The New Hybridity: “Bird Lovers, Backyard” by Thalia Field and “Floats Horse-floats or Horse-flows” by Leslie Scalapino

Jeff T. Johnson


Just because it’s arbitrary doesn’t mean it’s meaningless. Thalia Field’s Bird Lovers, Backyard is listed as poetry on its back cover, so that’s what it is. It could have been listed as fiction, or short fiction, or hybrid fiction—or hybrid poetry, for that matter. Field does much to implicitly rebut the recent notion, circulated by Norton’s American Hybrid anthology editors, that the term “hybrid” refers to a marriage of conventional and experimental poetry (where the former conserves its roots in traditional lyrical forms tied to a centralized speaker and consciousness, and the latter engages the materiality of the poem as words on the page, comprising a thing or event in itself, rather than the expression of a self). Despite the contentiousness of these terms (conventional and experimental), and the extent to which the poetry included in American Hybrid represents one or another strain, it is certain that editors Cole Swenson and David St. John use “hybrid” to describe a dynamic within poetry. The 2009 anthology has influenced current usage of the term, but Field recalls a broader literary usage that describes cross-genre works as hybrid.

In fact, Field traces our notions of hybridity back to science, particularly in a long, central piece of Bird Lovers, Backyard called “Exposition: He Told Animal Stories.” That piece is a component of “A WEEDY SONATA,” which comprises half the book. “Exposition” primarily concerns Nazi sympathizer and Nobel Prize-winning physiologist Konrad Lorenz, whose investment in ideas about race purity motivated his willful misinterpretations of animal behavior. When Field reports, “Mischling” was the name given to people with Jewish ancestry, ‘hybrids’ of human races, she suggests a larger sense of hybridity appropriate to her literary project. Earlier on the same page, she refers to “students in the ethological genre,” making explicit the connection between the scientific and literary sense of hybridity. “Exposition” looks like a lyrical essay, but its prosaic rhythms don’t often sound lyrically derived. It is as much a hybrid of registers and subjects as it is of forms, and this quality is at the heart of Bird Lovers, Backyard. Field insists that to juxtapose any two objects is to create analogy. “Objects” here refers to subject matter and language (which might refer to subject matter, or its own language-ness, just as subject matter might refer to language). As with the publisher’s arbitrary designation of the work as poetry, which nonetheless carries meaning to the reader, what might appear as arbitrary pairings of language and subject matter in Field’s writings come to indicate the natural affinities and attractions between one thing and whatever is set next to it. In terms of analogy, Field extrapolates, “One thing makes another thing appear true in a new way.” To force such illuminating interactions via analogy is what she calls “textual action.” We may use arbitrary terms to talk about writing, but in the well wrought text, every juxtaposition becomes a contrivance.

The second part of the sonata, “Development: Another Case for Television,” opens with a quote from the Chinese philosopher Zhuanzi, which states, in part, “things are made so by calling them so.” This recalls a meditation on the scientific application of analogy from Field’s “Exposition”: “Enhancing the world through analogies—or prosopopeia (it feels natural to include ghosts and monsters)—brings new things into being, whether or not they are real.” Prosopopeia refers to a figure of speech in which an absent or imaginary person is speaking, but it also relates to personification, which Field tracks in her hybrid biography of Lorenz. The projection of his beliefs about human race purity on animals, and his attempt to use his behavioral work with animals to support his racism constitute, for Field, a literary treatment of biology. Things are made so by calling them so. The power of language is inherent in its application, and Lorenz’s method of argumentation is an “abuse of analogy”:

Biology seems suddenly condemned, through its use of
figuration, to be literary, and somehow the reverse
seems equally true. Writing reveals individuals, worlds,
how ontology relates to stories, their biological basis,
their evolution.

When she references his assumption “that hybrid people become detached from pure parental values,” she raises the stakes for the implied conversation about literary purity. That conversation involves notions of authorship, authority and authenticity in works that employ various materials via methods of quotation, pastiche and collage. This is another application of the term hybrid, which can be set alongside the composite of traditional and so-called anti-traditional poetry, and the cross-pollination of genres. A conservative take on literary purity—that textual hybrids are not authentic texts—follows a logic similar to that of Lorenz, as presented by Field. Lorenz made the ‘discovery’ that a non-hybridized person would have intact aesthetic instincts might translate as: The mixed text is an impure text, a debasement of literature.

In other pieces, Field uses more recognizable narrative story forms, but her innovative tendencies accompany her pairing strategies. “This Crime Has a Name” is the first-person tale of the last dusky seaside sparrow—whose very name protests the notion of purity with its pair of adjectives (while the title of the piece puts the word genocide in the air before Lorenz appears). The sparrow eulogizes its captured brothers, who die one-by-one while Disney World breeders and “selective solicitors” debate the ethics of crossbreeding the birds with a similar species. One subtext is that purity can only be maintained if all breeding is forbidden: after all, breeding involves the mixing of male and female. But even that dead-end purity is a fiction, since each individual has always already been mixed. Purity only makes biological sense in strict evolutionary terms: Every act of breeding incrementally advances a species, creating a unique form.

