Monday, January 05, 2009

Making a me, cell by cell

"A self, I thought, that's what I want: a pure/ production of the cells, like ivory/ or copper claws..." So begins a poem in Erica Funkhouser's newest collection of poems, Earthly. She is a splendid poet, with whom I once had the pleasure of spending a few lovely days. She teaches at MIT, and has an acute sensitivity to the natural world. Earthly, indeed.

This particular poem, in which she longs for a natural self -- "I wanted her to show herself, to ache/ to brim, to banish all ambivalence..." -- is one of a number of sonnets in the new volume that pay homage to the Holy Sonnets of John Donne. The self she wishes for, this pure production of the cells, would "master me, and in her mastery/ I'd flourish like the brilliant spiral tusk/ advancing from the narwhal's alchemy/ to penetrate the sea's perpetual dusk."

And like any good poem, this one makes me think, about just what is a self, and how a self is to a large extent a production of the cells, not pure perhaps, because in interaction with non-self from the first moment when the progenitor cell starts to divide -- two, four, eight, sixteen -- and a self begins emerging, like the tiniest tip of a narwhal's tusk, spiraling into a waiting world. Cells, oh yes, trillions of cells -- blood, bone, flesh, ivory teeth, copper nails, and more neural synapses that you can count, each one carefully potentiated by genes or experience -- a completely natural thing, no ghost in the machine, and yet, and yet, so tangled in ambivalence, in pangs of longing for the undefinable thing, in the seemingly perpetual dusk that haunts the darkest hours of the night. All those scientists at MIT working busily to discern the substance and dimensions of the natural self, and over there in the Department of Writing and Humanistic Studies the poet does her own burrowing into the mystery.