Face an inch from the earth, fingers
ground down clenched into it.
Crawling, try to push the
earth off me so I can stand
away from it.
— Clark Coolidge and Philip Guston, Baffling Means
the words from home for caves.
— Clark Coolidge, Mine: The One That Enters the Stories
Part I. The mouth of the cave
The Cave, The Crystal Text, A Geology, Keys to the Caverns, Mine: The One That Enters the Stories, Quartz Hearts, Smithsonian Depositions, Solution Passage: Even a brief survey of the titles of Clark Coolidge’s poetry collections reveals a sustained engagement with geological motifs, among which caves take pride of place. Extending this survey to individual poems, one finds similar themes recurring, for example, in “The Death of Floyd Collins,” “Machinations Calcite,” and “Up the Escarpment” from Coolidge’s first book, Flag Flutter & U.S. Electric (Lines / Aram Saroyan, 1966), in “The Caves” and “A Geology” from the recently published A Book Beginning What and Ending Away (Fence Books, 2013), or in “Bowling for Agates” and “Down at Granny’s Cave” from 88 Sonnets (Fence Books, 2012).
While Coolidge’s work is more commonly read in the context of his musical practice or his connections to the visual arts, geological influences on the poetry have hardly gone unexamined. Coolidge himself frequently establishes this link, perhaps most notably in his 1978 lecture, “Arrangement.” In “Arrangement,” Coolidge tells of how he majored in geology for two years in college before becoming disenchanted with the way it “was changing from being a descriptive science to a real high-toned mathematical, geophysical, super-laboratory stress-and-strain type science.” Throughout the talk, Coolidge circles around the geological theme, discussing his early caving experiences at one point, and at another, recalling how Aram Saroyan once insightfully and somewhat erroneously characterized Coolidge’s poems as “cliffs of rock.” The story will be familiar to some, but it’s worth quoting again in this context. As Coolidge explains, Saroyan’s reading was predicated on “a tremendous misconception” because:
what he thought of it as, is that you look at the rock as just one thing. It’s a cliff, okay? You go do something else. The way I look at it, because I’ve had geological interests and some training, is that geologists read the rocks. They can read the layers … and sometimes there are very complicated arrangements of strata and faults and things, and they can read what came first even though it’s all messed up. So when Aram said “Your works are like cliffs of rock,” I thought, yeah, that’s right. They have that particular solid separate arrangement aspect and I read them, and I want people to read them.
Here, as elsewhere, Coolidge articulates a relationship between poetry and geophysical materials — as between poetics (the study of poetry) and geology (the study of earth) — that encompasses and exceeds both simile and metaphor. Not only do his poems share the quality of “solid separate arrangement” found in geophysical terrain and earth strata, but Coolidge also posits that both poem and terrain are legible or signifying structures. Poetry and cliffs are, in a sense, comparative literatures, which is why Coolidge’s background in geology makes him (vis-à-vis Saroyan) the better reader.
This radical yoking of poetics and geology, words and rocks, poems and caves, permeates Coolidge’s writing and thought. In Smithsonian Depositions, Coolidge appropriates and recasts Robert Smithson’s meditations on the homology of language and the geophysical from his 1968 art essay “A Sedimentation of the Mind,” writing: “Words and rocks contain a language that follows a syntax of splits and ruptures. Look at any word long enough and you will see it open up into a series of faults, into a terrain of particles each containing its own void.” To be clear, it’s not simply that words are like rocks — for example, insofar as one could transfer properties of earth, such as hardness, brittleness, or dryness, etc., metaphorically to words. Rather, words and rocks relate on a structural level, and that structure is their common language. As Coolidge-via-Smithson puts it, both words and rocks contain (or conduct) a language; they are subject to “a syntax,” which is what makes an interrogative out of a group of words, or karst terrain out of limestone.
In “Arrangement,” Coolidge implicitly extends the parallelism between words and rocks to the activities of caving and writing. “In a cave,” he explains, “… [t]he rock has been cut by water, which has followed the line of least resistance, of softest rock. Layers of water have sunk down. There are levels. You’re following the result of a natural process. You go where it goes” (153). While Coolidge is strictly speaking of caving here, an implicit analogy links this anecdote to the the poem as a kind of “solution passage,” a form following “the line of least resistance” and carving its way through the language, as the poet, a sort of language-caver, wends his way through passages, dropping through semantic and structural “levels,” following sound and syntax, “[f]ace an inch from the earth, fingers / ground down clenched into it.”
Given the well-established context, it shouldn’t come as a great surprise to learn that Coolidge’s speleophilia runs deep. Books like The Cave give glimpses of his technical training and expertise in caving, while lectures like “Arrangement” shed further light on his lifelong interest in geology and caves. (It is in “Arrangement,” for example, that Coolidge calls attention to his membership in the National Speleological Society.) And yet, despite his frequent recurrence to the subject, the extent of Coolidge’s involvement in caving has never been fully mapped.
If one were, however, to become curious about Coolidge’s caving exploits and his professional affiliation with the National Speleological Society (NSS) — “a group that keeps news between cavers moving, and exchange of maps and equipment and so on” — it wouldn’t take long to turn up something noteworthy: in particular, one might happen upon a small but unexpected parallel engagement in writing, as I did. Intrigued by the frequent allusions to caving in his poetry and lectures, and thinking I might plumb the depths of Coolidge’s involvement in this eccentric, paraprofessional sporting activity, I visited the NSS website and performed a site-wide search for “Clark Coolidge.” Sure enough, the search returned two items, both from an NSS publication called The Northeastern Caver: the first, an interview with Coolidge by editor-in-chief Chuck Porter, from December 2000; and the other, an article, “Recalling Knox Cave in the 50’s,” from May 1974.
Needless to say, The Northeastern Caver is not a title widely held in libraries. This quarterly newsletter, the official publication of the Northeastern Regional Organization (NRO) of the NSS, has been in continuous publication since 1969 and serves to connect Northeast caving communities through the exchange of caving information and culture. (The website copy reads: “THE NORTHEASTERN CAVER is the quarterly newsletter of the NRO, with the latest news on Northeastern caving developments. Issues run around thirty-four pages and are crammed full of articles on new and old cave discoveries, equipment and techniques, meetings and events, cave access details, maps, photos, cartoons and more.”) Though the newsletterproves difficult to find in local libraries, fortunately, editor Chuck Porter is quick to respond to Caver-related inquiries.
It was Porter who had interviewed Coolidge for the December 2000 issue of The Caver, and through our correspondence, I learned that in some circles Coolidge is known not for his poetry but for his low NSS number. Porter explained that he had never met Coolidge in person but had conducted the interview by mail. His interest in Coolidge stemmed from the fact that “he seemed to be an old-time caver, based on his low NSS number.” Porter added: “I am surprised to learn that he is a noted poet. I checked a few of his poems, and they are indeed filled with cave references. Something that gets in one’s blood,” he knowingly surmised, “as I’ve been caving since 1958.” In the course of our email exchange, Porter graciously sent me scans of the interview and Coolidge’s earlier article. Both were fascinating documents but particularly impressive was the 1974 article “Recalling Knox Cave in the 50’s,” which included Coolidge’s Knox Cave “sketch-map” from June 1956 (above).
Partly based on an old “mimeo-ed map” Coolidge had obtained from D. C. Robinson, the owner of Knox Cave (“an amazing old guy” who “loved to tell long rambling tales of early NY caving to anyone who’d listen”), Coolidge’s map is almost elegant: his line is sure, the lettering neat, and for a non-scientific map it is remarkably detailed. Coolidge fills the map with descriptive information relating to different cave formations (e.g. “Rimstone Pool,” “Iron-Stained Formations in Ceiling,” “Descending Crawl Blocked by Breakdown”) and vernacular names for various physical features, like “Salamander Crevice,” “Skeleton Passage,” “Fallen Giant,” and “Bat Row.” Dated to June, 1956, Coolidge’s “Sketch-Map” precedes his earliest published writings by nearly a decade and even antedates the period he identifies with his beginnings as a writer, in “Fall 1958–Summer 1959,” when he “began to scribble for [him]self.” Though it is written upon, the sketch-map is not exactly writing. The map is not yet a poem, but it points the way.
In a short essay in Stations #5, a special issue devoted to the poetry of Clark Coolidge, Charles Bernstein writes that “Coolidge’s poetry is ‘part art part limestone’” and that “the cave that recurs in his work, particularly in THE MAINTAINS, is the ‘word mine’ of language.” In “Coolidgean Ex-cavations,” Paul Stephens similarly considers the caves that recur throughout Coolidge’s oeuvre in terms of language: specifically, he sees them as sites “where language is embodied and made material.” As Stephens writes, “the Coolidgean cave is typically figured as a passageway … a site of communication, a place of writing … The cave is radically linguistic, a world of impacted grammar, of non-sequiturs.”
If the cave functions as a figure for language and, more particularly, for writing (the cave as a kind of Ur-site of inscription — of glyphs and drawings, like those found in the Chauvet and Lascaux caves in France), Lytle Shaw contends that Coolidge’s poetry also at times enfolds the cave as a figure, figuring itself as cave through a kind of radical mimesis. Focusing on Coolidge and Bernadette Mayer’s collaborative long poem, The Cave, Shaw argues that
Coolidge and Mayer use the problem of describing a cave to construct a dialogic text that progressively circles back on its own incomplete or inadequate descriptive episodes, treating these as a datum or ground for a series of improvisations and transformations that eventually turns the book itself, in its various layers, into a textual cave.
Putting down travelogue-narrative deposits, epistolary and dialogic fragments along with sedimentations of Wittgenstein, Leibniz, Beckett, Melville, and Hawthorne — passing from the “Cave of Metonymy” to “Purgatory Again,” to the “Paradise of the Last Passage” — the poem continuously circles in on itself, “getting lost off the main passage,” unable to come to any point of closure, “like living in a dictionary.”
The radical imbrication of cave and language emerges in and through Coolidge’s poetics in various “regions” of the poetry, among which I would include: naming, lore, specialist language, descriptive technique, citation, and punning. The first three are related concepts, and I address them as a group; citation and punning are then reviewed, before I close with an exploration of descriptive technique as a point of convergence between caving and writing. Ultimately, I want to suggest that this early, lost document — the sketch-map of Knox Cave and the article in which it was found — provide the “Keys to the Caverns” of Coolidge’s poetics. In the map and in “Remembering Knox Cave in the 50’s,” the broad contours of Coolidge’s poetics have been sketched and many basic features of fifty years of writing to follow recorded in cartographic shorthand.
Part II. A “tite crawl”
In a letter to Paul Metcalf published in Stations #5, Coolidge describes the impetus for a recently written poem, In Virginia, which consists of a series of sentences lifted from the NSS publication, Caves of Virginia. As Coolidge explains:
It struck me that cavers (as any humans closely involved in a particular activity) have a special use of vocabulary & syntax. Thus, In Virginia as a possible presentation of that structure to those (writers I guess I’m thinking of particularly) who wouldn’t come into contact with it otherwise. America, a multi-dimensional grid overlay of many special languages, etc.
A language and culture grow up around caving; for Coolidge, it is already a poetics. The language is technical — there are geophysical formations like chimneys, rimstone pools, and gypsum flowers, and equipment like carbide lamps and pitons — but there’s also a demotic, colloquial language that builds around caves and caving (as evidenced in the names of caves, e.g. “Knox Cave” or “Mammoth Cave,” and the names of cave features, such as “Bat Row” or “Dumbbell Room” on the sketch-map above). Unlike the “hard” geophysical sciences Coolidge abandoned in school, speleology is still a descriptive science dependent on the fieldworker. The line between hobbyist and scientific cave explorer is porous; a spelunker might describe the “field” as shot through with fissures, runnels, and grikes.
In “Recalling Knox Cave in the 50’s,” Coolidge remarks that the “Names for rooms & passages” found on his sketch-map “are those in use at the time” (65). This is not, however, strictly true, as the map shows that Coolidge has taken the liberty of giving the name “Negley’s Lost Passage” to a truncated passage — “a continuation of the joint north of the Alabaster Room” that “soon pinched out in a clay fill obviously never disturbed in human history” (64). Negley, an old time caver who could be found “hanging around” the roller-skating rink on Robinson’s property was, as Coolidge recalled, “a small furtive man who liked to insinuate that he had found passages [in Knox Cave] unknown to other men.” His eponymous passage, which supposedly led to a spot where a person could “lie down … directly under the road and smoke cigarettes and listen to the cars go by,” was a piece of cave lore that Coolidge and his friends discredited, so much so that “even the barest mention of ‘Negley’s Lost Passage’” was “enough to bring [on] sardonic smiles, if not outright pandemonium laughter” (64). While most of the features on the Knox Cave sketch-map are likely the common names in use circa 1956, Coolidge’s participation in caving culture entailed his contribution to the stock of names and lore.
To a certain extent, exaggerated tales are the routine fare exchanged among cavers. Coolidge relates with some fondness how D. C. Robinson (or “Robbie,” as they called him) “told us of huge ‘lost’ rooms ‘just off the main cave’ big enough that ‘you could drive a hay wagon through ’em standing on top of the load with a pitchfork at arm’s length and still not touch the walls or ceiling.’” Rather than deriding such overstatements, Coolidge exclaims: “Robbie really had the caving spirit!” (62). In a sense, then, Coolidge’s commemoration is the perfect rejoinder to Negley’s yarn, as both only add to the cultural store belonging to cavers.
If the language of caves consists of compounded strata of vernacular, mythological, and specialist sociolects, for Coolidge, caves and language touch like the two sides of a leaf of paper (or, more aptly, like the two sides of a layer of sheet silicate) through punning and other kinds of associative sound-play. In a remarkable passage from Smithsonian Depositions, Coolidge performs the “linguistic turn” on a series of mineral substances, so that the names of minerals begin to dissolve into phrases in a manner that highlights the poetics of scientific naming and the material-sonic properties of words: “Biotite peels from Biot’s sheets … Garnet eats a granular pome ... Olivine shapes an olive suffix ... Prase holds mastery of the Greek leek ... Quartz, the German unknown ... Tourmaline’s, to the Sinhalese, both Carnelian and a suffix ... And Zircon, a silicate of jargon.” This euphonious “riffing” on minerals also reminds us that the cave is not only a “primal” site of writing but is also an exceptional acoustic space, wherein the contours of speech are amplified and deformed by echo, and where punning and wordplay may even emerge as effects of the landscape.
As acoustic spaces, caves also have notable musical properties. From the Gitano musicians and dancers who invented Flamenco in their Andalusian cave-homes to “The Stalacpipe Organ” in the Luray Caverns in Virginia, where Coolidge visited his first cave at age nine, caves function as both musical venue and instrument. Thus, Coolidge writes in The Cave: “Speleothems sing the best songs.” As acoustic space, writing surface, and painting support; as a cultural space constituted by certain activities and practices like exploration, surveying and abiding by NSS regulations, as well as circulating stories, news, and mythology; and as an activity around which a “special vocabulary & syntax” grows, it is arguably caves that constitute the binding thread in Coolidge’s diverse poetic influences.
One place where this convergence is most evident is in the “Notes” section of Coolidge’s book-length poem Quartz Hearts (This Press, 1978). Here, Coolidge explains that an account of “the work’s procession would note the following order of regions,” among which he includes: a number of paintings, writings, and musical pieces (scores and recordings) by famous artists; the mediation of major historical events (“Picasso dead” and “Watergate TV”); the personal influence of his four-year-old daughter; a book on caves in the Ozarks and Black Hills; and a list of caves (and other notable geological features) visited throughout the US, including “Lehman Caves, Arches Utah, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Onondaga Cave, Mammoth Cave, Grapevine Cave; [and] Luray Caverns.” In this leveling of citation, caves and the natural landscape assume a textual position, sandwiched between Hawthorne’s American Notebooks and news of Picasso’s death. Just as punning and wordplay enact a collapse of distance between caves as geophysical and linguistic/discursive sites, citational practices in Coolidge’s poems (not just in Quartz Hearts, but also in The Cave, Smithsonian Depositions, and A Book Beginning What, to a few name others) complicate categorical distinctions between language, media, and terrain — as well as between discrete entities or “things,” on the one hand, and processes and events on the other. Coolidge forges a speleological poetics (a speleopoiesis) through idiosyncratic citational practices, punning, and other forms of associative wordplay, through the mixed use of vernacular and specialized (technical) idioms, and through the circulation of folklore; but it is in the cultivation of descriptive technique that poetry and caving draw closest together.
