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BOOK REVIEW

«Ecopoetics, no 6/7» Ed. Jonathan Skinner, Bowdoinham, Maine: Periplum Editions, 324 pp. $17, ISSN 1536–7479.

reviewed by
Nicholas Birns

book cover



1

If ecopoetics was ever a boutique phenomenon, this certainly has changed by the middle of 2010, as I am writing this, The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the continuing ravages of bushfires in Australia have made the environment an issue that it is no longer just a luxury to be worried about. Michael Farrell, the editor of the selection of Australian material in this issue, suggests this is “the greening of the public” (13); although the lackluster outcome of Prime Minister Rudd’s cap-and-trade initiative shows this might not always eventuate in politically determinate outcomes, certainly Farrell is right when he says the issue is now no longer “marginalized” but ‘a commonplace”.

2

This bumper double issue of ecopoetics, encompassing the years 2006 to 2009, both underscores the interpenetration of ecological concern and experimental aesthetics but also disenthralls us from many clichés about ecology that have become part of the mainstream discourse. Ecopoetics so has the potential to bring geographically distant areas into dialogue without resorting to the hucksterish h clichés of globalization.

3

This is shown by the Australian material — — called “Unrooned: Dry and Tender Poetics from Australia” — which constitutes a fifth of the issue’s length. Some Australian poets have centered their work around ecopoetic questions; John Kinsella, as he demonstrates with his poem here as in myriad other work; Judith Wright, the first Australian poet to meaningfully link environmental concern with awareness of the dispossession of the Indigenous people; but also Les Murray, who has suffered the odd fate of being universally known but oddly underrated.

4

Murray’s work provides the crucial link between the traditional lyric poets to show what we would now call ecocritical concern — Henry Kendall in the nineteenth century and the Jindyworobaks in the mid-twentieth — and those consciously engaged in work in which ecopoetic as well as lyric pretexts provide the spur for their poetic utterance.

5

That Murray’s poetry is both more commercial than the pieces included here and that Murray’s independent political and personal self-positionings have placed him in a different continuum than the Australian work included here does not mean that Murray’s books, particularly Dog Fox Field and Translation From the natural World, do not have a crucial place in the intricate dialogue between Australia’s flora and fauna, its Indigenous and settler inhabitants, and the landscape. Certainly for Murray an ecological awareness is part of what he would regard, to quote from the original version of his poem “Easter 1984”, as ‘the very baseline of the human.’

6

As it stands, the poets included limn a spectrum from the injunction to “care for and cherish the land” (65) issued by Alf Taylor to Lucy Dougan’s “working quietly at the edges” (35) . The poems are vigorous in their reworking of traditional forms and genres, the “nowhere left now” (16) at the end of Pam Brown’s’ searing rendition of the ravages of illness and environmental damage is resonant as it ventilates both the felt despair of the actual poetic situation as well as an awareness of the resources of past elegies.

7

Similarly, Kinsella’s remarkable eco-parable of self-reinvention, , “Canto for the Retrieval of Manhood 18”, undertakes a scrupulous self-examination ending up in a forthright confession of “truncated piety” (49). Kinsella puts the ‘arable’ in ‘parable’ as he sketches how farmers try to coax out sustenance from a dry landscape, a process which, for all its valor, also requires both the expenditure and brandishing of authority, The speaker is not literally a farmer, but also has this same knowingly hydraulic relationship to the land.

8

The self is directly in the line here, but even in more seemingly scene-directed works, such as Louise Crisp’s prose-poem “The Walk”, subjectivity manifests itself: “I wanted to lie down in the sun. Yearning was not a/useful thing to encourage so I curled up in the shade, just a glint of sun slip-/ping down the leaves of the apple box like a waterfall.”

