“The Light Shines Through All the Tears”
by Aidan Dingcong
Oni Buchanan, Must A Violence (University of Iowa Press, 2012)
“I was an invisible wheel in my own heart, / turning...” writes Oni Buchanan in Must a Violence, a collection of poetry lyrically structured to emulate the intersections of music, nature and machinery. Focused on subverting the common interpretations of these themes, Buchanan reworks the chaos of nature into a carefully scientific yet effortlessly natural system, bringing startling humanity to the creatures that operate within it. And as the dominant force within this system, mankind becomes the central issue, an agent of violence resulting from disconnection and misused power. Yet Buchanan's work is no mere commentary on the contrast between man and the natural world, though it reveals a very human problem as told through the context of humanity's intrinsic relationship with nature and machines. This is a problem of a breach; of a lack of awareness; and of an essentially moral, ethical violation of life that results from such a schism—a violence inflicted upon both the self and others, cured only by repairing the rift within the individual. Buchanan posits that such a healing process begins with an increased awareness of the body, engaging multiple senses to acknowledge one's physical presence in all its beauty and importance. The body becomes a chassis upon which a vessel for compassion can be constructed, allowing for a restoration of one's humanity and harmony with the surrounding world.
The foremost problem with the human condition is how “the limits / of our perception are so severe,” as Buchanan writes in “Jury Duty.” This establishes the basis for individuals' interactions with each other and the world, considering that “you can't // trust anyone, let alone yourself.” People are so removed from the greater context of social and ecological relations that most have no awareness of their own identities, leaving them to succumb to the machine-like conformity of a lifeless society. Such meaninglessness permeates even the holiday season, as illustrated in “December 24.” The speaker watches a cardinal—the only sign of vivacity in the drab and meager city—and pulled away "for what? / For what.” The unfortunate reality is that people are “more worried about their designer manicures and their / subwoofers” than their own selves, such that “even the most deserted bodies / are in line for a service.” Those empty husks who have lost all semblance of individuality become cogs in a system so unlike that of the natural world, leaving them vulnerable to the greatest source of danger—themselves.
But if machines are lifeless shells, what threat do they pose to themselves? The very genesis of violence must be considered in order to understand. In her titular poem, Buchanan asks, “Must a violence be inflicted upon / Must a violence first be undergone...” The answer to both questions is yes. Violence is cyclical in nature, rooting in the pain of one living creature and spreading forward rapidly—viral, ever-evolving, difficult to eradicate. Where does it originate? The source that Buchanan provides is disconnection. Lack of awareness produces such a vast rift that everything from misunderstanding, fear, disrespect, and intolerance may emerge from it, culminating in a directionless and uncontrollable violence. For the machines who lose themselves, their first violence is therefore self-inflicted—the speaker of “I Was a Whale,” for example, can no longer discern whether the perpetrator is “me / or the machinery to which I am / affixed.” Loss of self becomes a catalyst for a new chain reaction of violence, taking on a much graver significance when coupled with a lack of empathy for one's surroundings.
Then how does one combat such a pervasive cycle, or as Buchanan asks, “Is there anything I can do to help?” She answers her own question in “Otherworldly Thirst,” a poem concerned with cleansing poison from the body:
Yes, get yourself in order.
In fact, yes, pull yourself together.
Know thyself, as somebody once said.
Knit thyself together, tighten the
loose strands of ligament.
Here, a sense of personal responsibility to the body is impressed: first it was lost, reduced to a machine, and now one must reclaim it. The focus on multisensory aesthetic then comes into play in “I Heard Her Long Hair Making Five Sounds,” bringing a gentle, musical beauty to the body and appealing to a visual sense of sound that is repeated in “See.” The speaker watches two people meet, the woman “about to pull his voice like / a lavender ribbon from the gray blur / of other noises in the air.” This scene of recognition, acknowledgment, and connection is depicted with precious metaphors, characterized by an extreme attention to detail that encourages whole and total awareness.
This progression towards greater empathy is reflected in the speaker's desire to know how the woman perceives the world, a desire to understand how she, as a living being, inhabits her body—a total stranger's body. As Buchanan elaborates upon in “Sometimes a Body,” this kind of compassion develops “from watching the gestures / of a body … Sometimes / a body there is a necessary // intervention.” This intervention allows us to both step outside and embrace our own bodies, for it is through our own healing that we come to respect others' bodies and their vulnerabilities. After all, “the body's vulnerability … opens up a new // brilliant corridor filled with / light,” and as Buchanan's writing shows, our crippled light can mend.
Aidan Dingcong is a former Boston University student and an activist in various areas of social justice. Their writing has been published in the 2014 editions of Susquehanna University's The Writer's Apprentice and Towson High's Colophon. After withdrawing from BU, they returned home to Baltimore in time for the race riots and now spends their time making art, fighting oppression, and dissecting the Bible for problematic passages.