So it is with literature. Meanwhile, in the same piece, Field grafts other elements—the U.S. space program and a sophist order in ancient China called the School of Names—onto her story  as she constructs her grand narrative. Anticipating her musings on science as fiction in “A WEEDY SONATA,” she asks, “Does art merely say things that aren’t facts, but assert them just as strongly?” She goes on, in “This Crime Has a Name,” to quote Professor of Biological Science Frances C. James: “The legal position that the dusky seaside sparrow . . . is a ‘pure race’ . . . Such reasoning, applied to human population, would be called racism or miscegenation” (ellipses hers). Pointedly, a page before that she opines, “If only living were as easy as word-wrestling.” We have to wonder if she’s being sarcastic about the ease of our struggle with words. Perhaps also she’s implying a distinction between words and word play—but is the power in the play, or is the play based on the inherent power of words? Her bird monologue concludes with “DISCUSSION QUESTIONS,” among them this fine, pointed one: “Are you sure species exist?”

Immediately following that is “Parting,” the piece most easily recognized as poetry, both in form and content. The evident lyricism, however, is a matter of rhythm and sound, rather than the Romantic conception of a centralized voice. “Parting” shifts from left-justified poetic etymologies to right-justified character-driven narrative—though the character is the (dis)embodiment of negative capability, “the different girl” (sometimes “a different girl”). That narrative is dispersed throughout the evocation of a beach development, while we’s and you’s mingle in centered text—philosophical statements that carry the repeated heading “LOOK.” Meditations on the tension between nature and development—where a construction, “beach,” replaces shore and ocean just as boardwalk replaces sand—are paired with diagrammatic logic: “Functions describing the movement of a wave replace the waves one by one.”

Leslie Scalapino maneuvers language and genre to similar ends in her posthumously published fiction/poetry (per the back cover) hybrid, Floats Horse-Floats or Horse-Flows. Hers is a poetry without line breaks that confounds its own sentence structure. Phrases and clauses are collapsed to the point that they cannot be parsed:

In the limited range of this muscular slippage—a
typewriter when these existed is set to the same margin,
when set—mechanical, sure but the slurred speaking off
track in public with words substituted or skipping not
omitted is his alexia, of one who has never read word
blindness so public blandness it incomprehends
deliberates gibbers deaf and stonewalling.

Though the sense of the text may be difficult to follow, passages of dense phrasal and semantic conflation break into coherent arguments that serve to clarify if not reveal Scalapino’s methodology and motivation. Things happen simultaneously, and we perceive them as such. Our brains do a lot of work to make sense of the world, but that effort does not change the fundamental nature of reality, nor does it change the way we perceive it. Caught between perception and process, observation and organization, we are in a perpetual state of transition and translation. Scalapino seeks the material of perception in process, presorted. Her site of exploration is language, where our sense of reality is produced:

Woman asks are you ever affected by the impossibility?
Of what? asked.) Of the present (the present as:
everything being in it at once), because then the
linear couldn’t ever take place, she says. (If one is
continually striving to be in the present—where? she
thinks this, always attempted derailing, is merely
intellection not occurrence.) But it doesn’t! (In the
present, “the linear” a long stream doesn’t take place.
Not in the past either—and to be future is not there then.)
Then it’s easy for you! she says. She thinks it isn’t

Scalapino employs the compression of poetry analogous to its conflation with prose. The moments of coherence carry and are carried by the rich texture and linguistic beauty of her formulation. The logic of “What the young doctor careening in flight, the car crashes into a pole does” is inseparable from its aesthetic dispatch.

We’re at the genre border between poetry and fiction, and these countries also border the real. As we Floats Horse-Floats or Horse-Flows, we are in many places on and off the page, but we are very much in the first decade of the millennium. We recognize references to 9/11, abortion wars, the abandoned, floating city of New Orleans; we gaze at Venus Williams’ serve and cringe at Bush/Cheney cronyism and profiteering. We’re wired, connected to and monitored by strangers, and we’re hardly surprised by the passing scenery: “dead man corpse in havoc strapped as if a deer on the hood of a Humvee.” We’ve got so much to think about we can hardly read, or we can’t keep anything straight. We might be suffering from “alexia, word-blindness,” we might be overwhelmed, and we might just be negotiating our (dis)affections.

Scalapino, who is associated with ’80s San Francisco Language writers, has long experimented with non-individuated syntax. There is no fixed speaker in her work, nor is there a fixed subject. This sense of boundarylessness extends to genre in Floats Horse-Floats or Horse-Flows. What results is a shifting, interpenetrative nexus of reference in terms of language, speaker and subject. All of this comprises the matter, and the event, of the writing.

“Anything has once been memory and can be placed beside anything,” Scalapino writes, or types—the difference is irrelevant here. She might have copied it from Gertrude Stein or Zhuanzi or Thalia Field, or she might have heard it on TV. Set two things next to each other, and they trade traits. ‘Purity’ is hatred, Scalapino reports. We live in a world similar to the one in which Field and Scalapino lived when they wrote these books, and we’ll recognize the world through the language they borrow, steal, and bend to their own ends. Their ends are ours as well.


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