A sense interfused
Refiguring the work of ecopoetics
Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry
eco language reader
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.)
A 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 cross-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.]