Jun 17, 2009

An "Eco-Poetics" Reading with Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and Jonathan Skinner

Ever since last month’s “eco-poetics” Segue series reading at the Bowery Poetry Club, featuring Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and Jonathan Skinner, I have been mulling over a question I thought postmodernism had long ago resolved: What is the relationship between language and nature?

Post-structural theory, at least, presumes that there is no relationship between language and nature, as there is no “real” relation between signifier and signified. The Saussurian “nature” of the signifying word bears no relation to its objectified signified as material referent. So, in one of Ferdinand de Saussure’s most famous examples, a word like “tree” (“arbre”) has only an arbitrary relation to that object outside my window stretching new green leaves in all this East Coast June rain. While many “academic” poetries might claim to lyrically capture -- and penetrate -- the tree-like objects in our universe through descriptive metaphor, others like myself would wonder if it is ever plausible, or desirable, to believe in the metaphorical substitute, word for object. After all, the “word” itself is its own object: no more, no less.

My argument – not original of course to me – is that there is no “authenticity” to language, except in our appreciated status of its own artifice. I love the artificial “nature” of language, that which can be played with, molded, reused, rejected, found again and reshaped – and we writers do this like children play with putty, reworking language in so many ways. I might add that a Lacanian view would be similarly sanguine toward any belief that any word for “tree” taps into (the sap of?) a “natural” Real. The Real is not denied in a Lacanian vision of it -- just opaque, or not visible, or knowable, in the empirical sense of "vision." And the psychoanalytic Lacanian position toward language is that “the word” under the Law of the Father is one of the "symptoms" of castration anxiety -- or, better said, it is the speaking subject's fear of extinction, of ontological absence, and powerlessness, that makes our language "appear." We utter sentences, we write words, through this anxiety we never resolve. (And in our "mirror stage" processes, we enhance our "identity" as subjects through self-alienation as much as recognition.)

So "nature" has never had much to do with this poetic "Real." When I re-visit the subject of a language-in-nature, as a poetics presumably concerned with nature, that of "eco-poetics," I have wondered what we could be speaking about. But I have come to see "eco-poetics" as a new conceptual approach -- and I find the concept compelling. I find it compelling because of the serious state early 21st century humanity finds itself in, with our melting polar ice-caps and the on-going mass extinction of so many living species. I find it compelling because of the corporate structure to our everyday life, directing not only our environmental policies but our food production and health care -- the physical "nature-based" underpinnings of our bodily existence. The latter two were once viewed in a more “natural” framework that embraced local growing cycles, herbalism and "healers" -- not technocrats and HMOs striving to make money.

As I contemplate the fact that we humans -- such a relatively young species on earth -- are in the process of destroying it, I also find the "eco-poetics" concept compelling with my husband recovering from a major stroke last month. In the past month, I have once again witnessed and been part of the tragedy of American health “care,” the scampering of over-worked doctors in the hospital bureaucracies, the denial of "care" by his health-care provider when it was much needed (later reversed, but to his detriment at the time), the lack of "eco-balance" that our corporate profit instills both in our workplaces that stress us out and make us sick, and in so-called "health" / "care" -- the word “care” like "health care" becoming but euphemisms, covering up the absence of both). As I try to convince my ill husband, who has lost his inner "ecology" for the time being as he recovers from a medically induced brain injury (caused by the medical people themselves), that to survive in this life requires a new and not externally supported form of internal balance. Such "balance" is not popular in our Blackberry worlds -- one, perhaps, that many poets and writers I know write and speak about or allude to through their written work.
I recall a memo from an administrator at my college praising a past dean for coming to work a day or two after surgery. (This former dean later died relatively early in life of another ailment.)

