In thinking about how to conceptualize ecopoetics, one scheme I have played with groups the field into eight vectors of attention, or “compass points.” (I was inspired by Robert Smithson’s “boxing the compass” of his Spiral Jetty: “South by West: mud, salt crystals, rocks, water. Southwest by South: mud, salt crystals, rocks, water. Southwest by West: mud, salt crystals, rocks, water. West by South: mud, salt crystals, rocks, water. West: mud, salt crystals, rocks, water,” etc. ) I array these ecopoetics compass points in relation to a kind of spatiotemporal mappemunde that is more conceptual than geographical. The trope of westward movement—a fiction that has guided much of Western history—provisionally organizes the temporal frame, while the trope of economic North and South, another partial fiction used to sort geopolitical realities, organizes the spatial frame.
While sound marks the “true North” of the ecopoetics compass, Northeast and East point to conceptual and procedural writing and to documentary and research poetics, respectively: modes of writing keyed explicitly to the past. Conceptual and procedural writing occupy the Northeast front out of their instructive orientation to European modernism (more explicitly than any orientation to more recent developments in poetics around the globe), while documentary and research-based practices work directly with history, and/or what has been documented, as their primary material.
While I said I would write about nomadic poetry architectures, I got caught up reading some books I need to return to the library. One of them is Dan Beachy-Quick’s This Nest, Swift Passerine, a book-length meditation on love, sparrows, sight, orb spiders, language, self and other, in the transcendentalist tradition Beachy-Quick has made so particularly his own. It is also a thorough demonstration of poetic intertextuality as nesting. (In his previous collection, Mulberry, Beachy-Quick imagines writing poetry as a silkworm’s work, “the weaving back and forth, as the head moves almost unnoticeably left to right and right to left as one reads, of those leaves I had devoured, those pages I read.”) Into his own looping syntax, the poet weaves “Themes” from Charles C. Abbott, Martin Buber, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Meister Eckhart, Ronald Johnson, Edward Taylor, Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, Dorothy Wordsworth, amongst others.
Each blank page a month Arctic this every January The sparrows minus zero In the leafless tree do not
In my last post, I referred to an at-homeness the “eco” implies (after the Green root oikos), and to alienated/naturalized binaries, that the errant poetics of Will Alexander might help us rethink. Indeed, the “household” trope is a timeworn frame for ecopoetics, promoted in my own rationale for the journal of the same name:
“ ‘Eco’ here signals—no more, no less—the house we share with several million other species, our planet Earth. ‘Poetics’ is used as poesis or making, not necessarily to emphasize the critical over the creative act (nor vice versa). Thus: ecopoetics, a house making.”
When I asked poet Robert Hass where he thought “ecopoetics” got started, he cited Gary Snyder’s Earth House Hold and Wendell Berry’s The Long-Legged House (both published in 1969) as the first notable titles in this area. I don’t know who coined the phrase “household Earth,” but I’m sure Stewart Brand, and his Whole Earth Catalog, had something to do with it—and/or Buckminster Fuller, and/or Gary Snyder, and/or that famous photograph of the Earth from space (1968/ ’72), with astronaut Edgar Mitchell’s comment: “It takes more than a moment to fully realize this is Earth . . . home.”
The caption to Subhankar Banerjee’s photograph of migrating snow geese reads: “Nearly 300,000 snow-geese arrive from their nesting ground in the Canadian high Arctic to the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in early autumn. They feed sixteen hours a day on a type of cotton grass to build fat before they start their long migration south to places like New Mexico (my home), California, Texas, and Mexico. During spring and summer months nearly ninety species migrate to the coastal plain from all six continents to nest and rear their young, to molt, to stage, and to feed. In my mind through migrations of these birds, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge gets connected to every land and oceans of the planet. For several decades, the United States Government has been pushing hard to open up this coastal plain to oil and gas development.”
