I was immediately struck by the title of Dan Eltringham’s poem (“[Hard to know where to feel now]”). “Where” comes up frequently in these poems and in titles such as “Where Our” (Davidson) and “WHERE ONE IS AND WHERE ONE IS GOING …” (Tichy). So, unsurprisingly, does feeling. Poetry (lyric) is of course traditionally all about feeling but too often, historically, our lack of sense of where we are and how we engage with where we are has led to an over-emphasis on ourselves and the earth as ours, on our minds and souls over our mammalian bodies. Even apocalyptic poetry (of which there is a rather tedious amount) is generally focused on apocalypse for us. Eltringham’s line opens up feeling to “where” as preeminent: where in the world, where in the corresponding body through which we sense the world, is that feeling. It brought to my mind Charles Olson’s statement in “HUMAN UNIVERSE” that “The act of trying to say is always an act of location”, a phrase from which Matthew Cooperman has drawn out an argument for (reading) locationary poetry.
I have been drawn to locationary poetry here and one of the interesting things about selecting for this issue, and indeed reading it now as a whole, is the diversity of those locations both in terms of the connections we can draw between what is happening in different parts of the world and in terms of the specificities that poets embody in form and reference when they attempt to make place, landscape and environment an active agent in the work. The specificities are often acknowledged in titles, epigraphs and references as well as the poems themselves, in times and places as diverse in location and variety as “Hackney Wick, May 2012” [London], “The Huon Highway” [Southern Tasmania, Australia] and “Steinhart Aquarium, San Francisco”. We range from grasslands to marshes, stations to forest, cities to fields, islands to beaches. Such bioregional ways of thinking cut across our political boundaries and remind us of the perils (alongside pleasures) of thinking with maps. Living and working in the world of landscape/eco poetry and poetics, I find water to be particularly prevalent in many poets’ and artists’ work as it has been in my own collaborative projects with Judith Tucker over the last few years (see cover of this issue). I found rich explorations of water in Veronica Fibisian’s “Concertino in C flat Major”, a poem which provides a more subtle engagement with our relation with maps as well as the inter-relationship of human and sea cultures, in Tichy’s “Suibhine on Eigg” (discussed below), and in Susan Richardson’s suggestive estuarine poem, “glass”, with its play on perception and sense of the “managed tide”.
Throughout the process, I have selected poems, often in the Modernist tradition, which push the language in the conviction that this is what makes us work hardest to question and, at times, laugh at our values inherent in the language. Both feed into change. Amy Evans derives her wordplay in part at least from the hermetic and etymological linguistic investigations of another modernist poet, H.D., as the mention of the “sea rose” suggests – sea/water/flood puns run through her “SOUND((ING))S” sequence, part of which is extracted here. They have the effect of being both witty and edgy: edgy in their exploration of the liminal border of land/sea and edgy in conveying a sense of threat both to and from the sea.
From water to wood to stone then, and between these materialities also, these poems play with our perceptions of the material world and often, in New Materialist bent, challenge and erode separations. Giles Goodland opens his “On Stone” with a playful misquote of Heraclitus: “You can step on the same stone twice” and proceeds to play further with an exploration of our consciousness of stone and stone’s consciousness of us but, above all, with our language’s easy appropriative and accustomed usages of the elements around us for human purposes. His Steinian questions without questions marks (“Is air of detachment. Is body of water.”) transform a given into an inquisition and lay the emphasis on the previously discrete nouns and their meanings. Ann Fisher-Wirth’s “[We’re mostly headed for hell]” references the economics, textures and uses of wood while Peter Larkin, longstanding poet-philosopher of trees, demands close attention to his delicate tracing of dependencies through forest ecologies in “Emergent Habits”. I find his work not dry, as it might at first appear, but hopeful as well as stimulating, drawing from a very different system of living and perhaps even thought. A sense of “emergency” suddenly grows to include the possibility of “emergence”. The language does it.
Both Goodland and Evans make reference to classical mythologies in their work, as do many of the poets here. They explore what the myths and rituals and stories of our ancestors’ might teach us, but none of these writers attempt to return us innocently to an ancient past as more naïve environmentalists might do. The Gods must speak in and through now as they do in Julie Maclean’s strikingly present tense poem, “Otway Fire Mother”, which explores bioregion as goddess alive with creatures, “eyes everywhere”, and in Helen Moore’s “Mimesis/Nemesis” where Keridwen has metamorphosed into agricultural machinery which has appropriated the name “Krone”. The poem seems almost to pursue the “triple goddess” through the unpromising contemporary field ecology, yet the visitors or initiates still pursue the sacred in plant form or a return perhaps to the maiden.
