Commentaries - April 2013
by Margaret Ronda
What might an ecological education entail in a time of planetary crisis? Can a poem, or a walk, or a site-based action, produce new paths for thinking? How might ecopoetics inhabit a mode of collective and collaborative inquiry, a form of radical pedagogy?
In his opening remarks at the conference, Jonathan Skinner pointed out that a central dimension of ecopoetics is “what happens off the page,” both in terms of “where the work is sited and performed” and in terms of its reception — what happens, that is, not only within but beyond the bounds of a given work. Performance, conversation, collaboration, collective research, active investigation of materials and specific sites: such methods, prominently on display at the conference, foreground ecopoetics as “field work” whose aim is the development of new literacies.
The panel “Ground Scores: Unburying Ecologies through Embodied Practice” explored various on-the-ground examples of collaborative learning as path-making. Its panelists — David Buuck, Jen Hofer, Seung-Jae Lee, Rachel Levitsky, Ira Livingston, Jennifer Scappettone, Kathy Westwater — presented their various work with site-specific research, performance, and collective “detours” in public, urban spaces. For the conference, these panelists collaborated on a keyword chapbook — a primer of phrases, concepts, mini-manifestos — called “A Neural Net: OoRS, PARK, BARGE, and ANTENA." What these groups share is an active engagement with the material histories of vernacular environments — places not often associated with ideas of ecology or environmental aesthetics, except perhaps in negative terms (the urban street, the landfill, the toxic waste dump). Their investigations involve archeological survey of the layered pasts that compose a given site and active engagement with the social ecology of its present. As the definition of “Expedition” from “A Neural Net” reads: “What we will discover is not pre-set. The path will be crooked and multiple.”
Scappettone, Westwater, and Lee presented images from their collaborative, site-specific performance project, PARK, which considers Fresh Kills landfill in its transitional phase from active waste-disposal site to a remediated parkland — a landscape of mounds “capped” in layers of plastic, dirt, and grass. Dancers in white-paper gowns forming circles; wind; bags of plastic, socks, styrofoam, mylar; words read from scrolls; words whipped away by the air; the shiny mylar ‘capping’ the dancers; participants gathering stray scraps of paper. Or, as Scappettone puts it: “strings, post-consumer waste, a phantom city block and chorus, dance, and empty horns of plenty.”
Buuck, founder of BARGE — The Bay Area Research Group in Enviro-aesthetics — led an excursion over the conference weekend, “Buried Treasure Island,” to Treasure Island, a former military base and landfill in the San Francisco Bay which is still occupied by 3,000 residents who live in subsidized housing. The BARGE tour “attempts to unearth the secret histories of this site, and explore how this landscape is transformed not only by how it is used, but also by what is elided from view.” Images of the tour revealed eerie figures in white Tyvek gear digging up dirt, exploring abandoned buildings, and removing soil samples from sites marked as containing hazardous waste. In his presentation about Buried Treasure Island and other site-specific works, Buuck explained various forms of his bodily engagement with the site, from eating its dirt to reclaiming the sides of buildings as public art. In such acts, a different kind of learning takes place — an education by way of “listening to materials.”
The conference itself emerged as a site of interactive learning, particularly with regards to the discursive ecologies of the Bay Area. Skinner urged participants to learn something about the local ecology over the weekend, and there were abundant opportunities to undertake such study. On Robert Hass’s tree walk, participants learned about recent debates at Berkeley over whether to replant the aging eucalyptus trees, a non-native species, or to return native species to the area. At Urban Adamah, a progressive Jewish community farm on an undeveloped lot in Berkeley, conference participants heard not only about the practical dimensions (and difficulties) of farming in an urban setting, but about the cultural and community-oriented work of the farm — growing, for example, collard greens for the nearby Baptist church and sugar cane for their Jamaican neighbors. (Poet Cate Lycurgus provided these reasearch notes.)
All these engagements involved forms of deep listening, attending to the particular knowledges and communicative practices associated with a particular place. At the same time, many presentations at the conference drew their listeners deep into the field of language, examining the complex layers, assumptions, and histories built into words — meanings that happen both on and “off the page.” Brenda Hillman’s presentation, “Radical energy: beyond a poetics of emergency,” traced the evolving meanings of “stem” in an era of ecological and financial crisis: “stem” as a noun, the “stalk of a plant most above ground but occasionally subterranean…” or “long thin supportive main section of something” as in “the root or main part of a noun, adjective, or other word,” but also “stem” as a verb, as in “many of California’s deficit problems stem from Reaganomics.” Hillman mentioned recent uses here: “stem the bleeding” (of the economic crisis), “stem the flow” (of oil during the BP oil spill). “Stem,” then, means both “stop or delay,” “stand and support.” Hillman’s talk advocated for what Raymond Williams, in his seminal “Ideas of Nature” essay, calls a “radically honest accounting” of the history of language and its real effects on ecological and social systems.
