Umbilical Hospital by Vi Khi Nao

1913 Press, 2017

reviewed by Molly Bendall 

Vi Khi Nao’s new book, Umbilical Hospital, is an ekphrastic sequence loosely grounded in the video installation Sheep Machine by Leslie Thornton. Thornton’s work consists of two side-by-side round screens: the one on the left is an Alpine scene of sheep grazing in the foreground as aerial cable cars traverse behind; the sphere on the right is a kaleidoscopic version of this image—broken and faceted pieces pulsing and morphing in a star shape suggesting, among other things, mandalas and bodily orifices. Umbilical Hospital verbally enacts both the realistic tableau as well as its techo-alienated counterpoint. Akin to the way we peer through binoculars or a stereoscope, viewing both realms simultaneously, in this instance the two spheres do not come to a unified resolution. Nao offers up a surreal, erotic, futuristic, and shockingly far-fetched spectacle. 

The poems contract and expand with imagistic motifs, some of which draw directly from the video, while others evolve away from it: sheep, wheat, windmills, lakes, clitorises, legs, eyes, and more, all gyrating in uncanny juxtapositions. Just as the image is manipulated and re-designed, in turn, logic is derailed and re-fashioned. New relationships are born or emerge. In the title poem, ants “have landed on earth as predators, using the / windmills as hosts like parasites using your body / as their umbilical hospital.” Nao depicts alternative models of consumption along with new-found conditions. While addressing a “you,” the speaker guides us through our initial immersion. She directs us to notice we’ve already altered our own bodies: “You are an alien wearing a sheep-asshole hat & / candlelight pokes out from the softest ether & / your eyes are born out of sheep pasterns.” With the manner of a hypnotist, the voice mesmerizes and delivers us into a somnambulistic chamber. 

This transforming dimension brings to mind the disruptions in the Anthropocene, the term used to describe the epoch in which human activity has, by its dominance and destructive forces, significantly altered our planet’s natural systems. Perhaps Nao reflects this moment and takes us a step beyond it. Combining consumable parts of animals and nature along with the sexualized fragments of bodies, she daringly casts them into a dervish dance. At times scenarios in the poems smell of threat and we learn: “You must forgive the way landscape unfolds / or creates its own symmetry of want.” Accepting the whims of a given environment is part of our instruction even if inside a Baudelairean nightmare: “When the night drops her black underwear / down your soul—the spiders are busy screaming / their matrix of light and threading their web of / lies.” The poems become kinetic spaces of predicaments, subsuming the reader. 

We might also see one of her poems as a mystical event and defer to its divinity i.e. “the ass-temple” or “the consecrated clitoris” and experience the poem as an ecstatic religious conversion. We could think of the gyrating poem as a simulated model for worship, a kind of altar in the round, or even envision it as a sort of new-age heaven to which we surrender: “The angel wearing / the garment of wheat separates the spaceship / from itself.” How we place ourselves within the poems and how we proceed is crucial here. They demand that we bear witness to the outcomes and products of our own activities.

Nao trusts us to keep pace with the moves in her turbulent and compact poems as seen in “Siamese Sheep”: 

Seamlessly, as if the landscape attempted to fall 

into itself, homogenizing the skin of landscape 

with the skin of wheat, this blanket of 

surrendering, one sheep falls into the body of 

another sheep, becoming one. So then it’s 

difficult to distinguish, whose stomach belongs to 

whom & if this is a sudden romance of 

Siamese sheep, one wooly body sharing two 

sheep heads. When landscape marries itself to 

itself, the only infant borne out of this nuptial 

narcissistic love is a muted cosmic lake, 

bestowing no illusion of a ripple.

In this poem Nao’s kaleidoscopic realm exposes the effects of humans on the environment. The bucolic arena is turning inside out and has fallen prey to technological experimentation and genetic engineering. Nature’s interconnectedness is collapsing and involuting. This poem recalls not only mutations but also the first cloned mammal, Dolly the sheep. It also alludes to the fact that in cloning the biological moment of conception is not required: “the only infant borne out of this nuptial / narcissistic love.” Even Nao’s language twins and clones here, with echoes: “landscape,” “skin,” “sheep,” “body,” and “to/two.” The narcissism points again to the human centered world of the Anthropocene in which nature and animals are at our mercy. Ultimately, we recognize our own complicity in the fractured looking glass. 

Is there recourse? How do we continue to endure what we’ve perpetrated on ourselves? The poems darken with shadows and intimations of death, coffins begin to proliferate, and we plunge more deeply into a place where “orderly chaos reigns.” Our sovereignty is shaken, yes, but we gain the troubling understanding that we must face the new epoch in a different way and decenter ourselves: “You have to step / back from the light and pulverize a little.” This book might be a prophetic one; however, Nao keeps the poems buoyant with her bemusement and wit. We can read it the way viewers may have first gazed at Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup eighty years ago—a piece that, with its hybrid and fetishistic mutation, elicits both pleasure and horror.