We Are a Teeming Wilderness
by Shena McAuliffe
Press 53, May 2023
Reviewed by Jill Stukenberg
Turn the pages of Shena McAuliffe’s most recent prize-winning work, We Are a Teeming Wilderness, as you would leaf a discovered family album. You are on your knees in an attic, maybe, or some other dusted portal, and these moments caught by the camera flash have survived, magically. McAuliffe’s collection–the Short Fiction Award winner from Press 53 due out in May 2023–is playful and contemplative. Built of stories that work like odes to a wide range of people and places–post-War race car drivers, prison matrons, a modern-day Laertes living in the American Southwest–it catches the changing light of time in eerie ways, and reading the whole collection feels like walking into a room that is much larger on the inside than you thought. Indeed our world is an expansive place, and we are teeming.
McAuliffe herself is a subject of wonder. This is her third book, and third contest winning book. Her debut novel, The Good Echo, won Black Lawrence Press’ 2017 Big Moose Prize, and her nonfiction essay collection Glass, Light, Electricity was published by the University of Alaska Press after winning the 2019 Permafrost Prize. Clearly, she is an alchemist.
While her three books now mark her mastery of three different forms, We Are a Teeming Wilderness again showcases McAuliffe’s attention to the archival and ability to use the factual as an ingredient. In “Real Silk,” readers follow the story of a lonely door-to-door salesman to themselves open the door of a page upon a delightful artifact, an annotated excerpt from what may be a real sales manual of the time; on subsequent pages photocopy-quality diagrams demonstrate the careful hand positions required for pulling on the stockings the “right way,” and, playfully, the story begins to interact with these illustrations as we see the desperate salesman depart from etiquette and instruction. Other stories draw on science and history, and the historical sciences that merge with spirituality, like phrenology, clairvoyance, and the process of mummification. “The Mugged Body” opens with a labeled anatomical drawing of a human body and the story corresponds with the memories that remain located in the survivor’s body.
Conversations grow between the stories in this collection-as-album as well, and with the off-hand magic that happens when photos on facing pages reveal something new. An idea in “Dispatches from an Abandoned Architecture” that shoes and houses might wear out more quickly without feet or humans inside of them inverts a warning from “Real Silk” that unwashed stockings dissolve through interaction with human sweat. The next story, “The Precarious Hive,” calls into playful question this interest in bodily entropy and dissolution and instead gives us a monument of stolen dentures, crafted by a pair of cheeky graduate school friends such that it can become a permanent exhibit in the MOMA, and possibly a house to departed souls.
Hands, eyes, feet, scalps, hearts, and zygotes appear in and out of the stories, flashing parts of humans that are all the more living and corporal on the page. A couple mummifying a bird wants to know if its heart will weigh less than a feather, a woman whose soldier lover will not return breathes warm air into her own palms, a father reclaims his beloved gloves, worn to fit his hands, from a cruel and ungrateful son, and a scientist believes he can diagnose bodily illness by staring into the eyes of his patients and decoding the map therein, though in doing so he nearly misses a diagnosis in a woman he loves. In the title story “We are a Teeming Wilderness,” we see the body from the vantage of its collective microbes, and their joy in leaping between the lips and hands and groins of two lovers, merging into the “we” of the one or the other.
Like the grounding in the body, the occasional archival-quality photograph that dots the collection–of the Salt Flats of Utah, of Victoria Harbor–grounds us within the real, and invites us to step into specific moments. At the same time, the leap of the stories from different places and times–during the polio epidemic, within a contemporary moment of forced separations at the US border, to a 19th century prison ward, to Orizaba Mexico, to Hungary, and then to an American household hearing a radio broadcast of the Chernobyl disaster–reminds us, as photo albums do, of the sweep of time and the impermanence of any moment. One day the fastest man on the planet will die, and a broken heart will be swept away (like the shards of a cup commingling with dog hair at the end “Anatomy of an Eye.”) And we know, from our place in time, that Jane will not become the first female president, as surely as her mother knew it (“Two Birds”). The last story “Shelter,” mimics precisely the experience of inhabiting moments we already know to be lost. After lingering over a description of a couple’s wedding day photograph, we travel the collected vignettes of their young family’s life catching comets, cooking a snake, and arriving at the moment where a mother–for a brief second, a lover again–pops an olive into her husband’s mouth. These moments won’t last–a car might drive through the house, the cat may impale itself on a stake–but they are real now, real and passing.
Finally, though, despite the coming-close of the album and the relegation of present to past that happens in the camera’s flash–or with the storyteller’s settling upon their words–we are left with the wild joy of so many moments: of the art students carefree abandon in their friendship as they steal dentures from dying nursing home residents for their ridiculous sculpture, of the prison matron’s yearning for the infinite, for the connection to something larger that she first finds in one of her prisoner’s skulls. McAuliffe’s fine collection, her third-prize winning book, kindles the reader’s sense of wonder. We are a teeming wilderness, with so much yet undocumented, unknown.