Part III. Efflux and resurgence
The cave has a “flow,” its passages point directions, and the caver follows along bodily: “Tunnel pointing ahead seems to grab your head & shoot you further in”; “You’re following the result of a natural process. You go where it goes.” Traveling through a cave is a descriptive process — both in terms of the noticing and notating that gets done and in terms of the physical procession that inscribes a path through the cave. In each case, description is part of a responsive engagement with an environment: the cave leads; the caver answers. Exploring through touch, using the body as an instrument to assess the spatial contours of the cave — its directions, distances, breadths, and depths — the caver maneuvers, measures, translates, and negotiates his surroundings. There is “no light, not a photon, without artificials,” so the cave initiates the caver into a feeling sight: “Caves are lighthouses for the blind.”
The cave has a rhythm and a tempo: some caves are defined by “tight passages” and “long crawls,” some are damp, dank, and cold, some are cut wide through “golden limestone,” and some “pinch out” in muddy clay fills. Coolidge’s map of Knox Cave reflects the tempo of the cave, which reads like a poet’s narrative — fragmented, meandering, and inexactly patterned.
Caves have an impetus, a momentum. The caver follows this momentum — the cave’s discursus or discourse. As in speaking, which is a kind of movement in language, the caver is conducted through the cave’s prosody. The cave’s prose, however, is never prosaic because the cave is polysemous and, at the very least, diglossic. “Responsible cavers,” reads the NSS’s Guide to Responsible Caving, “know that every cave is two caves — the one you see entering and the one you see leaving.” The caver is instructed to leave a small cairn to mark the way, especially at forking passages and intersections, so as not to become lost on the return journey. In the cave, description must be continuous, not retrospective, as in recollection; “seeing” and “saying” have to happen simultaneously, as it is a kind of recording that facilitates and furthers exploration. In other words, to describe the cave is to inscribe it. Description becomes a technique for making a way or a course. It is a method of composing that steers between mimesis and diegesis, so that observation-oriented sensation folds forward immediately into poetic activity: as a map unfolds, through time, into a poetic terrain. “In the cave. No. In the room the lights brightened as the pages turned.”
1. Floyd Collins was a famous early-twentieth-century cave explorer who tragically died as a result of a caving accident in Sand Cave (Kentucky) in 1925. As D. S. Lawson notes in his review of A Book Beginning What and Ending Away, Collins’s entrapment in 1925 was one of the first “mass media” events of thetwentieth century, as the weeks-long rescue attempt was broadcast over nationwide radio. Lawson contends that A Book Beginning What opens with the phenomenon of “journalism as mass spectacle” that would “set a paradigm for the coverage of such later events as the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, the Watergate Senate committee hearings, and even 9/11” (np). D. S. Lawson, “In Review: A Book Beginning What and Ending Away by Clark Coolidge.” The Volta, July 1, 2014.
2. As Kit Robinson explains in his afterword to A Book Beginning What and Ending Away, the “longprose” is “composed of 20–30 page sections … arranged in groups of four,” wherein the first section is organized around a particular “subject area,” the second section constitutes a “transition” to the third section, which relates to an “author,” and the fourth section synthesizes the preceding three parts (598). (See: Kit Robinson, “Clark Coolidge, October 15–21, 1979,” in A Book Beginning What and Ending Away [Albany, NY: Fence Books, 2012], 591–599.) Coolidge corroborates Robinson’s account of his method of composition in an interview with John Melillo from 2013 (6). (See: “Operating within the Irreducible: An Interview with Clark Coolidge,” by John Melillo, Poetry Project Newsletter 234 (February/March 2013), 6–11.) One might note the vaguely fugal structure of the longprose work; Coolidge has experimented with fugal form before, most notably in Polaroid.
6. “Karst is a term applied to terrain with distinctive landforms and underground drainage systems that form through the greater solubility in water of certain rock types, particularly limestone. Karst landscapes are sculpted largely by solution, other rock types largely by mechanical erosion. The word ‘karst’ has its origins in pre-Indo-European languages, from kar, meaning ‘rock’” (M. J. Simms, “Sedimentary Processes: Karst and Paleokarst,” in Encyclopedia of Geology, eds. Richard C. Selley, Robin Cocks, and Ian Plimer [Academic Press, 2005], 678–87). Karst terrain is highly generative of caves, which are formed by “solution passages” carving through the soluble rock. Coolidge titles a section of The Cave (his collaborative book with Bernadette Mayer) “KARSTARTS,” which can be read as “karst arts” with a pun on “car starts.” “Karst arts” would seem to refer to the book, as an artwork growing out of a trip to a karst terrain cave, Eldon’s Cave, but it might also refer to the cave or the karst terrain itself, which could be understood as a kind of geological artwork. On this particular pun, see also Lytle Shaw, Fieldworks: From Place to Site in Postwar Poetics (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2014), 334–35, endnote 64.
9. WorldCat shows copies in three libraries only: at SUNY Cobleskill, SUNY Albany, and the library at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. I visited the AMNH Library to consult their collection, but it was incomplete, and they were missing the May 1974 issue (Vol. 5, Issue 5) of the Caver.
10. Since Coolidge joined the NSS in 1949 (see below), presumably he has been a Northeastern Caver subscriber for its entire run. As Coolidge reports, “The Northeastern Caver as actual newsletter is about to vanish, replaced by an on-line-only deal. I’ll miss it.” (letter to the author, September 2, 2015).
11. As Coolidge relates in his interview, “I was introduced to the NSS by Lydia Neubuck at Adirondack Natural Stone Bridge and Caverns, Pottersville, NY. She recommended me for an Associate membership when I was 10 years old, which is why I have such a low [NSS] number (1294).” “The Northeastern Caver Interviews Clark Coolidge, NSS 1294,” The Northeastern Caver 31, no.4 (December 2000): 136.
19. Paul Stephens, “Coolidgean Ex-Cavations: Landscape, Memory, and Masculinity in the 1970s Poetry of Clark Coolidge,” ThoughtMesh.
21. Drawings and paintings in the Lascaux cave were discovered in 1940 and are dated to circa 15,000 BCE. Those discovered in the Chauvet cave in 1994 have been dated to circa 30,000 BCE. See: Jean Clottes, “Chauvet Cave (ca. 30,000 B.C.),” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000), last modified October 2002; and Laura Anne Tedesco, “Lascaux (ca. 15,000 B.C.),” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, last modified October 2000.
24. Caves of Virginia is a 761-page volume documenting the results of the Virginia Cave Survey, an official NSS project directed by Henry H. Douglas and conducted between 1954 and 1965. Caves of Virginia published descriptions of all caves known to exist in the state of Virginia at that time. Alan Davies reports that “Coolidge’s method of writing IN VIRGINIA” consisted of “select[ing] the sentence he most like[d] of those containing the cave’s name” from each of the 1760 survey reports in Caves of Virginia (Davies, “From the Poetry Project Newsletter,” in Stations #5, 4). An excerpt of this poem was published in William Corbett’s short-lived mimeo magazine, The Boston Eagle, no. 3 (November 1974).
26. From the Greek prasios, meaning “leek-green,” and prason, meaning “leek.” (“prase, n.” New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., eds. Angus Stevenson and Christine Lindberg [New York: Oxford University Press, 2010]).
28. In literature, the echo-device exploits an ambiguity between sound (as natural) and language (as artificial), so that echo mimics language through partial, altered re-soundings of human speech. Elbridge Colby’s The Echo-Device in Literature (The New York Public Library, 1920) provides a broad survey of the use of echo in poetry and plays in English and other languages (Italian, French, German, Greek and Latin) through the nineteenth century. John Hollander’s The Figure of Echo: A Mode of Allusion in Milton and After (University of California Berkley Press, 1981) analyzes the use of echo, primarily in English literature, as a rhetorical figure.
30. Coolidge, The Cave, 24. A speleothem is a cave formation that results from mineral deposits. Stalagmites and stalactites are two kinds of speleothems. As Coolidge relates in “Arrangement,” the Stalacpipe Organ in the Luray Caverns consists of a series of “little electric hammers” set up next to various stalactites and connected to an organ console (152).
31. Coolidge’s references to the culture of caving frequently include nods to a handful of prominent cave explorers, including Bill Austin, Jim Dyer, and, most notably, Floyd Collins. In his 2000 interview with The Northeastern Caver, Coolidge relates his experiences caving with “Bill Austin himself” and “Jim Dyer himself,” emphasizing the near-legendary status of these figures (136). Floyd Collins, on the other hand, reaches mythological proportions in Coolidge’s work, appearing on the cover of Coolidge’s Own Face (as a kind of persona or red herring for the poet’s “own face”), and in numerous poems, perhaps most notably in The Cave, where “Floyd Collins” and “Samuel Beckett” engage in a dialogue on caving and writing, and in A Book Beginning What and Ending Away, where the story of Collins’s entrapment in Sand Cave, Kentucky commands the focus of the book’s first chapter, “The Caves.”
33. For example, Coolidge and Mayer’s The Cave might be read as a work of “process art,” as the text unfolds from an initial site-specific investigation and develops through subsequent correspondence between the authors. Lytle Shaw advances a reading of The Cave in the context of the site-specific work of Robert Smithson in Fieldworks (226–30). Tom Orange gives the extended context for Mayer and Coolidge’s collaboration and similarly connects The Cave to Coolidge’s interest in Smithson’s work in “Clark Coolidge in Context: A New American Poetry 1962–1978” (PhD thesis,University of Western Ontario, 2007), 244–48.
35. From The Cave: “Passage totally in marble now, banded in whorls of blue/black on white. A few dripstone formations, dark tan to yellowish flowstone & a few nub stalactites, kinda worn & hand-rubbed-looking, dropping from narrow alcoves above” (5).
I. Poetry and the mess
The notion that poetry has nothing to do with the “real world” of history and politics is a notion mostly held by a) some poets, and b) some people otherwise invested in poetry (critics/professors). The idea doesn’t come from the “real world” (however that might be artificially constructed), where I have never myself witnessed poetry being dismissed out of hand as an unwanted or alien intrusion. The “regulators” (Whitman) and “legislators” (Shelley) of poetry are poets and poetry critics, who too often second themselves from the mess of the material to an aesthetic realm of their own imagining (not that Whitman and Shelley are the main perpetrators of such an absenting, it should be noted). The mess, I have found, is always welcoming of poetry — if poetry comes, not for poetry’s sake, but for the sake of the mess itself.
It’s one thing to rail against the state, and state and corporate collusion, as life and planet-destroying forces bent on profit at any cost — to access the Blakean “voice of honest indignation,” and throw a little poetry along with the cobblestones flying at the edifices of exploitation. It’s another thing altogether to have the state and corporation stand together, arm and arm in a court of law, and read your railing back at you. Whatever I might think about the role of poetry in social movements, and I intend to offer a few thoughts on this topic here, my recent experiences have made it clear to me that the system of power and wealth structuring the messy “real world” has its own ideas about that role.
II. The Context
The context is a pipeline, and a proposal to replace said pipeline with a new pipeline carrying almost three times the amount of diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sands, over 1150 kilometers to Burnaby and Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet, where it is loaded onto supertankers.
The context is a Texas-based oil company — Kinder Morgan (founded by former Enron executive Richard Kinder) — trying to ram their proposal through the approval process against the wishes of local and affected communities along its route. In Burnaby, where I teach at Simon Fraser University, the proposal is opposed by the municipal government and over seventy percent of local residents. In Burnaby, the proposal is to bore the pipeline through Burnaby Mountain — a nature conservation area and park on top of which my university sits.
The context is a federal government in Canada diluting the environmental and community impact review process to next to nothing, so that fossil fuel projects receive rubber-stamp approval — a typically neoliberal government that has reduced its role to little more than a support mechanism for global capitalism.
The context is that British Columbia — across which the majority of the 1150-kilometer pipeline runs — is largely unceded First Nations territory. That is, territory still subject to Aboriginal Title, as no historical treaties ceded these territories to the colonizing power. The vast majority of Indigenous people, across whose territories the pipeline would cross, oppose the proposal.
The context is climate change and the desperate need to transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy — as quickly as we can possibly manage.
III. Some points along the way
In April 2014, I participated in a “People’s Procession” along the route of the existing pipeline in suburban Burnaby BC — through neighbourhoods, parks, along a golf course, past a school and a church the pipeline passes beneath, and over numerous small creeks the pipeline cuts under. I was a “marshal” for the street march (involving many hundreds of people — mainly local community residents), and at the rally at the end of the march, after several politicians, Indigenous leaders, and community leaders had spoken, I read a poem — “72 Theses Against Tar Sands Pipelines and the Continued Exploitation of Fossil Fuels.” After the rally we marched down to Kinder Morgan’s Westridge Marine Terminal, and I attached a copy of the poem to their gates, completing the Martin Luther/Wittenberg church door performance.
In early September, after Kinder Morgan contractors had entered the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area and cut down thirteen trees to make way for seismic testing and helicopter air-drops — against the protestation of the City of Burnaby, in contravention of its city by-laws, and against the wishes of local First Nations who hold the title to the land — I, along with a number of others, took up a watch on the mountain. We were citizen rangers, awaiting the oil company’s return. We walked up the mountain, through the forest along the Gnomes Home Trail, or down the mountain, through the forest from the university. One September morning, sitting in the forest clearing (where bears, coyote, and deer were seen regularly), I wrote a short poem — “13 Lines for 13 Trees.”
A raven announces territory
As deep distancing echo
Gnomes are not seen
But they are evening
Shadow on mountain trails
Black bears were first to find
This cutting — they’ve left
A woolly presence in the clearing
Where thirteen trees lie
On forest floor and thirteen
Shadows still hold up the sky
Holding off the helicopter world
Dropping — oily — in their midst
It was morning. I walked up the mountain to the university, where I was scheduled to speak on a university radio station broadcast. I read the poem I had written, in the clearing, not an hour ago, and then posted it on my Facebook wall. The poem was immediately read, shared, commented on. It is not an especially remarkable poem; but every day there were small things happening that were building, piece by piece, into something larger, and that in-the-moment composition, performance, and distribution of a poem was one small thing (and one example amidst many, of poems embedded in the performance of activism); and there’s something about its momentariness, its direct, almost gestural participation in what was unfolding, that tells me something about poetry and social movements: it’s not so much the work itself that matters — it’s the context in which the work functions, the ways it circulates, how it is taken up, the small work of building capacity that it engages in.
Eventually, near the end of October, Kinder Morgan’s contractors returned, and we blocked them from working on the mountain. A barricade of found materials was built at the proposed work-site in the park, tents and tarps erected behind it. My role had become one of spokesperson, and I spent the day speaking to the media, as the small confrontation had turned into a national issue in Canada. The next day, sitting in my university office, I was served with court papers: an application for an injunction, and a civil suit. Kinder Morgan was suing me, and four other named defendants, for $5.6 million. The court case, naming me as some sort of “mastermind,” was built largely on words I had said and written. Over three days in court, I became quite tired of hearing my name and words read aloud.
IV. Underneath the poetry a description of how the barricade was made
Submissions for the plaintiff by Mr. Kaplan
I’m quite aware, My Lord, that these are not direct quotes from Mr. Collis. There is evidence I will take you through where he says these things directly. He’s posted a YouTube — I’ll call it interview, if you will, where much of what is here is confirmed. And so then Exhibit T is a website called Beating the Bounds, which is actually a website maintained by Mr. Collis, and so the first page is the “About” page where it references occasional notes, and then one of the notes posted is a note that on the website talks about the last barrel of oil on Burnaby Mountain.