Banerjee’s Arctic images (which have become ubiquitous in media about climate change) are balanced with attention to the life ways, opportunities and challenges of the peoples most closely tied to the Arctic ecosystems (Gwich’in, Inupiat). His own personal politics as an artist who has forsworn the financial speculation of the gallery system, extending his “art” into a range of political engagements, also adds to the meaning of his images. Above all, this image speaks to the fact that every person, and every species, on this planet is connected to the fate of the Arctic ecosystems, in part through the epic migrations of species like the Snow Goose.
The eighth section of Nathaniel Tarn’s sequence Dying Trees is titled “Unravelling / Shock.” Dying Trees was first published as a chapbook in 2003; later, in 2008, it was included entirely in Tarn’s New Directions book, Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers. When the Dying Trees sequence was still unpublished, Tarn gave a reading at the Kelly Writers House (2002) during which he read several sections of the then-new poem, including the one discussed here by Marcella Durand, Burt Kimmelman, Erin Gautsche, and PoemTalk’s producer and host, Al Filreis.
The setting is certainly Tarn’s parched American southwest. Drought is killing the trees; a cancer diagnosis is delivered; nationalism has brought more warring. The convergence of the three forms a “web.” “A hole [has been] torn in the fabric of the world.” News travels bodily; leaders fail to lead; beetles pierce bark; a demonic mouse – “wee” and yet terribly efficacious – compounds the morbidity to the point of body-snatching. It happens as an ecological, medical, and political simultaneity, and the speaker is not in a state to be much concerned about keeping the categories separate. Thus the poem is itself “the whole infernal weave” – a quality more obvious in this eighth section of the poem than in others.
This figure is now official. By powering down yesterday afternoon between 3 and 4 PM, the University of Pennsylvania consumed less energy to the extent, figured as cost, of $110,000. Yes, $110,000 in less energy used in one hour by one large institution. This meant: people across the university switched off or dimmed lights, unplugged computers, turned off air conditioners and fans. (I noticed that many folks went outside for meetings and breaks.) I’m sure the office of the Executive Vice President will announce the savings in kilowatts, which will of course be the most significant data. But, still, $110,000 that would otherwise be unavailable?* I hope Craig Carnoroli, whose office organized this (in conjunction with PECO), decides to spend the money on something very visible and very green. On 364 days of the year I am glad I’m not doing Craig’s job, but today I would feel more certain than ever that large institutions can push hard to cut back. This might seem a small step, but let me give an example of collateral effect. Carton Rogers — the wonderful, kind, smart and thoughtful director of our libraries — asked his staff to turn off all lights for this first-ever trial in powering down. He was told by his building folks that some of the lighting in the stacks was so old that they worried about whether they could be successfully turned back on again afterward. This of course would be a hazard so they made the right decision to leave those lights on. But don’t you think that today Carton is looking into rewiring those lights? These are 1950s-era bulb types, copper-wired no doubt, wires winding their way through a large building whose open stacks are like a rabbit warren. Let’s get back deep into these old buildings and see what green economies can be achieved.
Well anyway, Craig, if you’re reading this: I can think of a poet I’d like to hire. With an okay salary and all the wonderful Penn benefits, it would come to around $100,000 annually. You can keep the $10K for whatever. I promise to hire someone in the field of ecopoetics.
* I suppose we need to balance this against loss of productivity. This is probably why such a stunt is no good during the height of the academic year. But it is perfect for a summer afternoon. Maybe 4-5 would be better. We should consider shifting full-time staff work hours to 8-4 instead of 9-5. That 4-5 time is in Philly one of the hottest hours of the day (I’m betting that 2-3 is the hottest).
I’m very pleased to announce that Marcella Durand will be the CPCW Fellow in Poetics & Poetic Practice here at Penn for next year. In the spring semester she will teach a creative writing course in ecopoetics. Durand’s bio and a brief description of her course are here. Below is a photo of Marcella with John Ashbery taken a few months ago.