Over a period of several months in 2020 most of us lived through a slowing and restriction of movements, unprecedented in global scale, as we complied with extreme ‘social distancing’ measures in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Some referred to this period as the Great Pause: empirically measured in the 17% drop in daily global CO₂ emissions from last year’s mean. How did we take its qualitative measure?
Emissions are on the rise again, and people have once more been on the move, if more locally, while economies have ‘reopened’—though falteringly, as Europe now enters a second wave of lockdowns (and Melbourne has only just now exited a second, strict lockdown). The experience of the Great Pause was uneven, to be sure: the pandemic tended to expose if not exacerbate existing socioeconomic inequalities. Some of us (‘key workers’) kept commuting to the frontline, while for many there was no ‘pause,’ only a shift to working ‘remotely,’ an accelerated digitisation of labour eroding boundaries between work and home. Many have been furloughed or laid off, with or without some form of taxpayer support; for many it was a season of fear and isolation. And for some: illness, suffering, death, grief, without the solace of communal rituals or even the proximity of one’s closest kin. The immiseration of millions under lockdown with no home to call a home went largely unreported, as did the weaponisation of the virus at sites of Indigenous resistance, a form of violence with long precedent. For most of us, the Great Pause disrupted usual movements.
What in this disruption did we learn, about where we live and who and how and what we are? What differences lay exposed, and what common ground? How did we mourn in the absence of gathering? What have we come to celebrate? What would we like to remember, as we accelerate again towards capital’s limits accumulating in the atmosphere? This feature invited submissions of writing in the pause.
At one level, I was interested in the renewed attention to place and to community the ‘lockdown’ enforced: writing on, in and around attention to the local, the neighbourhood, what can be reached on foot or observed in one’s backyard or even in one’s home—along with changed observations of and interactions with neighbours, of whatever kind (for many, this was a time of seasonal transition, for others an initiation to mutual aid). Did new kindnesses emerge out of previously fixed relations? Were old injustices newly audible? Were interactions reduced? At another level, any distance on what was considered ‘normal’ only months before could prompt breakthroughs in perception and writing.
Writing in the Pause called specifically for writing connected to the change in our mobility. What would happen when we took the travel out of ecopoetics? This was not to privilege the local over the planetary, simple ideas of home over global complexities, nor the descriptive over the conceptual, but to prompt writing that listens in the pause.
Seismologists observed a 30-50% reduction in anthropogenic ground noise. In this temporary drop in vibration, what did it become possible to hear, as if for the first time? What keening or ode to joy was now audible in the ground between us? I invited listening in the broadest possible sense, below and beyond the bird song we might first notice, once the roar of vehicles and airliners and the distraction of our own speed was turned down. To paraphrase Pauline Oliveros, did we now find our ears in our feet?
Formally adventurous submissions would catch my attention, writing that tarried with an ecotone (or ‘edge effect,’ however that boundary be construed). I was less interested in the ego than in the eco poetics of the Great Pause—writing vulnerable to its own falsifiability in and through contact in the field. Crossings of genre and media (including work with sound) was encouraged. I read for irony and humour as well as sincerity. Decolonial perspectives were especially welcomed.
The call was ambitious and so were many of the submissions. I was not prepared for the number of submissions written expressly in answer, or so it seemed, to the terms of the call. Having to choose between so many pieces composed thoughtfully from a place, space and time of active listening, within uncommon hearings of self, made for an unexpected—and pleasurable, albeit challenging—task. To listen for listening often meant reading beneath surfaces, bracketing what one thinks to know. One detail I did not know was the authors’ names, as I read the majority of these pieces anonymously. About two thirds of the final selection came from general submissions, one third I was able to commission. It was gratifying to be able to discover so many new (to me) writers. There are many (more) from either category that I would love to have included. I am immensely grateful to all who submitted.
Inevitably, the throw falls short of the aim, as I feel the issue just begins to lock in the transmissions that might carry us through the coming ‘normal.’ Goddess help us if we return to ‘normal’—my hope is that the pause enabled many to step a step back in space and time (those with the luxury to pause), enough to witness how extreme, mindless and hellbent the ‘normal’ was and is. It has been disheartening to witness the onward march of the construction industry, deterred not a whit by the pandemic, its massive infrastructure projects (already made obsolete by the flip to ‘remote’ working) propelled by the momentum of sunk costs and demands of the banking sector. The predictable structural adjustments of disaster capitalism are already making themselves felt across every sector, not least that of higher education on which many contributors to this issue depend for their livelihoods. What will return and what changes will remain? Will we Zoom more and fly less? Can and will we ally with resurgence—e.g. the record number of olive ridley sea turtles (from nests thriving in the pause of tourists pressuring these beaches) released into the sea just yesterday off the coast of Sonora by Indigenous Seri people? What modes of listening in these poems are made to persist?
