Existence plus alphabets
'Meaning to Go to the Origin in Some Way' and 'Participant'
Think in stitches. Think in settlements. Think in willows. — Gertrude Stein
How do poets make sense of landscape? Sense as in meaning, but also as in sensation, the lived experience of engaging with a particular tract of land at a particular time (day, season/weather, human dateline)? The two books here, based on living around and walking through 46.7325ºN, 117.1717º: The Confluence, South Fork Palouse River and Paradise Creek, Pullman, WA, USA, are exemplary, in freshness, thoughtfulness, and depth of engagement.
Russo’s method, partly a recuperation of “the local,” is to foreground place, combined with a hyperawareness of the many ways in which spatiality is constructed. Familiar debates about all-too-familiar binaries — words versus things, humans versus nonhuman beings, Euclidean zoning (favoring car-users over pedestrians) versus high-density inhabitation, abstracted mapping versus perceptual space — are here rehearsed within a specific landscape, part of its complex dynamics, neither dominating it nor dictating terms. The preposition is significant here, included in the title of a key essay by Russo on ecopoetics, proposing that:
An ecopoetical writing within … by grappling with material and linguistic conditions, creates cultures not only of the mind or heart, but of places; it strives to resituate possession, the “our,” within a matrix of human and nonhuman needs and lifeways. Nature can not have a voice in poems — but a poet can write environed, within, in a place of multiple listenings and differing inscriptions.
Such “environed” writing, stirred by breezes and seeded by birdsong, is a practice where, to quote Russo on Joanne Kyger in the same essay, “the poem is on-the-page and in-the-world at once through a comingling of experience, thought, perception, and fact.”
Whereas Participant (discussed below) is primarily a collage of “experience, thought, [and] perception,” Meaning to Go to the Origin in Some Way is also highly factual — is in part a work of documentary poetry. Sequences of poems are punctuated with maps and illustrations, with an email about weeding from the board of the community garden where Russo is “self-appointed poet-in-residence,” along with “silhouettes of typical vegetation” (29) and instructions for those wanting to attempt to replant native prairie.
Particularly powerful is the sequence, “Always Underfoot” (the phrase is taken from Mary Austin on the importance of regional environment in terms of daily lived experience), where various cartographic acts find themselves mapped onto each other. Here “feet … / write collaborative geographies” (52), are “set down in the ruminant patterns of cows” (62), while in “[s]ettlement we revise the already-being-written, a rolling hillside, a spot of prairie, a patch of woods” (53). “[A]lready-being-written” not only through inscriptive and reinscriptive processes by all kinds of beings, but because physical geography itself is dynamic:
We write ourselves in an imagined Euclidean blank, a stable canvas / until houses slide down hillsides, houses that always inch closer to some sea. Inland sinkholes open and swallow people, houses, cows. The little fictions geologic instability transects. (53)
Russo is good at showing how the “little fictions” engage both with the sensed landscape and with much larger-scale geographical imaginings. “Always Underfoot” — here as elsewhere the titling is partly ironic — includes a screenshot of a satellite photo-map (I’m resisting using the omnipresent brand name here) of 46.7325ºN, 117.1717º, followed by a numbered list of observations, keyed in with white numerals on the grey half-tone of the map. On-the-ground and just-above-the-ground (human and plant scale) talk back to the sky, making the satellite observations porous — to “unattributed informational (folk) signage,” as Russo describes it in an essay on the production of this piece — as well as to touch and sound, the experience of being in the landscape: birdsong, sun-glints, breezes, etc., all dispersed across the space defined by the map and providing alternative “experiential … ‘coordinates.’” Another way of describing this process might be “[w]alking the mapped omissions” (52), the first line of the first poem in this sequence. The river whose name doesn’t appear on the map, for instance, and how “someone puts out the plank footbridge removed / late fall (its omission from street maps marks it as natural)” are indicative of a “map dialectic of depicting / and effacing” (55).
A similar dialectic operates formally in this collection — put basically, of gathering as against scattering. Given Russo’s interest in field poetics (not to mention the subject matter!) the reader might expect Olsonian composition by field: words and phrases isolated across the page/the double-page spread, strategic use of white space. But scattering and gathering, omission and marking are thematic here rather than formal. Many of the poems are left-justified, and many are in couplets. “[T]he pattern is a kind of necessity,” Russo writes, “clustered instructions” (55). The mappings, lists, instructions, exhortations (the community gardens email, for example) are in clusters, yes, but they’re also held together by sequential devices. One such is seasonal (seasonally titled poems that provide markers for winter through autumn), others more unexpected. A set of poems scattered through the book, all opening with “she said” or “then she said,” alert the reader that this is a learned landscape, and that included in the writing here is a narrative of that learning. As in all good stories, there are helpers: the author’s mother (who is the “she” mentioned above) and — a more ambivalent figure, a focus for sorrow and anger — the Columbia River Basin pygmy rabbit, on the verge of extinction, and, significantly, saved through hybridization in a captive breeding program.
We’re not talking about pushing for the authentic here — and it’s worth noting that the title of the book, Meaning to Go to the Origin in Some Way, isn’t a celebration of autochthony but rather an alert to the ongoing presence, within larger spaces, of notions of origins and rootedness, now shrunk down, conflated with the smallness of seeds:
simply an essential radish (from “radical” / having roots,
meaning to go to the origin in some way —
on the Pacific Flyway
the seed you planted, the Least Tern took wing
meaning to go to the origin in some way
acting animal-like toward boundaries, breathing (14)
The “origin in some way” when “go[ne] to”/pushed at isn’t a single point, but a dispersal across a wide field, a field of investigation.