Sometimes the world narrows to a very fine point, a certain slant of slight, the head of a needle you need to pass through. I don’t care right now about the National Energy Board of Canada, merely a corporate tool for shoehorning global energy projects into other people’s territories, a funnel for money from the public to the private sector. I don’t care about this or that court of law, appeals, and constitutional challenges. I don’t care about the drones, unmarked cars, or CSIS agents. I don’t even care that much about the rain.
And then flip over the page:
I care about the people who have come together to stand in the forest on a mountain in the path of a pipeline.
And he describes why he cares about them. And the next paragraph:
As has been our intention all along, we will occupy public land, a city park, and prevent Kinder Morgan from carrying out its destructive work, work opposed by local First Nations, opposed by the City of Burnaby, and opposed by the majority of Burnaby residents. While the case goes back and forth in the courts, our intention is to keep Kinder Morgan wrapped up dealing with us, either until a court somewhere sides with the people against this mega-corporation or until the NEB’s December 1 deadline for KM’s complete application.
He describes his views about protecting the local environment, and then on the bottom:
As barricades were assembled from garbage dumped down a hillside from a parking lot in Burnaby Mountain … an old rusted oil barrel was uncovered and rolled up the hill. It’s a talisman, a symbol of the old world we are trying to resist and change. It is, we hope, the last oil barrel that will have anything to do with this mountain forest.
So underneath the poetry is a description of how the barricade was constructed.
V. Down by law
Territory shadows helicopters
Lines strewn shadows for
Lines of piped fire fused
Earth water stream bears
The dead singing sad songs
At abandoned mills still seen
As somebody’s capital no not
Some body but portfolio or like
How the absence of money can be
Bundled bought and sold as trees
Shadow those bodies not bodies
But ossifying metabolic structures housing
Actual liquid moments of arboreal bliss
Poets have been persecuted before — from Plato’s banishing them from his ideal republic to Lorca’s horrific murder during the Spanish Civil War. And while I “got off easy,” all things considered, the chill I felt and still feel is one that resonates through time because it is so often and specifically the state — in its role of protecting and facilitating the private accumulation of capital by an elite and dominant class — that the poet winds up facing in these moments. And it is all the more alienating when it takes the form of a wall of bureaucratic procedure and legalese (I had no idea what “tortious” meant before it began tripping, regularly, off the tongue of the oil company’s lawyer) — a situation in which everyone seems to be playing some inevitable and irresistible role in a play being directed from some unknown and Kafkaesque castle.
During the 1909 IWW-led Spokane Free Speech Fight, Edith Frenette, a radical about whom we know preciously little, was arrested and tried for disorderly conduct after singing “The Red Flag” in front of a school where many arrested men were being held. During her trial the chief of police and other officers testified that Frenette “acted as if she were drunk, that she had carried on in a disorderly manner on the streets since this trouble started, and one said she acted like ‘a lewd woman.’” Frenette recited “The Red Flag” by request of the court and did so “with such dramatic force that the Judge was horrified at its treasonable and unpatriotic sentiment.” Frenette was then sentenced to thirty days and a one-hundred-dollar fine.
In 1967, Amiri Baraka’s poem “Black People” was read by the court and entered into evidence during his trial (for illegal possession of a firearm) in the wake of the Newark riots. While the contexts and stakes are entirely different — nothing about my situation is at all comparable to mid-1960s, or even present-day, systemic US racism, or the serious consequences Baraka faced (three years in jail) — nevertheless, structurally, in terms of the court’s function and the deployment of poetry as evidence, the similarities are there. Baraka’s poem was presented as evidence that he was “a participant in formulating a plot to ignite” the 1967 riots. So my “poem” was entered as evidence of my intentional and tortious behavior in encouraging people to ignore the legal system and blockade the construction of a pipeline.
Nothing I was involved in had the same stakes as these other examples — it was only money, after all, that I was on the hook for. But, as in the cases of Frenette and Baraka, what I’m curious about is the performance of a poem/song in the court, its reading there as the significant act, and its embedding, both in a discourse of “guilt” being constructed in a court of law, and in the political acts, in the “real world,” being condemned by that discourse.
VI. Embedded Poetry
Maybe this is a long and torturous road to get to a simple point about poetry and the political. I have, slowly, come to think of this nexus as less about the content of poetry — not even a matter of the form of poetry — so much as it is a question of distribution and reception. Poetry’s political function has more to do with the contexts in which it is performed, heard, and read. My work as both a poet and political activist/organizer has come to be one in which I imagine myself as an embedded poet: I write and perform poetry, yes, but I do so increasingly within the context of an active social movement (a grassroots climate justice movement, organized alongside and in collaboration with Indigenous land defenders attempting to stop new fossil fuel extraction on and infrastructure crossing their traditional lands). I am a “poet,” but that is inseparable from the work I do as an “activist,” and when I am writing and performing poetry I am doing so as part of an active social movement. My commitments, in writing, are less and less, specifically, to a community of poets and a literary history than they are to a community of resistance and a history of social struggles.
Ravens hone tree sound from
Gnomes home trail then
Coloured graphs of Fukushima
Tendrils crossing the Pacific warn
Each step helicopters us closer
To turn dumps to be ourselves
Decaying animals the market
Hands off every thing so let’s
Opt out of opting out again
And throw metallurgy after
Scant agency or renewed animality
Rattle cry bray at the dark edges
Afire and together as trees shadows
Another way of looking at this would be through the lens of “militant research.” The Argentinian research collective Colectivo Situaciones describes militant research as follows:
Militant research distances itself from those circuits of academic production — of course, neither opposing nor ignoring them. Far from disavowing or negating university research, it is a question of encouraging another relation with popular knowledges. While knowledges (conocimientos) produced by academia usually constitute a block linked to the market and to scientific discourse (scorning any other forms), what characterizes militant research is the quest for the points in which those knowledges can be composed with popular ones. Militant research attempts to work under alternative conditions, created by the collective itself and by the ties to counter power in which it is inscribed, pursuing its own efficacy in the production of knowledges useful to the struggles.
Militant research thus modifies its position: it tries to generate a capacity for struggles to read themselves and, consequently, to recapture and disseminate the advances and productions of other social practices.
I take poetry to be a form of “research,” an important mode of counter knowledge, and I read it, in its social engagements, in just these terms: as part of a pursuit of “the production of knowledges useful to the struggles” and as an attempt “to generate a capacity for struggles to read themselves.” I increasingly seek to produce a poetry that is written from within social movements, addressed to those engaged in social movements. This is not the entirety of what I write, and other projects and longer-term forms of poetic research continue to unfold within specifically literary communities and history — but I am increasingly experiencing the writing of poetry as being embedded in the work of social struggle, composed by and for “conditions created by the collective itself.”
VII. Riot dogs
I am simply writing here of and from my own experiences in collective action and organization — of being a poet engaged in a struggle taken up with many others where my presence as a poet is as welcome and no more and no less significant as the next person’s presence as a cook, say, or as a stonemason or whatever. The cook brings some delicious food they have made to the resistance camp early in the morning and it is welcomed and appreciated as food and as a gesture of solidarity. The stonemason gets serious about the barricade that is being built, and works on anchoring the corners of a canopy with some concrete blocks someone has found down in the gulley. They, queer calm and unassuming, are appreciated for their skill and solidarity. And I bring a poem, composed from the matrix of what we are all experiencing together, to read by the sacred fire Indigenous land defenders have built and maintain to cleanse the space — and later I post the poem on a blog or on the movement’s Facebook page — and it is appreciated and shared as a piece of writing and as an act of solidarity.
I am not saying that this is the only way anyone should write, and I am not saying it is the only way I write — though it is increasingly how and where I want to write. I am saying that poetry’s politics is not in some particular radical content, although I enjoy and engage with radical contents in poetry — and I am not saying poetry’s politics lies in a suitably radical form, though I continue to enjoy and engage with radical forms and most often find myself feeling sheepishly old-fashioned in my enjoyment of the dialectical interweavings of both form and content. I am saying that poetry’s politics is to be found in where we find poetry — in the communal spaces it becomes a part of, the struggles it has some currency in.
I am attracted to Commune Editions’ description of political poetry as a riot dog. A collective publishing venture out of Oakland California, Commune Editions suggests that the “poetry and other writings” they publish — work that is “antagonistic to capital and the state” — plays a role similar to the riot dogs of Athens, “accompanying” the “movement of the streets, providing support and strangeness, and perhaps, on occasion, biting the leg of a cop.” This way we don’t let our sense of the political potency of poetry get blown out of proportion: it’s nice that poems are there, “accompanying” the struggle. It’s also nice that some stray dogs have joined in (and some cooks and stonemasons, for that matter). All are simply things that build our capacity, individuals who add to that capacity with their words and actions.
But capacity-building is important, even fundamental, in so many ways. Howard Caygill, in his recent book On Resistance, suggests that resistance is — beyond any given specific act of resistance — really a process of continually building the capacity to resist. Resistance is focused on building the capacity to resist: on ensuring that resistant communities have and maintain the capacity to continue to resist.
Caygill also invokes Georg Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness to note that, in the context of “an historical tendency towards the reification of life and consciousness” (Lukacs), the theory of resistance as capacity-building is “crucial to any attempt to defy the tendency.” The building of the capacity to resist “looks less to the possibility of changing consciousness than to identifying the sites, places, or moments where resistance to reification can emerge. These are moments of invention that explode in a culture dedicated to calculation — whether political invention in the Workers Councils or Soviets … or by leaps of artistic imagination beyond reification.”
The embedded poetry I write attempts little leaps of invention, seeks to give voice to resistant subjectivities, and so build the capacity of movements to resist. In doing so it performs the riot dog’s resistant defense of its territory, as well as its friendly tail-wagging solidarity — it brings its delicious meal to the resistance camp, or builds a solid structure others can count on in wind and rain. It’s no more and no less. It just happens to be what I can do. So I do it. I embed myself in the mess of real-world struggles — and write what I can from and for that place of resistance.
4. Colectivo Situaciones, “On the Researcher-Militant,” trans. Sebastian Touza, European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies, September 2003.
« Les vivants » (“The Living”) is the second sequence in the poetry triptych that comprises Andrée Chedid’s 1956 work, Terre et poésie (Earth and Poetry). Comprised of twenty lyrical sections, the poem gains force as might an aggregate of elements — water, air, fire, earth — without which the living cannot exist. In « Les vivants », the elemental realm provides not simply the material resources for human survival, but a means of regeneration through engaged interaction between the physical and imaginative worlds. For Chedid then, poetry becomes both means and creation, a kind of genesis story of its own making — what the ancient alchemists might name a fifth element: “Poetry is asking questions at the deepest level, an attempt to get to the bottom of things. The act of writing is a moment of purification, deployment and self-condensation during which the writer is balanced on a thin wire strung between alpha and omega. It is a moment to ask questions about the purpose and the essence of things.”
If, as Yves Bonnefoy claims, translation is a creative act, then it too will ask such questions, not with the aim of replicating the poem in a new language (a foolhardy and unattainable act in any case), but of following an initial yearning, of “reliving the act which both gave rise to [the poem] and remains enmeshed in it.” With « Les vivants », the first question arises in translating the title, which also serves as the first two words of the poem. Reverso may confirm my English phrasing, but the question of creation remains to be asked: If we are speaking of the purpose and essence of things, what is meant by the choice of “The Living”?
Others have asked this question. This repetition of inquiry seems right of any poem that compels us to translation. A poem may require solitude for its creation, but poetry is not a solitary endeavor, either in the language of its genesis or in the language of its reception. As Bonnefoy notes: “At its most intense, reading is empathy, shared existence. … and what we gain [through translation, however lacking] is the very thing we cannot grasp: that is to say, the poetry of other languages.”
In the language of Chedid’s poetry, a language she adopted after emigrating from Cairo to Paris as a young woman, the words les vivants serve not only as title to the 1956 sequence, but throughout Chedid’s work, an oeuvre spanning sixty-plus years. For Chedid, poetry is not separated from life but woven into it; or, perhaps even more fitting, made of the same fabric. Of her choice to title two collections encompassing forty of those years, Textes pour un poème (1949–1970) and Poèmes pour un texte (1970–1991), Chedid explains: “I wanted to say that poetry which forms one body with our existence remains — in the same way as life — free, mobile, never cordoned off. No key can open the door onto the mystery of either.”
And so the question remains, a kind of stubborn first step of the scientific method: If we are speaking of the purpose and essence of things, what is meant by the translation of « Les vivants » to “The Living”? What is lost? What is gained? Translating Chedid’s 1983 Épreuves du vivant into English, Rene Linkhorn attempts a response:
… the “vivant” of Chedid’s title is not “life” and is not “person alive” and definitely not “the lively.” This “vivant” — here a substantive — is not an everyday word; it is generally encountered in scientific or philosophical contexts to signify — impersonally — that which is “endowed with life,” with a broader meaning than simply “living things.” In fact “vivant” comes to signify the very essence of life, the enigmatic phenomenon that makes matter break away from inertia.
Such a response speaks not to what is lost and what is gained so much as to the dynamism generated by an intentional expenditure of energy, which is to say, an imaginative engagement with the world, both material and dream.
The imagination of matter and the frisson created through an interaction of reality and reverie are subjects Gaston Bachelard explores in his series of book-length essays originally published during the years 1938–1948: The Psychoanalysis of Fire; Water and Dreams; Air and Dreams; Earth and Reveries of Repose; and Earth and Reveries of Will. In her forward to the last of these, Joanne Stroud articulates “the crux of [Bachelard’s hypothesis] — matter engages our imagination and summons the personhood of each of us, providing the will to action. We are not … passive in our engagement with matter. Imagination is supercharged by interaction with the material world.” Stroud relays that Bachelard was a teacher of high-school physics and chemistry before earning a doctorate at the age of forty-three. He went on to be appointed to the chair of philosophy and science at the Sorbonne and to be remembered as one of the most profound thinkers of the twentieth century. Bachelard called himself “a philosopher who loves only that in life which fills him with wonder.”
The span of Bachelard’s life (1884–1962) overlapped with Chedid’s (1920–2011), and so did his poetics. If an interdependence of imagination and will were key for Bachelard, so too was an interdependence of writing and life for Chedid. In recalling how his ideas paralleled her own, Chedid commented:
Bachelard wrote, we are “real and unreal,” and if we do not combine the real and the unreal, we are traumatized because we are incomplete. Through writing we bring together our body and our mind. Poetry is an act of love, and love gives you inspiration. This is not just love between [two people], but universal love. When I go out into the street, when I mingle with the crowds, I love others. I observe them. I immerse myself in them. … All these fleeting moments with others nourish life, the force without which we would sink into the void …
In fact, the collective is exactly where “The Living” begins, and Chedid locates us there in the first line — “Les poètes sont de la cité(The poets are of the city)” — to propose something of what poetry might offer, something we’ve lost in the process of constructing a civilization together. If such a proposition might be termed a poetical hypothesis, this one suggests that undertaking the imaginative example of the poet will help us recover the full tapestry of our lives. As Chedid offers in a 1995 interview: “In reply to the question: ‘Why do you write?’ Saint-John Perse said: ‘The poet’s answer will invariably be the shortest: To live better.’”
While no error of even rudimentary translation can mistake this initial location, this cityof “The Living” is notable not for what it includes but for what is left out. No street is described, no building, no park bench. Rather, this city is one upon which the reader might imagine her own landmarks, and in this way become an active participant in recovering one “very fine weave that others, crossing the fabric, have lost.”
And so the procedure of imagination is not one absence but of presence. Chedid’s poets of “The Living” do not “escape our world by some juggling of the imaginary”; rather, they show us a means of being, fully integrated into the elements that compriseboth that world and the imaginary. In this way, her poet is not unlike Bachelard’s: “A true poet is not satisfied with this escapist imagination. He [or she] wants the imagination to be a journey. Every poet must give us [the] invitation to journey. Through this invitation, our inner being gets a gentle push, which throws off balance and sets in motion a healthy, really dynamic reverie.” Such a procedure, naturally, involves movement.
