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“Already We are Less than Ever Before,” by Alison Powell

I

Fereidoun M. Esfandiary hypothesized the sun
was the heart of utopia. He changed his name to FM-2030
to mark the year he’d turn 100. Interviewed by Larry King,
FM-2030 wears a heavy white robe and says his new name
is “neat.” Larry smiles indulgently. “Do you believe people
will be named this way in the future?” FM-2030 says
“No. We will have the ability to change season. 2030 will be
a magical time, a dream, a goal: we will be ageless. Everyone
will have an excellent chance to live forever.” FM-2030
must have felt especially disappointed when dying
of pancreatic cancer so early, at 69. As for the sun—
bountiful with free energy, FM-2030 said it would run
machines, copy everything and ourselves, so we’d never
run out of anything ever again. No more competition.
We’d stop beating up on each other. Plus, synthetic organs
would make death a relic. Why swell’st thou? Death, thou shalt die,
etc. Larry King is fixated on the name, like a big gray bear
hunched over a ball. “You are not saying by taking this name
that we will be named this way. But we will have our heritage,”
Larry goes on, straightening his tie. “Already we are less hereditarian
than ever before,” replies FM-2030 in a subdued, heroic way.

II

Elsewhere FM-2030 said, “I am a 21st century person accidentally
launched in the 20th. I have a deep nostalgia for the future.”
He said the pancreas is a stupid, dumb, wretched organ.
More than 100 people have been cryopreserved since 1967,
housed in metal cylinders full of liquid nitrogen in a warehouse.
When a body is preserved—not just a brain—the patient
is a “whole body member.” With his new name, FM-2030
demonstrates how renaming is a form of discovery,
the apprehension of a new identity or use for an existing thing.
It’s marvelous how a tongue, making a sound received by the ear,
transforms in the mind a material, giving it a use well beyond
its present existence. You know what I mean? Just, wow. Lately
my son talks a lot about Getting Dead: “Actually I don’t like this
flavor lip balm. I’m giving it to you, to have for your whole life
until you get dead!” At bedtime: “What was I going to ask? Oh.
What happens when your life is done?” The books say: Offer nothing
beyond the scope of the child’s question. As if that’s possible,
as if every call and response weren’t a widening circle.
In The Prelude, Wordsworth writes of a boy standing on a cliff,
imitating the owls who respond in kind until the mountain
and pool below become a mess of sounds, a tornado-in-a-bottle:
the owl call, the hollow echo of the boy’s call, rendering
indistinguishable what is human or animal, echo or utterance.
Or even what speech is anyhow. Wordsworth offers a metaphor:
The idea of origin is the naivest—or possibly vainest—of human
concepts. When I was a child, a friend with straw-like hair
and the body of a translucent scarecrow told me how her aunt,
a farmhand, died by falling into a silo. Echo. Echo.
Echo. Echo.

III

A twenty-something woman tells her Reddit followers
she has terminal cancer and asks for donations. The funds
aren’t for a cure, but to have her brain cryopreserved after death.
She succeeds—though not enough to be a whole body member.
Now her father records daily messages for her future/afterlife
brain. They begin like this: “Hello, [name], honey…”
Incidentally, Mormons don’t believe people get a planet
populated with their own families after death, but they don’t
exactly refute it. If that were true my mother, father, brother
and I would be on our own planet with my mother’s cousin
Mary, a severe anorexic from the backwoods who once tried
to kill her own mother by throwing piece after piece of hot
fried chicken at her in a rage. The Reddit girl was engaged;
her fiancé wondered if he should be frozen, too, eternally bound
to his extraordinary ice girl in her super form. Today he is married
to an organic woman and works for a conservative think tank.

IV

Wordsworth’s owls never appear to us or the boy. It’s unclear
whether the event – the eruption – happens at sundown, or sunset—
the poet leaves it ambiguous. Determining what is the midpoint
of day or night is a fool’s errand anyway. What is clear is that the boy
dies, ending up at the bottom of the lake below a shimmery surface
reflecting the sky and that uncertain heaven. Once I took my son
to AquaTots Swim Club and tried to make him into a Goldfish.
We circled together in the water while a big man we didn’t know
shouted at us enthusiastically, instructed me to dunk my son’s
head underwater and I did it because I thought it was good
for him. What did I know. He emerged full of newfound courage
but when we left he was clutching a purple plastic dolphin
that lights up underwater and begged never to return.

V

When I turn 39, my son gives me a card shaped like Frida Khalo
and says “It’s Daylight Savings Time, you have a choice:
you can turn either 11 or dead!” That night I see Patti Smith
perform live with my Mormon friend Lisa. Patti shakes her hips
and shoots the stink eye at anyone recording with an iPhone;
Lisa and I toast our mules to Horses. As a kid, just reading
the word death made my stomach flip-flop: the actual letters
and my somatic recoil became nearly indistinguishable
from its meaning. The d was the worst but the way -eath
follows like a slack, wet sheet felt terrible and viral. A real
sock in the chest. Now a mother, I imagine a children’s book
titled Breaking the Bad News. Table of Contents: Death:
subsection, Cancer. Things that Eat People: Sharks, Bears,
Other People. Capitalist Fictions: Linear Progress, Heaven.
One day, after saying something so full of grace the words
hang in the air as if made of filament, wisdom, and sugar,
you’ll trip over an electrical wire or something and fall flat
on your face. You’re an animal, not a god. 38 is not one
of your choices.

Are you ready? I believe you are ready.

 


ALISON POWELL is a poet, essayist, and scholar of Romantic era poetry. Her creative work has recently appeared in journals including American Literary Review, Black Warrior Review, Copper Nickel, Michigan Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, Public Space, and more; she has recently received fellowships from VCCA and the Crosshatch Center for Art and Ecology. Her first book of poems, On the Desire to Levitate, won the Hollis Summers Poetry Prize and was published by Ohio University Press in 2014. Recent scholarship includes a chapter on depictions of play in Wordsworth’s epic autobiographical poem The Prelude (1805), in Children’s Play in Literature: Investigating the Strengths and Subversions of the Playing Child (Routledge). She is Assistant Professor of Poetry at Oakland University and faculty adviser of the undergraduate literary journal The Oakland Arts Review. Originally from Indiana, Powell now lives in Michigan with her husband and their son and daughter. ☆ Judge Hanif Adurraqib selected “Already We Are Less Than Ever Before,” as winner of Proximity’s 2018 Personal Essay Prize.