Finding ecopoetics on the disability trail

Independence Trail
Independence Trail, photo by dbtownsend

I’m back, with apologies for the long absence. The bad news is that I had to take a month break from these Commentaries due to a minor but temporarily disabling health issue, that pretty much knocked me out of commission, for anything but the day job. The good news is that I’m healed, my “tenure”here has been extended, and I'll be posting these Commentaries through November. 

Last fall, on my trip across the country (mostly by rail) to visit the park spaces designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, I worked in a visit to one of the poets most readily associated with American space (though not urban space), Gary Snyder, at his residence high above the Yuba River, Kitkitdizze. I have yet to document that conversation (we spoke, amongst other things, of Gary’s experience bivouacking in Central Park in the late ’forties, while awaiting his seaman’s papers), which will happen, when I get around to it, on the Olmsted blog. After I left Gary, I stopped just on the other side of the Yuba River, to check out something called the Independence Trail. It turns out that the trail — occupying the site of old, abandoned hydraulic miner’s ditch — was built in answer to a request to, “Please find me a level wilderness trail where I can reach out and touch the wildflowers from my wheel chair.” It is a mostly level trail, shaded by oak and pine, that contours the slope of the undeniably wild Yuba River valley, with views to the river below. At the time, I did not know that this trail, the “First Wheelchair Accessible Wilderness Trail in America,” had been created by one John Olmsted, a distant relative of Frederick Law.  J. Olmsted worked to save hundreds of acres in what is now the South Yuba River State Park, as well as what is now Jug Handle State Nature Reserve on the Pacific Coast in Mendocino County, Goat Mountain in the Coastal Range, and the Yuba Powerhouse Ranch. He wanted to create a “Cross California Ecological Trail.” Walking his Independence Trail helped me realize, yet again, how limited my conception of wilderness can be. 

Independence Trail rampsWhether because the injury inevitably focused my mind on things bodily; or because I now want to address the Ecopoetics Compass I set forth a few weeks ago in more detail, namely, one of the three further directions penciled in within the North by Northeast quadrant, that is Proprioception (those stimuli produced and perceived within an organism connected with the position and movement of the body, amongst other indicators); or because the Occupy Wall Street movement, with its remarkable “human microphone” process for communication and consensus-based decision making, has gotten me focused on the body as political agent; I would like to write a bit about how this evolving focus on the body might relate to ecopoetics. 

Four overlapping areas of inquiry are helpful here, that rhyme with my motivations: somatic, architectural, visceral, and what I have come to call cellular poetics. Let me address the first for now, which I have been thinking of in connection with “disability poetics.” Recently I received in the mail the terrific new anthology, Beauty is a Verb: the New Poetry of Disability, edited by Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black & Michael Northern (Cinco Puntos Press, 2011). Bartlett’s introduction highlights how the anthology gathers poets: 

Beauty is a Verb cover“who reflect on pressing issues of our cultural moment. These include the frangibility of the body, the intersection of body and machine (or body and technology), the commodification of the body, and other questions looming on our late-capitalist event horizon about the very nature and being of beauty and function.”

What’s the relevance to ecopoetics? The “frangibility” of the body (especially but not only the reproductive body), the intersection of body and machine, and the commodification of the body, are issues I think central to various ways in which bodies have been addressed in ecopoetics as nodes of attention at the intersection between self and environment.  Disability strikes right to the heart of the limitations, for many, of “eco” discourse, in its focus on normative, unpolluted (or “detoxed”), healthy, “organic” bodies. In a useful essay on “Some Principles of Ecocriticism,” William Howarth, characterized ecology as itself a partly metaphorical endeavor — a “vernacular” science, in its reliance on metaphors and its connections to the history of verbal expression — tracing it to the songs, chants and dances of shamans meant “to heal disease or prevent disaster, which they saw as states of disharmony or imbalance in nature” (The Ecocriticism Reader, eds. Cheryl Glotfelty et al).  Ecology in a sense extends concerns with health from the body to the environment — or in a public health sense from the bodies of human populations to those of other species — and/or brings our sense of environment in to the body, to consider the body itself as a kind of wetlands or ecosystem, in homeostasis or in various states of (im)balance. In its more radical senses (which I wager we find more of in Emerson and Thoreau than in their followers) ecology does away with the metaphor of body as container as a fiction of separation — the “cellular” poetics I’ll look at in another post. 

