by Sawako Nakayasu
93 pages—Les Figues Press, 2014
Reviewed by Julia Bouwsma
Sawako Nakayasu’s The Ants (Les Figues Press, July 2014) is a marvelous sequence of very short (and often tiny) prose pieces that explore the inner and outer workings of both human and insect minds with an eye that is ever-tuned toward shifting perspectives and the sometimes ingeniously playful, sometimes panicked navigation of disruption. This is a book that situates itself primarily within the imagined experience of ants, but it is also a book about being small in a world that is immeasurably vast and changing—a world in which one is constantly finding oneself in the wrong or the right place at just the wrong or right time. It is a book about alienation and disorientation and the need for constant negotiation and re-negotiation with one’s circumstances and surroundings, about the difficulty that lies in deciding which pair of shoes to jump on in order to take a ride to the next unknown. Nakayasu shows us the ant in numerous roles: as immigrant, as engineer, as novice recruit or seasoned soldier, as both writer and written text, as a parody of human society. And she allows the text to come alive physically—to swarm with repetition or to march steadily along in a stream of miniscule words—as the ants work themselves into any crack or crevice that might promise a haven, into the heart of the speaker, even, where “they know there is always a home, safe, pounding and ever so warm.”
One of the great brilliances of Nakayasu’s The Ants lies in its intuitive sense of pacing and rhythm, an instinct shared, of course, by the book’s subject. The ants surface everywhere in this collection: inside dumplings, within the human body, in a child’s hamster cage, on cakes left out overnight, flying through the air, crushed inside pencils as a graphite replacement, worn as a necklace, swimming in an oil painting, living under an ice-skating rink. And yet the ants themselves are introduced slowly and strategically in the initial pieces. Strikingly, there are no actual ants in the first piece, “We the Heathens,”—just the unfulfilled expectation of their appearance and the casually described, surreal ambience of a world in which everything is slightly out of place. The speaker goes to a Chinese restaurant with her friend, “who is visiting from another planet.” She orders the unfamiliar “soup dumpling,” and the contradictory “Crispy Fried Whole Exploded Fish,” while her friend mysteriously acquires a hamburger, which he leaves untouched and open, waiting for ants to find it, so that he may enjoy them as a live burger-topping. Nakayasu concludes the piece with sharp, boot-stomp ending: “I tell him that he will probably have better luck with that outside, and he says that’s a good idea, thanks, and goes outside with his hamburger, and that’s the last I ever see of him.” Thus the reader is introduced, through the tangible absence of ants, to their worldview: their invisibility, their sense of alienation and wonder in a land that is not of their design, the speed with which they can be suddenly and permanently obliterated. It is an artful yet subtle technique that successfully creates a sense of empathy for the book’s subject before we are ever actually introduced to them.
