Jane Joritz-Nakagawa, Distant Landscapes. New York: theenk Books, 2015. ISBN 978-0-9883891-3-7
Susan Laura Sullivan
The poem “<echo poetics>” appears as a form of prologue in Joritz-Nakagawa’s new work, Distant Landscapes (10). The title augurs a continuous rumination on and mirroring of the field of eco-poetics. Desire, danger and the shortcomings of seeking harmony with perceived separate ecologies, especially but not exclusive to the non-human, are pivotal to the verses that follow.
The forest and yearning to return to it drive Distant Landscapes. “I become the tree tho it does not become me” (10). The poetry cycles through longing and joy, abandonment, disbandment and terror, ever questioning: From whence did we come, and how to get back? Is there any possibility of safe haven in the forest, and was it ever secure in the first place, in the “happen stance” of our existence (68)?
Nature is threatened by that within and that without. That within is also nature. In the early stages of the book, an owl tracks and eats a rabbit. That without is not necessarily perceived nature, or healthy for an environment. Within the urban landscape there is a “leaf trembling on a road / incomplete extinction of consciousness” (34), showing human existence as being both of nature and separate from it, and therefore a threat to it and itself. The leaf intrudes on the constructed world, an “incomplete extinction of consciousness”. Whose or whats consciousness? Nature reminds the urban landscape that it has always been there, though is threatened (a single leaf, trembling). The non-human habitat lies below the human, and now sits tenuously atop. Remembrances of a world beyond roads and traffic lights occur for the human observer (47). Accordingly, the consciousness of belonging is not completely extinguished – possibly from either perspective.
Alternatively, belonging seamlessly to all, predicates higher levels of consciousness. Owls instinctively hunt rabbits. The chosen rabbit (a motif throughout) instinctively knows it is prey. Do we decide which element of our existence we are? Human survival is so often disembodied, “beheaded” from the sources of life (61, 65); the probability that enough instinctive consciousness exists to rejoin it, or for it to rejoin us, is scant. Recall, the speaker “become[s] the tree tho the tree does not become [her]” (10). Is it impossible for us to become that from which we are derived? These are questions which Joritz-Nakagawa brings to the fore. We are sources of violence and agitation. Chaos and despair power our cycles and ruin the cycles of nature. But also sources of love. Also hope.
And the forest has its own cycles.
Whorls (12, 53) on our fingertips identify us, and those in the rings of trees determine their age (14). Once the whorls are sighted in trees, they are no longer living. The phantom ache of ringless fingers, as we miss that which is not present, while yet bound to that which went before us, which still exists among us and we among it, is evoked.
married with a tree ring
at the end of the food chain
artificial coma (14)
Which end of the food chain is not stated. It could be humans, but also trees depending on perspective, and either group at either end: Humans, confident that the world was made for their “happen stance”, pillage sources around them, ultimately relegating themselves to the bottom of the food chain as sustainability is forgotten. The future repeats in nature’s design, and also in the bloody-mindedness of forgetting to be part of sustainable nature (“future as repetition and decay”, 16). Spirals on a tree will appear from human causation, the tree dies and we measure its life, yet can we ever count all the trees? (14). What is the cost of turning forests into a commodity?
We leave our fingerprints, unique and destructive, and the earth leaves its patterns and whorls upon us. There is a wish to reconverge, though the memory of convergence is perhaps just a dream. However, when the forest learns the language of poetry a connection occurs between speaker and nature (47). Contrarily, as the poem, “<echo poetics>” states: “[t]he poem finally decides to accept the reverberations of the forest” (10). Maybe this is evolution, as the action taken in the body of the text is the speaker’s decision not to write poetry “until the forest [begins] to think in verse/ the forest began to think in verse” (47). This arrangement could stem from human conceit, in that “one cannot enter the mind of the forest” (21) and “[i]t’s impossible to know the forest’s prerequisites” (10), though the speaker desires such.
These, too, are human presumptions. However, once ecology outside of the poem is accepted, rather than the reverse, inclusion in a larger system occurs, though poetry is still a linguistic construct. This recognition of the forest’s resonance appears within the first few pages of the book. Contradiction lies in the subsequent text, but the word “finally” foreshadows the whole (10). For the speaker, once the forest begins to think in verse, it gains rhyme and meter but also draws silent until it stops thinking (47–48). Cessation of thinking in verse might return the forest to itself.
Does thinking in verse encourage the loss of self and the merging of true self, or the opposite? The forest is lost to the speaker before this merger, or maybe it always was (35, 47). Aspects of poetry are to blend rhythms and words with observances and small perceptions of truth. Yet, as integral and aligned as it is with the Romantic notions of nature governing our being, words express thought, linguistics govern expressions, and these ideas are explored throughout the poem. Is the act of creating poetry part of a oneness beyond human, or something that defines and excludes us from non-human existence, and it from us? “[N]othing can be constructed / during a loss of language,” (26) though when words are found the “contagion of the forest becomes textual” (27). The forest cannot exist without words, and when words are found, they destroy the forest. Once it stops thinking – stops being defined – it again becomes a forest, at least according to this poem’s semantics (48).
