Issue 19: Adam Piette reviews Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Drew Milne, Iain Britton
Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Days and Works (Ahsahta Press, 2017)
Drew Milne, In Darkest Capital: Collected Poems (Carcanet, 2017)
Iain Britton, The Intaglio Poems (Hesterglock Press, 2017)
Art like philosophy is liable to fall into the error of presuming that its dialectical or dialogic reflections, as normally shared with the singular art-lover or reader, must therefore have political efficacy as acts of persuasion to the crowd that is public opinion. As Hannah Arendt reminded us in her 1954 Notre Dame lectures, Socrates’s mistake was ‘to address his judges in the form of dialectic, which is why he could not persuade them’. Persuasion, she writes, ‘does not come from truth, it comes from opinions, and only persuasion reckons and knows how to deal with the multitude’ [‘Philosophy and Politics’, Social Research 57.1 (Spring 1990)]. This is both narrowly true and broadly a little offensive, but admits a more worrying rift between the active function an artwork has in the world and the artwork’s persuasive truth-value, or more gallingly between the ethical claims we like to think art can boldly make with its progressive and truth-telling representations and the strange languages and forms of its acts of mediation. If art is more likely to be multivalently dialectical than bluntly opinion-forming, its singularity and difficulty make it unlikely to adopt forms that will change minds collectively in ordinary political ways. The theatre can make the stage into a soapbox; a poem can hector and proselytize; films can be pure propaganda; operas can muster the masses; designers can turn slogans into compelling posters on city walls. But the very aesthetic of art’s mode of address to the public targets the imagination as a very special form of knowledge, so that it holds true to say that art is more likely than not to splice together many forms of feeling, thinking and sensing brought into textual form and to surface by its media; by seducing body and mind together, appealing to ear, eye and full senses with a view to changing minds as states of being, as much as aiming to reshuffle the opinions dealt out by instrumental culture. But at the same time, the times may demand a more radical idea of art’s efficacies: when the crisis is such as to break all rules in any case, or when art has to be revolutionary if there’s any dream of turning the thing around, or as and when there is a global catastrophe in the wings, as was the case in the 1930s, as was the case in the high nuclear Cold War, as was the case on the streets of cities in 1968, as is the case now with environmental disaster looming so few decades ahead.
This disaster is underway, provoking a sea change in the environmental humanities, that goes without saying: from green anxieties about toxicity and violence wreaked on the natural world to near-hopeless horror at the prospect of ecocidal apocalypse, the very end to this world at this our species’ hands, the earth sacrificed on the altar of late modernity and its reckless technology, cruel greed, destructive capitalism, political blindness and denial. The shift is visible across the intellectual spectrum, with the urgency of the end of days prompting new research areas, from animal, climate change and disaster studies, to ecocritical postcolonial and activist critical theory sounding the alarm on the impact of military-industrial complex expansion, casino capitalism, globalization and reactionary biopolitics on the biosphere. The push on all fronts has contributed to an overhaul of all concepts, transforming the meaning of science, technology, geopolitical history, including every form and genre of art as a practice: every single topic addressed by the arts is given lurid edge and highlights once we begin to understand the terminal nature of all environments under ecocidal erasure. Specifically for our purposes here, the ecopoetic turn in poetry may once have gestured towards a fringe grouping of writers working on ecology since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, but now has broadened its range to include all work that is aware of the predicament, and has moved towards radical alteration of composition as a consequence. Jonathan Skinner mapped some of the coordinates of ecopoetics in experimental writing according to eight vectors, sound work from Larry Eigner and John Cage to Maggie O’Sullivan, conceptual / procedural (eg Sophie Mayer, Juliana Spahr), research documentary (eg Susan Howe, Craig Santos Perez), situationist (eg Jules Boycoff and Kaia Sands and guerilla poetry, Brenda Hillman), work at the boundary of text (eg Gary Snyder, Sarah Sze, Lyn Hejinian, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge), mestizo poetics (eg Edouard Glissant, Jerome Rothenberg, Cecilia Vicuña), ‘big picture’ horizon work (eg Charles Olson, and the ecology movement as theorized by figures such as Levi-Strauss, Aldo Leopold, David Abram), disrupted ‘third landscape’ work (eg Gilles Clément, Lisa Robertson). The taxonomy underlines the breadth and scope of the predicament as political call to responsibility, as transformative urgency metabolizing language and affect, as seductive death drive virally replicating future disaster into the systems of communication of the poem and collection. The poetry of environmental destruction has to court the endgame to be able to stand as a call to responsible action: at the same time, that very courting brings to endpoint and punctum the question of the political agency possible to art. The collections here reviewed in their different ways all address the question and allow its wounding intimacies to disrupt the flow of language from text to reader, generating blends of posthuman and lyric intensities that move so as to change minds.
