Kate Rigby reviews Entanglements

David Knowles and Sharon Blackie, eds, Entanglements: New Ecopoetry. Isle of Lewis: Two Ravens Press, 2012. ISBN 978-1-906120-65-8

Kate Rigby

Definitions of “ecopoetry” are many, varied, and, as David Borthwick indicates in his helpful introduction to this volume, contested. Whereas, for example, the Heideggerian concept of “ecopoetics” framed by Jonathan Bate in The Song of the Earth (2000), namely, as a verbal “making (Greek poiesis) of the dwelling place”,[1] is capacious enough to encompass lyrical writing of many times and places, Borthwick follows the usage of those, such as Scott Bryson,[2] for whom “ecopoetry” emerged only relatively recently in response to the current ecological exigencies of the Anthropocene. In his analysis—one that certainly applies well to the verse represented in Entanglements and that I will therefore quote at length—ecopoetry:

seeks to question and renegotiate the human position in respect of the environment in which we are enmeshed. Its ethic is to oppose the violent assumption that the world around us exists only as a set of resources which can be readily and unethically exploited and degraded for economic gain. […] Ecopoems signal a conscious re-engagement with a world that is familiar and strange, full of animals and plants that we must answer to, and which we need to address, again, more carefully, to define the questions that will help us to renegotiate ways of living in an uncertain future of biodiversity loss, climate change and the consequences of disposability. (xvi)

While this delineation of the ecopoetic field has a keen socio-critical edge to it, the contemporary ecopoems garnered by the editors of the volume, as they stress in their “Editors’ Notes”, exclude any that they identified as “largely political, or straight-forwardly ‘environmental’” (xii). Favoring instead works that exemplify a “new wave of poetry that seeks to directly respond to the world in which we find ourselves, and that dramatises a growing hunger for a meaningful connection with the earth” (xii), Knowles and Blackie actually draw closer to Bate’s understanding of what is at stake in ecopoetics: that is to say, not so much the issuing of directives as to what is to be done to halt the ravaging of the earth, as the disclosure of why nonhuman others and the places in which we encounter them, and the ways in which we are entangled with them, might actually matter to us, that is, in non-pragmatic terms (aesthetically, for instance, or affectively, ethically, psychologically or spiritually). For without this recollection of mattering and reinfusion of meaning all calls to ecological virtue that are irreducible to economics are likely to fall upon deaf ears.

Problems and perplexities start to emerge, however, when “we” probe into the “we” that is being invoked here, and when we question which “world” it is in which “we find ourselves” and how it is that we might reconnect, and with which “earth”. In the case of the poets represented here (along with the reviewer of the volume), the “we” is euro-western, white and (at least from a global perspective, if not necessarily in their nations of residence) more-or-less privileged. This is not intended as a criticism so much as a starting point for contextualizing the collection. Indeed, this sociological delimitation of the ecopoetic field, as it is conceived and represented here, is acknowledged by Borthwick, who observes that:

Ecopoetry is a predominantly western movement, emanating from writers who take their responsibility seriously to stand against the myths of domination and disposability that characterize, but also emanate from, the places they stand in. There is no room for piety, however, instead a profound need for honesty: the poets here, primarily from the UK, the USA, Canada, and Australia, find their voices more readily heard owing to the circumstances which progress has permitted. (xx)

These, then, are western voices raised, to some degree at least, in self-critique: voices of resistance to the dominant tendencies of the society that nonetheless enables them to write for a global readership. As such, they speak, to a greater or lesser extent, from a somewhat liminal zone: from a position of relative privilege, to be sure, but also from the margins of the social world in which they find themselves, and in a form that is itself marginal in relation to more popular and populist modes of communication: namely poetry, and, in the case of some of the contributors to this volume, decidedly avant-garde poetry to boot. Although all write in the globally dominant tongue—with the glorious exception of Rody Gorman’s Gaelic “Air An Doirling Mu Dheireadh,” and, in a few cases, from non-English-speaking locations (Japan, the Netherlands, and France)—their uses of language, as well as their perspectives, pull against the mainstream.

