On the other side of the universe is a woman named Emily whose life I could’ve lived. She loves black spice cake and wild violets mingled with lilacs and honeysuckle at dusk. Her bones are buried in a cemetery not far away from her girlhood home, and I imagine a disintegrated white dress touching a shin. Let’s say, in a variation of the tale, this Emily is a modern noir poet whose nape is adorned by a necklace of shining black pearls, a doubled rope of grace and sophistication. It’s longer than a collar, a matinee, a princess, or a choker necklace. The black pearls make a stunning effect with her lustrous, dark eyes, more like poured cola than sherry in a glass, as the original Emily once wrote. As aforesaid, she prefers to take baths in her cypress tub with the pearls on. Why black pearls, I ask, more a declaration than a question.
A noir poet doesn’t need to provide responses to frivolous questions, so this Emily doesn’t answer right away. Black pearls to wear just so, she whispers, in a noir tone appropriate for an Emily who writes darkling poems in the wee hours of the night by the flame of a candle. Later, she adds in lowered tones, I wear them because the freshwater black pearls are irradiated by gamma rays in order to attain their hue, reminding me of the black rain that fell after the tsunami. Beauty in shadows, she continues, triumphs over death. Freshwater black pearls aren’t organically black—dyed, rather—yet they’re beautiful and elegant, all the same. Saltwater black pearls arise organically in the wilderness, original and unedited as rambling strawberry vines or kelp forests.
I’ve compiled a list of questions for this Emily on the other side of the universe.
Why are the pearls black?
Irradiated or dyed, she says.
No, the ones in the sea.
The maker said yes for those.
Do you believe in the maker?
I do. A wilderness once existed.
An unbounded wilderness?
No, an unedited wilderness.
Wilderness is no longer wild.
Do you mean due to editing?
Yes, no longer a wilderness.
Why live on the other side?
The editors bioexiled me.
How is it? Are you cold?
No, it’s paradise out here.
Poetry is a galaxy on fire, I’d add, while the noir Emily would pause before replying, yes, with a barely audible sigh. You’re a diva, I’d repeat in a small voice inside my head like a petulant child. Poetry is fire. It burns like a lava lake underneath your skin. Don’t you know the world is aflame? If not, why? In spite of everything, our drowned basilicas and flooded factories, don’t you know outer space is hotter than a zillion hearths, than a spray of ash from a brushfire, or the flaming glory-hole? More piquant and spicy than licorice notes of a juicy grapefruit, than zesty dwarf suns? How about the pulp sloughed then daubed with honey bathed in pink quartz marmalade, wherein the licorice notes mingle with the tart pulp, the marmalade afire with citrus and spice at once? Mad honey on fire, wafting out of the fragrant portals of the universe?
Slowly, the noir Emily responds by tucking a strand of her dark hair behind an ear, her crooked arm—sleeved in black charmeuse—casting a V in the wavering shadows. The exosphere of the mothership, outer space, is very cold, she proffers in a low, intimate voice, her fingers angled as if balancing an invisible cigarette holder. Everybody knows this. It’s colder than the ice caps at the bottom of the planet, than frigid atoms of liquid hydrogen. Due to global warming, icebergs the size of financial districts in the megacities are melting, and nobody can stop the swollen seas from rising. Despite the greenhouse gases, however, this is a localized phenomenon, as the universe still remains the coldest place of all. Nobody can survive out there in a birthday suit with a bouquet of genetically altered lilies. Outer space is colder than the liquid nitrogen used for cryogenics, which freezes flowers, skin warts, and the skin itself.
You’re a poet, I’d say again.
Don’t you know the universe is on fire?
At last she says, I don’t understand. Fire needs air to burn. Fire doesn’t burn alone. It eats air. Where’s the oxygen in outer space?
