John Charles Ryan
Human memories of plants are a vital part of the landscape poetry tradition that underlies contemporary ecopoetics. Of course, Wordsworth famously recalled, ‘A host, of golden daffodils’ while Cullen Bryant later celebrated the yellow violet, ‘That made the woods of April bright’. But what would the violet have uttered to Bryant? And about what—or whom—did the daffodil reminisce?
It is a daunting and provocative time to be a phytopoet, one entrained to the cadences of the plant world and committed to botanical justice. Daunting because of the formidable scale of species loss the world over. Provocative because of the rise of vegetal cognition, critical plant studies and other fields transforming how we understand green being-in-the-world. Research, for instance, suggests the plants remember their environments in order to consolidate how they respond to imminent stress. Yet, in other situations, forgetfulness—or what scientists term ‘memory dissipation’—can protect future kin from the negative effects of intergenerational trauma.
It does seem that, in terms of vegetal intelligence, we are steadily drifting away from the domain of metaphor and anthropomorphism. But what does this drift entail? What does it mean to confer such capacities to plants? (And do we even need to make these kinds of human-to-plant transferences in the first place?)
Such questions of relations and ethics have inspired this issue of Plumwood Mountain on ‘plant poetics’. How does knowledge intersect with intuition, sensation and emotion to shape writings about plants? How might poetry trouble the dominant perceptions of flora as beautiful objects, pleasing scenery or exploitable resources? How can we learn to approach the biosphere from an emplanted perspective—one recognising plant wisdom—rather than consigning the botanical to the background?
The notion of ‘plant poetics’ (or ‘phytopoetics’) embraces the ancient grounding of poetry in poiesis—in the creative act of making, becoming, bringing-forth or emerging. The phytopoems compiled in this issue highlight the styles, forms and dispositions that put plants at the front and centre of poetic narratives. With language as the transformative medium, we might thus become more conscious of the shared florescence of plants, places, people and all else that exists.
In this issue, I aim to locate aesthetic responses to plants in relation to diverse conceptions of— and approaches to—the vegetal world. In my prompt for the issue, I pointed to poetry by Rumi, Erasmus Darwin, Jack Davis and Joy Harjo. In this vein, too, are botanically-focused works such as Wendy Burk’s Tree Talks (2016), Elisabeth Bletsoe’s Pharmacopœia (2010), Alice Oswald’s Weeds and Wild Flowers (2009), Pablo Antonio Cuadra’s Seven Trees Against the Dying Light (2007), Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris (1992) and many others from global literary traditions deserving mention. Published last year, Peter Larkin’s Trees Before Abstinent Ground contributes energetically to the idea of phytopoetics. I am pleased to include Larkin’s sequence ‘Given Trees Their Other Side of Nature’. Of note is also the botanical work of John Kinsella in Western Australia; his ‘Scarlet Runner Rhapsody Villanelle [a variation]’ concludes the issue.
The thirty-three poets brought together here address the complexities of plants in engrossing, confronting, experimental and idiosyncratic ways that resonate long after the poems are read. The issue features three commissioned works from Anita Patel, Michelle Cahill and Debbie Lim. ‘Theories of Crown Shyness’ by Lim, for instance, lyricises the ecological phenomenon invoked in the poem’s title whereby trees create ‘fissures’ in their canopies in order to avoid touching one another and to enable light to penetrate the understory. To these poems are added another 34 from general submissions. As is to be expected, there were many well-crafted poems that I could not accommodate. In addition to the poetry, the issue includes an essay by ecocritic Warwick Mules, ‘Nobody’s Voice’, as well as my own phytopoetic meditation on the stunning yam paintings of Emily Kame Kngwarreye.
The opening poem, Jaime Luis Huenún’s ‘Ceremony of Love’, translated by Cynthia Steele, evokes the Indigenous Mapuche-Huilliche tradition of Chile. Steele’s is one of three translations I have included, the others being Tracy Ryan’s ‘Rose Interior’ from Rilke and Julia Anastasia Pelosi-Thorpe’s ‘Touching each another they think themselves old’ by contemporary Italian poet Maria Borio. Included also is Borio’s Italian original.
Bringing the cultural and botanical into conversation, ‘Ceremony of Love’ reverberates with Huilliche terms like muday—a fermented drink made of macerated wheat—as well as plant names such as hualle, tineo and huinca. Scholar of Latin American literature Steven F. White has described ‘ethnobotanical poetry’ as that which narrativises cultural knowledge of plants. In this mode, Brenda Saunders’ ‘Black boys’ performs the literary and the biocultural at once in its narration of ‘the secret value of Gul-gad-ya’, the Gadigal word for the grass tree (Xanthorrhoea media). Acknowledging that traditional understandings of plants are gifted from generation to generation, Barry McDonald’s ‘Iwerre Atherre/Two Roads’ reminds us crucially that ‘“Plants have their stories too,” Auntie told me, “lots of them”’.
