Music for the ecoelegaic

Cecily Nicholson's 'Wayside Sang'

Cecily Nicholson’s poetry expresses a deep solidarity extended across time and space, and across divisions between the human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate. As I try to prise apart what the term “biotariat” might be made to mean, I find poetry instructive because of its willingness to attend to just such “crossings” and movements amongst and between language’s subjects and objects — to, literally, lay them out on the paratactic page. For a diasporic poet like Nicholson this has something to do with “blackness” — I have in mind Fred Moten’s comment (from In the Break) that “the history of blackness is testament to the fact that objects can and do resist.” Everywhere in her poetry Nicholson is concerned with the resistance of “objects” — of those who have been rendered (reduced to) “objects” through regimes of racialized violence and colonization, and the fluid affinities the variously objectified find and found.

In her wonderful forthcoming book Wayside Sang (Talonbooks 2017) Nicholson traces the movement of plants (roadside weeds), animals (usually birds), geological features (post-glacial “erratics”) and human beings (typically the racialized made mobile by the fluctuating whim of capital) as they react to the pressure of forces both geophysical (erosion, weather patterns, geological features) and social (flows of capital, the built world of aging infrastructure, the border and the prison). Nicholson “performs” a biotarian sensibility by constantly weaving together seemingly disparate flows and subjections; in my comments here I simply want to give some sense of this entanglement.

The first thing to note is that Wayside Sang is a book of road poetry, a text in modern mechanized movement across “landscapes built for cars.” Projecting “a self / in motion,” “holding space / as it collapses,” Nicholson invites her reader (“come away with me passenger”) to join her “music for the eco-elegiac.” The landscape whose “eco-elegy” is being sung here is that of southern Ontario and northern Michigan, for the most part — a landscape built in the image of auto-capital: “automobile production the yardstick // myth of carbon-growth incentives to be deployed.” Nicholson is everywhere attuned to the ways the “car romance” masks the fickleness of economic vagaries:

once again record profits
herald a decline
in workforce lineups


flattening sales
cratering interest in sedans

balance sheets for profit
axe production shifts

As the poetry (in serial form where part and whole, page and sequence, are constantly imbricated) moves out along highways alternately joy-riding and pursuing precarious labour, a complex world unfolds amidst roadside ditches, and easements become a “hermitage            of thrushes,” a place marked by the “flutter of juncos” and other species. We forget sometimes that it is not only human beings who migrate, but all living things that do; and when humans alter landscapes, other species use the routes we open up to similarly move more swiftly (I note that here on the west coast of Turtle Island the Himalayan blackberry has moved, in a little over a century, from Burbank California, where it was introduced in the late nineteenth century, all the way north to Alaska — largely by arcing its canes one step at a time along the corridors cut by colonization for trains and highways). Nicholson’s eco-elegy is especially attuned to these wayside junk spaces capital produces.

power lines held by birds 
of prey the hostile expanse above

ditches teeming floral invasive
wayside fleurs                     

late summer the shoulder sang

holds breeze by
the course of the drive

ravelling winds furl sparse treetops

semi-trailers startle traffic to attention
righted to the middle steady

a point of calm

a sense of pedal to headrest
never lost hope of going somewhere

Remarkable here is the unity of mobile and agentic organisms, from the “birds of prey” actively holding “power lines” to the truck driver’s embodied “sense of pedal to headrest” integration with vehicle and road. Such crossings between the human and nonhuman are typically clustered around spaces the human has nevertheless altered/shaped (road shoulders, easements for energy infrastructure); however, Nicholson also makes her foray into more conflictual zones where “cultivated grid sections / disregard […] rivers / and migratory routes” and the settler state imposes its order on Indigenous land:  

skim the foundation of glacial sand
silt and gravel bites into Erie

built-over grounds
of rcmp-burned homes

the Caldwell members as with the Qayqayt
sans registered land base

at the junction of foot- and flyways
five-lined skink and the fox snake

This is a border-erasing poetry, whether those borders are imposed on First Peoples such as the Caldwell First Nation or the Qayqayt people — and whether those are borders of economic inequity or brutal, physical force — or whether they are between “people” and “skink and the fox snake.” But it is the national border, the “logic of borderlands” and the “migrant narrative,” that comes to hold the centre of this poetry as it cuts across “foundation of glacial sand” and the “great lakes’ deep sense of time.” As birds and plants and geology stretch ignorant of something as temporary as a national border, so people move across that border too in search of work: “there’s good work at chrysler and the canadian border services agency.” Whether they are the autoworkers of an earlier phase of capitalism — these it seems are Nicholson’s own familial origins, moving south to north along the diasporic pathway — or the contemporary temporary “unseen labourers / everywhere everyday pick in the shade / of mountains” — awaiting them all are the exclusionary “sovereign privileges” of the border and its carceral regime.