I reply, how do suns burn, then? Don’t you know about nuclear fusion and the dynamo process, magnetohydrodynamics? Forgive me for questioning this noir Emily in a dogged manner, but I’m bubbling with curiosity. Through the fragrant black holes, I believe, the warp and weft of our fabrications exist in the very act of vanishing. It’s the paradox of a bioexile. Pomegranate pips, I speculate about what life would be like as any Emily on the other side of the universe, whether a noir, avant-garde poet of biocomposite genes or not. Why was this ink sac designed if I don’t have enemies to stupefy or stun with smoky clouds of ink? Paradise is stink-free and antagonist-free, so I don’t have any foes. Out of the notes piled on my reading nook is a fragment of my ballad, a longish octopodean siesta, an afternoon nap not to be confused with a sestina, a poem of six stanzas with six lines each plus a three-line envoy. The first line says, paraphrased, welcome to a sea of lost letters in a room of nucleotides, their glowing monomers like black pearls and sapphires wound in double helixes. The second line says, let’s see if we can decipher the aromatic fragments of the universe through the chemoreceptors on our supersensory arms. However, I’ve never composed a ballad before, and I don’t write in closed forms. I get stuck. The limitations of meter, rhyme, and one-word repetitions befuddle me. I write in free verse instead. Even in free verse, however, I’m dazzled by the negative space of line breaks whose parallel horizons look, in sum, like a flickering reel of fires.
A mystery I can’t explain: The original Emily, a first genetic edition, spawned an infinitude of Emilys across the universe in parallel lives. This noir Emily is one Emily in a diaspora. These multifarious, spindly-armed, flour-dusted Emilys of the universe blossom in disparate existences as feckless space pirates of poiesis and flamboyant spawn of an innocuous sort, the poets whose madcap blood simmers only insofar as their rose gardens beckon them out of their inner rooms. The other Emilys, variants of the original one, flutter around my bath like wasps and dragonflies. Shall I take out a butterfly net to capture these lovely beings? Shall I bake the yolk-gold loaves of gingerbread or coconut cake, instead? Tea loaves, caraway seed cake, black spice cake doused in whiskey or brandy this afternoon? Clip the snow viburnum for a vase in the living room, or shall it be a bouquet of daises, instead? The original wilderness, unedited by the profusion of earlier transcriptions and inscriptions were established under the maker’s invisible hand: the first gardener and the original garden.
I’m no less a stranger to the bizarre, if you will. I’m a flying octopus bioexiled for my phenotypic expression as a cephalopod rather than a woman, for instance, one named Emily.
As a part of my daily routine, I get out of my hydrotherapy bath, squeezing two arms in a pretzel, then inch across the floor to my banana-fiber mat, where I dry myself, then apply several jars of hyaluronic acid to my skin. I crawl onto my waterbed, breathing evenly with the window open to the sea, and drift into the land of reverie. I dream about a tribe of space pirates engineered to govern the universe wisely and with dignity, and how the editors of the omnibus failed to splice the correct sequences to design this species of fly-by-night wisdom warriors effectively. Instead of fighting, they soar like refulgent angels and haloed seraphim of the ancient days, harbingers of peace. In fact, they are no less than fireflies in human shapes. The modified warriors populate the world as rogues, recombining their glow-in-the-dark genes with those of other species to bear progeny with bioluminescent skin. The lights are visible by satellite all over the globe at night, and their luminous children eventually sprout wings. To what end, I don’t know, other than the usual, i.e., to forage for sustenance, to find a mate, or warn friends about danger; the lights, as signals, imparted wisdom about navigating the darkness. The children shed their wings in adulthood.
What danger, I wonder, and what darkness if there’s light out there.
I dream of the rise of colossal, glittering insects of the most exquisite morphology, like flaming angels and seraphs messaging this world with warnings on their wings patterned in code, or like dazzling, postdiluvian insects buzzing past your eardrum before the great flood of the millennium: a cyclical rise of cicadas, dragonflies, and fig beetles, all named Emily. Yes, let’s call each of these Emily, the namesake of all. I go outside and wipe the sooty mold stuck to drops of honeydew deposited by fat aphids. I squint at the blazing sun which hovers close to the mothership, burning crops like rice, cotton, and bamboo gene-edited to boost immunity to fungal and viral infections, although vulnerable to the harsh weather. It’s a Kodachrome dream awash in color dyes, however, so the shapes of flaming angels and mold spores appear in negative, one dark as mortar statues, the other, ellipses sleeping under a star-brindled night.
Other lifeforms named Emily float singly and alone, each one sealed in a bubble of her own: every somber Emily is brown-eyed and chestnut-haired in her watery sphere of immunological restoration with biological aging reversed by epigenetic clocks altered to regenerate the thymus gland—which ordinarily vanishes in adulthood. In chronological age, a gene-edited Emily might be a few centuries years old, but in biological age, only sixteen or seventeen as she appears in a daguerreotype, an everlastingly youthful provocateur whose T-cell stimulating thymus spreads its left and right lobes like butterfly wings behind her sternum, radiant and pulsing in the warm, posh darkness between her lungs.
