Reviews - April 2011

Contagious poetry

A review of 'Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers'

Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers

Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers

by Kim Hyesoon, translated by Don Mee Choi

Action Books 2008, 80 pages, $12, ISBN 978-0-9799755-1-6

The body implies mortality, vulnerability, agency: the skin and the flesh expose us to the gaze of others but also to touch and to violence. The body can be the agency and instrument of all these as well, or the site where “doing” and “being done to” become equivocal. Although we struggle for rights over our own bodies, the very bodies for which we struggle are not quite ever only our own […] [V]iolence is, always, an exploitation of that primary tie, that primary way in which we are, as bodies, outside ourselves, for one another.
             — Judith Butler, Undoing Gender[1]

I want to shove a finger into the silence and make it vomit (Kim, 45)

Kim Hyesoon’s poetry is hungry. In saying this, I don’t offer hunger as a metaphor for passionate engagement, heightened physicality, or uninhibited desire — though these qualities certainly fill her words, breeding with one another till their progeny creep to the margins of each page. No, the hunger I mean is a great deal more literal. Her poems begin inside the gut. They emerge from the point where the body confronts its own most intense dissatisfaction, the gut emptiness that signals the need to devour. Since that point of emptiness propels mouths and teeth into world-consuming action, her poems reside at that place where the body’s innermost recesses paradoxically present themselves as its outermost limits. If I am hungry, I am hungry at the edge of me, at a place where I almost am not, where I seek to eradicate what I am not by making it me. Poetic appetite is the body’s desire to reach beyond itself, to eat, absorb, expand, and assimilate. Kim’s poems, whether lineated or in prose, whether mythic or idiosyncratic (though rarely only one of these for long), reside at precisely those places between what the body is and what it is not, between the corporeal machinery by which meaning is generated and the meanings which thus emerge, tethered to the body by a string of cat guts and vibrating words.

Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers is preoccupied with the dual actions of burrowing and broadening, marrying those deep recesses of hunger with the outward reach of consumption. As titles like “Inside Inside Inside of a Dream” and “A Hole” suggest, Kim’s poems relentlessly pursue the interiors of things, persons, and, especially, bodies. The result is as philosophical as it is personal: “The you inside you pulls you tight into the inside, so your fingernails curl inward and your outer ears swirl into the inside of your body you would probably leave this life the moment the you inside you lets go of the hand that grabs you” (70). At the same time that these poems shove a curious nose into the warm strangeness within the body, they also portray bodies that bleed out around the edges, expanding and invading the space beyond. In poems like “To Patients with Contagious Diseases,” the verbal matter of Kim’s writing tests the coherent bodies of individual words, as rendered in Don Mee Choi’s translation:

Life, leavesthenreturns, departsthenarrives, and, the, sick, body, burns, up, then, takes, on, life, and, runs, out, again! Look, over there, there. Happiness, painted, in oil, is, inside, a frame, and, now, sa. ccha. rine. Of happiness, flows, like. a. ri. ver. Into, my, blood. If someone, asks, Is anyone alive? Break, your, head, open, and, show, your, ten, ta, cle. (51)

The patient’s disease threatens to reach out beyond the body and invade others, moving with the force of a river that cannot be dammed even when the word river is carefully broken up. Meaning manages to leak out even in the face of verbal mutilation and constant interruption, so that the poem operates by a contagion that spreads among words and makes collective sense of them.[2] Poetry is a virus, its semiotic contagion infusing bodies and connecting us to one another and to the language with which we are infected. Viewed in this way, poetry is both an intimately corporeal act and a guerilla-style revolution in the politics of expression.

Most powerful are those moments in Kim’s poetry that reach out from the body and into it simultaneously. Some of these moments are mournful and intimate, as when the speaker of “Face” reflects, “The you inside you is so strong that the I inside me is about to get dragged into your inside” (70). The act of negotiating intimacy around the boundaries of bodies in flux similarly informs “When the Plug Gets Unplugged,” which chronicles the interactions between two people whose bodies rot around them, exposing their insides to each other’s view (32).

Kim, a major figure in the South Korean feminist movement, is quick to connect this digging into private bodies with the individual’s psycho-physical binds to the state. In “Asura, Yi Je-Hah, Spring,” Kim’s multidirectional bodily drive, both inward and outward, appears alongside references to the suicide pact of twenty-four North Koreans whose submarine crept into South Korean waters in 1996. In Kim’s poem, the speaker’s body pushes hard at its own edges just after this geographical border crossing:

At once the tunnel explodes black like a black aquarium. There is no mountain or tunnel. There is no road or sky. My entire body wants to shoot out of my face. I want to lie down. A scream floats up from somewhere inside of my body like the way a frog flattened in an illustration swells up into life. That thing, that slippery green light, that thing with thousands of heads, that thing with ten thousand fingers closes my eyes and ears and licks my face with its tongue. With its other tongue it licks my hair. It licks my chest. Its several hundred hands strangle me as it plants a heavy kiss on my eyelids. I let go of the steering wheel and clutch onto that thing. I bite into it. (34)

Kim HyesoonThe speaker’s comments operate like palimpsests, each piled onto the one previous, nearly contradicting at every turn yet holding together. The speaker is somewhere and nowhere, is active and passive, desiring both bodily projection (“My entire body wants to shoot out of my face”) and corporeal resignation (“I want to lie down”). The surrealism slips almost imperceptibly into comical absurdity, as when a simile frog comes to life, grows heads, and tries to devour the body that gave it birth.

Kim’s poetry is most charged in moments like these, and she acknowledges the marriage of whimsy and critique in her approach to the politics of poetry. “What I wrote about was cooking,” she says, “and my ingredient was death … I tried to turn the heaviness of oppression into something playful and light, so that I ended up with a type of poetry that did not appear to be political.”[3] With her careful balance of playfulness and gravity, Kim harnesses conflicting forces until pressure explodes them, challenging bodily unity and poetic genre, pointing to the violence at work in discourse itself. As a poet who has worked under the threat of governmental censorship, she offers poems in which language itself is a form of violent protest. The speaker of one poem comments, “I want to shove a finger into the silence and make it vomit” (45).

Kim’s poetry has consistently triangulated the act of representation, the politics of her country, and the body itself—particularly the female body. The first of Kim’s poems to appear in the three-author volume Anxiety of Words: Contemporary Poetry by Korean Women offers a portrait of the body exhausted. “Song of Skin” reads:

The open lips find my breasts
though they weren’t told where mine were,
draining sweet water from my body.
They want to suckle again right after they’ve eaten.
First the saliva evaporates inside my mouth,
tears vanish from my eyes,
veins shrivel,
blood fades,
trees and plants collapse,
the Naktong River dries up,
and its floor shrieks as it explodes.
My whole body is pumped out.
Even though you vomit what you’ve just eaten,
your open lips still hang onto my nipples
till my body is emptied
of everything but dry bones and skin,
till the heaven’s castle splits
and the Milky Way shatters,
till I can think of nothing
and my soul withers and dies.[4]

The body in the poem operates as conductor, a siphon, a funneling point. In this parasitic relationship, the “open lips” of the speaker’s counterpart drains not breast milk, but all the moisture that makes up the speaker’s body, and then reaches beyond the body to access both the natural world and the known universe, all through the weary flesh of the mouthed nipple. The body becomes not simply a metaphor for the personal attributes of the speaker that are emotionally drained (leaving her without thoughts or soul), but also the border between her counterpart and the entire world beyond. The body is a physical border between two warring parties, as is hinted at in the reference to the Naktong River, a key geographical barrier to North Korea’s movement against South Korea. As if responding to the thousands of poems which have historically conflated the female body and landscape, “Song of Skin” points to the exploitation of both woman and world that occurs when the body is used as a metaphor, as a means of reaching into the representational beyond.

