Reading the Non-human

In the opening poem of her first collection, Small Arguments (2003), Souvankham Thammavongsa writes about the “only reading material” in her childhood home, the “old newspapers laid out / on the floor / to dry / our winter boots” (14). In the absence of conventional texts like books, the rest of the volume’s poems take up the challenge of reading salt, water, fruit, weather, insects, and animals in meditations about memory, suffering, beauty, and loss. By paying attention to the non-human presences that surround the speaker, Thammavongsa’s verses draw our attention to minute details that are usually overlooked. Her careful attention suggests a world larger and more entwined than the casual relationships that humans seem to have with these everyday objects and phenomena.

Metaphor functions in Thammavongsa’s writing as a thing that hovers just out of one’s grasp. A pear is a guitar, but not quite. A blood orange has not been struck and “yet there it is . . . stricken down” (23). A dragonfruit is almost a face with “a soft whiteness, freckled / with dark fragments” (25). Grapefruits have hearts, oranges have navels, the seed of a grape “is left unaware / of the body it will not become” (32). This incompletion marks the small arguments that Thammavongsa makes about these entities. In making these arguments, her poems resist a wholeness in their anthropomorphism that might suggest a form of mastery. Instead, there is a fearless plunge into the unknowable depths of cruelty that permeate the world, where even snow is abandoned, “left / or thrown aside; / the path / of every gutter” (40), where heaven turns away the grasshopper, there is no light to lead an ant’s way, and the butterfly “knows / this is its last” (47). These almost-metaphors, or almost-personifications, thwart the reader’s desire to draw simpler and more direct comparisons between the human and non-human.

This clear-eyed vision of our imperfect ability to describe animal, plant, landscape, and weather continues in her collection Light (2013). Thammavongsa’s poems find revelatory perspectives to describe what we too often view as mundane and ordinary: a feather is part bone, like a plastic straw, but also like needles; “ash can have colour like life” (44); “A Volcano / is / what happens / when you try / to take / the sun down / from where it is” (60); and “The Dark / is light / when light / isn’t here” (22). We see these flashes of insight again as her gaze expands outwards to the images in her short story collection How to Pronounce Knife (2020)— dead chickens whose “eyes [are] closed tight like they were sleeping” (13), “mould [that] looked like a field of black dandelions” (151), worms that are “stretching their bodies out into such a length that I wasn’t even sure these were worms” (169). These nightmarish images remind us of our incomplete knowledge of the landscapes and entanglements with what Heather Swanson et al. have called “more-human-than-human-life” (M2) where “modes of noticing” (M7) are required. These are states of attention that require our “slowing down to listen to the world—empirically and imaginatively at the same time” (M8). Thammavongsa’s bare yet precise observations of our limited sight seem particularly crucial in our time of distraction.

Indeed, the writer’s singular voice and self-assuredness in the face of partial and fragmentary epistemologies recall Donna Haraway’s question: “How can we think in times of urgencies without the self-indulgent and self-fulfilling myths of apocalypse, when every fiber of our being is interlaced, even complicit, in the webs of processes that must somehow be engaged and repatterned?” (35, emphasis original). In this unfolding moment of climate catastrophe and of human and non-human peril, Thammavongsa’s work gives us a purposefully flawed knitting of both in her images of brokenness, incompletion, and imperfection. Her words remind us of our smallness and ignorance while paradoxically refusing to capitulate to despair.

Works Cited

Haraway, Donna. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke UP, 2016.

Swanson, Heather, Anna Tsing, Nils Bubandt, and Elaine Gan. “Bodies Tumbled into Bodies.” Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene, edited by Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt, U of Minnesota P, 2017, pp. M1-M12.

Thammavongsa, Souvankham. How to Pronounce Knife. McClelland & Stewart, 2020.

—. Light. Pedlar, 2013.

—. Small Arguments. Pedlar, 2003.

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