I witness the expansion of a fluffy cloud in the stratosphere, a nimbus the shape of a dandelion puff among rainclouds. Silver-mane pappus, it grows to the size of a dozen zeppelins and translates languages in the tongues of angels, light as spun sugar floss. It beams rare languages in parallel translations with melodious recordings by slender young women named Emily all over the universe: Emily of tongues in distant star systems, Emily of dialects rhymed in mossy treetops, Emily of diphthongs on our mothership’s fields and savannahs, Emily of intonations under ammonia skies, Emily of yodeling on intralpine valleys, Emily of finger whistling and playing the bones, Emily of signers and interpreters in a sky pod with other migrants, Emily of pictographs and hieroglyphs, or Emily clicking her teeth in a jubilee of noise. The phyla of languages, mapped in outer space in an interstellar tree of families, flow together in a confluence of biological and digital routes through the Milky Way: nebulous clouds of the galaxy, faraway radio satellites, the flowering veins of a lung, and the inklings of a genetically altered octopus, this humble omnivore of data whose protoplasm yields sensory information in a vanishing language of humans.
In the negative capability of Emily’s syllables, reaching for open possibilities, for ambiguity: humid breath of a dog who puts his nose in a dish of rain, cries of gulls circling overhead, sizzle of oil heated on a stove. Famine rages across the galaxy, a plague of hunger due to overpopulation on the mothership and its diaspora of designer-gene organisms, their chromosomes packed like berry drupelets in sky pods to colonize biodomes in other star systems. The lipstick tubes of lumpy rice-yogurt—acidophilus and bifidus bacterial cultures in sludge—changes like the weather, morphing into a mineral-rich substrate of calcium, folate, or magnesium. One of the migrant Emilys who abandoned the mothership, a designer-gene girl of growing bones, is calcium deficient; the folate must come later for the ovaries, as well, if she chooses to bear children of her own. If not, then she can donate her ovaries, lush and fat as apricots, for genetic resources. This girl of small, bird-like bones, a girl named Emily, also has a minor defect in her ear, a tinnitus she has concealed from the prying eyes of the mothership: instead of ringing, she hears rattling cans tied with rope to the tail of an invisible dog, a clattering of onomatopoeic sounds, clink-a-clack-a-clink, rattling like stars punched out of the sky.
This migrant Emily wonders: Did I ever live as a girl on the right side of the universe, in a deleted act of this space opera? Is there truly a flying octopus in outer space, an omnivore who devours and analyzes data? If so, who or what uses the information? Is the shape of the totality of biodata in the universe an octopus, metaphorically speaking, an omnivore of information? Or is the universe itself a lotus-seed bowl, of rotund universes tucked inside the seed-head of larger pod? Or of the little dark holes inside a lotus itself, one whose flower dropped eons ago? While there’s data available in the pod about navigating the stars or lowering the rate of metabolism, there’s not much information about why or how she should live. Emily sighs as she gazes out the window, shivering a bit as her metabolism slows in response to her gauge for homeostasis, a thyroid remotely controlled by the Genome Editing Omnibus.
Drifting to sleep, this other Emily imagines there’s an octopus, an omnivore of information flying at light speed near a black hole, motion sick from zooming so fast at the event horizon. Vertigo in proximity to the vortex: A zillion nanoseconds worse than hurtling across the galaxy in a pod. The octopus, alas, carries no ginger candies or acupressure bands to mitigate the waves of nausea. On the mothership, the modified kelp forests give off an aroma like roses and gasoline, breeding microorganisms who clean up biohazards. Due to greenhouse gases, brushfires also rage in the world, regardless of the rising sea levels; beloved horses—the stallions, mustangs, and thoroughbreds—are freed from their stables and pastures before the fires reach this side of the foothills. Emily’s horses, restless with fear, whinny as the brushfires destroy houses, jump creeks, and even freeways. The terrified horses run, wild-eyed and quaking with fright, into canyons and arroyos where no one will ever see them again. In the indigo heart of the night, the whinnying mustangs run with wolves and coyotes, three species forgetting they were once foes in the wilderness.
Does this migrant Emily know how the original one loved wild horses?
