This is the last of three posts in which I make a kind of serial essay out of an informal talk I gave at Marymount University on Friday, September 25, 2015. The first post is here, and the second is here. The task was to explain why English matters to me, and to talk about my new research into ecological poetics for a general audience of parents, students, and faculty. I'm grateful to Eric Norton for the chance to think through some of the largest questions of my next project in a personal way, and to Tonya Howe, Sarah H. Ficke, and others for the exciting conversations during and after my somewhat unorthodox -- because biographical -- presentation. These posts are modified, and expanded, from the original oral presentation.
In the previous post I talked about elegy --the poetry of loss-- and about its capacity to navigate the complicated processes of mourning what is now an irreversible climate disaster. I suggested how Matthew Arnold in 1867 and Jorie Graham in 2008 understood poetry, and more specifically the ordering capacity of poetic form, as a kind of consolation prize for universalized damage or negative change: the world may be dying but at least we have order in verse. Ars longa, vita brevis, and all that.
In this post I want to continue that investigation into the poetics of disaster but shift towards work that forgoes compensatory exchanges routed through "the enduring power of art" in favor of something I find more challenging, more ambitious: a direct and self-implicating engagement with the mass extinction, ecocide, and generalized loss that we have caused --and are now causing, this very moment-- and that now constitutes our everyday life. This catastrophe is not outside of us; it is not some thing or object available for contemplation from an Arnoldian remove, in the manner Kant believed all concepts to be. The catastrophe is us.
Even those who deny climate change, I suspect, feel at some level of their being that there is reason, now, to lament. The above diagram, from Nature, uses tiny colored dots to indicate by allegory the cascading species deaths --irrevocable losses-- we now confront in the mass dying event that Elizabeth Kolbert has famously popularized as The Sixth Extinction. But in the face of this evidence there has been no shortage of attempts to relativize the brokenness of our world into inconsequence. Ideas like the so-called Good Anthropocene or even "climate change" itself --as though this change is merely change, neutral and outside the rubric of judgment-- attempt to put our climate disaster into such a perspective that we see it not as disaster at all, but simply alteration. On the one hand, this is right: we're not fighting to 'save the planet,' because the planet will be just fine without us. But a neutral shift in geological epochs is one thing; universalized loss that we have caused, our brilliant effectivity at demolishing the life-forms on our planet, is another.
Confronting this tangled problem of human life and generalized death in a more comprehensive and I think radical way than even the very famous Jorie Graham is Juliana Spahr. Spahr's “Unnamed Dragonfly Species,” from the haunting 2011 collection Well Then There Now, presents an alphabetical list of species in critical danger of going extinct in New York State that year. (And here I gratefully note the superb readings of Spahr's work by Margaret Ronda, here and here.)
The alphabetized list of threatened life forms in "Unnamed Dragonfly Species" works as a kind of lyric system or code, in the manner of an Oulipian constraint; this found text provides a governing rhythm for diegetic content of the poem, which tells of her own friends’ confrontation with climate change news over the internet. The perverse and uncanny cadence of this poem, a death song, derives from its cutting between an inventory of species death to scenes of regular people doing regular things: watching TV, worrying, feeling the smallness of their own capacity. As these regular, good-willed people scroll through online news about glaciers and try to coordinate the micro-dramas of own lives with the hugely upscaled process of global climate change, the world around them dies:
Tomah Mayfly They were anxious and were covering things over. Unnamed Dragonfly Species They were anxious and they were paralyzed by the largeness and connectedness of systems, a largeness of relation that they liked to think about and often celebrated but now seemed unbearably tragic. Upland Sandpiper The connected relationship between water and land seemed damaged, perhaps beyond repair in numerous places. Vesper Sparrow The systems of relation between living things of all sorts seemed to have become in recent centuries so hierarchically human that things not human were dying at an unprecedented rate Wavy-rayed Lampmussel And the systems of human government and corporations felt so large and unchangeable and so distant from them yet the effects of their actions felt so connected and so immediate to what was happening. Whip-poor-will They knew this but didn’t know what else to do. Wood Turtle And so they just went on living while talking loudly. Worm Snake Living and watching on a screen things far away from them melting. Yellow-Breasted Chat
This is the conclusion of the poem. The amazing final line leaves the Yellow-Breasted Chat dangling on the brink of its permanent eradication. Seemingly concluding the poem's inevitable and tragic alphabetical sequence, the final instance is in fact not final at all, but marked instead by open syntax -- note the lack of period. Only there by virtue of its alphabetical order, its place in the Oulipian code, this last nearly-dead species leaves formally unconcluded the poem's devastating interplay between death and inaction. It's worth spelling out the fact that the syntactical form of the sentences within the poem’s "human" sections depends on predication and completed action, subject, verb, object: "They knew this but didn’t know what else to do." By contrast, the Chat, like the other animals interspersed here, is a dangling object; it lacks predication and thus stands seemingly outside narrative at all. It is at least outside closure in any formal or psychoanalytic sense, since the unpunctuated object here ensures that the poem’s mourning process is formally, syntactically incomplete; it is literally still open. We have not yet reached Z.