9

The self here is carefully calibrated with respect to its surroundings, not wanting to be too egocentric or intrusive but also demonstrating there is a kind of subjectivity that can be latent or self-limiting without being utterly retired. The image of waterfalls in Crisp’s poem parallels r a concurrent Australian ecocritical project, the book on Australian waterfalls currently being compiled by the Queenslander Brian Hudson. From Wordsworth’s descrying of “the stationary blasts of waterfalls” as he crossed the Alps to the contemporary American Samuel Menashe’s “Water falls/Apart in air/Hangs like hair” the paradox of the waterfalls; stasis in movement, the way it represents both process and monument, has tantalized poets. Crisp conducts this paradox through the lambent ease of her image, rendering the scene at once fully palpable and provocatively abstract.

10

Not all the content of the Australian cluster is poetry. Though one misses Justin Clemens’s own poetry here, his commentary on the fresh and multi-faceted art of Ash Keating is cogent, especially in its evocation of shared Australian-Latin American ecological concerns. Bonny Cassidy’s excursus on the papers of the poet Jennifer Rankin, who died tragically early in 1979, is a bit too academic and also does not provide context for the international reader, but is still well worth having in the cluster. It would have been nice to see some Australianist ecocriticism, such as the work of Robert Zeller, C. A. Cranston, Gary Clark, and of course Kinsella himself.

11

Perhaps the strongest individual piece in the cluster is Peter Minter’s “Never Return To A Meadow Permit”. This is a complicated poem as it is deeply engaged with Robert Duncan’s “Often I Am Permitted To Return To A Meadow”, building on its solicitation of alterity, of a “made place” in the external world that is not just egotistical projection, but inverts the moral value attaches to natural referents, which Duncan retains even if he chastens it.

12

In Minter’s poem, what seems to be natural imagery is in fact the apparatus of external appropriation of nature, that the speaker is “permitted to never return to a meadow” (55) is in tandem with the ability of ‘commodity’s source” to marshal natural rhetoric at its disposal; only by revoking this permit can we hope to evade this matrix. Minter’s inversion of traditional tropes of landscape and humanity is indicative of the freshness and lack of rodomontade in Farrell’s selection.

13

Farrell, one of the most inventive and intellectually curious poets of his generation in Australia, makes an effort to not construct ‘ecology narrowly, and not to immure it in a ‘natural world’ opposed to the artificial, the superstructural, and the hybrid. He takes a tone very different from the exhortatory threnody of Kate Rigby in the May 2009 issue of Australian Humanities Review, which is more rhetorically and politically impassioned than the work collected here, and has a torrential eloquence that contrasts to the nuance and determination evident in most of Farrell’s selections. Farrell’s sensibility has more in common with the latest Northern Hemisphere eco-academic criticism, such as Timothy Morton’s Ecology Without nature (2007).

14

Yet, as the editor of ecopoetics, Jonathan Skinner, indicates in his introduction to the entire issue, there may be a point where we do not wish to go too far beyond nature. However much ecopoetics wants to dissociate itself from organic ideas of wholeness- that make environmental concern both an easy panacea for certain sorts of adherents and a sitting duck for certain sorts of critiques, “deconstructing the ‘eco’”, says Skinner, (10) ”in itself doesn’t move us forward.” (10). Skinner elaborates by alluding to current work designed to prove nature is “always already” tinctured by the social and cultural; the use of the Derridean tag or catchphrase “always already” here is interesting, as it acts as if the natural were a kind of oyster amenable to being pried open by the destabilizing tools of culture and society: as if culture and ‘society’ themselves were not constructs open to deconstruction.

15

In other words, the insistence on deconstructing the natural, while salutary in terms of avoiding the goopy, platitudinous ecology that, again, is an easy mark for both adherents and criticism, has a danger of merely leading to confusion as we struggle to come to terms with what Skinner calls ‘the life around us.” Also implied here is the widespread sentiment, which this entire journal strives to contest, that although the ecological is acceptable among certain left leaning strands of contemporary neoliberalism as an earnest assertion of social benignity or a lifestyle affectation, any threat of a full-scale immersion in or opening to the ecological raises Yuppie hackles, inciting a rejoinder insisting on the inevitability of capital and self-interest in ecological discourses.