The verses stand like lines of trees, though they scatter and grow dense at times. Below the trees lies the fallen litter through which we “burrow” “to find a real world / beneath the fictitious ones” (9). From the opening pages, subterranean images are induced; a plump rabbit revisits grass it has already eaten (10), burrowing can lead us beyond the surface, the hairy legs of an animal are apparent to observation and experience (11). A lonely rabbit is perhaps eaten by an owl (15). The same animal, though configured differently each time, leads us through scenes like Alice trailing the white rabbit, or encountering the Mad Hatter – nature in urban clothing, humans and trees alike. “The forest [makes] the temple / obsolete”, yet we make the temple, thereby making the non-human obsolete, by trying to better that which already exists, as materials and space are needed for construction (16).
The rabbit which the owl ate is enticed back with representations of nature’s litter within the myriad of meanings that word contains:
i start to create the rabbit’s shroud out of
an old pillowcase picturing
flowers and shoots of grass i put shreds of
but cannot live in the forest without the
rabbit damn the owl
(I dreamt I bought a tiny patch of grass
in the city for 100,000 yen) (19–20)
Refuse (litter) can attract the rabbit (part of a litter), and litter can beget litter, and litters can beget litters, but can it raise the dead? This passage, the rabbit itself, and later images of the speaker’s run-down mother (52–53), remind us of nurturing patterns in human and non-human environments. The speaker emulates them when she attempts to attract and honour the rabbit, to provide herself and it with comfort. Yet the author also brings values of a materialistic society, and the history of a less than supportive childhood (48–55). As we forget our nature, or our relationship to a natural habitat, we forget how to look after it and ourselves. Despite collecting items for building a structure in the hope of remembering, housing and attracting the rabbit, the speaker cannot break the code of the forest (21), but like Alice, falls into it without comprehension and is unable to truly enter.
(the forest fades) (or i do) feel myself falling
in the encrypted forest
matched by a violent wind mirror neurons
impossibility of entering the forest (21)
Conversely, the speaker is completely the forest and the forest a “mirror neuron”, or the “<echo poetics>” which inform the whole piece. Illustrating either hypothesis, she decides to become like the rabbit, “ … eating the forest, starting with a / small patch of grass/ the rabbit did not eat costing ten thousand / yen” (21). Concern with making a possibly artificial patch of grass, and twice mentioning varying property costs illuminates ventures to recreate nature through commercial/constructed means, and of literal consumption of the forest. A sense of longing and an ersatz representation of what it might mean to blend more easily with the non-human develops in the poems.
Small things, female things, children, breaking-down, broken down, boneless, broken-bone bodies contribute to the forest’s litter, both as victims and nutrients. The forest is phallic and sometimes threatening, paralleling the personal and urban environment. (40–47). Outside the forest, the broken are sought for lovers (51). Within the forest, small things are as necessary as larger, though they might get entangled and plucked from a human’s hair (24). “It’s impossible to know the forest’s prerequisites” (10). Do we act like the owl, or like the rabbit? The speaker “cannot live in the forest without the rabbit”, considered eaten by an owl, but also considered possibly lonely, possibly enjoying himself, a connoisseur of a few blades of grass (18). If there is room for the vulnerable rabbit in the forest, there is room for vulnerable us, othered us, female to the hegemonic male, the different aspects of us (18–19). The rabbit and the owl, dead dogs and the flowing rivers: does the urban therefore have a place in the forest? The human?
The urban landscape, the non-forest, has a life and rhythm of its own, leading to death and dampening, not to regeneration and violent eruption. Death in the forest serves the purpose of regeneration, continuance. The owl survives. The rabbit does not. Within the poem, death in the urban landscape serves the purpose of others – it takes away from the cycle of life, not adding to it: dilapidated shopping malls like patches of grass (51–52), people in dead end situations (50), dead-end streets (50), cloudy thoughts prevent us from seeing the sky (64), our head in the clouds, our head in a terrorist’s grip, severed from our body with a ceremonial sword (61).
We may want to be the tree, but can we ever become so, having distanced ourselves from the earth where it grows? Maybe to become so, we need to be people first, and recognise humanity, rather than splintering it further with disassociation and disconnection. Burrowing beyond our representation and definition of treedom, we remain dependent upon the earth’s cycles, as much as we disrupt them. Understanding them achieves personal connection, though not guaranteed survival.
Images in this text are recycled, reused, though possibly not reduced, as Joritz-Nakagawa explores (im)balancing human existence with the non-human. Within the poem looping images, their evolution, adaptation and deformation into points further away from, and returning to, what must always be a manufactured point of origin, add to beautifully layered writing. The story of our existence, and the speaker’s existence, and the existence and non-existence of things beyond and from the worlds we inhabit, and all the questions and observances stemming from that, encapsulated within it at points of convergence and rejection, bring the “Distant Landscapes” of our being, and non-human being, maybe that one step closer, at least in understanding, whilst recognising that despite human wishes and desire such landscapes remain at least an arms-breadth away.
Susan Laura Sullivan writes poetry and prose. Her most recent work can be found at Rat’s Ass Review, MiNUS TiDES, The Font: A Literary Journal for Language Teachers and the ABC Radio National/Harper Collins/ anthology, In Their Branches. She resides in Japan where she teaches at Tokai University.