Interestingly, many of the contributors also reside, geographically and socially, on the margins, in out-of-the-way, non-urban places, pursuing non-mainstream lives. This goes for the editors too, who identify themselves in “About the Editors” as living on a “working croft by the sea, right at the end of the most south-westerly road on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides”. It is here, in the company of their “Hebridean and Jacob sheep, two breeding sows, a Kerry milk cow, bees, a miscellany of poultry, and a polytunnel”, that Blackie and Knowles also run Two Ravens Press, along with EarthLines, a magazine devoted to writing about nature, place and the environment. There are clues aplenty here as to the question of which “earth” it is towards which the poetry in this collection primarily (although not exclusively) directs the reader who is willing to heed its call to “reconnect”: namely, that which is to be encountered outside the city walls and out-of-doors, in rural places and wild corners, in contact with other-than-human phenomena that have the capacity to drag “us”—we denizens, that is, of (not yet post-)industrial (not yet post-)modernity—even if only momentarily, outside that world well characterized by Val Plumwood as that of a suffocating, heart-numbing, sense-deadening “human self-enclosure.”[3] Appropriately, then (and not to mention, nobly), all of the contributors have “allowed their work to be used for no personal gain”, since, as the editors stress, “royalties will be donated to The John Muir Trust (www.jmt.org) an organization that fights hard and well to protect wild land in a world in which it is constantly under threat”. (xiii)

What this all means is that one looks largely in vain for any trace of the kinds of transnational entanglement of environmental degradation with social injustice examined, for example, in the postcolonial environmental justice ecocriticism of Rob Nixon.[4] Again, this is not necessarily intended as a criticism, critical though I consider this socio-ecological perspective to be (one that I take to have been foreshadowed, moreover, in the work of Australian ecopoet, Judith Wright, and theorized early and incisively by her philosophical acquaintance, Val Plumwood). One might regret the failure to acknowledge the existence of other kinds of ecopoetry, such as that which turns our attention to inner-city nature (or, rather, natures-cultures), responds to environmental injustices, and/or is written from indigenous or non-western perspectives; but it would be a category error to object to the absence of such ecopoems in this collection, which, as Borthwick and the editors make clear, has a different agenda.

In their enactment of this agenda, many of the poems here invoke the time-honoured trope of the pastoral; but they do so in a diversity of fresh and interesting ways. Some, such as Andy Brown’s distinctly (and exquisitely) Rilkean sonnet, “Pen Y Fan”, which locates the poet and his companion(s) “alone”, trying in vain to “fit a landscape/into notebooks” (14), might run the risk of being tagged by the more sternly politically-minded as escapist, potentially functioning as what John Kinsella has termed “a tool for placation” (146), proffering aesthetic compensation in a world of commercially-driven and industrially-powered environmental degradation and social inequities. In my view, though, this would be unfair, both to Brown and the book as whole. The solace that is undoubtedly provided by some of the more traditionally pastoral lyrics in this collection functions, for me at least, as an encouraging reminder that all is not yet lost: that there remain places of more-than-human flourishing, the things of which, living and otherwise, have a call on us, even though they cannot be caught in our words, is, after all, what makes continued resistance worthwhile, as well as embodying in itself a form of resistance to the wholesale human appropriation and instrumentalisation of nonhuman others. Crucially, moreover, the collection opens with a self-reflexive poem that effectively reframes all that follow by anchoring them in a wider world of rampant industrial pollution, deforestation, and biodiversity loss, while warning of the ever-present risk of aestheticisation (“Our minds can turn anything romantic/Is the problem”), familiarization (“Our minds can assimilate all horrors./Is the problem”) and constructivist idealism (“But then we keep say, ‘Let’s construct another narrative.’”) (1). By insisting that “The nightmares must simply be called reality”, Catherine Owen’s “Nature Writing 101” enables us to “carry on” (1) in the perusal of the ecopoems that follow without forgetting the positioning of the more-than-human places and other-than-human entities that they invoke, however rural or wild, within this nightmarish anthropogenic reality. This might, for example, prompt the reader to follow the speaker of Brown’s “Nocturne” badger watching, or that of Meg Bateman’s “Touched”, who has sneaked out of the office for an illicit session of eco-eroticism in the woods, in the light of such ecopolitical concerns as the massive badger cull that look place in southern England last summer in the hope of controlling the spread of bovine TB, or the continued swallowing up of woodland by the “concrete and glass” (11) to which Bateman’s speaker is obliged to return, or by the roads on which she drives back there. Meanwhile, in the more emphatically “post-pastoral”[5] of these ecopoems, damage and danger enter directly into the verse itself: in the excerpt from his extended avant-garde work “Fault Lines”, for instance, Gerry Loose, who lives on a boat close to the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarine weapons base at Faslane, which is built over a fault line in the Scottish Highlands, recalls the threat posed to more-than-human life by human military conflict; while Allen Tullos lends an ominous literalism to the Wallace Steven’s line that serves as his epigraph—“Every thread of summer is at last unwoven”—in “Data Points Cloud the Horizon” (92). There is encouragement here too, though: as Tullos concludes with respect to the global climate system, “There is currently no tutorial/on how to activate system restore” (92); but as Alec Finlay’s “Wind-Songs” recalls, there are places where efforts are being made to stem the damage, even though some degree of potentially disastrous climatic change has now become inevitable: “the domestic turbines that tirl/in the mirr of the outset isles/in today’s winds” will also be doing so “in tomorrow’s gales” (63).