Wild nights, not horses, she recalls vaguely as her organic lexicon kicks in for a split second. Emily lowers her chin as her metabolism decreases to a point beyond sleep, but rather, hibernation for distant space flights. Drifting into the perfumed netherworld, she faintly recalls the horses, the wild horses, the sleek, reckless horses. Bathed in a subtle fragrance of rhododendrons, descending an alpha forest of hydrogen molecules, escaping the scissors of editors, the maker’s fingerprints shine softly, holding the universe together with a hum. The horses sprout wings, fly over the sea of lost letters; with hooves reflecting direct sunlight, the horses circle back to the mothership and run unfettered with the wolves and coyotes, all three species merging with the dawn: horse, wolf, coyote, as one beast. In a lagoon, a glowing fog of words glides inside a flying octopus, a microlexicon she cannot utter aloud because she is mute. In meditative silence, she recites words in reverse alphabetical order to calm herself: zeppelin, yo-yo, key, door, applewood. Why say applewood and not apple? Is it applewood smoked gouda, applewood cheddar, appplewood bacon, or applewood smoke itself, none of which attracts me? Once inside a black hole, the octopus never comes back out again, at least, not to a typical citizen’s eye on this side of the universe.
Where did the flying octopus go?
To an intergalactic circus or other biogenius enterprise, imagines this other Emily, where its bubble of protoplasm expands with the totality of data in all creation, devouring newness in the manner of an omnivore. On the other side of the universe, migrant caravans arrive in the night to transport the genetic refugees inland, high up into the mountains, where they’re afflicted with vertigo from ozone. With hypothetical parentheses enclosing my aerated zone of ideaphoria, I muse, if it isn’t vertigo from traveling at the speed of light, then it’s dizziness from altitude. This millennium is not distinguished by existential nausea, however, as vertigo afflicted the Middle Ages, as well. With a stench of rotting effluvia, ruined coastal cities lie underwater with tides driven up more than usual, even for a full moon. The citizens wonder, how can they mitigate the scorching effects of climate change? Will we see more of these aberrant tides? In other words, will these floods no longer be abnormal, out of range? After doffing their felt hats and mackinaws to don inflatable tubes, the citizens swim in the squares where doves used to flock, now driven away by gulls. The flesh factories are flooded to their garrets while incubators, hoods, centrifuges, and Day-Glo orange fishermen’s polymer waders bob in the marshy water.
At the luxury underwater spas of hydrotherapy galore, those aquarium ballrooms of faux splendor, doubly kitsch—once lined with genetically modified damask spun by edited silkworms—with titanium-fortified polycarbonate ceilings adorned by chandeliers of diamonds made by carbonized vapors—flooded, short-circuited, inoperable. The water alarms, sounding off all day long, had to be disabled; the cybernews marquees and gondolas of data, ruined by the leaking water tunnels. Seawater drowned the genetic baptistery, mingling the altered marina animals with mineral-fortified, modified drops of holy water in a blessing of designer-gene animals, thanks to our lady of the starfish of the sea. The ocean’s rough saline caress dissolved the calcium carbonate in weathered marble baths, the flexible reed footbridges from one hydropod to another for sleep, the polyvinyl water piazza and its plexiglass clock tower, everything deluged like a metropolis of glass submarines. Bell-shaped jellyfish with modified throats—pouches enlarged to hold more fish, more flesh—circled hungrily, dissolving the glittery sardines at the foundation of the basilica. Eventually one day, the underwater basilica of ballrooms will cease standing. For now, it is a dimming thread of diode light among millions, the episodes named Emily.
Karen An-hwei Lee is the author of Phyla of Joy, Ardor, In Medias Res, Sonata in K, The Maze of Transparencies, God’s One Hundred Promises, What the Sea Earns for a Living, Anglophone Literatures in the Asian Diaspora: Literary Transnationalism and Translingual Migrations. Her volume of Song Dynasty translations, Doubled Radiance: Poetry & Prose by Li Qingzhao, is the first in English to collect Li’s poetry & prose in a single volume.
Her work has also appeared in Pearson’s Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing, A Public Space, Crab Orchard Review, Fourteen Hills, Guernica, Gulf Coast, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Poetry Magazine, Prairie Schooner, Puerto del Sol, Salamander, Third Coast, Versal, and elsewhere.
Currently, Lee serves in the administration at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.