Drew Milne's Marxist Lichens

I have been reading Jason W. Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life — a book which helps to theorize the rise of the Biotariat. Moore writes, “all limits to capital emerge historically, out of the relations of humans with the rest of nature. And in equal measure, so do all projects for the liberation of humanity and our neighbors on planet earth.” The Biotariat rises to that “equal measure” — a relational “project” at once for the “liberation” of the human and the extra-human. As I read Moore, his notion of what this project may look like is just as provisional as my sense of what the Biotariat might actually be — it is yet a project, at the conceptual level, that I can only name “poetic.” Here is Moore again:

Efforts to transcend capitalism in any egalitarian and broadly sustainable fashion will be stymied so long as the political imagination is captive to capitalism’s either/or organization of reality.

The “either/or” Moore means is the either/or of nature or society (but never both at once) — think, neoliberalism’s fixation on either the environment or the economy (by which it of course means, shut up about the environment). Thus Moore writes, “the binary Nature/Society is directly implicated in the colossal violence, inequality, and oppression of the modern world” and “the view of Nature as external is a fundamental condition of capital accumulation.”

Enter Drew Milne and his “Lichens for Marxists” to work the terrain of just this poetic and political imaginary. Milne has been writing lichen poems — and posting online lichen “emblems” (in situ photographs of various lichens, over which he has superimposed textual slogans and lines of poetry) — for several years now. His forthcoming In Darkest Capital: The Collected Poems of Drew Milne (from Carcanet this fall) gathers his lichen poems in the sequence “Lichens for Marxists.”

Though Milne has nothing so simple as a mere analogy between lichens and Marxism in mind, such associations bloom as he works aspects of lichen biology — especially their Latin nomenclature — into the dense surfaces of his poems. Lichens are symbionts formed of three different species — an algae (or cyanobacteria), a fungus, and a kind of yeast. They are colonies, collaborative interspecies collectives, emblematically gesturing at some organic form of social relations and interspecies mutual aid. The word “symbiosis” was in fact coined, in 1877, to describe the interspecies collaboration that forms lichen — a phenomenon first described in 1867, the year Marx’s Capital Vol I appeared.

The language of lichens and the language of social critique constantly bloom one over another in Milne’s poetry — “we in symbiotic alliance of lichen / hold the evident truth to the self” — “socialism’s symbiotic drifts / … lichen star symbiotic / tars and proletkult morphemes.” Like a branching organism, constantly dividing and merging once again, the reader tracks these discourses — two separate species that have become entirely dependent upon one another. Other discourses similarly merge with that of the lichen: it coalesces with the textual, often as punctuation — the “stark fungi of asterisms” and “clouds of graphematicity” marked with an editorial “obelus” or “pilcrow,” or “how lichens are typographers of / oxygen sewing serifs into azures.” And again, lichen converges with communications technologies, when a wall is “spored a lichen / fax to a fungal partner,” or “this lichen sees you with your digital / environment turned to face the sunless / capes of our digital code.”

This is an incredibly reductive taxonomy. Milne, writing with both humour and I think no small dose of apocalyptic gloom, everywhere bores through compressed layers of information, sampling the range of possible meeting points (their convergences, coalescences, and collapses) of the “natural” and “social.” Close readings would need to be exhaustive — and would likely prove exhausting — as reference branches out in so many directions. Picking through these poems is a slow archaeological process. I give a brief example — a passage from the opening of the sequence’s last poem, “Symboliste Propaganda”:

splendid grime grooms every niche
then capers mene mene on the wall
the fairest of them all gone wild
each pending extinction wins gold
              such smog tripe of the liberals
              will not save us from affective
              soteriology and pop drones come
              lichens said in darkest capital
              decking out a rhapsodic wilding
              dark symbolistes of revolutions
              that are not televised for this
              this lichen is in on the detail

Okay. The “splendid grime” that “grooms every niche” must be our erstwhile lichen. But, the capering “mene mene on the wall”? A “mene” can signify both money or a fish (there’s the social and natural once again). But in the Biblical Book of Daniel, in the so-called “writing on the wall” episode, Daniel interprets the words “mene mene tekel parsin” as foretelling King Belshazzar’s downfall. This “mene mene” refers to monetary weight — the “darkest capital” in which the poem’s lichens speak — indeed, the lichen’s writing on the wall may also be a foretelling of doom (more on this below). I also can’t help sneaking a glimpse of poet H.D. (as Imagiste/Symboliste?) in these lines — her own “writing on the wall” in Trilogy also a kind of soothsaying — this time predicting resurgence after destruction.