Kim defines her approach to the body, both as a writer and within her writing, as part of her feminist project:

One of the characteristics of Korean men's poetry is that the poets don't handle their subject matters with their bodies. They handle their subjects with their eyes only. So when they see a landscape, they freely carve out what they want from it. Based on their thoughts and poetic intentions, the men poets carve out what they want from nature despite the fact that nature has its own independent existence from them. After they cut out the part they want, they describe it and then add aphorisms to it […]. But within this powerful male tradition, Korean women poets treat nature in a different way. Women let nature be itself and let her own nature be itself — nature and her nature are left alone as they are. And from that position they speak about the meetings and interactions between them through their bodies.[5]


Kim’s desire to reorient the relationship of the body in poetry is here connected to her response to the masculine poetic conventions of Korea. In a discussion of the experience that eventually led to the composition of “A Very Old Hotel” (which is not collected in Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers), Kim tells Don Mee Choi about the inspiring hotel:

It was so beautiful there that I wanted to write a poem about the place, but what I ended up writing was written from a Korean male perspective with a male language and male poetic sensibility. I captured a scene, a landscape with my eyes and then manipulated it. This kind of language and approach suffocates me, my body. I threw away the poem and wrote another poem in the plane.[6]

Though Kim doesn’t discuss the potential conflation of landscape and body in the quoted passage, the hunt to “capture” and “manipulate” the world through male language has an immediate, “suffocating” effect on her own female body. Throwing away this use of language, the new poem she writes exerts intense Don Mee Choipressure on the metaphoric uses to which the body is put, and the position of the female subject within those metaphors. The speaker’s heart is described as a hotel in which she takes up residence, so that she is physically bound by the metaphor through which her body is described. Within this cardiac architecture, the speaker struggles with her own lack of control: “The room keys of the hotel in my heart are kept at the front, and I have a bundle of invisible keys in my pocket, but I can’t freely open the rooms of the hotel inside my heart.”[7] Her relationship with her counterpart is less clear than the relationship in “Song of Skin,” but it appears similarly one-sided, centered in the exploitation of the speaker’s body-as-metaphor. “When I open all the windows inside my body, beneath the gable roof, you stick your head out from every square as if appearing from graph paper with a roof attached — that kind of hotel.”

Compared to “Song of Skin” and “A Very Old Hotel,” those poems collected in Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers would seem to constitute the body’s revenge. The unidirectional exploitation of the body is here replaced with a body no longer confined to the borderline between persons, but instead a body enveloping the fluid interplay between people, ideas, and corporeality itself. In the poem “Inside Inside Inside of a Dream,” Kim writes:

The moon enters the depth of my eyes
and strokes the fish flowing in every blood vessel
because it wants to touch the bones beneath my flesh
This must be the inside of Mommy’s dream
The wave that rises and falls
The wave that is giving birth to a sea in a sea
The inside of Mommy’s dream that gives birth to me like a rising tide
then embraces me like a receding tide then embraces me again like a rising tide
My body that will be swathed in the red fluid of the womb when the sun rises
When I lay my head down on my fluffy pillow on top of Mommy’s and Mommy’s and Mommy’s ripple (21)

In contrast to the speaker whose body is the point of access for the heavens in “Song of Skin,” this speaker is physically entered by the heavens themselves, and this entrance yields not existential absorption but corporeal contact. A key difference, here, is Kim’s shift toward the maternal body as the governing metaphor for this interaction. This speaker’s body is under considerably less duress when safely “swathed in the red fluid of the womb.” The mother’s body is one that already incorporates two subjects in one, emphasizing both their distinction and their interdependence. The self-within-the-body-within-the-self that appears in “A Very Old Hotel” is transformed here by a cooperative approach to bodily containment, which allows the subject to both hold and be held without constraining its agency. The architectural structures that govern the body structures in “A Very Old Hotel,” rendering its interior inescapable, reappear in the title poem of Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers:

At Mommy’s house, the floors are also mommy, the dust that floats around the rooms is also mommy, when you open the door of Mommy’s house I’m under Mommy’s feathers like an unhatched egg. All the dreams that are dreamt in Mommy’s house come from Mommy’s fountain, the fountain at Mommy’s house is never dry. (19)

The envelopment of the fetus by a pregnant mother’s body is here extended to a maternal body which encompasses everything, enfolds every corner of the metaphor, so that the house no longer stands for the body but is engulfed in the body, housed in Mommy. Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers, as a collection, is similarly swaddled in the body of the constantly present “Mommy.”

Kim’s repurposing of the body, so often through recourse to the maternal in this collection, is not without its own dangers. Violence is not eradicated from this vision of the body; it is, in fact, nearly as omnipresent in this collection as the body itself. Violence colors the speaker’s relationship with both herself and with the act of metaphor in “Boiling”:

I almost dip my hand into the boiling water
for the boiling water looks so cold
Instead I dip my head inside the pot and say something
Are thousands of layers of ear membranes boiling?
Or are they a metaphor for birth and death? (76)

The grotesque image of a body losing its layers to boiling water not only sets Kim’s poetry apart from the “‘pretty’ language” expected of yoryu sinin (female poets, as discussed in an interview with Don Mee Choi), but offers itself as a potential means of understanding the act of representation itself, of decoding “birth” and “death” through this visceral “metaphor.” Another image of bodily mutilation similarly brings birth and death into conversation in “This Night”:

A rat devours a piglet that has fallen into a pot of porridge
(now, chunks of freshly grilled flesh inside a vagina,
babies that shiver from their first contact with air,
fattened chunks of flesh,
tasty, warm chunks that bleed when ripped into)
A rat devours the new baby in the cradle
Mommy has gone to the restaurant to wash dishes
A rat slips in and out of a freshly buried corpse (24)

In the absence of the mother, the violence of the rat highlights the vulnerability of the body in the act of birth, showing babies that are devoured before they have fully exited the vagina and entered the world. In fact, these babies have not even fully entered discourse; Kim separates them from the sentence by cradling them in parentheses — grammatical labia that echo the physical ones. The violence Kim describes is as frank as it is morbid, and this poem neither offers a clear protest against it nor a perverse celebration of it. In so many of her poems, the body itself seems to breed these moments of bloody evisceration. Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers both asserts the body’s inescapability, giving voice to the corporeality that is left out of Korean men’s poetry, while at the same time emphasizing the violence to which the body remains vulnerable even when sheathed in language, because language itself opens up new paths to violence. These two qualities of Kim’s poetic bodies do not necessarily work at cross-purposes, but rather suggest that violence is, as Judith Butler puts it, “an exploitation of that primary tie, that primary way in which we are, as bodies, outside ourselves, for one another.”[8]

 


1. Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), 21–22.

