“28 CE John the Baptist dips Jesus in the Jordan. From shore, Joseph replays his recurring wet nightmare: Mary becomes pregnant from sperm in the caldarium.”
A professor once pointed out to a younger me that a PhD is by definition a Doctorate of Philosophy; whether one studies English literature or molecular biology, these are merely the direction from which one approaches greater questions of truth that are by definition interdisciplinary in nature. Lay hand on any idea as a starting point, follow it doggedly enough through the dark, and you’ll find it connects to a multitude of other concepts, like so many unseen pipes and drains. Brecken Hancock’s The Art of Plumbing is the very embodiment of this concept: through extensive research on the evolution of cleansing and waste disposal technology, she tells a story of civilization itself, a 6600 year spell from copper pipes to bathyspheres.
The Art of Plumbing is structured as a timeline of significant happenings in plumbing history stretching from the earliest recorded instance of underground pipes in the Indus Valley in 3300 BCE to a glimpse of the year 3300 CE, each date accompanied by a short prose poem describing the event. Our knowledge of the early years of civilization tends to come to us in the form of myths which, over time, blur into a more modern conception of historical narrative. Throughout the chapbook, Hancock plays with this gradual shift from a mystical/divine understanding of the world to one rooted in science and human achievement:
“232 BCE Mathematician, astronomer and inventor Archimedes stumbles into a method for gauging the volume of irregular objects. Stepping into the bath, he spots water rise counter to the submersion of his body. According to rumour, he sprints naked through the streets of Syracuse – proclaiming either, ‘God has given me the answer!’ or, ‘I have found it!'”
We like to think that in becoming more rational we have left barbarism behind, but the litany of mania and brutality Hancock dredges up gives lie to that comforting illusion. Hence Countess Báthory, and other historical bloodbaths:
“63 BCE Augustus Caesar commissions an artificial lake, eighteen hundred feet by twelve hundred feet, where criminals and slaves stage navalia proelia, simulated sea-battles. By Nero’s time, theatrical water wars utilize up to nineteen thousand men and over a hundred ships. Drowning bulls dogpaddle through bile-blooming blue, the floating button mushrooms of men’s overbrimmed fat, and the chum of their own blood.”
In narratives of progress and frontiers, civilization is often seen as a taming, feminizing force. The lawless nomad, the lone hunter is subjugated to domesticity, permanent residence. And with civilization inevitably comes plumbing, sewers. Better to say a man puts down pipes than roots. Plumbing creates an artificial distance between human beings and their excretions that encourages the belief that it is possible to transcend our base, animal physicality. In this sense, the washroom becomes a sort of portal we enter to divest ourselves of body odours, faeces and menstrual blood; we emerge “purified” beings. But by the same token, the washroom is the space in which we are most aware of our body as a bleeding, shitting, fallible organism. The washroom itself becomes a reminder of this body shame, and so, when it is mentioned at all in polite conversation it is obliquely, via euphemism or offhand joke.
It is problematic then that the washroom, a scorned vestibule, is considered a feminine space; there is a link there to the old prejudice that women are somehow more creatures of the body than men, and thus more in need of redemptive physical and spiritual cleansing. (Plus, I’m guessing the average pair of balls smells more pungent than a comparable vagina.) A recurring motif in The Art of Plumbing is the washroom as a site of gendered warfare; Clytemnestra disemboweling her husband Agamemnon in his bath, Charlotte Corday’s sudsy murder of Marat (here strangely spelled “Marot”), a recent tragedy in Tokyo in which a man buried his murdered lover in a tub full of sand. A striking image from the poem’s prologue of a goddess/poet figure encountering “an invertebrate army come to kiss the slit where my tail splits, two legs” seems to invert the idea of feminine civilization subjecting masculine individualism. Here, instead of flushing away unwanted elements, they surge up the pipes to invade her.
The opening and closing sections of the book are pretty recondite and, I think, woven with a thread of personal hurt that would require a better knowledge of the poet’s biography to grasp; in any case, they’re overwrought compared to the lean, wryly bookish tone of the rest of the piece. There is in them, however, a summative rejection of the female body’s stigma of uncleanliness, the bathroom transcended by 3300 CE to a floating, transparent bathysphere: “I douche in tsunami; I’m radiant. It’s the end of man and I can do whatever I want.”
I had the pleasure of seeing Brecken Hancock read at the In/Words Reading Series earlier this week where she shared a few pieces from her forthcoming trade book Broom Broom (2014, Coach House); one was an exceptional long poem taking another view of the role of the bathroom in modern life, and another concerned a myth about the origin of soap. Based on the strength of these excerpts and The Art of Plumbing, it’s clear this is a rich source of inspiration for her. I look forward to seeing where those pipes take her.