Where Chedid takes us, almost immediately, is to the threshold of death. This is not a death from which to recoil, however, no straw-man ghost called forth to validate the superiority of life. No, the reason for this underworld pit stop is so that we might gain nourishment from the visit, that we might learn to cherish death “as we do life”: in other words, as we go about living. How poetry accomplishes such a task is by unmasking those elements that deserve reverent attention: the inorganic compounds that comprise our living, breathing beings. In this way, too, poetry itself comes into being: “Pour être, la poésie n’attend que notre regard (To exist, poetry awaits only our observance).”
Any valid analysis, however, would require an understanding of exactly what merits our observation. As a sort of scientist of poetics, Bachelard offers the following for examination: “[Those] … images [that] are completely new, alive with the life of living language. We experience them as actively lyrical through their ability to renew our hearts and souls. These literary images add hope to a feeling, a special vigor to our decision to be a person, even have a tonic effect on our physique.” The alchemists were after similar curatives in their materials, and while Chedid’s aims for her images are more in keeping with Bachelard’s, their transformative power is no less potent than an alchemy that turns metal into gold — and no less impossible. And yet, as Chedid’s poets of “The Living” urge, it is to the “Zone of the impossible from where we must return.” Only in such a laboratory will we uncover imaginative data worthy of analysis: “The purity of sunlight, a child’s voice, a kind hand, the spring grass, a distress call or love’s uncovering can become that reason — aligning one shore with the next — why we consent, once more, to our lives.”
This is an imperfect translation. Not for lack of effort, but nonetheless this version falls short. If, however, as Bonnefoy claims about his own failings to adequately translate the poem of one language into another, “I will be reproached for impoverishing the text,” then so be it: after all reproach is not far from rapprochement, and in the language of the alchemists, a translation is not a rendering but a transformation. For that kind of alchemy, we must travel to the source. We must drink from poetry itself: “She is the water of our second thirst.” The first was that desire by which we entered into the material world: “Perpetual fever that burns to become.”
And if, on this journey, we find ourselves impetuous visitors in a forest where a great stag speeds, indistinguishable from the rustling leaves that formulate the oxygen we breathe? The alchemists might say we were in the presence of Mercurius, “the transformative intermediary soul substance”; that we were on a “pilgrimage or initiation path … circuitous, indirect, constantly shifting direction, or, like the deer, disappearing altogether.” How to respond to such ephemeral presence? As would the forest: “adorn her, lovingly, from a choice of favorite shadows and burning clarities.” All things are made of contingency; only our effort fixes them into form, sometimes called gold, sometimes called language. This is how, as Bachelard explains, “poetic language, when it is used to translate material images, becomes a veritable incantation to the forces of energy.”
“In the foundry of a poem, an incandescent fever enchants the soul & every word radiates.”
This, too, is an imperfect translation. There is no fonderie in Chedid’s stanza 15, only the action of making: Tandis que se fait le poème. … Which is to say, while the poem is being made; which might also be to say, the poem forges its own making as it travels between the imaginative and material worlds.Perhaps. Mercurius. “The poet moves forward by halts: wingcuts & fallings.” Even the language in which the poem is made does not promise a straightforward flight. My aim in translating « Les vivants » is to transport it into English as clearly as language (and my skills) will permit, and yet the poem itself cautions: “Clarity will not suffice. The spirit keeps watch, but as through window glass, and cannot — deprived help — initiate a return. What miracle remains to be wished?”
The miracle of writing, perhaps, which Chedid likens to “the act of love, which amplifies, sublimates life and gives it a luminous tension. It puts me in step with this inner vibration, this desire that I feel deep within me. Without it, purely material life is incomplete.” But what miracle transmutes writing into love? The miracle of presence. In the case of translation, an initial hypothesis confirmed: the presence of “the very thing we cannot grasp or hold: that is to say, the poetry of other languages.” In the case of poetry, the presence of other humans, to whom “the poet entrusts the next days of his poem. For their transport and the lost magic. Only others return the poet to that Poetry, of which he will never be more than an uncertain and keenly careful craftsman.”
And if those others should ask, in any language, “What existence … is that of the poet! And that stake — stone of inaccessible — wouldn’t it be better to give it up?”
Chedid would not place the alchemist’s stone in our hand; even if it existed, it would not provide adequate conclusion for this imagined scientific method, for its transformative powers would preclude those created by our own imaging. Rather, she would place us at the edge of the world, fire on the horizon, a “reality, untouched since the morning of men.” She would place us as one element among others, and she would ask us to consider the element on which we stand: “this same ground — that we recognize without question and that rivets us by the strangest of plots — is it not swept by unknowable breath, crowned by free sky, favorable to distant lands?” With the quickness of Mercurius, she would then place us within the sails of poetry itself. On that boat — made (perhaps) of that same forest wood born from an ancient mixture of fire, air, earth, and water — she would urge us forward: “Without respite, we must pull poetry from the swamp of cause & effect. Refuse that she sink, standing, in her sails; vigil watch.” And by the transformative power of that image, and the language that compels it, at least two of us will.
That Chedid is no longer living does not make her watch any less present. The work she leaves proves the truth of her hypothesis: “Poetry reveals itself in our destinies by repeatedly making appeals to life; poetry is all at once the spur, the hope, and the proof of the Living.” And if I (admittedly, irrationally) miss the woman I never met, I have only to read that element of hers that remains present, her words:
My work is a step forward in this world, not in the hereafter. It is this side of our existence that concerns me. We keep on asking ourselves the same questions — where have we come from? where are we going? — and no philosopher, scientist, or poet has ever answered them satisfactorily. I am amazed every day that I exist as a physical being through this combination of molecules that I am made of. … I wonder how this factory of being with all its complicated mechanisms has managed to take shape. This extraordinary mystery is enough for me.
And still the source remains. If it is no longer possible to ask directly — for Chedid spoke English and could have responded without a linguistic intermediary — if she would have preferred sunbeam to sunlight, the thirst for her poetry nonetheless leads me to the foundry, leaves me at “the source, a beginning rich with possibility.” In the language of hypothesis, If poetry is a kind of alchemy, then translation “is merely poetry re-begun.”
excerpted from Terre et poésie, 1956
Translated from the French by Marci Vogel, 2015
The poets are of the city.
It is false that they escape our world by some juggling of the imaginary; rather, they recover one very fine weave that others, crossing the fabric, have lost.
The poets have the face of the living.
They undertake their century, its duties; but not its formulations.
Lend them trust.
Their cause — reconsidered at every dawn — cannot be altered, is that of the always human.
The desire to create, is it not first of all challenges to death and passion to last?
Later — setting free other prospects — the poet’s opening revives us, tames disquiet, and, leading us to the threshold of that death she unmasks, teaches us to cherish it as we do life.
Poetry is natural.
She is the water of our second thirst.
It is vital for the poet to raise echoes, and to know it.
No one better accords with solitude; but also, no one has more need that her land be visited.
To exist, poetry awaits only our observance.
Despite days of obligation, the poet safeguardsthe passage of available. From this essential place, poetry claims itself.
Living too much on the other side of appearances, we awaken sometimes in the margin; spectator to our own pageant. All seems empty then that surges not from the depths and haunts not the source.
Zone of the impossible from where we must return.
Clarity will not suffice. The spirit keeps watch, but as through window glass, and cannot — deprived help — initiate a return. What miracle remains to be wished?
The purity of sunlight, a child’s voice, a kind hand, the spring grass, a distress call or love’s uncovering can become that reason — aligning one shore with the next — why we consent, once more, to our lives.
The outermost — haunt of the poet — resides beyond limits; still, without final hope, she continues to ride on.
Taking the route towards the horizonless earth, each sunrise transforms the daily land, the unmarked: ivy on her free skin, hindrance at the heart.
If the poem’s call does not constrain, that poetry is from a breath.
Perpetual fever that burns to become.
The form — unless a science experiment is wished — must not foretell the poem; but order itself afterward to fit the momentum.
As the forest — indistinguishable & rustling about the great stag who speeds there — must welcome the impetuous visitor; then adorn her, lovingly, from a choice of favorite shadows and burning clarities.
In her ploughed earth, the poet — for a time — calms in the cry it urges, poem in her night.
Before her lined face, the poet knows old age; she has lived death well before dying.
Still, daybreak kindles new life, gift of the phoenix —beautiful, fragile bird — in accordance with mornings.
The poet moves forward by halts: wingcuts & fallings.
Experience suggests the plunge foretells the rise. But, in darkest distress, this reminder is meager rescue.
In the foundry of a poem, an incandescent fever enchants the soul & every word radiates.
The illusion is in motion, the earth a spangled constellation. The unspoken will find — this time — in the verb its rightful transformation.
Alas! At the scene of the poem, soon the sober return. The torch flames to ash, the escape artist collides with the walls. Where then do certainties drown?
It is to others the poet entrusts the next days of his poem. For their transport & the lost magic. Only others return the poet to that Poetry, of which he will never be more than an uncertain and keenly careful craftsman.
What existence, you say, is that of the poet! And that stake — stone of inaccessible — wouldn’t it be better to give it up?
Your reasons will not suffice.
Even in remote countries, the poet cannot become attached to trails. Take away everything but that thirst, grace from which, enclosed in this world, she partakes in the whole of life.
The final victory of poetry would be groundless, having only the quality of a breath, vulnerable and yet — forever — suspended beyond our brows.
It is to be the soundly defeated who lift poetry & unite us with its beauty.
Poetry — by ways uneven & muffled — leads us toward daybreak in the country of the first time.
To see in poetry is to give rightness to reversed images.
Water that opens to all reflections of this world and extends them infinitely, water that flows without ceasing is sister of poetry.
Why would poetry be more ghostly than days relentless at her loss? Her reality, untouched since the morning of men, has always set fire to the horizon. And this same ground — that we recognize without question and that rivets us by the strangest of plots — is it not swept by unknowable breath, crowned by free sky, favorable to distant lands?
Without respite, we must pull poetry from the swamp of cause & effect. Refuse that she sink, standing, in her sails; vigil watch.
Les poètes sont de la cité.
Il est faux qu’ils échappent à notre monde par quelque jonglerie de l’imaginaire; c’est plutôt qu’ils retrouvent une trame très lisse que d’autres, au contraire, ont perdue.
Les poètes ont visage de vivant.
Ils assument leur siècle, ses responsabilités; mais non ses formules.
Leur cause — reconsidérée à chaque aurore — ne peut s’altérer, elle est celle de l’homme de toujours.
Le désir de créer, n’est-ce pas tout d’abord défi à la mort et passion de durer?
Plus tard — libérant d’autres perspectives — l’oeuvre nous aère, apprivoise l’inquiétude et, nous menant jusqu’au seuil de cette mort, qu’elle démasque, nous apprend à la chérir au même titre que la vie.
La poésie est naturelle.
Elle est l’eau de notre seconde soif.
Il est vital pour le poète de lever des échos, et de le savoir.
Nul mieux que lui ne s’accorde aux solitudes; mais aussi, nul n’a plus besoin que sa terre soit visitée.
Pour être, la poésie n’attend que notre regard.
Malgré les jours qui l’engagent, le poèt sauvegarde la passe du disponible. C’est de ce lieu essentiel que se réclame la poésie.
A trop vivre de l’autre côté des apparences, on s’éveille parfois en marge; spectateur de son propre spectacle. Tout semble vain alors qui ne surgit des profondeurs et que ne hante la source.
Zone de l’impossible d’où il faut revenir.
La lucidité n’y suffirait pas. L’esprit veille, mais comme à travers une vitre, et ne peut — privé d’aide — amorcer un retour. Quel miracle reste-t-il à souhaiter?
Le naturel d’un rayon de soleil, d’une voix d’enfant, d’une main amie, le printemps d’une herbe, l’appel d’une détresse ou la découverte d’un amour peut devenir cette raison qui — accordant une rive à l’autre — permet, une fois de plus, que l’on consente à sa vie.
L’extrême — hantise du poète — demeure au-delà de ses limites; cependant, sans espoir final, il continue d’aller.
Prenant route vers la terre sans horizon, chaque aube métamorphose sa terre quotidienne, la démarquée: lierre sur sa peau libre, entrave à son coeur.
Si l’appel du poème n’est pas contraignant, celui de la poésie est d’une haleine.
Fièvre perpétuelle qui brûle de devenir.
La forme — à moins d’en souhaiter l’expérience — ne devrait pas augurer du poème; mais s’ordonner ensuite pour épouser l’élan.
Comme la forêt — indifférenciée et bruissante autour du grand cerf qui s’y précipite — elle doit accueillir l’impétueux visiteur; puis le parer, amoureusement, d’un choix d’ombres favorites et de brûlantes clartés.
En sa terre labourée, le poète — pour un temps — s’apaise du cri qu’il pousse, poème dans sa nuit.
Avant les rides le poèt a connu la vieillesse; il a vécu la mort bien avant de mourir.
Pourtant l’aube le ranime, lui fait don du phénix — bel oiseau fragile — accordé aux matins.
Le poète avance par saccades: coups d’ailes et retombées.
L’expérience lui suggère que la chute présage de l’essor. Mais, au plus sombre d’une détresse, cette mémoire est de maigre secours.
Tandis que se fait le poème, une fièvre heureuse enchante l’âme et chaque mot irradie.
L’illusion est en marche, la terre constellée. L’inexprimé trouvera — cette fois — dans le verbe sa juste métamorphose.
Hélas! Sur les lieux du poème, bientôt c’est le sobre retour. Le flambeau s’est fait cendres, l’échappée heurte aux murs. Où donc se noient les certitudes?
C’est aux autres que le poète confie les lendemains de son poème. Pour eux les transports et la magie perdue. Seuls les autres rendront le poète à cette Poésie, dont il ne sera jamais que l'incertain et très soucieux artisan.
Quelle existence, direz-vous, est celle du poète! Et cet enjeu — pierre de inaccessible — ne vaudrait-il pas mieux y renoncer?
Vos raisons n’y suffiront pas.
Même en pays perdu, le poète ne peut s’attacher aux pistes. Qu’on lui ôte tout, plutôt que cette soif, grâce à laquelle, enclos en ce monde, il participe à l'entière vie.
La victoire finale de la poésie serait sans objet et ne pourrait avoir que la qualité d’un souffle, vulnérable et cependant — à jamais — suspendu au-delà de nos fronts.
C’est d’être la grande vaincue qui fait à la poésie sa noblesse, et nous rend solidaires de sa beauté.
La poésie — par des voies inégales et feutrées — nous mène vers la pointe du jour au pays de la première fois.
Regarder en poésie, c’est se donner droit au revers des images.
L’eau qui s’ouvre aux reflets de ce monde et les prolonge infiniment, l’eau qui va sans cesse est soeur de poésie.
Pourquoi la poésie serait-elle plus fantomatique que les jours acharnés à sa perte? Sa réalité, intacte depuis le matin des hommes, a mis depuis toujours le feu à l’horizon. Et cette terre même — que nous reconnaissons sans mal et qui nous rive par le plus étrange des complots — n’est-elle pas balayée de souffles inconnaissables, couronnée de ciel libre, propice aux lointains?
Sans répit, il nous faut tirer la poésie des marécages de l’événement. Refuser qu’elle ne sombre, debout, dans ses voiles; veiller.
Andrée Chedid, “Les vivants,” in “Terre et poésie,” Textes pour un poème (1949–1970), © Flammarion, reproduced here with permission.
6. The “imagination of matter” is Bachelard’s own term for his subject of investigation; he defines it as “the imagination of the four elements which philosophy and the ancient sciences, later represented by the science of alchemy, have regarded as the basis of all things.” Bachelard, Earth and Reveries of Will: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, trans. Kenneth Haltman, ed. Joanne H. Stroud (Dallas: Dallas Institute Publications, 2002), 1. Originally published in 1943 as La terre et les rêveries de la volonté, essai sur l'imagination de la matière and then in 1947 by the Librairie José Corti, Paris.
9. Chedid, « Les vivants », from Terre et Poésie (1956), republished in Textes pour un poème 1949–1970 (Paris: Flammarion 1987), 129–36. Unless otherwise stated, all translations in this essay are my own.