2. This poem is also collected in Anxiety of Words: Contemporary Poetry by Korean Women, by Kim, Ch’oe Sung-ja, and Yi Yon-ju, trans. Don Mee Choi (Brookline: Zephyr Press, 2006). This edition indicates using facing-page translation that the punctuation is Kim’s own, not a feature of Choi’s translation.

3. Don Mee Choi, “Korean Women — Poetry, Identity, Place: A Conversation with Kim Hye-sun,” positions: east asia cultures critique 11.3 (2003): 539.

4. Kim, Ch’oe Sung-ja, and Yi Yon-ju, 69.

5. Choi, 535.

6. Ibid., 533.

7. Kim, Ch’oe Sung-ja, and Yi Yon-ju, 105.

8. Butler, 22.

Exiting the sacred wood

A review of 'On Mount Vision: Forms of the Sacred in Contemporary American Poetry'

On Mount Vision: Forms of the Sacred in Contemporary American Poetry

On Mount Vision: Forms of the Sacred in Contemporary American Poetry

Norman Finkelstein

University of Iowa Press 2010, 294 pages, $39.95, ISBN 1-58729-857-0

One of the abiding legacies of modernist poetry is the figure of the poet as rebellious intellectual, eager to dissolve pieties that typify the status quo. Another legacy, carried over from Romanticism, is that of the poet as force of counterenlightenment, vesting poetry with the task of binding and reenchanting communal life in the face of scientific materialism and economic liberalism. The manifestation of these tendencies spanned left to right on the political spectrum. Williams’s Spring and All might want to rescue the rose from the accreted associations of science and “poetry,” but it also describes the modernist revolution of the imagination in the language of eschatology, and cinemas as descendants of cathedrals. Pound’s The Cantos is simultaneously a schoolbook for princes at the nonaccredited Ezuversity and a discerning reader’s initiation into the Eleusinian mysteries. The coexistence of intellectual iconoclasm and enchantment differs from the dialectic of doubt and faith in devotional verse because the modernist poet asserts a measure of control over divine forces.

Importing this problematic to contemporary poetry, Norman Finkelstein’s On Mount Vision: Forms of the Sacred in Contemporary American Poetry advances the argument that American experimental poets continue to dwell on the sacred, even in a secular age. Finkelstein’s preference for the categorical term “experimental” over “avant-garde” and “postmodern” preserves this coexistence, figuring formally radical poetry as rogue lab work. In other words, not only is religious experience still relevant, but it is also the concern of poetic communities that privilege innovation. The book’s author-centered chapters demonstrate that conviction about the necessary cultural role of sacral thought has fed off old traditions of dissident religious movements. Finkelstein draws on Steven M. Wasserstrom’s idea of religion after religion, the theosophy-like integration of beliefs from numerous religions in the name of a higher unity, in order to suggest a canon of American poets concerned with forms of the sacred: Robert Duncan, Ronald Johnson, Jack Spicer, Susan Howe, Michael Palmer, Nathaniel Mackey, and Armand Schwerner. As Finkelstein puts it, representations of the sacred in writings by these poets are “heterodox, syncretic, and revisionary” (7), frequently steeped in the language and imagery of Gnosticism. Wasserstrom describes the upshot of this higher unity as “a religion resistant to rupture” (quoted on 6).

Finkelstein’s introduction begins in the nineteenth century at the moment when leading writers began to challenge the cultural hegemony of Christianity in favor of radically different modes of religious thought. The founder of this tradition in American literature is Emerson, the lapsed Unitarian, who in 1844 declared poets “liberating gods.” Their newly asserted power entailed, according to Finkelstein, “an emphasis on the spirituality of things as revealed by the poet, and on the eternal embodied in the immediate and in the person of the American individual, as opposed to the ‘play,’ or drama of the Christian alpha and omega, Genesis and Apocalypse” (9). Commonly enough, Finkelstein identifies Whitman and Dickinson as poets who aspire to assume the power promised by Emerson. Through a reading of several poems by both, he also provides a new account of how their dynamic and transgressive relations to the sacred involve preoccupations — materiality, ordinariness, and the self’s lack of integrity — that would become ubiquitous in twentieth-century poetry, especially among the postwar avant-garde. Modernists placed in the same orbit are Stevens, Crane, and, most influentially, H.D., whose pride of place is a marker of the book’s timeliness. This line of influence is distinguished from the one connecting Arnold and Eliot, which locates religious authority outside the self and holds art up to standards set by religion.

In addition to Wasserstrom, Finkelstein’s commitments in defining terms like “sacred” and “religion” rest with Harold Bloom and Eric Santner. Throughout his career, Bloom has forcefully argued for the dependence of religion on the resources of poetry, and hence for poetry’s conceptual precedence. According to Finkelstein, this makes poetry the choice cultural medium through which to effect widespread change in perceptions of the sacred. Likewise, Santner proposes what he calls a “psychotheology” derived from Freud and Rosenzweig that purports to model how this change occurs: namely, by discovering “remnants,” or thoughts, feelings, and myths that open a vista onto that which the prevailing social and cosmic order cannot accommodate. In Trilogy, Finkelstein reminds us, H.D. characterizes poets as the “living remnant // of the inner band / of the sanctuaries initiate” (qtd. on 25), where “living remnant” is both a loaded, layered Gnostic phrase and a generative paradox. The three tropes that generate psychotheological poetry, which are interwoven throughout the book’s chapters, are the poet as medium of divinity (prophet, Spicer’s radio, spiritualist, shaman, translator), as Orphic artificer of kosmos, and as imperfect subject of gnosis.

With the exception of Spicer’s poems, the key texts date from the 1970s or later, up to Nathaniel Mackey’s Splay Anthem (2006), as a result of which the book’s purchase is remarkably current. Chapter 1 argues that the radical stylistic shift in late Duncan — specifically, the two volumes of Ground Work — represents his attempt to write serial poems that approach the form of scripture, enacting the poet’s self-sacrifice as a means to salvation. Here and in the following chapters, care is taken to distinguish between poetry that interprets or reflects religious experience — and hence can meet the approval of critics like Arnold or Eliot — and poetry like Duncan’s that purports to enact religious experience formally (15). To this end, chapter 1 also gives an interesting account of Duncan’s debt to Stein’s compositional techniques, linking scripture to écriture. Chapter 2 details Ronald Johnson’s relationship to Duncan and explores the architecture of Johnson’s ARK as an Orphic melding of cosmic and natural history with Objectivist influences. Interweaving backward glances to Dickinson and forward glances to Howe, chapter 3 explores Spicer’s concept of dictation through the theologies of Gnosticism and Calvinism, arguing that his overriding poetic concern is the painful otherness of divinity and grace. Chapter 4 frames a range of Howe’s writing, from My Emily Dickinson through The Nonconformist’s Memorial, with reference to the forum of a particular type of medium, the spiritualist séance. What he adds to the growing critical literature on Howe is a valuable discussion of the play between attraction and repulsion to sacred violence, compounded by anxieties about complicity in the histories her books revive.