I am intrigued by the range of techniques and strategies adopted by contributors. Several poems invert the human-plant hierarchy with which Western societies have become so comfortable by narrating from a vegetal perspective. Such a deceptively simple move in fact constitutes a powerful means for reimagining relations between plants and people in an era of ecological collapse. In ‘Utterance’ by Basma Kavanagh, ‘we talk in flared flamenco gesture’ while in Carolyn Masel’s ludic ‘Plant Riddle #3’, ‘The little ‘o’ in the capsule / was all that was left of my voice’. Read in conjunction with poems such as ‘feral green marketing’ by Mark Roberts, Masel’s verse also points to the importance of humour, playfulness and parody in our dealings with flora and the worlds through which we pass together. Plants are beautiful, yes, but also quirky, perverse and historically hyper-sexualised.
Other poems celebrate the acoustic registers of plants vis-à-vis their ecologies. This is true of Susan Wardell’s onomatopoeic ‘Three songs to rain, translated by a kōwhai tree’ in which ‘Our thousand sides, wind-twilling, twist will un-tambourine’. Native to New Zealand, the kōwhai tree not only voices itself but also mediates between environmental elements, thus reconfiguring the very notion of translation. An unresolved longing for a common language characterises Magdalena Ball’s ‘Signals in the Wild’. However, it is inevitably the human tongue that is deficient in ‘the ability to detect / volatile compounds in the air’. Ball’s poem provokes us to rethink polylingualism in terms of the languages of plants expressed organically through electrical signals, volatiles, ‘heavy metals / pathogens, gravity, heat’. These poems and others indeed coincide with emerging scientific conceptions and therefore encourage a rapprochement between ways of knowing plants.
How does plant form engender poetic form? The symmetrical, ecosystemic, mirror-like structure of Michael Leach’s ‘West-East’ embodies Warwick Mules’ idea of a poem as a saying in its being seen. In Veronica Fibisan’s ‘Selfheal’, moreover, the layout of the text inscribes the distribution of the plant in the poet’s backyard as determined by a quadrat count, a sampling technique used commonly in the conservation sciences.
Of interest to me as well is the distinction between poems about specific plant kinds and personae in specific locales in comparison to those in which botanical life is apprehended as a whole (as a forest, system, landscape, history, idea). In the first mode, Glen Phillips attends to the wind-buffeted gimlet, Vanessa Page the silky oak and saw-tooth banksia, Catherine Wright the gorge edge-clinging kurrajong, Tracy Ryan the poisonous Herb-Robert and John Kinsella the brooding scarlet runner. By contrast, phenomenological perception of botanical wholes is explored meticulously by Stuart Cooke in lines like ‘Slowly, the forest expands into leaf-cumulus’ and in Kristen Lang’s narrative where ‘the twigs of the trees – stirrup anvil hammer – / feed their palms, their green tips, their breath’.
There are also those narratives that bring human-plant sensory entanglements to prominence. The sinuous composition of Ron Wilkins’ ‘Niche’ evokes the phenomenon of geotropism with which the speaker grapples. As studies suggest, plants are not merely the objects of our senses but exercise their own sensory faculties in negotiating particular ecological niches. The concluding image of a bean in the speaker’s mouth coalesces the human-plant interdependencies that are based in sensation, olfaction and gustation.
On a final note, I want to mention a cluster of four poems towards the middle of the issue—Brenda Saunders’ ‘Black boys’, Michelle Cahill’s ‘Le deuil, …. or what the Spinifex tells Orpheus’, Sophie Finlay’s ‘Floral Organs (A history of fire)’ and Jane Gibian’s ‘restless’—that prompts us to bear in mind the devastating impacts of the 2019–20 bushfire season on the human and more-than-human communities of Australia.
My sincere thanks to Anne Elvey, all the contributors and the journal’s supporters, as well as the University of New England and Southern Cross University, for making possible the publication of this issue of Plumwood Mountain on plant poetics.
John Charles Ryan is Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Arts and Humanities at Southern Cross University. His interests include ecopoetics, critical plant studies and the environmental humanities. His poetry collection Seeing Trees: A Poetic Arboretum, co-authored with Glen Phillips, is forthcoming with Pinyon Publishing. In 2020, he will be Writer-in-Residence at Oak Spring Garden Foundation and Visiting Scholar at University of 17 Agustus 1945 in Surabaya, Indonesia.