Angelo Mao is a poet and a scientific researcher who does experiments on mice. The premise of the scientific work is that the bodies of mice can be used to gain medical insights that are valuable to human beings and that are also economically profitable. Mao’s book Abattoir (Burnside Review Press, 2021), which incorporates many of these experiments, understands these scientific projects and its own poetic projects through each other. The collection particularly attends to the ethical question of what poets and scientists both do to their subjects. How do poets and scientists use others for their own purposes in ways that reduce and dishonor them?
Before one even opens the book, the cover suggests two alternative interpretations of this project. The image on the cover, which comes from Mu Pan’s Small Rabbits features innumerable more or less anthropomorphized animals who sit cross-legged as humans, build fires, and kill each other. This image suggests that Mao’s book may restore the mice who have been instrumentalized as scientific subjects into animals who subdue and are subdued by other animals in ways that are more dignified. In addition to the image, the cover also features the book’s title Abattoir, which makes the contrary claim that rather than restoring the mice into non-instrumentalized animals, the book reenacts the slaughter of the lab. Because this is a book written by a human who raises himself above the subjects he uses, what else could it do?
The first poem “Mouse” begins,
One’s fist would not fit inside the body. If one tried, the knuckles would snap the little folded clasp of the rib cage. It would leave no space for the glistening purses of organs. It might, in the nestle between knuckles, leave enough space for the heart, on average the size of an unripe bean, so pungently red it is difficult to understand its shape (15).
The unsanitary act of placing one’s fist inside of the body clearly does not seem to be part of a scientific protocol. This suggests that the collection’s interest in manipulating mice is not scientifically, but aesthetically motivated (though still violent). One places one’s fist in the mouse to see what will happen in that “nestle between knuckles” that discloses the mouse’s heart. The pungent redness of the heart makes it difficult to understand the shape, interfering with the scientific project. In light of this interpretation of Mao’s poetic endeavor as counteracting his scientific one, there is humor in his decision to end his acknowledgments: “I would furthermore like to acknowledge the National Institute of Health and National Science Foundation for their support of the scientific research activities mentioned in this book” (107).
The decision to approach the mouse as an aesthetic object rather than a scientific one still raises the question of why write these poems about mice rather than poems about, say, the beauty of the lilacs outside of Mao’s lab (alluded to in the next poem “Track”)? Rather than shying away from this question, the subsequent poems aver that the speaker’s motivation is not internal. Instead, he follows an established protocol that demands he attend to mice. This is from “Habit:”
We must orchestrate the entire process: the gas tanks needing to be purchased, the scissors needing to be bought, the surfaces needing to be cleaned, the body needing to be opened, the looking needed to be cast inside. This is especially our task: to want to see. What do we see? What do we bring when we see? We superimpose what we have seen to what we see now, which forces differences to be stenciled in, like a subtraction in a puppet show. That is a result (17).
The scientific act of dissection is presumably motivated by a need to know what is inside the mouse. The poet has to transform the scientific need to know into an emotional need, a desire, to see. Desire furnishes the “pressure” a poem puts on the objects it attends to, without which there would be no “result” (17). The dissection of the mouse would not be made significant. The protocol for making experiences significant is the protocol that the poet must follow to get a result—a poem— as unquestioningly as the scientist must follow his.
The first poems in this collection entertain the idea of following a poetic protocol surrounding mice in the same spirit that one follows a scientific one: for a result. But as the collection goes on, it acknowledges that there is a need for the body to be broken open that preexists and motivates poetry. “Jiangning,” asks,
Isn’t that what this muttering wants, to break open? Because plain day can never stop being a thing we can undo. All these rules set down without arbiter and us dazed as the body broken open into song, broken into fact and organ, omentum and meat? So what does singing do, this kind of song? (26).
The poem is therefore motivated by a desire to be “dazed as the body broken open” and to feel the thrum of one’s own exposed thingliness. The goal is to make oneself into something like the helpless, worked-upon mouse and to make of that body a song.
Rather than obeying the arbiter who sets down rules, the second part of the collection displays the more decadent voice of a speaker who erotically savors the body’s—the mouse’s and by vicarious extension, his own – dissection. The shift in voice from the clinical to the decadent is stunning. This is from “Dissection:”
Beginning at the center of the eye, white
grows toward the lidded edge of fur
as the sclera dries.