From the third line’s fairytale narcissism (mirror mirror on the wall) we move through a series of threadings of references to capital’s social domain (winning “gold,” the “tripe of liberals” — elsewhere in Milne’s manuscript a poem bears the wonderful title “The Ballad of Liberal Moonshine” — “pop drones” and of course “darkest capital”) and the equally socially determined “natural” domain of the “wild,” its “pending extinctions” and potential “rhapsodic [re?]wilding.” All this before we arrive at the lichen’s knowing (they are “in on the detail”) that, of course, the “revolutions” will as ever not be “televised.”

I could go on. The point is that here we have yet another collocation of meanings where the entangled threads of the supposedly “natural” and the supposedly “social” reveal a singular message: the accumulation of “darkest capital” and “pending extinction” are one and the same process.

If this is a “warning” (the writing is on the wall), it is one that is delivered throughout “Lichens for Marxists,” indirectly, without moralizing or pompous judgement. Milne’s warnings are the same as the lichen’s warning: you have to stop and really look at them, and you have to know what it is you’re looking at, and how to read this slant writing on the wall.

Lichens, it turns out, are used by scientists to assess environmental degradation, as some species react strongly to air pollutants. This is also being extended to studies of climate change (and increased atmospheric carbon), of which the small organisms may also be a bellwether — the proverbial canary on the forest’s coal mine. Lichen species have adapted to specific atmospheric chemistries and climatic conditions. Thus lichen forms a front in the study of, and any potential resistance to, the geophysical changes that this stage of capitalism is currently fomenting. Consider the following poem, reproduced in its entirety:  


some for trophies some to flag
in canvas imperial some to lie
blinded by prospects of relics
scarce quick to a lichen trail
subsisting through the poo-jok
welcome to anthropogenic gases
our polluting breath one cloud
after another sung oft & aloft
tracers to cap data in cuilkuq
and beyond this arctic haze by
any other misnomer would smell
as rank in source signature of
Eurasian air the name spelling
car lungs into the troposphere
and albedo as the polar scalps
warm to softly falling sulphur
& carbons settling on cladonia
rangiferina misnamed cryptogam
or reindeer moss but still led
through by radionuclides taken
in along so-called food chains
what price pristine now & ever
wilds spent to a chemical sink
the sheet like flows so turbid
so given over to written scree

This poem takes climate science, as it relates to changes in the arctic (that all-important melting of the polar ice caps) — and that part of the process of documentation that a northern species of lichen might play — and works it into a solid wall of sound and texture. The poem is “beautiful,” I think, the way lichen might be said to be beautiful: it reveals startling pattern, a turbid interweaving over a surface (the solid substrate here being climate science — “anthropogenic gases,” “poo-jok” — the Inuit word for “arctic haze” — “cap data,” “car lungs into the troposphere,” “albedo” etc.). And yet the poem again arrives at an embedded warning or even indictment: “what price pristine” and “wilds spent to a chemical sink” are, I take it, more than metaphoric references to capital (“price” and “spending”) and its inseparable ecological consequences.   

This is only a superficial glimpse into a complex and deeply thought project. Milne comes out of an experimental poetic lineage where culled and typically unmarked source materials are worked into a sonic poetic texture, and where a poem’s “argument” is its form. Reading his work returns me to the kinds of questions I so often find myself asking: what is the social/political “work” of the work of art? What can something so small as poetry actually do in the face of something so vast as capitalist climate change? In the end, as ever, poetry can’t be the only “doing” we engage in, and, as ever, it just has its little song to sing on the edge of our various disasters. Or, like a lichen, it is the almost unnoticeably small covering of the rapidly altering ground of our very being.

In a poem entitled “Lichen for Beacons” Milne asks, “is it Marxism for lichens you are sold / on and upselling into an art star bank”? Art, money, nature — the elements entwine again. Indeed, “is it” “Marxism for lichens,” or “Lichens for Marxists” that the poet is in search of? The lichens maybe don’t need Marxism, but Marxism may need lichens — or better still, something new that lives where these two spheres coalesce — a new symbiont species prized into consciousness here — “neither thermidor / nor reforestation can save us,” as Milne writes in “Vote Lichen.” Returning to Moore, it may be that the “key to understanding the unfolding systemic crisis of the twenty-first century is a historical method … in which human and extra-human natures co-produce historical change.” I don’t know exactly what this collaborative “co-production” looks like in action, but I read Milne’s Marxist lichens as an attempt to think it into being — to fashion some symbiotic newness I want to call the Biotariat.