J’Lyn Chapman: Beastlife

Review by Karolina Zapal


In a recent lecture by J’Lyn Chapman at Naropa University entitled “The Emergence of Consensuality,” she announced, “I want to hold space for all of it.” And maybe she did not define her “all,” or maybe I busied myself with frantically scribbling in my notebook rather than keeping an ear open to memory, but I cannot recount what exactly her “all” encompasses. In saying this, I acknowledge that every “all” entertains boundaries set for it by personality and accountability—I am a person, and I feel accountable to blank. Thankfully, however, Chapman’s “all” is explored in her book, Beastlife. It begins by nerving a more generally adopted definition of “all,” a definition which burns on an overwhelming gust of ideas and desires longing to come to fruition. Chapman says, “It is a cold sound and you standing at the foot of the bed knee-deep in green water, telling me, this is the water from the ladle in my chest for you.” In this quote, the ladle overflows, the chest aches, and there’s too much love to contain within a subjective everything. This want to “hold space for all of it” causes the body to feel ill and project its love as unrefined flood, ironically threatening the things it wishes to protect. However, as the text travels through five sections of nature-logue, body play, and beastly attention to detail, the “all” is purified into a healthy and resonant breadth of concerns. I am a person, and I feel accountable to…

Beast and life frame the wings of the spectrum and maintain a range of evolved ideas: animal on one end, man on the other, and a beastlife middle ground. The cue to separate these stems from the quote, “To understand how men and animals live, we must witness how a great number of them die,” which recognizes men and animals, even though we harbor one and the same instinct. Consequently, one has to be named beast and the other life. An exploration:

Man as beast / animal as life

  • Chapman says, “What is a lie if it can be corroborated by books?” Given that lies invite judgment strewn with criminality and danger, any form of life intelligent enough to write fiction–and through writing fiction, to validate lies–casts a beastly light.
  • In speaking of Darwin’s affair with observing nature, Chapman states, “…A detail he notes then strikes.” Although seemingly contradictory to the statement condemning fiction writing, since noting observation can be seen as an event of inception, this particular statement only deepens man’s relationship with beastling. “Striking” is unnatural to the act of observation; either one sees something or one doesn’t. Therefore, Darwin’s practice reeks of editing, which can easily equal lying.
  • The quote, “I watch the hunters leave their cabins in a line of bravest to new,” immediately paints man as hunter as beast, but it also does something else, more subtly. Although “line” initiates an image of strict order, an unbecoming business for a beast, the way in which the hunters line up depends entirely on fear. Beast acts on instinct, on fear.
  • Categorizing the human as predator and animal, as prey, parallels human as beast, and animal as the life that feeds it. The quote, “My mouth is full of rabbits. Their taste is dust and grass. The sensation is moths,” projects these roles through the transparent, electrifying, and also papery taste of its image.

Man as life / animal as beast

  • The quote, “…Hormones smell supple as a bed,” delivers the part of life or life-giver to the human whose furnishings for a mating call rely on the devout comfort and physicality of a bed. An animal’s furnishings for a mating call, on the other hand, are much more primal and in this case, unmentioned.
  • To compliment another human by saying, “You are so good. So pretty like an infant,” portrays the human as a child and again suggests a capability to bear children—“Bear Stories”—yet refuses one the ability to communicate ravaging, beastly desire.

To introduce solely one being: man is animal is beast is life. Throughout the book, Chapman stamps content with echoes of fused worlds and uses prose form to properly compress all of nature’s folds into a single origami shape. Instances like, “We came to the body of a bird as if to a lover’s,” and, “I was anxious because I wanted to admire it in the manner of being in it,” take a subjective, gentle approach to the animal, to the human, knowing one could easily morph into the other. This readiness arises in part from an unrequited desire that marks the book in casualties. A dissatisfaction with love, a sexual nostalgia, a yearning that’s so vibrant that it necessitates escape from the current physicality of body, demands recognition in the address, “That we ask each other questions suggests we need each other and still feel each might have the other’s answers. You were not home, so I waited,” and in others with similar consistency in tone. This being said, the book reminds the reader that one can put the book down as easily as feel into the oneness of the circle of life. Even in the center of desire or thoughts about its not being fulfilled, rest reality and sleep that fade desperation: “In that light, your face spuming, your face solid and churned up, I napped.”

Throughout its five sections, the book commits to a prose form that’s interrupted solely by parts in which dashes signify line breaks. When I think about why this project thrives in prose, my mind reaches to what I find most interesting and critical to the form: the decision to compress in order to unfold. Chapman unites lines comparable with how she unites the creatures of this world, so that she could unfurl a beastly desire narrative in the wake of human intelligence. This narrative, which can also be extracted as her “all,” calls for the extension to peak beast and to peak life, affording fertile grounds for a planted fever.