Another set of poems placed throughout the book, all with the same capitalized title, “GOING TO SURVEY WALMART CONSTRUCTION FROM THE CREST OF PIONEER HILL,” would also appear to promise a sequence — but the development, such as it is, has nothing to do with the progressive stages of erection of big-box projects, but instead opens up into showing how “we in our many vectors crisscross this space” (26) by, for example, recording “the sentient world in the only human way it knows, through animals” (9). Moreover, whereas the first two poems under the self-consciously self-aggrandizing rubric build serious arguments — for an ecopoetics of “interspecies inhabitance” (9), for example, and “the analytic capacity of sentient poetry” (17) — the last two in the set trail off into bathos: “disappointment when ‘thunder’ is the rolling /of a garbage bin” (35) while the final word on the matter, the last line in the last poem of this set, settles for pointing out that “some of us animals out here do live in the / (prairie, ocean, desert) besides” (45). Witnessing is sometimes just trudging up the same hill over and over again.
Strategic understatement and studied quietness also feature in Participant, an airy collage of observations, sensations, and comments with quotes and near-quotes from Emily Dickinson. Unlike the poems in Meaning to Go to the Origin in Some Way, the writing here mostly uses composition by field, and the words and phrases read across and up and down two-page spreads as well as page by page, a delicate, almost musical crossweave of repeated words and phrases.
An “Environment & acknowledgements” section at the end of the book lists the relevant Dickinson poems, and to explore the resonance of the deeper notes underlying the bright, high-toned sounds in the foreground, it’s helpful to spend time with these. For example, to go from the top of pages 10–11, where “the birds sketching a geography” reads across to “hover in an erratic remoter green” then back down to “three bees swoop across my face” and across again to “it’s like a private wood / in which I comprehend” not only creates a skimming horizontal movement across the plane of the page — with a jump beyond, into greater depths of field (in this case, grove/orchard/woodland) — but gives access to Dickinson at her most visionary:
There is a morn by men unseen —
Whose maids upon remoter green
Keep their Seraphic May — 
It’s like the Light —
A fashionless Delight —
— It’s like the Woods —
Private — Like the Breeze —
Phraseless — yet it stirs
The proudest Trees — 
Along the way, Zen attention to the natural world (“dumb plants / with their little deaths / dumbly testify” ) faces on the opposite page “(Little Wealths) / [where] I summarize my greatest treasures / counting very real distances / on fingers like a school girl,” echoing Dickinson’s extravagant spiritual reckoning:
Your Riches — taught me — Poverty.
Myself — a Millionaire
In little Wealths, as Girls could boast
— and its ending:
At least it solaces to know
That there exists — a Gold —
Altho’ I prove it, just in time
Its distance — to behold —
Its far — far Treasure to surmise —
And estimate the Pearl —
That slipped my simple fingers through —
While just a Girl at School.
The highly developed sense of distance, proximity, and depth of field apparent both in Russo’s text and in many of the Dickinson poems to which she alludes is brought into focus by another key reference for both Participant and Meaning to Go to the Origin in Some Way, the anthropologist Edward T. Hall’s 1966 classic, The Hidden Dimension. A poem with a Dickinsonian title, “Participant as birds,” in Meaning to Go to the Origin in Some Way encapsulates Russo’s interest in Hall’s theories on the interplay of scales of distance in human and nonhuman worlds:
her small body (there)
practiced on bird-scales
returns public space
to public use
till syllables unlink
till traffics return
brought back to the familiar, the creaturely
(existence plus alphabets) (19)
Here too are echoes of Hall’s concerns that the built environments of mid-twentieth-century North America take too little account of humans’ needs for kinesthetic perceptions to mesh with visual ones (as happens when walking through a landscape, for example) and his call for visual perception to be understood as a collaborative construction (rather than, as evoked in Russo’s “Always Underfoot,” the literally top-down projection produced by satellite mapping).
While issues of proximity and scale play into Meaning to Go to the Origin in Some Way’s weave of documentary and observation — showing how “now distance binds us” (11) — Hall’s ideas of space as communication, the “hidden dimension” of his title, play out directly on the pages of Participant, with the hover between foreground, midground, and background on the white spaces of the page enacting the dynamics and proxemics (Hall’s word) of perception, while chiming with leaps between dimensions in the Dickinson works they reference. “Leaflets,” the poems in the final section of Participant, however, use a different spatial strategy. Here, observations, perceptions, and quotations are run together in one stream down a very narrow center column. The constraints of the typographical measure force numerous word-breaks, marked by hyphens — a quiet echo of Dickinson’s dashes, perhaps — while individual letters of the alphabet and meaningless clusters are exposed down the left-hand edge. In contrast to the visual mappings of most of the rest of the book, these demand to be read aloud, for sound to make sense across the broken phonemes. The effect is like opening up to the narrow spaces between trees, a flow of sounds and sights interrupted by twigs, cross-branches, leaves, and shaken by the wind:
because she c-
alls she ma-
ps terrain “hi-
dden away” &
be a bir-
s of short fligh-
ts into sun “li-
ke between” (60–61)
2. Linda Russo, “Writing Within: Notes on Ecopoetics as Spatial Practice,” HOW2 3, no. 2 (2008).
4. Linda Russo, “Scottish Poetry Library podcast: Linda Russo,” Scottish Poetry Library.
6. Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1955), 24. See also the Emily Dickinson Archive.