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Personhood by Thalia Field (New Directions, 2021; image courtesy the publisher)

While “personhood” can be reduced to its dictionary definition, “the quality or condition of being an individual person,” the word has gained increasing significance in recent times, whether we’re talking about abortion, animal rights, or corporations. The 10 experimental texts in Thalia Field’s new book Personhood (New Directions) come at the concept from a variety of angles, with a special focus on the plight of captive animals, in particular parrots and elephants.

Field draws from a variety of sources — scientific, historical, philosophical — to create a kind of text collage that nonetheless moves from point to point. She’s au courant on all the latest personhood issues. It’s a good idea to have a search engine handy as you read the text — there’s plenty to look up.

The book opens with “Hi Adam!,” a long-form riff on cruelty to animals, in this case parrots and their kin. At times the commentary has a PETA-exposé edge as Field highlights our cruel and grotesque treatment of these human-mimicking creatures. Describing the self-harm of parrots, she asks, “What creatures but those associated with humans ever do such things?” More than just mistreating the animals, humans betray them. “Then [the cockatoo] Adam is exiled when the moving van pulls away. Or stuffed in a cabinet out on a porch. Maybe with a note. Usually without water.”

Field’s sense of humor is witty and snarky. “A stolen egg or a stolen bird, which came first?” she asks at one point in “Hi Adam!” Or, satirizing the Book of Genesis, she writes, “And the big guy said, Let there be a living room. And then the guy separated the living room from the kitchen. And he saw that this was good.”

Interjections of scientific research move the arguments along, as in:

Scientists explain that how guilty we feel about what we as humans might owe other beings should depend on a species’ “encephalization quotient” (EQ). The non-linear regression formula proposes to reveal intelligence, and then equate intelligence with consciousness. A raven is 2.49, an elephant 2.36, a dog 1.2, a squirrel 1.1. Humans are 7.6. 

Field frequently comments on the culture of images and social media. As the parrots laugh, chatter, and greet their captors, “Someone reaches for a camera and broadcasts the infectious pleasure to YouTube; a million views! Everyone wants a clever bird like that!” At the same time, she is brilliant at penning suggestive aperçus: “The weird thing about the energy of sunshine: fruit must make itself open.”

In “Happy/That You Have the Body (The Mirror Test),” Field revisits the case of Happy, the elephant held for 40 years in a cage at the Bronx Zoo “not larger than a few times her body length.” She gets into law here, habeas corpus, legal standing, agency, and the like, and recounts how the actual lawyers in the case make their arguments. Mr. Wise sets out to prove Happy deserves all the benefits of personhood while the defense, led by Mr. Manning, claims the elephant is happy where she is.

If you Google Happy the elephant, you’ll find a lot about this case, which is currently in court and has attracted animal advocacy groups. Field is up on all the latest pachyderm news: “A few months ago, an elephant in a South African game park killed a poacher hunting for black rhinos. The elephant took the poacher’s body to a place where it could be eaten by lions.” Most of us grinned at that news story.

Field lands many a critical body blow to speciesism. For instance:

In our dying empire of predatory face data, a monkey who takes his own picture cannot own the right to his image because we look to law to diagnose selfhood, confirm our brand, crown us CEO of all species—and monkeys and elephants who may clearly express something, only do so as human by-products, as kitsch.

Personhood is the companion to Field’s equally inventive and wide-ranging 2010 collection, Bird Lovers, Backyard. As was the case with the earlier book, she employs a wide range of hybrid genres. For example, “Turns Before the Curtain” takes the form of a script for a play in which invasive plants and man-made materials fill the theater, starting with a cavorting tumbleweed and ending with plastic, which Field calls “little nurdles on the move.”

The voice in this text is generally sarcastic and all-caps loud. One stage direction reads: “The loudspeaker crackles with a recording of the Nonindigenous Aquatic Nuisance Prevention and Control Act WAH WAH WAH WAH.”

In “True Crimes/Nature Fakes,” Field deploys a bracket device that calls for the reader to fill in the blanks. It can be at once clever, annoying, and virtuosic: “Even under social pressure, our bleached out [definition: ‘imagination’] does not break or bend, as if it were made of [6 eternal ideas] or [5 indestructible materials].” Mad Libs come to mind except Field isn’t creating absurd or surreal narratives, just textual options.

“Liberty/Trees” opens with an epigraph from Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary (1911): “The distinction between freedom and liberty is not accurately known; naturalists have never been able to find a living specimen of either.” Field embraces Bierce’s misanthropic spirit in her extended look at the use of trees as symbols of various causes in United States history, such as the Boston Liberty Tree, an elm that the Redcoats mocked and chopped down.

At times Field’s account read like an outtake from Hamilton:

Across the ocean—[A tree? To cross an ocean?]
            people whisper: Revolution! They lost their heads!
Was Tom Paine the vector?
or Lafayette, who stood on the stump at Essex and Washington for a good
half-hour?          

“The Health of My Stream or the (Most) Pathetic Fallacy” is the most lyrical piece in the collection. Finding fish in a stream on her property, the narrator sets out to ensure that they remain there by altering the environment. “Impetuously,” she recounts,

I decide to clear and cut the length of the riverbank, especially the prolific nettle and bramble. Save the healthy poplar, oak, a few wild box, and one small expanse of blackberry, minding its splurge of August fruit.

Despite her improvements, the fish disappear after storms change the stream’s flow. Becoming ever more despondent in her fishless existence, she attempts various fixes, raking gravel, shoveling silt, setting up rock barriers, “inventing channels.” She also studies the ecology of streams. “One expert suggests having a ‘stream vision’ that you share with your family and neighbors. They say that streams can heal themselves, given time and no interference.”

The text ends with a discussion of India granting the right of personhood to flowing water and includes an excerpt from a petition to the High Court of Uttarakhand at Nainital on behalf of the Ganges and the Yamuna rivers. It brought to mind Alberto Rey’s 2016 video Bagmati, which looks at life along Nepal’s most sacred and most polluted river.

Other pieces in the book deal with dying (“Patients”) and mathematics (“Irrational/Situation”) in equally inventive fashion. Field also offers two short poems, “Unseen” and “Glancing Backward,” the latter a final j’accuse directed at the dominating human race, “whatever self-proclaimed God’s fat fist.”

Field’s writing fits into an impressive and expanding universe of new-form approaches to exploring cultural, environmental, and social issues. Some recent examples include Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals, Megan Grumbling’s Persephone in the Late Anthropocene, and Stefano Mancuso’s The Nation of Plants. These and other writers are mixing it up in ways that engage, provoke, and challenge readers.

After reading Personhood, I found myself wincing at innocuous animal send-ups. On NPR’s quiz show Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me the other day, one of the questions involved the Brood X cicadas this spring, which appear in large numbers in the mid-Atlantic region once every 17 years. The ensuing banter revolved around how an insect orgy was in the offing, with no mention that the species provides food for large animal populations or that its existence is now threatened by climate change. Just lots of laughs at the expense of the periodical bug.

Personhood by Thalia Field is published by New Directions and is available online and in bookstores.

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