11. Bachelard, Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement, trans. Edith R. Farrell and C. Frederick Farrell (Dallas: Dallas Institute Publications, 2002), 3. Originally published in 1943 as L’Air et les songes, essaai sur l’imagination du mouvement (Paris: Librairie José Corti, 1943).
In a recent essay, “Learning the Grammar of Animacy,” Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist who is a member of the Potawatomi tribe (one of the Ojibwe or Anishinaabe peoples of North America), recounts being stunned when she learned of the word puhpowee from an ethnobotanical study on traditional Anishinaabe uses of fungi. In that word, which translates as “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight,” Kimmerer “could see an entire process of close observation in the damp morning woods, the formulation of a theory for which English has no equivalent. The makers of this word understood a world of being, full of unseen energies that animate everything.” The essay describes her subsequent efforts to learn the Anishinaabe dialect Bodéwadmimwin or Potawatomi, a threatened language with only nine remaining fluent speakers in her tribe. Doing so proves extremely difficult, because that language differs so profoundly from English. Where English is noun-based, Potawatomi is seventy percent verbs. Moreover, in Potawatomi, both nouns and verbs are classified as either “animate” or “inanimate”: “Pronouns, articles, plurals, demonstratives, verbs … are all aligned in Potawatomi to provide different ways to speak of the living world and the lifeless one. Different verb forms, different plurals, different everything apply depending on whether what you are speaking of is alive.”
The difficulties of learning were so great that Kimmerer was on the verge of giving up the frustrating struggle until a revelatory moment when she encountered the verb wiikwegamaa, which means “to be a bay.” She recalls:
In that moment I could smell the water of the bay, watch it rock against the shore and hear it sift onto the sand. A bay is a noun only if water is dead. When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa — to be a bay — releases the water from bondage and lets it live. “To be a bay” holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers.
This language, she recognizes, is “a mirror for seeing the animacy of the world, the life that pulses through all things.” Potawatomi extends the grammar of animacy (not to be confused with the arrogance of at least some forms of anthropomorphism) not only to humans, nonhuman animals, and plants, but also to rocks and “mountains and water and fire and places.” In every sentence, its speakers are reminded of their kinship with all that the language establishes as the animate world. Currently, in teaching her ecology students, Kimmerer takes a bilingual approach, using both “the lexicon of science and the grammar of animacy.” She explains, “Although they still have to learn [the plants’] scientific roles and Latin names, I hope I am also teaching them to know the world as a neighborhood of nonhuman residents, to know that, as ecotheologian Thomas Berry has written, ‘we must say of the universe that it is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.’” Kimmerer makes clear that she’s not advocating that we all learn Native American languages, but she does urge a transformation in conception and attitude that would allow us all to speak the grammar of animacy from our hearts. Internalizing that grammar, she suggests, “could well be a restraint on our mindless exploitation of land”; by enabling us to “[walk] through a richly inhabited world of Birch people, Bear people, Rock people, beings we think of and therefore speak of as persons worthy of our respect, of inclusion in a peopled world,” it would give us access to other perspectives and sources of wisdom.
Currently environmental thinkers in a number of fields are working to reconceptualize and refigure the human relation to nonhuman life forms so as to better understand nonhuman modes of intelligence, perception, and communication; to correct anthropocentric biases; and to more accurately reflect species interdependencies. A political hope behind these efforts is that such perspectival adjustments may help humans live in less destructive and more mutually beneficial relation to the rest of the biosphere. Because Anglophone experimental poetics for the past century has involved developing perspectives and poetic techniques designed deliberately to resist habitual ways of thinking and of ordering perception, contemporary ecopoets with experimental inclinations in North America, eager to push language in unaccustomed directions, see themselves as having a role to play in this interdisciplinary exploration. Although often basing their belief that language is inherently connected to perception and thought in constructivist understandings that emerge from poststructuralist theory, these poets seem very like Kimmerer in investing themselves in using the powers of language to initiate what Forrest Gander calls “a reorientation from objectivity to intersubjectivity.”
Joan Retallack, for instance, in her essay “What is Experimental Poetry and Why Do We Need It?,” observes that “The human imagination has always done a brilliant job of occupying the ‘empty spaces’ of alterity.” She proposes that having inherited “a monodirectional dynamic of voluble us and silent them,” poets need to find “a reciprocal alterity” by engaging in the “hard work of acquiring accurate [scientific] knowledge” and combining that with an experimental stance which may free us from our anthropocentric preconceptions. “The very word ecopoetics,” Retallack suggests, “may be seen as an experimental instrument that creates a new order of attention to the possibility of a poetics of precise observations and conversational interspecies relations with all contributing to the nature of the form.” We might well debate the extent to which such reciprocity is possible, since it’s not clear how much we humans are capable of hearing nonhuman voices, but approaches to language that foster the kind of attitudes Kimmerer locates in a “grammar of animacy” may bring us closer to the respectful and equitable connection Retallack envisions.
As much of the work recently collected in The Arcadia Project: Postmodern Pastoral or published in the online journal ecopoetics makes evident, Retallack is not alone in seeing experimental poets as having important work to do in seeking what she calls “correctives to ‘nature’ narratives of segregation, dominance, and nostalgia” which “[fail] to acknowledge ‘them’ as inextricably intertwined with ‘us.’” Angela Rawlings, a Canadian poet and performance artist who publishes as a.rawlings, would seem to take a similar view, and it is her 2006 book Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists that I will examine in this essay, to demonstrate some of the ways in which experimental poetics — in their alternative approaches to poetic subjectivity, emphasis on the materiality of language, and resistance to the conventional regulations of thought encoded in standard syntax and other conventional literary structures — might be helping shift our sense of human/nonhuman relations away from the anthropocentric and might enhance our sense of kinship and interdependence with other life forms.
In a.rawlings’s book this shift is enacted through extraordinary attention to and representations of embodied sensation. There is a relevant passage in J. M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello in which the title character, objecting to the implication in Descartes’s assertion “Cogito, ergo sum” that “a living being that does not do what we call thinking is somehow second-class,” offers the following: “To thinking, cogitation, I oppose fullness, embodiedness, the sensation of being — not a consciousness of yourself as a kind of ghostly reasoning machine thinking thoughts, but on the contrary the sensation — a heavily affective sensation — of being a body with limbs that have extension in space, of being alive to the world.” Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists, I believe, works to create just that kind of sensation for a body that may be human and/or may be lepidoptoral, as the lines between these species often blur. The text fosters biocentrism not just in what it suggests about common somatic experiences shared by human and nonhuman species but in what it does to language itself: in highlighting the physicality of both sounding and reading words, and in making language evidently participate in the processes of the biosphere — processes of predation and consumption, of metamorphosis and decay, of reproduction, development, and evolution.
Even as I make those claims, I wish to acknowledge that what constitutes anthropocentrism and what biocentrism may not be easy to discern, and that the latter may remain an ideal that humans cannot fully achieve. Certainly, the act of blurring distinctions between human and nonhuman animals, dependent as it is on imagining nonhuman experience, may itself involve anthropocentric human projection; Kate Soper wisely cautions against valuing such blurring for its own sake. Yet one can persuasively argue, as Val Plumwood does, that anthropocentrism is rightly understood as distinct from “epistemic locatedness”: she contends that the latter, which is inescapable, does not preclude empathy or the overcoming of a narrow restriction of ethical concern to the self. Plumwood asserts, “to the extent that anthropocentric frameworks prevent us from experiencing the others of nature in their fullness, we not only help to imperil ourselves through loss of sensitivity but also deprive ourselves of the unique kinds of richness and joy the encounter with the more-than-human presences of nature can provide.” Harmonizing with Retallack (and, I think, pointing to what a.rawlings enacts), Plumwood proposes that we “need a reconception of the human self in more mutualistic terms as a self-in-relationship with nature, formed not in the drive for mastery and control of the other but in a balance of mutual transformation and negotiation.”
Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello asserts “there is no limit to the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another. There are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination.” This character, a novelist like her creator, claims she can think her way “into the existence of a bat or a chimpanzee or an oyster, any being with whom I share the substrate of life”; she asserts that Ted Hughes does that in some of his animal poems, which she says don’t inhabit another mind but rather another body. Her mention of a bat is part of her attempt to refute the contrary view of Thomas Nagel in his widely known philosophical essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Nagel points out that because our own experience as humans provides the basis for our imagination (Plumwood’s “epistemic locatedness”), its range is limited. I can imagine “only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves” but not what it is like for a bat to be a bat, Nagel argues. He sensibly reasons that the experience of any species has “a specific subjective character, which it is beyond our ability to conceive,” and that “if extrapolation from our own case is involved in the idea of what it is like to be a bat, the extrapolation must be incomplete.” Granting that, I would suggest that perhaps our necessarily partial imaginings can nonetheless help us see the world differently. In a footnote, Nagel himself admits,
It may be easier than I suppose to transcend inter-species barriers with the aid of the imagination. For example, blind people are able to detect objects near them by a form of sonar, using vocal clicks or taps of a cane. Perhaps if one knew what that was like, one could by extension imagine roughly what it was like to possess the much more refined sonar of a bat. The distance between oneself and other persons and other species can fall anywhere on a continuum.
Plumwood, like Costello, is less daunted by species difference. Noting that many ethical theories regard moral reasoning itself as requiring “some version of empathy, putting ourselves in the other’s place, seeing the world to some degree from the perspective of an other with needs and experiences both similar to and different from our own,” she argues that human-centeredness is “no more inescapable than any other form of centrism,” such as ethnocentrism or androcentrism. In thinking about establishing ethical relations to the nonhuman world, she advocates breaking down the human-nature dualism that “configure[s] the world rigidly in terms of human and other” rather than “expand[ing] the category of privilege to take in a few of the more human-like non-humans.” Issues of (un)ethical relations to nonhuman animals, as we will see, enter into Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists,but they are not its central concern; rather, the kind of respectful and reciprocal engagement with other life forms based in — or taking place through — the body that Costello proposes, and that aligns with both Plumwood’s and Kimmerer’s senses of how we may move forward in addressing the current ecological crisis, is central to a.rawlings’s exploration of interspecies identifications.
As I will demonstrate shortly, in Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists a.rawlings does generate species blurrings and “mutual transformations” between Homo sapiens and Lepidoptera, yet she also maintains her readers’ respect for the differences between butterflies or moths and humans. Respect for difference is made easier by her not having chosen to “think with” (in Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mitman’s punning phrase) one of the charismatic megafauna, by not choosing a species that is large-brained, readily imagined as neotenic, frequently linked to a particular human trait (as is the case with the “sly fox,” say), or even associated with aspects of animality recognized — and often deplored — in the human. With the exception of the monarch butterfly, the order of Lepidoptera hasn’t much caught the popular environmental imagination, and this, along with the marked differences between insect and mammalian anatomy, makes the creatures’ alterity easier to respect than might otherwise have been the case. Conversely, generating a sense of what Kimmerer speaks of as kinship may be correspondingly difficult, yet through an intense collaging that prevents clear separation of human from lepidopteral experience, a.rawlings manages it. By revealing correspondences and overlaps between human experience and admittedly presumed or imagined, even if scientifically informed, butterfly experience, a.rawlings challenges some of the ways in which we Western humans set ourselves apart from other animal life; through its densely disjunctive, highly sensory techniques, her work fosters the appreciation of connectedness and commonalities among life-forms that a grammar of animacy conveys.
Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists is a dazzlingly metamorphic volume that manipulates visual images and text to explore embodiment and various forms of eroticism; the life cycle of Lepidoptera; the practices of lepidopterists (particularly the collection and mounting of specimens); the stages of sleep; the study of sleep and sleep disorders; and the analysis of literary texts. According to an interview, it was prompted by a.rawlings wondering: “if a poet writes poems during sleep, how might a lepidopterist work while she sleeps? What effect does intimate examination of insects have on long-term information processing and subconscious behaviour?” It originated, then, from speculations on human consciousness, but more specifically on the human as it may be affected by intimacy with the nonhuman.
In this book sensory experience is foregrounded — suggesting how much consciousness, at least in sleep, is a somatic phenomenon — and not just through the book’s verbal/semantic content but also through its reliance on visual forms of communication. Visual elements, then, are one means by which the work very evidently calls upon not just cogitation, but, as Elizabeth Costello puts it, the sensation of being. On the cover appears what I have identified as a Northern Pearly-eye butterfly (Enodia anthedon) whose body aligns with the spine of the book so that one set of wings folds over each cover.
Front cover from Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists, © a.rawlings (words), Matt Ceolin (illustrations), published by Coach House Books, 2006. Reprinted with permission from Coach House Books.
This is the first of more than a dozen images that appear in the book, all by a.rawlings’s collaborator Matt Ceolin, most of which represent butterflies or moths either dead or in various life stages.
First page from Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists, © a.rawlings (words), Matt Ceolin (illustrations), published by Coach House Books, 2006. Reprinted with permission from Coach House Books.
Page 19 from Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists, © a.rawlings (words), Matt Ceolin (illustrations), published by Coach House Books, 2006. Reprinted with permission from Coach House Books.
These images invite attention to lepidopteral bodies. Additionally, there are three images of jars and bottles that would be part of the lepidopterist’s equipment, including a stoppered bottle containing a butterfly specimen; one image of a book opened to a schematized image of a butterfly with labeled parts; and another image that presents a similar schematized drawing without representing a book.
Page 51 from Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists, © a.rawlings (words), Matt Ceolin (illustrations), published by Coach House Books, 2006. Reprinted with permission from Coach House Books.
Page 95 from Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists, © a.rawlings (words), Matt Ceolin (illustrations), published by Coach House Books, 2006. Reprinted with permission from Coach House Books.
These visuals remind the reader that Western humans have typically sought knowledge of Lepidoptera by killing them so that they can be collected, categorized, and either dissected or preserved.
More experimentally, the text is arranged in remarkably various eye-catching visual arrangements. Sometimes these provide a kind of scoring of the breath in the tradition of projective verse, and sometimes spatial arrangement coupled with variation in font highlights the juxtaposition of different kinds of discourse; but much of this visual variety turns pages into object of visual art whose visual meaning — beyond an insistence on the absence of a standard arrangement — is difficult to discern. Some page designs in which appear not just words but letters or letter combinations or keyboard symbols suggest concrete poetry, as when facing pages look like open butterfly wings. Thus, on four pages associated with “Bruxism,” “a parasomnia where the sleeper grinds or clenches her teeth,” near mirrorings of text create a wing-like design made of bold face and regular typeface words, and of clusters of letters with isolated consonants scattered at the edges. It’s appropriate to “bruxism” that these are mostly the “dental” consonants t, d, n, l, made with the tongue against the teeth. The words on the left-hand pages are disjointed fragments of English — mostly nouns and adjectives, perhaps from dreams or nightmares — on the right, equally disjunct parts of Latin names for species of moths or butterflies (68–71).
Page 70–71 from Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists, © a.rawlings (words), Matt Ceolin (illustrations), published by Coach House Books, 2006. Reprinted with permission from Coach House Books.
These wing-like textual designs might be considered a crude example of a.rawlings using language as bioform, making pages into butterflies — though we might equally well read this as highlighting the textually mediated character of our knowledge of butterflies, the distance between representation and the living animal. In a more compelling instance of displaying language as part of the biosphere, a tightly curled caterpillar of text gradually uncurls and moves to the right over a few pages. In the process its letters modulate from reading “count by slumber” to “faint bystander” to “pant by number” to “cunt by umber” (that last term evoking the umber moths) to — when the text is flat — “ti ur tor foknur” (where “tor” as anagrammatic “rot” seems potentially significant) so that this textual creature doesn’t just crawl, it develops in the process of its own motion through space and time.
Page 25 from Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists, © a.rawlings (words), Matt Ceolin (illustrations), published by Coach House Books, 2006. Reprinted with permission from Coach House Books.
Page 27 from Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists, © a.rawlings (words), Matt Ceolin (illustrations), published by Coach House Books, 2006. Reprinted with permission from Coach House Books.
