Book Reviews

Dreams of Cells and Wolves

by Constance Hansen | Assistant Managing Editor

The Dream of Every Cell

Maricela Guerrero
(Translated from the Spanish by Robin Myers)
Cardboard House Press, 2022

The Dream of Every Cell is an eco-poetic meditation on that most basic building block of life: the cell. Though El sueño de toda célula was originally published in 2018, well before the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, its first section page rings prophetically: “All organisms are made of cells, except for viruses.” Yet, the present moment of the book predates, encompasses, and outlasts this pandemic. Viruses don’t read as subjects so much as metaphors for empire. The cell is life. Empire is death. The book calls for dissent, mourning “the biodiversity that suffers the kinds of transfers calculated in agroeconomic offices where no dissenting voices sound.” Yet, a generous spirit enumerates what forms such dissent might take; like the wolves they so often reference, these poems are playful yet fierce. This is experimental linguistic research in action:

I’m looking into ways of being in other languages: making furrows of words: I’d like to speak in tree and shelter them:
the cells that dream they’re cells.

The researcher is aware that language is dual: while it can create false and dangerous dichotomies such as “natural” and “human,” communication also mingles closely with communion and holds the power to bless and banish. The Dream of Every Cell is a manifesto of caretaking, caregiving, and all that is lifegiving; it reaches for a common language that can restore the world to wholeness. Readers are led to consider that poetry, through beauty, intimacy, and the power of breath, may have the potential to counteract empire’s death drive.

Our common cellular foundation implies an integral oneness that is threatened by forces of empire that separate and extract: “Empire speaks in currencies and talents that absorb and fence in rivers that demolish land and strip-mine minerals and rivers and people: that dissolve, cut up, accumulate. They intervene in metabolic processes: they subtract”. Guerrero’s poems protest the manipulative, lingual methodologies through which empire reduces the living, breathing world to raw resources: “The imperial language of our present day is encoded in statistics, in rivers of data flowing through webs of energy and silicone and salt: amassing rules and fines and prison to those who oppose the empire and in our own ways we wage resistance against this language”. She attends to the toll empire takes on the human psyche—the aura of fear and legacy of grief for all that has been lost and will be: “We dream of machines extracting warmths and voices./ Which is the fear of extraction”.

Several poems conclude with a welcoming gesture toward a sleeping beast, a wolf. The wolf often represents a difficult feeling, such as fear or anguish. In embracing the animal, the speaker tenderly dissolves the griefs that arise from being a feeling person in a hurtful world. Wolves recur as a motif throughout the book: as apex predators who are both proof and cause of an ecosystem’s health, and as ecofeminist emblems who symbolize both wildness and community care. Ecofeminism is also summoned through a focus on the matrilineal. Earth-based women’s wisdom is passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter in the form of folk remedies. For example, the poet enumerates the many uses of aloe: when placed as a wreath upon the front door, aloe is believed to ward off evil; in combination with coins, to attract prosperity at work; when applied topically, as relief for burns and inflammation.

Doubling as a spellbook, this collection performs speech acts that reach for healing and integration, all while meditating on which anti-inflammatories (aloe? spearmint? dates? wolves? breath? intimacy?) might best treat the global inflammation that is empire. The process of the poet’s search for medicine is itself medicinal in the vivid beauty of its description. The speaker yearns for a language held in common between species while illustrating how one already exists: respiration. As trees and humans communicate by exchanging carbon dioxide and oxygen, so do all beings exist in reciprocal relationships with one another: 

We would dream of phonemes becoming
precise and impermanent margins of space and
placidity, vast extensions of a present abuzz in
the gorgeous combustion of inhaling oxygen
and exhaling carbon dioxide and other gases:
an effervescence of warmth and light, scents,
stutters, growls, spit, mucus, thunderous fluids,
amorous moans that stammer one inhalation
after another and make way for new and
rounded ways of sharing space.

Ecstatic intimacy is brought to contrast with the ugliness of capitalism and its desolate, ravaged landscapes. The poet paints images of “workers’ housing units and construction plots that haven’t been paid off and are left scattered with empty rooms”; in another poem, two towns war over rights to a sacred spring. The waters, believed to confer peace, are guarded by men with guns. The poet deftly illustrates, and laments, how capitalism creates false scarcity through enclosures that require competition over resources that are in truth abundant and unbound. A refrain continually recontextualized throughout the book states, “To stop can be another way to flow”. Stop the work of dams so that rivers may flow. Stop deforestation so that rivers of wildlife may flow—Guerrero reminds us that Guadalupe means river of wolves.

These poems praise the intimate relationships between life forms who are united through breath and cellular metabolism. Reverence for the “gauzy blanket” of which we’re all a part joins with an urge to protect biodiversity from forces that seek to destroy it. Guerrero considers how the language of empire enables ecocide: “Big companies that speak the language of empire always disregard the dreams of cells and wolves.” She ponders whether the language of empire could ever be used for good—in other words, could it be used against itself? The poet wishes “to speak the language of empire to take it apart” and also to “speak advertising agency but the other way around”. In other words, she wishes to speak the language of agency advertising. An activist or prophet might advertise agency—that is, remind the listener of their power—just as a poet may remind readers, however implicitly, of their responsibility to co-create the text mid-air and make new worlds together.

