Review: Joan Flemingon Shastra Deo

The Half-Life of Caution

There is a story told in Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer I’ve never been able to forget. It’s about a cameraman who longed for a medal. This cameraman had read a lot of Hemingway, and he knew from his reading that war makes you real, so he went into the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation to do some filming. This was soon after the explosion, when the place was being ‘cleaned’ and the people were being evacuated. He saw villagers washing the roofs of the buildings and Soviet workers burying the very soil of the place deep in the soil. He saw cattle being shot and the bulldozers that had dug a giant trench to bury the cattle. Everything went deep into the ground. 

It was very dusty, a horrible, dry May. The dust was everywhere. The cameraman carried his camera around, with his precious rolls of film that cost more than bullets. He knew this was the kind of thing for which he would get a medal, but nothing was blowing up. Nothing was obviously ‘warlike’. It wasn’t clear where he should be pointing the camera. The radioactivity was everywhere – ripe, buzzy, abundant – but it was difficult to know where the danger might be hiding. It was difficult to read the signs. A stork landed on a field. Was it luck? Was this life in triumph?   

Then the cameraman saw an apple tree in blossom, and he started filming it. The bumblebees were buzzing, and the blossoms were in their bridal white. It was beautiful, but something felt wrong, and he couldn’t figure it out. The picture was fine, the lens was in focus. Then it hit him: he couldn’t smell a thing. The orchard was blossoming, but there was no smell. He asked the others in his group, ‘Does the apple blossom smell?’ No, they answered. It doesn’t smell of anything. Even the lilac, famous in Russian literature, didn’t smell at all.  

Everything around the cameraman then began to take on the quality of the surreal. It was as if he had walked onto a stage set, and everything around him was fake, and his mind wasn’t in any state to get to grips with it. His mind had nothing to fall back on. It was as if ‘there was no map’. 

You are surrounded by message. Something is trying, very hard, to be told… 

This must mean something.  

It must mean.  

It must.  

The dust, of course, was radioactive dust. When the body comes into contact with high levels of radiation, it shuts down certain senses. The cameraman didn’t know this at the time. He couldn’t know this. Gorbachev was on the television saying, ‘Everything is fine.’ Undegraded nuclear waste’s corruption of the body at the level of the DNA is incredibly swift. How much dust had the cameraman swallowed? Maybe he would be fine?  

Later, the cameraman woke up in the hotel in the middle of the night, and out the window, he saw dozens of jeeps with lights flashing, moving down the street. Watching this, he described a feeling of ‘something like trauma’, something like finding yourself inside of a war film (or a video game): ‘All of your side has fled town, and you are left alone, with some decision you have to make. What’s the right thing to do? Play dead? Or what? And if there’s something you have to do, then what is it?’ 

This is what is certain: something is here  

and it wants to hurt your fleshy body.  

Shastra Deo’s new book of radioactive poetry, The Exclusion Zone, participates avidly in these surreal sensations. The poems pay disorienting witness within a variety of situations, from the universes of video games to unimaginable futures where human descendants encounter monuments to humanity’s most acute pollutions.  

Some poems seek to activate the reader’s agency in these degraded worlds through direct address. In the choose-your-own-adventure style poem, ‘It Survives’, you cross a length of land on your hands and knees for a very long time. You come to a landscape of thorns. There are inscriptions, urgent yet mysterious. You sense that there is something you might be able to go more deeply into, but you don’t yet understand. There is no map. Or there is a map, but you cannot read it:  

In the time it takes for  

you to read it, entire languages go extinct.  

This is a uranium tomb 10,000 years in the future: a monument marking a burial site, the contents of which are still enormously harmful. The message of warning is everywhere – strange, compelling, inscrutable – but it elicits a feeling not of deterrence, but of curiosity.  

There is a decision you have to make. It arrives at the bottom of every page: 

To climb down and go further, turn to page 63.  

To leave, turn to page 89. 

In the world of the choose-your-own-adventure, as in the world of the video game, you make choices, and these choices make the world, but there is always the chance of a do-over. Maybe you go deeper into the landscape of thorns. Maybe you start to dig. Maybe it is the wrong choice, in which case, you can go back. You can start again. Maybe the signs and symbols, once so inscrutable, start to make sense. Maybe now you can read the meaning of the dust.  

