Anne Elvey

Plumwood Mountain, the journal, is written- (and posted in the light and shade of electronic media)-into-being at a time when there is a freshness in Australian poetry in response to being situated colonially and postcolonially in relation to country, where a kind of ecological thinking prompts a rethinking, reimagining, and restorying of what it means to be human—an unsettling of selves, of languages, of poetics. This freshness is expressed in: Jeremy Balius and Corey Wakeling’s edited collection Outcrop: A Radical Australian Poetry of Land, reviewed here by Susan Pyke; the dedicated issue of Angelaki (2009) on “Ecopoetics and Pedagogy” edited by Kate Fagan, John Kinsella and Peter Minter; recent guest edited issues of Southerly; the new-look Island, particularly for example in poems there by Gig Ryan; Cordite’s Gondwanaland issue; “animal” appearing as the theme of the most recent issue of Australian Poetry Journal; Forrest Gander and John Kinsella’s Redstart: An Ecological Poetics; and the work of the Kangaloon group, to name only some. In this responsive reworking of language and poetics, the questions of poetry and environmental ethics, poetry and ecological activism, questions already at the heart of Judith Wright’s praxis, return with new urgency.

Martin Harrison asks, “what are the necessary criteria for a writing which in some measure fulfils an ecological requirement—which is to say, a requirement to be up-to-date in its understanding of the world around us and intellectually equipped to be meaningful in this decade”? He sets out three criteria for such a writing. The first is a kind of indeterminacy in which “a work leaves open how it is a work”. The second is what I would call a situatedness, which is for Harrison, “a reference-level which explicitly opens up a field within an environment”. Third is “a way of positioning discourse outside of the discursive self”. As Harrison avers: “to understand interconnectedness with natural, biological and cosmological systems is now paramount in how we define ourselves as humans”. [1]

This is a challenge—particularly to Eurowestern ways of thinking and acting—to understand human being in fresh ways; it is a turn central to an ecopoetic task. We find something of this turn in Michael Farrell’s poem “Music, or a kangaroo chats about chastity”, where human sexualities and a kangaroo eros converse in a complex ecology of bush, books and search engines, and where music pertains to bodies (not necessarily human ones). Kate Fagan writes, “[w]hen ecopoetics stands outside of a nature that is constructed according to human-centric principles, a failure of scale and reality occurs. Nature has to be de-naturalised so that humans can take place in catastrophe, to act within it”.[2] Farrell moves in this direction of de-naturalising “nature” so as to “act within it”.

John Kinsella is critical (and as a poet himself one suspects self-critical) of writing in a time of catastrophe: “My problem with all writing is that it is a delaying tactic: we still make use of the tools of destruction to create and disseminate it.”[3] In the Anthropocene, a time when as Dipesh Chakrabarty argues humans as a species are acting on the planet on a geological scale, ecopoetry inhabits an unsettling place where writers and their works are witnesses implicated in that to which they witness.[4] In this issue Philip Harvey’s “Hesiod” and Jennifer Mackenzie’s “If the earth was” address anthropogenic climate change laterally. At a more local level, Brett Dionysius’ sonnet “Freckled Ducks” provides an example of witness. While I prize the idea of a poetry that witnesses, the idea of witness—with its attachment to seeing—could reinscribe a problematic self/other polarity. Dionysius avoids this when he plays with the trope of home, across species, and (bravely, some would say) likens the slaughter of ducks to war on particular ethnic communities in the twentieth century. Rose Lucas’ “Unexpected Fall” witnesses to the sudden, accidental death of an individual grouse, evoking a shared mortality.

Nonetheless, despite our ecological interdependence and interconnectedness, there is a kind of estrangement proper to ecopoetic writing, as Ali Alizadeh comments: “Ecopoetry … is neither a linguistic celebration of nature nor an attempt at, as it were, capturing it in a piece of writing; but it is instead conditioned by what Anita Plath Helle has observed to be ‘a certain recognition of estrangement.’” Engaging conscientiously with otherness, the poet refuses (or attempts to refuse) a dichotomy between self and other and “the ecopoem becomes a subversive form of writing, presenting an anti-possessive, anti-oppressive contemporary challenge to the dominant discourses of English literature since Romanticism”.[5]

I am hesitant to go all the way with Alizadeh in moving on from Romanticism. As Kate Rigby comments in her review of Entanglements in this issue, ecopoetry in many of its forms has its roots in European Romanticism, and some contemporary ecopoetry participates in a kind of neo-Romanticism, that while perhaps perpetuating an urban/rural or wild difference, not only mourns that which is lost or soon will be, but celebrates what has survived and is, in its survival, also flourishing. Ecopoetry cannot stop here; it is not landscape poetry or nature writing, but a way of being toward a world and toward a self that are not separable, rather selves are simultaneously entangled and estranged in that world, as matter with other matter (together what Serpil Oppermann calls “storied matter”).[6] What is produced in the act of writing is, moreover, also matter (a page; light and shade on a screen; a patterning of the breath which is always already embodied).