One manner of engagement with the fact of environmental destruction is to abandon the poem’s lyricity and aesthetic difference and move towards the political address of prose, an act of political sacrifice enacted to underline the urgency of this occasion of all occasions. Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Days and Works is one of her Interstitial series, coming in between the monumental Drafts and her current long poem project, Traces. The collection allows news to stand as collage element pasted into the page formatting, and gives an indication of the predicament: no longer a neo-modernist act of radical juxtaposition à la Schwitters but a concession to the pressure of the predicament circumstances. The texts archived in this way from the news-round include items on pollution, rising sea levels, drought, scary wildlife stories – these are sequenced with stories about violence, capitalist greed, poverty, to make the connection clear as to the principal cause. But most of the intellectual work of the volume is done in the prose sections, which break occasionally into poetry, but predominantly stage thinking about environmental disaster (eg ‘If we all become radioactive …. It’s simple. It could happen from the atomic event boring down under the toxic nuclear reactor to its core’) at the same time as pondering time and art, often framed as open questions at the edge of aporia (‘Can this be both a book, be several books, be no book?’) These blank questionings are fed and fuelled by the terrible question of our times, here put as awkwardly as possible: ‘What has changed now that we are able to feel this is in fact the 21st century? […] Is it that the ecological disaster of humankind changing the face of the earth has gotten faster, greater in scale, more – irreversible?’ The bluntness of this, the gulp in the throat, the sheer prosiness and notey formlessness of the question, testify to the poetry that has had to be abandoned to face the reality that cannot be faced, the irreversibility of the disaster making a mockery of the explorations and late modernist, long durational project. What if poetry itself lies most when it takes its time, when it writes long, when it sends its text into the future? What if its duration is under erasure, and its late modernism just far too late? The ecological disaster has poisoned the textual ecology of the poem, exposing the exploratory nature of the experimental project as symptom of the new aesthetic-destroying environment: questions can only be answered by acknowledging the irreversible redundancy of all questions under such circumstances. This is a disturbing, enabling collection that tests our most basic aesthetic and political responses and responsibilities in a world shaped by grotesque news for all: and questioning beyond question the valency of writing at such a pitch.
Drew Milne’s In Darkest Capital: Collected Poems gathers together work from 16 books and chapbooks from 1993 to 2017, as well as bringing into the public domain uncollected works (including the wonderful lichen series); from an ecopoetics perspective, they nurture two other forms of response to the predicament: the adoption of a communicative and markedly satirical form of address, and another mode which is more fully and dauntingly experimental. The two modes are not at odds, since they counter the same set of forces, the darkest capital of the global corporate economy at its destructive work. There is a remarkable consistency across the years: the book opens with the 1993 collection Satyrs and Mephitic Angels, and includes ‘Entelechy: Marginalia’ that stages lichen sidling ‘against their arid kenosis’ (presumably because lichen is made up of two species, alga and fungus, that give up their full species identity to survive compositely in the world, on the lines of Christ’s negotiation of divine and human attributes) and therefore to be ‘jargoned’ ‘by those back to second nature word boys of ach!’ The joke here is obscure, but turns on the ways a red and green fusion (a Marxist environmentalism responding to the threat to all entelechy), as difficult as that between algae and fungi, human and divine, subject and objet, praxis and theory (following Adorno), is perhaps most imaginatively achieved by creative work, a political poetics that can fuse ‘species lament’ with critique of the mediatization and commodification of desire (the ‘crouch brow diffusion’ on the ‘dispiriting melancholia screen’). Yet at the same time active resistance is simultaneously threatened by the commodity conditions governing art in the marketplace (‘that anorganic sybilline / rivalry of being in print’) – the back to second nature word boys as poets may seek a back to nature Romantic recoil, yet they produce secondhand goods for a market (‘second nature’ taken from Lukács), like Tarquinus buying the Sybil’s sulphur-produced books under pressure from the spectacle of their destruction (Coleridge’s Sybilline Leaves includes a line imagining lichens slow oozing as they weep over rocks). This old joke of Milne’s was resurrected with the recent lichen series, which combines the composite lifeform as a model of cooperative resistance during times of disaster (lichens the first lifeform after volcanic eruptions or, supposedly, after nuclear destruction) with their use as markers of pollution (lichen can signal acid rain and other signs of industrial poisoning, so present a model for acts of witness, in green terms as an exposure of the environmental victimizing of the subject designed to trigger activist resistance). The combination has double valency, as it did with the entelechy meditation: it can combine as a thought experiment about the kind of poem a red-green realization might generate as an exercise in super-aware satire; or it can express as a more serio-tragic weighing of the predicament in political-environmental terms. As satire of the artwork locked into difficult responsiveness to the poisonous environment of darkest capital, Milne’s ‘lichen poem amalgamating natures’ (‘Vote Lichen’) admits how futile the poet must appear with his Romantic-socialist victimhood (‘stigmata of printed mutter in on / materiality’) and his red-green credentials (‘neither thermidor nor reforestation / can save us from a / winsome horror of hapless allegories’). This is high jinx self-dramatizing selving, spotting the ‘Caesar of darker wood’ in the narcissistic mirror of the poem’s compositional unconscious (ie the Marxist nature-poet as simulacrum of the enemy). The other mode has darker tonalities, as when the poems turn to Scottish history and the plight of poor Clearance crofters eking out a living scraping lichen off rocks for dye (especially the crottle lichen for the dying of tweed) with spoons and seashells. ‘Crottle Song’ weaves together commination against capital markets that kill off the poor with consideration of the ancient uses of lichen dyes; so that the identification of lichen as combinatory artwork bound compassionately to the poor (‘the cheap labour set dying / young’) and to nature under threat of dark capital cannot be blasted away by satire’s backfire – the poem works up a counter-aesthetic that seeks to reimagine a poetics of solidarity through difficult dialectic. This is a stirring, generous, probing collection, sure-minded, steady under fire (including from its own satirical reflection), devastatingly clear about the devastations all will face , which so many suffer now, here in this world: ethical poetry of the highest order, looking you direct in the eye, from the several vantage-points of its many levels of engagement with the predicament, advocate-activist, searchingly political, witty and intellectual, metaphysical, Scottish, European, Marxist-ecological – a collection to savour (and then read again) as we move through into the bad times.
