APRIL 3, 2016
AS A YOUNG MAN in the mid-1500s, St. John of the Cross focused on reforming Carmelite Catholicism, adopting itchy robes, casting off his shoes, privileging solitude and fasts. He grew up destitute with a weaver mother — the ascetic life perhaps was not so unfamiliar to him. Years later he was kidnapped by anti-reform Carmelites and kept prisoner in a monastery for months. While there he penned one of the most famous and influential pieces of mystical Spanish literature, the poem the Spiritual Canticle, the Spanish Song of Songs. Some years later he wrote in a letter, “Where there is no love, put love — and you will find love.” He died not long after. Sarah Vap’s sixth collection of poems, Viability, turns incessantly on this quotation, not as a mere mantra, but as a point of departure.
The title of Vap’s collection refers to both an organism’s ability to live and a company’s capacity to operate successfully. The relationship between these very different kinds of survival, and the moments at which they come into conflict, is this book’s central concern. Ultimately Viability considers a person’s value and how it is measured. Vap asks how methods for measuring value are driven by profit, and chronicles some of the terrible things people do to one another in pursuit of financial gain.
Throughout the book, Vap interweaves ideas and quoted language, creating a bizarre kind of dialogue with one voice manifesting in another again and again, recurring like a terrible fact that does laps through the mind for days. Several bright threads come together here, including specialized terms drawn from economics, a 1950s essay on slavery in the United States, an article about slavery in the Thai shrimping industry, and Vap’s own experiences as a mother. Throughout the collection, she creates a feeling of growing dread in response to the interconnectedness between apparently distinct instances of oppression.
Viability is remarkable in that much of the book is comprised of juxtaposed quotations from three very different sources. While a good chunk of the book is not Vap’s own writing, it illustrates her incredible capacity to organize materials, putting quotations in close proximity and creating overtones that the common reader might not otherwise notice. For example, on one page there is the definition of “market cannibalization” (when a new product eats away at the sales of an existing product), followed by Vap’s ventriloquism of St. John of the Cross meditating on cannibalism, and then by the voice of Vap’s poet-speaker herself. The speaker imagines a miscarriage, and, in her mind, the fetus becomes fish desperately trying to escape her overheated body: “The fish are boiling. The fish are dying I am the one doing it.” The next poem suddenly shifts to a quotation about the profitability of slavery in the free-enterprise market of the antebellum South, and then to a consideration of Thailand’s shrimp fishing industry and the brutal abuse of its slaves. Throughout, Vap consistently works to illustrate how apparently disparate threads are spun from the same fiber.
Vap’s concerns with the economy and the experience of being a woman — and a mother — under late capitalism becomes increasingly clear as the book goes on. The market terms she uses are frequently related to issues of femininity and sexuality, including “Skirt Length Theory” (more women wearing short skirts imply upward markets), “Leading Lipstick Indicator” (a mark of how, when uncertain about the future, we buy less expensive indulgences), “cash cow” (a good or service that continues to provide cash flow even after it has been bought and paid for), and “Jennifer Lopez” (“a slang technical analysis term referring to a rounding bottom in a stock’s price pattern”). These terms underscore a patriarchal culture’s chilling attitude toward women. “A woman’s body is a list of hard facts,” Vap writes. It contains her personal physical history, but is also subject to the fixed priorities of the patriarchal gaze. Through quotation, misquotation, and her own words, Vap considers both the difficult reality of the pregnant body, and the vulnerability of new life.
Yet these concerns have no standing in the world of the market, where a mother’s worries are weighed against the systematic abuse of other people for economic gain. Unless her child is an ownable asset, a mother isn’t worth much in that world. In one daydream, the speaker is naked on the floor, very pregnant. People line up to step on her: “As they pass over us, another, another, I can feel the infant’s legs arms head push out into my lungs and into my throat and against the cage of my bones […] The line of people extends as far as I can see. At each step we are more deformed.”
