I sit at my desk, a thing, typing on a keyboard, another thing, in front of a screen … you get my drift. These things are in my particular home working environment. I can see a section of clam shell I picked up on West Beach the other day, a feather dropped by a magpie in the backyard, any amount of paper, stationary items made of plastic and metal, an old jam jar used to keep pencils at the ready, electrical cords, a jump drive, a couple of kitsch souvenirs (Singapore snowdome, anyone?). Some of these were parts of living things quite directly (a shell, a feather, the wood of the desk) and others more indirectly from living or other matter.
Your desk or work table, if you’re lucky like me to have one, may be tidier than mine, same for any part of where you live and work. But it will contain things, things connected to things, possibly things that don’t work anymore, parts of things, bent or broken things, things as memories. Things that were once other things and beings, animals, insects, trees and plants, sea creatures, rocks, fossils.
I get up and walk outside, into light, into air, the sun is shining, in fact it’s very hot. My partner and I put water into bird baths. There’s a breeze. There’s the vapour trail of a plane high up. These are all things as well.
In editing this issue of Plumwood Mountain, I was looking for poems that showed things as they exist and operate in ecological systems, climate systems, disturbances, big world systems, tiny bioregions, our own bodies. This included the way they exist as traces, and absences.
I find the poems I finally picked from the many submissions and those I commissioned for this issue are indeed alive to our relationship with things, among things. The poems, some more specifically than others, are also attuned to the poem itself as a thing, its language thingness, its visual thingness, as arrangement and rearrangement of texts, words, phrases, lines. I found poems which gestured, however briefly, to other languages, different word systems, different ways of sounding things.
This makes me think of the ways in which things are named, of the nouns, the pointing to, that English (and other languages) uses to refer to and often corral or pin down, objects, entities, and actions (some things are indeed slippery) as a particular ‘thing’. We may place a sign on a some thing which, within both its own set of systems or contexts, and in the world’s systems far beyond human thinking and acting, may exist beyond the view or sense we as humans have of ‘it’. A stone is a stone and more than a stone. Can we really put a label on light or air? Is a tree simply one tree? Things aren’t singular; even though we give them these names, they partake of wider systems. They are shape-shifters. They are between – sand, wharves, cars, rivers, windows. They are also part of us, inside us – foods, medicines, prosthetic devices, toxins. Our skin and slough becomes part of the dust of the world. Things are written over by other things, by war, eons of human and animal use, climate change.
I referred to Jane Bennett’s work in my call for poems. In her book, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, she argues that matter is not ‘dull matter’, but rather things are vibrant, they have power, they operate within us, around us, beyond us. They are often recalcitrant as well. We form attachments to them, with them; they are part of the world’s ecological systems. She defines this vitality as ‘the capacity of things – edibles, commodities, storms, metals – not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own’. (viii) While I might not want to lean too much on, as a consequence, seeing all things as sentient/alive, certainly things are not passive or inanimate, even as dead or broken things, they take part in living systems and may not always act as assumed, at least by humans. But they do act. And in ways that, say, a poem might try to encompass or reach for but also continue beyond the poem’s language and structure at the same time. That impossibility of words that poets know yet still persist with. There is always an excess, and even language as a thing can’t be tied down.
And, of course, we humanise things, astronomers talk of stars being ‘born’. Anthropomorphism is very human, poetry is full of it, even in the most determinedly non-metaphysical, procedural and materialist work. And we talk to things. In her wonderful short poem, ‘My friend tree’, Lorine Niedecker writes:
My friend tree
I sawed you down
but I must attend
an older friend
(Niedecker, Collected Works, 186)
The poem can be read as a rhetorical gesture, certainly. It is also in keeping with Niedecker’s ideas of responsibility and simplicity, and also her idea of the environment as a shared space with both the human, including human culpability, and the multiplicity of the non-human.
And some things that we call things are sentient, they are living, or were living. Sometimes they are us. As objectifications, certainly, but also as part of the whole, the things of the world. Although I was calling for poems beyond the human and animal, there is obviously no escaping animal presence as a thingly presence.
Here are some things you’ll find in the poems in this issue:
Ships, salt, wind, trees, grass, seeds, languages, mulch, river ooze, clay, silt, maps, art works, velcro, foil, electrolytes, ions, pizza, graptolite, trains, the Reef, breakwaters, sandflats, a cardigan, secateurs, plastic, baseball caps, crazy paving, pots and pans, hay rakes. Accompanied by various humans and animals.
And you’ll find poems as things. Poems, to state the obvious, are made of things. Words on a page. Words spoken. Grammars, syntaxes. Things seen and heard. They can be projected on buildings or rivers. Be framed as objects. Assembled and reassembled in books, on screens, on stages, set to music, carved or chiselled into other things. The Scots poet and artist, Ian Hamilton Finlay, famously placed words as things in his own particular environment, in the Pentland Hills, south of Edinburgh, where he created a sculpture garden called Little Sparta. These works were usually on stone, that being in itself a signifier of geological time. (Interesting to note that Lorine Niedecker’s second book, My Friend Tree (1961), was published in Scotland by Hamilton Finlay’s Wild Hawthorn Press.)