Leaving Howe’s Protestant conception of antinomianism for one that signifies rigorous skepticism about any belief system, chapter 5 argues that opposition to linguistic and metaphysical orthodoxy is Michael Palmer’s form of heresy, in which intimations of divine presence are whittled down to their own absence. Particularly under attack is the figure of the lyric poet as prophet. According to Finkelstein, Palmer’s Sun is the culmination of the trajectory of this attack, stretching from Baudelaire’s heroic rejection of aura and the modernist poet’s heroic self-sacrifice into the poem to Palmer’s foregoing of heroism entirely for the vagaries of the Derridean trace. The sacred becomes indistinguishable from the continual rendering of disillusionment in poetic form. Chapter 6 considers Nathaniel Mackey as a shaman, or, in the terms of ethnopoetics, a “technician of the sacred,” bent on mass healing and the establishment of a collective mythology that blends the belief systems of the African Diaspora with the cosmogonic spiritual exile fundamental to Gnosticism. The interplay between Mackey’s two ongoing serial poems, “mu” and Song of the Andoumboulou, signifies physical and spiritual travel between utopian spaces and the legacy of historical catastrophe. Chapter 7 concentrates on a poet whose attraction to ethnopoetics is conditioned by a more ironic stance toward archaic records of sacred discourse, Armand Schwerner. Finkelstein argues that Schwerner’s The Tablets, a critique and parody of modernist archaeologism, is an elegy for what Derrida calls “the civilization of the book” that probes the complexity of “translating” revelation into intelligibility. Schwerner’s poetics applies Stevens’ approach to the “real” to the historical and mythical materials of Eliot and Pound, circumventing their nostalgia for the completeness of older belief systems.

Perhaps because of Finkelstein’s dependence on the paradox of religion after religion, contemporary poets’ relations to institutional forms of the sacred are not explored in On Mount Vision. There is an important theological difference between syncretic religious discourse on one hand and ecumenical or interfaith discourse on the other, but Finkelstein’s description of Eliot as the head of a tradition counter to Emerson’s might be taken to suggest that these alternatives amount to crypto-orthodoxy (17–18). It would be interesting to know whether Finkelstein thinks that a poet like Fanny Howe, who identifies as a Catholic, is similarly eligible to intervene in the discourse of the sacred, or what a consideration of poets with more popular religious affiliations would add to his project. This might be accomplished for the poets he does treat through more attention to the circulation and sociality of esoteric religious poetry, such as Mackey’s bid to “recruit” initiates through extensive explicatory interviews, and to the social setting of religious tropes and terms that are treated on a strictly discursive level. For instance, it is not clear whether observing that Palmer’s approach to writing “resemble[s] that of a mystic” uncomplicatedly relates to the chapter’s overriding argument that he is a heretic (142). And if he espouses a “heretical secularism” (183), then what is the opposing dogma, and who enforces it? To borrow a schematic from Bruce Lincoln, what practices, communities, and institutions realize these terms at different historical moments? How do these poets think it happens that “a sect of one” can “renew or redeem human potential” (18, 26)?

The book also left me with questions about national poetries and periodization. When Finkelstein introduces Emerson as the writer who “establishes the American difference in literature” (7), I wanted to ask to what if any degree the book’s selection of forms of the sacred subscribes to a version of American exceptionalism. What would it mean to say that experimental poets in search of sacred truths are shaped by decisively national forces? Is it possible that these forms’ idiosyncratic configurations of belief match a theological (or theologized) individualism that prevails among Americans generally? Harold Bloom’s The American Religion, which Finkelstein mentions briefly in another regard, speculates that American-born Christian denominations are theologically akin to Gnosticism, whereas Charles Taylor argues that the mixture of sacred and profane is endemic to life throughout the West in a secular age. Taylor offers the example of Christian scriptural literalists who use putatively scientific methods to discern the calendar date of the Creation four thousand years ago. In other words, are these forms of the sacred uniquely American, and if so, why? Does that mean that H.D.’s Gnostic modernism is importantly American, despite her expatriation?

These questions are meant to suggest a few directions for further inquiry, and to bring the book’s successes into sharp relief. Finkelstein pushes back against the idea that religion is dead, intellectually retrograde, or, according to numerous species of ideological critique, empty. He establishes beyond doubt the importance of religious expression to considerations of what is vital in contemporary American poetry. And, as he points out in his chapter on Nathaniel Mackey, with the resurgence of religious justifications for domestic and international political conflict, the need to gain a better understanding of how different forms of the sacred function in culture is only growing. The alertness and detail of his readings, their mapping out of the finer points of elaborate personal mythologies, and the convincing construction of a larger literary tradition into which contemporary poets fall significantly improve our ability to frame our engagement with a wide range of poems. Regardless of conceptual priority, the history of religion is crucial to understanding the development of modern poetry, and, as On Mount Vision affirms, present forms of the sacred are as numerous as ever.

Works Cited

 Bloom, Harold. The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.

Finkelstein, Norman. On Mount Vision: Forms of the Sacred in Contemporary American Poetry. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010.

Lincoln, Bruce. Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After September 11. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

 Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge: Belknap, 2007.

There is a war. There is a Neighbor.

A review of 'Neighbor'

Neighbor

Neighbor

by Rachel Levitsky

Ugly Duckling Presse 2009, 96 pages, $15, ISBN 1-933254-49-4

In Rachel Levitsky’s Neighbor, there is a baby born and being born, there is an apartment, there is a fire escape, there is a creaking floor, there are levels, there is a nation. There is a war. There are lovers, and there is the neighbor, who is sometimes a lover, sometimes noisy, sometimes screaming, and always intimate.

The quotidian immediacy of the neighbor occurs within a larger community that also consists of the government. As Claudia Rankine has said in an interview on Poets.org, “I believe that where we are, how we are allowed to live, is determined by the politics of the land — the big politics and the little politics.” Levitsky captures the small chaos of the politics that take place within hallways and walls. But there are also politics so large as to be fearsome and almost unknowable, the kind of politics that get us into wars and make us pay taxes, be obedient, and subversive. The sometimes-telephoned police are like obelisks, interlocutors between the national and the local, channeling civic energy to the populace. But then the actual encounter between us/them, me/you, law/freedom comes down to the neighbor — the ungovernable neighbor.

We can become those who report on our neighbor.
Their noise, their fucking noise. (44)

Relations with the neighbor take myriad forms — litigious, indifferent, fearful, sexual, violent, educational, mysterious. Relations with the neighbor are continually negotiated around complexities of gender, income, class, ethnicity, religion: all the multiples of community that outline the individual, the resident who speaks and writes, or tries to, anyway, through the conversational static generated by many. 

