A Manifesto for Sensory Deprivation

March 3, 2014

Contributor’s Marginalia: Sarah Rose Nordgren on “The Abyssal Plain by Bruce Bond

In 2006, I made my first visit to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Moving slowly through the Hall of Ocean Life, I became enrapt by the dioramas of the ancient sea creatures that seemed to me shocking in their sublime ugliness, vulgar and exotic as sex organs. I felt like a voyeur looking into the secrets of time and the privacy of deep water, almost embarrassed.

The ancient fish (which share this quality of extreme foreignness with present-day deep sea life) stayed with me, for some reason, as analogs of human anatomy. For weeks after my visit, I imagined the creatures as internal organs, kept hidden in the darkness of my own body like dreams.

“Art is always haunted by the animal,” write Gille Deleuze and Félix Gauttari.

The first line of Bruce Bond’s sonnet, “The Abyssal Plain,” locates readers in this haunted territory, letting us know that we are now “Here beneath the last revenant of light/ that falls the way a man might fall asleep.” Bond offers us a temporary portal into the space where “old ships, derricks, nuclear waste,” the refuse of human civilization, coexist with these mysterious dream-creatures in the deepest recesses of the earth’s unconscious.

If our modern, psychological impulse is to reveal, to shed light on our fears, our secrets, our grief, Bond’s poem argues the opposite, stating that “What this world needs is a place to drown/ its refuse,” a place of safekeeping for the private, forgotten parts of us hidden away in darkness.

This poem is a kind of manifesto for sensory deprivation.

Mirroring the abyssopelagic ocean layer’s dutiful protection of its myriad mysteries, even the poem only half-welcomes the readers’ presence. It rejects our gaze when “the strange blue fin that sweeps/ a camouflage of dust into the camera” obscures our view of the scene we’ve just entered while also informing us that we are only visitors: what we see depends upon a fragile, manmade frame (the “camera”), a frame that a passing fish can cover as quickly as we might pull the bedroom curtains closed when undressing.

As philosopher Elizabeth Grosz has observed, in addition to “the creation of territory in both the natural and human worlds, art is also capable of that destruction and deformation that destroys territories and enables them to revert to the chaos from which they were temporarily wrenched.”

And so time and the sea maintain their secrets, and our visits into them are brief. And our own private “refuse” is likewise tucked safely inside our bodies, bumping along the bottom of our hearts like last week’s helium balloons.

Sarah Rose Nordgren

Sarah Rose Nordgren is the author of Best Bones, winner the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, which will be published by the University of Pittsburgh Press this fall. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Agni, Iowa Review, Pleiades, Harvard Review, Ploughshares, and the Best New Poets anthology. She grew up in Durham, North Carolina, and lives in Cincinnati. For more information visit sarahrosenordgren.com.

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