The illustration above is from Audubon’s Birds of America, two old copies of which I have sitting on my shelf at home, one from 1937, one from 1941. They are pre-war Audubons. Wikipedia tells us that the book includes images of six now-extinct birds: the Carolina parakeet, the passenger pigeon, the Labrador duck, the great auk, the Esquimaux curlew, and the pinnated grouse. But as Spahr's own syntax enables us dimly to perceive, the Chat has not yet joined them. The full amplitude of Spahr's poetic effect -- the beauty of this seemingly randomized item of information, the last animal on the list-- becomes clear when we turn to the Field Guide to North American Birds and learn more about this Chat. What is it?
A bizarre series of hoots, whistles, and clucks, coming from the briar tangles, announces the presence of the Yellow-breasted Chat. The bird is often hard to see, but sometimes it launches into the air to sing its odd song as it flies, with floppy wingbeats and dangling legs, above the thickets. This is our largest warbler, and surely the strangest as well, seeming to suggest a cross between a warbler and a Mockingbird.
Halfway between a songbird and a mockingbird, gawkily vascillating between straightforward beauty and the malicious irony of mockery, the Chat --one realizes, after having been exposed to the corrosive beauty of this collection to this point, its hovering between despair and a redeeming faith in art-- is a slantwise figure for the poet herself. The trope of poet as bird reaches back much further than even Keats' Ode to a Nightingale, but there's no chance so smart and self-deprecating a poet as Spahr would have built such an obvious autoreferential gesture into the poem on purpose. To the contrary it is an effect of the constraint. But amid this rigorously formed but half-willed verse, it's hard not to detect in the Chat a strange kind of doppleganger or alter ego for Spahr, a trope for the precarious but still-hanging-on figure of poetry. It's an avant garde kind of bird, after all, full of joy and strangeness and experimentation: a singer not of hyperformalized exercises in restraint (like Graham's "Sea Change") or of lyrics of Apollonian remove (like "Dover Beach") but in "odd song."
Will this "floppy" and "dangling" generator of bizarre beauty survive in its broken new world? Spahr’s elegy for the death that accumulates while "things far away from [us] melt" is, I think, an elegy for the loss of species and nonhuman biota, but also (it would seem) for the loss of action or agency as such: a requiem, if you want, for the human capacity for doing.
This means that "Dragonfly" would seem to find Spahr working in her most pessimistic or melancholic mode; unlike Graham, who found consolation in aesthetic order while the sea rose around her, Spahr refuses that closure, lingers in grief, dwells with disturbing lack of consolation in what has been, and is still being lost. All of that, until one realizes the performative contradiction of the lamentation itself, and dwells on that oddly generative Chat. For if poesis conceived as action has been rendered impossible in this new networked reality, poesis as making, as poetry, seems still to live.
