Book Review

The increasingly prominent—and, it seems safe to say, increasingly necessary—field of ecopoetics is also an ever more heterogenous one. In the recently released The Ecopoetry Anthology, editors Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street include 207 poets whose work, stretching from Dickinson to Dungy, spans more than 150 years of American poetry. Yet for all its diversity the field is nonetheless a unified one, sharing, as it does, a single irresolvable contradiction from which it draws much of its power, namely that the very medium by which poets might seek a rapprochement between the human and the natural, language, is that which marks most explicitly the former’s alienation from the latter. As an autonomous and arbitrary epistemology, that is, one which we retroactively impose on an a priori natural environment, language perpetually threatens to elide both the alterity of and the variation within the non-human world.

All language, of course, risks colonizing nature in the name and image of the human; particularly suspect, however, at least within a certain strain of ecopoetics, are personification, prosopopeia, and the pathetic fallacy, since all three have as their raison d’être the figurative transformation of the natural into the human. As an “egregious example” of this kind of anthropocentrism, Fisher-Wirth and Street cite Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees,” which describes an eponymous sapling lifting “her leafy arms to pray.” The line fails, for these editors, because it trivializes and romanticizes a natural environment always already in excess of its linguistic representation. Though Kilmer’s metaphor points to what we might think of as the “aspirational” similitude of trees and prayer—both aspire toward the light, as that word’s roots suggest, through processes of breathing—the line nonetheless yokes nature by metaphysical violence to anthropocentric systems of both aesthetic and religious meaning.

This tension between the ethical failure and success of the metaphor points to another strain of ecopoetics, one which insists, as Fisher-Wirth and Street put it, that “poetry can help us find our way back to an awareness that we are at one with the more-than-human world”; such poetry, rather than colonizing nature, creates a space within which to articulate, complicate, and better understand the mutual interrelation of the human and natural worlds, joined, as those worlds will only ever be, in a single, irreducible ecosystem. For some ecopoets, then, figurative devices like personification might in fact give voice to natural phenomena from which we are, by our very humanness, estranged, closing the distance between the natural and human and in so doing allowing us to see our own Anthropocene— and the culture it generates—as itself a naturally-conditioned moment in ecological history. Language, Fisher-Wirth and Street write, might not be “something that separates us from and elevates us above the rest of this planet.” Rather, it might instead represent “an integral part of our biological selves.”

I outline this tension within ecopoetics—a field, like all those considered avant-garde, as much at odds with itself as with more “mainstream” poetries—because it animates in different ways the two recent collections I take up in this review: Molly Bashaw’s The Whole Field Still Moving Inside It  and Austin Smith’s Almanac. Both collections explore how poetry might engage with and reimagine the natural environment while, at the same time, respecting its otherness—without, that is, appropriating or foreclosing a natural world beyond language. And both collections approach the problem of our linguistic alienation from nature—which is also, therefore, our social, historical, and moral alienation from it—through the idea of the family farm, an idea and a space which, like language itself, exists always in vexed relationship to its environment.

On one hand, the farm is a literal anthropo-scene, a site where nature is utilized—at best we call it, as in the georgic mode, “cultivated”—to physically and economically sustain the human race at the expense of other species. The farm, as both poets point out, is a place of slaughter. “The blackbirds, poison ivy / and grain,” Bashaw writes in “Blood Red,” “everything the goat / had ever seen still twitches / below the strung-up carcass / Andreas undresses, preparing / the meats.” And here’s Smith, at the conclusion of a poem called “Instructions for How to Put an Old Horse Down”:

Go out at dusk, at that hour
when you usually walk
into the field with oats
in your pockets.
Let her eat them
out of your hand
until they’re gone,
then lead her in.

Then lead her in.

On such a farm, so too is language a kind of slaughter-like obliteration of unmediated, natural reality in the process of poetic production. “There is no mystery here,” the geese say in Bashaw’s “Talking with the Geese about Art.” “Don’t put us into your poems, they warn, writing / their own words in black and blue on my shins.” And likewise, in the poem “A Talk with Chagall,” Bashaw asks “Who will talk like an old man / of the cow the goat the milk / the cow the goat the milk / until these are not symbols?” (18). Symbolization, like language more generally, wrenches the natural object from its context, just as, for Walter Benjamin, mechanical reproduction obliterates an object’s potentially transcendent “aura” by severing that object from its historical moment. Both modes of reproduction, mechanical and poetic, are only ever that—re-productions, for human purposes, of a once autonomous reality.

