Pipelines, Decomposition and Poetic Activism

  • Nikki Reimer
    The Enpipe Line: 70,000 Kilometres of Poetry Written in Resistance to the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines. Creekstone (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Jordan Scott and Stephen Collis
    Decomp. Coach House Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Laura Moss

In “A Rejected Preface” to New Provinces (composed in 1936 but not published until 1965), AJM Smith targeted the Confederation poets who wrote about “nature humanized, endowed with feeling, and made sentimental” as he eviscerated their poems: “[t]he most popular experience is to be pained, hurt, stabbed or seared by beauty—preferably by the yellow flame of a crocus in the spring or the red flame of a maple leaf in autumn.” Smith criticized what he saw as the over-use of plant-life as a vehicle for personal self-reflection. Most of all, however, he criticized the romanticization of nature. Although Smith was not entirely fair to his unsentimental predecessors (think of Isabella Valancy Crawford’s “The City Tree” or Archibald Lampman’s “The City of the End of Things,” for instance), he did make a good point about the prevalence of the affective relationship between nature and the poetic persona.

In the past few decades, with the “ecological renaissance” and the “social turn” in literature, nature poets are less apt to passively address the land and more apt to imagine an altered state of environmental change, even degradation. Contemporary nature poets often look at the effects of human interaction, resource extraction, and economic exploitation on Canadian land and waters. One strand of nature poetry employs a poetics of warning as writers speculate on the effects of the tar sands on climate change, the relationships between Indigenous land claims and strip mining, the impacts of oil transportation on British Columbian riverbeds, or the consequences of genetic modification on prairie ecosystems. Rita Wong, for instance, asserts a need for social justice and environmental acumen in poems like “night gift (790 km)” where she asks, “how will the night take you back? will you be the vessel for earth shatter, hydro poison, ancestral revenge? perhaps steady weeds, growing irrepressibly into the cracks, urban repurposing straddling both the drugs that kill and the ones that heal?”

Wong’s hopeful image of weeds growing through the cracks in a sidewalk to assert their domain and repurpose the incongruous city space brings me to Decomp, the collaboration of poets Stephen Collis and Jordan Scott (alongside Charles Darwin, time, the weather, insects, fauna, flora, a camera, ink, and paper). According to their artistic statement on “the culture mill” blog, in this collection the poets “revers[e] the normal flow of bringing nature into the poem” by “bringing the text into nature” so nature can assert its own kind of repurposing. As the book’s back cover puts it, “[i]f On the Origin of the Species is Darwin’s reading of nature, Decomp is nature’s reading of Darwin.” The process of decomposition becomes, according to the statement, a “poetics and writing strategy—a mode of making new texts/works out of the decomposing bodies of other texts/works. We decompose, in order to compose our return to the material.”

Collis and Scott go a step beyond other ecological poets as they speak with, rather than about, nature, and as they draw poetry out of the “variations of climate and ecosystem.” In 2009, the poets left copies of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species open to the elements in five distinct British Columbian biogeoclimatic zones: Nicola Lake (Bunchgrass Zone), Prince George (Sub-boreal/Englemann Spruce Zone), Kootenay Lake (Englemann Spruce/Subalpine Fir Zone), Gabriola Island (Coastal Douglas Fir Zone), and Tofino (Coastal Western Hemlock Zone). A year later they returned to find the decomposing books, decipher them, and translate the remnants into a series of found poems. In a CBC radio interview, Collis explains that they began by asking, “what would [nature’s] response be to all the poets’ annoying talk and discussion and troping and philosophizing about what nature means?” To answer the question, Scott and Collis gave the elements the opportunity to over-write Darwin, in ecological variations, and the printed word. While Collis and Scott may “comport as scientists, investigators, researchers,” as they say, they don’t simply study nature. Instead, they collaborate with it, albeit in a controlled manner.