Today Neighbor has forgotten my name
while we were fucking.

I think we were.
He called me something.

Teacher.
Sweetie. No…. Teacher.

Make up your mind.

And then snored some more.
I couldn’t bear it.

I cried out the window…. Please! (34)

The original architecture of this book, which Levitsky acknowledges in her notes was mostly gotten rid of (or “leveled”), is still reflected in these poems’ vertiginous distances between private and public within physically proximate communities. Neighbor includes details of close living, but simultaneously, we, as in “in the United States / which calls itself America. // United Statesians known as / Americans, and Canadians, // Canadians, Mexicans / Mexicans” (20) are neighbors on a larger — national, global — scale. We can love our neighbors, or we can report them to the government, and then they can be drafted, and they, or “we,” can go to war.

Levitsky interrogates just about every nut and bolt that goes into community, civic and otherwise, and incorporates political theory gently into Neighbor, particularly Giorgio Agamben (and her sly and irresistible sense of humor certainly makes us aware of the double entendre behind The Coming Community). “God or the good or the place does not take place, but is the taking-place of the entities, their innermost exteriority,” Agamben writes. The neighbor insists on the private made public, public made private, and in that movement, inflicted upon both self and other, is the taking-place, taking of place. In a sort of neighborly chain of communication, Agamben quotes Ernst Bloch quoting a story told by Walter Benjamin that he heard from Gershom Sholem, quoting the messianic rabbis: “A rabbi, a real cabalist, once said that in order to establish the reign of peace it is not necessary to destroy everything nor to begin a completely new world. It is sufficient to displace this cup or this bush or this stone just a little, and thus everything. But this small displacement is so difficult to achieve and its measure is so difficult to find that with regard the world, humans are incapable of it and it is necessary that the messiah come.”

Rachel Levitsky
Rachel Levitsky photographed by Benjamin Burrill

Somewhere in the public/private exchanges of Neighbor/neighbor is/are this small shift(s) (can change be plural?) of what doesn’t/does happen. Again, Agamben: “humans are guilty for what they lack, for an act they have not committed.” In addressing how the word is made flesh, so to speak — a perennially difficult, or impossible, task in poetry — Levitsky collapses the distance between analysis and actuality. But for Levitsky, that task is also just about irresistible, so much so that it seems inevitable without being predictable.

I hang back to get behind her
noise, to watch her, from behind.

Better view
quieter. (53)

Thus the “noise” of community, of multiplicity, is quelled at the moment of perception, a moment with an undertone of desire — until the cops show up again, and objective law is re-established, temporarily.

Structure(s), whether legal, familial or physical, is both important to and rebelled against in Neighbor — what does it mean to write a work mimetic of physical structure, and then to move away from that precision of the material? Again, scaffolding —architecture – begins the book, and that architecture is then inhabited by people, by language. Its shape begins to change, to adjust, to break down, to bulge, which reveals the unpredictable entropy of use. Levitsky even points our attention to the process: the poem moves between transparency and reflection without allowing the objective correlative, architecture, to keep its integrity.

At the time I type this
I’ve been at it for one year

the last six months
completely in my head

where there are many levels.
The problem is whether they

are connected or if
they are levels

at all. “A level” may connote a
piece in a unified structure,

or unity of disconnected parts
firmly housed. By what?

The State or me
or if I am the State.

I am a collection
of desire

precariously
housed. (13)

If anyone or anything in Neighbor is going to learn something, it’s the “I,” who often shades into the poem — the poem becomes an I watching its own writing, even as the writing, like the building, takes shape around the humans within and about it.

'What kind of poem would you make out of that?'

A review of 'Coal Mountain Elementary'

Coal Mountain Elementary

Coal Mountain Elementary

by Mark Nowak

Coffee House Press 2009, 170 pages, $20, ISBN 978-1-56689-228-5

“What do you think are some of the costs associated with mining coal?” This quote from the American Coal Foundation appears in Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary, which I happened to read in the days following the Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010. Reading the book during the worst environmental disaster in US history, I couldn’t help but also ask: What are some of the costs associated with offshore oil drilling? For that matter, what are the costs associated with any industry? And by “costs,” I’m not just talking about what we hand the cashier for a tank of gas.

If you ask the person in the street what they know about the costs of energy—economic, environmental, human—chances are they can tell you very little. Whatever interest there is in discovering the actual costs of energy production seems to surge after news of some crisis— a mine collapses, an oil rig explodes—only to ebb after rituals of public apologies, committee hearings, promises to review industry regulations, and so on.

And then it’s back to business as usual.

One way to increase and sustain consumer consciousness is to provide media that explore the costs associated with business as usual, and to this end we’ve seen a trend in recent years toward critical investigative reporting on industries such as coal and oil in nonfiction books, documentary films, newspaper and magazine exposés, and blogs.

And what about poetry?

In his essay “Investigative Poetry” (1976), Ed Sanders emphatically states that poets should “NEVER HESITATE TO OPEN UP A CASE FILE EVEN ON THE BLOODIEST OF BEASTS OR PLOTS.”[1] Coal Mountain Elementary makes an excellent case-file contribution to the tradition of investigative poetry, taking as its point of departure the coal mine explosion on January 2, 2006, in Sago, West Virginia, which killed twelve miners. Readers may recall not only the deaths of these miners, but also the miscommunication to family and media that these miners had been rescued. But the Sago mining disaster is only one of the stories in Nowak’s book. Unlike more traditional investigations that focus on a particular case or event, Coal Mountain Elementary is a collage of first-person testimony from the Sago Mine Accident Report and Transcripts (SMART), news reports of mining disasters in China, “lesson plan” materials from the American Coal Foundation (ACF), photos of Chinese mine workers from Ian Teh, and the author’s own photographs of American mining towns. I would add to this list Nowak’s blog at coalmountain.wordpress.com, an ongoing chronicle of mining disasters that reminds the reader that the story of coal mining’s devastating impact on human lives and communities isn’t finished. Among other things, the book’s multimedia approach encourages the reader to critically reflect on the coal mining industry beyond national, cultural, and historical boundaries.

