The simple fact of foxes

On nonfiction, and C.S. Giscombe

C.S. Giscombe reading at Studio One, July 6, 2008
C.S. Giscombe (photo c/o Andrew Kenower)


Inland suffers its foxes: full-moon fox, far-flung fox—flung him yonder! went the story—or some fox worn like a weasel round the neck. Foxes are a simple fact, widespread and local and observable—Vulpes fulva, the common predator, varying in actual color from red to black to rust to tawny brown, pale only in the headlights.

It’s that this far inland the appearance of a fox is more reference than metaphor. Or the appearance is a demonstration. Sudden appearance, big like an impulse; or the watcher gains a gradual awareness—in the field, taking shape and, finally, familiar. The line of sight’s fairly clear leaving imagination little to supply. It’s a fact to remember, though, seeing the fox and where or, at night, hearing foxes (and where). The fox appearing, coming into view, as if to meet the speaker.

Push comes to shove. Mistah Fox arriving avec luggage, sans luggage. 

I wanted to quote this poem by C.S. Giscombe, from his collection Prairie Style. There are contingent reasons, like the fact that I have somehow found myself shadowing Giscombe over the last several months. We were on a research poetics panel together at the Washington, D.C. AWP, where we discovered a common love for foxes, coyotes, wolves, the midwest, and Amtrak; I ran into him at Point Reyes, at a Michael Ondaatje reading, and drank whiskey with him in Oakland; we discovered we have Maine connections in the same neighborhood; I got a hunch he might like my latest book (full disclosure), and I asked him to blurb it, which he generously and eloquently did; I was in Bloomington, Indiana for a conference, one of Giscombe’s old stomping grounds, and then immediately caught up with him again, in Boulder, where we shared more whiskey; finally, I am now heading for a week of studying wolves in Alberta, near the epicenter of two of Giscombe’s best-known works. More to the point, his poem “Far” locates something important to ecopoetics, what I like to call the “nonfiction impulse.” 

The fox is a “fact,” Giscombe says, its appearance “more reference than metaphor.”  This recalls for me the statement of a poet important to Giscombe, Lorine Niedecker, in a 1958 letter to Louis Zukofsky: “For me, when it comes to birds, animals and plants, I’d like the facts because the facts are wonderful in themselves.” Niedecker’s in some ways is a quintessentially Objectivist statement: why impose the elaborate scrim of human meanings on the fact of the fox? (Even wonder itself may be an imposition.) Giscombe’s “fact” makes me think about the dominance of “nonfiction” in creative writing about the environment—where reference is privileged above almost all other tools in the language kit. (No wonder the “language” poets and environmental writing never got along.) It brings to mind all the maps in Giscome Road. Giscombe’s fox also points me back to his own venture into nonfiction/ autobiography, the prose work Into and Out of Dislocation (reviewed here by Stephen Collis). 

While Giscombe’s work is concerned with the dis/location of “facts” (such as supposed geographies of skin color—“Inland, one needs something more racial, say bigger, than mountains”—not to speak of “disability”) it doesn’t set landscape, body, eros free from fact and location. (The fact that Giscombe is alluding to Langston Hughes’s “Racial Mountain” essay doesn’t set a careful reader free from the absence of mountains on the inland prairies.) Giscombe’s title, Prairie Style, sites the book in a milieu of architecture, class and race relations, but not exclusively. Metaphor is the writer’s trade, as it is commonly construed, and Giscombe calls metaphor the verb for location, for the kind of arrival that a name is: “Names rise from locations, the metaphor comes from water (what water does), is the verb for that kind of arrival, the verb for location” (Giscome Road “The Northernmost Road,” 23). Giscombe’s movement in and out of location (which might be one way to explain the allusive, highly elliptical nature of his work) travels, in pursuit of a contingency of names (Giscombe/ Giscome), bodies, and locations, far upstream of metaphor. 


Generally, value exists in relation to opportunities for exchange—seeing something in terms of something else—but for the sake of argument say that the shape of a region or of some distinct area of a city could stand in for memory and that it—the shape—is a specific value because it’s apparent and public, and that way achieves an almost nameless contour. 

I’m drawn to the persistence of these “nameless contours” in Giscombe’s work, however they get called: the Fraser River; inland prairie; a fox; a certain welling of the sky above Veterans Parkway in Bloomington, Indiana; Ella Fitzgerald, singing “too plebeian.” Giscombe inverts the usual reification and authenticating of value (as location), answering with location: “any value is a location to be reckoned with . . . location’s the reply, the obvious statement about origin” (“Downstate”). In his notes to Prairie Style, Giscombe puts down the addresses of the locations where the book was written (Juliana Spahr does the same for her latest book, Well Then There Now); he also notes, “Portions of this book were written on Amtrak.”