16

Former US Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, in his commencement address at my university’s graduating ceremonies in May 2010, spoke of the need to see the environmental crisis as something on the order of the civil rights movement: as something not optional but imperative, something that would not just be an expression of feel-good hopefulness but, would be, as Wallace Stevens said, “required/as a necessity requires”. To do this, the ecological, as a discourse, must not be seen as just a pleasant, austere dedication, but a desperate response to a present crisis.

17

Ecology as positioned here is an emanation of kairos, not of chronos, burst beyond the model, rejected by Walter Benjamin, of ‘homogeneous, empty time”. Another way of putting this is that neoliberalism can tolerate the sacred in certain traditional modes, as in the historically constituted faiths, but begins to fear it when it is linked to social movements. It is here, again, that Australia can be of exemplary resonance, because ‘the sacred has operated in recent Australian self-considerations whereas it is the generation X and younger people as a mode of linking the landscape, the Indigenous people, and the search for a common ground beyond neoliberal self-advancement, and it is the Generation X and younger people who have particularly been conscious of this movement.

18

Moreover Australia offers a site where concern for, to reuse Skinner’s phrase the life around us automatically departs from the Romantic scenarios with which easy-mark ecology tends to coalesce. The Australian landscape, unlike the North American, never could be remotely fitted into European paradigms of the picturesque, a point Kinsella makes concertedly in his 2008 collection Shades of the Sublime and Beautiful. In this way, Australian poetry, for most of its history judged inferior for failing to display the full intensity of European subjective romanticism, can, in its built-in concessions to the dry, the desiccated, the obdurate, be a precedent here.

19

The remainder of the issue is not meant to specifically tally with the Australian cluster, and any resemblances are as much a product of happenstance and juxtaposition — Skinner explains in his introduction that this issue is several issues’ worth of material put together in one for circumstantial reasons — but the Australian material and the rest of the issue do seem to unfold a common thread: that of looking for the ecological where one might least expect it.

20

The volume’s other major articulation of this possibility is, perhaps unexpectedly, in two interviews with Gary Snyder. I say “perhaps unexpectedly’ only because Snyder is nearing 80, and much of the stereotypes around ecological discussion tend to be generational: it is the old 60s radicals who, it might be assumed retained the old, purist vision of ecology, who are willing to accept impurity, to integrate the epigenous, artificial, and even ersatz into the ecological weft. But Snyder — interviewed deftly by both Skinner and Kyhl Lindgaard — has many surprises up his sleeve, consistently distancing himself from Romanticism, which serves to underscore how in fact most people who have read Snyder, especially his detractors, tacitly put him in the Romantic category. This is most likely a sort of Yuppie defensiveness, a desire to see any challenge to neoliberal values as soft, lachrymose, and jejune.

21

Snyder notes that being called a “nature poet” (272) is something of a stigma, even worse than being called a beatnik. He also observes that reviews of his 2005 volume Danger on Peaks covered only the natural aspects and ignored the extensive attention paid therein to 9/11 and the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. These went unnoticed went unnoticed because Snyder is judged to write an idealizing, supra-political poetry. Some of this is just laziness, speaking of a poet in the terms the culture is sued to speaking of him, But there is a lot more here.

22

This position of the neglect of the politics to ecology is itself political: Snyder notes that the tacit lay assumptions about ecology assumes a New Deal quasi-socialist model of corporate independence, while actual theorists of ecology, in proposing fragmentation and mutual competition as rival cardinal principles to harmonic cooperation, are both rebelling against this frame yet mirroring the dominant discourses of current neoliberalism.

23

Snyder also speaks of different senses of ecology, such as the ecology of how an indoor poetry reading is set up and whether the poems recited are meant to be read or performed. This is eco-aestheticis on a minute, intimate scale, attuned to the interstices of the individual situations of the unfolding of art and meaning. Similarly, the way the poems in this issue unfold on the page — there various shapes, sizes, and use of/faring of white space — indicate an awareness of an ecology of the page that is a kind of asymmetrical microcosm of the macro-ecology of the ‘outside world’.