A lot of the poems in this issue make a point of their form or procedures. There are lists or catalogues or indexical framing, poems using languages other than English, and visuals, including gaps, and references to maps, the incorporation of other texts.
Many of the poem focus on the everyday moment with and of things. Others point to planetary and cosmic eons, often geological and oceanic processes, things in deep and wide time. Poems also conjure with ghosts and future presences, or absences, past and future spectres, which also presupposes a strangeness and an estrangement as well as a connectedness between things and the human. I wonder about this possibility of poetry, to continue thinking along Bennett’s new materialist line, particularly of the vibration of language and form (as a form of vitality) within things or about things, and as things, creating both synergies and networks, but also echoes and fugitive hauntings.
Thanks go to the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund for providing funding to commission five poets to offer work alongside the chosen submitted poems. And I was most pleased that Shastra Deo, Mindy Gill, Elena Gomez, Alison Whittaker and Janet Jiahui Wu accepted a commission to provide a poem each for this issue.
In their poems, there is much that works with ideas of assemblage, as language objects and as the complex of materials and processes of the earth, where things exist and circulate not just as objects of contemplation but as a back and forth, an unsettling of subject/object, foreground/background in their linguistic work. Things in these poems are always enmeshed with bodies, cultures, environments, eco-systems and histories as things cross and re-cross human and non-human networks and boundaries.
Alison Whittaker’s poem ‘rework’ features a literal sign on a road, but also a sign of the Indigenous body, the bodies of Indigenous women, and a site of struggle, of the constant, necessary and tiring work of reworking language by local Indigenous people, of resistance to both the narratives and bodily daily realities of continual re-colonisation. In this case it’s a very specific nightly re-naming of a controversial sign, ‘Gin’s Leap’, a name that is a ‘slur’, that impeaches ‘a mountain feature to the west’. ‘Write, revise revise revise revise revise the sprawl.’
Elena Gomez’s poem sequence ‘Novembre dans le calendrier révolutionnaire Français’ breaches boundaries between human and non-human, history and now, and is syntactically both fluid and random, with words plugged into what networks not being, deliberately, stable. And it’s funny. The title links things with time, and refers to the secular calendar adopted in 1793 during the French Revolution, with each day of the year named for a seed, tree, flower, fruit, animal, or tool. Cauliflower and Juniper are days in Frimaire (frost) (ie late November into December). Look it all up.
Janet Jiahui Wu’s phrasal and clausal assemblage in ‘cusp’, reminds me of the connections and disconnections (the gaps imply both) between apparently vastly disparate things and actions as it gestures to ‘proportion of relation’ and bodily encoding, sinking islands and nations raging, and even speculates about humans being replaced by AI or indeed operating like machines ‘collecting tickets’ among many other things. But the poem also references the erotic and sumptuous, lifted skirts, gold, blue, crimson drapery, candles and incense.
Mindy Gill’s poem ‘The Phytoplankton’ reacts to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or Pacific trash vortex, in the North Pacific Gyre, which is, as we know, a huge though indeterminately sized congregation of plastic and other debris, often suspended rather than floating. (There are other such congregations in our oceans.) The poem mourns ‘our murderous survival’ amongst this debris we’ve created and which outnumbers us. It also asks ‘the impossible: a siltless square of clarity’.
Shastra Deo’s ‘hanahaki’ layers and unlayers the body/world dichotomy and speaks of hauntings at human and vegetal levels, as it explores bodily colonisation, disturbances in subjectivity. ‘I // belong to my body like an occupying force’. The title refers to a fictional disease brought on by unrequited love involving the coughing out of flower petals. The poem also references Chernobyl and caesium, as caesium-137, released during that event, decays slowly and its effects are still present in soil at ground level.
Finally, I’ll invoke Val Plumwood, and her idea of ‘The experiential framework of dead silent matter entrenched by the sado-disspassionate rationality of scientific reductionism’ (18). So, yes, some things are dead or extinct, often because of various politico-economic rationalities, and corporate and individual viciousness and sadism. They are silent yet speak, or reverberate. Fossil layers which have been made into fuels and plastics, mined ores, and dead corals are just some obvious examples. They can still be spoken via words made by humans, in poetry. They are still here in our systems, indeed, our bodies. Plumwood wanted us ‘to think beyond these boundaries, to re-invest with speech, agency and meaning the silenced ones, including the earth and its very stones, cast as the most lifeless members of the earth community’ (22).
The poems in this issue are not all about ‘dead and silent matter’ but all kinds of matter, and the poets in this issue all give dynamic agency and sounding to the various things of this world. I thank all of them for their work.