CCP and eco-poetics

Some listenings

Photo credit: Ariel Goldberger
Photo credit: Ariel Goldberger

 “Nature” is the unconscious.

The sense of this statement is often more immediately clear to sculptors, to painters, and to other artists who work with physical materials, than it is to writers – or to scientists.

As one carves the stone or fashions the wood what one desired or feared comes gradually into view, unknowns are realized in the emerging form, an ambient mystery is for that moment determinate, the non-human is realized in its naissance. To speak of birth is already to anthropomorphize, the image at risk of becoming more and more obvious to the extent we begin to mold it to our image. As opposed to an idea of Nature as the given, I want to identify the non-self identical with “Nature” in order to help me distance it from the definition of Nature that would put it in contrast to History.

Nature is the unconscious. Which is to say that when one picks up materials and begins to tinker with them in a certain way: when one picks up language and begins to fiddle with it, as it were absent-mindedly, or by way of automatic writing, or by chance operations, or by working from the black of the page, the unconscious begins to come into view. What was in the dark comes into the arena of humanly generated light. What was coiled in the unconscious enters the social.

This distinction is not the same as that between subjective and objective, or inside and outside: it is closer to that between wilderness and civilization. In other words, I am referring to a distinction that has been abrogated on earth. Wilderness no longer exists in some pure form, not since the invention of the atom bomb: all present forms of wilderness are dependent on a contingent human choice to go on, to resist the death drive as it were, and therefore, are not independent of human choice. “Nature" is where what we know of ourselves as humans leaves off, where what we don’t know of ourselves as human begins, and yet where something is all the same encountered. It means to say that as soon as we know our natures, or Nature itself, Nature has been mapped, and becomes part of civilization, subject to the laws and logics of our maps and ripe for exploitation.

An eco-poetics, perhaps, can conjure up the object of nature from our unconsciousness, without submitting it to this imperative of knowledge.

Representations of nature, of course, are neither natural nor from Nature. Nature poetry defined as such is perhaps at the greatest remove of all from Nature. Only a non-representational art could ever tease Nature into the clearing, realizing in its language something of the force of that unconscious upsurge, without turning it into a simulacrum of itself. Referential no doubt, but not representational… Does this make “nature poetry” then into a kind of pornography, reducing “nature” to the voyeuristically observed and represented, as opposed to something embraced in all the impossibility of such embrace?

Here is a passage from the great 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, who speaks of relation, encounter, and the possibility of a form of language-making in which Being is not turned into object (“It”) or into representation (thing). At first he isn’t sure such a thing is possible:

Life with nature…Here the relation vibrates in the dark and remains below language. The creatures stir across from us, but they are unable to come to us, and the You we say to them sticks to the threshold of language. (Buber, I and Thou)

 Yet later:

I contemplate a tree.

I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground…

I can assign it to a species, and observe it as an instance, with an eye to its construction and its way of life…

Throughout all of this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.

But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. The power of exclusiveness has seized me.

For Buber key relationships are those between the human and the human, and the human and God. Yet something does happen here beyond the quantification, classification, and exploitation of the tree. There is a relation that is formed with the tree. That relationship remains largely… unconscious. Yet still… something happens. I am drawn into a relation of the in between, as opposed to simply having an experience of the thing in myself. In Kantian lingo we can’t say the thing-in-itself is known, and yet it would be wrong to say a transcendental intuition is impossible.

As poets, we will ourselves towards nature. We turn receptive when we feel its approach, putting the will aside, desirous not to leave our fingerprints on the thing, not to render such a thing as an “it” to our “self,” as an “object” to our “subject”: to apprehend the thing, without a human mark or mask. “Not a word said outright,/Yet the whole beauty revealed;/ No mention of self/Yet passion too deep to be borne” as the T’ang poet Sikong Tu phrases it in his The Twenty-Four Modes of Poetry. Not a word said outright, not something that can be represented… the avant-garde has for more than one hundred years sought out a poetic language, a language within the language, on the basis of which such disarticulation could occur. The poetic avant-garde has something crucial to contribute to the formulation of an ecology. The complexity of the environment’s interdependencies offers us a rich metaphor for what happens in language than a view of reading which gives the role of meaning-giver to either author or reader, mind or machine, publisher or critic.

The unconscious also gives birth to many monsters: we should not aestheticize nature as the beautiful, or imagine the poem as the only translation of the unconscious… I have already also employed the Freudian rhetoric of “death drive.” City planners and industrial managers believe themselves to be making conscious choices but of course they are – we all are – caught up inside mechanisms much larger than those of our conscious choices.  The unconscious is neither good nor evil. The unconscious harbors many of the violent impulses Freud accredited to it. The unconscious also harbors Eros, which, at bottom, is the impulse to live, and in living to encounter the Other, as opposed to Thanatos, which is the urge to move towards and destroy the other. Could Freud’s Civilization And Its Discontents contain a workable eco-poetics? I’m not sure. Throughout Freud there is a desire to map the unconscious. Mapping the unconscious is as necessary as studying the patterns of global warming. Except that poetry has to remain poetry, not a map, to be effective here.

As poets it is our responsibility – where responsibility means the ability to respond - to renew our desires, to take nothing for granted – to remain lovers of bodies, of elements and faces, of goddesses, animals and plants, as opposed to becoming devotees of gadgets, commerce, power, our own rather prodigious experiential and fantasy lives. Who else is there but us to carry on this practice? Who else is there left to sound the complexity of language? What is marvelous ecology is the insistence of its study, which is upon the complexity and interdependence of things, in which inanimate and animate, vegetal and nervous-systemed, are revealed as sensually and mortally intertwined. Language is just as complicated, reader and noun: author and verb, printer and poet, phoneme and symbol all interdependent, a system whose mystery is unfathomable and transparent at once.

A subtle subtext of CCP these last few years has been the exploration of an eco-poetics. None of my guests have expressed views exactly as I have above. But a CCP primer or playlist on the question from multiple perspectives would certainly include: 

Cecilia Vicuña on water, #26; Robin Blaser on The Holy Forest, #57 and #133; Thomas Meyer discussing the dao de jing, #130; Allen Weiss on Mt. Ventoux, Rene Char, Petrarch, and Gustaf Sobin #140; Jed Rasula on This Compost, #149; Julie Patton on the language of gardens, #157; Lila Zemborain, #164; Cole Swensen on poetry and gardens, #207; Nalini Nadkarni, rainforest biologist, #212; Anne Waldman, on Manatee/Humanity, #213; Raul Zurita, #219, #234; Jonathon Skinner on the third landscape and Nightboat’s Eco-Poetics Reader, #221; Camille Dungy on Black Nature, #221; Kiki Smith on animals and nature, #226; and Susan Gevirtz on the sky, #237.