Nuclear semiotics is the name for the study of long-term nuclear waste warning messages. It is the study of how to deter curious humans 400 generations in the future from digging up massive deposits of radioactive waste. The driving question of nuclear semiotics is how to say if you dig here, you will die and you will kill many others in a way that will never degrade. The trouble is everything degrades: language degrades, the meaning of symbols degrades. If you make a landscape of thorns – one of the ‘hostile architectures’ dreamed up by the Human Interference Task Force in the early 1980s to prevent humans from meddling with waste repositories – how can you be sure that the message will convey Danger! and not Buried Treasure

The trouble is that humans are treacherously curious. We love to eat the apple, open the box, dig up the mummy king and put his solid golden sandals in a museum case.   

The trouble is that 10,000 years is a long time. The oldest Egyptian hieroglyphs are 5000 years old. The oldest standing church is less than 2000 years old. Modern English is about 400 years old. Today’s dictionaries are fully functional only if they are descriptive, not prescriptive; they must let in the neologisms. The meanings of our world’s objects and sayings pass into obscurity faster than the sparrow’s flight through the mead hall. On the other hand, the half-life of uranium-235 is 4.46 billion years. 

When we enter into these considerations of deep time, everything starts to feel extremely strange – a bit fake, like a stage set – and images burr in the memory. This is the feeling of entering The Exclusion Zone, where war history and fandom references are made phantasmagorical within the pressurised mystery of the lyric. If the context of one of Deo’s poems is not familiar to you – if, for example, you don’t know anything about The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – you may find yourself mapless, groping about for a foothold, trying to read the signs. The experience is unsettling. Like coming across an illegible landscape of thorns.  

Deo began this book in pursuit of a language of warning. In an age of precarity and environmental degradation, she wanted to test whether poems can do something. ‘The threat of no future hovers overhead like a storm cloud,’ she writes, and the precariousness of the present makes our moment feel uncannily stretched out: a weirdly endless now, rather than a path to a future somewhere. Part of the book’s project is to enact prophecy, and then unsettle prophecy’s claims to knowledge.  

Like exposure to radiation, the pressure of the unknown does things to the body. Reading the book, I often felt as if a secondary sense, or a frame of reference, was being muted.  In sketching out an annihilated future, a ‘wasteland’ where the only landscape features are those that protect uranium tombs, Deo uses aesthetic strategies that force the reader to reach for their tools. In ‘It Survives’, sections in Hindi can be translated with the camera function of Google Translate. Other poems are constituted from the materials of obscure videogame or fan-fic subcultures, and can only be unlocked with reference to the author notes. The experience is quasi-archaeological. These highly contemporary subcultures are melded with a vision of speakers and characters navigating active semiotic degradation: ‘our wasting language’. The reader is also implicated in the breakdown of meaning, and in the work of reconstitution. The effect is unforgettable. 

One poem that crystallises this effect is ‘Aubade (Earth-TRN688)’. The poem is about a boy and an ‘other’ making their way through a degraded landscape. The boy and the other encounter a dead body (‘the jellied mess of an eyeball’), they experience hunger, they tell stories, and they feel themselves degrading. The poem’s imagery is almost unbearably vivid. Descriptions of place left me with an iron taste, like blood in the mouth:  

The only thing that grows from the soil is a contusion  

the colour of chewed plums… 

Sky stippled pink like the smooth  

muscle of the stomach.  

However, the physical, logistical, biomechanical organisation of these two bodies is utterly bewildering. Somehow, the other lives in the boy’s throat; somehow, they share a set of gums; somehow, the other has the ability to eat the boy’s thyroid. What the actual fuck.  

I read this poem a second time, feeling perturbed and even angry at its ontological impossibilities, before I remembered to reach for my tools. I learned that Earth-TRN688 is the Marvel universe in which Investigative journalist Eddie Brock breaks into a secret lab and releases a sentient, amorphous alien symbiote called Venom who merges with Eddie’s body, possessing and devouring him and rotting his organs. Treacherous curiosity. 

On a third reading, the poem cracked open like a geode, and inside I found something glittering and legible and amazing and wrong. Deo has made this non-consensual and parasitic Marvel plot into a dark love story – an aubade, that classic form that sees lovers parting reluctantly in the dawn. The other (the symbiote) finds that the boy ‘tastes like a river in spring’; inside the thyroid is ‘a pearl / that pops to tar, warm / as a live rabbit’. The other grasps the boy’s trachea, ‘tender as a wound’, and then, the symbiote tries their voice at metaphor: ‘LIKE THE BUTTERFLIES, they try, IN THE STOMACH.’ This makes the boy cry. Whether with sweetness or despair, it is impossible to say.  