Elsewhere letters progressively vanish from the text, leaving tattered remnants of words as if eaten out, again giving material language a kind of organic life as it participates in processive change. Retallack in her essay adapts John Cage’s thinking to propose as one experimental ecopoetic strategy “adopting nature’s manner of operations,” and the practices I have just described can be understood as linguistic versions of just that. Even when analogues to biological processes are less clear, as when recognizable words are suddenly replaced by illegible clusters of letters which may or may not be anagrammatically decipherable, language in this book tends to be a markedly unstable, rapidly evolving material — and the visual qualities of this text contribute crucially to that animation. A readily visible textual instability is key to what makes this book difficult to process in conventional ways, and its asking us to see and experience the lepidopteral in unfamiliar ways is, I think, fundamental to the poem’s experimental attempt to reposition humans and human epistemology in relation to the life-forms humans have categorized as Lepidoptera.
Like the visual elements, sounds also enrich the sensory quality of a reader’s experience of Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists. For instance, in sounding those dental consonantsjust mentioned, the reader is forced to be much more aware of tongue and teeth than in usual reading experiences.a.rawlings often employs conventional techniques like alliteration and assonance in ways that heighten readers’ consciousness of their own embodiment. In her hands, even such traditional poetic devices serve unsettlingly to defamiliarize human somatic experience and to blur its distinctions from that of the moth or butterfly. A brief example: “wood nymphs spin and hang crude cocoons // we hold our slow high flight” (15). Here’s a more extended example, the lower half of an unbroken page:
our wings our breath
heavy as wails, our wet
soul, sail, th gall of th ‘th,’th ‘of’ of th ‘of’ or th ‘th,’ th
ways lips hug proboscis th vulva, yes, th vulva
water is fire protrusion velour
chrysalistalization dark valium
row of fine-lipped, of
up tubular, a
Clearly, the echoing and modulating sounds — for instance, of proboscis, protrusion, and penetration (which could be read downward in immediate succession), or of vulva, velour, vellum and valium — give these lines a sensual richness on the tongue. But beyond that, partly through the progression and dissolution of sound patterns as well as through its visual design, the passage enacts a shift from what seems a clear distinction between species — “our wings” (which belong to butterflies and not humans) on the left-hand side of the page, “our breath” (produced by humans and not butterflies) on the right-hand side — to a confusion of bodies. Either breath or wings could be heavy and wet, and both have associations with the soul (as the soul passes — or flies — from the mortal body with its last breath), though a term like “wails” would seem to designate sounds not, to our knowledge, made by insects. The line of “of”s and “th”s could sound like either panting breath or the movement of air with a fluttering of wings. The insect’s alliteratively stressed protruding proboscis penetrates flowers, but the human vulva might also be the entryway of penetration, while the lips here seem human as well, whether associated with the mouth or with female genitalia. Perhaps these lines suggest an analogy between the butterfly’s pleasure in feeding and the human’s pleasure in sexual penetration. Perhaps they point to commonalities between the objectified position of the female in a patriarchal order and that of the butterfly in an anthropocentric one. Going further in their imagining, perhaps these lines attempt to bring sensually alive for us the experience of an insect feeding, sticking that thin proboscis up the velvety softness of a tubular flower.Certainly, a first-person plural that is not appropriative but inclusive (a useful distinction Retallack offers) is created here, one that acknowledges a commonality of embodiment, hunger, and desire, but does so within a context of recognizing also mutual alterity. Flying remains quite fundamentally different from breathing, and vice versa.
That sound plays an important role in this poem’s blurring of the bodies and bodily experiences of butterflies or moths and humans is evident from the book’s opening pages. The first four pages of verbal text (that is, the pages that follow immediately after the dedication “To Northern Ontario,” a page of translucent vellum, and one with a small drawing of a Northern Pearly-eye), contain only the phrase “a hoosh a ha,” which is repeated different numbers of times and arranged differently on each page to map varying rhythms and increasing speeds with which the phrase is articulated. To designate those syllables a “phrase” is misleading since they seem closer to a sounded breath or breaths, inhalations and exhalations. a.rawlings’s 2007 performance of those pages (designated “Prologue”) at PennSound is eerily ambiguous in its humanity/inhumanity. While her voice dominates, one hears multiple voices, male as well as female, and the sounds, including some squeaks, don’t strike the ear as necessarily human. “A hoosh a ha” might well mimic the sounds butterfly or moth wings make as they move through the air, as heard by ears or other hearing organs finely tuned enough to register their being raised and lowered. (As hearing organs, Lepidoptera have tympanal membranes on their wings. They are sensitive to sounds made by predators — birds in the case of butterflies, which are active in the day, and bats in the case of moths, which tend to be nocturnal.) In a.rawlings’s recorded reading, those pages take on a highly sexualized character, as if the being “hoosh”ing were approaching and then reaching orgasm before subsiding into stillness. Perhaps, though, one could imagine the sounds to register the gathering of more and more butterflies who, once assembled, come to rest. The Northern Pearly-eye does gather in large groups, particularly in the cooler, northwestern-most portion of its range.
Let me briefly recap my argument so far: In considering visual and aural elements of Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists,I have demonstrated that they generate a reading experience that requires of the reader a degree of sensual and somatic involvement unusual even in poetry, which is widely viewed as the literary genre in which the material qualities of language play the largest part, for instance through rhyme and meter. This emphasis on embodied experience draws readers toward aspects of our being we share with nonhuman animals (or sometimes plants, as might be suggested, for instance, by reference to the scent of honeysuckles as “honeysuckle sweat”) and away from the rational cognitive functions traditionally thought to distinguish the human. I have argued, too, that the insistently dynamic or metamorphic character a.rawlings gives to both sounded words or letters and their visual arrangement also contributes to her unsettling of conventional distinctions between human and nonhuman species, perhaps even — in giving an unusual life to letters — between the biotic and nonbiotic realms.
Metamorphosis — particularly multistaged metamorphosis — also provides the basis for the book’s structure, and exploring this structurally embedded thematic further will allow me to more fully develop my argument about the poem’s creation through poetic experimentalism of a grammar of animacy that imaginatively approaches reciprocal alterity.
The book has six sections, in each of which a lepidopteral life stage is explicitly linked with a stage of human sleep or a category of sleep disturbance: for instance, the first section is “EGG — INSOMNIA,” the next “EGG, LARVA — DYSSOMNIA,” the third “LARVA — NREM,” and so forth. Each page announcing a new stage includes a typographic symbol or combination of symbols; one effect of these is to foster more inclusive thinking about languages by signaling that communicative systems need not involve words.
Page 49 from Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists, © a.rawlings (words), Matt Ceolin (illustrations), published by Coach House Books, 2006. Reprinted with permission from Coach House Books.
Four of the poem’s sections — all except the ones titled “LARVA, PUPA — REM” and “IMAGO — AROUSAL” (the imago being the adult winged form of Lepidoptera) — contain pages where the name of a sleep stage or disorder, such as “sleep spindles,” “apnea,” or “somnambulism,” appears in small capital letters on the lower outside corner near the page number. According to the description on the book’s back cover, “sleep is read here through the life cycle of a moth.” While a.rawlings presumably authorized that statement and while it accords with her description, quoted earlier, of the origin of the work, it does not accord with my readerly experience. The book does not seem to me to be more about sleep than it is about moth life; the two are thoroughly intertwined so that the book is about both, and also about their construction in language and their examination by science. Sleep seems to me where humans come closest to the kind of metamorphosis butterflies undergo rather than, say, the gradual development from infancy to adulthood. When we sleep, without our choice our brains and bodies enter distinct states with different modes of experience or consciousness. The book’s structure, then, emphasizes the analogous ways in which humans and butterflies undergo change through successive bodily transformations not subject to cognitive control. And in fact, after I shared with the author an earlier version of this essay that made these claims, she responded, “Yes, I approved the back-cover copy. However, I thought I’d mention that I am in agreement with your experience of the book. My experience writing it was that there was no intended hierarchy of one subject over another. Indeed, it could be said that sleep is read through the moth’s life cycle, but the inverse is equally valid — the moth’s life cycle can be read through sleep.”
The experience of reading Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists, certainly fascinating and stimulating, is unsettling and at times quite disturbing as well. The back cover identifies the book as “an erotic nightmarescape.” That disturbance is provoked partly by what is presented in the book’s content, which is what the anonymous blurber seems to have in mind: horrifying evocations of moths caught in one’s throat, for instance. But it is also produced by the unpredictable ways “words breed” (81), suggesting uncontrolled genetic modifications. More generally, discomfort arises because the reader’s orientation is so precarious, and any sense of cognitive mastery so ephemeral. Beginning with the very first lines after the (“ah hoosh a ha”) prologue, the reader has to accept or in some way accommodate a condition like the illogic of dream narrative. Here are those opening lines:
We descend on a field by a lake. a hoosh The lupin, sleep, the fog. a ha Fireflies, silent moths. We bury our legs in sand. Sound through the sand is dormant. We desire sleep to enter, virginal.
We stretch our feelers toward a warm body. a a Slowly, hands fog-damp spin plants, form air-filled hollows, breath cocooned, fur soft and blurred, heavy even heavenly. hoosh Soft like quiet. ha
Soft like we quiver (14)
The first-person plural speaker might well, at least initially, be lepidopteral, but the perspective seems to me ambiguously human as well. Perhaps the writing moves between the two species’ experiences, perhaps it joins them, but certainly the reader’s impulse to separate human neatly from Lepidoptera is effectively thwarted. Once the reader relinquishes the quest for categorization, she or he can appreciate that whether the legs in sand or the desire for sleep belong to one species or both, the bodies with hands and/or feelers occupy the same dreamily fog-filled field and possess a similar soft vulnerability. They share not only the natural environment of this summer evening in (if the dedication locates the work) Northern Ontario but also a desire for a change in somatic state to involve both sleep and sexualized bodily contact.
Similarly, the page that follows begins with the clearly human action and predominantly human perspective of “Slow light touch of hand on wing, scales brush off like butterfly kisses” (the anthropomorphizing name we give to the human act of brushing one’s eyelashes against another’s skin), but shortly, when “we tongue our shell, our conch,” “we” seems to speak also for larvae eating the eggshells from which they emerged and then acquiring nutrition from plants “with tongue buried deep in the suckle the honey” (15). The we subsequently becomes even more intensely indeterminate with the eroticized language that accompanies “the story’s arousal”:
we are taut while we thrust against the inner wall. Sleep is bruised or screams or none comes but we desire, we feel the full hot flesh of our wing swipe grass, scrape sand, we push ourselves out of ourselves, into our sound our hand our sweet wet hot our path, mourn, rake, master or muster. Glisten, swell come and the story’s arousal, twenty eyes unblink when the sun’s awake and even when it’s not the brain speaks, screams, swells and huge battened eyes of a hundred hungry mouths, no moths, wait this will move. (16–17)
As the first-person plural pronoun gathers in the reader as well, s/he is drawn into an experience that seems both the human progress toward the “sweet hot full the electricity” of orgasm and the compound-eyed moth’s effortful emergence from an earlier stage of itself, the pupa.
If we readers cannot distinguish human from butterfly desire or human from butterfly arousal here, and if we have to acknowledge that both are present, then we no longer have the hierarchical vantage implicit in an anthropocentric perspective. If, prompted by this dense weave of words — the text’s grammar of animacy — we have imaginatively entered a state where human and lepidopteral experiences, equally defamiliarized, interpenetrate without our losing awareness that there also exist significant differences between insects and mammals, we may be approaching something like the potentially conversational mode of reciprocal alterity that Retallack was envisioning.
This is a remarkable achievement that avoids problematic perspectives common in conventional nature poetry representing animals, but before closing I want also to contemplate its ecopoetic limits and perhaps limitations. I noted earlier that in its focus on somatic commonalities between humans and insects, Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists draws readers away from the rational realm that, most would agree, humans do not share with moths. The sensory experiences a.rawlings invokes often involve primal activities such as eating or sex or moving between involuntary stages of being, and they often assume a violent cast. Consequently, a.rawlings may be playing into some very old, derogatory thinking about animality. It’s hardly news that both humans and nonhuman animals have sexual drives in common; one could even see the work, particularly through its violence, as reinforcing traditional problematic linkages of the animal with “lower” functions. For the most part, I’d say that is not the case, because the “higher” functions do enter this animalized text through alphabetic language, and that realm is rendered thoroughly metamorphic and material. a.rawlings’s reinforcement of how much we humans are our bodies even in such an “elevated” and distinctively human trait as our ability to invent sign systems, moreover, supports environmentalist thinking to the extent that environmentalism requires recognizing our embodied dependence on and embeddedness in ecosystems. In most of this volume, a.rawlings’s presentations are too mobile, too multifaceted and multiperspectival, to allow any sense of the human apart from the dense linguistic environments she creates in which plant, human, and nonhuman animal bodies as well as alphabetic ones are dissected, joined, pinned, caressed, torn, transformed, and thoroughly entangled. The reader experiences a harsh realm of richly various biorhythms where myriad changing life forms come in contact and interact in ways often full of desire.
Yet it’s also true that through her presentation of the work of lepidopterists, which I’ll now examine, a.rawlings at points maintains a dualistic perspective that separates out and rejects the rational mind. For me, this undercuts some of the valuable integrative and expansive work done by Wide Slumber. Beginning in the section that follows the passages I examine above (all in the EGG — INSOMNIA section), a.rawlings introduces a contrasting perspective: that of the nondreaming lepidopterist, visually distinguished by the use of italic font. She incorporates what appear to be selections from a set of instructions for those seeking the kind of epistemological control that is expressed in tidy taxonomies. Inserted into the poem in documentary fashion are instructions for how to “collect, kill, and mount specimen[s]” (23), such as
Manipulate wings simultaneously to avoid twisting body.
Pin wings to mounting board.
Pin wings near large veins to avoid tears.
Place paper over wings to prevent curling while drying. (26–27)
Keep mounted specimen in low-moisture condition to prevent mould.
Avoid direct sunlight to prevent fading.
Store in tightly closed box with insecticide to prevent dermestid beetle larvae
and book lice from feeding on body parts. (29)
These passages associate lepidoptery and scientific investigation with a fixing that is counter to the processes of life and of ecology, a common complaint about scientific “objectivity.” Not only do those collecting specimens engage in killing live creatures, but they then deliberately remove those creatures’ bodies from the cycles of decay and of nourishing other species in which they would otherwise participate. a.rawlings makes these implied, familiar judgments more interesting by implicating the reader in analogous processes. Poetry critics, the text warns us, can enact a similar destruction. Paralleling those who “Pinch thorax between thumb and forefinger. / Slide specimen into envelope; store in box with insecticide”(23) are those who wish to “Collect, sort and frame text … Pinch meaning between morpheme and phoneme … Slide meaning into envelope; store in box with semanticide”(42). In presenting this common popular critique of literary study and paralleling it with a critique of the science of lepidoptery, a.rawlings puts at least certain forms of intellectual activity at odds with the pleasure in Costello’s “sensation of being.”
On the facing page, which has as its sleep term in the bottom corner “restoration,” a.rawlings offers a set of italicized instructions that return us to the alternative approach taken by the bulk of her poem. Notably, though perhaps not murderous, these instructions have their own violence. They involve forcefully manipulating the text so that it becomes an active medium that does things, or they involve doing things to the text that defamiliarize and reveal it more truly:
Force a pen through the body of the text.
Translate texts simultaneously to twist meaning. Pen words on bed frame.
Pen anagrams on mirror.
Pin words near vowels to avoid tears. Place paper over words to curl while drying.
Watch text uncurl dusk.
Place punctuation under lamp to increase integrity. (43)
(Tears as in ruptures on the left-hand page may become tears as in liquid released in weeping on the right, an example of the kind of fruitful multiplicity or fluidity of meaning this writing generates.) It would be reductive, then, to suggest that the experimental writer’s activities are positioned in simple opposition to the scientist’s. Still, the scientist, at least as specimen collector, is the one presented as invested in knowledge at the expense of life.