Even some teachers have this activating impact. A maestra named Ms. Olmedo recurs as a Virgil-like guide with her “salon-grade pompadour and low heels and chic round painted nails.” She is a science teacher who is the first to instruct the speaker that “the dream of every cell is to become more cells, and millions of them take part in this: our breath.” Her wisdom becomes another refrain throughout the book. In addition to introducing her students to biology and botany, Ms. Olmedo teaches the art of classification. With nuance, the poems consider the complicated implications of classification. Language facilitates classification in science, economics, and elsewhere—separating and sorting that which is intrinsically interconnected:

The language of empire is the language of naming kingdoms, species, subspecies, and leaf-shapes: patronymics: the language of empire demands the impossible: imperial subjects internalize the rules and accept them as the proper shape, although they also feed distress. In the language of empire, the bonds connecting plants and cycles and people are broken.

Biblically, naming can connote dominion. Genesis has often been interpreted to suggest that Adam’s naming of the animals means he claimed power over them, thus superseding them in The Great Chain of Being. By contrast, the world so lyrically described within The Dream of Every Cell is animistic; it is full of feeling subjects who share balanced worth. Earth is a place of kinship where we are invited into a reciprocal relationship with all beings. Breath offers this wisdom, but language can create a mistaken sense of division between what is “natural” and what is “human.” Among humans, language delineates hierarchies that have justified atrocities.

While language and classification are shown to be deadly weapons in the hands of empire, Guerrero attests also to their potency as tools of loving attention in the hands of scientists: “It hasn’t been said often enough in the language of empire that the methods of classification and description are beautiful in the care they take.” Acts of attention are championed as acts of resistance against empire. Care is relational; intimacy is praised as a life-affirming protest that restores wholeness: “Collecting leaves and recognizing trees is a beautiful form of resistance: of becoming cell-dreams: of drawing them and breathing.” The spirit of joy and even desire that can animate relationships between human and non-human species may remind readers of biophilia, Erich Fromm’s neologism which became the title of an E.O. Wilson book. In Biophilia, Wilson posits life has an affinity for itself, an innate desire to connect and co-exist. Another companion text may be The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram: in this book, all beings participate mind-body in a fluid reality that is not so differentiated as language may have led us to believe. According to Abram, “We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with that which is not human.” The speaker of The Dream of Every Cell seems to agree that the world is intoxicating and that it is easy, natural, and right to feel amorous toward such a world. The students are invited by Ms. Olmedo to follow their interests and work as they like, whereupon they affirm, “We love liking!” Intimacy resists empire because it is relational. Pleasure resists capitalism because it is life-affirming: “This evening calls for the precise ardor of oxygen to look into each other’s eyes and breathe.” 

Much discourse has attempted to answer a perennial question put this way in The Dream of Every Cell: “Do we write poems to save the species?” The poem answers, “Follow joy as a vocation.” In the universe of this book, poetry is not other than the biosphere. It pours forth from our breath and the activity of our cells, which are vitally interdependent with the living world despite empire’s denials and the resultant legacies of extraction, violence, and climate chaos. Our animistic world is hurting, as are we. Poetry searches for language that restores wholeness through tender intimacy: 

There’s no time or place or space where I’m not
searching for a language made of hands and wind
and nutrients; when I’m not researching a whole and
convenient form of nourishing them

accompanying them

being here:

growing accompanied.

And yet, let’s not overstate the importance of a project motivated by joy; such stateliness is a killjoy. Poetry has limits because language does. The core of connection is breath, and leaving space for life to collaborate with us in a sacred relationship:

is not enough:
we have to breathe:
messages of humus and nitrogen and amino acids and joy
how: chance:

Meaningfully, the final poem in the book is titled, “Beginnings.” In it, trees are anthropomorphized as wood mothers, again suggesting the collection’s guiding ecofeminist philosophy. Recent genetics research suggests that cells, too, might be ecofeminist in function: their mitochondria contain matrilineal DNA exclusively. When mitochondria dream backward, they remember our most recent common matrilineal ancestor, thought to have lived in Africa ~150,000 years ago. In cellular truth, human beings are related just as every ecosystem is relational. In this way, the cell itself disproves white supremacy and refutes violence against marginalized bodies and our singular biosphere. “Beginnings” asks, “What is the dialectical variant in which to translate this: / molecules of water phosphorus nitrogen salts/ minerals and shelter.” The end recommences the beginning in a dialectic stitch in which cells are always dreaming of regeneration and possibility. When the poet utters, “chance”, the reader hears that we may yet have a chance, through chance—that is, making space for the enchanted, conscious world to speak to us, to listen, to allow life to participate in our becoming, and vice versa. A magnanimous speaker conjures capacious shelter: a place of safety where there is room for all species to thrive. The book culminates in the reintroduction of wolves: they flourish in their wild ways, yet sleep beside us, as kin.

Constance Hansen is the Assistant Managing Editor of Poetry Northwest. Her poetry and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in: RHINO, Harvard Review, Cimarron Review, Southern Humanities Review, Northwest Review, The Idaho Review, Vallum, Superstition Review, Four Way Review, On the Seawall, and elsewhere. She lives in Seattle with her family.

Maricela Guerrero is a poet from Mexico City who has authored nine poetry collections. She was awarded the Clemencia Isaura Prize in 2018 for El sueño de toda célula (Ediciones Antílope/Instituto Veracruzano de la Cultura, Mexico City, 2018). El sueño de toda célula was translated into English by Robin Myers and published as The Dream of Every Cell (Cardboard House Press 2022).

Robin Myers (New York City, 1987) is a poet, translator, and essayist. Recent translations include Copy by Dolores Dorantes (Wave Books, 2022), Another Life by Daniel Lipara (Eulalia Books, 2021), The Science of Departures by Adalber Salas Hernández (Kenning Editions, 2021), Cars on Fire by Mónica Ramón Ríos (Open Letter Books, 2020), The Restless Dead by Cristina Rivera Garza (Vanderbilt University Press, 2020), and Animals at the End of the World by Gloria Susana Esquivel (University of Texas Press, 2020). She lives in Mexico City.