Before even opening the book, the chthonic, coal-colored cover tells us that we are going down into a dark place to learn something elementary, elemental, and primary. A miner stands in this darkness, an arc of light gilding the tunnel wall behind him, and stares directly at the reader. The book’s title, in jagged script as if pick-axed out of rock and laid out on what appears to be lined school paper, announces a curriculum of coal. The educational motif extends to the book itself, which is divided into four sections: three “lessons” and a coda. Each of the first three sections is organized around text from one of three ACF “lesson plans”: “Coal Flowers: A Historic Craft,” “Cookie Mining,” and “Coal Camps and Mining Towns.” As noted in the “Works Cited,” these lessons were created “to develop, produce and disseminate, via the web, coal-related educational materials and programs designed for teachers and students” (179). A visit to the ACF website reveals that the foundation is supported in part by “coal producers and manufacturers of mining equipment and supplies” and that the lesson plans were created for K–12 students. Aside from the corporate sponsorship of education, there is nothing particularly suspect about these lesson plans for children. Within the classroom of Coal Mountain Elementary, however, the curriculum takes on an ironic and somewhat surreal tone. In “Second Lesson: Cookie Mining,” for example, “Students participate in a simulation of the mining process using chocolate chip cookies and toothpicks. The simulation helps to illustrate the costs associated with the mining of coal” (65). From the “PROCEDURE” section of the lesson:

1. Review the costs
associated with coal mining:
land acquisition, labor,
equipment, and reclamation.
Coal companies
are required by federal law
to return the land they mine
to its original, or an improved, condition.
This process, known as reclamation,
is a significant expense for the industry. (94)

On the opposite page, we read the following news report:

An explosion tore through a coal mine in northern China on Wednesday, leaving at least 62 workers dead and another 13 missing, the government said, the third disaster in recent weeks involving scores of miners. The latest accident highlights the Chinese government’s continuing battle with mine safety despite repeated crackdowns and pledges by the leadership to improve conditions. Wednesday’s explosion occurred at the run Liuguantun Colliery in Tangshan, a city in Hebei province, when 186 miners were underground, said an official with the Tangshan Coal Mine and Safety Bureau who would only give his surname Zhang. Zhang said 82 minders escaped on their own and 32 were rescued, but three of those later died. The bodies of 59 other miners had been recovered by early today and rescuers were searching for 13 people still trapped in the mine. (95)

As the news report makes clear, there are more “costs / associated with coal mining” than the lesson plan reveals. Coal is not chocolate; there is no reclamation for the dead. But more is going on here than factoring the total costs of mining coal. In addition to its critique of the coal mining industry, Coal Mountain Elementary may also be read as a critique of pedagogy, including US standards of education and corporate involvement with curricular development. I also see an implicit critique of metaphor as an educational and literary tool. In the first lesson, students transform coal into “flowers,” and in the second lesson, cookies substitute for mountains, chocolate for coal, and toothpicks for mining tools. Of course, metaphors have the potential to expand consciousness and make deeper ethical connections between ostensibly disconnected subjects, objects, experiences, and ideas. Within the context of news reports and testimonies of mining disasters, however, the metaphorical comparisons and substitutions of these lesson plans tend to conceal more than they reveal, ornamenting and sweetening the prosaic and bitter story of coal. Coal Mountain Elementary relies not on metaphorical comparisons but on metonymy’s spatial contiguities among juxtaposed texts. It is a readerly text: the reader must make connections between decontextualized documents, instead of relying on the writer to make them. For instance, the above news report of a coal mine disaster neither transforms nor substitutes for the previous lesson plan. Instead, the report provides a new context or container for reading the lesson plan, which forces the reader to revisit the question: what are the costs associated with coal mining?

Reading news reports and testimonies of government subterfuge, out-of-touch mine owners, and bureaucratic bungling, it is tempting to simply deride the naïveté of these lesson plans in order to process feelings of sadness and rage over the destroyed lives that we encounter in the book. But to scapegoat the ACF curriculum does nothing to engage the deeper social, political, historical, environmental, and economic realities of the coal mining industry. Any possibilities for irony’s distancing and derision begin to recede in “Coal Camps and Mining Towns,” which draws on a lesson plan that is less metaphorical and more attentive to material realities: “Students look at the history of the coal mining industry by researching coal mining towns” and “write short stories that highlight the people who lived in coal communities” (135). What also makes this section more effective is how the lesson plan aligns more closely with what Nowak is doing with the materials at his disposal: investigating language, history, origin myths, communities, and individual lives.[2] Here is a section from the “Coal Camps and Mining Towns” lesson plan:

NATIONAL STANDARDS:
National Council for
the Social Studies

Standards: Culture;
Time, Continuity,
and Change;

People,
Places, and
Environment.

National Council
of Teachers
of English

Standards:
Students
employ

a wide range of strategies
as they use different
writing elements

to communicate
with diverse audiences
for a variety of purposes. (144)

Mark Nowak reads from "Coal Mountain Elementary"
 Mark Nowak reading from Coal Mountain Elementary at the Rose O'Neill Literary House, all images ⓒ Karly Kolaja

Compare the adjacent passage taken from the Sago Mine Accident Report and Transcripts:

I’m going to tell you, the only thing—carrying Mr. McCloy out, I was on the right-hand side in the back, close to his head. And what I was doing, and we all were doing it, we were talking to him all the way out. Hang in there, we’re going to get you out. And I put myself, my eyes on his hand, and I noticed he had a wedding band on, and I’m thinking about this young man. And I watch his hand all the way out to see if he moved any, and that’s what I did. I was watching to see if I could see any movements. But I did notice his wedding band on his hand. He never did move his hand that I could see. (145)

An abrupt tonal shift moves us from the generalized language of the lesson plan (“Time,” “Continuity,” “Change”) to first-person testimony in which the particular detail of a wedding ring becomes a focal point in this miner’s life and the life of the narrative itself. Within the original context of the Sago hearings, these recollections were most likely passed over as immaterial, but for those who knew Mr. McCloy, these memories of material details undoubtedly communicate what Nowak calls “a variety of purposes.”

 

*

Johannesburg Mines

In the Johannesburg mines
There are 240,000
Native Africans working.
What kind of poem
Would you
Make out of that?
240,000 natives
Working in the
Johannesburg mines.

—Langston Hughes[3]

In a blog post titled “Poetics (Mine),” Mark Nowak points to Langston Hughes’s “Johannesburg Mines” as an example of a poem that “works in divergent fields that make parallel (and antithetical) critiques, analyses, and representations.” During a Q&A following his May 2010 reading at the Wooden Shoe Bookshop in Philadelphia, Nowak also mentioned the Hughes poem as an inspiration for Coal Mountain Elementary. I want to make a brief detour into this poem not for the obvious connection to mining, but to point up tactical affinities between the poem and Coal Mountain Elementary. The first three lines of the Hughes poem assert a prosaic fact that may have come from a newspaper, followed by a question: “What kind of poem / Would you / Make out of that?” The question is then answered, more or less, by the very fact that prompted the question: “240,000 natives / Working in the / Johannesburg mines.” Of course, much can be made of syntactical shifts and changes in diction (for example, “Native Africans” to “natives”), not to mention issues of race, class, colonization, Apartheid, labor history, and so on. But what I want to note here is that the process of receiving information, formulating a question, and then restating the information becomes the answer itself: a poem called “Johannesburg Mines.” Does this “answer” the poem’s question? What does it mean to answer the question of how to “make” poetry out of facts by restating those facts? Is the question addressed to the reader, or to the speaker himself? Does the poem imply limitations on what poetry can “make”? Does it imply some transcendence of poetry’s limitations? Is the poem a commentary on the ethical limitations of aesthetics? Is it a commentary on the ethical possibilities of aesthetics?

