Reading JD Pluecker's 'Swamps Fly'
JD Pluecker’s Swamps Fly is a work of “halloing the wasteland” — greeting anew, pursuing in shouts, seeing/seeping pervasively amid the moor. Against the hollowing of draining, swamp is met as the listless and listened steadfast space.
Swamps Fly was published in Spring 2021, and it zapped onto my radar as I was steeped in investigations of Narragansett territory occupied by the early colonial settlers of my own family. Behind my grandmother’s house was a patch of woods, now bisected by train tracks and rail yards. Biking down a road called Liberty Lane, passing lumber yards and shooting ranges, I came to Great Swamp Monument Road. At the first house, a sign: Drive as though your kids live here. Whose kids? Whose your? I wondered.
The road became track and followed a grassy embankment into the swamp. I lifted the bike over fallen trunks and pitched guesses at trail splits. The early spring swamp was empty of nesters, buzzers, insects, and so fed an image of the starkness of December 19, 1675. This place of moist earth and waft of first-uncovered grasses, suddenly, bore granite on the berm. It was site of the Great Swamp Massacre in which the United Colonies of New England, backed by the English military, attacked the Narragansett fort in the ice season of the swamp, turning shelter to cell.
Amid the swamp, which of all ecosystems is one that defies singularity, the monument obtusely demarcated the singular. A weathered slate panel described the plinth erection by the settler organization Rhode Island Society of Colonial Wars in 1906. On the base of the “rough stone shaft” were objects gathered in conversation susurrating the swamp’s memory. Now site of a yearly Narragansett pilgrimage, the objects themselves point toward untellings of the plinth’s claims. Shell, red pine, sage, lichen bark, woven grasses, sea glass, pinecone, wooden dowel. What is under the plinth in the swamp? What stories are known by the composure of the moor? How is terrain taken as colonial wasteland hallowed still, again?
These questions I found in the shouting of the plinth and the thrumming of the offerings, cross-cut by train hoot. Discourses of unimproved wasteland and the heed to hollow the unhallowed leapt across shores and territories with colonial settler hosts. Because of the iterative way colonial projects of swamp “improvement” have repeated across time and space, my own questions of swamp as a particular site of disappearing enclosure in the colonizing project leapt towards JD Pluecker’s Swamps Fly in a completely different territorial context.
Photo credit: JD Pluecker, featuring a sonic sculpture by Elana Mann.
Swamps Fly focuses on the ecological history of what is now called Houston, Texas, and more specifically on the neighborhood block proximate to the Lawndale Art Center. Pluecker engages an embodied investigation of carceral space and disappeared histories manifest in calls to “Drain the Swamp.” Most recently a metaphorical call against supposed corruption, the call also invokes a more violent colonial history of fen draining as “civilizing” mission. Swamps Fly is a chapbook that accompanies artist Elana Mann’s sculptural installation, Sounds from the Swamp. The layers that Swamps Fly is involved in listening in/to/through are also layers through time: the way in which technologies of land ownership and swamp draining using the labor of enslaved people in Houston after the 1836 Battle of San Jacinto were a westernmost instance of an iterative imperial project.
Swamps Fly implicitly references the process of enclosure of the commons, begun in England and Europe in the sixteenth century and foundational to contemporary understandings of private property, territorial nationality, and criminalization. The eviction of commoners from common lands being sold by the state to private developers created widespread migration from rural to urban areas. Urban jobs became increasingly industrial while poverty proliferated and wages fell. In England, those without a job were labelled “vagrants,” and under Henry VIII they could be legally whipped, branded, forced into the army, or hanged. Under Queen Elizabeth, “vagrants” were required to accept any job they were offered. This created a landless class incentivized toward indentured servitude in unfamiliar conditions as early colonial settlers on Indigenous land. Within the same process, those who moved between boundaries of increasingly privatized land were not only deprived political standing or voting rights but came to be criminalized.
It is this connection, among others, that maps bonds between Swamps Fly and JD Pluecker’s wider work as an organizer and language justice activist concerned with translating and writing in ways that defy contemporary territorial boundaries of the nation-state, including through the collective Antena Aire. Swamps Fly is the most recent iteration of the decade-long investigation The Unsettlements, which Pluecker describes as “a new and growing body of work that delve into sites of trauma, violence, and familial memory in Houston and in Texas where seven generations of my settler-colonial family have lived.” Other arms of The Unsettlements are likewise concerned with the in-between and nonbinary of language; “We’ll never arrive to the other bank,” Pluecker writes in “A Note to Aid the Undiscoverer” in Ford Over, a line resonant with Qasmiyeh’s mapping of linguistic nonarrival onto migratory geographies. While Ford Over engages this defiance of the separations of enclosure spatially, Swamps Fly develops techniques to articulate the temporal dimension of simultaneity within an occupied site and within language. The chapbook gurgles with collusions of not-land and not-water, not one word or the other but a mucky compound sticking together: overwonder, swirlgrass, hipswerves, ratsnakes. As the title initiates, the project is concerned with how the swamp sounds, what it sounds like as well as how it makes noise, and in attending to the action of the swamp, nouns and verbs collide and leave temporal smears on adjectives: ponded, scummed.