Is the ecological focus on health descriptive or prescriptive? How far does ecology want to go in prescribing what is “healthy” or “polluted,” rather than simply establishing a qualitatively and quantitatively grounded sense of various key interrelationships in a given ecosystem? Without answering these questions, we certainly can say the “wilderness” so endemic to American environmentalist literature very much implies an abled body (not to speak of maleness, heterosexuality, whiteness, class privilege, etc.) As such — with the exception of Gary Snyder (in poems like “Song of the Taste,” or “The Bath”), however much one might object to the gendered vectors of embodiment in these poems — it also is an invisible body: almost as if the appearance of landscape is predicated on the disappearance of the body, or its minimizing, to an Emersonian “transparent eyeball.” 

Bringing the otherly abled body into ecopoetics, or “cripping” ecopoetics, does more than further the representational charge, in terms of diversity, or more than further a formal charge (as in Larry Eigner’s typographical economies and inventions or David Wolach’s “site-specific corporeal procedures,” on which more below), it furthers the ontological charge, of poetics as making-lives, (dis)placing language in space, for the only “environmental” sense we can know, the limits “we are inside of” (Charles Olson, who later confessed, “I have been an ability — a machine . . .”) Too much has been made of the adaptive moment, even when lived from inside, in a Bergsonian sense; the language of “co-adaptation” goes further, but not far enough; how do we talk about the systematic disabling of a sense? (à la Rimbaud?) becoming invisible? annulment of privilege? 

Aaron Williamson performing BarriermanLosing “adaptation” to an environment, we become invisible to others (and visible to ourselves). It is inescapable that barriers are invisible to those (including oneself) who do not occupy the same (or similar) intersection of body and environment (the social dimensions of which are wittily demonstrated by deaf performance artist Aaron Williamson). It would be a further task for ecopoetics to lay claim to, rather than be claimed by, the negations. It would also be presumptuous to occupy others’ positions — with what Amber DiPietra calls “ontological and epistemological rhetoric on the disabled everyman who will save us from post-modern burnout” (“from My Notebook Has a Rigid Spine or How to Operate the body in Writing,” Beauty is a Verb 272). Perhaps, then, we should speak of bringing ecopoetics to the otherly-abled body, in order to address, instead of or along with “wilderness,” what poet Neil Marcus calls “disabled country” (cited in Petra Kuppers’s essay for Beauty is a Verb, “The Sound of the Bones,” p. 111). What I map here is highly provisional; in particular, I look to somatics as a border zone where those whom the dominant society positions as “abled” and those positioned as “disabled” might meet up and exchange somewhat of their perspectives. 

Sublime views of the limitless are motivating. But occlusion and opacity, the very density of the body, which we cannot “peer” into, thus having a perspective, enable real seeing and hearing. Call this the “inertial heft” of embodiment. How can the inertial heft, the fact of our own perspective, be useful in its very limitations? While a conceptual practice might spotlight the social-constructedness of such “limitations,” a somatic practice is not so ready to discard the body’s own constructions, the ways in which we can have “ideas that pre-exist words and objects.” (Bartlett’s, Black’s and Northen’s anthology arrives with what might be termed a somatic turn, in innovative North American poetics: Independence Trail
consider not only the intersection of disability studies with innovative poetics, but also CAConrad’s and others’ poetic embodiment experiments — work we might associate with the legacy of Hannah Weiner, amongst others, but also with the legacy of 1970s body art. Consider Petra Kuppers’s just-released Somatic Engagement volume for Chainlinks, and Thom Donovan’s essay recently posted on Jacket2.) Norma Cole notes her experience of such ideas, as she dealt with motor problems affecting speech production and aphasia following her stroke. In “Speech Production: Themes and Variations,” she works through the difficulties of enunciation, in the process of relocating mouth, teeth, tongue embracing the crippled (always double) slapstick of language itself: 

quit it 
quoted unscripted 
quote script? 
script quote 

Why do I like it under the trees in autumn when everything is half dead? Why would I like the word moving like a cripple among the leaves and why would I like to repeat the words without meaning?”

I think it is important to somatics that these ideas be factual, somehow, or only figured with great difficulty (where the writing enacts this difficulty). Jordan Scott sets his tour de force of dysfluency, Blert, against metaphor from page one

“It is part of my existence to be the parasite of metaphors, so easily am I carried away by the first simile that comes along. Having been carried away, I have to find my difficult way back, and slowly return, to the fact of my mouth.” 

David Wolach writes, in Occultations: “the body as occulted and occulting metaphor, that evidentiary ‘social becoming,’ which both makes perceptible and hides (at once) its histories, identities and vulnerabilities — this is more than merely ‘metaphorical.’” Wolach’s “occultations” are “staged writing acts in which the body seeks articulation thru a poetic mode from the outset, the transcriber attempting to write the poem on the spot, to, in a sense, claim itself, as mediated by and contiguous with its environment.” The “environment” is a fabricated “distraction zone” (modeling larger or more systemic zones of distraction) that the poem undergoes along with the body, in order to make legible the occulted phenomena of distress, to “at least make visible the traces or imprints of such phenomena on the poem (body).” 