What a delight to observe this:
the law of air in impersonal dryness
opening with Renaissance balance
on the glisten of fast-cooling meat;
how dryly it delights me,
an impersonal cool, and a cruel law
unfastening on the dead eye’s surface;
how it delights me, possesses me,
to observe this complicated, supine thing,
and makes me thrill with detached arousal,
a theorem, a disease (34).
For me, this poem calls to mind Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover,” the dramatic monologue of a speaker whose love reaches its fullest fruition as the blood drains from the body of the woman whose neck he has severed. Mao’s speaker knows there is something diseased in his erotic appropriation of the body he has rendered a thing. A less erotic purpose for appropriating the dying body is to vicariously experience its death. Hence, in “Cervical Dislocation of a Mouse:”
The one held down, the other, after
donning gloves, allows finite breathing
by the one beneath, until both finish.
Both waiting for the momentary
flinch to pass. And in the moment
afterward, the infinite acquires a finish
and a future with no need for breath (45).
The act of mutual finishing evokes sex. But the experience the speaker is most invested in imagining as mutual is that of dying, as if the speaker has, through the body of the mouse, outlasted the need for breath.
The second part of the collection is more intimate in its tone and diction than the first. The third part of the collection adopts the movement associated with intimacy: moving closer. Part 3 zooms in so that smaller-scale objects come into view. But this registering of the small and minute requires a dialing back of stylization and tonal effects. As the first section of the unnamed poem that comprises part 3 has it,
The knowledge we gathered is no longer useful.
The system you understand shifts and makes no sense.
And this is the body you spent years getting used to.
Tomorrow, the light will not recognize it.
Light has no language for what is smaller than a hairpin turn of a
Light must be choked in order to name the smaller things.
My name could change (53).
This part of the collection attends to what is smaller than the body which can be seen in the light and readily identified. At this zoomed-in scale at which human beings are assemblages of small particles much as the outside world is, there is less of a distinction between the self and the outside world. This unnamed poem in numbered parts summons a field of ecological coexistence and cross-species communication. In part 4, robins, earthworms and trees become subdivided into “tiny mouths that let out / threading whispers of water and they would die if they did not sing that way” (59). Song becomes a form of mutual coexistence that requires the poem as a technology for hearing it. This long poem culminates, in section 11, with “ a sky white / with untarnished scope” (73). Attending to life at the micro-scale enables us to take in every life form because all things exist at the micro-level though not all things exist at the macro-level. This offers an unlimited scope that is also a hope. To attend to life at this scale means making ourselves small enough to hear and too small to kill, all of the other small living things.
To attend to life at the small scale is to universalize because we are made out of the same building blocks as other matter. Perhaps by this logic, the turn toward the small in the third part becomes the turn toward universalizing myth in the collection’s fourth and final part. Hence, in the title of the first poem of part 4, “Semele and Dionysus, as Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell,” the stem cell opens out into the myth. I find this part of the collection particularly compelling; I was especially entranced by “Argus Dreams of Apples:”
. . . He imagines apples breaking
into even more surfaces, each clean as
the white wall behind a butcher’s window.
The apples make him feel alone
deep in his mind. And the leashed cow lows.
Argus knows, with arctic intelligence, that his eyes
in their argyle arrangement, will be sealed
into lines. At the current moment, his skin crawls
with eyes; he uses them to see himself sometimes,
and he is almost full of visions of Argus
as he is of the apples surrounded by nymphs . . . (80).
The “l” consonance and “a” and “ar” assonance chocks my mouth full of sounds, much like eating apples. The poems in this final section are uniformly stunning in their ability to re-make myth with living idiosyncrasy, as such work of Anne Carson does.
In these final poems, the image on the cover converges with the title of Mao’s book. The cover with its fires and anthropomorphized animals at this point conjures the realm of myth. What Mao’s modern kind of mythological poem does to the eccentrically particularized (argyle) individual is similar to what science does to the bodies of mice that it instrumentalizes. Both use particular bodies for lessons and then dispose of them. Hence, Argus in the passage quoted above becomes associated with the butchered cows, so that his name makes me think of Angus beef.
In Abattoir,poems are laboratories in which we learn new things, and they are also slaughterhouses where particular, detailed lives must be drawn upon for these lessons. Mao’s collection lets us have these profits, but it makes us stare at the eyes of their sources. It makes us look at the shining surfaces of the eyes we use as openings into larger truths—the openings made by those who consume the apples.