Cassandra O’Loughlin reviews Lunar Inheritance by Lachlan Brown

Lachlan Brown, Lunar Inheritance. Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo, 2017. ISBN 978-1-925336-38-2

 

Cassandra O’Loughlin

 

There are two main ecopoetic identifiers used conversely by Lachlan Brown in Lunar Inheritance to draw attention to the sense of alienation the protagonist feels within an unfamiliar country and cityscape. One is in relation to the lack of harmony with one’s surroundings, and the other has to do with no sense of integration within a community. These two points are important when reading this volume from an ecological perspective. First, ecological poetics, among other things, engages with the relationship between humans and the wider environment and finds grounds upon which human and other-than-human communities can cohabit and thrive harmoniously in the biosphere. Second, ecopoetics generally seeks to support Barry Commoner’s first law of ecology which identifies everything as connected with everything else (Glotfelty, xix). The description of the narrator’s surroundings in this volume draws attention to that which is missing – in this case ‘Nature’ and human relationship with it. Estrangement from the natural world is highlighted by the absence of integration and harmony. By appearing to diminish the perceived value of human relatedness to the natural world as the moral principle he adheres to in his aesthetics, the reader is alerted, and recognition of that lack is ensured.

Lunar Inheritance is written from the perspective of an Australian who has Chinese heritage on his mother’s side and an Anglo-Australian father. The narrator drifts through city environs that are foreign to him, particularly Guangzhou and Shanghai, generally in search of identity. By supplanting the natural environment with the constructed one the poet is not only questioning the idea of identifying with a foreign culture or a place, but he is also obstructing any idea of rescuing humanity from the perceived post-industrial sense of alienation from its source of being. Through recognition of our shared physical existence with the natural world we can regain our own sense of identity as human beings who are corporeally embedded in a ‘living landscape’ and a ‘deeply interconnected matrix of sensorial reality’ (Abram 65, 84), notwithstanding our location or our cultural or ancestral heritage. I suggest then that social / cultural imperatives run parallel to ecological ones in this collection for a particular purpose, and overlooking the natural world is a deliberate strategy.

Because of the noticeable absence or minimal reference to the natural world in Lunar Inheritance, there is an extreme sense of disconnection: the narrator appears to stand outside of, and often in opposition to, the other-than-human world. He is not portrayed as being ecologically embedded in the world but rather somehow trapped in human constructed environments, especially cityscapes. The general mood throughout creates a sense of uncertainty and raises the question of unfavourable possibilities amid contemporary capitalism and consumerism. Surrounded by built environments, especially unfamiliar ones, the narrator reveals a sense of confusion and isolation in, for instance, the poem ‘ad-venture’,

Efficiency dividend the shortcut

that doesn’t pay off, losing one self

you’re out of data in a new-old city,

building site scaffolding like bamboo

hashtags camped around a high-rise.

The evangelical in you wants a sign,

but there are heaps of them covering

everything and whatever he called it that was its name.

(54)

Brown’s interpretation of human relatedness to consumerism’s hypes and constructed environments, to the virtual exclusion of the natural ones, is unsettling.

Awe is directed towards the human-made environment rather than in consideration of the wonders of the natural world. There is no sense of the presence of something inherent that is pervading and sustaining Earth and its inhabitants in a perpetual cyclical pattern of regeneration and restoration. In Shanghai, for example, there are ‘massive overpasses like fat basslines grooving / hard with pentatonic cars’ (‘new new Shanghai’, 33). Guangzhou’s city centre is ‘knotted’ (‘safe break’, 3). The poems have the potential to engender longing for the reinstatement of Earth connectedness in the reader. Attention is drawn to the possibility of a lifeless inheritance for us all.

The absence of nature, however, is not entirely complete. There are vestiges of the natural world throughout the poems. Remnants only of lifeforms suggest the threat of extinction for both human and Other. In this volume there appears to be very little chance of recovery of the landscape in which we are embedded. One exception might be in the poem ‘on Shamian island’ where the narrator notes: ‘Life of breath O breath of life: birdcall, / ancient trees’, is a rare oasis in an otherwise ‘teeming city that desires / a Kaiping billboard’s photoshopped blue skies’ (20). This is as if a remnant habitat for threatened species. Birds and trees appear, albeit tentatively and fleetingly, in the poem ‘curriculum vitae’:

Banyan trees with limbs

crosshatching whole apartment blocks,

the sky’s sketched edges

rapidly darkening,

and a day already

performance-reviewing itself,

with birds retrospectively true,

just perching there in point form.

(11)

The banyan tree is a fig, the seed of which can germinate in a crack or crevice of a human constructed edifice. It is a natural survivor in a hostile environment. The birds appear as if stunned, or as paper cut-outs. The two migrating birds in the poem ‘Chinese Container’ are forced to adjust to global atmospheric change (13). In the poem ‘cached psalm’ sparrows are caged and sold as if oddities for human entertainment (24). ‘Live chickens calling from cages / like a chorus in a tragedy’, are no doubt used for human consumption (‘pride’, 26). An anthropocentric perspective is maintained rather than an ecocentric one.

Proactive environmental awareness is rooted in consciousness, and conscience operates through the senses, the associative forces of which are feelings and emotions. Literary expressions of ethically sound environmentally conscious ways of feeling we are part of an integrated Earth, as presented in certain types of ecopoetics, could be beneficial for the progress of all Earth’s life systems. The poems in this volume are confronting, especially if the reader considers the actuality of being part of an immeasurable, expansive network of interconnection, not merely in a state of coexistence with other beings, sentient or otherwise, but as a part of living biological relationships. More often than not the narrator in Lunar Inheritance appears disillusioned, cynical and sometimes indifferent, ‘left breathing in / coal dust’ (‘a dream about Matthew 25’, 59), or imaging picking through ‘our growing mountain of debris’ (‘failed to do’, 81) on this ‘warming planet’ (‘wall of frozen dumplings’, 37).  For the most part, the poems lack hope. The reader is left with a feeling of longing for lost hope.

The poems in this volume are challenging – there is no consecutively developed story, and each poem is as if small parcels of thoughts and memories carried from one foreign environment to another. There is a suggestion of psychological disconnectedness with the cultural background the narrator has inherited. Of particular interest here is that there is no real sense of human relatedness or attachment to earth either. Rather, attention is drawn to the lack of reference to our inherent existence as part of the natural environment. The language used alerts the reader to the possibility of the threat to all lifeforms caused by unsustainable development and flagrant disregard of the earth and other lifeforms. Perhaps the most urgent function of ecopoetics in contemporary terms is to redirect human consciousness to the full attention of its position in a threatened natural world. Lunar Inheritance appears to have achieved this outcome.

 

Bibliography

Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.

Glotfelty, Cheryll and Harold Fromm, eds. The Ecocritical Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1996.

 

Cassandra O’Loughlin completed a PhD in English Literature at the University of Newcastle, and is currently a Conjoint Fellow there in the School of Humanities and Social Science. The focus of her thesis is Ecocritical Theory and Ecopoetics. Her work appears in various anthologies such as A Slow Combusting Hymn, and in journals such as The Australasian Journal of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology, Estudios Irlandeses – Journal of Irish Studies (Spain), Plumwood Mountain, Antipodes (USA), Southerly, Meanjin, Overland, Mascara Literary Review, Eureka Street and Earthlines (UK). Ginninderra Press published a volume of her poems in February 2018.

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