24

Another part of the ecology at stake here is the ‘ecological’ relation between poetry and criticism, how they negotiate each other’s space. Much of the poetry here is part of an active critical project, not just mutely waiting to be honored for its irony and texture; similarly, the expository prose pieces included — -and I wish there could have been more — incarnate an awareness of recent theoretical debates while finding their own, more informal and ready-to-hand shapes. Joan Retallack has even indicated, at the end of her essay in Jacket 37, that “working with nature” could provide a new fillip for the very idea of the experimental.

25

This dialogue has the potential to overcome the creative-critical gap that has existed even between ecopoetics and ecocriticism. This has occurred even though many of the leading environmental critics — e.g. Lawrence Buell and John Elder — are rigorous without slathering theory upon the texts they analyze. In a sense this points to what is often seen as the residual, Romantic side of ecocriticism, that which is not seen as passing through the mesh of deconstruction (and, even if unmentioned, neoliberalism).

26

But it perhaps also points the way forward to more usable, applicable version of theory, one less cloistered and obsessed by its own intricacies. As Snyder’s example of the poetry-reading space indicates, these hopes do not lie outside ecology, but are crucial for sustaining an ecology of discourse which is the necessary corollary of more conventional ecologies.

27

Ecocriticism has — much like feminism — been criticized for being essentially an elite, white discourse, filled with granola-crunching, Birkenstock-wearing naïfs who shallowly assert their own privilege as a kind of appropriating protest excluding the poor and those of color, too preoccupied with their own more dire immediate circumstances to worry about such frills as gender or the environment. This is partially a caricature designed to delegitimize these movements by people who do not really care about the poor or people of color, but it clearly had a grain of truth to it.

28

In this respect, one of the most salutary developments in this issue is the inclusion of Spanish-speaking poets, from the present day — the Mexican poet Angélica Tornero — as well as among the classics of the Spanish language — the Cuban poet and liberator José Marti. In an except from his journals, Marti drinks sugar cane juice and leaves” (193) two days before his death: the journal entry exudes a sense of taxis, arrangement, all the more eloquent because lived out in such an extreme situation: the writer’s awareness of and making cohesive of his surroundings is an act of testimony and of a prescient, nearly ultimate awareness.

29

Marti’s temporal position — at the end of the nineteenth century — bespeaks a problem in the literary history of ecology: we have postmodern ecological poets, and readily know who those are; the same is true with romantic ecological poets. But where are the modern ecological poets? The modernist reaction against anything to do with nature — seen even in Robert Duncan’s use of the phrase “made place”, so close to the quintessential Modernist aesthetic phrase, the “made thing”, by definition not organic, upwelling nature — made such a poetry presumably thin on the ground.

30

But ecopoetics suggests we look beyond the Global North: this issue’s generous excerpt from the poetry of Jean-Joseph Rabéarivelo, the great modern Malagasy poet, writing, at that time, necessarily in the colonizer’s language of French, presents an atmosphere of perception where surrealism leads to ecological concern, In Rabéarivelo’s “Highest Rainforest” (translated by Kristen Anderson) the opening declaration is: “I will not come to ransack fruits.” Poetic brio is curtailed because of an awareness of the existential autonomy of the rainforest that yet vaults the poet to his highest level of apprehension. We are back to Kinsella’s “truncated piety”, and, as in Kinsella, Rabéarivelo did not let this truncation inhibit the imaginative verve of his linguistic expression.

31

Rabéarivelo indeed thrives on the haunting of the made place/made thing by the nature it has tried to annex:

32

They will be rather like blocks of ebony
Rosewood or other precious species
That I place on my table
Where your memory will carve them patiently,
Making them fetishes of the green eyes,
Fetishes silent in the midst of my books. (217)

33

The natural becomes most natural in the midst of the literary, while yet preventing the literary from lapsing into serene concord.