Ecopoetics recognises that we must revisit the past and draw on all our cultural resources in the quest for changed thinking, as well as giving tribute where tribute is due, rather than dwelling on the twin and dangerous myths of originality and progress. Mario Petruccio’s translation of the fourteenth-century poet, Hafez, is perhaps the most intriguing example of this here. The places and perceptions of the two poets (Hafez and Petruccio) meet in this text and cross time into our own age, bringing thoughts about sustainability and how we define and learn from wild, natural, farmed and the intimately tended lands we call gardens. Frances Presley reconsiders the scientist Ada Lovelace in reference to the geology of her youth; gender politics emerges through the fractured fragments of “Typography of terra infirma”. Susan Tichy acknowledges and cites Nan Shepherd in her meditative walking poem written in a grammatical and poetic two-line stanza which builds a rhythm that refuses closure until the very last line. Tichy’s “Suibhne on Eigg” revisits a very different history, that of the Seventh Century poet-king, Suibhne, but I must admit that I was drawn as much as anything by the beautifully constructed and condensed sound patterning of these slight island prose poems: “A haven under thorn. A northward hum.”
We extend back in time. We also extend out beyond the self in terms of our bodily senses, engaging with places with our whole bodies and beyond our own bodies, again as New Materialism advocates. Crucially, and with particular urgency (in the face of species extinction and mistreatment), writers are exploring the world of the “non-human” in new ways, following a line of thought that questions the very binary of human/non-human and the absurdity (“une bêtise”) of the category of “animal”. John Berger, Jacques Derrida and Carey Wolfe are often credited with this philosophical development but it is of course closely linked to the critique of Western binary thinking carried out so powerfully in the work of Donna Haraway and Val Plumwood, one of the greatest Australian environmental thinkers whose legacy is celebrated in the name of this journal.
I have selected poems here which interrogate the diverse categories and roles humans assign to “animals” from spectacles in zoos and aquaria (Meredith Wattison’s funny and fascinating exploration of relationalities in such a context and Lucas Smith’s more hard-hitting “The Lungfish’s Refusal”) to beehives (Caitlin Stobie’s “Hum”, a deceptively short and sweet piece shifting between human and bee experience of honeymaking) to domestic animals (Mark Young’s “a complex number” which, in witty, throwaway vernacular, extends our idea that a pet constitutes a single species). There is considerable controversy within Animal Studies over anthropomorphism yet in poetry we find radical imaginings of bodies, languages and feelings that make us wonder whether there isn’t a place for this. These can only be attempts at empathetic imaginaries but, acknowledged as such, I see them as valuable especially when they apply to the creatures humans have less ability to empathise with, such as Susan Richardson’s sonically rich poem exploring the eye/I of the halibut. Stuart Cooke’s “Song of the Wandering Cat” explores what this so-called “domestic animal” might be doing when it is not with us in a playful page-leaping embodiment of cat-life in the present moment “NOW”.
Cooke’s poem is also a demonstration of more “traditional” and “experimental” techniques coming together successfully – in this case, open form and metaphor. As I would expect in this field, creative use of space on the page is evident in much of this poetry, and works in multiple ways – Fibisan for instance works within justified text margins to create a sense of the flow and tide of the sea in the spaces between words as well as the words themselves. Some of the most adept and striking examples of classic open form are in the poems of Frances Presley, Andrew Jeffrey and Natalie Joelle. Like Cooke, these poets use the form to embody the body’s movement through space (walking, being transported by boat or train), thus making a sense of place through movement and pause. The manipulation of the line on the page also evokes locationary specificities in very particular ways for and of themselves. In “land ÷ slip I and II” Presley creates a wonderfully particular stanza to evoke and embody the geology of slip, each phrase acting alone and in conjunction with its companions creating many patterns of sound and repetition, slips of eye and tongue. Jeffrey’s “Out to Inner Farne” evokes a sailing rather than walking process, and returning us to water, as spatial and sonic forms shift delicately through the pages. Humour runs through this poem, culminating in the fact that the boat never lands – the slightly bewildered and distracted humans (trying to retain electronic contact throughout) do not achieve their aim, but do move through a realm of birds, fish and islands. Joelle’s pages are seething with energy, their projective lines making direct reference to the politics of the field, keeping text to a minimum and language malleable and alive. All these poets incorporate found materials and histories into their work, feeding into our understanding of how we have seen and intervened with land, in Joelle’s case the development of a herbicide whose name evokes a long agricultural history including the relations of the poor to farming (labour, enclosure, gleaning). Setting Joelle beside Moore makes for interesting connections in these contemporary Georgics.