For many, Vap points out, bringing new life into such a world is not just a source of joy. There is always “the persistent thought at the back of the mind, at the front of the mind: what about the money. What about the health. What about the money. What about the health. What about the actual care for the actual infant.” Vap is also concerned with what it means to bring a child into a world that runs on systemic misogyny and slavery. However, as much as a person may want to dismiss her participation in the abuses of late capitalist economic systems, those systems govern the very same world into which she bears children and raises them.
Throughout the collection, there is a disorienting power in Vap’s switching between lyrical prose poems and information dumps with a reportage tone. Each poem looks about the same on the page, appearing in justified paragraphs. The consistent form produces a whiplash effect — in a good way — for the reader once she gets a sentence or so into a poem or reads across a series of them. The first piece in the collection begins,
The splintered log filled me mouth to groin. And growing — growing, the emerald was blood. The stones in the water were eyes and I was not recognized by either the givings or killings that will make a woman a mother, that will make a mother a moon dropped to the water and carving out her own eye
and ends, “We looked down at them through thick ice while they ripped him from me in the single, performed loneliness.” Vap’s powerful description of childbirth via cesarean section, and her subsequent life raising infants, is appropriately disorienting and breathless, yet her lines are careful and descriptive, rather than haphazard in their stream-of-consciousness. Her poems’ shifts from the tactile and concrete to the amorphous and the abstract is simultaneously thrilling and bewildering, as when she describes herself as a child, watching the birth of a foal: “the chestnut, catching her first breath in her mother’s shit-covered tail. Her hooves, still soft and curled underneath as a human ear, pawed at the dead udder. When the sun rose on her I thought: could any light be pale lapping onto this world.”
Despite their often negative or even despairing tone, these poems continually return to that buoyant line, which St. John of the Cross wrote in a letter toward the end of his life: “Where there is no love, put love — and you will find love.” While St. John of the Cross’s quotation is relayed accurately at first, it soon metamorphoses in disturbing ways. It becomes the space upon which Vap can project the themes of the market economy’s undervaluing and systemic abuse of subaltern populations, including people of color, the poor, children, women, and/or slaves. Throughout, Vap takes the quotation and stuffs it with alternatives. Whenever something is lacking, she fills it with goods or information. She writes, “Where there is no love, put information. There you will find the algorithm. Put even more information. The algorithm will increase. Everything you want will increase.” In a warped way, St. John of the Cross’s quotation speaks to precisely what is lacking in an economic market: “Where there is no love, put love — and you will find love” becomes, in Vap’s reformulation, something like, “Where there is no cotton, put cotton and slaves — and you will find cotton and profit.” The mutable forms of capital that can fill a void are infinite. “Where there is a void, there you will find the Index. There you will find relentlessness. There you will find proliferation. But was that a void to be filled? That was not a void to be filled. Did you think that was a void to be filled? Is that what the Index told you?”
Viability is a kind of index in itself, cataloging page after page how the gaze of the patriarchy is all-encompassing. This may not be news to many of Vap’s readers, yet what gives Viability an important place in contemporary literature is its intersectional approach to representing late capitalism’s oppression of the very populations whose work it feeds on. On one page, one of the people enslaved on a Thai shrimping ship explains, “I was looking for ways to help my family.” As both a mother and a citizen, Vap is committed to documenting instances in which personal and familiar values are not only disregarded by socio-economic structures of power, but also, more disturbingly, become sites of exploitation and profit. “How does the Index love us?” asks St. John of the Cross, ventriloquized by Vap. “The Index loves us like we are its infant and its meal […] The Index loves us like we are slaves with the ability to reproduce ourselves.” And this constant worrying about how we reproduce, how we love — in a world that appears to have no space beyond the reach of the patriarchal market — is what Vap so beautifully illustrates time and again in Viability. One person most likely cannot rebuff that reach, but she most certainly can trace what strengthens and lengthens its grasp, bolsters its violence, document the voices of those it has harmed.
Diana Arterian is a poetry editor and Infidel Poetics Editor at Noemi Press and a managing editor of Ricochet. Her poetry has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Denver Quarterly, The Volta, and elsewhere.