Decomp forensically traces the linguistic remains of the decomposed pages and renders them as found poems, prose meditations, and photographs. The collection is not only a conceptual poem sequence, although it succeeds at being that. While the poets did stipulate rules (one book, five locations, one year) before composition, the emphasis on decomposing and the somewhat organic re-composing leads to something more diffuse than a constraint-based project might suggest. The poems found in the remains of Darwin’s text are presented in boxes labeled “The Readable” throughout the sections. The natural fragments of Origin are accompanied by wrap-around poetic exegeses repeatedly entitled “Gloss.” Knowing the parameters of the project when I began reading, I had expected the fragments of Origin to be the core of the book. However, while the book encompasses the decomposing remnants, the collection foregrounds the process of mutability rather than the end-product. The poets, and readers, are left to decipher what remains.

Each of the five sections of Decomp, named after the dominant tree-type and the location of the Origins’ placement, begins with a series of photographs of the worn and decomposing pages, shriveled words, and moss and dirt covered typeface. Some are close-ups on the text itself, while others pull back to contextualize the books as objects embedded in the grasses, logs, and leaves. The photos invite the reader to find her own response to the elements and mutated text. The most striking set of photographs are of Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island. No words remain visible on the pages with “moss growing recto and verso.” Darwin’s book has been subsumed by nature and we are left with an absence of language in this Pacific setting. Without language, without history, without text, the poets write, “even the monstrous wordlessness we abode by here, no feedback, gaping maw. Just zone, its permeable and moving boundary. The book is buried and we cannot read a thing.” Such passages illustrate how the process of collecting the pages, “trying not to lose scraps,” is perhaps more accessibly poetic than the found words themselves.

In several sections of Decomp, there are cameo appearances by poet/field-guides to local ecosystems. Fred Wah and Pauline Butling lead Scott and Collis up a Kootenay mountain while Rob Budde and Ken Belford walk through the forests behind UNBC in Prince George with the poets. Their voices echo alongside the fragments from Origin and the remnants of poetic discovery and point to the communal nature of the project. Somewhat incongruously, however, passages from popular literary theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Maurice Blanchot, and Giorgio Agamben, among others, are juxtaposed with the BC voices and the work of nature. While the words of Collis and Scott meld with the fragments left of Darwin, the theorists are set apart to comment on the process and remind us, perhaps, of the very constructed and mediated version of natural response we are reading. However, the persistence of references to Blanchot and others is somewhat jarring for me and detracts from the originality of the rest of the collection.

There is an important contradiction in Decomp. On one hand, Collis and Scott have relinquished artistic control to nature as they collaborate with it. On the other hand, this relinquishment is limited by their pronominal presence within the text. Further, glimpses of men I take to be Collis and Scott appear in two of the photos. These briefly populated images echo the manner in which the poets inscribe themselves glancingly throughout the book. We never quite lose sight of the fact that this collection is poetically mediated however much the found “readable” poems suggest the scriptive power of plant-life. Perhaps in asserting their own presence and process, the poets remind us that nature can’t actually write and stop us from sentimentalizing or even humanizing the environment, even in its most collaborative form.

Still, as the environment writes back, each of the five ecosystems reacts distinctly to the cardstock cover, the paper, and the phonemes on it. Biodiversity modifies decomposition. Collis and Scott note that they chose to place the books in locations around the province based on the biogeoclimatic zones categorized under the provincial government’s ministry of forestry classification system. The zones were created, they argue, “under a logic of resource extraction. It is a division according to dominant and thus harvestable tree species. This is a map made by capital.” In a way, then, the books were left to occupy the capitalist logic of classified nature. The resulting collaboration is akin to that of the Enpipe Collective’s curation of The Enpipe Line: 70,000 kilometers of poetry written in resistance to the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines Proposal (to which Collis contributed). As Fred Wah sees it, “kilometre after kilometre, The Enpipe Line occupies its space by writing in it.” So too do the fragments of Decomp that highlight environmental precarity.