Other poems in Well Then There Now similarly face up to the brutal and most likely unfixable brokenness of our world, but like "Dragonfly" paradoxically foreground the productive, somehow ineradicable hopefulness of poetic making itself. Poetry is not recuperated as order, I mean, but as a medium of action or space of possibility, a site of performance. Its unsparing commitment to seeing the disaster means that this poetry can maintain positivity, however, only in a kind of inverted or doubly negated form; hopefulness is here present only under erasure; it presents itself as negativity tangled in negation, lament as performative contradiction. The final lines of the unspeakably powerful "Gentle Now, Don't Add to Heartache," for example, gather the poem's bleakly elegiac strands together and avow, it would seem, that no aesthetic response is even possible:
"I did not sing": but she did.
Spahr in other words rescues action from impotence through poetic effect, stages through the performance of verse the amazingly doubled (im)possibility of singing lament in our postnatural present.
I'll end by talking more about that, but now I'll note that while “Dragonfly species” separates in formal terms its human and the nonhuman storylines, the animals from us, "Gentle Now" fuses those stories together to show their inseparability. It models a kind of universal permeability, staging on the level not just of the content, but of the poetic line itself, our inseparability from the chemicals and compounds and other people that constitute what another of Spahr's books calls “this connection of everyone with lungs.”
In a later poem, “Tradition,” this oneness of us and our outsides takes shape as a list of the chemicals in the breastmilk Spahr passes onto her unknowing child, "this not really me"; that poem explains how the speaker “take[s] engine oil additive into me and pass[es] on this engine oil additive to this other thing that was once me.”
In “Gentle Now,” Spahr describes a stream, and uses this time-honored image, which helped Heraclitus to show how change and sameness look like the same thing, to emphasize the perfect interpermeation of human and nonhuman worlds. “We come into the world at the edge of a stream…. The stream was a part of us and we were a part of the stream and we / were thus part of the rivers and thus part of the gulfs and the oceans.” (124-5). Yet this solidarity is fundamentally toxic:
It was not all connection and utopia.
It was a brackish stream and it went through the field beside our house.
But we let into our hearts the brackish parts of it also.
Some of it knowingly.
We let in soda cans and we let in cigarette butts and we let in pink tampon applicators and we let in six pack of beer connectors and
we let in various other pieces of plastic that would travel through
And some of it unknowingly.
We let the run off from agriculture, surface mines, forestry, home
wastewater treatment systems, construction sites, urban yards,
and roadways into our hearts.
We let chloride, magnesium, sulfate, manganese, iron, nitrite/nitrate, aluminum, suspended solids, zinc, phosphorus, fertilizers,
animal wastes, oil, grease, dioxins, heavy metals and lead go
through our skin and into our tissues.
As the poem mingles the technical vocabulary of everyday consumerism --beer connectors, tampon applicators-- with the perversely beautiful polysyllabics of industrial toxicity, it catalogs the processes by which the same interconnection that links us to the world and decenters us, beautifully, into a network of solidarities also aims us toward death. Our tissues have been remade in the image of a toxic world. (Hear her read the poem here, and be changed forever.)
To conclude this sequence of posts, I want to return once more to Fresno, which is where I began, and circle back to the scene of my own first encounters with English, and with what was once, but is no longer, imaginable as nature.
You may know that Fresno is sinking into the earth, literally receding --more than a foot per year, in some places-- as the rainless farmers and suburbanites with lawns suck water from the aquifers below the valley in conditions of historically singular drought, drawing the support from underneath themselves. The map above, made this summer by NASA, shows “subsidence," and details in bright colors how far parts of the valley are sinking back into the ground, and how quickly; as one of the many articles based on these findings explains, "parts of the populous state are collapsing at a rate of as much as two inches per month," such that "areas of the state are literally turning into giant sinkholes." Some of the water being piped out from under the Valley is half a mile below the surface; some of it is 20,000 years old. When I was home this past, summer I saw it being aerated through sprinklers into 105 degree air, just gone.