34

Also breaking the traditional mold are urban ecologies. I really liked Damian Weber’s prose-poetic excerpts from “Prospect Park” precisely because I did not recognize from the park familiar to me — I wondered whether there might be some other Prospect Park aside from the one in New York City he might be writing about. Weber achieves this salubrious alienation-effect by not just indulging in gazeteering, by not prizing the evident ‘thereness’ of the park. Weber integrates the artificial into the observed scene, again in a way that is not merely harmonizing, but points to a more though sense of interconnection:

35

Fake this small grassland habitat by planting native switch grasses (a
warming of number over number_ little blue stem (ho then come
in eternal and of a day as yet unseen) Indian grass (the feeling of
rays was the feel of him) plus wildflowers such as black-eyed-susan
(air collected in a deep session) beardtongue (always one more than
the weight of a self or selves) goldenrod (the end of light last night)
and milkweed (dark grass which accepted that which nothing un-
derstood” (297)

36

It is not the observation, the sensory intake, or the mixture of high-authentic and tacky-ephemeral ‘nature’ here which anchors this passage, but the speaker’s phenomenological, intentional awareness of standing in the middle of these circumstances. As in Louise Crisp’s prose-poem, there is an acute subjectivity without any grandiosity, and this scaled-down but still subsistent lyric “I” is one of the markers of many of the poems in this issue. . Sarah Rosenthal uses the first person similarly when she says” “I prefer dreaming to eating or reading” (225) or ‘When I read I suck on chocolate. I don’t have access to that animal” (225).

37

Jesse Nissim uses a similar “I’, ingenuously inverting the tradition, from Keats to Hardy onward, of differentiating between birds who do not know ontological hazard and people who do. Nissim apostrophizes “the bird, pretending not to know” (199) and instead of envying the bird’s innocence, wishes for, counterintuitively, its strength: : “How much of your mass is pure pectoral muscle,/those strong shoulders I envy.” Nissim’s rearrangement of human-animal relations is of a piece with Snyder’s attention to how chairs are arranged at poetry readings: circles can be opened up, hierarchies can be reshuffled, but there is always activity and yearning: we are not only too self-aware but too much in crisis to lapse into a state of prevenient eco-paradise.

38

The most fertile ecopoetics is always on the move, Snyder mentions that Wordsworth composed his poems while walking, each iteration of a walk generating a new batch of lines. Joseph Brodsky, several decades ago, similarly mentioned how Dante’s Comedy was a poem of exile, with Dante the pilgrim pacing out his terza rima stanzas through the afterlife as Dante the poet tramped them out wandering through northern Italy. One leaves this volume — typographically stunning and, aside from “Mayahana” (266) instead of Mahayana, flawlessly edited — thinking the next step might be a Wordsworth of the West Wimmera, a Dante of the Darling drainage system. Kinsella is in a sense both (albeit with Western Australia and not Victoria referents in play), and much more than that, but Kinsella is above all a generous exemplar, his example is meant to enable and encourage others, not make them feel it has all already been done.

39

By this ”it” I mean not just Australia as a locale and venue for ecological poetry but an “Australian” attitude towards what Tornero terms (276) “the body of theory”: the interoperability of poetry and ecology: one which recognizes both the fragility of nature and the vulnerability of culture, and realizes that contact between these qualities is not always synthesizing opposites but encounters fraught with both peril and opportunity. Indeed, ecological concern is a way that Australia — often seen as irrelevant, placid, walled from the world by the oceans that lave its shores — can seem the focus of a crisis that no one is any longer in a position to ignore.

Nicholas Birns is Associate Teaching Professor at Eugene Lang College, the New school, and editor of Antipodes: A Global Journal of Australasian Literature. His book Theory After Theory: An Intellectual History of Literary Theory Form 1950 to the Early 21st Century appeared from Broadview in 2010.

 
 
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