While Owen uses the term “romantic” pejoratively, a number of poets here work in a more nuanced way with the mixed legacy of Romanticism, in some cases recalling by name the ecopoetic forerunners on whose tracks they find themselves. Roger Mitchell, for instance, seeks to respond to something that he can’t quite name by reading Clare’s response to what he called the birds’ “under song” (116), while Andrew Forster (a Literature Officer with the Wordsworth Trust), follows Wordsworth—a virtual “companion”, perhaps, who is also “out of sight/around the ridge, focusing on his own ascent” (98)—up through the Duddon Valley, beset by dizzy spells. The most interesting of these explicitly post-Romantic poems, perhaps, is John Kinsella’s “Penillion of Stanbury Moor”: ‘There shines the moon, at noon of night-’”. A “penillion” is a Welsh form of song, which is improvised in counter-point to a traditional melody played on the harp.[6] Here, the traditional melody is implicitly that of the Emily Bronte poem recalled in the title, against which the Australian poet riffs while walking in Bronte country, noting how her wild moors are now edged by industrial agriculture with its “plastic bound/Bales”, while carrying forward the eco-emancipatory Romantic impulse in sensing “ring ouzels/Vindicating/Their rights; nearing” (5).

Here, as in many other poems in this collection, one privileged path of reconnection that is gestured towards is that afforded through encounters with (other-than-human) animals, generally free-living ones, although in one engaging instance, dee Hobsbawn-Smith’s “Driving the Mares”, they are beasts of burden: draft horses, whose compliance in the matter of ploughing does not deprive them of their own agency and inner life, which presents itself in its very alterity to the speaker—who nonetheless exploits their labour—as a “passage out of this life” (128)—the life, that is, of human self-enclosure. Here, as in several other poems, reconnection is enabled by the recognition that the animal other inhabits a perceptual world, or Umwelt, to use Jakob von Uexküll’s term, that differs from that of humans, and ultimately eludes our grasp. This is the case, for example, with the “two powerful owls,/Cloaked in spindrift […] flyfishing/the night, the new moon for a hook” (159) of Mark Tredinnick’s “Owls”: it is the sense that they know something that the human speaker does not which takes him out of himself, paradoxically perhaps, by revealing his own human-all-too-human limitations. In other cases, however, the speaker dares to enter imaginatively into the consciousness and mode of being of the animal other: Jane Routh, for instance, purveys the “teachings of Strix Aluco” (the tawny owl) and invites her readers into the “private life of Lepus Lepus” (the hare) in her poems of those names, the Latinate titles of which indicate that these are scientifically informed works of ecopoetic imagination. Dilys Rose appears to go further in the direction of identification by actually assuming the voice of the animal other in “Stone the Crows”, but her corvid speaker is self-consciously, and amusingly, anthropomorphic. Susan Richardson, by contrast, takes us deeper into an unfamiliar psycho-physical realm in “The White Doe”, a neo-Ovidian tale of becoming-animal as a strategy of escape from an explicitly gendered form of human confinement, in which the English language too undergoes some weird and wonderful transformations: her “hind-mind” “ferned/with ancient memories of wolf/and the urge to neverstill”, Richardson’s zoomorphic speaker declares:

Though the man I was meant to wed

turns hunter,

I will out-wood him.

For an unlife in the unlight

has taught me slinkness,

and how to happyeverafter

when I tellme tales. (153)

This declaration of defiant animal agency is nonetheless counter-posed in this collection to reminders of creaturely vulnerability, as in the “message” rolled in by the sea in the guise of a dead sperm whale in Katrina Porteous’s “The Whale” (163), and the “animal/big neck, muzzle and horns” that narrowly evades being struck by the speaker of Les Murray’s “High Speed Trap Space”, who is hurtling along a highway “walled/in froth-barked trees” with a lorry on his tail and another car bearing down from the opposite direction (139). In addition to its skilled evocation of the moment of danger and its unfathomable passing, in which the imperiled life of the driver no less than that of the animal are graciously saved, this poem, in my reading (and notwithstanding Murray’s own distaste for left-leaning ecopolitics), offers a powerful metaphor for the wider socio-ecological order that has cornered most of its citizens into a situation in which they are constrained “to refuse all swerving” (139), even though they can see that they are speeding towards a potentially catastrophic collision, in which both human and nonhuman lives will be lost.