Distraction Zone Staging: written while being fed my writing — one hour of handwritten ‘confessional poetry’ — as exploration of Appendix M of CIA Memorandum on use of food as tool for interrogation. 

4. (forced feeding 1) 
my at home ex 
perience @ kitchen skin sink 
thru w/ the teleo-vision he says 
wide we need an enhanced sit 
-uational under-
                  sugar poeman introverted inverted milgram 

Wolach draws a provocative distinction between the embodiment procedures in the ritualized writing practices of Hannah Weiner or CAConrad’s (soma)tics, where the point (as he sees it) is for poetry to “emerge from their rituals,” and his own rituals where the “poems desire to be occulted (punished?) along with/ as extensions of their bodily environments”: “one does not write from notes afterwards, but one’s notes are the poem, and the poems are the notes of the body signing in space and time.” 

A connection to “other than human” lifeforms opens up, once we challenge definitions of “human” (and its associated discourse of “universal” rights) — especially in the thoroughgoing way that posthumanist theorists advocate. Part of this critique — which insists on calling itself “posthumanist,” to distinguish itself from the “posthuman” or “transhumanist” fantasies that would extend Enlightenment ideals through robotics and artificial intelligence — takes up systems thinking. Theorists such as Luhmann, Maturana and Varela, amongst others, help us understand precisely how environmental contacts are constituted, and multiplied, through a system’s operational closures — whether through production or subtraction, through the staged procedures of Conrad’s “(soma)tics” or of Wolach’s occultations. In short, communication occurs, but not necessarily on the system’s own terms. (Cary Wolfe likes to say that “consciousness cannot communicate.”) Bounds are what we all are inside of, the world of densely interpenetrating systems is inconceivably complex, and we make of it a richer ecosystem (this was Olson’s point) only by participating in and through our bounds, however minimally or maximally constituted (the self could be a system of vocables or the whole forest), rather than through intellectual “sprawl.” 

Somatics brings the (dis)abled body into view, into hearing, not as the bearer of some universal “human right,” but as that non-normative body (any body, considered in the manifold/singular) that is a privileged instrument of auscultation, the site of an autopoetics of environmental perception. Again, Jordan Scott:

“Urchin scattergun larval plume an iris-thick gelatin flops coral’s cerebellum. Mesoderm gluts. Urchin bloom. Mucus hue, pink plume, spindles aerobic tentacles to chuck cocoons riddled with Ordovician retinas, haunt yellow as lilac grains. Plankton crumbs hum in current soak, pry buccinators for photophore hunt, or the syllable for gill. 

Narwhal back arc spasms pancake ice as alder root sambas soil phonic dipslip mukluk  harpoon croon sonar’s marrow hip — dipped arctic cream bongs tusk knots” (Blert). 

Scott’s poetry is as much about challenging norms of “environmental” sentiment — which tends to focus on the charismatic “poster” species, and sanitized “wilderness” fantasies, rather than, say, the “algal Tang” at the intersection of urchin bloom, currents humming with plankton and sonar, and indigenous harpoons dripping with narwhal marrow — as it is about challenging ableist phonological norms.

A sea urchin

Here poetry does not voice an habile perceiver (i.e. holder, “ability” coming from habere, to hold) of something we call “the environment,” as if we could actually see what surrounds us — the environment being by definition what escapes a system’s view, does not communicate within the system’s own terms — but in its grappling collisions with language enacts a mouth, a body that provokes the environment, itself a system of other bodies, to change: “The burn and crush [of Blert] in your own mouth is dysfluency.”

Somatics do not replace representational politics, the crucial regulatory interventions, say, of the ADA [Americans with Disability Act], or the ESA [Endangered Species Act], but offer a site for communication, between different kinds of systems rather than solely within the legal structure. Where the law offers protection, somatics offer transformation. A somatic practice provokes the environment by, in a sense, letting go of the body’s hold on it. Somatic perception is fundamentally participatory, slips through the subject-object interpellations of spectacle and discipline, demanding contact, vulnerability, opening up to irrational forms of resonance. 

One thinks of Ronaldo Wilson’s description of a Black Took Collective performance: “we phoned one another up on cell phones during our respective readings. Duriel pulled members of the audience up to the stage to dance with us. The poet, our special guest, Bakar Wilson passed out ‘Coon Journals,’ asking them to respond to the reading as we performed. I broke to music by Tricky after reading the ‘Breaking Black’ poems.” On the one hand, the Collective’s approach is conceptual, aiming  “to articulate an almost objective relationship to race, one that allows [African American poets and artists] to present the black body as a conceptual field, a vast and complicated object, that contends with this violence.” On the other hand, in its hybrid approach, the Collective undeniably taps into somatic practices.  

