Here in Alberta the road descends through layers of rock, which are all subdivided into formations, each classified according to age, rock type, fossil assemblage, oil or gas traps, and production value. A battalion of trucks rumbles by: Exalta Transport, Acropolis Steel, Spartan Controls. Pipes, cables, boreholes, pumps. All manner of devices measuring Earth’s pulse in BPU (bitumen per unit). When the wind lets up, I can hear an incessant ksshk-ksshk. Pumpjacks at worship.
All around me, the sounds and symbols of industry and power. I wanted to find a voice for this, something beyond the usual economic, political, and public relations framing; more a disruptive intervention to the violent intervention done to the land. Bring in a linguistic backhoe the way colonist-settlers physically, mentally, spiritually backhoed the land and its Indigenous peoples.
I worked for a long time at a multinational oil company and felt compelled to tackle the intertwined subjects of environmental devastation, loss of individual agency and the relentless capitalism that fuels Big Industry from an insider position. This urge developed into my own kind of poetics of extraction.
I’m also attracted to working with found texts, as my writing is usually tied to some kind of inquiry. What would happen if I placed words or phrases from one discourse with those from a seemingly opposing or unrelated discourse? This makes me feel like I’m working in a laboratory, mixing chemicals. It also brings me into the text, a way of also implicating myself, my hands coated in the bitumen of language.
These experiments became a book, Endangered Hydrocarbons, published by BookThug (now Book*hug) Press in 2015. All of the poems in this project are derived from texts generated by a multinational oil company, spliced with a variety of found material including video games, home decor magazines, histories of the Roman Empire and French Revolution, National Energy Board hearings. I chose texts for their strange, unexpected connections. For example, there is something about the spheres and terminals of liquefied natural gas that led me to Carl Jung. I treated these texts like crude oil; excavating, drilling, mixing them to emulate processes used by the industry.
As a new hire in the oil and gas industry, I faced a steep learning curve, and I read a lot of trade journals. Something that struck me was the tone of the editorials. They all follow the same aggrieved narrative: Big Oil persecuted by marauding environmental activists and their entourage of media stooges. This through-the-looking-glass rhetoric is also the normative language of government at all levels surrounding the oil industry, and the same us versus them mindset informs decisions at all levels. It only made sense to co-opt Foucault to legitimize the construct of a downtrodden oil-igarchy.
I also felt bombarded by a language both deeply invasive and archetypal; a strange brew of pornography, cryptogeology, pataphysics, and the purely speculative masked as science. Then there’s the dissociation between the “facts” presented in schematics, seismic logs, data runs and the physical reality they distort. But this language also evokes mythology and archetypes. It can’t help but do so. After all, its purpose is to core the underworld.
Industry texts fascinated me, especially geotechnical wellbooks and lithology logs. These logs are graphic representations of a well from surface to bottom hole. They are driven, single-minded, blatant in their purpose, but they’re also full of names, symbols, colours, patterns and the language can be beautiful, startling, absurd. Olivine phenocrysts, coastal, fluvial, aeolian. Sometimes even sounding like Shakespearean insults. You, sir, are a vuggy dolomite.
In the capitalist cosmology of an oil company, disciplines such as geology, geophysics, or chemistry are stripped of their power and experimental play. Instead, purpose-driven numbers are sent off to meet targets and serve their shareholders.
My aim is to deflect these targets by using linguistic processes to critique real-world industrial extraction. The idea is to leave a sense of upheaval, an awareness that when it comes to corporate capitalism there is no cultural high ground, Arctic wilderness, or religious sanctuary that can’t be exploited. Cultural references become artifacts, skulls and bone fragments turned up in a wellsite. And even as hydrocarbon extraction threatens Earth itself, the hydrocarbons are also threatened.
But after participating in the Forum on Poetics, Energy, and Extraction (University of Manitoba, March 2022), I realized I also need to listen to other voices, especially those that question my ethical foundations. Does the relentlessness of my own inquiry really critique the violence of industrial extraction, or am I merely perpetuating violence and theft on a linguistic level? Am I strip-mining without providing a sense of regeneration or renewal? On the other hand, shouldn’t I be tackling these issues using the tools and languages available to me?
What I hope to do is twist and invert the rhetoric, while keeping my poetics a territory open to questioning and critique, and add my voice to all those preparing the groundwork for another way of seeing—and being in—the world. Impose the underworld, the ancient seabed, the fragile coasts of the Mackenzie Delta on the languages of capitalism and industrial science. Jam the algorithms, deflect language from its 4Q targets, strip it of its colonial-capitalist ideology and its exalted position in society. Send it back to wilderness, play, and mystery.
Battler, Lesley. Endangered Hydrocarbons. Book*hug, 2015.
Lesley Battler’s debut book of poetry, Endangered Hydrocarbons, was published by Book*hug in 2015. Her work has most recently appeared in the anthology Poetics for the More-Than-Human-World (Spuyten Duyvil) in 2021. She has worked as a telecommunications librarian, corporate writer, information manager, and archivist in Toronto, Montreal, and Calgary. She currently lives in Edmonton.
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