Above ground is little better. The scene above is probably a half mile from my mother's house in downtown Fresno; I think we're looking south. One of the EPA’s signal ways of measuring the toxicity of air is to count the PM 2.5 : the particulate matter suspended in air that is less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, small enough to penetrate almost without resistance "into our tissues," as Spahr said. The limit for healthy air is 35 micrograms per cubic meter. Two years ago in Central Fresno, PM 2.5 concentrations reached 76 μg/m3, which is more than double the EPA’s upper limit. And it’s only gotten worse since 2013.
In 2015 the LA Times summarized the situation with a subhead to its article on "Menacing Air": “From Stockton to Bakersfield, the sky is thick with chemical-laced particles. Residents know there's a risk just being outside.” The point is that Valley air molecules, and by extension Valley residents themselves --I am speaking here of my parents, my uncles and aunts, my high school friends and their children, probably me too-- are now charged with, partially composed of, the volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and nitrogen oxides that permeate the atmosphere there, and that will contribute, in some probably immeasurable way, to killing us. Once part of an “environment,” these things with every breath become part of them, part of us. Eyes burn; lungs seize up. And people out for short dog walks come back without a voice.
It's worth noting that while the usual factors like auto pollution and unlucky airflow contribute to the Central Valley's toxic air, what makes this atmosphere more deadly than almost anywhere else on earth is precisely the anti-urban or pastoral economy for which I waxed nostalgic in my first post. That's because the countryside that I once mistook for nature is precisely what generates the central contributors to the Valley's now-lethal air: aerated agricultural chemicals and particulate matter generated from dairy farming in this, "the most highly concentrated milk-producing area in the world," combine into the thick and often visible atmospheric pollution that makes living in Fresno the same thing as dying in it.
This intertwinement by which a community's way of life generates its own death is familiar from post-Victorian factory economies. It feels new, I think, when the economy itself is predicated on the generation of nourishment, here milk and food. Spahr captures something of this perverse interplay in "Tradition," when she notes of another kind of milk that it is necessarily (she learned by research) infused with "insecticide," "plasticizers," "refractive index testing oils and wood preservatives." But still it is food:
I make a milk like nectar,
a honeyed nectar of capacitor dielectics, dyes, and electrical insulation
and I pass it on every two hours to not really me. ("Tradition" 54)
Spahr refers to "dielectics" --a kind of molding compound used to protect electrical parts from corrosion-- but evokes dialectics, as in the interpenetration of seemingly opposed terms: in Fresno as in this poem, the very things that maintain life are inextricable from, even generate, its opposite.
One Fresno resident interviewed by the LA Times explained one way that this process becomes palpable, referring to “the burning in [your] throat" when you go outside. “I'm scared,” she continued. “I can feel that something isn't right. I can feel the tightness in my chest. …. I told my husband, 'My head feels chaotic inside.' I know what will happen — I will be coughing tonight. Maybe the damage is long term. But what do I do?"
"What can I do?" The question captures the helplessness of an individual in the face of huge, distributed, and systemic dilemmas; the point is that she can do nothing. But it is also the question Spahr's poetry asks, and the question that confronts us, I think, as we labor to imagine what poetics, the work of making, might mean in the face of our ongoing environmental catastrophe, which human agency caused but feels somehow powerless to counteract. What can we do?
In the western tradition’s paradigmatic elegy, “Lycidas,” John Milton’s grieving speaker laments the catastrophic loss of his best friend, who has drowned. The speaker grieves, he weeps, he “bewails.” But that is not all. In the final line of the poem, the speaker gets up. “At last he rose,” Milton writes, “to morrow to fresh woods, and Pastures new.” The last word of this pastoral lament -- this neoclassical elegy for a lost world and a broken life -- is “new.”