The model I have in mind is much more along the lines of “contact improv” movement, than of a “projective” dance solo.  If anything is “universal” here, it is something like gravity, to which we are all exposed on planet Earth (there are other limits), rather than aesthetic or political ideals. Form emerges when we make our own limitations available, as a contact site for the other, as a communication interface, through practices of blockage-as-connection. Or I think of the kinesiology detailed in Eleni Stecopoulos’s Armies of Compassion:

“When a patient is weak, autonomic response testing will often be done through a third party. I lay on the table, A held on to my body and K held on to A’s body. K’s diagnosis of me was a sensual duet with A, using my body as the barre. We formed a chain, and K leaned and tensed and swayed A, embodying my weakness or my strength. As a conductor becomes the intelligent orchestration of resonating forces, more witness or exponential than director.”

Stecopoulos’s stagings of the readings of the autoimmune body — “Like geopathic stress, autoimmune disease can be viewed as another pathology of misreading or overreading, where presumably the body misreads the distinction between its own cells and foreign ones” (ecopoetics 03, p. 147) — might be viewed as another approach to somatics, though I’d like to discuss it, in another post, as visceral, or even cellular, poetics. 

The “human microphone,” as amplified by the Occupy Wall Street movement, where participants have physically to take in and (re)voice the words of those speakers on the “stack,” offers yet another model. Rodrigo Toscano’s Collapsible Poetics Theater (CPT) dodges the frame of the “stage” for a Contact Zone of collective performance of Body Movement Parameters (BMP), where “a momentary vacuum of un-‘theorizable’ causality (rendered bodily as opposed to ‘found’ (and redirected) temporally), avails new tension-and-release points in the Inner Group’s potential to recombine.” In prodding the potentialities of a collective body, CPT places somatic practices squarely on the way to the Contact Zone: “the process towards Mutual Aid might require tons more approximate poetic actions from primary resources, i.e. your political-aesthetic Body-Body (this is more than is being required of us now, in this age of Electronic Text Mining, Rapid De-Industrialization and its Barons).” 

What would extending the Contact Zone to non-domesticated, other-than-human participants look like? Josph Beuys’s “I Like America and America Likes Me” is an early example I can’t resist pointing to here, the “contact” in this section of the performance mediated by the “shaman’s” felt robe (and, of course, by the apparatus of the 1970s art industry). But we are a long way from understanding what a somatics of wild, interspecies contact might look like, for an ecopoetics.

To be sure, somatic contact and transformation through mutually engaged acts of vulnerability assumes a “level playing field,” or at least a safe environment. Aesthetic play can offer such ground. As can the kind of crowd-sourcing of voice and attention deployed in the Occupy Wall Street General Assemblies. But more often than not, the level ground is absent, the gravity is not universal. “The immigrant’s body must now function as home. One uses so much energy in resisting the gravity of assimilation” (Stecopoulos, “Kinesiology”). The disabled “body,” as DiPietra notes, is a “trifold pamphlet composed of medical terms, insurance jargon, social service lingo, self-help verbiage, advocacy mottos,” along with some of the epistemological and ontological rhetoric I have indulged in here. A more conceptual approach, a thinking-through-discourses, might seem to offer the more direct route of engagement. Yet very little of the school of “conceptual writing” makes its way into Beauty is a Verb. (I don’t of course mean to imply that the body is absent from conceptual writing, but I think it is located differently.) DiPietra notes that,

“The disabled self is always a reader of his or her own body. . . . Being, already, a reader of my own trifold pamphlet, I do not want to author poems or essays in which I further evanesce away with my self in favor of a poetics of abstraction that de-emphasizes agency and makes thick, if not slippery, material of language. I need, instead, to write a poetics that is porous, a membrane. A text that sucks the reader through its many holes and vaporous areas while offering also a sampling of real tissues, body-systems, that another body can assimilate. To bring my body in — and yours. . . . I am in search of  a transparent, mobile language that moves, even when it occludes.”

An evident shortcoming to posthumanist theorizing, in the systems-based approach, is that such thinking itself tends to be rather disembodied, all-too-able, in an institutional sense. View from Independence Trail(Though Cary Wolfe has pointed out that posthumanist thinking necessitates a real challenge to disciplinarity, thus messing with its institutional standing.) It might be useful to think of poetry as in itself a kind of disabling of language. And as a border zone where “disabled country” and other landscapes more traditionally addressed by ecopoetics might overlap — a wilderness glimpsed on that “Independence Trail” where I found myself one day, between Snyder and Olmsted, looking for another kind of space.