How to get out of this “high speed trap space”, not just for a time, as individuals or small collectives, but as a (globalizing) society, is a question for socio-ecological and ecopolitical deliberation and experimentation. What it might mean, or entail, is nonetheless hinted at in the magnificent concluding poem of the collection. Like several of those that precede it, Alice Oswald’s “Sharpham House” is a poem of place—place being another of the privileged vectors of reconnection proffered by many of Knowles’ and Blackie’s new ecopoets, most of whom are nonetheless alert also to the entanglement of the local with the global (most emphatically so in Jorie Graham’s expansive work of planetary thinking, “Earth”), while one, Jennifer Wallace in “I wanted to change my name”, importantly acknowledges too the vexed nature of forging a neo-Emersonian connection with “remote” locales in colonized space (111). In Oswald’s poem as well, the local and the global, pastoral place-making and colonial dispossession, are intimately entangled: Sharpham House, so we are told, was acquired and improved by the English naval captain, Philemon Pownell, with the assistance of plunder from the Spanish treasure ship that he had captured in 1762. The poem opens in the manner of a letter addressed to Captain Pownell, in a superb pastiche of Augustan style, regarding the state of his property, which, to the speaker’s evident agitation, cannot be sealed off from the incursions of a diversity of other entities, animate and inanimate, human and otherwise, such as the “spiders that have pegged their tents/To various lamps and ornaments”, the light that has “taken on/The leasehold of this place”, and even a “crowd of nuns” who “Left candles here and baked bean tins” (165, 166). Meanwhile, as the poem progresses, the cursive names of local plants and animals that comprise the marginalia invade the central space of the page, displacing the constrained order of the neo-Augustinian verse letter, with its formal closure and assumptions of human mastery and possession, by the invocation of an array of innumerable heterogeneous entities that are assembled willy-nilly in a non-hierarchical open field, transforming the text into a rambunctious performance of the radical decentralization of the human subject, with all its culturally-configured claims to know, own and control. While nonetheless acknowledging that naming itself is a kind of claiming (“all these things are written down as yours”), this poem, and the collection as a whole, concludes with the reminder, that “life is not so limited in its pen and ink …” (171).

At the end of his Introduction, Borthwick proposes that this collection be termed a “rubosology” rather than an “anthology”. For while the latter likens its items to “a collection of flowers, a garden of verse, or perhaps a vase: a vessel filled with poor, rarefied specimens”, the former alludes to the “cosmopolitan genus rubus”, which includes the raspberry and the bramble with their “many-faceted” fruit, “sinuous canes” and “recurved thorns, designed to ensnare, not let one go easily” (xxi). This is an apt metaphor, in my view. Although I look forward to further anthologies that will include the other kinds of ecopoetry that do not feature here, many of the poems that do (including several that I have not been able to mention in this short review) have got this reader well and truly hooked.

Bibliography

Borthwick, David. “Introduction”. In Entanglements: New Ecopoetry, edited by David Knowles and Sharon Blackie, xv–xxiii. Isle of Lewis: Two Ravens Press, 2012.

Bryson, J. Scott. Introduction. Ecopoetry: A Critical Introduction, edited by Scott J. Bryson, 1–13. Utah: University of Utah Press, 2002.

Gifford, Terry. “Pastoral, Anti-Pastoral and Post-Pastoral as Reading Strategies.” In Critical Insights: Nature and Environment, edited by Scott Slovic, 42–61. Ipswich: Salem Press, 2012.

Kinsella, John. “On Penillion: A brief extract from a work on the form by John Kinsella”. POETRY WALES, 48.2 (2012): 32–37.

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

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence: The Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2011.

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

Kate Rigby FAHA is Professor of Environmental Humanities in the School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics at Monash University. She is a Senior Editor of the journal Philosophy Activism Nature, and her books include Topographies of the Sacred: The Poetics of Place in European Romanticism (2004), and Ecocritical Theory: New European Approaches (co-edited with Axel Goodbody, 2011).


[1] Quoted in Borthwick, “Introduction”, xvii. Further quotations from this volume will be given in brackets in the text.

[2] Bryson, “Introduction”.

[3] Plumwood, Environmental Culture, 97–98.

[4] Nixon, Slow Violence.

[5] Gifford, “Pastoral, Anti-Pastoral and Post-Pastoral”.

[6] Kinsella, “On Penillion”.

1 reply

  1. Thank you Kate. You have an amazing way of traversing difficult terrain and making it so understandable. I think that ecocriticism must be more than a ‘westernising movement’ – another ‘polite’ colonising venture. As in the study of place, postcolonialism is a vital perspective that ecocriticism must engage with as it develops its critique. As Judith Wright reminds us in ‘At Cooloolah’, if ecocriticism fails to do this, it is just another discourse ‘come of a conquering people’. (Isn’t it?)

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