Rigorous as true experiments must be, Divya Victor’s Things to Do with Your Mouth examines patriarchal systems of language (clinical, corporate, biblical) and dissects the oppressions they document, instill, and perpetuate. Victor both emulates and perverts the texts: she interrupts Henry James’s Flora from The Turn of the Screw with the word “gag” choking his long sentences; she sets arithmetic word problems, stripped of the details necessary for solution, to float above white space with dubious authority. In “Part One: Put Flesh on A String” Victor takes a how-to for soothing an infant and expands each method by listing a word’s synonyms and associations. Thus, Take a heavy afghan and fold it and into quarters to concentrate the weight becomes:
take, lay hold of get hold of, grasp, grip, clasp, clutch, grab, remove, pull, draw, withdraw, fish, extract, quote, cite, excerpt, derive, abstract, copy, cull, drink, imbibe, consume, swallow, eat, ingest, capture, seize, catch [ … ] a heavy weighty, hefty, substantial, ponderous …
The exercise performs a semantic excavation of each clause, painstakingly cataloging shifts and nuances, and slowing down a reader’s attention enough to mull over these silencing strategies. It’s both exhaustive and exhausting, so much so that the vivid descriptions of expulsions and secretions in the following section are a welcome horror. “Part Two: Gag” re-imagines Freud’s Dora as the possessed Regan in The Exorcist, but also as a lover from the Song of Solomon: “She expelled saliva or spit … and infected mucus from the bronchi, larynx, trachea, or lungs forcibly” is followed by images like, “Her cheeks were doorways with rows of jewels and her neck was bound with chains of gold…”
To manage these calculated discombobulations, Victor suggests that
If you want
to put something
in a fixed place
things, you can
You can also introduce things, but
if the thing
is extraneous or lacks authorization, you
may have to interpolate it.
These sections and four others comprise a sequence defining the words insert, inject, introduce, interpolate, interject, and mediate. One can read these as Victor’s scientific method, and her hypothesis a recovery of the voice of a woman, silenced. The book’s formal experiments vex, unsettle, and sometimes fatigue one’s sympathies, but to commit to this enterprise of Things To Do With Your Mouth is to derive a revelatory pleasure from the discomfort wrought.