In Coal Mountain Elementary, facts are restated in response to an implied question which might go something like this: What kind of poem would you make out of the lives and deaths of coal miners throughout the world? As a composite of verbatim news reports, testimonies, and curricula, Coal Mountain Elementary is a matter of record: Mark Nowak did not “write” this book any more than Langston Hughes “wrote” a poem on the Johannesburg mines. But who “wrote” Coal Mountain Elementary is less interesting to me than what Nowak reveals about how we define authorship, and what we call Coal Mountain Elementary (poetry; not poetry; found poetry; documentary poetry; investigative poetry; working class poetry; labor poetry) is less interesting to me than what the book reveals about our expectations for poetry. Authorship implies a number of things, including authority, authenticity, ownership, originality, and the transformation of experience into cultural artifact, and perhaps more than any other literary genre, we expect poetry to somehow transform experience into something else. We also seem to think of poetry as a more suitable genre than, say, fiction or nonfiction prose for reflecting the private and interior experiences of the writing subject.[4]

In an era of political poetry marked by what may be called a negative rhetoric of blame, on the one hand, and an internalized rhetoric of lament, on the other, I hear in Nowak’s book both implicit praise for miners and an externalized rhetoric of the document. The very fact of including the voices of miners and rescue workers in the book is itself an act of praise as well as a desire to let those closest to the experiences speak for and as themselves. In turn, you can hear in the words of the Sago testimony transcripts the emotions that testifying calls forth, as well as the unfolding of memory in the syntax and rhythms of spoken language. What I most appreciate about Coal Mountain Elementary is its foregrounding of the document in a time when so many investigative media seem to position the author at the center of the text. In this way, Nowak’s work harkens back to earlier approaches to the document in the poetry of Charles Reznikoff (Testimony, Holocaust) and Muriel Rukeyser (The Book of the Dead), as well as the documentary style of Frederick Wiseman in his critiques of schools, hospitals, mental wards, and other institutional spaces.

Although Nowak documents the costs of the coal industry in human life and livelihood, he does not address the costs to the environment. This raises the question: What would a documentary poem on the coal mining industry’s destruction of the environment look like? One difficulty in addressing the environment through documents may have to do with the fact that we define the document as a human and cultural artifact. This definition excludes natural objects (bodies of water, flora) and subjects (nonhuman animals) that have no “voice,” let alone “personhood,” that would qualify as document in any of the traditional (i.e., anthropocentric) ways that the word is currently defined. This also raises important questions about rights, insofar as documents and the ability to document are often invested with legal significance. Although questions concerning environmental rights are absent from most cultural conversations, they are currently being discussed among legal scholars, political scientists, bioethicists, and environmental activists.[5]

Of course, each occasion demands its own form, and no single method of documentation is inherently superior to all others. Indeed, the popularity of documentary films by Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, as well as investigative nonfiction prose by Michael Pollan and Jonathan Safran Foer, attests to the effectiveness of using first-person narratives as vehicles for delivering compelling critiques of various industries and institutions. In Coal Mountain Elementary, however, critical and creative accountability shifts squarely to the reader, who must make her way through the materials without any overt master plot or central narrative voice for guide. Along the way, each reader is called upon to answer the question: at what cost?

 


[1] Ed Sanders, Investigative Poetry (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1976) 23.

[2] My focus here is on the more paratactic and nonlinear elements of Coal Mountain Elementary, but another way to read the book is to explore syntactical and linear elements that help to organize the book. Some of these elements include the narrative coherence within the news reports and testimonies, the chronological unfolding of both the Sago mine disaster and mining disasters in China, and the sequencing of the lesson plans that begin with activities for elementary school students (“Coal Flowers: A Historic Craft” and “Cookie Mining”) and graduate to an activity for middle- and high-school students (“Coal Camps and Mining Towns”).

[3] Langston Hughes, “Johannesburg Mines,” The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, ed. Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel (New York: Random House, 1994) 43.

[4] For a more detailed discussion of authorship and authority as they relate to a poetry of witness, see my essay “Poetic Representation: Reznikoff’s Holocaust, Rothenberg’s ‘Khurbn,’” in Response: A Contemporary Jewish Review 68 (1997): 129–140.

[5] For an early exploration into the idea of environmental rights, see Christopher D. Stone’s “Should Trees Have Standing?—Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects” (1972), reprinted in Should Trees Have Standing? Law, Morality, and the Environment (Oxford University Press, 2010). See also the recent movement for a United Nations Universal Declaration of Planetary Rights.

A sense interfused

Refiguring the work of ecopoetics

Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry

Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry

edited by Camille Dungy

University of Georgia Press 2009, 387 pages, 24.95, ISBN 0-8203-3431-6

eco language reader

eco language reader

edited by Brenda Iijima

Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs / Nightboat Books 2010, 304 pages, $19.95, ISBN 978-0-9822645-4-6

Maybe it’s time for poets to come to terms with the fact that when it comes to the environment, poetry is part of the problem. Poetry may even be the root of the problem: it’s a Romantic rhetoric of the sublime that makes nature into something eternal, infinite, divine, and separate from humans. For a famous example — and I’ll come back to it later — a few lines from Wordsworth’s 1798 “Tintern Abbey”:

[…] And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

This rhetoric has enabled a disingenuous humility, and a perverse misconstrual: our deep conviction of humanity’s insignificance has helped us downplay our annihilation of the majority of the Earth’s species. We want to believe that after we’re done with nature it will just go back to the way it was before, but when we fragment, simplify, or just plain wipe out an ecosystem, its diversity and resultant productivity, the outcome of millennia of coevolution, are gone forever. Human actions are significant, and it’s more important to grasp this now than ever before, because even though the “dark, Satanic mills” of the Industrial Revolution may have been long ago shuttered, environmental destruction is currently taking place at a much larger scale than ever before. For example, to fuel our “clean” economy, the U.S. is squeezing oil out of the Athabasca Tar Sands and outsourcing the pollution from cheap manufacturing to developing countries like China, who themselves are plundering the poorest countries, like the DRC/Zaïre, for raw materials. I think it’s time we disabuse ourselves of an eternal, infinite, divine, and separate version of nature so that we can make the deliberate choices we need to make about what we consume and/or preserve based on a frank — if ad-hoc — assessment of our evolutionary niche. In this review, I’m going to single out two very different recent anthologies — Camille Dungy’s Black Nature and Brenda Iijima’s eco language reader — for the work they’re doing with poetry to refigure nature, and reclaim its name.

All it takes is a slight shift to perceive the landscape anew. Camille Dungy introduces Black Nature with the story of a tree “at the edge of an abandoned swimming pool in a Lynchburg, Virginia, city park”:

 In the late 1960s, a group of black children and community leaders staged a swim-in at this pool. Rather than desegregate this public facility, the city drained the water and replaced it with dirt. The space is now more lawn than pool. A gentle slope of lush grass reaches toward the deep end, and moss coats exposed walkways. A stately box elder grows through the retaining wall, roots ensnared in the pool’s filtration system. This is the final insult. No child, black or white, will ever swim in this pool again. (xix)

Behind nature, as Dungy’s anecdote shows, there’s another story — and, in a word, history. To suggest that nature is only really itself when it’s empty of backstory, meaning, and human life is, in Dungy’s word, an “insult” to the millions of people — both indigenous and not — who have lived and worked in the landscape for generations. A tree is never just a tree in Black Nature, as the apostrophized tree in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1903 poem “The Haunted Oak” tells us: “I feel the rope against my bark.” In her 2004 poem “surely i am able to write poems,” which serves as Black Nature’s epigraph, Lucille Clifton asks:

[…] whenever i begin
“the trees wave their knotted branches
and …”                         why
is there under that poem always
an other poem?

