Domestication Handbook, not appearing, by its thickness (slender) or its cover (of bloodied and pounded meat arranged in symmetry) to be really a handbook on some aspect of farming, is in fact a book of finest pins. I took my time with it, and still it works into me, and I must pause, look up from the sentences, and pull them back out one by one to examine.
It is a poetry-essay hybrid, divided into three parts, and acknowledging Â an ‘imaginative debt’ as Stone puts it, to Â Laura Ingalls Wilder (ofÂ Little House on the Prairie), but also toÂ The Companion Species ManifestoÂ by Donna Haraway, to children’s books, to Emily Dickinson’s ”hope’ is the thing with feathers…’, to a once secret collection of Lesbian erotica, and yes, guides to country living and raising livestock. In â€˜Part 1: A basic guide to farmingâ€™, we witness an act of domestication:
Cathy is holding a kid between her knees. Its head is trapped in a special box. She is holding a hot thing which is buzzing. She is pressing it into the goat’s head. It is making a sound. It is screaming.
(The goat book reassures: it’s quick, humane, and painless. The goat could tear an eye out. Disbudding protects them from nature. Just playing is dangerous with horns. And how would you build a hay manger or a stanchion for such beastly livestock?)
Cathy presses the tip at an angle into the raw head meat.Â I’m sorry, sweetheart.Â The barn is full of smoke. It smells like diesel and gunpowder and singed hair.
From ‘an education in electricity and green things’. There is, as on any farm, animal death, animal suffering. Stone handles these moments of pain with vivid precision: the technical procedure of removing goat horn bud is revealed slowly, grimly. The placement of rational reasons (from a handbook) made feeble in contrast. Her technique of gradual revelation, the narrow literalness of what is happening â€“ Â â€˜Its head is trapped in a special box. She is holding a hot thing which is buzzing.â€ â€“ serves to focus us on to the intensity of the experience, hold us there as witness, our heads in a vice, our focus narrowed to the burning bump and its reek.
This is the sort of book which, through this focus, delivers a heat to the head a momentary buzzing. Language doing as it should, unsettling us from the stability of itself, from the surety of its domestication. Â A goat being aided in breach-birthing is compared to, obliquely, a loverâ€™s deep push:
The glove went up to her elbow. She reached inside to move the leg. Tom, his ears covered with a blue fleece headband, coached. Which side is it on? He asked. Can you feel the nose?
Let me try again, okay, sweetheart, she murmured, intent. (It was like the night before.) I clenched and throbbed in mammal empathy. Noises almost familiar.
From â€˜The Animal Questionâ€™. One must pause after such comparisons. In the other two parts of the book, Stone pulls back from the scene, becomes perhaps autobiographical as she questions and gently interrogates the idea of linearity, of memoir, of the stability of memoir and the supremacy of an individualâ€™s interpretation of events.
Pieces bear titles like â€˜I think it is perverse to write a memoirâ€™ and â€˜Hereâ€™s how it happenedâ€™, â€˜Meanwhileâ€™, â€˜Some of what makes usâ€™. Backtrack and contradiction. Inches of growth, or the golden-lit stasis of growing up, the small contentments, yearnings. â€˜The small mammalsâ€™ as she refers to herself and siblings.
Diffusion. Nothing is happening. You are fifteen. You are writing in your notebook all the time. You are in love.
From â€˜More notes for a memoirâ€™. Or, the tender whole of â€˜Writing that makes your mother sadâ€™, about the previously mentioned lesbian erotica:
This is an investigation into the relationship between the book and the body. After I went away to college, my mother found the book in my bedroom and said to my sister: gross. (But how else to know? Books are for learning.)
There were no stories in that book about holding hands. I tried to write one and failed. None about how it feels to have someone trace the contours of your ear while watching But Iâ€™m a Cheerleader under a sleeping bag, waiting tensely for her stepfather to come home from work. Or about going to a construction site to make out because itâ€™s surrounded by woods, for a little while longer.
These are moments within the calm world of American suburbia. The highly domesticated little mammals yet still pained, and loving, and butting against the sides of demarcations given for existence. An succeeding it pushing it back. The overall feeling I had was of hope, for the small mammals. For that which survives tenderly against and within the brutal world.Â For criticism I would say that there is too little of it. Things are written in a small space, perfectly. But there is perhaps not enough of the profusion. It simply means I would gladly read a longer work from Stone, something to sit inside, to wrap around myself and be enrobed, pressed, become diffuse.