We launch this issue on the eve of an (to use another word from the pandemic lexicon) ‘unprecedented’ US General Election, whose outcome in ‘normal’ times should be certain but in the ‘actual’ times we live is far from being so. The outcome of the vote counting that begins in three days could signal at least a bit of breathing space, a knee off the neck of Democracy, if not a clawing back from the abyss of a theocratic and populist authoritarianism, and biocidal administration like no other (except perhaps the current Australian government), the likes of which have rarely if ever been seen inside US borders. Or it could initiate judicial dispute and, pending outcome from a Supreme Court with a now solid (6-3) conservative majority, a decision that plunges the divided country into chaos and civil unrest. All at a time when nations need desperately to be finding ways to cooperate to combat not only a global health emergency but an ecocidal rush to four degrees Celsius global warming. No way to know if we are just off the backside of this sickeningly giant wave, or beneath a still breaking crest.
The element that most marks this issue, however, is fire, crackling and hissing through and between the lines of the poems, from Australia’s Black Summer of truly apocalyptic “bushfires” that inaugurated the year and, as one poem in the issue notes, killed “over 1,000,000,000 animals/ a conservative estimate” (Goetz), to the Uttarakhand Forest Fires in Srinagar, to (most worrying) wildfires well inside the Siberian Arctic Circle, to (also worrying) fires accelerating the Brazilian Amazon toward its “Tipping Point” (toward becoming savannah), to the Delta del Paraná and Córdoba wildfires in Argentina, to unprecedented wildfires across the Western US, especially the “Lightning Complex” fires in California, and even to fires inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Perhaps the call for work should have been for Writing in the Fire. Nevertheless, all the contributions (for me at least) can be read as so many ways of bringing oxygen to a collective body in the grips of the political and ecological equivalent of a cytokine storm.
Just as significantly, another kind of fire—or perhaps the same fire, the fire next time: “Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” asks James Baldwin—flickers at the edges of this issue: flames consuming the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct in the USA, as riots and protests consumed cities across the US in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, one of a string of black men murdered in cold blood by white (and often uniformed) men, murders caught on cellphone and broadcast across the world’s social media. Floyd’s state sanctioned murder sparked a summer of protests, occupations of city centres, toppling of symbols of racism, falls from political grace, and a general reckoning of the white supremacism at the heart of Western democracies (and especially of the American project), but also at the heart of every group or individual agenda, however liberal, well informed or intentioned. The ‘unprecedented’ events and results of this conflagration are too numerous to list here, but they have helped shape the imminent election and will be legible in the result. And they guided many of the editorial decisions I made in assembling the feature. I did not receive many submissions directly addressing this context (or perhaps it was the main event) of the pause, despite the call’s angle for social contexts— “what differences lay exposed, and what common ground?” —yet the reckoning brought on by the murder of George Floyd (murdered the very day we put out our call for work) echoes throughout.
Despite these fires, I find no single overarching theme to the “pause” as explored in this issue, and I would not want to prefigure in my introduction what this gathering of work from more than forty writers spread across three different continents (and one Pacific archipelago) manifests, singly and in relation. Since the formatting of an online issue forecloses the editorial composition of sequencing and spreads, we have gone with an alphabetic table of contents. It is my hope that some of the perspectives, positions and themes I sought to balance with my selections, as well as a kind dialogue across borders and geographical antipodes, will become audible to readers who spend time with the issue. A good number of visual, audio and audio-visual contributions remind us that writing at the site of ecopoetics often pushes at alphabetic boundaries. The superb translators of the couple of bilingual contributions (look for links to the original language versions) have my gratitude for working on tight deadlines—there is still too much English in this measure of the pause, but consistent regard, I hope, for what might answer the lack. My heartfelt thanks goes to Anne Elvey, who prompted this issue and has done the bulk of the real editorial labour, including the careful layout, and to all the contributors for their inspiring and seriously playful work.
One certainly finds an inward turn, a solitary note and a quiet to many of the contributions—entirely in keeping with the pause—but to open rather than mask our hearing. If there is a ‘school of quietude’ here, it is one that studies how “Everything makes a sound/ in the moment of its destruction” (Bach). It is a “coalescing eclipse pattern” (Alexander), where we “take [our] bod[ies]// to the margins” (Burnett). “You, not I, are produced in the margins,” writes Dorantes (trans. Myers). “The street breathes us, we breathe the street” (Capildeo). Parents are “waiting to wrap arms around [their] children again” (Clarke), in a “world still to be woven” (Clarkson). “[I]n the inverted lake of insomnia” (D’Aquino, trans. Gander), “[c]row humour or philosophy makes it through the walls” (Farrell). As we pick apples in plague time (Ladd), “[c]itizenship makes moral and ethical claims upon our bodies” (Kuppers). Suddenly we are “making some day somewhere,” focused on “the observance of the object and its indentation on the space, the redirecting of one’s gaze onto the minuscule details of the object, the incidence of light on that space” (Guerreiro). I could go on, weaving a cento of my favorite lines from the contributions, but it’s time to let readers wander . . . watch out for the nettles!
30 October 2020
with grateful thanks to Peter Knight for permission to use his photo for the cover image
Jonathan Skinner is a poet, field recordist, editor, and critic, best known for founding the journal ecopoetics. His poetry collections and chapbooks include Chip Calls (Little Red Leaves, 2014), Birds of Tifft (BlazeVOX, 2011), Warblers (Albion Books, 2010), and Political Cactus Poems (Palm Press, 2005). He has published numerous essays at the intersection of poetry, ecology, activism, landscape and sound studies. Skinner teaches in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick.