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Published: Mon May 16 2022
Art: Paul TheriaultCascade (detail), 2021, acrylic and found paper on scavenged wood
The Power in Naming and Not Naming: Three Questions with Isaac Yuen

Isaac Yuen’s essay “Utter, Earth” appears in AGNI 94.  Winner of a Pushcart Prize, it will be reprinted in the 2023 anthology.

 

James Brookes/AGNI: “Utter, Earth” abounds with the diversity and interconnectedness of the natural world and the human faculty for observing and naming; the movement of focus along these paths of connection gives the piece an integrity that sustains its own ecology. Did the piece accrue around one or two seeding details, or did you train many various thoughts into each other? How linear was the writing process?

The piece actually began as an attempt at organization. I had been perusing scientific journals for other works and came across so many interesting extracts I couldn’t help but bookmark for exploring at a later date. At around the same time I finished David Naimon’s “Heathen” published in Orion, a short piece where he worked natural history and historical truths into a mesmerizing incantation that did double-duty to enchant and indict.

I was struck by his use of short, definitive statements to deliver layers of subtleties in meaning. I found myself asking how can a sentence, whose function is to convey a finding, suggest so much more than itself? How can a narrative arc arise from stringing one fact to another, and without conventional narration?

I started playing around with scientific extracts, slotting them within the framework of a Rafil Kroll-Zaidi’s “Findings” column in Harper’s—I’ve always loved his masterful use of non-sequiturs. In this case, I wanted to adapt it with an explicit focus towards the natural world— everything from ironclad beetles and puff adders to round gobies to decapitated flatworms. Eventually the theme of perception came to the fore, and I started mapping out sections based on the senses: Sound. Sight. Touch. And out of those came their counterpoints: Silence. Blindness. Resistance.

Sometimes one finding would spark something in the sea of useless trivia swirling in my head; whale speech and ship traffic led to whale song and space probes drifting towards a constellation resembling a giraffe. Other times the finding dictated where it should fit within the expanding body of knowledge; hummingbirds orienting themselves to show off in sunlight dovetails nicely into dung beetles lining themselves up with starlight from the Milky Way. Writing in this way felt like working on a jigsaw puzzle, experimenting with an ever growing pile of pieces, going on hunch to fit things together without knowing what the end image might be.

Yes, ecology might be the closest term to describe this process. It speaks to something beyond the subject matter or the scientific discipline, to the heart of how patterns are discerned and connections are forged, internally and externally. As you say, each section did seem to sustain itself after reaching a certain level of complexity. I tried very hard to leave it alone after that.

The opening sentence of your piece seems to establish a beautiful impression of both the scope of human engagement with nature and its limits: “Weddell seals vocalize nine types of sounds beyond the range of human hearing.” Do you feel that the details you record here, especially of things mortal and precarious, should be read as celebration or lamenta sic transit gloria mundi of fragile wonders? Or would you rather not say?

I’m fascinated by the boundary of comprehension, both ethically and aesthetically. On one hand, there is so much we will never know and we often lack the wisdom to accept this truth, much to our distress and the detriment of the world. On the other hand, every statement in this essay is a discovery brought to light by singular curiosity and incredible dedication. This act of finding is something wholly onto itself, and is as meaningful an act as any. So for me, both the preserving and resolving of mystery are equally attractive, as contradictory as they are, which might speak to how contradictory we are as human beings. If there’s anything I want my work to convey, it would be the holding of both those qualities together, simultaneously.

I would be interested in how readers interpret the piece. I wanted to write something about the existential crisis our species find ourselves in without ever mentioning it, by writing about all the elements around it. I’m tired of constantly being confronted by doom and grief and all the looming extinctions, so why not write into delight and resilience and life beyond it all. Maybe this is my way of being defiant against the pervasive despair of our times. I don’t know.

On a personal level, I think I see this piece as an ode, simply because for the longest time I thought an ode is supposed to be elegiac without knowing that it is meant to express the ecstatic. These days I feel the form contains both, and so maybe this is what I want the piece to convey. And also that transience is intrinsic to glory.

I understand that “Utter, Earth” is the title essay in your forthcoming collection. Congratulations! In other work you’ve published, you’ve reflected on the importance of Ursula K. Le Guin to your thinking. I wonder if there are any ways she’s influenced this piece? For instance, was Le Guin’s concern with the power of names and naming (I’m thinking of the way magic works in her Earthsea setting, for instance) of any significance here?

Thank you! It has been a treat to work on this collection, which I’ve pitched as a freeform romp in wordplay and earthplay. It’s funny you mentioned Le Guin as an influence, because even as I answer your questions on process I find myself drawing upon her philosophies on almost every level: The impulse to subvert any stated absolutes. The interest in seeking wilder, more indirect paths forward. The wielding of imagination in service of expanding our sphere of empathy and consideration. I have come to learn that I think and write very differently than her, but those Daoist and anarchic influences that shaped her work and worldview have taken root within me as well. I am grateful for that.

I wrote another essay, published over at the UK-based Willowherb Review, that explores the significance of names and naming, much in the vein of Earthsea. I wanted to move in another direction for “Utter, Earth.” If there is power in naming, then there is also power in not naming (which is itself absolutely and unintentionally “LeGuinian”). As I mentioned earlier, I would like to elevate what is strange and wondrous while using absence to shift the center from the planetary trauma we are all so familiar with. Some might say this is a turning away, a shirking of responsibility, but I feel it is necessary to reorient our energies at times, shake things up, and change the focus to what we can do and save and love.

Sometimes we do this without realizing it. There is a lesser-known Le Guin short story called “The Nna Mmoy Language” that I find myself often revisiting. Situated in an alternate world devastated by industrial civilization, cleansed of flora and fauna and everything not deemed “useful,” a people continues to seek connection with their past more-than-human world through the act of writing, not knowing that they are doing so: “Their language is their own exuberant, endlessly proliferating ecology. All the jungle they have, all the wilderness, is their poetry.” I love this unconscious manifestation of complexity, life’s irrepressible creativity, even at the seeming end of things.

We may yet end up like those people in Le Guin’s tale, with future generations seeking a past they will never know, filled with a longing they do not fully understand. And this future may be sad and bittersweet and bereft of hope. But we have never not fought against the world’s fading with our art; we build our imaginary simulacra and our abiding memorials, struggle to revive or preserve what once was, frail imitations as they may be. But each attempt is no less beautiful or poignant in its striving. I find some measure of comfort in this line of thought, life’s insistence on continuation, so long as we can still mourn and seek a light beyond the pale.

 

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