Myung Mi Kim’s talk, punctuated with silences and “swerves,” considered the implications of ecological and cultural “deracination.” How, Kim asked, might language account for these effects? How does language—as a vehicle for the production of “competence,” “correctness,” monocultures — participate in the diminishing of various forms of habitat? At the same time, how might the charged language of poetry serve as a means of remediating the commons?
During the question and answer period, Kim suggested that we — audience members and presenters — enact a form of “engendering new discourse.” She invited the audience to raise questions that would hover in the air, unanswered, urgent, fodder for collective contemplation. In the charged space of question and pause, we thought together and in silence; we disagreed; we listened; we looked out. We were in a room, trying to hear the unknown. Following a line of words — where?
The world swirls around me
It's a mystery I'm here at all
The world swirls around me
It's a mystery I'm standing here at all
Got a telegram from eternity
Said it was time for me to call
There's no time like the present
And the present's already gone
No time like the present
And the present it's already gone
Thanks for the company
Thanks for the music
Transcreations from Russian by Jerome Rothenberg & Milos Sovak
[The first installment of the Lermontov translations can be found here. The translations in their final form are dedicated to Milos Sovak, without whom there would have been no chance even to start them. (J.R.)]
To line up his evils & yours
is his pleasure black clouds
smoke drifting by.
How he loves these ill-fated
storms, this white water,
those oak groves that rattle
& roll. Among its sere leaves
a throne planted deep
in the earth unmoving
he sits there serenely
mistrust, holds sweet love
in contempt, will not heed
those who beseech him,
unmoved at sight of their blood
& the sounds of our loftier
natures he rends,
his voice swift & awful.
The muse who should have
provoked him recoils,
sees the horror aglow
in his unearthly eyes.
New Year’s Poem
how many times encircled by
a motley crowd
in front of me
as in a dream
cacophonies of dance
speeches learned by heart
in phatic whispers
mixing with shapes of people
absent a mind or soul
yet so fastidious
much as they touch
my cold hands
with uncaring boldness
beauties of the town
hands spared a tremor
over lengths of time
outwardly absorbed by
gauds & vanitas
I cherish in my soul
an ancient wistfulness
for sacred sounds
of years long gone
& if in any way
it comes to me
that bird-like I dissolve
in flight remembering
the shallow past
myself a child surrounded
by familiar places
high manor house & orchard
bower left in ruins
a green net of grasses
as a cover
for the sleeping pond
& out beyond it
hidden in haze like smoke
a distant village
fog across the fields
I’ll walk here, here I’ll enter
a dark passage
through these bushes
where this evening light peers
& the sere leaves
crackle under foot
my every step demurring
& in my chest
already wistful, strange
a squeezing sound
the more I think of her
desiring & weeping
how I love this creature
of my dreams
eyes full of azure fire
& rosy little smile
like early morn
shows a fresh
demise of color
like a magic kingdom’s
I pine here through long hours
under a storm, a heavy load
of doubts & passions
like a new-risen isle
an innocent in midst of oceans
blooming in that briny wilderness
& having recognized
myself I recognize
my own delusions
hear the crowd of humans
with its noises
scattering my dreams
an uninvited guest
how I would like to blast
their feast day
hold them in contempt
& blind them
with my iron verses
bursting with bitterness
A NOTE ON MILOS SOVAK, IN MEMORIAM
On January 26, 2009 Milos Sovak died after a long illness. Our friendship had lasted over thirty years & gave me the opportunity to work with him on a series of translations, the most important a book of selected poems from the great Czech modernist Vitezslav Nezval & scattered poems from the Russian late Romantic Mikhail Lermontov. Our collaborations took place mainly in the sunlit garden of his home in Encinitas, California, & occasionally in his other home in Provence, close to the town of Mazan & the chateau & theater of the Marquis de Sade. Milos was himself a gifted translator into Czech & the designer, typographer, & publisher of limited edition artists’ books through his own Ettan Press in California. He was a good friend to many poets & artists, & most remarkably an important medical researcher & the inventor of an impressive range of devices in many fields. The felicities in what follows are largely of his doing.
