Regreen: New Canadian Ecological Poetry. Your Scrivener Press and
Words to be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art. MIT
What do an anthology of Canadian ecopoetry, a collection of blog posts, and a study of language in 1960s (New York) have in common? How can these three books—Regreen: New Canadian Ecological Poetry, Unleashed, and Words to Be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art—inhabit the same review space? Perhaps the way a river, a salmon, and an eagle occupy the same geographic space, which is to say carefully and essentially? The energy that runs through each of these texts, the essence that enables a reviewer to begin the project of thinking such disparate works as somehow linked, is language. Language as medium for communicating; language as tool for constructing meaning; language as object detached from contextual meaning. For Sina Queyras, aka Lemond Hound (which is also the name of her blog and her second book of poetry), language inheres as writing, and writing is thinking, not just assembling. Queyras follows: it is the matter of thinking that I worry about most in contemporary writing. The blog, as a relatively new medium, simultaneously seduces with the freedom to publish whatever whenever and troubles for its tendency to move participants/practitioners away from stillness of mind toward dispersive thinking. Still, the threat of becoming distracted by blogging and growing uncomfortable with the practice of instant publication is not enough to keep Queyras away from Lemon Hound.
The book, published by Book Thug’s Department of Critical Thought, covers blog posts from 2005 to the end of 2008. The variety of topics—interviews with poets, reports on art exhibits, discussions of poets/poems—indicates Queyras’s sharp, deeply intelligent, inquisitive, and open mind. Queyras asks questions in ways that elicit thoughtful responses, if not answers, from herself and from commenters (in the transition from cyberspace to printed page, comments have been left out of the book, save for six pages at the end). The final entry encapsulates much of what Queyras brings to contemporary poetics, both academic and public (which sometimes, but not always, overlap), and what makes her, to my mind, a key figure for discussing such different works as Regreen and Words to Be Looked At: love of language and appreciation for multiple poetries vie with concern for, on the one hand, dismissive claims of experimental poetry’s inaccessibility and, on the other hand, an eroding attention to narrative. Or, as Queyras puts it, Is it terribly old fashioned of me to want poetry to be about something? To go somewhere?
The art, including poetry, that Liz Kotz studies deploys language in ways that defy arrival at any meaningful linguistic place: words are to be looked at as objects, not to be read as linguistic gesture. This goes for the various text scores for John Cage’s 4’33″, his infamous work of silence, which Kotz posits as driving the turn to language, as well as influencing avant-garde Fluxus poetry and text-based photography. Tracing this trajectory, Kotz provides a thoroughly researched historicity largely missing from criticism that dismisses much experimental art, in large part by emphasizing the role technology—typewriters, magnetic tape-recording equipment—played in encouraging experiments skeptical of the confident determinacy of language. Words took on materiality as things that needn’t point toward other things. Vito Acconci explains his total refusal of language’s referential and associational dimensions: It started to seem impossible to use on the page a word like tree, a word like chair, because this referred to another space, a space off the page. The contradiction—refusing referentiality by avoiding words that refer to another space, thus reaffirming referentiality—figures less prominently in Kotz’s argument than it might have. The contradiction implies that maybe language poetry, whatever or however one might try to contain that, is a…place of wild, a place of things not immediately named, a place of remaining open, which is how Queyras thinks through the question of nature poetry in a time of the Internet and social networking.
Queyras alludes to Don McKay’s notion that poetry comes from a place of wild seeing, evoking language’s attempt, via poetry and metaphor, to reside in wilderness, that placeless place beyond the mind’s appropriations as McKay puts it in Vis à Vis: Field Notes on Poetry & Wilderness, without possessing it. In the excerpt selected for Regreen, McKay writes that wilderness is [s]o overwritten it should probably be granted a reprieve from definition; Write it down, he suggests; Cross it out. This contrarian impetus exemplifies co-editor Adam Dickinson’s claim that the ecopoem attends to the world-building (and world-effacing) capacities of language as well as to the natural and social worlds in which the poem is situated. The poems Dickinson and Madhur Anand choose to explore ecological transformations, how poets re-imagine spaces in the act of restoring their diversity, demonstrate a turn to language for myriad reasons and with varying results. In the first section, lyric presides, as it is wont to do, over poetic engagements with the phenomenal world— another space—while verse less comfortable with lyric traditions walks in the second section among built environments to negotiate psychosocial geometries, traffic jams, and tailing ponds. The third section resembles an ecology that Kotz and Queyras would appreciate as avant-garde, a place where river, salmon, and eagle point away from natural space and indicate moments of language referring to the arbitrariness of meaning. Nothing in Regreen quite disavows linguistic meaning the way the artwork Kotz looks at does: even a. rawlings’ pronoun-dominant Signs of Whom, that begins
I you he she they we
her your our my her his their
us them her him you me
myself ourselves ours mine
yourself yours yourselves
himself herself themselves
relies upon linguistic meaning—implied and discrete—to produce emotional response and narrative momentum. It helps to read this poem aloud, preferably to an audience, an indication that these words are meant to be read (and heard) and not to be just looked at (and seen). As long as words continue to invite discussion—on blogs, in scholarly journals, amongst a reading public—the difference might be moot.