Editorial: Between a metaphor and a hard place

My go-to mental image for the word “disaster” is the 79AD destruction of Pompeii, Italy. As Mount Vesuvius, a volcano near the Bay of Naples, performed its most catastrophic eruption, life in the region was simultaneously destroyed and preserved for posterity. In moments of disasters that happen close to me, my mind conjures images of a historical past unknown to and utterly inaccessible by me: kids playing in a garden, friends meeting in an ancient agora, blacksmiths and seamstresses working on that August day, all instantly mummified by ash and soot and toxic gas.

This, my brain’s, automatic reaction, I realize, is perhaps the truest function of metaphor. In order to protect myself from the present-day disaster or disasters, I transport myself to the historical past, oddly comforted by imagining the moment the disaster struck. I am comforted because metaphor provides me with a language with which to navigate the crisis, the anticipation of bad news, and the dark affect that surrounds me. With historical disasters there is a past, a disastrous present, and a surviving future. It is easier to conceptualize the disaster through metaphors and analogies borrowed from culture, literature, and history: a frozen screen, a bloody battle, a series of biblical curses. Are metaphors the only way to write the disaster?

This is a key negotiation that the contributors to this issue perform. Disaster is explored in some of this issue’s poetry as a “sinking ship” (Austin Lam), a “dark shade of truth” (Brooke Stanicki), “bloodstained leaves” on an old tree (Claire Ochieng), “deep oceans of black, white, red” (Olejuru Anozie). Other contributors take a different route. Borrowing from realism and naturalism, they attempt a demystification of disaster—with compelling effects. Some are matter-of-fact descriptions of decay: “They say we taste like mud after death, but it’s only the dry air sucking out your moisture” (Manjari Thakur); others oscillate between metaphor and fact, detailing testimonies of disastrous and calculated violence: “Out of nowhere, I sensed an irritation in my eyes, like someone was cutting onions. Then it got worse, harder to ignore as it spread to my throat […] People were choking and screaming, ‘I can’t breathe’” (George JM).

In my protective metaphoric imagery, that of the mass destruction of Pompeii, it is all over in a moment. In reality though, the disaster is never completed in a matter of seconds; it is scaffolded like a narrative arc over many moments, some coincidental, some intentionally murderous. Even though most Pompeiians were stunned in an instant rigor mortis, the catastrophe took almost eighteen hours to be completed. We are tempted to think of disaster as a horrendous tableau vivant, when in reality it is an altogether exceptional temporality, characterized by constructions of ancestral dreamlands (Sarah El Halabi), imagined and remembered ordinary springs (Guneet Kaur), and rules of a forced “priesthood” (Maya Jane Sorini): what Anne Spollen here calls “the permanence of the momentary.”

Disaster, ultimately, is as much about preservation as it is about destruction. This, too, is a prevalent concern for the artists, writers, and practitioners featured in this issue as they navigate the map of disasters from valleys of despair to peaks of hopefulness, employing writing to connect “the alive and the deceased, the survivors and the lost and dispersed in a chthonic universe, underground and under skin together” (as Fabio Oreccini discusses regarding his creative process). The voices gathered here function simultaneously as recording eyes, ears, and hands that provide us with windows to social, political, and health disasters (like our cover art, by Karla Yvonne Ganley) and reminders that any disaster comes with psychic and bodily transformation—and with the necessity of leaning into every detail of our individual and collective bodies (Aaron Wiegand).

In this issue we provide two ways to navigate the contents: apart from the standard list of names and titles, we have also categorized the contributions thematically, urging our readers to explore each piece individually but also, crucially, in dialogue with the others.

1/11/2020

Iro Filippaki