The pastures and woods of pastoral may fit uneasily with an age of industrialized food systems and air so toxic that it has generated its own disease. And yet, if we are to take stock of our own losses, and squarely to measure a devastation that is real and is ours and that is in many cases irreversible -- and is, irrevocably and chemically, part of us-- I don’t think we should become too comfortable lingering in that loss. I do not think we should become too intimate with melancholy. Could we come out of these catastrophes, and move, together, toward something new -- toward action?
The first step, anyway, will be to reckon honestly with what has been lost, with what we are still losing. I’ll let Spahr have the last word:
We were born at the beginning of these things, at the time of
chemicals combining, at the time of stream run off.
These things were a part of us and would become more a part of us
but we did not know it yet.
Still we noticed enough to sing a lament. ("Gentle Now")
In this series of three posts, I'm going to make into a kind of weird serial an informal talk I gave at Marymount University on Friday, September 25, 2015. The task was to talk about my new thinking about ecological poetics for a general audience of parents, students, and faculty. I'm grateful to Eric Norton for the chance to think through some of the largest questions of my next project in a personal way, and to Tonya Howe, Sarah H. Ficke, and others for the exciting conversations during and after my somewhat unorthodox -- because biographical -- presentation. These posts are modified, and expanded, from the oral presentation I gave.
I start this series of posts in a personal way, speaking about memory and about commitments, because as I've tried to say in other places, I think commitments are ultimately where criticism begins. One unstated suggestion of this post is that we might do well to acknowledge as much.
The image below shows my grandmother's house in Fresno, California. I didn't live there and it was never my house. But my brother and sister and I spent much time there growing up and so I associate it with our childhoods. After I left Fresno for college, and after I'd lived in New York, Durham, St. Paul, and now Washington DC, these associations have become stronger. I like this image because it's how I recall the place: a regular house, not fancy, showing the seams of its age but in some inextinguishable way alive: the blast of red from the camellia in the front, the daffodils, the Meyer lemon tree peeking from the right-hand wall, the whole place charged with an electric green.
The barn at the right is about 15 miles from my grandmother's place --we called her Noni-- in what used to be outside of town: Sanger, California. It belonged to my Uncle Ernie, the main structure on his small-plot farm; we'd go out there sometimes and climb on haybales, shoot things with BB guns, pick oranges. Once he taught me how to hold down sheep with my knee so you could shear them. It's hard; they squirm. This farm was an important place for my sister and brother and me: more significant in retrospect, perhaps, than it may even have been at the time.
You can see my Great Uncle Ernie in the image below, from 1979, when I was three years old. That's me touching the calf. I have a copy of this photo framed in my office and I stare at it sometimes, because I've always thought of it as a picture of what it looks like to touch new knowledge. In my most lachrymose and retrospective modes, the photo captures, for me, something like openness to new experience, to nonhuman life and the dignity of it, and even perhaps (if you can excuse some sentimentalism now) to the idea of care itself. Here’s it’s care from my Uncle toward me, of course --see how his left hand wraps around my entire arm, protecting me with one hand, leading me with the other. But also the care of both of us toward the haunches of this unknown being, whose body doesn't even fit into the frame. It's hard not to see the strength of my Uncle's arms, the paleness of mine, and the calf, only half in the picture, escaping or indifferent to us. That animal --again, in my most melodramatic reading--represents something like otherness itself: a beyond to experience that I am here being shepherded –the word's no accident– to bring within the realm of my understanding.
Only later would I come to realize that my idealized memories about the farm in Sanger conformed to an entirely formulaic way of thinking about modern experience. In The Country and the City, Raymond Williams canonically glosses it this way:
Here’s one of those objects. It's Aaron’s Rod, by D.H. Lawrence, which follows in a thinly altered autobiographical way a coal miner and labor organizer who longs to play the flute. In the 60's this book was about social conformity and the ambition toward art, but it's hard not to see today that it is also a novel about the extraction of fossil fuels, and the intimate relationship of this rapacious money-getting to the demolition of human life itself.
