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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 8, Number 1, March 2014

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Rich Youmans
North Falmouth, Massachusetts, USA


On Melissa Allen's "The Shape of Water"

Things are not always as they appear, and Melissa Allen's haibun "The Shape of Water" both explores that concept and exemplifies it. Beginning as something of a philosophical discourse on physical form (informed by, among other things, Benoit Mandelbrot's "fractal" geometry), it ultimately reveals itself as a meditation on one of the most basic relationships of human existence: a mother and her child. The haiku help to move along this transition, as well as bring in the concept of evolutionary change. It's a heady mix, but also a moving haibun that, like all great writing, transports the reader, encourages conjecture and re-reading, and inspires a new way of looking at the world.

The haibun begins with not one but two epigraphs—"background info," so to speak, for Allen's prose and haiku. The first is from James Gleick's book Chaos: Making a New Science:

The new geometry mirrors a universe that is rough, not rounded, scabrous, not smooth. It is a geometry of the pitted, pocked and broken up, the twisted, tangled and intertwined. . . . [S]uch odd shapes carry meaning. . . . They are often the keys to the essence of a thing.

The passage refers to Mandelbrot's fractal geometry and his "theory of roughness." Through his fractals, Mandelbrot sought to reimagine the shapes of nature. Previously, natural objects had been defined by mostly "smooth" geometric shapes (circles, parabolas, etc.). Mandelbrot sought to redefine them through irregular shapes ("fractals"), which were developed by calculations that produced endlessly iterating patterns. These calculations, he said, could be applied to all types of natural formations in order to more precisely measure and understand them—mountain ranges, human arteries, and, yes, bodies of water: rivers, waves, oceans. As ultimately demonstrated by Mandelbrot and those who followed in his path, these "rough" patterns may have been "odd" (the most famous example looks like a prehistoric crustacean), but they revealed that the universe, rather than simply being a realm of random chaos, actually has some defining structure and meaning.

The second quote is from the "Full Fathom Five" passage in Shakespeare's The Tempest:

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made,
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.

This passage focuses not just on the deterioration of a drowned body, but its transformation, as the sea water effects a change of its molecules and breaks them down into new and somewhat wondrous natural formations. So, armed with a title and two epigraphs, here is what we have as preparation for the haibun to come: Water and its apparent shapelessness will play a key role, although based on Mandelbrot's system, water actually can be given a shape (albeit one that is "odd," "twisted," "scabrous," and, by extension, somewhat grotesque). And just as water itself can be deformed and transformed into a new, more meaningful shape, so too is it both deformer and transformer, able to shape the elements that enter it into something "rich and strange."

But the strange and unfamiliar are not always welcome, and when Allen begins the haibun, she focuses on this idea of shapelessness as something to be feared. From the paragraph's initial posit—"We say things are shapeless when they have a shape we don't like"—Allen goes on to describe shapelessness in a variety of ways, all negative and relating back to the idea of chaos:

We say things are shapeless when they have a shape we don't like, that is to say an irregular shape, a lack of symmetry, a pointlessness, a want of recognizable organizing principle, an unanalyzable form, an outline that fails to substantially map to any other outline we've ever seen, an unfamiliarity, a strangeness, a monstrosity. We are afraid the shapeless thing will take us over, erase our edges, unbalance us, take away our sense of purpose. We are afraid we will be eaten.

By the end of that first sentence, with its build-up of damning descriptions and attributes, the concept of "shapelessness" has become monstrous. That's driven home by the last two sentences, which allude to the Shakespeare epigraph: The shapeless "thing," epitomized by The Tempest's ocean, is a destroyer that will transform us into something else, something unknown and therefore to be feared. And then we come to the first haiku:

you're water step into the water

Like a mother encouraging a fearful child, the haiku reminds us that we too are composed primarily of water, are of nature. It seems to be urging us to enter into the unknown, to take the first step toward a better understanding of ourselves and our relation to the universe.

In the next paragraph, Allen ties shapelessness and this idea of change to something else: childbirth.

A woman is often referred to as shapeless, especially after she has borne children. She is no longer a tidy package, she has been stretched, distorted, colonized; she leaks, her boundaries are not clear. Her infant seems at times like a removable appendage, a strange growth on the body that appears and disappears, both unpredictable and grotesque. Her flesh ebbs and flows, like the sea, to accommodate the child's appetite.