"Eco-poetics?" I'm exploring the notion, and trying to understand its relation to the poetries I heard at the Segue reading and the poetry that I so love. I’ve been also reading work written by my mentor on a topic he terms "environmental poetics," poet James Sherry, whose book, Sorry: Environmental Poetics, is forthcoming from Factory School Press. In an unpublished essay I have read by Sherry on this topic of environmental poetics, he addresses the structural questions I've just suggested above. He asks: How do we construct a poetic theory around this concept of “balances,” inner as well as outer -- toward the earth and within/toward ourselves? Sherry (who heads the Segue Foundation project in New York) describes environmental poetics as a critique of many traditional poetries based upon the so-called "humanist" tradition, in which language is perceived as a porous medium of ready-made meanings in overt exchange of object-like phenomena. Re-conceiving the "humanist" project in general, Sherry argues in this essay for a type of thinking – and art – that he calls “environmental cognition.” What is most important to “environmental cognition” is that it avoids the “subject/object” split in identity, one that, in Sherry’s words, “separates the self from its surroundings in a way that allows us to detach our selves from where we are in some unproductive ways.” As Sherry declares in the essay: “We must establish a framework in which humanity and nature are understood as a single complex system.” (Sherry’s essay is specifically on the poet's theater of Fiona Templeton and environmental poetics. It is currently under submission, and I expect some version of it to be forthcoming soon.)

Environmental poetics, or "eco-poetics" (which may be more Skinner's term, as editor of the journal he calls ecopoetics), provides the framework we need to start re-conceiving our "separations" -- and also to address the truer multiplicites of "being" as "we" occur in nature, and in "our" existences. The "human" is no longer thus primary in "environmental" or "eco-poetics," although it, too, is perceived as part of the natural world (and presumable human languages are a fact of that "world", as well). In the poetries of both Berssenbrugge and Skinner, multiple perspectives offer a matrix of assimilating yet separate multiplicities; these demonstrate that the perspectives that may seem contrary can, in fact, exist at the same time. These poetries evade the "humanist" separation of subject and object -- and those binary conceptual categories. At the same time, they call on another kind of unity, one that is not hierarchical, or power-driven, in their work.

The poetry I most appreciated hearing at the reading by Skinner is his fabulous “Warbler” series. In pieces like “Magnolia Warbler” and “Pine Warbler,” which he read, one hears the “warbling” not so much of bird sounds but of poetic words, as they crisscross and cross-fuse themselves with prior texts (like the poetry of Jennifer Moxey or the French-English hybrid writing of Nicole Brossard.) In lines from “Myrtle Warbler,” I "hear" this linguistic but also "natural" effect, simultaneously; the bird subjects are coupled with the human subjects, just as sound is coupled with vision. Humanity does not dominate imagistically over natural phenomena, like the birds calling and in flight:

loose change twisting the fader
the volume rises or drops
trills another nice day its
gregarious as junco sidles

floats an inverted U mid
specks of troubadour pollen
arriving early leaves late
bayberries myrtle poison

lifting squadrons loops of light
sidl seedl seedl husks

Those last lines from “Myrtle Warbler” do describe the “nature” of a bird song from a human perspective – but as the song/sound alliteration of “s” quite literally slides and glides (as if through air?) amidst the vowels “I” (sidl) and “ee” (seedl), the repetition of “seedl” completes the notion of “husks.” But we are provoked to ask: What is a “seedl husk”? Bird feed or song? Does it matter? Is it something we see in a bird’s mouth, or hear as a bird eats? And does it matter if hearing, seeing, tasting (through the full subjectivity granted the implicit bird figure) occurs at the same time -- through a poem? For both perceiver and perceived, subject and object – as neither and one – does it matter if we know or don’t know where one meaning ends and another begins, where one "being" (animal/human animal) begins and another starts?

“Nature” is interwoven into the separations required by the arbitrary "nature" of language in Skinner’s “warbler” series. “Nature” informs the subject; nature's “other” is no longer an object; it is what exists in the poem’s actual sound field. I find Skinner’s poetry fascinating for these effects. But I perhaps focused on Berssenbrugge’s “ecological reading,” as she called it, more intensely, since I have long been a fan of her work. Berssenbrugge introduced this kind of reading as an investigation into “how the mind locates itself in language,” and also, she added, “spatially,” with only an implicit reference to nature as that which is the spatial/existing within space.

In a poem she read, entitled, “Parallel Lines” (published in Berssenbrugge’s recent “New and Selected Poems,” called I Love Artists, from U California Press), Berssenbrugge "describes" in abstract terms not really the land that clearly mesmerizes her in northern New Mexico, where she lives on a mesa in the high desert and collects many of her poetic materials; but she describes the “lines” of her own poetic words, which are engaged through subtle interactions between a poet-subject and a habitat, through her myriad of perceptions -- all of which are based upon color and spatialized but in fully imagined arrangements. What I appreciate about Berssenbrugge's poetic work in general is the way in which she involves the perceiver in an infinite number of ways with any object (or other subject) perceived. We read of these complex, non-dual interactions between subject/object, perceiver/perceived, in lines like these from the poem:

I wake, like a bird among thousands of traces of small birds’ passing through the space.

