Rayfish cover[Omnidawn; 2017]

The body is everpresent in Mary Hickman’s Rayfish. There is surgery, the visceral body, the skin, a cross-section, a heart on ice waiting to be transplanted. I think that’s what this book is about. The heart on ice.

“I draw inspiration from going in to repair flesh that isn’t damaged,” says the speaker. The body doesn’t need to be changed, and yet it is. It isn’t damaged until the surgeon begins. “I’ve assisted in two kinds of plastic surgeries: additions and subtractions. I either supplement the body so that it rounds out and fills or I tuck the body into itself, scraped free of excess fat.” Either way, the body is cut open and altered and then sewn over so, ideally, the viewer won’t notice.

I say speaker, but this speaker is one of many. The voice is made up of many viewpoints, many centralities, as if parts of a body were speaking from inside another body. It’s rarely clear which voice is which — the artist, a friend, the narrator. The voices, like the works, are roped together like a tree or a fungus or an ocean or a blood transfusion, and the voice is “on the hunt here, following the vine to its root only to find it’s one vine among twelve and we’d better get the shovel.”

Sometimes the body is damaged. Sometimes the body is dead. Sometimes the surgery is an autopsy, where the flesh is cut open to preserve some living part rather than to fix something that’s not yet broken. On an autopsy table, the body becomes meat — but the body was already meat on the operating table, mid-tummy tuck.

Death is always close, inevitable. “I have had many near-death experiences, moments when I certainly might have died.” In the ocean, on a cliff, in a hospital. “Once, at Bai Xia, I tried to save a surfer who was drowning. I tried desperately to save him for almost twenty minutes but he didn’t make it.”

But death, it seems, isn’t final. There isn’t loss or grief or absence. Somehow, the death isn’t in the body. Or the death is entirely in the body and that other thing — call it soul — is nowhere to be found. The body ceases to function, but it doesn’t disappear. It simply changes, slowly, decays and becomes something different. “When the sun extracts the last drop of moisture from the skin, the skin shrinks and forms intricate patterns. When the heat cracks the chest, it draws salt, covering the chest in a fine web of seams. This is what we call contemporary landscape.”

There’s a space between life and death. The heart on ice. “I never held a warm heart but sometimes wish I had. I think I would have cried more for a warm heart that refused to restart. The cold ones, nesting in sterile ice, never inspired hope of life.” And yet those are the ones we transplant. The cold ones can be warmed again. The warm ones go slowly and permanently cold.

Transplanting keeps a part from decaying — conserves its original self. Consider, for example, Eva Hesse’s sculptures, several of which, we are told, “have deteriorated. They are no longer their original selves. They cannot be handled or installed as before. Consider a sculpture that, when first made, is softly draped, understated, organic, erotic, like the meninges, the protective tissue just under the skull, and is now a rigid, tawny heap. Maybe what I really want is a round table discussion about conservation.”

In terms of literary device, these pieces are ekphrastic, a word that means to describe a piece of art. Each poem — disguised as prose, several pages long, in paragraph form — takes a different artwork or artist as its starting point. But though these pieces are born of visual work, they don’t describe it. Description looks at but remains distant from. It’s more like they step into the work, weave themselves with it. These poems are not “about” the art any more than translation is “about” its original. I couldn’t tell you what the originals look like. But I can tell you how they feel.

A nice thing about poetry is that it’s not categorized as “fiction” or “nonfiction.” But although categorization can be an inane marketing device, it is also, I think, a useful philosophical exercise. I would categorize this book as translation.

Translation is a process more than a genre. The process of taking something from one language — in this case, visual — and putting it into another — text. It’s a reimagining, an homage. The form is entirely different, perhaps unrecognizable, but the essence is there.

The book takes its title from Soutine’s Still Life with Rayfish, which is an imitation of Chardin’s Rayfish. It’s “a portrait of Chardin.” Soutine “imprisons the image within the image.” He makes a portrait of the painting. One might call that ekphrasis.

While I might call Rayfish translation, I don’t think the book wants any category but the one it has. After all, “Nothing takes the place of poetry. It fulfills a particular function. It’s a mirror.”

Transplanting, mirroring, translation — each conserves some part of the original, even if some other part is lost. The face is gone, but there is the heart. The body is gone, but there is the image. The image is gone, but it’s brought to life again in text.

In a mirror, one is displaced, removed, transplanted. “If I catch a glimpse of my face reflected in the facets of the paint, in the mirror of your shoulder, I feel myself lost inside the body I see.” The portrait and body are both mirrors here. Both resemble, or reassemble, make the subject into the object. Andy Warhol “only wants to be told about his body by others,” some speaker says. But “people are always calling Andy a mirror and if a mirror looks into a mirror what is there to see?” If a mirror looks into a mirror, there’s an infinite doubling, an eternal copy in the nonspace of reflection.

Is a picture of oneself in a mirror autobiography or portrait? “Everything is autobiography and everything is portrait,” Rayfish would tell me. That phrase I just copied down is itself a reflection of Lucien Freud’s title, “Everything is autobiographical and everything is portrait.” It’s the same, almost. Just a slight, nearly imperceptible shift. A little, smoothed over subtraction. Rayfish fits its own mold, describes each artwork and simultaneously, at each point, describes itself.

Galen Beebe is a writer, multimedia artist, and co-founder of Etc. Gallery. She received her MFA in Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is a contributing writer at the Bello Collective.