Therefore, Jack Collom can say that: “Poetry is a branch of ecology.”[7] He does not qualify “poetry” as ecopoetry. For Collom, “poetry proposes that language has always functioned more as a musical, gestural, plastic expressive medium than as a purveyor of denotations”.[8] Poetry is already “inside” what might be called nature; here, as Kinsella writes, “referents are realities and have real implications in terms of survival”.[9] He says further: “The irony is that whatever poets want to believe, poetry is textual, and if it’s to have an activist form, it comes out of the recognition of its limitations as much as its power to alter a textual landscape.”[10]

As Pyke highlights in her review of Outcrop, its editors, Wakeling and Balius, are interested in poetry that opens a space for, and attends to, the land as subject. In “Australia”, Meredith Wattison’s speaker encounters the land as a wild dog, in a poem where personal and political histories interweave with a frightening embeddedness/estrangement in country. This question of subjecthood pertains not only to country, but to species perhaps and certainly to individuals of a species (where we need to read “individuals” non-individualistically). Lucy Dougan’s “The Cat”, for example, plays with the question of a cat as subject, along the way answering Jacques Derrida with the cat “building an argument of its own”.

Harriet Tarlo in her introductory essay for a special issue of How2 discusses a variety of ecopoetics which include: an attention to the visual and spatial, and to place; a refusal to reinscribe an urban/rural divide; a concern with the “body polluted”; collaborative work destabilising “the single sovereign speaker”; and working with found text, including recycling text and engaging, through recycling, with oppressive texts subversively. [11] Working with found text is of particular interest to Tarlo, and in this issue we have an example in Kristin Hannaford’s use of text from old letterheads and advertisements in her “‘The Queerest Shop in Sydney’”.

Gander and Kinsella’s Redstart is an example of collaborative work where the poems from two continents responding to their places of habitation speak back and forward to each other. Stuart Cooke performs a different collaboration when he acknowledges the poems in his Departure into Cloud as written with particular places. Reviews of both works will appear in Plumwood Mountain in coming months. It strikes me that all our work, even that done temporarily devoid of human company at our desks, is already collaborative, in that, as Jane Bennett points out, it is already part of a network of material coagencies acting with and on us as we write.[12] Part of an ecopoetic process, then, is not to speak this as if it is new, but to speak what has been unspoken or elided. Humans have not suddenly become interconnected in ecological networks of kind, otherkind, country, air, sea and cosmos; rather some humans have enacted a dangerous lie, as if they/we were not already enmeshed in their/our more than human worlds. Each in their own ways, the poems in this collection resist the lie of individual human and species isolation.

While the majority of poems in the issue come from poets living in Australia, several are from overseas. Attending to the spatial, Peter Larkin speaks into a supposed urban/rural divide in “Arch the Apartness / \ Proffering Trees, 3 (Pollard)” when, at least for this reader, the poem evokes the forests of stone holding up the great cathedrals and abbeys of Europe, with sacred forest groves displaced and recalled in the branches of stone that decorate their ceilings. The poem repays multiple readings as it weaves the reader into its coppices and pollards. Tim Shaner’s “Thirty-Fourth Material Confession” details the complex more than human world of a backyard, again calling into question urban/rural or urban/wild oppositions.

The lyric voice of Mary Cresswell’s “Field Trip with Acid Rain” stands in contrast to the threat of the “body polluted” it evokes. Matthew Hall’s beautiful lines “from Sparrow” weave a more than human story of connection and loss. There remains a question of the “use” of other than human imagery and symbols to describe human experience; while this is inevitable in some ways, an ecopoetry sets up multiple points of conversation and comparison between the experience of humans and otherkind, inhabiting a space between using metaphor instrumentally and anthropomorphising the other than human. In such a space, Matt Howard’s “Tower Hide, Strumpshaw Fen” brings a plurality of migrations into a kind of tender seeing and hearing.

