Monday, April 22, 2013

Bronwyn Haslam on guts & words

Six Conduits

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The French word Coït comes from the Latin coitus, from coire (co, with; ire, go) meaning to go together, aller ensemble. Chantal Neveu’s 2010 book of poetry, Coït, is constructed out of language the author transcribed in dance rehearsals.[1][i] Neveu scores traces of this language along a series of nine tubes. Their soft architecture evokes instruments, say, the parallel tuned pipes of an organ; the rippling semi-cylinders of curtains separating stage wings, themselves tall hollow structures permitting entrance and exit; and the human body also, which is cylindrical, more or less, but also full of tubes—proximal, distal, fallopian—including the digestive tube that runs the length of the body, mouth to anus.

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This tube that runs through the center of the body filters the outside world. A corridor of “outside” runs through one’s core. What the skin does for the body’s exterior, the walls of the tube do for this interior hollow. Whatever one ingests passes through the digestive tube, whose walls are lined by mucous membranes that act as a barrier for foreign bodies, i.e. bacteria, and selectively absorb nutrients.

This is the digestive tube: Oral cavity, pharynx, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, anus. Or, put differently, mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach, guts, asshole. Plus a few important organs that feed into the small intestine (pancreas, liver, gall bladder).

The guts are fascinating. Most nutrients are absorbed in the small intestine (a process which requires the secretion of a considerable volume of water into the lumen of the small intestine, approximately 7 litres each day); the main function of the large intestine is to reabsorb most of this water. A rich flora of bacteria live in the large intestine, consuming unabsorbed nutrients and producing many vitamins that are then absorbed by the body including biotin, folic acid, vitamin K and several B vitamins.

“Les parasites / ne me gènent pas / au contraire”              
                                                                        (Neveu, Coït, tube 8)
“I am not afraid/ of parasites / quite the opposite”             
                                                                        (Tr. Carr, Coït, tube 8)

Indeed, while the large intestine is a particularly rich area, bacteria are found throughout the human body. There are in fact more bacterial cells than human cells in your body.[ii] “You” are as much “other” as you are “you.” This is critical theory; it is also biology.

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Translation, in mathematics, is the movement of an object without rotation or reflection. Anagrams, the rearrangement of a fixed set of letters, then are a mathematical translation because they are the result of the displacement of a fixed set of letters along different vectors, producing a range of sonically interesting repetitions and variations. Translation = tonal strain.
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The book is also a body. The English edition of Coït, beautifully translated by the Montréal poet and translator Angela Carr, bares a creamy exterior more flesh-coloured than white, the inside of which is an avid red, the precise colour one sees when one looks through one’s closed eyelids at a light.

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Gastrulation means formation of the gut and is a key stage in animal development. In gastrulation, a hollow ball of undifferentiated cells forms the three germ layers (ectoderm, mesoderm and endoderm) from which the animal body will develop, as well as a primitive gut in most animals.[iii] The gut forms mostly from the endoderm through a process of cell migration causing the ball of cells to fold in (invaginate); the process produces a first hole, the blastopore. The animal kingdom is divided into two super-phylums based in part on whether the first hole that forms is the mouth (protostomes = first mouth) or the anus (deuterostomes = second mouth). Humans are part of the latter (anus first) group.


The doubled definition of translation is an idiosyncrasy of English. French, for example distinguishes between translation (transference, mathematical displacement) and traduction (linguistic translation), as in Spanish there is translación and traducción. In the Romance languages, the duc root comes from ducere, (in French, conduire), to lead, conduct, draw. A root retained also in the nouns duct, conduit, conduct.

Works Cited
Campbell, Neil A. an Jane B. Reece. Biology. 6th ed. San Francisco: Benjamin Cummings, 2002. *
Neveu, Chantal. Coït. Chicoutimi: La Peuplade, 2010.
---. Coït. Trans. Angela Carr. Toronto: Bookthug, 2012.

*While not explicitly cited in this piece, fallible memories of the digestive system and animal development were checked with Neil Campbell’s extraordinarily well-written Biology textbook. Any errors remain my own.


[i] Angela Carr’s English translation of this book was recently published by Canadian publisher Bookthug: For readers of French, La Peuplade’s website is presently under construction but the book is still available through the usual online sources.
[ii] Some scientists estimate that there are 10x as many bacterial cells in your body as human cells.  Bacterial cells are much smaller than animal cells, making this rather astounding fact slightly less taxing on the imagination.
[iii] Were my focus different I would mention here that tubes are also important in the formation of the spine (the notochord forms from the mesoderm) and the brain, which forms from the neural tube out of the ectoderm. The point being that one’s skin and one’s brain form from the same germ layer.

Bronwyn Haslam holds a combined degree (B.Sc. in Cellular Molecular Microbial biology and B.A. hons in English literature) from the University of Calgary (2008). As an undergraduate, she worked under the supervision of Dr. Raymond Turner on  metalloid oxyanion resistance in E. coli and under the supervision of Dr. Sarah McFarlane on axon growth and guidance in frog development; she has also worked as a medical writer. Her poems and translations have been published in various journals including The Capilano ReviewMatrix, and Dandelion. She currently translates poetry, anagrammatically and not, and reads, writes and studies at the Université de Montréal. 

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