One way to understand later pages that list fragmented Latin names for butterflies, or pages that turn lists of lepidopteral pupae or larvae into a kind of rhythmic chant (“tiliae larva nd smerinthus ocellata larva nd hemaris fuciformis larva nd cerura vinula larva nd notodonta dromedaries larva nd ptildontella cucullina larva” ), is to see a.rawlings forcing her pen through the body of lepidoperists’ foundational text: Linnaean classification according to classes, orders, genera, and species. In a similar gesture, she performs transformative twists onthe line “Welcome to the Centre for Sleep and Dream Studies,” gnawing away at its words to reveal other possibilities they contain: “Welcome to th // Enter. Sleep nd ream. elcm” (24).
Page 24 from Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists, © a.rawlings (words), Matt Ceolin (illustrations), published by Coach House Books, 2006. Reprinted with permission from Coach House Books.
Opposing herself to the dissective activity of much science, but not denying destructive aspects of her own practices, a.rawlings uses scientific terms for productive verbal and conceptual metamorphosis; as the text reports at one point: “spit words split worlds.” There’s a feminist dimension to this activity as well: there are clear suggestions in the text that women and their bodies are labeled, collected, violently pinned, and in several senses mounted (“does th vahlvã speak / how does th vulvaw speak” the text asks , evoking Gayatri Spivak’s subaltern). Women are another Other whom the book challenges us to perceive more fully and more fluidly. Yet here again, the text does not escape reliance on a predictable problematic binary, in this case one that identifies the fluid and multiple as feminine and the rigidly rational as masculine; to the extent it does so, it threatens the egalitarian spirit essential to both animacy and the creation of reciprocal alterity. The text’s ecopoetic value and, I think, its emphasis, however, remain in tapping — through the altered states of dream, of sexual arousal, perhaps of drugged consciousness and also through intellectually vibrant play with several languages and bodies of knowledge — those kinds of somatic understanding that would be available, albeit somewhat differently, to both men and women. Wide Slumber invites using that understanding or knowledge to experience the animal other from an inevitably incomplete but still radical within-ness that also gives voice to specifics of difference.
At the beginning of the “LARVA, PUPA — REM” section of Wide Slumber is a striking pair of facing pages that combine visual images with brief text. On the left “so we dream the same” appears above a sharp image of the left wings of a Northern Pearly-eye, the other half of its body dissolving in a watery wash; on the right an image of a specimen trapped in a stoppered killing bottle appears above the line “do we dream the same.” Clearly, when human dreams are of power and domination, they differ chillingly from those of butterflies. On a later page, a similar pattern repeats: “do we have plans for them” appears above an image of a dead moth on its back, and below in bold, “no we have plans for us” (79).
Page 79 from Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists, © a.rawlings (words), Matt Ceolin (illustrations), published by Coach House Books, 2006. Reprinted with permission from Coach House Books.
Replacing “them” with “us” is crucial, and it is the fundamental gesture of the shift from standard English to a grammar of animacy like that offered by Potawatomi — or by much of Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists. In recognizing interspecies community, we have to face that our destruction of the world around us constitutes our own destruction as well.
Imaginative and linguistic play that defamiliarizes human experience and its representation and in the process also expands our thinking to include an interspecies “we” is only that: imaginative and linguistic play. a.rawlings makes no pretense of offering her readers actual cross-species communication. Rather, as I read it, her text gives readers valuable practice in a kind of imaginative identification that resituates the human, opening conceptual channels that may yield less destructive plans for all kinds of species. To apply such perspectives beyond the textual and imaginative realms will require interdisciplinary collaboration; it will depend, that is, on challenging and expanding but not shutting off rational faculties. I have no wish to champion the approaches to scientific understanding a.rawlings critiques. Yet it seems to me unfortunate that Wide Slumber,even as it with remarkable inventiveness encourages interspecies identification, discourages interdisciplinary human communication by at least partially reinforcing easy stereotypes of scientists as destructive to life and uninterested in the intersubjectivity this book so fascinatingly explores.
5. Ibid., 58. David Abramoffers a similar view of what language might do when he proposes that “the power of language remains, first and foremost, a way of singing oneself into contact with others” — and for him those others include all kind of entities in what he terms “the animate earth.” Abram continues, “language’s primary gift is not to re-present the world around us, but to call ourselves into the vital presence of that world — and into deep and attentive presence with one another.” David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (New York: Pantheon, 2011), 11.
6. An example of this last would be the recent uptick of interest in microbes in the human body and of microflora and microfauna in crop-growing soils. Michael Pollan, in calling attention to the multitude of microbial species that crucially help make up each of our bodies, popularizes some of this research. See, for instance, “Some of My Best Friends are Germs,” New York Times Magazine (May 15, 2013).
8. Joan Retallack, “What Is Experimental Poetry and Why Do We Need It?,” Jacket 32 (April 2007). All quotations from Retallack derive from this essay.
10. See Kate Soper, “Humans, Animals, Machines,” New Formations 49 (Spring 2003): 99–109, for some sensible cautions against exaggerating the value of anti-dualist perspectives or valuing the transgression of boundaries for transgression’s sake. Soper claims that it is anthropocentric not to recognize the extent of the failure of reciprocity between the human and other creatures, and urges respect for the abyss between us.
16. Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” The Philosophical Review 83 (1974): 435–450. Costello claims Nagel’s “denial that we can know what it is to be anything but one of ourselves … [is] tragically restrictive, restrictive and restricted” (76). Her focus is on the powers of human sympathy, not on the nature of the animal, beyond its being, like the human, an embodied living soul.
17. Nagel’s essay is a refutation of philosophical reductionism as a viable approach to the relation of the mind to the brain, or the mind-body problem. He argues that conscious experience is a widespread experience among species, and that it has a subjective character that is not captured by any of the existing reductive analyses of the mental. He uses bats, as a species recognizably alien to the human, as an example to demonstrate the divergence between subjective and objective conception. He argues that our human ability to extrapolate the inner life of a bat from our own case is limited so that “we believe that bats feel some versions of pain, fear, hunger, and lust, and that they have other, more familiar types of perception besides sonar. But we believe that these experiences also have in each case a specific subjective character, which it is beyond our ability to conceive” (439). The subjective character of experience is fully comprehensible only from one point of view, not rendered more accessible by a shift to greater objectivity. Acknowledging that at present we have to rely on the imagination to try to think about the subjective character of experience, Nagel proposes that philosophy should attempt “to form new concepts and devise a new method — an objective phenomenology not dependent on empathy or the imagination” with a goal of at least partially describing “the subjective character of experiences in a form comprehensible to beings incapable of having those experiences” (449).
Several coincidences converged … A first connection: the dictionary. On an early November day during my undergrad, I procrastinated writing an essay by thumbing through my dictionary. I was delighted to discover words new to me, mellifluous words that begged to be spoken aloud. I copied down these words: lepidopterist, littoral, macrocarpa, maquette, marram, parasomnia. Around this time, I was in contact with a high school friend of mine. Matt Ceolin was working on his masters in visual art at University of Windsor, and we took the notion to collaborate on a text-and-art project. Matt had a fascination with insects (his final ocad project, entomechology, consisted of 200+ life-size insects handmade from metal and acetate and mounted in barn-board boxes), and I was fascinated, at the time, with sleep and dream studies. The phrase “wide slumber for lepidopterists” occurred during a free-writing session and rattled around in my head for a week. The subjects intersected. What happens when a person obsessed with a subject dreams at night; does the subject matter affect how they think, how they dream, how their bodies process information? I’d been toying with this question for a while, in terms of my own tendency to write poems while dreaming. If a poet writes poems during sleep, how might a lepidopterist work while she sleeps? What effect does intimate examination of insects have on long-term information processing and subconscious behavior? A ’pataphysical question cropped up, too … What happens when you breed the vocabularies and ideas of two disparate subjects together (in my case, lepidoptery and sleep/dream studies)? What does the spawn of incompatible bedfellows resemble? From that perverse breeding, Wide slumber for lepidopterists was born. (“Coach House Books asks a.rawlings a few things about Wide slumber for lepidopterists”; ellipses in original.)
24. Thanks to some of my grad students for this insight. Though I no longer recall exactly who pointed this out, these were the wonderful members of a class on contemporary ecopoetry and ecopoetics I taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in fall 2010; our joint study of this book was my first extensive encounter with this text.
To answer your questions, WSfL was imagined first as a visual object. I spent nearly six years crafting the page-bound version of the book. The performed version came once the book was published, and I spent about nine months with it (and working with a team of arts interdisciplinarists to bring the book from page to stage). We staged a “rough draft” of the performance (an hour in length) at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre in November 2006. Beyond that, I adapted some of the more “sound-poetry” performance strategies to the reading that I’ve since given probably over 300 times in the last five years. This includes the breathy, throat-singing-esque “a hoosh a ha” and the insectile clicks and hisses and buzzes of “xxx y zzz thorax cervix.”
I don’t necessarily always work this way (text first, then performance). One of my current projects has the text partially penned and then performance edging around it (which then can impact the rewriting of the text and also generate new texts from the performance).
As for the recordings on PennSound, they’re comprised solely of my voice, edited using GarageBand to give an approximation of what I’d done in a few performances when working with multiple people. “Prologue” takes the first four pages of WSfL (pps. 7–10) and overlaps them. “Egg 0 Insomnia” features the first segment (pps. 14–17) with just a hint of “deep slumber” (pps. 40–41) and “bruxism” (pps. 68–71). “Apnea” combines the prologue (pps. 7–10) with apnea (p. 24) as its centerpiece and some more ephemeral “singing” sounds which I imagine run throughout this overall quite sound-oriented book. (Email to the author, July 4, 2011.)
My thanks to a.rawlings for allowing me to quote from that correspondence.
27. The book’s thematic investment in staged metamorphosis is marked even via the visual symbols used to identify supplementary sections like the glossary, appendix, and colophon, since these represent the moon at different stages.
28. Email to the author, July 4, 2011. She continues, “I can understand a certain amount of ‘false advertising’ perhaps evident in the back-cover copy at this juncture (and also with the ‘you, you, you’ that peppers the copy when the book has been carefully written solely with ‘us’).” This book is hardly unusual in having the language of the back cover (e.g., “Pattern your breath on the sound of moth wings, magnified and frenzied, as you fight for sleep …”) more designed to draw in readers than to represent the text with accuracy.
29. My perspective here will not be shared by all readers. The only article published to date on this book, Erin Gray’s insightful “‘The good sentences of sleep’: Parasomnia and ’Pataplay in Rawlings and Legris” (Open Letter 13, no. 9 [Summer 2009]: 153–65) focuses on how the text represents sleep as “a sensuous practice and a source of knowledge rather than a passive state of withdrawal” (154). Our readings coincide in Gray’s claim that “sleep is placed at the centre of this interspecies and interdiscursive confrontation in order to interrupt the commonly-held epistemic division between observer and observed” (156), but Gray reads quite differently than I do in terms of a human-focused narrative that “illustrates the violence of sleep disturbances”: “Wide Slumber could be characterized as the transcripted result of a Lepidopterist’s visit to the sleep specialist. But rather than replicate the dry rhetoric of clinician-speak, Rawlings filters the language of sleep science through the unconscious remains of a day spent as laboratory head rather than rat.” Gray sees the Lepidopterist’s body becoming “entrapped in the violence of dyssomnia” (157). For me, the volume has less narrative coherence and is less human-centered, while its violence is as much a potential inherent in language as it is a quality of sleep disturbance.
30. Retallack insists (and I value this insistence) on the importance of gaining knowledge about other species, presumably in large part through the tools of science, as essential to pursuit of a two-way otherness. And here she and a.rawlings at least in some ways part company. The book’s warning against rational science, the most accessible part of the text, is also the most conventional. Where a.rawlings’s project seems to me most interesting is not in its warnings to avoid semanticide but in the strategies it uses to create all sorts of potentially meaningful arrangements of words identifying species and body parts and food sources, its creation of a different kind of ecology.
Approaching realness in Frank Stanford
Frank Stanford is an anachronism in late twentieth-century poetry. Like many of his southern contemporaries, much of his work is driven by a narrative impulse — his poems nearly always have stable, embodied speakers; they tend to use fairly normative syntax; they generally feel grounded in a particular geographic location; and they’re concerned with identity, memory, and depicting external action. However, Stanford also seems to have internalized many of the ideas of his postmodern contemporaries: most significantly, his work is characterized by an attention to the artifice of language, exhibiting an understanding that linearity seeks to project a false order on human experience.
Previous reviews and articles have been quick to typify Stanford’s work as surreal — for example, Lorenzo Thomas refers to Stanford as a “swamprat Rimbaud […] [a] redneck surrealist.” This distinction is unsurprising, given that his poems utilize disjunctive, associative leaps, and they do seem to concern themselves with repressed violence and sexual desire. However, to refer to Stanford as a surrealist — to relegate his work entirely to the world of the imagination — is to overlook its ontological uncertainty, which is ultimately what makes his poems distinctive. Stanford’s work doesn’t seamlessly fit into easy distinctions of realism or surrealism; rather, it blurs the lines between lived experience and the imagination, seeking to complicate the binary between “real” and “unreal.” Stanford adheres to narrative tropes while simultaneously questioning this fundamental tenant of narrative — a sense of dominant realness. This is precisely what makes his work subversive, and it also distinguishes him from many other significant narrative poets in the second half of the twentieth century — such as Philip Levine, for example, who claimed that in his ideal poem, language transparently represents reality: “no words are noticed. You look through them […] just see the people, the place.”
For Stanford, form is never a static container for content. Through his formal choices, his narrative poems project a refracted vision of existence; like Schrödinger’s cat, they permit multiple visions of reality to simultaneously exist. By defying a singular depiction of narrative “realness,” Stanford’s work functions as what Lyn Hejinian refers to as an “open text”: it resists the hierarchy of poet over reader, undoing the text’s status as a monolithic object, and ultimately, encourages reader engagement. By examining Stanford’s work — both in terms of his specific formal choices, as well as the macrostructures which inform his epic poem, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You — I hope to explore the ways in which Stanford simultaneously subverts and adheres to notions of narrative realism.
Metaphor and refracted narrative
When Stanford compares one object to another, the purpose is not to make the original object more emphatic, or cement its status as real; rather, his metaphors tend to follow the Miltonic tradition of the epic simile, in which “the local action or scene is extended cosmically.” That is, they push the reader in a different direction entirely, expanding outward. But unlike Milton, Stanford often does not return to the original tenor, and thus destabilizes our sense of a singular reality. For example, in the opening lines of “The Singing Knives”:
Jimmy ran down the road
With the knife in his mouth
He was naked
And the moon
Was a dead man floating down the river
In this passage, it’s nearly impossible to make the leap from tenor to vehicle that metaphors typically demand. Since the moon is in the sky, the narrator is presumably describing a reflection of the moon in the water. However, a reflection of the moon would be stationary, not floating downriver. Whereas metaphors typically make the vehicle subordinate to the tenor, Stanford doesn’t place importance on one image over the other. The metaphor doesn’t seek to help us more fully visualize the image of the moon, but rather, invites us to imagine a dead man literally floating — thus gesturing towards a different narrative thread, and a different vision of reality altogether. In effect, the “real” (i.e., the moon that the narrator initially observes) is given no more primacy than the imagined object (the dead man in the river). Later on in the poem, Stanford compares the moon to dead fish, further destabilizing our sense of realness. It’s as though the artistic act of comparison — the imaginative work of invention, of dreaming — is more significant than unpacking the meaning of the comparison itself.
