By Ted Rees
You can read Ted Rees' first blog post here.
4. It might be prudent to clarify that these notes would be remiss in dismissing the ambulatory poet or poem as mere bourgeois affect, as part and parcel of “the speciousness of centrist self-regard,” as Lisa Robertson writes in reference to Peter Culley's work. And indeed, the late Culley's work undermines that speciousness, and his daily rambles through the landscapes of Nanaimo and Vancouver Island reveal a deep understanding of both man-made and wider ecosystems, with an especial focus on the interstices where the twain meet. It is a place where “the damp exhausted firework of polis / Bobs to the surface of a tainted puddle,” where the woodpecker interrupts “A caravan / of bright yellow trucks, / Jostling like bland mugged thugs / along a granulate roadway / Of broken bottles...” In Culley's Hammertown, there is no separating the violences of extraction and development and the sly and surprising outbursts of a wildness still extant. Robertson writes that it is Culley's “witnessing attention among the weathers and ephemera of the hinterland” that lends his work so much potency, and similarly, it is this “witnessing attention” in his work that allows for a shattering of the dangerous dichotomy that imbues so much of what currently exists as the 'nature poem.' Take the first stanza of “A Winter Visitation (for Deanna Ferguson)”:
Hints of wildness
south of town, where the names
Become numerals and then
Tracts cinderblock rise from
bogs tumescent, and from them
Vast showrooms of icy light, which
sear and tint th'
O'er-hanging clouds— perhaps a bear
Through the low wood, upon
its shoulders a trumpeting
Mozartean infant, perhaps
a starveling deer, coaxed
From the hills
by sad necessity
Gnaws the sugar canes
the cats drag in, little
with epicurean disdain
Gazing blankward up
from doormat. . .
As the bear pads through the woods abreast southern residences, or the deer chomps the agricultural detritus of an abandoned crop, there is a sense of the collapse of any separation between the “wildness” and the “town,” and this is as much an acknowledgement as an indictment of the destruction that arrives with development, with environmental exploitation, with extraction. Culley's poetics contain an ambulatory necessity demonstrative of a type of contemporary lyric 'nature poem' that does not succumb to easy fetishization of the wild or indulgent self-regard, but instead relies on a deep observational acuity that connects the grader to the “low wood,” the “tracts cinderblock” to the “sad necessity” of the deer grazing through manicured lawns.
5. And then there is the fury of weather on earth, “wind-flattened pounds of matter soaked and steady for the worst,” the chaotic ecocidal depths of our present moment so brilliantly brought to the fore in Soham Patel's chapbook, and nevermind the storm. If 'nature poetry' is to be reclaimed, if it is to be remade to address the overwhelming human and ecological crises that are the shocking ambiance of contemporary life, then Patel's work is as good an example as Culley's, though its tone is most certainly one based more in deep alarm than pointed observation:
grid marking affluence/ color/ and the sirens
turned to bone after puddles found drains
h2o/ skin/ grit/ faint smell of rubber burn
set in stone/ the warbling birds out of context
pages of my braided essay street scattered
land on a map/ a map landed on us/ terrain
marked in lead then rubbed/ chaossification
What is perhaps most pressing in Patel's work is that it seems to span crises and temporalities, so that there are moments where the reader is certain that the poem is addressing the racist infrastructural inequalities of New Orleans made so visible by Hurricane Katrina, and then mere lines later the reader is convinced that the poem is actually about the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the infrastructural inequalities made visible by that disaster, and then a few lines after that the reader deciphers language that appears to address the Fukushima nuclear disaster. It is a work that exemplifies what the reclaimed 'nature poem' can be: a scathing critique of environmental racism and structural inequalities, an elegy for a devastated planet, a remark upon the awesome (and destructive) powers of wider ecosystemic geological anomalies, a dirge “for leaks and/ proximity and the consumption: coughing blood.” If Culley's poems in his Hammertown trilogy exist in the observational interstices where the borders between man-made ecosystems and wider wildernesses are justly collapsed, then Patel's work is where righteous damnation and judgment of that collapse is made palpable.
6. In her essay “Eco-logic in Writing,” Leslie Scalapino addresses the sort of temporal and geographical syncretization that occurs in Patel's work by utilizing Dogen's famous koan, “Mountains walk,” explaining her interpretation that “all times exist separately at once, present-future-past.” The logic she presents must be extended to our reclamation of the 'nature poem,' as tainted water in the past extends its poison grip in the present and into the future, and as oppressive systems of slavery and domination of the past extend their grip into the present and future, and so on and on. There is no isolated incident, just as there is no isolated wilderness or isolated man-made ecosystem. As Scalapino notes, “Each can (do) act— at the same time— on all plains and times.” The Exxon-Valdez disaster is an ever-recurring disaster as the Deepwater Horizon explosion is an ever-recurring disaster as....
In order to reclaim 'nature poetry,' it must be understood that this sort of strange simulataneity does not diminish any singular event or life or being, but that each event and each collapse is intimately tied to all others, though these ties are not always readily comprehensible, and perhaps this is among the strangest tragedies we are consistently throttled by.