It is one thing to create an alternative world, which is what many science fiction writers do. It is another to write from inside an alternative world, which is what Eric Baus achieves in his fifth book, How I Became a Hum (Octopus Books, 2019). The book is comprised of short prose poems, some of which are only one sentence long. The longest piece, “Beginner’s Abyss,” is nine sentences, three of which consist of two words.
How I Became a Hum is divided into eight titled sections. The third section is called “The Datura Plains.”
Datura is best known as jimson weed, but it is also known as devil’s trumpets and moonflower. It is a poisonous plant possessing psychotropic properties. The world from which Baus writes seems to be surrounded or, at the very least, bordered by datura.
In this world occasionally “the city” does something unexpected (for example, it “convicted us of speaking through its horn”) but we do not see any of its architectural details. The city first appears in the second section, “Bad Shadow,” along with “my brother” and an address (“1515 Echo Lane”), but we never see inside that “sterile house.” And yet, if this combination suggests memories of childhood or another familiar trope, think again.
Baus’s prose poems overflow with events that never coalesce into a narrative, nor do they feel disjointed or arbitrary. The sentences follow the rules of grammar, but something inexplicable happens by the time you reach the end: “The mirage minted its quills into a claw.” What is real and what is not real? The reader might do well to realize that such a question is beside the point, as in Baus’s world things are both.
This refusal to adhere to any of the natural laws we believe govern the world we inhabit is one of Baus’s many strengths. He gives the reader glimpses of a world that is utterly alien and yet still possible: “I felt a monsoon crown my brain when the circuits in the static sanctuary burst.” This is as good an evocation of a hallucinatory state as I have ever read. What further elevates it from the realm of imagination is that the author never suggests this state was induced.
The world that Baus writes from is interior — an altered state simultaneously animated by the sonic and the linguistic elements of language. To read one of his sentences is to go down the rabbit hole: “Mice poured from the auxiliary skylight in the damaged heart of a guard dog.” From the first conjunction of noun and verb (“Mice poured”), I was hooked. The shift in scale and attention keeps readers from knowing where they will end up.
This is the beauty of Baus’s writing: as readers we know neither where we are going nor our destination. This happens in both the prose sentences and the poems. The poem “Seagull Murmur,” which opens with “Mice poured […]” is four sentences long and ends with “A small tomato floated over its grave.” Each sentence feels like it’s an integral part of the poem, yet it also stands on its own. That tension, between part and whole, reverberates throughout the strongest pieces in this book.
Certain words recur in each section. “Pupa” makes a number of appearances in the first section, “The Rain of the Ice.” Am I alone in hearing the homophone “reign” in “rain?”
In his essay “Concerning a Journey to the Land of the Tarahumaras” (translated by David Rattray), Antonin Artaud begins:
The land of the Tarahumara is full of signs, shapes, and natural effigies which do not seem to be mere products of accidents […]
In Baus’s prose poems — which are unlike anyone else’s — things and ghosts speak, and all the pronouns appear. Baus writes from a place that is full of transformations, shape-shifting presences, omens, and sentient creatures. Insects and animals roam throughout this domain. The body of the one writing these poems has “claws” and leads “pawns.” “The result is a condensed dove.” None of this seems to be an accident or a matter of chance.