The poet's novel
Martín Adán’s The Cardboard House — this text is exactly what I imagine when I ponder the question, what is a “poet’s novel?” It could be called a novel. It could also be called a suite of prose poems. The language is both precise and conjuring.
“The sun: a rare, hard, golden, lanky coleopteran.” 
Coleoptera, or beetle, from Greek, meaning “sheath” and “wing” sums up nicely an aesthetic approach I am trying to locate within the larger realm of the form. Poet’s novels are somehow sleek, narrowed, compressed, with a density akin to poetry, and also with the possibility of flight often more difficult to locate in prose. Prose fiction can be beholden to plots, turns, developments which must unfold. Not so with poet’s novels which defy categorization and move with the freedom of verse. In The Cardboard House, sun is a character, as is the afternoon, sky, boyhood, sea, cities, etc.
I knew I was well ensconced in this fluid concise text when I read:
“On Matti Street, the fig trees went quickly to sleep so they could get up early. At a window, a very old piano was dying of love, like the Duke of Hohemburd — pink bald spot, white sideburns — in one or another of Kallmann’s operettas.” .
The Cardboard House, the only book of prose by Martin Adán, written when he was only twenty years, old unfolds in pictures, lists, interior portraits, moments which capture the transformation from child to adolescent to adult consciousness. The city of Lima and surrounding countryside are central, enmeshed with notions of how a young person begins to understand identity linked with place, linked with culture linked with politics. There is an exquisite delicacy and delving in the prose — which veers associatively in many directions, yet remains fluid. In this book, description is never simply description.
Time is also a character in Adán’s lyric construction — both time as in continuance and as countenance. What are the reflections of the hour, the era, the future, a lifetime? How do we swim within it and what to make of the necessity to sometimes remove oneself from this mode of existing within what seems a dictated span or spell within a school or beneath a banner of authority? Who does anyone become from under a heavy mantle awakening to awareness of the fragility of light, or the limitations of an existence bound within a singular form? “Your heart is a horn prohibited by traffic regulations” .
[Taken from G. Green, Poems of a Molecatcher’s Daughter, Palores Publications, Editor Les Morton, Cornwall, UK; reprinted in Poems ands Poetics (December 19, 2011) as an addendum to Outsider Poems: A Mini-Anthology in Progress.]
Sal Madge lived down Rosemary’s lonnin’
Sal Madge wuz a Gippo
Sal Madge wuz dirty
Sal Madge Sal Madge
wi’ ‘er pipe an’ her spittin’
Sal Madge wi’ her singin’ ditties
her bratful o’ coal she’d gathered from’t beach
down by t’docks at Whitehevven.
Sal Madge wuz a wanderer
Sal Madge wuz a man
Sal Madge an’ her pipe an’ her spittin’
Sal Ma-a-dge! kids ‘d shout after ‘er
but Sal Madge nivver minded thon kids yellin’
she loved ‘em cuffed ‘em collected bird shells
an’ eggs for ‘em, cos Sal Madge wuz brave
an’ went gatherin’ eggs from’t nests on’t cliffs o’ St Bees.
Sal Madge wuz born in a coracle in Irelan’
Sal Madge played a fiddle
Sal Madge wore odd shoes
Sal Madge lived in a hovel down Rosemary’s lonnin’
Sal Madge was skeert o’ no-one! Not even t’ghost
o’f ol’ Macalinden him who poisoned his wives
cut ‘em up into bits an’ hid ‘em in’t cellar
Sal Madge smoked a pipe wuz a gypsy wore men’s clothes
Sal Madge wuz a man. Sal Madge wuz lonely.
The Day Mam Saw t’Pig in’t Bath
Now I telt ye about me mam wokkin’t fingers t’bone
up at Mossop’s farm? Aye well, when la’al babby was born
she’d walk up there from Moor Row – 3 miles there. 3 miles
back – wi’ one la’al lass in front o’ her – me other sister – me
brudder at schoowel an’ one in’t pram. Well! One day such
a yellin’ an’ a cussin’ came from t’ direction o’t bathroom –
Aye they were well off folk, not like me mam an’ da’
they ‘ad a pump in’t yard an’ a stone sconce in’t back kitching –
well! Mind them Mossop’s never used it tae get weshed in, no!
they used it fer t’ salt pig in! an’ me la’al sister, she wandered in
an’ saw it liggin’ in’t bath,– liggin’ full stretch covered in salt
wi’ a lace caul splayed ovver its fyace like Miss Havisham –
her out o’Dickins.