Now it's a woman's body, post pregnancy that has no definition: It has changed, and the former boundaries that made her body a "tidy package" are gone. Allen in fact describes the woman's body in watery terms: her flesh "ebbs and flows, like the sea," and it "leaks." The infant, meanwhile, has "colonized" her body: Where before the mother carried the baby inside her, now she often has it in her arms, lifting it and laying it down and holding it close to her—especially at feeding time, when the child actually takes fluid from its mother. This only adds to the woman's shapelessness, as the baby sucks at her "leaking" breast, and Allen again uses adjectives that convey the entire situation as being alien; it is "strange, grotesque." The passage ends (just as the first did) with a reference to eating, but in this case it is the child's appetite that is taking from the mother, is transforming her. One can't help but think again of the Shakespeare passage, and how much it informs this whole section.

But that reference to Mandelbrot's theory can't be ignored. When read with that in mind, this second section gains a new perspective: All natural formations, whether a body of water or a human body holding a baby, can be better understood—their "shapelessness" measured—if we define them by a "new geometry." And that geometry would also demonstrate how so much of nature, the entire universe in fact, is tied together ("tangled and intertwined") by some type of ordered evolution. The mother may view her baby as alien, a "strange growth," but the connection between the two remains strong: They, like everything else in the universe, are intertwined. The haiku concluding this passage furthers the idea of connection and evolution by framing the woman's transformation, and human childbirth in general, as being in line with an ancient ritual (one that, again, involves water, although in a less intimidating form):

in a shadow in the pond eggs being laid

In the next section, the sea—which before had only echoed throughout the piece after being introduced by the Shakespeare epigraph—is described directly, along with its creatures:

The sea, too, strikes us as shapeless, vast and mutable, mutating, mute. Its edges are untraceable and its depths unknowable, and it contains an uncountable number of other forms. Many of these we also call shapeless, because we can't clearly perceive or define their shape. Sponges, coral, jellyfish: we say they are lumpy, blobby, bumpy—words sound like mumbling; inarticulate and undefined speech. The sea silences us and imposes its will on us, and sometimes, in fact, it does eat us, and if we are ever seen again we are unrecognizable.

If the sea and its inhabitants are shapeless, it may be because we (again) cannot perceive them properly. But the sea is also changing, which leads to the question: Is all that underwater life—sponges, coral, jellyfish—changing as well? Have they changed? (If we go back to the Shakespeare epigraph, we suspect the coral did.) In a wonderful bit of writing, Allen equates those creatures with inarticulate speech: They are something we can't yet understand, which doesn't mean they don't have something to say. The ending of this section—once again referencing the idea of being eaten away—alludes back to the Shakespeare epigraph, with the most direct description yet of the ocean's power, but this time the idea of being transformed into something new, rich, and strange leads directly to the haiku, which takes us to a new environment:

in the aquarium all the things we used to be

In the aquarium, the narrator sees the many forms of underwater life—many of which undoubtedly pre-date human beings—and recalls "the things we used to be." Is she thinking of how the Earth, its habitat and inhabitants, have transformed over the years? Is she thinking of human evolution, perhaps that we (or at least some genetic part of us) once came from the sea as well, that we once had a form as odd as those of the aquarium creatures, and still might retain some of that original DNA? (Would our fractal patterns be similar?) Or does it bring to mind a more immediate transformation, how over the course of one lifetime a person grows—from childhood to adulthood, gaining (hopefully) more understanding and knowledge—until he or she is no longer the same? Regardless of the answer, the basic theme remains the same: evolution/transformation, while sometimes scary and strange, is also mysterious and important: That ability to re-generate and transform is the very essence of our life here on Earth. It is nothing to be feared, it is just part of a primordial pattern. (When writing this, did Allen have in mind that the amino acids composing life allegedly originated in a pond or ocean—the so-called "primordial soup"?) From this premise, Allen dives into the final section, a prose passage that ties up the haibun's themes beautifully:

There, on the shore, amid the wrack and ruin, the flotsam and jetsam: that's you, a shape I can recognize and name, if not fully comprehend. You were once part of my body but now you're part of the air. You're moving from shell to shell, from driftwood to driftwood, touching, lifting, examining, choosing, collecting. Like everyone else, you toss aside far more than you collect. Every once in a while you look back inland, every once in a while you look out to sea. The sun is setting and your figure is melding with the darkness; I'm watching you and then I'm failing to watch. What happens to you at last? I try to draw my suspicions in the sand, but the sea rises up and reproaches me.