And then, slowly—bit by bit—come the ants. The second piece, “An Ant in the Mouth of Madonna Behind Locked Doors,” illustrates a female ant but hesitates, still, to name her as an ant in the text. Instead, Nakayasu creates a syntactic portrait in which we are shown the ant’s invisibility and vulnerability through carefully arranged language: “Is there, is there, is there but can’t prove it to anyone, is small, is glistening and black, is determined, is hanging on, is hanging on, is at a loss for good perch, is wet, is blown by the wind when she takes a breath…” The repetition of the word “is” makes the ant’s smallness palpable. The slow building of linked phrases depicts the silent, invisible force of the colony behind any one individual ant. In the third piece, “Ladybug,” the ants give way again to another strange vignette in which the speaker goes to meet a friend and finds her under a “pile of swarming ladybugs” from which the speaker walks away, declaring in another boot-stomp ending “the sad end of our friendship.” In the fourth piece, “Girl Talk,” we see the ants as hearsay, as silence, and, again, as a symbol of immigrant experience and alienation, when the speaker tells a group of friends about “the man who came up to me and opened up his bag and offered me one of a teeming million wiggling ants in his bag” and “the whole table goes silent and I am reminded all over again how hard it is to get along with women in this country.” And then finally, in the fifth piece, “Battery,” we encounter the ants in full force, swarming with repetition, unbounded by punctuation, the speaker lost in the desert with a dead car battery and no one to help but the ants: “and there is no no no one around us except if you count count count those ants in the ant hill that is all we have all we have are the ants very ants and then we wire them up yes wire them up yes I said wire wire wire…”
Each piece in The Ants functions as a separate space, an isolated dream, but assembled together they become a cohesive whole, an interacting colony in which each individual is required to create the whole. “In this way,” writes Nakayasu in “Apple Seed, “a series of single ants is required to consume and entire.” And consumption is what they’re after. Ants represent what tries to get inside. They are a metaphor for creative process, for discovery, for, as Nakayasu puts it in the opening line of “Decay,” “the great desire to get inside of it—the poem, the painting, the movie, the music.” Thus, in the sixth piece, “Ant Farm,” their strategic appearance—their carefully planned invasion into the book—culminates when they find their way into the speaker’s body and turn her into the living ant farm she always longed for as a child. Finding herself at “maximum capacity,” she entreats a friend to shoot her so that the ants can get out through the “big gushing wound.” And so, with the exception of a few stubborn ants that linger on in the speaker’s heart, the majority rush out to find new homes anywhere they can find them. They invade empty homes and the bodies of strangers, training for their missions with elaborate drills and contests, travel continent to continent “as cargo, freight, baggage, but never passenger,” and, of course, burrow into the pages of the book itself, even its very writing process.
Some of the most lovely and primal moments in The Ants occur through the ants’ manipulation of Nakayasu’s writing. It is their story, and they make themselves a part of it on every level, demanding that she listen to them and absorb their rhythms, that they be allowed to alter it as they see fit. In “Desert Ant,” for example, the speaker observes the steps of the ant as “and and and and and…” then tries inserting various nouns from her “accumulation of nouns” in between the “ands,” an act which infuriates the ants until “finally I cave in, which means I stop to listen carefully. I am informed that I have thrown off the rhythm of ‘and and and and and.’ I am informed that this shall not continue. I am given several options.” The speaker chooses one of the provided noun options, but “then before I know it, the ant has made a decision, and then before I know it, the ant is in my mouth, and mouth, and mouth, and mouth, and mouth, and mouth, and mouth.” In “Ant Migration,” the ants don’t simply dictate the authors choices, but take on the work of writing themselves: “Under which sheet of white very white paper. Standard issue black ant. Appalled or indifferent or at a standstill, said ant begins to write. With no implement but its own rear end, a trail of food matter taken in one continent and deposited, in the form of writing, on another.” And in other pieces, they simply become the text—ant as writing, writing as creature or pet—as in “Harsh Edit,” when the speaker’s editor comes by to pick up a manuscript and edits her ant without asking while she is in the bathroom. Simultaneously outraged and wondering if the changes are for the best, the speaker resolves to “talk candidly with the ant and figure out what is truly best for all involved.”
Thus Nakayasu plays again and again with the notion of an organic text on the most thorough and intimate level. And it is an amazing achievement that her text is truly as alive as her subject matter—each vignette a separate being, small almost to the point of invisibility, yet always part of a greater whole, moving in a studied unifying rhythm toward a greater sense of connection. For in both writing and in ants, “ parallel is beautiful and black becomes green and lines have a natural inclination towards returning, and towards each other.”
Julia Bouwsma’s poems and reviews have appeared (or are forthcoming) in journals such as Cimarron Review, Colorado Review, Cutthroat, Natural Bridge, The Progressive, Puerto del Sol, RHINO, Sugar House Review, and Wisconsin Review. Bouwsma is Book Review Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Coeditor of Shape&Nature Press, and Poetry Editor for New Plains Press. She lives in the mountains of western Maine.