When Stanford’s metaphors function most effectively, they echo his tendency to resist a singular narrative route. That is, they gesture towards a fragmented reality wherein separate narratives can occur simultaneously. In one particularly climactic scene in The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, an undertaker forces Francis, the young narrator, to lie down inside a coffin. In this moment, Stanford enacts a tapestry of metaphor and dream sequence where it’s impossible to distinguish the vehicle from the tenor:
the coffin was like a boat in the pocket of the watery harbor of sleep
I saw what was left of the light and their fingers crawl
from under the lid of the boat
the lame negro had bored out two holes for the plaque
and I looked out into the night from my portals
and I heard the harbor master death call lad overboard
dead wings crisp as the biscuits in the pockets of a man on the run
I dreamed I was wading in deep water
I kept reaching down in the mud
until I found something heavy
it was the black tennis shoe of the drowned child
the moonlight was coming through both portals
I had to shut my eyes
Here, Stanford introduces at least three different overlapping narratives: 1) the scene where Francis is placed inside the coffin, 2) the metaphor of the coffin as a boat in a harbor, and 3) the dream where Francis finds a shoe in the water. Interestingly, we don’t merely shift from one scene to the next, but rather, the instances blur into each other. For example, when the narrator tells us, “I looked out into the night from my portals,” we imagine Francis on a metaphoric ship (with “portals” being read as a pun on “portholes”), but we can just as easily imagine him looking through the holes in the coffin. Two narratives are seemingly occurring simultaneously, and neither of them are given ontological primacy. This is further complicated when the third narrative emerges: “I dreamed I was wading in deep water.” The initial scene with Francis lying in the coffin doesn’t last long enough for him to fall asleep, so perhaps “I dreamed” is merely meant to be a rhetorical gesture. But it’s also possible that this line is meant to occur within the boat scene — and if Francis is in fact dreaming while he lies on the metaphoric boat, the scene where he wades in the water is operating at two levels of remove from the initial “reality” of the coffin scene that Stanford presents. When the narrator tells us that “the moonlight was coming through both portals,” we are again invited to imagine both the coffin and the metaphoric ship. The “porthole”/“portal” pun is significant: it embodies Stanford’s tendency to foreground form, revealing the materiality and malleability of language. Like the pun itself, which refracts into multiple meanings, Stanford effectively creates a portal for the reader, establishing narrative as a mode of transit between disparate visions of reality.
The scene in the coffin is, ultimately, a continuous metaphor. Francis symbolically enters a liminal space — he’s in the void of death while maintaining his status as a living body, and the separate narratives of dream and reality are permitted to blur and intermingle. However, Stanford’s willingness to mix metaphors — to force the reader to question what is literal and what is symbolic — sets him apart from the vast majority of American narrative poets in the second half of the twentieth century. For the most part, many post-WWII narrative poets use continuous metaphor in a relatively predictable way: the poem serves to depicts an external scene — one which is narrative, which is quasi-cinematic in its attempt to visually render reality — and at a certain point, the narrative becomes symbolically evocative, gesturing towards some kind of internal development or revelation. In James Dickey’s “Cherrylog Road,” the narrator waits to meet a woman in a junkyard of abandoned cars. Over the course of the poem, the external thread — what actually happens, in a literal sense — runs parallel to the internal, figurative thread. But in several moments of poetic affect, it gestures towards “deeper” symbolic meaning, and the two threads begin to veer towards each other. The junkyard becomes “more” than just a junkyard — it becomes evocative of death and decay, of the eventual ruin of youthful energy and independence. However, the literal action never fully collapses into the figurative meaning; after all, this would threaten the sense of “realness” that the narrative action establishes, revealing the artifice of language. Thus, Dickey — whose early work is often oriented around these notions of narrative realism — establishes a clear hierarchy between the internal and external, the real and unreal. Indeed, Dickey argued that the quality of a poem was in direct accordance to its sense of realness:
A great deal of poetry has nothing whatever to do with reality: that is, anybody’s reality. It is a verbal construct merely. The good or great poetry, though, has something to do with reality […] The poem should come of reality and go back into it. But it should impose itself on fact.
Dickey’s claim rests on a singular conception of reality, and he establishes a clear binary between reality and the “verbal construct.” Thus, it’s the job of language — and narrative — to define what is real. At least by this definition, narrative creates ontological hierarchies, establishing closure. Stanford’s willingness to dismantle these hierarchies is what distinguishes his poetry from more traditional narrative approaches. By questioning the definition of “realness,” Stanford is effectively shaking the foundation that allows most narrative poetry to conceive a sense of order. Rather than seeking closure, his writing is closer to the vein of Hejinian’s “open text.” It is generative, “unfinished,” demanding reader engagement; rather than reaffirming a singular narrative or establishing a hierarchy, Stanford creates a narrative that challenges a dominant sense of realness, sprawling outward.
One of the most recognizable formal features of Stanford’s work is his strong use of anaphoric, end-stopped lines. Though this strategy can be found throughout the body of Stanford’s work, it is most prominent in The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, as well as in his collection The Singing Knives. Typically, these lines are comprised of declarative statements with a simple subject/verb construction (e.g., “I rode the hog / I hugged his neck / I stabbed him seven times”). On a surface level, these anaphoric lines provide a rhythmic pulse and a sense of sonic cohesion, pulling the reader down the page. But more significantly, they serve to “stall” the momentum — the repeated pronoun interrupts the narrative flow as we begin each new line, our focus returning to the subject. From “The Snake Doctors”:
I knelt in the prow with the knife in my mouth
I looked at myself in the water
I heard someone singing on the levee
I was buried in a boat
I woke up
I set it afire with the taper
I watched myself burn
I reached in the ashes and found a red knife
On one hand, the content of these lines is suggestive of action — of drama and violence. But at the same time, the repetition of “I” induces a sense of stasis, establishing the speaker as a stationary subject; the narrative seems to simultaneously move and sit at a standstill. This tension is further enhanced by the lack of narrative linearity between some of the lines. If traditional narrative movement progresses cinematically, then Stanford’s anaphoric constructions evoke a kind of montage: each line briefly depicts a different startling image, and though we can find some continuity between them, the narrative action doesn’t necessarily play out in a seamlessly linear way.
Distinct from Philip Levine’s vision of a narrative poem that transparently depicts reality, Stanford foregrounds his formal gestures. After all, these lines are not cloaked in complicated syntax, but rather, are stripped down to the basic elements of narrative (character and action), and of a sentence itself (subject and verb). The use of anaphora is, ultimately, a rhetorical tool, and Stanford does not attempt to convince us otherwise. The repetition of “I” can either function as an exaltation of the subject, or as an obliteration. In one sense, it serves as a constant reminder of the poet’s individual agency to perceive, to describe. But through the act of repetition, the anaphora also enacts an evisceration of the author’s ego — it strips the “I” of its meaning, reducing it to a rhetorical stand-in, or perhaps establishing an open medium for experience into which the reader can project the self. (In an anaphoric list near the end of The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, Stanford seems to gesture in this direction when the narrator tells us, “I forgot I was I” ). In either case, Stanford’s anaphoric repetition creates an open text by drawing our attention to the materiality of language—we’re reminded of how it functions not only as a signifier, but as a sonic utterance. In effect, Stanford returns us to the act of making. Rather than presenting a “closed” narrative, Stanford depicts the artistic process in flux.
Stanford’s tendency to resist a dominant narrative plays itself out on a larger scale in his epic poem, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. The poem is narrated entirely by a twelve-year-old white boy, Francis Gildart (a kind of alter-ego for Stanford himself), and for the most part, it can be divided into lyric and narrative sections. The narrative elements of this poem — where the external action primarily occurs — mostly take place around the Mississippi Delta, and are often concerned with Francis’ interactions with African American laborers. By virtue of specificity — being rooted in a specific time and place, with a recurring set of characters — these episodes approximate a kind of “realness” relative to the rest of the poem. However, the narrative scenes frequently descend into dream and memory, and it is often difficult to determine what is and is not “real.” More significantly, since the digressions are given as much narrative weight as the seemingly “real” scenes, it is sometimes difficult to decide what’s thematically important.
For example, in one of the earliest episodes of the poem, Francis spends several hundred lines describing his past encounter with Count Hugo Pantagruel, a sideshow performer that Francis met at the circus. The two engage in a pastoral call-and-response singing contest, and the performer shares stories of his revenge against two high school boys who taunted him. The scene is fairly typical of the line that Stanford continually walks between real and unreal: the scene is odd, certainly, but as readers, we don’t yet have a reason to believe that the episode is necessarily imagined or untrue. The narrative then cuts to a scene where Charlie B., the Francis’ family driver, gives Francis a letter from the circus performer. Upon reading the words, Francis enters a mythic, stream-of-consciousness digression:
I thought my eyes would burn holes through the paper Charlie B.
asked me if I let a fart there was that smell I didn’t I closed my eyes I
heard that music I was a dead lion I was a black stallion I disappeared
under the water I was made sure of death the icebergs the wagging tongues (18)
At some point in this lyrical run, Francis remembers that he needs to go to school the next day, and then recalls an instance on a school field trip where he engages in a pseudoerotic encounter with a schoolteacher while swimming in a lake. The two participate in a brief call-and-response passage (not unlike the prior interaction with the circus performer), and the scene suddenly takes a mythic turn — Francis describes her as “a mermaid but with legs / instead of fins,” and it’s revealed that the teacher won’t be returning back to school with Francis and the other students:
she said it’s time to go she wouldn’t be going back on the bus
she kissed me on the lips it was a french one like falling underwater her lips
and all the time the moon was behind her hair when she left
that summer I sent her the drawings of the ships they called me teacher’s pet
we got a letter and a clipping that summer she drowned in Mississippi
Charlie B. threw some cold water on me he fanned me with the letter from the freak (21)
In this moment, Stanford breaks some of the most basic rules of cause and effect in narrative: the memory of the encounter with the schoolteacher has very little narrative consequence, the scene isn’t intrinsically necessary to the development of the poem’s “plot,” and the schoolteacher never returns for the rest of the poem. The entire moment is quickly undercut when we return to “reality” — Charlie B. wakes Francis up, and we’re brought back to the primary narrative that Stanford previously established (Francis’ friendship with the sideshow performer). But despite the fact that the scene with the schoolteacher seemingly comes out of nowhere, it amounts to a reimagining of a familiar epic trope: the moment when an otherworldly external force imparts wisdom to the hero. It feels like a pivotal scene in the early stages of The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, but it doesn’t fit seamlessly into the progression of the narrative.
For more traditional narrative poets, the discursive signal — i.e., the descent into dream or memory — often sets up an expectation that the digression will have some kind of narrative consequence, directly affecting the narrator in the present. The dream sequence is not meant to truly convey an alternate reality; by momentarily deviating from the “real” and then returning to it, the poet is in fact enforcing a singular, dominant depiction of “realness” that exists in stark contrast to the dream. Stanford uses familiar digressive narrative cues — he tells us “I closed my eyes” (18) right before he descends into the dream sequence — but the dream does not reaffirm a singular realist narrative. (In fact, most of the seemingly “real” scenes in The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You are just as unusual as the flights into dream and memory.) Stanford does not present a “completed,” commodified representation of reality, but rather, an open text that denies ontological primacy to any singular narrative thread. We, as the readers, are expected to determine what is and is not important.
The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You defies narrative causal relationships in other ways, as well. For example, a narrative scene will often reach a moment that triggers a digression, leading the narrator into a dream sequence, and the dream sequence will funnel out into a different narrative scene that isn’t necessarily related to the first one. In one passage, early on in the poem, several hundred lines are devoted to describing Francis’ friendship with Mr. Rufus, an elderly farmer. The scene develops some important tensions that remain constant throughout the book (in particular, the greedy, exploitative tendencies of white characters), but the episode ends abruptly with Mr. Rufus’ death. Francis describes burying Mr. Rufus, and respecting his final wish that he fly his flag at half-mast:
I done it right just like he said he wanted the flag flowed at half mast
down by the river so I done that too he would a really liked that when the
fishermens all took off they hats when they come in of a evening he’d a really
got a kick out of that I can tell you I bet you never even heard of Abraham’s knife
there was only one guy worth a shit who worked in the orphanage
he had an oboe and when this boy put hisself outen his misery the guy
had the decency at least to play Kindertotenlieder on the gramophone (44–45)
The death of Mr. Rufus feels like a climactic moment in the narrative, but instead of reaching some kind of resolution, Stanford quickly digresses into a memory that is only tangentially related. Shortly after these lines, Francis tells us, “I beheld death with my own / eyes there passed the night” (45), and then rapidly shifts into a fairly long list in which he describes his dreams. Some of the statements seem purposefully symbolic or hypothetical (e.g., “[my dreams] like a stolen car coasting down the road with its lights off” ), and others statements briefly segue into micronarratives that feel comparatively “real” — for example, “my dreams like red dice you can’t throw down / like somebody’s older sister in Memphis who leaves a crack / in her bedroom door and lets you watch her undress” (46). However, the dream sequence doesn’t mention Mr. Rufus, and refuses any obvious ruminations about the significance of his death. Francis spends several lines personifying his dreams as “dogs” — “with their howling like splices of rope with muddy feet tracking things up / they kill everybody’s chickens they run up side of the big house” (47) — and then the dream sequence eventually funnels out into an 800-line episode wherein a character named BoBo tells a long story about trying to catch a catfish, but is bitten on the leg by a vicious dog. The only obvious sense of continuity between this episode and the dream sequence is the reference to a dog, and by this point, the narrator seems to have entirely forgotten Mr. Rufus. As is often the case in Stanford’s work, associative logic — that is, internal logic, dream logic — takes precedence over the logic of an external narrative.
It’s worth noting that despite the fact that The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You abandons traditional narrative logic, much of the poem is oriented around the act of storytelling itself. Stanford continually alludes to a variety of other epics (particularly Beowulf), and the episode with BoBo is an obvious parody of Moby Dick, evocative of Stanford’s clear desire to simultaneously adopt and reinvent narrative archetypes. If the “traditional” narrative poem presents a singular pathway, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You presents a web that moves outward in all directions. Not only does Stanford encourage reader engagement, forcing us to triangulate his ruptured narrative logic with our own experiences, he gestures towards the interconnected fabric of literary tradition. In the same way that his use of metaphor pushes towards a refracted, multiplex narrative, each allusion provides an opportunity for the reader to spiral down a disparate narrative pathway. Furthermore, the BoBo episode is a metanarrative — initially, BoBo is the one telling the story, sitting in a store while Francis listens. (Again, with storytelling itself as the subject matter.) Interestingly, towards the end of the passage, the episode ceases to be a “nested” narrative, and the initial narrative frame is abandoned; Francis becomes the narrator, and appears as an active character in BoBo’s story. The episode becomes part of the dominant narrative of The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, and we never return to the scene in the store where BoBo originally began telling the story. The significance of this development is clear: in Stanford’s work, narrative can never be confined to a frame, but rather, is a mythic entity that always becomes larger than the singular storyteller.
An open narrative
At its best, Stanford’s work is capable of serving as a conduit between disparate aesthetic camps. While his poetry is clearly influenced by modes of postmodern thinking (e.g., it seeks to enable the reader, it rejects binaries, it challenges the notion that language can transparently depict reality, etc.), it isn’t intransitive in the fashion of many of Stanford’s aesthetically radical contemporaries. Additionally, it still achieves Dickey’s claim that poetry should “have something to do with reality.” Stanford’s poetry does not abandon narrative altogether — it only seeks to disrupt the hierarchies that prioritize one narrative over another. As a result, his work has the ability to reveal narrative poetry’s potential within a contemporary context — a context which has been permanently altered by the rise of mass media and the legacy of postmodernism, which can no longer abide by the notion of a “universal” cultural narrative.
In calculus, one can approach infinity, but never reach it. Stanford approaches realness in a similar way. Unlike “traditional” narrative poets who view realness as a static, accessible concept, Stanford’s poetry pushes in a narrative direction, gesturing towards the real, while simultaneously acknowledging that reality is limitless.
1. Lorenzo Thomas, “Finders, Losers: Frank Stanford’s Song of the South.”
2. Stanford himself refuted the “surrealist” label. In an interview, he describes these allegations of surrealism as “miscarriages of imagination, misconceptions of reality — due to the lack of perception of it.” Matthew Henriksen, “‘Keep an Eye on the Moon, Your Poetry’: Towards a Biography of the Poet Frank Stanford,” Fulcrum 7 (2007): 366.
8. Interestingly, Dickey and Stanford mutually appreciated each other’s work. Stanford claimed that “some of [Dickey’s] poems are among the best written” (See interview with Irving Broughton, reprinted from The Alsop Review). In a blurb, Dickey described Stanford’s work as “rough-cut, vital, primitive in the best sense, the poetry of Frank Stanford forces us to make essential encounters. There are few poets who can do this, but I challenge anyone to read Stanford’s work and remain unchanged.”