I’m really glad to be here because poetry has a special relationship to the environment.
Poetry is from the beginning often a genre that is used to preserve or catalogue information about the environment.
And so I want to start by reading a passage from the Kumulipo, a Hawaiian creation chant. It is a very old poem. There are debates about when it was written. Maybe in the early 1700s. Perhaps that is not so old to some. But no matter. It is a poem that is in addition to being very beautiful is also interesting because it presents an evolutionary and also systemic view of creation.
Here is its beginning (Beckwith translation on web here.):
At the time when the earth became hotThe organizer asked us to read a poem by another poet. And I decided on the Kumulipo because I think that one of the ethical requirements of any talk about poetry and the environment is the acknowledgement that indigenous art forms have been at this for years. And it is something that weirdly seems to keep disappearing from a number of recent eco-critical studies.
At the time when the heavens turned about
At the time when the sun was darkened
To cause the moon to shine
5. The time of the rise of the Pleiades
The slime, this was the source of the earth
The source of the darkness that made darkness
The source of the night that made night
The intense darkness, the deep darkness
10. Darkness of the sun, darkness of the night
Nothing but night.
The night gave birth
Born was Kumulipo in the night, a male
Born was Po'ele in the night, a female
15. Born was the coral polyp, born was the coral, came forth
Born was the grub that digs and heaps up the earth, came forth
Born was his [child] an earthworm, came forth
Born was the starfish, his child the small starfish came forth
Born was the sea cucumber, his child the small sea cucumber came forth
20. Born was the sea urchin, the sea urchin [tribe]
Born was the short-spiked sea urchin, came forth
Born was the smooth sea urchin, his child the long-spiked came forth
Born was the ring-shaped sea urchin, his child the thin-spiked came forth
Born was the barnacle, his child the pearl oyster came forth
25. Born was the mother-of-pearl, his child the oyster came forth
Born was the mussel, his child the hermit crab came forth
Born was the big limpet, his child the small limpet came forth
Born was the cowry, his child the small cowry came forth
Born was the naka shellfish, the rock oyster his child came forth
30. Born was the drupa shellfish, his child the bitter white shell fish came forth
Born was the conch shell, his child the small conch shell came forth
Born was the nerita shellfish, the sand-burrowing shellfish his child came forth
Born was the fresh water shellfish, his child the small fresh water shellfish came forth
Born was man for the narrow stream, the woman for the broad stream
35. Born was the Ekaha moss living in the sea
Guarded by the Ekahakaha fern living on land
Darkness slips into light
Earth and water are the food of the plant
The god enters, man can not enter
40. Man for the narrow stream, woman for the broad stream
Born was the touch seagrass living in the sea
Guarded by the tough landgrass living on land
46. Man for the narrow stream, woman for the broad stream
Born was the 'Ala'ala moss living in the sea
Guarded by the 'Ala'ala mint living on land
But when I say poetry has a special relationship to the environment, I should also say that “special” does not mean that poetry has an entirely innocent relationship to the environment. There is a whole tradition of poetry that presents the beautiful bird or plant but not the bulldozer off to the side that is destroying the habitat. And there is also the sort of poetry that ends up talking about the beautiful plant, an invasive plant that came with a very specific history of colonialism, as if it was innocent of this history. There is a part of me that some days wants to dogmatically say that any poetry about the bay area, for instance, must in some way remind that the bay was once clear, before 1849.
Let me also say that I am not the first to say this. This un-innocent relationship between the arts and the environment has been pointed out by those who do critical work around the representation of nature. Beth Tobin, for instance, is a literary scholar who has written on the relationship between the conventions of the botanical drawing and colonialism. And she talks in her book Imperial Designs about how the conventions of botanical illustration that develop with western exploration—those images that present the plant isolated against a white background—are yet another example of imperial thinking.
I want to just read a passage from her work because I feel that her work shaped my own work so much:
Botanical art was employed by a British botanical establishment eager to assert European systems of control over the natural resources of the world. Some aspects of botanical illustration, such as the snipped stem placed on a field of white, were well suited for the Linnean project of cataloguing the world’s plants according to a static, universal system. Such aspects of botanical illustration worked to decontextualize plant life and reinforced the idea of the efficacy of plant transfers, which undergirded the worldwide traffic in plants orchestrated by Kew Gardens.
I find her work interesting because even though it is about botanical drawing, it gets at what can be so annoying about nature poetry at moments.
For my own work, I want to read these two middle sections from Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache. In part b/c the poem is so thieving of ideas from various pre-contact poetries of the Americas, and because it attempts to think with both Tobin’s work and also the discussion around the idea of ecopoetics that I was encountering when I wrote the poem from Jonathan Skinner’s journal of that same name. But also I literally take language from the tradition, from The Path of the Rainbow: The Book of Indian Poems (edited by George W. Cronyn), from Ibn ‘Arabī’s “Gentle Now, Doves” as translated by Michael A. Sells (collected in Stations of Desire: Love Elegies from Ibn ‘Arabī and New Poems), from Aeschlyus’s The Persians.
[Sections 3 and 4 of Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache.]
And then in ending, this discussion of how the world shows up in poetry continues. And I want to end with this from CA Conrad because I find how he keeps pushing at these conventions of poetry, how he keeps pointing out what is getting left out. It is from his chapbook (Soma)tic Midge. And I should also confess that David Buuck first pointed out this quote to me and I owe him a thanks for that.
I cannot stress enough how much this mechanistic world, as it becomes more and more efficient, resulting in ever increasing brutality, has required me to FIND MY BODY to FIND MY PLANET in order to find my poetry. If I am an extension of this world then I am an extension of garbage, shit, pesticides, bombed and smoldering cities, microchips, cyber, astral and biological pollution, BUT ALSO the beauty of a patch of unspoiled sand, all that croaks from the mud, talons on the cliff that take rock and silt so seriously flying over the spectacle for a closer examination is nothing short of necessary. The most idle looking pebble will suddenly match any hunger, any rage. Suddenly, and will be realized at no other speed than suddenly.