Can you perceive traces, virga, pigment in a substrate of dawn light, as one speaks YES, pigment, NO,
seeing, pigment.

“Parallel Lines,” then, is a poem not about nature but rather attuned to or within the natural and phenomenal world it canvases. Berssenbrugge’s work is thus both phenomenological and linguistic at heart. This poem’s language “lines” are centrally linguistic acts, ones that emerge, however, from reactions occurring within space; and that space itself is composed in the poem of relationships, those involving matter: human subject “matter” and physical matter, which, again in this "eco-poetics" conceptual field, become one and the same. These relationships appear to expand, contrast, and evolve in “lines” parallel to one another:

Spring flowed through itself, a space, and summer is space I break, pecking from inside my dream and
outside, telling it to you.

A series of questions rather than assured natural descriptions haunts the following lines, forming the environmental interrogation into spatialized relationships as a whole:

Where does mist come from on the mountain?

How will dust materialize color in air light moves through in parallel, energized lines, fabric?

Energy, not the literal “lines” in nature, formulate natural objects in space. These are the “natural” (but also arbitrary) contours that Berssenbrugge’s mental pathways take – formulating an “environmental cognition,” as Sherry might have it – a flow path that takes its “natural” course (one of a multitude of possible courses, always). As “Parallel Lines” declares in one of Berssenbrugge’s signature complex “sentence” lines:

A moment of experience commences a train of causes for all plausible outcomes.

Plausible, indeed. All considered mental perceptions and their pathways are possible. When we read/hear the line, “White clouds are data beneath words in blinding light,” we then receive a kind of “line” response, telling us that “They’re not debris in the mind” – that those “clouds,” like thoughts, are matter. In other unpublished poems from which Berssenbrugge read, such as “Glitter” (still in progress), she portrays the realm of mental patterns, “thoughts,” as a process of sliding back and forth, like shadows and light over a motion-filled landscape. These thoughts inform – and actually become-- a pictorialized network of images that nonetheless is visually tuned by the words they are composed of, fabricated from:

Thoughts are sent out by one rock informing other rocks as to the nature of its changing
environment, the angle of the sun and temperatures cooling as night falls, even its

(loosely called) emotional tone changes, the appearance of a person walking who’s not
appropriately empathetic, because she’s lost in her racing thoughts.

Another new poem that Berssenbrugge read, entitled, “Slow Down Now,” brings us back around to the means by which an “eco-poetics” or "environmental poetics" might suspend what the poem names “racing thoughts.” Instead of fighting against the reality of nature’s matter – which is that of a multiplicity of existences in which we bathe and are absorbed into – “Slow Down Now” shows us just how much “thought” belongs to, and is caused by meditation upon, say, a “simple” singular plant:

I’ve been sitting looking at this plant without feeling time at all, and my breathing is

Every line evokes not only a sense of meditative presence engaging nature through the breath, but also the processes of “looking” – itself always based upon a separation. Even so, “. . . the plant releases my mental boundaries, so it’s not needed for experience.” (I’m copying these lines from Berssenbrugge’s manuscript, a copy of which she generously gave me; her hand-marked edits suggest that “mental” might be read as “time's").

“Slow Down Now” reveals the multiplicity of boundaries, emotional, perceptual, material, through which a plant communicates as its own subject. Through chemical molecules, “. . . it begins altering the wavelengths its / chemicals reflect in order to offer itself to your imaginal sight, for you to gather it.” The poetic perceiver may be a "subject" who refuses to separate the human "self" from “being” in plant: “embedding in the livingness” (or, alternatively, "living," as the edits suggest) -- all "living" experience at once. But words spring from and are enmeshed inside that "living" experience. We can't make the separations and remain true to our environment. This process of words springing from and being "born" out of -- however artificially -- language's particular "field" enacts the “eco-/ environmental” poetics process at its structural core. While words may never substitute for “nature,” they nonetheless reflect the “environment” that they both evolve within and help to generate. An "eco-poetics," both literally and figuratively, breathes experience. And that's healthy for us all. -- LH

Note: Photograph of Jonathan Skinner, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and host James Sherry at the party following May's Segue reading was taken by Laura Hinton

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