On the other hand, might not the family farm, idyllic precursor to today’s mass agriculture, be the very place where whatever “aura” the natural environment still, perhaps, possesses is best preserved? Indeed, for both Bashaw and Smith, the farm, like poetry, is as much bound to as binding upon nature, respectful of and registering its difference—and often quite reverently—while at the same time coexisting harmoniously within it. A prelapsarian haven from modernity, the farm, for these poets, is an alternative space within which we might re-conceive our relationship with the natural world. In Almanac, this antediluvian quality is literal; “We were speaking of the night before the flood,” Smith writes in one poem, suggesting, in brief, this collection’s underlying sense of its own belatedness, of having come after the catastrophes of modernity and of having to, like the Fourierists or Southern Agrarians, retroactively reconstitute a kind of alter-modernity in accord with nature.

We see this sense of belatedness, of catastrophe, most prominently in the collection’s strongest poem, “Aerial Photograph, Glasser Farm, 1972,” in which Glasser—the intimacy of the personal name, a commonplace in this collection, yet again marks its effort to counteract modern alienation—is forced to “buy back what had been taken / from him, despite the fact the photographer / was asking too much for something he had stolen.” Recalling Lévi-Strauss’s description of the “primitive” tribal fear that allowing oneself to be photographed jeopardizes one’s spiritual afterlife—a description which itself recalls Benjamin’s comments on “aura”—Glasser’s sense of violation here stems also from the recognition of his own insignificance, as the photograph forces him to acknowledge, for the first time, both the smallness and the gathering obsolescence of his farming life.

Smith’s poetry is astounding on this point—“Looking down on the very house he sits in, / it strikes him like a hand that he is this land’s / last lord.” The aerial photograph, with which anyone who has grown up on or around farms is familiar, is for Glasser what the famous “Blue Marble” or “Pale Blue Dot” photographs are for ecopoetry generally—markers, that is, of a pivotal moment at which we become able to understand, in dramatic visual form, the smallness of the human.

More than a matter of theme, however, Almanac‘s nostalgia for a simpler, more authentic relationship with the natural world is enacted formally in this poetry’s tone, in self-consciously antiquated language which, as I read it, attempts a kind of short-circuit back to a more just mode of linguistic representation.  In phrases like “we chased this guy all the hell / over Stephenson County” and “like catching your uncle / leaving a dark house and not knowing // what business he had there,” Smith demonstrates his indebtedness to the three great Jameses—Agee, Dickey, Wright—that comprise his literary heritage. If at times Smith draws too heavily on this debt—particularly in a poem about high school football, “Autumn’s Velocity,” which takes three pages to accomplish what Wright accomplishes in twelve lines—his awareness of his poetic forebears and his willingness to invoke them as part of an ecopoetic project, stands in my mind as a welcome corrective to contemporary poetry’s often vapid and unselfconscious use of language to track the ostensibly “postmodern” lyric self.

It is the self, however, alienated from the natural by modernity’s dislocations—spatial, economic, cognitive—upon which Bashaw stakes her own claims for reimaging a form of mutuality between humans and nature; the family farm, in Bashaw’s case, provides not so much a nostalgic embodiment of bygone tranquility but space for a transformative re-articulation of selfhood.  The poem “There Were No Mirrors in That Farmhouse” concisely suggests this idea, signaling even in its title the occlusion of the self in the natural world, a world, in other words, in which the very concept of “selfhood” implies alienation, lacking as it does any mechanism by which it might be made visible and immediate.  Yet in the space of the farmhouse, a new epistemology is established wherein the self becomes known not by the manmade apparatus of the mirror—itself an appropriative reworking of nature in the form of sand—but in the natural environment; “we could not tell,” Bashaw writes, “if our faces were most ours / in the yellow hawthorn, the cornhusk, or milk. /  In bonfires we stayed the same, in moss we aged.” And quickly we move from reflection to interpenetration—“And when the wind rose at night we heard / the barn swallows gather and land inside us.”

For Bashaw’s speaker, this dissolution of the self into the natural is experienced as both threat of obliteration and promise of transcendence. Against the former, the speaker and her companion cover themselves

with wool and buttons, saying: my stonewall,
my dark barn, my marmot, my ptarmigan,
my tilth, my kiln.  We gathered heavy words
until we were full as the silo once full of grain.

Clinging to markers of civilization—wool and buttons, a stone wall—as a kind of stopgap in the process of her own dissolution, the speaker clings also to language, that ultimate marker of civilization, in order to perform an autonomous selfhood distinct from the natural environment that threatens it.