ocean vents the life we don't remember

So this has been the reverie of a mother, with her child on the shoreline, pondering that child against the immensity of the ocean. Against that shapeless sea, her child is definable—no longer an infant, now a small being full of wonder and curiosity. But it still has some of that infant's strangeness: It is a part of its mother but also apart, a new being as hard to fully comprehend, perhaps, as the ocean creatures in the aquarium. The mother watches as the child moves among the sea's debris, testing everything, keeping only a few items—the outcome of a lifetime boiled down to its essence. Then the night, another "eater" of definable shapes, comes on, and the child's figure begins to meld with the dark, the ocean, the horizon; soon the unknown will reign totally. The mother "fails" to watch, perhaps because she no longer can see her child in the dark, or maybe because she consciously turns inward, afraid of that ultimate shapeless unfamiliarity: the future. The narrator wonders outright, "What happens to you at last?" and it's easy to imagine the thoughts behind this: Will the child be all right? What will it grow up to be, grow into? Will it lead a life of reward, happiness, purpose, fulfillment? Then in a lovely last line Allen describes the futility of trying to predetermine such outcomes: the ocean—still and always that shapeless being that devours—"eats" what she has drawn in the sand, what she describes as her "suspicions." We aren't told what those suspicions are, what is being drawn in the sand (perhaps those old "smooth" geometric shapes?). But this last sentence in general conveys the uselessness of human beings' need to impose a false order on the universe, to determine outcomes. In the end, it seems to be saying, the mother must accept the structure of the universe for what it is, the reiterating patterns that define who we are and give shape to shapelessness, the evolution of all creatures. Her child is just another shape in that continuing chain.

That final haiku, like the others, once again takes us to water, and this time it's a deep dive: on the ocean floor, the nourishing emissions of hydrothermal vents attract whole colonies of organisms—all of which would be exceedingly strange to us (as we, no doubt, would be to them). Just as with the aquarium creatures, are these organisms what we once were ages ago in our evolutionary progression, past the point of memory? Or are they just examples of how differing forms of life can emerge on this planet, forms so strange to one another that none could define the others (and hence could be considered "shapeless"). Nonetheless, they are still life, are still composed primarily of water, are nourished by organic compounds; they are all a part of the universe in its richness and oddity. The amphipods clustering around a vent's opening, a grown woman, a small but growing child—all are separate points, in many ways alien to one another. But those points can still be seen as connected, if viewed through a "new geometry"—one that will reveal there is always a shape to shapelessness.


The Shape of Water

The new geometry mirrors a universe that is rough, not rounded, scabrous, not smooth. It is a geometry of the pitted, pocked and broken up, the twisted, tangled and intertwined. . . . [S]uch odd shapes carry meaning. . . . They are often the keys to the essence of a thing.

           —James Gleick, Chaos

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made,
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.

           —Shakespeare, The Tempest

We say things are shapeless when they have a shape we don't like, that is to say an irregular shape, a lack of symmetry, a pointlessness, a want of recognizable organizing principle, an unanalyzable form, an outline that fails to substantially map to any other outline we've ever seen, an unfamiliarity, a strangeness, a monstrosity. We are afraid the shapeless thing will take us over, erase our edges, unbalance us, take away our sense of purpose. We are afraid we will be eaten.

you're water step into the water

A woman is often referred to as shapeless, especially after she has borne children. She is no longer a tidy package, she has been stretched, distorted, colonized; she leaks, her boundaries are not clear. Her infant seems at times like a removable appendage, a strange growth on the body that appears and disappears, both unpredictable and grotesque. Her flesh ebbs and flows, like the sea, to accommodate the child's appetite.

in a shadow in the pond eggs being laid

The sea, too, strikes us as shapeless, vast and mutable, mutating, mute. Its edges are untraceable and its depths unknowable, and it contains an uncountable number of other forms. Many of these we also call shapeless, because we can't clearly perceive or define their shape. Sponges, coral, jellyfish: we say they are lumpy, blobby, bumpy—words sound like mumbling; inarticulate and undefined speech. The sea silences us and imposes its will on us, and sometimes, in fact, it does eat us, and if we are ever seen again we are unrecognizable.

in the aquarium all the things we used to be

There, on the shore, amid the wrack and ruin, the flotsam and jetsam: that's you, a shape I can recognize and name, if not fully comprehend. You were once part of my body but now you're part of the air. You're moving from shell to shell, from driftwood to driftwood, touching, lifting, examining, choosing, collecting. Like everyone else, you toss aside far more than you collect. Every once in a while you look back inland, every once in a while you look out to sea. The sun is setting and your figure is melding with the darkness; I'm watching you and then I'm failing to watch. What happens to you at last? I try to draw my suspicions in the sand, but the sea rises up and reproaches me.

ocean vents the life we don't remember


First published in Contemporary Haibun Online V8, N2, July 2012.

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