In conversation with Giscombe, while walking around Boulder this summer, when the topic of FedEx Kinko’s came up (a vital address for many Naropa writing program faculty), I was struck that Cecil referred to Kinko’s as the site (at Pearl and 28th) “where you first see the prairie.” There is the persistence of location in a name: “now, mostly, the structures themselves are gone though the location persists—as do the places named Giscome—in various descriptions. The name’s the last thing to disappear” (Giscome Road, “A note on the cover”). And then there is the nameless contour, the shape that stands in for a memory. Individual foxes, as a “simple fact,” a “common predator,” like most “wild animals,” do not get the dignity of a name, just “Mistah Fox”—as many such beings do not even get the distinction of being recognized as a particular species, remaining nameless to the human forces (both individual and collective) that crush them. (I recall Joanne Kyger’s objection to the use of the generic “bird” in poems, exclaiming, “give the thing the dignity of a name!”) 

Of course, the name cuts both ways: “some fox worn like a weasel round the neck” reminds me of Niedecker’s 

The brown muskrat, noiseless, 
swims the white stream, 
stretched out as if already 
a woman’s neck-piece. 

In Red Russia the Russians 
at a mile a minute 
pitch back Nazi wildmen 
wearing women.

As I wrote of this poem, in an essay for Elizabeth Willis’s volume Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place

Fascist racism (and sexism), communist ideology, and colonial exploitation are constellated in this juxtaposition of the “brown muskrat” swimming the “white stream,” with “Red . . . Russians” pitching back “Nazi wildmen,” who are “wearing women” (the way Russian women might wear furs)—in a manner that simultaneously suggests and undercuts a comparison of communist Russians with “red” Indians and of Nazis with the “white stream” of fur trappers and traders. . . . Communist resistance to fascism may itself—the poem seems to say—be predicated on a putting to death of other species (and of other humans, as communist sympathizers would soon learn, to their horror).

“When it comes to birds, animals and plants, I’d like the facts,” Niedecker says, but what of humans? She pulls her punch in the letter to Zukofsky, but I think (as I argue in my essay) that much of her verse negotiates the complex of values arising when humans, animals, and plants all get the level, Darwinian treatment. 

Like Niedecker’s, Giscombe’s locations are disquieting rather than grounding, let in along a balancing act of inclusive attention—to the figurative exchange as well as to what resists this trade, to the “apparent and public . . . almost nameless contour.” (Any of us could go there, wait, see what turns up.) With Giscombe—who revels in the complex metaphoric action of place, which echoes poems and other places—reference, it seems, keeps the poem (or poems) partial, subject to revision, unable to stand in for the world.

It is tempting (as some ecocritics have suggested, and as countless works of “environmental nonfiction” remind us) to make reference the master figure of ecopoetics—noticing appearances, the fact of a fox, where and when, remembering what came into view. Surely, there cannot be much to an ecopoetics without reference, at least as a habit of awareness. (“No walk, no work,” says artist Hamish Fulton.) I think of the insatiable fascination with maps, scientific texts, field experience (over the obsession with narrative and stylistic analysis that characterize so much literary study) common to readers and writers of ecopoetics. But reference, maps, facts, are themselves figures (to state the obvious), especially susceptible to the market for experience, and for “reality,” that so adeptly stands in for, and masks, injurious relations. 

I think that for Giscombe reference is a mode of resistance insomuch as his writing straddles both sides of the figure, unpacks all the baggage of “facts,” at the same time that the writing lets contingencies be (constructing entire books around them): “Location’s a jumble of proximities and coincidence,” he writes, in his essay on the boll weevil (published in the anthology, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille Dungy). So much inheres in what isn’t said (the ellipses), in an allusion whose key Giscombe buries in an “Acknowledgment” that is really a note, in an Ashbery-like abstraction that becomes concrete, once the reader grasps the unstated context, in the connections between books across different styles and genres—all digging away at the same location(s)—in a kind of wily appearance, as if to meet the reader, so much so that Giscombe himself begins to resemble the proverbial (if not factual) fox.

Giscombe sings the complications of a nonfiction impulse—when we go back, revisit the neighborhood, to let our proximities be more than “a little fishtail in the substances” (“Palaver”). One whose ecopoetics do not simply push experience but let it come to shove: “Mistah Fox arriving avec luggage, sans luggage.”