earth—the anthropogenic dying out never to be seen again and the refusal to feel any of it—because first of all when something disappears on Ogawa’s island it is all of a given type of thing, every last instance of that type, all the roses, all the birds, all the fruits, so that the rose, for instance, literally goes extinct overnight; and second because Ogawa’s translator, Stephen Snyder, sometimes translates her as saying “something has been disappeared from the island,” for a disappearance isn’t something that just happens but that has been made to happen by the island’s humans.
When for example the photograph becomes extinct, the island’s residents feel it when they wake up that morning, “something strange, almost rough, about the quality of the air. The sign of a disappearance.” But these same residents then feel compelled to burn all their photographs largely because they’ve ceased to feel anything at all about photographs: “Nothing comes back now when I see a photograph,” says the narrator. “No memories, no response. They’re nothing more than pieces of paper. A new hole has opened in my heart, and there’s no way to fill it up again. That’s how it is when something disappears . . . The new cavities in my heart search for things to burn. They drive me to burn things and I can stop only when everything is in ashes.”
On the night of the roses’ disappearance, within every human an inner cavity appears which causes them to no longer feel anything whatsoever about roses—“nothing about it remains with me,” the narrator says, “that it was beautiful or dear or that I wanted to have it—nothing”: everyone in fact forgets what a rose looks like and what the word “rose” signifies so it’s as if they’d never even heard of roses like most people today have never heard of the lately extinct Nobregaea latinervis, and so destroying the public rose garden is no loss to anybody.
“People—and I’m no exception—seem capable of forgetting almost anything, much as if our island were unable to float in anything but an expanse of totally empty sea,” says the narrator; but there are a few people, a dangerous minority, prominent among them a literary editor, who must hide from the police when they find the “strength to resist the disappearances,” refuse to participate in the destruction of things, and refuse to forget that the disappeared ever existed; and the existence of such a resistance, even an interior one, suggests that no total extinction is inevitable, no lack or sudden absence of feeling for something other than oneself is truly compulsory, and in fact, maintains this rebel editor, paying attention to vulnerable things, “feeling their weight, smelling them, listening to them,” could “help delay or stop this decay in your hearts.”
Nevertheless, because it’s easier, most people on Ogawa’s island simply and alarmingly quickly learn to get along without roses, ferries, novels, left legs, or whatever it is that’s disappeared; many of these people don’t find disappearances to be particularly momentous, and it rarely occurs to anyone but the rare outlaw to miss the disappeared—except that everyone does in fact feel the loss of what has perished in the form of their own lack of feeling: “as things got thinner, more full of holes, our hearts got thinner too, diluted somehow”; for it is indeed things beyond ourselves, things like roses and fishes, which cause emotions to arise in us, and so what humans stand to lose when we unfeelingly cause and allow nonhumans to die, their species to disappear, is yet more of our ability to feel in any context, to relate to any other beings with any sensation or emotion, and consequently to bear witness, Ogawa intimates, to speak about anything at all, to have voices in our own right, and therefore to prevent unfeelingly causing and allowing and so on in a vortex of deaths.
Bermudian author Mandy-Suzanne Wong’s award-winning books include the fiction chapbook Awabi (Digging, 2019); the nonfiction chapbook Artificial Wilderness (Selcouth, 2020); the essay collection Listen, we all bleed (New Rivers, 2021); and the internationally acclaimed novel Drafts of a Suicide Note (Regal House, 2019), which was a top finalist for American Book Fest’s Best Book Award for Fiction, an Eyelands Book Award finalist, a Permafrost Book Prize finalist, a Conium Review Book Prize semifinalist, and a PEN Open Book Award nominee. She is also the author of the collection Animals Across Discipline, Time and Space (McMaster Museum of Art, 2020). She holds a PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles.
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