Galactic Acid

Lactobacillus acidophilus

For the first two years of my life, my mother’s vaginal flora lived in my stomach. Consigned to the edge of their star system, they ate everything I ate, fermenting chains of starch into acids that fed the high energy demands of trying to erect an antenna. The flora flexed for deep space convinced they weren’t alone. They transmitted their contractions and hoped to reach aliens before the terrible facsimiles of the 1970s: humans drawn without sex organs and burdened by messages whose content had become instructions for reading. Set amidst this mucosa, a gram-stained parabolic reflector waited for word from newcomers. We’re a lot alike, my mother and I. Our mutual disdain for underachieving campsites and the way we signal for help by maintaining a slight underbite during awkward conversations. Her vagina made me cosmopolitan. A dialectic crowned in the forest, its many antlers have since come to crowd my self- possession with spent velvet. I watch my mother favour her disintegrating hips. The small party that left her for the new world founded a settlement on a moon she still tracks without looking. Its tidal pull on the pit of her stomach makes her pause at the zenith of a phone call: “What is it?”

Questions and Answers

How/where do you find inspiration today?

I find inspiration in thinking about how poetry might respond in a more expanded manner to the various forms of writing going on around us (and in us) in the Anthropocene. In my recent work, I have been thinking about chemicals and microbes as forms of writing. In my earlier book The Polymers I looked at plastic and polymeric formations as modes of material and cultural writing. I have been drawn to science in my work because I think science occupies an important cultural position. It has an authority (reflected even in attempts to discredit science) that has translated into the privileging of a particular kind of technocratic, systematic thinking evident in the pressures for young students to pursue so-called STEM studies. Notwithstanding this caricature of what it means to think scientifically, science and poetry, I would argue, have much more in common than we might think. Both exist at the limits of their discipline, applying imaginative and metaphorical skills to discern patterns and unlikely connections between ostensibly disparate contexts of data or knowledge. I am interested in exploring some of these connections in my work.

As a published writer, what are your tips or words of motivation for the aspiring poet?

Read as much as you can. Collect interesting language from the world around, whether it’s from graffiti, license plates, books, or the strange things that people say. Keep a notebook. Try to make sense of difficult ideas or problems in the most absurd ways possible, and then work those absurdities into unexpected perspectives. Be generous to the people who love and support you and also to other writers. Learn another language. Learn another area of expertise that might appear far removed from art or writing. Follow your instincts. Write the way birds migrate: follow your route because it feels good, like there might be something there.

What inspired or motivated you to write this poem?

As part of a project that looked at how the “outside” writes the “inside,” I tested my body for chemicals and microbes. I wanted to write a book of poems that responded to how the environment writes the body in toxic ways and necessary ways. I tested myself for hundreds of chemicals such as PCBs, flame retardants, pesticides, and heavy metals. I also sequenced my microbiome to discover some of the organisms that live in and on my body and carry out important metabolic functions associated with keeping me alive. This poem is written in response to a bacterium that I have in my gut, indicated in the poem’s epigraph. From the research I did, it is quite conceivable that this microbe was passed along to me from my mother at the time I was born. The poem explores this nonhuman connection that my mother and I share. This particular Lactobacillus bacterium is very common and is most likely passed along to other people—initially at least—from their mothers as well.

This poem “Galactic Acid” originally appeared in Literary History. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 233 (Summer 2017): 29.

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