Ant-thropology: Sawako Nakayasu’s Insect Studies

I’ve waited seven years for this book.

In my second year of grad school at the University of Arizona (or MFA-Land, as I came to call it), Sawako Nakayasu read her poetry in the Modern Languages Auditorium to a hundred or so Creative Writing students. She was last in a lineup that included Deborah Bernhardt and Catherine Wing; all three were loosely grouped together as “language poets,” a label I found confusing and redundant. At the time I was still weaning my poetry from the school of grand, dramatic thesis statements. I was hungry for oddity, craved permission to loosen the grammatical grip on my own work. So language poetry it was.

Nakayasu’s poems fucked with fragmentation and run-ons. She threw parentheses into enjambments like a punk e.e. cummings. Her poetry was highly cerebral and kinda mathy in its breakdown and reconfiguration of linguistic forms. She read a lot of poems about bugs.

The poem that stuck in my mind for the better part of a decade was “Desert Ant,” which begins:

Says ‘and’ with every step, so that it sounds like this: ‘and and and and and and and and and and and and,’ and so on. By the time I make my way to the same desert, I have been collecting and carrying an accumulation of nouns over the past, oh I don’t know how many days, and so I insert them in between the steps of the ant.

And ends:

I thought we were doing okay, but before I know it the ant is out of sight, and 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.

You can find “Desert Ant” in Nakayasu’s new book, The Ants, along with ninety or so other poems that explore the mythical lives of formicidae.

This collection from Les Figues Press, Los Angeles’s best publisher of conceptual and experimental poetics, reads like a fantastical encyclopedia,  a journalistic bestiary of sentient insects. Straddling the boundary between prose poetry and flash fiction (is there even a line to blur anymore?) Nakayasu gives us a litany of half-page passages on the strange and ordered mechanisms of her imagined ant world.

Early on, we learn about the ants’ measurement of time in “Apple Speed”:

We have our light years, and they. Their longest unit of time is based on nothing else but. The lifespan of one of their own and. Different colonies use different varieties of apple, but. The time it takes for a single ant to eat an entire. Apple. . . . An so it goes on that an apple speed is the sum of a number of ant lifetimes, the total amount of time required for the consumption of an entire apple by one hypothetical, long-living ant, and so then the question might go, how many apple speeds does it take to dig this hole, from right here under my feet, straight through the underground and popping back up again over there where you.

See what I mean about the mathiness? Nakayasu outlines the parameters of living in the shadow insect world beneath the one her readers know. Even time takes on different properties in ant life. So much so that sentences are stopped before they can end, much like the short lives of ants themselves. What I love about this poem, like many others in the collection, is the line that Nakayasu draws between the lives of humans and the lives of her beloved ants. The speaker who shows up at the end of the poem ponders the distance between her and her missing friend (beloved? Family?), and if that distance can be measured in ant speed.

Elsewhere, in “Ice Event 2,” Nakayasu gives us a three and a half-page epic story about a colony of ants living under ice. The story begins with a division between the Home Ants and the Away Ants, and the subsequent journey through the ice, which leads to a hockey game, the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, the Great Wall of China, the continental divide, and back to the University of Colorado Ice Arena, all for the purpose of codifying the myth of the Frozen Ant Species and their survival. There are dozens of poems like this, which take quite a turn for the surreal.

Reading this book, I couldn’t help but think of the song, “The Ants Go Marching,” both the traditional children’s tune and the Dave Matthews Band’s 1990s hit. Neither are as compelling as the images or lines in Nakayasu’s book, but the image of ants marching in a line is a popular metaphor often used to illustrate the conformity, rigidity and ultimate futility of human lives. We lock into our place in the line, we work, we walk, we die, one by one, hurrah, hurrah. But Nakayasu’s poetry does not accept that. Or perhaps it does, but gives weight and attention to all the miraculous and strange things that happen within the line before it ends.

Take “Decay,” for example:

The great desire is to get inside of it – the poem, the painting, the movie, the music.

