What is your interpretation of the Icarus myth? Do you see it as a tragedy of foolish, careless youth? Or as a harsh indictment against unchecked ambition and its attendant transgressions? Are we to read it as a cautionary tale outlining what occurs when you ignore (patriarchal) orders? What lessons and assumptions are embedded in his fall?
Featherbone, Erica Mena’s book-length poem, circles around the possible fate of a woman-identified Icarus. The book draws upon and appropriates a wide range of sources—cyborg feminism, Gray’s Anatomy, ornithology texts, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Audre Lorde, The Oxford English Dictionary, amongst others—in order to trouble our notions of the mythic. Early on, the book reveals its frustration with how the myth is frequently told:
In every other telling it fails
The word flight on the horizon–
to burrow, to flash, to flesh, to tempt like glass in a wave and shift the edge
No whisper of change,
the unsought gift, just failure and fall and that part’s true. The featherbone
can’t resist. You have nothing to surrender in the archback fall the sunsear fever
the center sucked out.
In most accounts, the fall is linked with failure, devastation, shame; the fall connotes human limitations. Icarus does not heed his father’s instructions, he is too overcome by the sensation of flight, and for this he plunges to his death. What is lost in this insistence on failure? What of the burrowing, flashing, tempting? Mena mutates the familiars of the Icarus myth in order to mediate on our capacity for regeneration and metamorphosis. Thus, there is no escape from Crete, no Daedalus, no warning, just the (hybrid) body and the fall—slowed down and expanded. In this extended space we are able to focus on the turbulent, looping shift from ascent to descent, from figure to other, from whole to fragments. In this way the narrative becomes falling itself. When I say becomes, I mean that to read the text is to feel close to weightlessness, dizziness, abandon. Some of this is due to the language. Mena stitches together “compound neologisms,” invented words that amplify the frictions between sound, image, and meaning. For instance, what is a featherbone? Is it the name of our Icarus figure or does it refer to her prosthetic body part?
The featherbone sought to root. In boneflight. In featherfall. In asphyxia
the featherbone seeks. Still. The featherbone seeks history and flight,
skinrip and slough already opaque where the featherbone sinks
its point to fleshfallow feed in shallow to marrow to hollow.
In the above quote, the featherbone appears to have volition; it not only moves in the service of flight, but it also desires, searches, knows. If it is a mechanical part, how can it seek both inclusion and escape? If featherbone is our Icarus figure, why does she thwart our efforts to define the boundaries of her body? In Mena’s text, bodily forms break away from a staticness: our tendency to objectify, misinterpret, and confine. In the midst of plummeting towards the sea, the featherbone splinters, flattens, sacrifices. It evolves to develop speech, to teach “relations” and “shapes.” In the face of trauma, the featherbone violently recombines and adapts:
even if it burns, twisting itself
through the stripping
a deeper skin she slips under
The compound word signals an activation: a merging between human and animal, machine and nature, singularity and erosion. How does the featherbone function as a cyborg? By extending beyond our perceived limits—the text fuses seemingly disparate terms (poetical, technical, scientific, etc.) in order to give voice to a language centered intimately on processes of change. In the Greek myth, Icarus is punished for going beyond our understanding of human. Mena meditates on the myriad possibilities flowing within our limitations. She reveals it to be a site of invention, fluctuation, and compromise.
Featherbone is the only neologism that repeats throughout. The other combinations (over 800 in total) are only used once: skullhollow, searshut, laceveined, bloodthrum, skinchurn. These words evoke anatomy but in ways that destabilize our notions of bodily structures and behaviors. What counts as a body? What are its boundaries? Why do we so often confuse the myths that surround bodies as expressions of the bodies themselves? Such questions swirl round and round. The neologisms force you to read the text closely, to struggle under the weight of unfamiliar sounds rubbing up against each other, to consider how our blood might breathe and searshut during frenzied flight.
This sensual attention to bodily function is contrasted with excerpts from texts like J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine. Baker’s objective, voyeuristic voice (relating the behaviors and patterns of a species of falcon) often presents the peregrine as Other, mysterious, exotic. In one section Baker describes a female falcon’s cry as “harsh and ugly” before going on to describe “her soaring [as] an endless silent singing.” The peregrine is both misheard and muted. At points in the narrative it feels as if someone else watches the featherbone as Baker watches the peregrine. You are not quite sure who exactly the “I” or “you” refer to—the pronouns mingle and divide wildly. Do these voices represent different facets of our Icarus figure? Or is a myth “incomplete” without a witness? Twice a speaker admits a desire “to know what’s inside your bones” and “to know the color of your bones”(26). This line recalls an earlier image that occurs towards the beginning of the book. In an appropriated passage, either from The Peregrine or another ornithology text, the speaker describes “the framework of a bird on its back,” drained of flesh and headless, but with its wings still intact. Both lines show a fascination with structure, with what makes and unmakes, with what sustains. The more the speaker tries to know featherbone, the less knowable featherbone becomes:
You are the moral.
Yes, you say.
Is this a wing or a stain.
Split, you say. It splits.
And then. Empty
and striated and
Unlike Icarus, Mena’s poem resists a fixed lesson. The text would rather split and empty out than be reduced to a digestible conclusion. Whereas the Icarus myth is a straightforward tale of human folly, Featherbone chants and unfurls a knotty, visceral song of unbecoming and reemerging.