There is room, too, for litanies, such as Louise Crisp’s “from Wild Succession”, that traverses a terrain through cataloguing its flora, giving their common English and Latin names; this is at once a recollection of a colonial imprint on country, a journal of a practice of attentiveness to otherkind, and a celebration of their survival and diversity. Philip Hall, in another peripatetic poem, takes the reader on a long bushwalk with a bunch of irreverent kids, in the suitably rambling “Learning on the Line”. “To write is to open up a plurality of actions, heading off into the future”, says Harrison.[13] Patrick Jones experiments with form and font in “Dwell” as part of his project to develop a permapoeisis interwoven with his personal, familial action for change, a kind of creative resistance-adaptation to ecological destruction. John Reid’s artwork Performance for 25 Passing Vehicles is another mode of resistance which forms our spotlight in this issue, on roadkill, with the invitation to act by undertaking a voluntary curfew especially on country roads, or at least slowing down (what some have called “tootling”) when driving at dusk and into the night.

This ecopoetic collection, therefore, is not one thing. I like to think that Plumwood Mountain the journal, like the mountain of that name—where a garden and an off-the-grid mud-brick house cohabit in the midst of bush most of it rugged, where Val Plumwood learned and wrote her critiques of logics of colonisation, domination and centrism—has a place for a variety of styles and forms of being and co-being, as poems, poets, artists and audience mutually engaging in multiple ways of thinking with country, in grief and in hope. Harrison writes: “In the current moment it is clear that we must listen to what is other than human and how it is speaking to us and that the act of attention between self and the environment is intertwined and interdependent and completely mutual”.[14] Harrison’s evocation of a mutuality, whether it can be complete or otherwise, is a good place to close. I am grateful to all the contributors (poets, book reviewers and artists) who have given their work to this inaugural issue, particularly to Kit Kelen for the cover art from his forthcoming exhibition in Macau, and to the editorial board, in particular Martin Harrison and Tricia Dearborn who offered advice on the shortlist of poems, though I take responsibility for the selection as it appears here. It is, I hope, part of the fresh conversation in Australian poetry and poetics that sees ecopoetry not as a fixed genre but as a process of engagement, a responsive poetry-in-becoming, a poetry-to-come.


Alizadeh, Ali. “Transgressive Lyric: Teaching Ecopoetry in a Transcultural Space.” Ecopoetics and Pedagogies special issue of Angelaki 14.2 (2009): 51–61.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry 35.2 (2009): 197–222.

Code, Lorraine L. Ecological Thinking: The Politics of Epistemic Location. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Collom, Jack. “An Evolution of Writing Ideas, and Vice Versa: A Personal Essay.” ecopoetics 4/5 (2004–2005): 3–60.

Fagan, Kate, John Kinsella, and Peter Minter. “Editorial Introduction.” Ecopoetics and Pedagogies special issue of Angelaki 14.2 (2009): 1–4.

Harrison, Martin. “The act of writing and the act of attention.” TEXT Special Issue 20: Writing Creates Ecology and Ecology Creates Writing, edited by Martin Harrison, Deborah Bird Rose, Lorraine Shannon and Kim Satchell (October 2013): http://www.textjournal.com.au/speciss/issue20/Harrison.pdf

Kinsella, John. “The School of Environmental Poetics and Creativity.” Ecopoetics and Pedagogies special issue of Angelaki 14.2 (2009): 143–48.

Oppermann, Serpil. “Material Ecocriticism and the Creativity of Storied Matter.” Frame 26.2 (November 2013): 55–69.

Plumwood, Val. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. London: Routledge, 1993.

—. Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason. London: Routledge, 2002.

Tarlo, Harriet. “Women and ecopoetics: an introduction in context.” How2 3.2 (Summer 2008): http://www.asu.edu/pipercwcenter/how2journal/vol_3_no_2/ecopoetics/introstatements/tarlo_intro.html


[1] Harrison, “The act of writing and the act of attention”.
[2] Fagan, Kinsella and Minter, “Editorial Introduction”, 4.
[3] Fagan, Kinsella and Minter, “Editorial Introduction”, 2.
[4] Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses”, esp. 212.
[5] Alizadeh, “Transgressive Lyric”, 55.
[6] Oppermann, “Material Ecocriticism and the Creativity of Storied Matter”.
[7] Collom, “An Evolution of Writing Ideas, and Vice Versa”, 7.
[8] Collom, “An Evolution of Writing Ideas, and Vice Versa”, 12.
[9] Kinsella, “The School of Environmental Poetics and Creativity”, 147.
[10] Kinsella, “The School of Environmental Poetics and Creativity”, 148.
[11] Tarlo, “Women and ecopoetics”.
[12] Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 23.
[13] Harrison, “The act of writing and the act of attention”.
[14] Harrison, “The act of writing and the act of attention”.

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