In Basho’s final haibun, oku no hosomichi, the poet stays at the Yamagata town of Oishida before his cruise down the Mogami River. During the evening, the locals tell him legend holds that the old haikai poetry, the traditional Japanese folk songs and stories, is scattered across the landscape of this region.
In Tim Shaner’s Picture X, it is as if the persona is seeking his own haikai. Or at least, a language, a vocabulary with which to write about the environment he finds himself in. This persona expects that he should at the very least recognise this language when he sees it. He is even a little embarrassed that he does not already have access to such a language.
– and with
the frustration of not knowing how to write
in such a setting as this one with the nature
all around naturally out west (3)
The search is described in the very first poem of the collection, "A Note on Pictures". It is a brave act to start a collection with a poem as gauche as this one. Shaner makes us feel the discomfort. It is a stumbling into foreign territory, a realisation that the persona is not only an alien here but that there is the real danger that he might take a step to the side and crush a rare orchid or an exquisite butterfly. He wants to understand this natural world, he wants to communicate it, but he does not have the beginnings of the language equipped to do this.
yet dissatisfied with
the words out West, still being used, as if
windows, as it was natural, like some kind
of default mode, and that in being employed
as such I was looking right past the words,
even the windows, for that matter, dazzled
as I was by the nature out West, that kind of
direct sense of being in it, as if I was walking
through the words, as if through them I
might touch the nature somehow (3)
The awkwardness is carried by an over-explaining, the use of articles in unusual places and their omissions elsewhere, the enjambment, the constant word-plays (woods among the words, scenes/screens), and a long string of ambiguities starting with the image, West. West seems to mean the wilderness here (no doubt because the Americas were colonised from the east) and this seems to contradict other nuances of meaning. The West is culturally at the forefront of environmental destruction. Other cultures, indigenous or those from the East, have the reputation at least of being more culturally attuned to the environment. But here, East is Buffalo, New York, the big city from which the persona has escaped. Buffalo is the "City of No Illusions" and this suggests that the natural world the persona is invading is not the "real world" but largely illusory.
All the same, "A Note on the Pictures", acts not only as a prelude to the first section, "Nature Walks", but to the entire collection. What follows it is framed by this introductory poem. There is an eerie sense that the book runs backwards and that this starting poem is the ultimate conclusion of Shaner’s stumblings through life, the city, his memories and finally "nature".
If Picture X is an eco-poetic work, then it is within the larger theme of what it is to be human in the 21st Century. Shaner quickly establishes in "Nature Walks" that:
the poems are primarily
experiential, i.e. I-centered, however much I
would have preferred reflexively this not to
have been the case (4)
This does not just mean that he is an observer, a roving camera. This is someone who is active within this alien – that is, natural – environment.
the path is slippery
I nearly slipped (7)
As such, he is uncomfortable with all the traditional views of the human within the natural world. Shaner is aware of the age-old attempt to divorce humanity from nature, particularly in the West. Humanity is a species apart from all the other species. At its most fundamental level, this comes from the simple fact of being human, we are divided against the natural in the same way that the individual is divided from everything else. All our perspectives are human-centric.
Thoreau is obviously an influence on this writing, although Shaner is quick to reject that influence. He clearly sees the paradox in a man living in an environment that excludes other people. As such, he cannot accept that nature is only safe in areas where humans are removed, the idea that the natural world is the victim in an abusive relationship. He is aware that humans have quarantined themselves from their environment for self-protection and the dangers, real or imagined, are evident to him as he wanders through the forest.
He jokes that if he runs
into a bear
i’ll hand it my
equating the dangers of the forest to the dangers of the city, accepting the irony that both seem to have the same predatory nature.
It is not Thoreau but Sebald and Rilke who become Shaner’s literary guides. Shaner brings to the forest not only his language, but all things human. He is wired to notice human technology in this environment and if that is not enough he brings his memories with him, not just his experiences but his opinions on them. There is more Buffalo in this wilderness than wilderness.
Where Sebald could not walk through the innocuous British landscape without being reminded of past genocides, Shaner is overwhelmed by the way in which human technology has come to dominate even the wildest parts of his planet. Even before he realises it, he is following the memory of the humans who have gone before him. The path, the track dominates his movements and when it runs out, he is truly lost, as incapable of retracing his steps as he is of plunging into the unknown. But the effect of his species on the environment is never too far away. He sees "a high white line", another track, the contrail of an aircraft in the sky. He becomes aware of the orange flags, the drill poles, the Park Boundary signs on blue posts. Apart from the odd bird song, the sounds are all human, the "crackle pop of tires".
a car shakes into action
and with its passing other
human sounds swirl
through trunks and trees (13)
The more he looks at the environment, the more it reflects himself.
The poems, he suggests, are written in a skinny, sky-blue notebook, as if the sky only has one blue. He even gives the dimensions of the notebook, 2” x 8 ½” and this fits in with the shape of the poems in "Nature Walks". These affect to be in note form with their text-messaging style of abbreviation.
For Shaner, language is the real issue. It is not the natural world that the persona of "Nature Walks" seeks, it is the language to describe it. He does not struggle for a grammar to commune with this environment but a vocabulary that does not distort, prejudge, pollute or destroy it. He is aware that our languages have plundered the natural world for their metaphors, just as clearly as humans have felled its forests for timber.
the way to write the nature was
through the language of catastrophe, what Paul
Virilio calls the accident. (4)
do so then by planting them, these damaged
words, in the nature scenes, the scenes placed
in these poems, in my skinny sky-blue
notebook, planting them, in effect, in the woods,
among the words found and heard there, as we
walked in the woods among the words (5)
Shaner does not say it explicitly, but the development of language seems to be the point where our perceived split from the rest of "nature" began. Or as good a point as any other. In one way, language does seem natural. In others, it is the device that developed our memories and made humans the meaning-making animal, intent on interpreting and "improving" our environment. Language is not the way to talk to nature, it is the way we communicate with each other. In the end or in Shaner’s case the beginning, all language is more or less the language of catastrophe.
Tim Shaner, Picture X. Monmouth, OR: Airlie Press, 2014.