Butterflies in the stomach: an idiom invented in 1908 that still makes sense today. I wonder what sense will be made of it in 10,000 years’ time. The trouble with images is that they last, but they change. The image of the skull and crossbones means danger, poison, contagion, pollution, malice. For medieval alchemists, though, it meant Adam’s skull – first life! – and the cross was the cross that promised resurrection. 600 years ago, it meant not just life, but double life: life after life. Now it means death. Maybe ‘butterflies in the stomach’ will one day mean not romance or nervous excitement, but sickness. Could poetry make this happen?  

What can poetry do, anyway? Can it sew itself into myths and stories, the ones that last? Poetry, of course, is full of archetypes, but the only archetypes I can think of that originated in a poem and made their way into culture come from Homer. The weaving woman, the wandering husband. One of the wild propositions of the nuclear semioticians is the ‘ray cat’, specially bred domestic felines that would change colour when they came close to active radiation. The cats would turn blue, or green, and then humans would know to move on from the site. The changing colours of the ray cats, though, would be meaningless unless stories about them were sowed deep in the culture. Maybe poetry could do this work, if as many people read poems as watched Marvel movies.  

Can poetry make anything happen, then, in the map-free atmosphere of late capitalism, in an age when we’ve trapped pollution in a suffocating blanket round the earth and buried it deep in the ground, but not deep enough? Deo is preoccupied with the notion of the reader as active player, and with the idea that a command (‘Turn to page ___’) is ‘a literary speech act that can nonetheless be enacted in the real world’. I haven’t answered the question of what poetry can do. I don’t think Deo has, either. But I can answer the question of what poetry at the end of the world should feel like. It should feel like being peeled. It should feel like being untethered. It should feel as if the charged membrane around all your cells, the place where relationality lives, is being softly and lovingly electrocuted.  

The Exclusion Zone is a successful realisation of such loving electrocution. The poetry is elliptical, thaumaturgic, lovely, and disturbing. It is crisp and over-spilling, muscular, visceral, smell-free. It is as surreal and as memorable as the scentless apple blossoms buzzing with bees. It is tangled in its subreddit allusions, adoring of its own private world logic. The poems clutch the heat of a live rabbit, they cast their spells, they give voice to a yearning to hunt, kill, fuck, and eat. In these poems, love is when fucking, eating, and being eaten are the same thing.  

In unsettling performances of empathy, Deo thinks her way into the subjectivity not only of the destroyed, but also of the destroyer. ‘I like trying on your body,’ she writes of videogame antihero thug Goro Majima, an experience of ‘sticky/-hot joy’. In ‘Canto for Sumitomo Bank (Hiroshima Branch)’, the speaker of the poem is not the annihilated person whose outline remains on the stone steps bleached pale by the heat and force of Little Boy. No. The speaker of the poem is the bomb itself – or perhaps the bomb’s radiation, fresh and abundant, a radiation that wishes for its own containment or diffusion: ‘an easement of lead, a funeral mask’. The poem’s end-words spell out the entirety of Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’, creating a haunting inverse between the apparition of the faces in the crowd – ‘petals on a wet black bough’ – and the dark human shadows left on the stone of the city in the wake of the atom bomb. The speaker says, ‘In the / all-night I believed I alone emitted light within the crowd’; this attribution of desire and belief to a kind of sentient radiation makes it utterly new.  

Throughout the book, poems set degradation and deathlessness into charged simultaneity. ‘Frameshift Mutations’, an experiment with how insertions and deletions in language might echo frameshift mutations in DNA, enacts a forward momentum of transformation whose result sounds oddly like Old English. One poem in the book tells us that ‘nothing dies’ (‘Search History’) and another tells us that ‘everything lives’. A buried Chernobyl pine, a thing destroyed, is unearthed and found to be ‘an incorruptible saint’. Charged with the disposal of deathless forces, we are told we ‘must forget a thing to kill it’ (‘Undertakers of the Atom’). The bad news for nuclear semiotics, and for the poetry of warning in general, is maybe that the most effective burial is not to mark the site at all.  

I don’t believe that, though. Don’t put the nuclear waste in bunkers half a kilometre underground. I like Timothy Morton’s idea of coating it in gold – a substance which shields against neutrons – and bringing it into the public squares. Make it an object of contemplation. Let’s keep looking straight at it, until we lose all our senses, because maybe the nothing that poetry makes happen is the nothing you do when you’re paying attention.  

I told you these poems were odour-free. I lied. There are two smells: ‘the smell of soil after rain’ (‘Search History’), and the smell of the ‘green-scented / lilies’, in a poem that curses you to: 

listen so hard  

you’ll hear a dandelion seed float