Yet as Bashaw’s heavily Anglo-Saxon diction suggests here, language is itself already caught up in earthiness, inseparable, this poem contends, from the material environment against which, like a charm, it’s invoked. Smith too, for his part, wrestles with the materiality of language in Almanac, where, as in the collection’s final poem, “Wake,” it shows up as a kind of pleasure-giving cataloguing of the natural world, “all twenty / acres of woods and all the woods contain / the meadow in its nunlike heart the fascicles / of its birch bark the fjords of its oak leaves / its rabbits and raccoons its fawns and deer” (75).

While both poets could perhaps, to my mind, gesture more explicitly to the specific materiality of the printed word, of poetry inked on paper and bound in cloth, it’s nonetheless the very thingness of language which, for both, contains its redemptive potential. The material presence of language—the production of sounds in our mouths, the vibrations in our ears—counterposes the idea of language as an abstract system of signification divorcing us, in the very process of its signing, from the natural world to which it points; it’s a question, we might say, of presence against re-presentation, immanence against alienation.

If one aspect of language’s materiality is rhythm, as Bashaw seems to suggest in the poem “Governed by the Thrumming of My Mother’s Spinning Wheel,” it’s this aspect with which she’s perhaps least adroit.  The poem begins by carrying over the syntax of the title into the poem itself:

and the running of the shuttle
through the warp with the weft
and the binning of the corn
from the bags to the bins
and the bats with the loft
brimming on their breaths
and the sum of the ringing
of the herd running in

To be sure, the baseline anapests here demonstrate an awareness of meter, and of its capabilities of inflecting or even altering a poem’s meaning, beyond that of most young poets, and it’s for this reason I qualify my claim that Bashaw is only “perhaps least adroit” with regard to meter. The disruption of the anapests in the poem’s sixth line might very well be read as intentional, as demonstrative, we could argue, of language’s inability to perfectly translate the material world, to translate it, as we say with respect to music, losslessly.  But because there seems no thematic reason to break the meter at this specific point—or to break it here rather than elsewhere—the shift seems symptomatic of an arrhythmia that runs throughout this collection more generally.

And yet much of Bashaw’s writing is carefully attuned to other aspects of sonic materiality, including alliteration and assonance, both of which she deploys deftly, and in diction which is, like the stones that feature so prominently in this collection, precise, hard, and clear:

    Can you make
a poem like this?  As long
as the cat’s unknown path
at night, as wide as the creek
where the cress
and wild leeks grow, packed
as the mile of stacked hay?

Bashaw also demonstrates an ability to move dexterously among a wide range of poetic modes, from lyric playfulness to discursive statement to philosophizing to anecdotal narratives, the most linear or straightforward of which are rendered in this collection as prose poems. In an era of poetic production in which the manuscript contest seems to demand a “fresh look” on each page, Bashaw’s dexterity with these wide-ranging modes suggests the many ways in which The Whole Field Still Moving Inside It masters and transcends the “contest model.”

Smith, too, demonstrates a similar ambidextrousness, having received his MFA in poetry from the University of Virginia before going on to a Stegner Fellowship in Fiction at Stanford. At times, Almanac betrays his dual allegiances, its narratives sometimes too prosaic, too lifeless. But the collection is also capable of unexpected shifts in tone and syntax suggestive of Smith’s deeply ingrained knowledge of poetic craft; though it’s déclassé to talk critically about line breaks these days, Almanac‘s agile poesis shows up especially in the pleasurable estrangements created from one line to the next, as we see, for example, in the following:

One day one fall our father
decided to have the silo taken down

Or, in a poem about an abandoned piece of farm machinery:

         Its grave
was a little hill of grass I grew up
to have to mow.  When I think back
on it now, I wonder what we boys
would have done had one day
The Trencher started all of a sudden

What Smith’s attention to line and Bashaw’s to sound suggest is the way in which that tradition we call ecopoetics, like the tradition of the political poem or of the love poem, of the aubade or ode, is itself simply another inflection of poetry’s oldest, most vexing problem, the problem which separates it most dramatically, and most importantly, from prose—the problem of language.  In this way, ecopoetry might ironically succumb to the very problem of anthropocentrism it critiques, since at its best it employs nature as simply one more field through which, as corn in October, its own wind can be heard rattling. Both Bashaw and Smith are important, though under-appreciated, poets in this field—this is, so far as I know, the first substantive review of either—in that both complicate and enliven our understanding of the increasingly dire relationship between poetry and, since poetry too is a breathing thing, the habitat in which it lives.

About the Reviewer

Christopher Kempf is Ph.D. student in English literature at the University of Chicago and a former Wallace Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford University. He is a recipient of a 2015 fellowship in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts, and his writing has appeared in Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, Kenyon Review Online, and the New Republic, among other places. He received an MFA from Cornell University.