A different kind of fragmentation is in evidence in Jake Goetz’s “Sutherland Station (notes for poems)”, another process-led piece in which jokey, yet disturbing, “facts” and memories interplay and, as in the fine old avant-garde tradition, we the readers must make the connections, read between as well as through the lines. Yet further experimentation with technique (derived perhaps from Concrete poetry and/or Oulipo constraint) is found in Dave Drayton’s poems which subvert accustomed reading methodologies at first glance. Drayton generates cryptic lines on “MAN” and “LAW”, whose playfulness mocks the pompous titles his poems bear; he destabilises our notions of worth in relation to masculinity and political categories of place in part through the cutting off and querying of familiar adages in relation to these areas. Constraints, used also by Tichy in “Suibhne on Eigg”, remain an important element of writing that wishes to remain aware of its writerliness which also has the effect of pulling the poet back from easy indulgence of rhetoric and lack of interrogation of the ecology of our language and its value systems.
I want to return to where we started with the very human question about “where to feel now”, and a final discussion of pronouns and places. Who, after all, is doing the feeling? I have noticed in recent work how the “I” diminished, often in favour of the “we” as we continue the journey (began again by the modernists) to draw us away from the lyric “I” to more materially entangled perceptions. We see it here in Stobie, Richardson, and Fisher Wirth’s provocative title, “[We’re mostly headed for hell]”. Where we do find an “I”, as in Eltringham, it is an enmeshed “I” (“baked in Britain”, “raw meat on my hands”), full of conflicted feelings of anger and love. Evans too is angry in England, even as she is frolicsome in her little “Counter Café” poem ending, “Oppose It your eyes”. Nothing so simple as polemical, these poets, but definitely political. Another diversion from the poet’s “I” and experience is to explore how we might inhabit another’s place and language. Ann Fisher-Wirth’s poems, shown here alongside Maude Schuyler Clay’s photographs, do far more than documentary or preachifying to open up the experience of Mississippi people living in an environmentally degraded and threatened bioregion. These voices speak in such a believable vernacular that we can hardly believe they are “fictive”, as Fisher-Wirth informs us. These carefully crafted and sounded out voices, their fragmentary stories, are reminiscent of Lorine Niedecker’s New Goose poems exploring the flooding shore of Lake Wisconsin in the 1930s, another important Modernist predecessor for the ecopoetic writings presented here.
“You” can be more powerful too in its conveyance of relationality especially when it shifts uncertainly in reference in a poem such as “Reprise” or in Presley’s land-slip work. The poet, Toby Davidson, is a master of such dizzying and defamiliarising slides of tempo as we see in “Where Our” – here we shift back in time through a long temporal simile beginning at the end of stanza one and running right through the poem to its bathetic/profound conclusion. Davidson, like several of the Australian poets here, touches on the politics of land rights. As in Mike Ladd’s poem, “The Huon Highway” there is a strong sense here of a multicultural layering of histories captured in land and the names for land, in which some names are lost and buried. Another “where”: “where are their names?” Louise Crisp’s “Buckley’s Lake (Monaro)” is a powerful fragment of a much longer exploration of The Monaro Lakes which extends this concern. The politics of naming, classification and knowledge is relevant to plants also. I loved Crisp’s closely researched “MIWANY (Yam)” in which the sheer profusion of flora, in particular, edible flora, masses into a prose-poem block, an almost physical (richly material and sonic) protest against the dismissal of the tablelands of the Monaro. The human is not omitted but it is minimalised, brought down to size in the little embedded reference to walking into the reserve in spring. Heading over to America, in Katelyn Kenderish’s “Rondeau in January” presence of plantlife in a supposedly largely dormant season asserts itself with no human reference at all in a revivification of a Medieval/Renaissance poetic form.
In this issue of Plumwood Mountain we find just such a rich diversity and I’d like to thank the contributors for the immense pleasure and provocation they bring here and to offer the readers the following lines from Evans’ “SOUND((ING))S” to end my introduction and begin their reading:
to the fol.lowing
To the follo/wing
To the follow(er)ing
. . .