How Mam would go on’t Coalboats to Douglas, Isle O’ Man
an’ dance in’t Palladium an’ Gaiety
at seaside towns on’t Isle o’ Man
just across the Irish sea
an’ she’d swing her legs
ovvert’side o’t boats an’ settle down
an’t men’d fuss an’ pet her –
she wuz on’y fifteen an’ a fine dancer
– like her ma’ afore her – dancers from Sligo
Gippos horse dealers Romas tinkers an’ me da’
a Black Irish frae Spain his hair black an’ curled
like an Astrakhan coat me mam loved to stroke
in Sarah Belle’s pawn shop on
molecatcher’s wives nivver could afford a astrakhan cwoat –
aye but I mind he once gev ‘er a coat made out o’ moleskins.
Well, she’d go on’t boats to Douglas, swing her legs high oh as high!
an’ kick an’ bend
an’ flip her pretty frilled dresses up up
way above her thighs
an’t men loved to see her
they thought it was a stage name
but it wuz me mam’s own –
an’ she’d come hwome, exhausted, exhausted
wi’ a la’al bit o’ money tucked in ‘er knickers
to gi’e to her ma an’ her da’
Of me Uncle, who wuz a Poet
Granda Fitz’s brudder, Joe, wuz a poet.
He’d mek up poems as he strode out
fine as fine along’t lanes to St Bees
ol’ top hat he’d found in a ‘edge
pushed back on ‘is head
an’ a whistle in his hand
an’ his eyes mad as a blackbird’s caught in’t rain.
‘is hands flutterin’ like birds
‘is hair listenin’ to’t wind
an’ his mouth would oppen an’ close like a babby bird’s
an’ his worms wuz words
‘is catterpillas wuz rhymes an’ starlins!
‘Is poems were ‘is way of lettin’ t’jackdaws in ‘is head out for a while
before they locked ‘im up again in’t workhouse.
wuz a mate o’ me dad’s an’ friend o’ no one.
He wuz a man who once lived in’t big house
up top o’ Sowerby Hill.
A man who’d knawn ‘good times’ mam said,
but me da’ said he was born wrong side o’t track
an’ I wondered which track?
The one by Nana’s house at Corkickle station
where lupins grow so high so high
right up to me oxters?
Or the track that Donkey Dave ga’s on
when he teks his donkey an’ cart along t’lane
to Nethertown, sellin’ eggs an’ spuds an’
owt else he can find liggin’ round in ‘t hedgerows?
Which track was Muttonchop born
wrong side o’?
With his battered top hat
an’ his rusty fob watch case
empty of tick tickin’ hands
an’ gold chain.
The preceding follows the dynamics of regional & dialectical poetry as carried over into contemporary experiment, a work that might be compared with Steve McCaffery’s classic translation of the Communist Manifesto into Yorkshire dialect, shown previously in these pages. Of her own experience with this, Green writes:
“A couple of years ago a poet friend suggested that I write a collection of poems in Cumbrian dialect. It later transpired that it was a deliberate attempt to set me off on an exploration of Richard Hugo’s assertion that music comes first - ie that in making a poem, rather than attempt to hammer music into truth, a poet’s more likely to succeed if he or she coaxes truth out of the music. By challenging me to revisit the unique voices and dialect of my family and culture he felt I’d stand a good chance of accessing and working with the music. He was right.
“He'd opened up the floodgates -- the floodgates of memory, remembering Mum's tales of 'when she was a lass, in Whitehevven' and in turn of her memories and stories she'd been told by her grandparents who'd 'come ovver frae Irelan' on the Night o't' Big Wind, or't Potato Famine.' Tales absorbed by my child's ears as I'd attentively listened. Her voice, her memories became part of my fabric, my identity/identities. Later, as an adult the voices of my parents and grandparents came back to me, their West Cumbrian lilt multi-syllabic to my South Cumbrian, more Lancashire-fed, ears and tongue. In West Cumbria toast became 'to-a-wust', loaf transformed into 'lo-u-waf'. The music did come first.”
Geraldine Green was recently awarded a PhD in Creative Writing Poetry from Lancaster University, UK, comprising a new collection of poems, “The Other Side of the Bridge,” & a Reflective Thesis, “An Exploration of Identity and Environment through Poetry.” Her latest book, “The Other Side of the Bridge,” was published in Spring 2012 by Indigo Dreams, editor Ronnie Goodyear, & she is now waiting on her fifth collection of poems, Salt Road.