“As the eons passed, these amorous companions built layer upon layer of skull, melding together a solid, calcified spiraled membrane that separated yet structured them.”—Quintan Ana Wikswo
Desire bends the world with transmogrifying persistence in Wikswo’s debut collection, The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far, until the reality we thought we knew erodes into the background of a whorling landscape rife with longing. The tragedy of embodiment, of our inherent separation from one another, permeates a text whose protagonists strive to rewrite the rules of creation, that it might contain a space where they can love. It is no wonder, then, that the text obliterates boundaries of form, structure, genre, and medium like a typhoon.
In “The Double Nautilus,” the narrator spins out an origin myth for the tunnels beneath the Swiss Alps that house the Large Hadron Collider. Two “amorous companions,” once marine mollusks, have become twin underground structures, carved reflections of one another, sitting side by side. Within them, a mathematician searches for the point where these structures meet, to find the object of her affection on the other side. She traces the wall that separates them, sleeps against it, even smashes it with her forehead in an attempt to break through. The longing to meld together drives these lovers to greater depths as they reenact the legend of the ancient mollusks, in which “their flesh was two. Their forms were one.”
Like the narrator in “Double Nautilus,” Wikswo’s work traces the seams of intersection, most notably of gender, medium, and genre. We meet enraptured narrators gazing out at erotic complements: a cartographer fomenting “existential insurrection,” a Viking invader who teases eggs from between the speaker’s thighs before sailing out to sea, a mother trapped in a mason jar, and a Latvian woman displaced in the Antilles who posts letters to her empty apartment in Riga, recording memories of the deep past to her future self. But I and thou stand no farther apart than two gametes, rendered here. Wikswo’s subjects seem aware of their beloveds’ reflective function, that in loving that other, in obsessing over him or her, their greatest achievement might be love of self.
The speakers themselves mostly elude gender identification, rooting themselves in a sensuality and eroticism that transcend performative gender binaries along with increasingly outmoded delineations of sexual form. In the spirit of Virginia Woolf, who wrote nearly a century ago that a writer must be “a woman manly or a man womanly,” and the lineage of writers such as Jeanette Winterson who freely demote gender assignment to a status outside the frame, Wikswo abnegates ingrained categorizations of gender and sexuality in the interest of more unbounded explorations of how desire comes to inhabit—or even possess—the self. What is love, and what obsession? these pieces ask. How does violence imprint on the physical body; how does the body imprint on the metaphysical realm?
The union of photography and text flows deliberately from this ungendered eroticism. At first glance, the pictures seem to illuminate the text, but closer inspection reveals a more lateral, complex relationship between media. The methodological notes at the book’s end contain enriching and often clarifying information—the object of the narrator’s affection in “On the Sofa in Vilnus” is a historical character, based on a seamstress who facilitated cross-dressing in Lithuania in the 1930s, the bones of Karolina from “Cap Arcona” washed up on the Baltic shore fewer than forty years ago along with those of her fellow prisoners, and the blue-green hues in certain pictures of flora and sky in “The Delicate Architecture of Our Galaxy” are the result not of filters but “blue-glass optics,” a technique of photographing through old mason jars. The notes inform the reading experience much as a plaque enhances one’s experience of a painting, implying the text is part of a picture. The reader, then, finds herself at the intersection of reader and viewer, where two forms again become one.
Wikswo’s deliberate genre bending is a further example of form following artistic intent. The Hope of Floating says “stories” on the cover, but with its use of negative space it might be read as prose poetry or abstract essay. In its rendering of the grotesque, it could be called a gothic, in its sublimation of cultural trauma, a work of magic realism. Considering the text’s high quotient of scientists and its propensity to mine fact for magic, it might even be a science fiction.
Ultimately, Wikswo’s collection sits astride speculative nonfiction, magic realism, science fiction, and prose poetry, proudly genre queer, wholly itself. From this vantage point, one catches sight of the work’s deeper fascinations—the palimpsest of time as displayed in ruddy multiexposure images, and the cosmology of self and universe as glimpsed in the white spaces and optical illusions of a daughter who feeds her mother licorice through the lid of a jar, saying, “Because of her, the absolute fecundity of a supernova.”
The collection subtly presents a spiral structure, departing from and returning to elements of this form time and again. Within “The Double Nautilus,” we find images of those spiral-shelled marine mollusks responsible for the subalpine tunnels that house the largest machine in the world. The opening piece, “The Cartographer’s Khorovod,” moves back and around through time, structured much like the Slavic dance from which the title is derived. In “Aurora and the Storm,” two scientists are separated during the spiral mayhem of a hurricane. The ghostly speaker in “My Nebulae, My Antilles” stares up at “the crustaceans of the sky,” seeing that pattern in the heavens. Another narrator’s area of academic specialization is the spira mirabilis, that logarithmic spiral that recurs in nautilus shells, cyclones, and the arms of our galaxy.
It is said that creation contains the imprint of the cosmos. If so, Wikswo’s cosmos is at once coldly mathematical and mercifully devoid of sharp edges, her creation a place of many returns, not one linear shot at the heights of heroic release. Perhaps, she seems to posit, the universe might not even be so unkind. Within this structure, transformation becomes iterative, recursive, feminine, and infinitely possible. Yet the hopeful tone is tentative. Metamorphosis invokes creation and destruction simultaneously, after all. Even the dedication page hints at an unsteady truce with the cosmos, its Venn diagram pointing to the intersection of romanticism and nihilism. It’s a small slice, and a precarious fulcrum to stand on, but here among these pages, it exists.