carved into concrete

zoos to prisons

those dear in cages
under the library

borders’ better sides

beneath hospital
and holding cell windows

wings trapped in amber

While the connection of “zoos” and “prisons” might not be much of a revelation, I see it in a different light when looking through the lens of the biotariat. Each human aggression against some excluded portion of the human community speaks of similar violent attitudes to “the rest of nature,” just as the mistreatment of the natural world (as mere “resource” or inanimate “milieu”/space) indicates our ability and tendency to treat some human groupings as similarly only “resources” (labour, paid or otherwise) or inanimate “objects.” Thus in the midst of a city like Nicholson’s Vancouver, “dear” — beloved — human animals are held “in cages” right underneath the architecturally award-winning public library (where indeed so-called “illegal” immigrants are temporarily jailed).

I am not doing justice to this complex and wide-ranging poetry as I skim over its surface. There is indeed pain everywhere here on these “mobility quests” Nicholson tracks. There are jail cells where desperate prisoners like Eddie Nalon “bled to death in the segregation unit / at Millhaven” maximum security prison in Bath, Ontario. But there is resilience too as “microtears of tissue build muscle” and the poet stretches out powerfully in voice — “animalium our bodies massive and unexpected / astral strength post-trauma.” Part of this strength is indeed drawn from the solidarity of other life forms and geophysical processes similarly in motion along their migratory trails — as well as the great temporal movements that lift a world of radical mutability into view:

hulks, decommissioned warships

anchored in mud, sediment

washed-up lattice habitat

shores, coast, or on the banks of

Susquehanna — older than

mountain ridges it dissects

from orogeny uplift

events when, as part of gond-

wana, the continent slammed

into the turtle — rivers

established in the flat plains

some millions of years ago —

so we stood on the steps of

the municipal art gallery

again facing west, before

the monument at Tompkins

Square and before the totem

pole in Oppenheimer Park —

Obviously it is difficult to read the relations here as literal or even causal but they nevertheless activate a poetic politics I want to call biotarian: the socio-ecological wrecks of human endeavour are shattered by the temporal shift to the geological and now like those mobile continental shifts “millions of years ago” — insert next scale jump — those human struggles in the present also seek to shatter complacent norms, whether they gather on “the steps of / the municipal art gallery” or at “Oppenheimer Park,” as social justice activists do in Vancouver, or “before / the monuments at Tompkins / Square” in Manhattan where rallies and riots over the years have challenged immigration laws, wars, and homelessness.

Nicholson’s resilient “animalium” plays on Moten’s words. Nicholson quotes him, from “Blackness and Poetry,” mid-poem, on the next page in Wayside Sang: “this sounded animateriality.” The (re) animate material object — the “historical reality of commodities who spoke,” as Moten has it in In the Break — this is the vocal performance of blackness that Moten calls a “sounded animateriality.” That which has been rendered object —  commodity — slave — reanimates from the heart of its materiality. In this it seems almost inevitable that other forms of life made object — made commodity — made inanimate — would come to join the performance, or this performance might join itself to those other exclusions from the human. So, Moten writes in “Blackness and Poetry,” in words that could easily stand as preface to and poetics statement for Nicholson’s book, “This set of ethical questions turns out to be ecological as well. …

The prophetic and projective announcement of the work’s opening was also a description of a general socioecological poiesis — in imaginative compact with love as well as lunacy — brought more fully into relief in and by socioecological disaster. This openness, this dissonance, this residual informality, this refusal to coalesce, this differential resistance to enclosure, this sounded animateriality, this breaking vessel and broken flesh is poetry, one of whose other names, but not just one name among others, is blackness.

My point here is not to appropriate Moten’s discourse on blackness to that of the biotariat — rather, I simply seek to learn from and link to kindred forms of thinking. The history of racialized oppression is obviously complex enough on its own; work like Nicholson’s nevertheless sends us out to imagine both the deepest possible structures and extensions of human alienation, as well as the most personally affective forms such oppressions can take. Poetry is all the better off for the challenge of this work — for both its love, and for its lunacy.