Poems and Texts

“Human Fear Sweat” by Marianne Shaneen

Caitlin Berrigan & Marianne Shaneen
Friday, October 5, 2018, 8:00 pm

Human Fear Sweat

I woke up with a start, eyes darting, hypervigilant. Rousing the snoring passenger next to me. Prey animals scan the air for scents of potential threats and emit alarm pheromones as warning signals. Frightened people also emit chemical odors. One passenger’s fear of flying can subconsciously infect others. Especially in coach, where you’re closer together.

The US military’s research into Alarm Pheromones in Human Fear Sweat is being used to develop synthetic fear pheromones. To control crowds, or preemptively thwart potential terrorist attacks.

A prey animal puffs up its fur or feathers to appear more threatening, with arrector pili that as a human I also possess. But my hair-raising contractions aren’t scaring anyone. They’re merely vestigial reflexes that do nothing but give me gooseflesh when the plane flies through turbulence.

I’m flying over mountains and valleys, over which I project a map of idealized fantasies of Nature, an Eden that I imagine I’ve been excluded from. Below, an elk grazes in its psychological environment, which is altered as it catches the scent of a wolf. The elk projects a mental and sensory map of risk over the landscape. It moves through a cartography of scents, sounds, and tracks, zoning valleys of relative safety, and mountains where the odds of being eaten are high. Human observers call this a Landscape of Fear.

The mere presence of a predator can cause enough stress to kill a dragonfly. Grasshoppers, each with its unique countenance, grimace at the threat of being pierced by venomous fangs. In the presence of spiders, grasshoppers live with perpetual stress and fear that chemically alters their bodies. They grow more slowly and have higher metabolic rates than grasshoppers in spider-free zones. A grasshopper is fearful even in the presence of a spider who cannot kill it because its mouth has been glued shut.

Autocorrect changes a spider who to a spider that, insisting that a spider is not a who.

Not only do animals fear predators when they are attacked, but they also feel fear from the mere presence of what they perceive to be a predator. Regardless of whether or not attacks actually occur.

Although levels of actual crime have dropped dramatically in Western cities, fear of crime is growing to the highest levels ever. FBI Geoprofiling projects fear maps onto urban ecosystems, to target potentially dangerous individuals or groups for surveillance, and to assess the level of threat they pose. Regardless of whether or not attacks actually occur.

Law enforcement geodemographically maps migration patterns and nest building locations for high-threat habitats and species—for example, African American drivers on the New Jersey turnpike, the number of mosques in an area, Mexicans at the border.

Living with perpetual stress and fear chemically alters my body. It causes me to grow more slowly and to have a higher metabolic rate.

Sometimes a person is accused of looking suspicious, of looking likely to commit a crime. Sometimes a person is called a superpredator. Sometimes a person is called an animal that deserves to be put down.

Flying over a city, I project a fearscape, saturated with threat zones. My arm becomes a birdwing the feathers have been plucked from, covered in goosebumps. I run my hand over the skin on my arm and ask, What is the risk surface of this landscape?

Marianne Shaneen

Marianne Shaneen is a Lebanese/Mexican-­American writer of fiction, poetry, and essays, who also works in documentary video. Shaneen received her MFA in writing from the Bard Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts. She has been awarded fellowships at the MacDowell Colony and at Yaddo, and received a NYSCA Individual Artist grant for her documentary video essay—a poetic, playful, provocative exploration of fluid identity and trans-species possibility. Her work has appeared in Bomb, The Brooklyn Rail, Manchester University Press, Vanitas, and elsewhere. Her chapbook Lucent Amnesis was published by Portable Press/Yo-­Yo Labs. She is currently finishing her first novel, Homing—a speculative fiction work that experiments with what she calls “writing in the first non-human-person,” from the ‘perspective’ of various animals, plants, a stone, plastic. Amidst eco-destruction and military and corporate control of technologies and bodies, its female protagonist asks, Where does self end and other begin? As she realizes that everywhere home might be is becoming uninhabitable, personal trauma becomes increasingly entwined with ecological trauma. She lives in Brooklyn and in upstate New York, with her partner and their dog Rupert Pupkin.

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