The Enpipe Line project, launched online in November 2010 and published as a poetry collection in Smithers BC after a year, was conceived when Vancouver poet Christine Leclerc was chained to the door of the head office of Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines. “While being removed from the premises,” she writes in her introduction to the collection, “the image of a poetry-jammed pipeline struck me.” To protest the development of the 1,173 km pipeline from Bruderheim Alberta to Kitimat BC, she decided to try to match the pipeline cm for km with words and invited poets worldwide to join her. She and Jen Currin, Ray Hsu, Nikki Reimer, Melisa Sawatsky, Jordan Hall, and Daniel Zomperelli formed an editorial collective, curated a website (which received online poetic submissions in resistance to the pipeline), and edited the print collection. Together they measured 70,000 km of poetry (where a Times New Roman 12 point font cm = a km). The resulting poems are “at the intersection of poetic expression and civic participation” as one contributor notes. In an act of solidarity, every contribution to the website was included in the book (rather than chosen on the basis of artistic merit or poignancy of political content). Leclerc confirmed for me in an email that the editorial collective decided “that any and all contributions would be valued equally, so the only poems that aren’t in the book are poems by people we couldn’t get in touch with.” The Enpipe Line showcases a generation of collective artistic activism, facilitated by internet technology that has made collaboration easier, more accessible, and more powerful as a way to foster dissent.

Most of the contributions are about the environment and the impact of development on the land and water but they address these topics variously using tools of abrogation, satire, direct address, and found poetry. Several found poems (there are kms of them in the collection) like Leclerc’s opening salvo, “en- (1,135.72 km),” document the language of the government, the oil companies, and the negotiators, and in doing so raise it up to ridicule. Some poets play at the level of phoneme and morpheme, as Meredith Quartermain does in “Pipe Liar (428.88 km)” “pipe lure pipe layer pipe liar/ cheap cheap cheap cheap . . . ” Some meta-poetically call attention to the ability of poets to interpret language. Melissa Sawatsky’s “Say (246 km)” is especially poignant in this regard: “this line is full of words/ that burst without warning, collateral/ damage of constructed intention,/ which is to say // there are things you can claim. All the way/ from Bruderheim to Kitamat, you can megaphone/ phrases—safe passage, / 62,700 years of person-employment,/ maximum environmental protection, / open and extensive public reviews—intangible words in corporeal space.” Other poets play with direct address targeting individual politicians. Sonnet L’Abbe’s “Pipeline to Harper (1187.3 km)” stands out in this genre as a rambling and powerful invocation to the Prime Minister. Conversely, but no less effectively, in his poem “A Few Questions for a Rubber Stamp (463.57 km),” Ray Hsu asks blunt and pointed questions about Indigenous title, local engagement, and government actions. As one might expect of an open collection, a few of the poems are more significant for their intention than delivery.

The Enpipe Line collaboration beautifully illustrates the branch of Canadian poetry that has swung away from the individual act of writing about nature to a kind of collaborative activism possible through poetry crowdsourcing. It sits beside the rise of groups such as 100,000 Poets for Change that rely on the connections between “social activism and creative promise” and the Centre for Artistic Activism whose stated goal is “to make more creative and effective citizen activists.” The effectiveness of using poetry as a forum for participatory environmental activism is explained by poet Derek Beaulieu when he writes that “[w]ith The Enpipe Line, poets draw a line in the sand and enact their politics. No longer is the landscape something wistfully elegized; it is the line where poets say no more, not again.” Beaulieu picks up where Smith left off in his critique of the wistful nature elegy. The increasingly politicized line of environmental poetry has moved from feeling the sear of the crocuses of the early twentieth century to recognizing the bursting pipelines of the early twenty-first.

This review “Pipelines, Decomposition and Poetic Activism” originally appeared in Of Borders and Bioregions. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 218 (Autumn 2013): 140-43.

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