John Felstiner’s book subtitled A Field Guide to Nature Poems asks in its title: Can Poetry Save the Earth? (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009). While Plumwood Mountain is not focusing on “nature” poems or “nature” writing per se, the question of the relation between poetry and the Earth—a relation that entails in some way writing consciously as a member of the human species in a particular here and now responsive to local and global environmental challenges—is at the heart of ecopoetics. I might wish to unsettle the word “nature” in so many ways, with Val Plumwood’s critique of the nature/culture binary in view. I might wish to dispute the word “save” that seems to privilege human (and sometimes divine) agency. But the field we are engaging in that brings the prefix “eco” to poetry and poetics, if not claiming a salvific agency for a poem, at least sees the poetic engagement with ecological damage (past, present, and sadly anticipated in the future, with all that means for individuals, communities, species, and their habitats) as critical. Felstiner, like many others, speaks of the way a poem might call forth in its reader (indeed in its writer) a kind of attentiveness to the other in all its specificity of place, community and kind. Others speak of ecological witness and of a tone that perhaps performs an ecological (rather than an anthropocentric) ontology—and comes from and opens to an ecological ethics and activism.
In the current issue, Julie Maclean delightfully imports Hopkins to Australia, capturing something of his sprung rhythms and imagery in her “Hopkins’ Oz in spring“. Alice Allan’s “Meteorologica” asks if a better use of a human body might be to act as a poultice for a wounded tree. Birds enter several poems, with B. R. Dionysius and Anne M. Carson, engaging in different ways with parrots; Carson’s Two green parrots seem “to make merry / against the backdrop of the approaching storm.” More soberly, Dionysius’ poem Orange-bellied parrot ponders “those swift / Last thoughts of a dying race” and a mortality humans share “the fear / Of the world living on without us”. He reminds us of our commonality across species: “There is no difference between us / Except how our cells unite”. Concerned with the failure of mutton birds to migrate south from Siberia to Australia successfully in 2013, Ann Vickery’s “Russian Bit Player” also moves across species: “Feathers pile thick on the shore, some of them mine”.
Amy Brown in her article on environmental empathy engages with two works (Peter O’Leary’s Phosphorescence of Thought and Kate Middleton’s Ephemeral Waters) to explore the empathic possibilities that both anthropomoph(is)ing otherkind and ecomorph(is)ing humans can produce in writing. Michael Kwaku Kesse Somuah’s “ENTITLED“, with its shifts of imagery and questioning, might also express a kind of ecological empathy; the speaker asks, for example, “Was timber deaf / to the robust sounds of the chain saw?”, then a few lines later, laments: “I pity your death / For you would have been a spot for some birds / and a serenity of lush strings for lovers.” And Jill Jones’ “Weed Grounds“, begins by speaking of “The way grounds become tired / of being told or dreamt”.
There are poems that ask in other ways about an ecology of writing. Dan Disney’s found, somewhat experimental villanelles each set two voices in tension: in (untitled #2) Alain Badiou and John Cage “converse”; (untitled #3) brings William Wordsworth and Pierre Bourdieu together. The structure of Shari Kocher’s “neither me neither you” sets up a different conversation between the “frail tents” of our cities, dying and living, and earth time.
This is a taster of the poems on offer in this issue. I am grateful to Harriet Tarlo and Susan Hawthorne for their advice on the selection. We worked together across continents, via email, wishing at the end for the fleshy interchange of ideas over a steaming pot of tea or glass of wine.
Kit Kelen has kindly offered a gallery of words and images that are part of an upcoming exhibition at Macau Museum of Art, titled pictures of nothing at all.
In response to our February spotlight on roadkill, Natasha Fijn has produced a poignant photo essay “Impacts on the Kings Highway“. Our spotlight for August is the Great Barrier Reef and the content including B. R. Dionysius’ “Great Barrier Reef” will be posted during August.
There are six new book reviews as this issue goes live online, and I hope to post two or three more during August. A list of books available for review is also on the book reviews page, so please get in contact if you would like to review one of these titles.
The next several issues will have guest editors and I will be posting more about those issues and calls for submissions at the start of September.
Thank you to all our contributors. It has been a pleasure and privilege working with you to bring this issue together.
1 August 2014