They were mysterious to me, these books, and represented something bigger: a life elsewhere, beyond; something permanent. I wanted to know what was inside them. When I did look inside them I found things like this, at right: my father’s annotations, his notes, in a crazy scrawl I can still barely read. These were cryptic notations of mental process, an archive of the smartest person I believed I had ever met in the process of thought.
In his copy of Aaron's Rod my dad underlined this passage:
“Reckon it as you like, it’s money on both sides. It’s money we live for, and money is what our lives is worth – nothing else. Money we live for, and money we are when we’re dead: that or nothing. An’ it’s money as is between the masters and us. There’s a few educated ones got hold of one end of the rope, and all the lot of us hanging on to th’ other end, an’ we s’ll go on pulling our guts out, time in, time out –“ (16)
I am quite sure that this is ironic underlining: Aaron’s philosophy -- he’s a union organizer in a coal mine-- is a way of bleakly facing down a world organized against his own flourishing. Lessons like this stuck with me, and pushed me to want to generate my own sense of how philosophy and literature might be put toward the struggle Aaron describes here, the old antagonism, as Lawrence has it here, between masters and us. The question became how the “educated ones” Lawrence's hero sees as his enemies might aim for something better than dangling other people on a string, pulling their guts out -- how an education could open you up to a worldview that was more like the flute and less like the coal mine: a way of thinking where something more than money is, as Aaron puts it, “what we live for.”
Spurred by this other sort of encounter with the new, I left for college to major in English. I landed at Vassar, but since the biographical portion of this essay is now coming to a close, I will only say that it was beautiful, strange, and full of people I didn’t understand. East coast people. It was in Poughkeepsie, the industrial center of the Hudson Valley, which I've come to learn was a center of nineteenth century industrial pollution, a generalized contamination slower and more dissipated but no less catastrophic, in its way, than Three Mile Island. In the booming heyday of the nineteenth century, this industrial town --located on an important railway line and shipping route, not far from New York City-- had air that was black with soot from breweries and paper mills, factories fired by the very kind of coal Lawrence's hero (or his ancestors) was busy extracting in England. Money was made, lots of it: Matthew Vassar's coal-fired brewery built the college I flew off to after my senior year of high school.
I want to shift toward the real topic of these posts, and into the second post of this series, by sharing the strange fact that Vassar’s most famous tree -- planted probably before its founding in 1867-- is a London Plane.
You can see it below in a promotional-type image of this beautiful campus. Hybridized in London around 1645, roughly the same time London switched from being a woodburning city to a coal burning one, thus becoming the first fossil-fuel society in history, the London Plane was particularly adapted to the atmospheric conditions of the early Anthropocene. A hybrid of two kinds of tree, it would become a favorite of urban planners in England and the industrial areas of the U.S. because it was “particularly resistant to pollution," capable of withstanding London's "great stinking fogs," yellow-brown and toxic, that decimated trees and killed no fewer than 4,000 people in a single 5-day period as late as 1952 (Brimblecombe 124). It worked in America, too, and U.S. city planners became fans of the tree for its capacity to withstand the most hellish doses of industrial pollutants: the smoke that, as Rebecca Harding Davis wrote of another industrial city in 1861, four years before Vassar's founding,
rolls sullenly in slow folds from the great chimneys of the iron-foundries, and settles down in black, slimy pools on the muddy streets. Smoke on the wharves, smoke on the dingy boats, on the yellow river,—clinging in a coating of greasy soot to the house-front, the two faded poplars, the faces of the passers-by.
London Planes could live through it. This means that my own college was built with environmental catastrophe in mind. Unknown to me, in other words, my entire education unfolded under the sign of environmental disaster. I learned to think in the shadow of ecocide.
In the next post, "Storm Clouds of the Long Nineteenth Century," I shift -- at last -- away from my own biography to sketch a brief history of ecological catastrophe and show how poems by Matthew Arnold and Jorie Graham generated effects to engage with it.
Nathan K. Hensley
Here's where I'll paste fragments of readings, ideas, and questions.