Lines in Swamps Fly variously occlude and expose each other, like uneven and incomplete archeological layers whose digging maps both time and space. The sway of the lines gives the sense of burrowing into wet ground whose groundwater only keeps pooling; the lines will not be kept in place, as the fens. The English language and its rationalizing force at best float: float aloft the travel of these iterative ideas of swamp draining across seas. Within the visual performance of the verse, there is a sense of blankness seeping over what is occluded by the flood: the sparse words resound and give the sense of the grief of the stand-in: the words of this verse like rooftops poking above murky waters in the satellite image of the hurricane wreck. In a context where the English language has been so wrought to justify landscape violence, often through extensive bureaucracies demanded by privatization such as written deeds and zoning regulations, the attempt to speak to this space in as few words as possible is a unique responsibility Pluecker’s verse takes on. Referring to the brothers who bought 6,642 acres near the headwaters of the Buffalo Bayou on August 30, 1836, for $1.40/acre, land that became Houston, Texas, Pluecker writes only, potently, “Allen bodies / still manage / settlement” (14).
The interaction with Elana Mann’s sculptural installation draws out histories of swampland as a space of commoners, dependent on community and local knowledge for integration in daily life. Mann’s instruments are an enclosure of the mouth, a covering and delimitation, recalling the enclosure of movement over land that has preceded swamp draining. The sculptures are bronze cast hands attached to what looks like a trumpet bell. They have a hole in the hollow hand, such that the object becomes an instrument of music when the cast hand is placed covering the mouth. Like enclosure movements specifically leading to resistance, the arm of the hand that smothers is at once the bell of the sound. Like the final line of the chapbook, a quotation from Lisa Harris’s work archiving music of people who were enslaved, “All day long / til the day goes away,” the sonic sculptures point to the forms of artistic practice that emerge in resistance to smothering and enclosure.
The chapbook form of Swamps Fly becomes itself a means of dialoguing with a history of pamphlets as protest materials for fen draining in the English language. Simon Fairlie describes of the mid-seventeenth-century enclosure movements, “commoners’ resistance to the drainage schemes was vigorous. A 1646 pamphlet with the title The Anti-Projector must be one of the earlier grass roots denunciations of a capitalist development project.” The literary form alongside Pluecker’s choices in production place the chapbook within the context of this pamphleteering lineage of resistance. The chapbook was printed and assembled by Mystic Multiples, a letterpress and risograph publishing group in Houston, Texas. Mystic Multiples is a press “offering free printing for racial / environmental justice activists and organizers based in Houston, Texas.” Pluecker makes the chapbook available online for download or for printed-copy order through contacting the poet directly, giving the sensation of the pamphlet both freely disseminated and circulated hand-to-hand.
In the early seventeenth century, under James I and Charles I, the English kings conducted campaigns to increase crown revenue by further selling off public lands to private developers. The program included granting public lands in the English fens for free to developers who promised to “improve” the swampy lands through engineering drainage. The Anti-Projector mounted a critique of these outside developers:
The Undertakers have alwaies vilified the fens, and have misinformed many Parliament men, that all the fens is a meer quagmire, and that it is a level hurtfully surrounded and of little or no value: but those who live in the fens and are neighbours to it, know the contrary.
At the base of this protest, as in Swamps Fly, is the centering of a living-in-relation. All the photos of the sono-sculptures in the chapbook were taken on the same block as the Lawndale Art Center, provoking this idea of being neighbor to a landscape as an essential position in noticing disappearance. The project is concerned with what is proximate, already within reach of the sculptures’ arm. Invoking the year of Texas’s independence from Mexico in the Battle of San Jacinto, Pluecker suggests a relationship of proximity in space but also of implications across generations: “1836 / founder responsibility disease // descendants / to live in relation to a damage” (18).
Swamps Fly articulates a uniquely ecological perspective toward questions of carceral geography by expressing im/mobility doubly. It articulates how swamp draining criminalizes movement while at the same time enabling freedom of movement by private landowners on more widely available “improved” land. The discourse of “improvement” of “wastelands” was applied to ecologies just as it became a premise of Enlightenment humanism. Upholding the redeemability of human behavior, Enlightenment ideas of “improvement,” as Foucault delineates, led to novel and more widespread technologies of incarceration, including solitary confinement. By allowing for the development of systems of rapid transit, swamp draining at the same time has constrained and immobilized ecological shifting. This point is made salient in Pluecker’s placement of Mann’s sonic sculptures in sites of the swamp, often in relation to curbs and car infrastructure. Swamp drainage is not a singular moment but itself is an example of the simultaneity of colonial occupation across time: diesel and electric pumps are continuously needed to maintain drained lands.
One way of understanding Swamps Fly as a poetics sensing architectures of disappearance is through its concern with registering affect. In resonance with CA Conrad’s Resurrect Extinct Vibration, Swamps Fly speculates, “O that the Bayou / were // once // a sound” that now shimmers “through sunken / ranch-style living rooms … no response / ability” (26). The “no response / ability” belongs to any number of entities, including both the swamp as a self and the settler-dwellers. As Kathleen Stewart investigates in Ordinary Affects, “power snaps into place” — what calls us to react? Pluecker’s placement of the sonic sculptures in the swamp, alongside a somatic practice of embodied writing, generates circumstances that are cause for reaction, allowing an ability to respond to the pervasive presence of a swamp whose extractive histories of enclosure only seem to disappear.
Photo credit: JD Pluecker.