An ant, perceiving itself to have failed to get in anywhere, takes one brave leap off of a cliff, thereby making its last and final attempt to get into something, anything, anyhow.

The first line’s declaration reminds us why we are drawn towards art, despite or maybe because of our insignificant existences. In Nakayasu’s insect world, the ants, too, want inside creation. They, like us, are prone to the alienation and isolation of living. In the ant’s final leap off the cliff, the speaker in the poem describes the ant as “there, inside that sound, however short-lived, who cares if it is witnessed or not.”

Who cares indeed. Nakayasu probes the big existential questions through the lens of ants, the same insects we compare ourselves to in rueful humility. In the course of the universe’s history, the epic wars, love stories and poems of humanity mean next to nothing. “As important as ants,” you may hear someone say. Or, “We could be crushed like bugs.”

That may be true, Nakayasu seems to respond, but let me show you just how important ants are.

The ants have their battles and byzantine social rules too. Nakayasu asks her readers to crouch down and examine, imagine, the smaller and smallest. Her prose is tender and thoughtful, though it often lands in the tragicomic. For instance, in the poem “No Collective,”

a group of ants gets together and decides to form a collective. They gather all the necessary documentation, fill out all the proper information in the correct little boxes, get photos taken in the right size and dimensions and angle, and step precisely through every single hoop required of them to become an officially recognized collective.

This is the kind of humor Nakayasu exacts from her text. She leads us through an ant bureaucracy whose absurdity mirrors our own. The joke inherent in this setup: Why on earth would ants need a collective? Don’t they realize they are the epitome of all of our allegories for groupthink? Nakayasu then delivers her dry punchline: “Their application is denied, however, on the grounds that ants are an inherently collective species.”

Nakayasu is not afraid to break her dear ants’ hearts; in fact, she does so fairly often. The ants face apocalyptic fires, menacing human shoes, and turf wars with cockroaches. They are separated from their lovers, their children, and their friends, and indifferently swept into glass jars by curious or sadistic humans. Nakayasu recounts these ant tragedies not with the voice of an omnipotent omniscient narrator, but as a journalist on the ground, recording the stories for ant posterity.

At times, these prose poems take on a more spiritual quality, such as the surreal and psychosexual, “An Ant in the Mouth of Madonna Behind Locked Doors,” an ant that “is, and isn’t, and is.” Or in the poem with the koan of a title, “What Is an Ant Getting Washed with the Rice?” The book may pivot on passages like these, from the latter selection:

 . . . standing in a position, I believe, called still, there beyond, glimpsing unknown glossy yellow objects and a puddle of sauce spilled twelve minutes ago and a crumb, O glorious crumb, and that clear piece of Tupperware on the bottom of which lies another ant, which is in an equally problematic predicament, one that is neither inside nor outside, above or below, but firmly embedded within the plastic of the plastic.

Here, Nakayasu interrogates the relativity of belief and catastrophe. How do we measure the suffering of the ant tempest-tossed with the washed rice, relative to that of the Tupperware-trapped ant? Is rescue even a possibility for either of them? And in “An Ant in the Mouth of Madonna Behind Locked Doors,” we see another ant confined within a human universe, yet still retaining its roster of wishes and desires, both independent of and related to its pop star host’s body.

The central questions in The Ants: What is meaning? How is it constructed and destroyed? What miraculous and bizarre discoveries can be made within the fissures of its imperfect logic? The ants march across the page in their black lines, and the metaphor is clear. What are they marching towards? What will they find when they get there? Is anyone watching them, and does it matter?

In a certain light, The Ants can be taken for an instructional on life in the face of impending disaster. You never know when the shoe will crush down, when the colony will collapse. And yet. And yet. There are still collectives to be organized and Insect Olympics to train for. Foregrounded by the weight of history, our dramas are ridiculous, and aren’t, and are.

Lauren Eggert-Crowe's writing has appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, L.A. Review of Books, and DIAGRAM, among others. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks, The Exhibit and In The Songbird Laboratory. She lives in Los Angeles.