The Book of Feral Flora

By Amanda Ackerman


Les Figues Press
July 2015

Reviewed by Nora Boydston


How can a plant write a poem? Given the opportunity, what would it say? Would it say, "Ash Oak Oak Fir Fir Poplar Fir Poplar Ash Fir Fir Yew Elder Silver Ivy?" Is this what the Maple tree wants to communicate to us? If so, what does it mean?

According to her process notes, Amanda Ackerman generated several pieces by recording herself reading parts of the book (including the table of contents) and then sending them to programmer/poet Dan Richer who created "the technologies that allowed the plants to rewrite the pieces by responding to the sound frequencies of my voice . . . In other words, through their electrical impulses, the plants autonomously wrote their own versions of the texts, given the sensory capacities that were available to them." This process results in passages like the following, which was "written" by Iris:

dream. I brain. soul, a blossoming, banter, Sparks, a flare, flare, a flare, key, beam, key, beam, blossoming, a a a banter, Controlled, banter, a found, a pale, dream.

Such passages are interspersed throughout other pieces that are more recognizable as stories. While I doubted the 'autonomous' part of Ackerman's process, I tried to find what meaning I could reap from her experiments with plants. At first glance, the pieces "written" by plants seem meaningless. How can this be meaningful communication? I began to wonder whether Ackerman, by including these repetitive passages, which take up a good portion of the book, is asking us to find meaning in them. But then why would she devote so much of her page count to printing them if they had no meaning?

They are, in fact, less than meaningless, because there is no meaning to be made here, and that's the point. They are nonsense.

The plant-authored versions of the original texts serve as an incantation to break down language, our automatic and human impulse toward meaning making, as a way to bring us closer to the world of plants. Because plants have no use for language, this incantation strives to make us more like them. It creates a trance-like state in which we are more receptive to the stories she tells. It shifts our frame of mind, our frame of reference. In order to communicate and commune with plants, we must cast off that which makes us human—language—and become like the plants. The incantation makes us wild, feral.

Throughout the rest of the book, Ackerman's playful use of language requires the reader's mind to wander and explore. In "Feral Iridium Animate Matter" she writes, "I bring irises to the iris." This little phrase, which she repeats throughout, is crystalline and refracts the light your mind shines on it, presenting many possibilities: physically bringing irises (flower) close to the iris (eye) to look at them; examining irises (flower) closely in a philosophical way; bringing irises (flower) symbolically (as a gift) to the iris (eye) because irises are beautiful; or bringing irises (flower) symbolically as a gift to the iris (flower) to celebrate the flower by appreciating them.

This is the kind of thinking Ackerman's writing provokes.

Ackerman also diligently deconstructs familiar biblical stories and fairytales, making them wild. She releases them from centuries of sense making into something entirely foreign and strange. This releasing in turn reminds the introspective reader just how wild the original stories are. "Cultural artifacts should not necessarily be preserved," she writes, "Sometimes we must release that which has run its course."

In "The Triangulations," Ackerman subverts the Old Testament story of Jonah into a twisted tale of two sisters swallowed by a whale where they find a perverse Garden of Eden complete with its own sinister snake. Within, she questions (metaphorically and literally): what stories are worth telling? What is the relationship between the story and the storyteller? How is the storyteller subsumed, "annihilated" in the storytelling process? 

The story "One Heart is Better Than No Heart" begins with the declaration: "It is time the story changes for good because it is an old story." Ackerman weaves two seemingly unrelated tales together, one in all caps about a man dissatisfied with his job and therefore his life, and the other a retelling of the familiar Hansel and Gretel fairytale. The man "wanted to be wild but did not know how." The witch was once wild but has over time, become less so because "someone is taming her."

The two halves of the story go back and forth and eventually meet. The characters then switch places; the man becomes a witch and the witch settles down with a corporate job. Ackerman flirts with ideas of identity, gender, and sexuality throughout: our wants and desires; growing up; wanting to be someone else, or not wanting to be someone else; feeling discomfited by one's own body; changing over time; and becoming someone else, "because in the forest one thing can always become another." When the story ends, it immediately begins again on the very next page. The story is repeated word for word in its entirety, the only difference being the story is now on the opposite page, on the flip side of the book.

"A Few More Now Like Those" is an original tale packed with motifs from fables and fairytales: prophesies, a mystical woman living inside a mountain, vagina dentata. Yet the narrator, who was prophesied to become a healer, never does. Again Ackerman plays artfully and tenderly with the themes of identity. When something strange happens, "We never questioned this occurrence because we knew one day a person could wake up and the world would suddenly just be different." Which feels so true.

In the following piece, "Ways to Dismantle a Story," Ackerman offers instructions to the readers on how to dismantle the previous story, while reminding the reader that "dismantling is not the same as destruction." Instructions provided include "Eat the words" and "Will yourself to have a dream that you are hurling the story into the center of a black hole."

"Short Stones" pairs one page of text with a block of repeated names of trees printed on the opposite page. Once I got about halfway through the story, I realized the names of the trees creates a forest on the page; each time the tree's name is printed, it is that tree in the forest. Then I realized the book is printed on trees.

This is the kind of thinking Ackerman's writing provokes.

The final tale is "The Ideal Subject" where Ackerman speaks most directly to the reader, exploring the triangular relationship between author and text and reader. The narrator describes herself similarly to the way plants have been described in the book: she details her eating habits, her daily personal care routine, her reaction to the seasons, and her habitat, which consists of a long list of the contents of her apartment.

It was no surprise when I reached the "Acknowledgements" section at the end of the book where Ackerman declares, "I should not be listed as the sole author of this book. I do not believe in the concept of sole authorship."

Ultimately the sum of the book's parts is more interesting and meaningful than the individual pieces. The Book of Feral Flora requires an active, curious reader willing to put thought into the process. But in the end, the reader will be rewarded with a meaningful experience. And for a book that claims to be about plants, it really gets at the heart of being human: "That is what a human is: a borrowed body capable of radical love."