So the word that’s “always” behind nature in the U.S. — and that’s all of the U.S., not just Virginia — is not something timeless or eternal, but a word that grew and spread its “knotted branches” out of a specific history of the middle passage: race. In this way, four hundred years of varied African American poetry, beginning with Phyllis Wheatley’s 1773 poem “On Imagination,” is newly charged for the way it opens up a hermeneutics of a different nature, one in which nature is a source and repository for culture as well as a palimpsest of history. (Which is why I do wish the poems in this anthology, which aren’t organized chronologically, but into ten “cycles” of nature, came with publication dates.)

Black Nature:  Four Centuries of African American Nature PoetryA few lines kept bouncing around in my head after reading Black Nature: Stephanie Pruitt’s “Mississippi Gardens” is a kind of georgic — i.e., a poem that sees labor in the landscape — and is built around a question that the poem’s first person asks in the garden: “Mama, what did they used to grow here?” and the answer: “Slaves.” In a piece called “We Are Not Strangers Here,” the introduction to one of the book’s “cycles,” Ravi Howard observes that the experiences of black Detroit-born deep-sea diver Michael Cottman (the author of Spirit Dive) seem atypical because “at some point, urban and black became interchangeable,” and both became irreconcilable with nature. That’s the image of nature that G. E. Patterson is playing with when he sets up the last line of “The Natural World” by writing: “You got trees all dappled with sunlight and shit […] You got birds waking you up in the morning […] I got birds too.” :

My birds            My birds            killers

In “Urban Nature” (from his 2006 book City Eclogue), Ed Roberson uses a very different tone to describe his nature, which isn’t in “some Hamptons garden” but in a “street / pocket park,” sharply enjambed. His last sentence, which zooms way back, is my favorite in the anthology:

[…] The orange is being flown in
this very moment picked of its origin.

The eco-language reader, edited by Brenda Iijima, is a totally different project: an anthology of poetics, meaning that the majority of the pieces in the anthology are recent prose writings by poets (the back cover says “essays,” though many are crosseco langauge  reader-genre). But the piece that first drew me into the anthology isn’t ostensibly about contemporary poetry: it’s “Thinking Ecology in Fragments: Walter Benjamin & the Dialectics of (Seeing) Nature” by Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands, a scholar of environmental cultural studies at York University in Toronto. Mortimer-Sandilands begins with a description of a life-sized “plywood [caricature],” the kind tourists pose for pictures with, at Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia. The caricature depicts the people — a Mi’kmaq with a “hooked fish” and a “dead mammal,” an Evangeline-like Acadian woman with a “white cap and apron,” and “tartan-kilt[ed]” Scot — who have been removed from the landscape so that the tourists who visit the park can see the “‘real’” nature. As such, it memorializes two displacements: the forcible removal by the British of the Mi’kmaq to reserves in the eighteenth century, and the 1936 relocation of the park’s then-native francophone population to a nearby island.

As Mortimer-Sandilands writes, the caricature is “more than a tiny bit guilty of obfuscating” — and here, I might have said trivializing — “a profoundly colonial, racist, and ecologically exploitative history.” This is a typical story, all over the world: in the name of nature, people are moved out of national parks to leave behind landscapes that are empty and ready — like the plywood caricature with its empty head-holes — to be visited, viewed, and experienced. But in a turn I find compelling, Mortimer-Sandilands points out that “the actual face we see surrounded by the painted plywood is that of the park visitor,” so that the “tourist is the figure around whom the landscape of the National Park is arranged.” What I thought when I read her description is that the caricature began to sound a lot like a lyric poem, through which a reader is supposed to vicariously experience the subjectivity of that poem’s first person. But in a nature poem, as in the plywood caricature at the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, this is often an oversimplified, fragmented, wiped-out, and trivialized version of both history and nature.

That’s why I’m of two minds about another piece in the eco language reader, Jonathan Skinner’s essay “Thoughts on Things: Poetics of the Third Landscape.” Since 2001, Skinner has edited the wide-ranging, thoughtful, exploratory, and exciting journal ecopoetics. (See ecopoetics.wordpress.com; issue # 6/7 has already been thoughtfully reviewed in Jacket 40 by Nicholas Birns.) In his essay, Skinner adapts Gilles Clément’s idea of the “Third Landscape” to describe a kind of poetry that neither idealizes nor disregards nature. He points, for example, to the “wildness” that Cecilia Vicuña notices in her 1992 poem “Ten Metaphors in Space.” In the piece, under a photo of a curb, we read: “SIDEWALK FORESTS / Small altars on the streets of New York, air vents for the earth, pasture born in the gutters.” What’s exciting about this is the way Skinner outlines a new paradigm of nature in which nature need not be remote, untouched, pure, and separate from people’s lives. What’s troubling is that the grass in the sidewalk is all that’s left of a decimated ecosystem, and doesn’t therefore participate in the kind of complex interrelationships that sustain other species. I fear that if poets simply assume that aestheticization is good for nature, they’re missing the big picture, as well as the frame around it.

What I think the eco language reader and Black Nature are leading us toward is the question that’s been lurking behind poetic and environmentalist platitudes about nature all along: what is the human place in nature? The best framework we have right now for answering this question is not religion — or its literary equivalent, the sublime — but what we know of ecology and evolution. If we can get past the idea of nature as something eternal, infinite, divine, and separate from humans, we can begin to take responsibility for what we consume, and what we set aside. Poetry can help us get started by telling our own natural history, and looking at the way we live with other species. Black Nature and the eco language reader do this — other recent works that come to mind include Alicia Cohen’s bEAR, Juliana Spahr’s “Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache” (2004), Meg Hamill’s Death Notices (2007), and Jack Collom’s Cold Instant (2010).

The next step might be to revisit the rhetoric of nature. I began with the irresponsible misconstrual of the rhetoric of Romanticism that has made it possible to both deify and disregard nature. Over the past two centuries, we have repeatedly pushed nature to the fringes of our communities and imaginations. But if we look at it again, Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” is really the investigation of a feeling, a “sense sublime / Of something […] deeply interfused” in both nature and “the mind of man.” As much as I’ve emphasized the importance of understanding the science of nature, it doesn’t really lead us to an ethics — the facts are always disputable. But the feeling that Wordsworth tried to describe just might. What poets need to do now is find a new language for that feeling and reclaim the name of nature.

[Thank you to Robert Hass and Brenda Hillman for their feedback on my argument for this review. All opinions and any mistakes remain my own.]