The Rich Life of Objects in Elliott Colla and Ganzeer’s “We Are All Things”

We Are All Things by Elliot Colla & Ganzeer. Radix Media, 2020. 48 pages. $12.

We Are All Things, a graphic chapbook written by Elliott Colla and illustrated and designed by Ganzeer, luxuriates in the inner life of objects, featuring sentient objects including a lightbulb, a stereo, a mirror, cotton sheets, a creature-filled mattress, a water glass, a window pane, and a rug. The chapbook length (a quick 48 pages), the illustrations, and the animated objects lend the book the feel of a children’s story. This lends the book an uncanny feel, making us aware of the very different effect of animating objects in We Are All Things. Rather than being reassured that we live in an entirely human world, with talking animals and all, we are reminded of the creeping, crawling life of objects that unsettles the boundary between human and thing. The technique that ordinarily reinforces the sense of a human- (or child-) centered universe— “we are all things” in the sense of the be-all and end-all—here suggests that “we are all things” in the sense of being physical objects (title and p. 44).

Objects begin to seem (or are—the degree of projection here is ambiguous) animated when the male subject of the poem’s girlfriend breaks up with him. Thus, the pink of the girlfriend’s lipstick and nail polish streaks and enlivens the otherwise black and white illustrations. The girlfriend’s parting words to the speaker offer the work its premise:

You treat me like a doll.
You pick me up and play
with me sometimes, ask-
ing me what I want, pour-
ing tea . . . you pretend to
think of me as a person
who has opinions, then
you go ahead and ignore
me. You always do only
what you want . . . You’ll
never be able to see how
selfish you are, how you
treat others. Not only me.
I kept my mouth shut be-
cause I thought I was dif-
ferent. Now I know. You
want to treat your family
that way? That’s fine. Your
friends? Fine. But not me.
I am not a thing . . . (27).

The line breaks, often in the middle of words, are here, as elsewhere, determined by the margin rather than the sense-making activity of an agent. Given the content of this passage, in which the girlfriend complains of being treated as less than a person, I thought about how the words are treated not as the words of a person, but based on how they occupy space. Like the text, the girlfriend is valued for being a human-like “doll” who can say things, “express opinions,” but it doesn’t matter what she says. Like a doll, she is also valued for her appearance, which imparts its beauty, the pink, onto the room’s other objects.

I am not convinced that this is an especially feminist book. Even though the “he” is not the speaker of the poem, the fact that this situation of the break-up spurs the perception of objects being animated suggests the possibility that the “he” is conducting this thought experiment as a response to the break up. If this is the case, then instead of trying to think of the girlfriend as more of a human subject, the “he” offers the ex-girlfriend a rebuttal: “How could I treat you as something other than an object? We are all objects.” In considering the intention of the girlfriend’s feminist critique, I felt faintly annoyed by how the male subject’s—or at least the speaker’s—thought experiment responds by changing the subject.

Still, it’s important to note that the book is also critical of the male subject, who treats himself as too much of a subject in relation to other mere objects. We can see this in the water glass’s reflections. It is significant that the water glass is male (as other objects who hold onto the category of the human and the sense of autonomy are). Other objects are female or gender-neutral. The water glass passage occurs on the page after the ex-girlfriend’s speech, quoted above:

The glass on the nightstand
admires the way the light
fills its translucent body.
If they had only placed
me closer to the lamp, the
light and I would have cast
dazzling shadows against
the wall! He feels her lip-
stick still smeared along
his own lip. He remembers
the tremble of her fingers
around his brittle body.
Only minutes ago, gripped
in her shaking hand, he felt
the precariousness of his
situation, poised to break.
But the hand set him down
and the moment of clarity
was gone. He immediately
went back to his old ways,
forgetting his fragility (28).

It is worth noting that the “he” could allude to the water glass, but also to the speaker who has also had the ex-girlfriend’s lipstick smeared along his own “lip” and can still remember the “tremble of her fingers / around his brittle body.” In this passage, the lines are much less fragmented than they are in the ex-girlfriend’s speech. The only word that is broken in two is a compound word, “lipstick,” and the break has a logic, enabling us to imagine what it might mean for the cup to feel the residue of someone’s lipstick. Perhaps it feels something like the touch of another person’s lip against one’s own. The obvious connection between the speaker and the cup suggests further similarities including the precarity of the male character’s ego and sense of autonomy. Also, we are reminded of the momentary nature of the male subject’s revelations. We might recall that the ex-girlfriend accuses the speaker, “You pick me up and play / with me sometimes,” and this is how the various objects in the prose poem are treated (27). They are, in general, picked up to be put down. This is perhaps what contributes to my sense of this as a thought experiment. There is a sense that the break-up will not be permanently generative as a source of clarity for the “he.”

Eventually, the “he” and perhaps “we” the readers become susceptible to the tug of things and the possibility that they may have an inner life that is as complex, valid, and teeming with microscopic lives as our own. We then become open in the sense of losing our boundaries and becoming part of a single thing that includes everything in our environment. The figure for this is the patterned rug, who is a “she:”

Lovingly, softly she asks,
You think you’re so differ-
ent, my love? Really? And
once again, he feels the
yarns inside pulling loose.
In a voiceless weave, she
tries to soothe his nerves.
We are all things here, she
whispers. All things (44).

Once we realize that we are all things, the yarns that bind us together (here construed as nerves) are pulled “loose.” The effect of this on human beings is to “soothe,” which enacts loosening through its slant rhyme with “loose.” This experience of loosening is the opposite of the self-aggrandizement that would come of shoring up our boundaries and emphasizing our status as discrete individuals. And yet hearers of the rug are left with a wisp of transcendence through being part of an all-encompassing collective. Perhaps this sense of transcendence momentarily soothes the resistance of the “he” who insists on thinking he’s different. Perhaps the “we” that includes ourselves and surrounding objects is only a meaningfully coherent collective when objects are depicted together on the rug, or incorporated into a chapbook such as Colla’s and Ganzeer’s. In any case, the book shows us that with much imagination, such a brief and meaningful coming together is possible.

We Are All Things is a philosophical book that reflects on many large ideas such as the relationship between humans and objects, the possibility of human relationships, and how the rooms in which we find ourselves are simultaneously lonely and shared. The slow pace the prose poem acquires, in its close attention to the surfaces and interiority ascribed to objects, enables the “he” to relate to himself and other human beings with more impersonality, recalling Kant’s description of aesthetic pleasure as disinterested. The book is certainly beautiful both visually and in terms of its language; I felt content to allow its images and language to wash over me without feeling the sense of possessiveness associated with desire. Perhaps this might be a sensation of living as an object among objects, of perception without owning.

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