In Making Love with the Land, Whitehead draws us into himself. The acute intimacy this fosters punctures all pronouns, from the untouchable “I” to the boundless “you”.
Soon, the former transforms into the elusive “we”, leading to a flurry of images and feelings so fierce that both seem almost involuntary. Meanwhile, beneath his exquisite prose and scenes of lulling destruction, Whitehead’s ruminations carve notches into bones.
The first essay is somewhat reminiscent of Billy-Ray Belcourt’s A History of My Brief Body, in that it hints at a controlled dislocation of the psyche; one that results from its capacity to hold — and crave — more than the self. The elaborate language with which Whitehead handles others’ fictions about himself also points to a more severe contortion than the one enacted on the page.
And while the prose may come across as uneasy in its own skin at times, this stiffness is an ache that is meant to first delineate, then outlast the body. In a similar fashion, English is unmasked as a choreography of painfully stilted movements.
By mixing its clunky step with Cree terms, Whitehead allows the reader to experience some of the distress that comes from being engulfed by the Other, or — as is perhaps more accurate in the case of his recollections — another.
Making love, then, becomes a way of blending with all that we consume and eventually regress to; an interchange that takes us out of ourselves, grinding atoms in pursuit of a silent implosion.
To achieve this, Whitehead plays around with narration and the many voices it assumes. He asks, “Who is the you, who is the one substituting both the you and the I?” By rubbing the flank separating one from many, he demonstrates how a voice can endure the collapse of a body, and how consciousness finds its impression in the “you” he inhabits.
It’s the one he delights in, and the one that ultimately triumphs over him. And so, the body is in a constant state of lovemaking with the world, forever in the throes of the atomic coupling that allows it to persist,
While self-effacing, this view is also deeply adoring of its creator. This fact proves vital when Whitehead later points to the underpinning of his destructive relationship with his body. What’s more, the essays are lined with countless layers of quiet contemplation.
Most memorably, during the process of ungluing labels and language from his skin, Whitehead reflects on the creative process, which animates literature to the point of cultivating new life. The person that is stitched together from private words and inner worlds is likewise granted a body that can be experienced,
With mentions of BIPOC trauma and grief rightfully charting the course of a shared existence, Whitehead constructs whole orbits. These bring us closer to the formation of thought, the contemplation of beauty, an ongoing flirtation with self-destruction, the devastating nature of desire, and the stunting rate of growth.
While subsisting on universal states of being, the act of functioning as a cell in a persevering body exhausts the personal. This “fluidity of being” is endless, and as malleable as language proves limited. For example, one of the essays is a love letter composed entirely from the bones of a mutilated heart.
By looking back at a formerly romantic relationship, Whitehead conveys the eager fluidity of all things, from emotion to relation. It’s a poignant account that indicates how sorrow is entrenched in life. To love is to be is to wither. And yet, like all his words, the sum of the author’s thoughts points to persistence, perhaps even hope.
Fellow fans of Jonny Appleseed will also rejoice in the behind-the-scenes peek at the character’s conception, which, like all bodied people, yields both pleasure and anguish. There’s something intensely voyeuristic about consuming another’s pain, but Whitehead accepts this unavoidable intimacy with a weary shrug.
After all, he understands the impulsivity of the act like no one else. We are all steeped in each other’s immediacy. With Making Love with the Land being largely an academic work, it’s no surprise that Whitehead sets out to draw the scholarly world into the realm of experience. In doing so, he forces thought to find its physical embodiment.
As a result, the author seems more exposed than ever before, but this nakedness is intangible. His vulnerability is a tear, through which we glimpse more layers of membrane; a quality that makes his work so restorative.
These layers change hues, bristle, and grow sensitive to the touch. And as Whitehead holds our hand to the most tender spots of his intellect, we reach a facsimile of familiarity. In many ways, it’s only ever as powerful as the parable it feeds, and we are rarely truly intimate with our urges.
With that being said, we come as close to merging as seems possible through the process of devouring the collection’s body. And though he may fear having given too much of himself away, as all writers of his calibre do, Joshua Whitehead will forever be revered for the myths he awakens.
Publication date: November 15, 2022 (University of Minnesota Press) / August 23, 2022 (Knopf Canada)