The dialectic being espoused by Milne is a composite too, a lichen machine for splicing together like and unlike, idea and manifestation, subject and object, I and you in the intimate manners of the lyric, epic, dramatic poem whilst fusing poetic form to Lukácsian subject-object amalgams across history. One of the ways the two forms come together is through establishing a future standpoint from which the contemporary can be judged – Milne’s ‘Ideology in the Microscope’ ends, hauntingly with lichens on rock as a concrete poem beyond the human:
draft drift sing deftly
till the song is an end
in ourselves, yes, even
to the rust of recorded
pride, limestone or sun
The concrete poem here imagined is a satirical compound of the concrete poetry which lichens resemble if one ‘reads’ their marks as a kind of ecological language written over thousands of years upon the landscape and a playful reinscription of the Marxist concrete universal. The sheer physical materiality of lichen growing on stone is here taken as a image, though, of a poetry outlasting the species, or as an artwork written as though from posthuman standpoint beyond recorded time: ‘till the song is an end / in ourselves’ plays the line-ending out as end of our world (in the species rather than an end to the species, as though our own extinction were a DNA-drive), and conceives with some difficult joy the prospect of the rust- bloom on the limestone as both a sign of the extinction event which is the terminus and appropriate punishment for the pride of Anthropocenic destruction, and as a shining sun on the limestone, dawn of a posthuman world given back to the ancient species of this planet.
A contrastive version of the same posthuman perspective pertains in Iain Britton’s new collection, The Intaglio Poems. These are eerie, very concretely realised dreams of current behaviour patterns in human interactions visualized as though by some alien observer. There is a strict reduction of feeling, interiority and movement to essentials in both the scening and the diction, as in this pretty ruthless imagining of male self-regard: ‘he battles through dreams | thinning fog | fields of mud | if asked about credentials | he has his mirrors | his split reflections | he has stripped himself down to a disembodied soliloquy’. The observer is complicit in the stripping down of the subject, and in the mapping of the dreamwork as self-reifying symptom: as though the observer were ‘he’ transposed to another order of being. The use of the caesura mark enacts the splitting as an aesthetic procedure at the same time as it times the subject according to the dictates of another dreamer’s dream. And it is this eerie David Lynchy non-specific menace in the dream – and the sense that the subjects are caught up in the dreamwork of an other – which marks these poems out. The alien observer is the dream-maître, but also comes from another time, to all intents and purposes as though from a time beyond the scenarios, a time of distant descendants. The sequence that gives the collection its title admits this in one of its dream situations which is based on a memory staging ‘your father’ and his wife in a boat on a lake ‘in love with the stillness | the reflections creeping closer’. The memory becomes Oedipal in the telling, as primal scene is superimposed on this quiet and beautiful memory (as though the maternal and paternal presences that terrify the boy Wordsworth in his stolen boat now occupy the craft as dream couple) and gives the measure to the weirdly unsettling narration of the other poems in the sequence: memory poems become dream poems once the time is taken on at some future date by another descendant mind, a mind hyperaware of the menace in the quietest pictures, those reflections creeping closer. The perspective from which the alien descendant writes the dreams may be post-Oedipal, Whitmanian in the admixture of cold clarity to the collective zooming in on privacies and unsettling intimacy to the possessiveness of the gaze. It is also streaked through with menace as though Death were observing the world, a post-Anthropocene Archimidean point of view: ‘these people hear the earth creep | unerasable ghosts have become clearer | more permanent | they slip into human categories’. This is chilling as much as it is baffling: the earth it might be that gazes on these alien humans. Iain Britton has written a bracing, fearful and fitfully entrancing collection, incisive, cutting, corrosive as intaglio, yet striking as acid dreams.
Adam Piette is Professor of Modern Literature at the University of Sheffield, author of Remembering and the Sound of Words, Imagination at War, The Literary Cold War, and co-edits Blackbox Manifold with Alex Houen.