Eleni Sikelianos: For a Panel on Poetry & the Environment

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 6:31 AM

[Notes for a panel on Poetry and the Environment, 2008. The panel description states: "Global warming, genetic engineering, and extinction are terms heard frequently but how is it that poets are responding to a universe clearly and often detrimentally changing? How might writing about the environment affect a writer's conception of form, process, and the imagination?"]

Whatever the problem is, I am always a part of it.

My cell phone, my jeans, my salmon, my cotton sheets, the dyes to color them green, my car, my commute, my coffee, my hair color, my soap, my book, my lamp light, my laundry, my groceries and my grocery bag, my president, my money, my daughter, my daughter’s diapers, her blocks, her magnets, her dolls — every thing I do or use or touch seems to connect me in turn to a web of destruction. That is the crushing truth of our current existence on this planet.

Our household laws, our eco-nomy are in disorder.
Our household thinking, our eco-logos is bewitched.
We have not yet learned how to embody a new order.

What is my poem’s carbon footprint?

The poem, also, is concerned with webs, and can detonate in an emotional explosion. But the poem, unlike me, is a stealth worker, and can slip through the world undetected. In the wake of the poem, I crash through the world breaking everything the poem has stitched together.

Our great contribution to the exploration of the human psyche, the total investigation of self as center, has now reached the end of plausibility, of possibility. In the new age of biology and weather, we will adapt or we will not. At that point that we no longer adapt we become a closed system. As far as I can tell, closed systems are not living systems.

Another meaning of ecology’s logos: the telling of our tales, our speech, our talk, bringing a deepened sense of reality. For centuries, poems and art have been teaching us how to be in the room(s) of the world and listen. The poet’s ecosystem is one in which we THINK-SEE, where we learn the only way to get it close to “right,” in reading or writing, is to look, and look again. Poems help me move in the distance between the theoretical and the real.

A tree bends, gravity
pursues it, a hound
after its rabbit, the body
takes flight, physics
gives chase

The deep looking the poem requires, the way it questions habits of seeing and of mind, makes me more attentive to relationship and pattern, around and within me. Thus, any poem is an eco-prod.
Any poem is web-work, with world as prey.
Out there is a radial symmetry that the poem reflects.
The poem says, nothing is lateral.
It says, nothing is bilateral.
What catch have you there, web of words?

The lineal confines of language, its pure morphology, moving in straight lines from left to right, forward to back, or right to left, suggest we were hoping to fix a kind of logic/logos there — to understand and express our words in no uncertain terms. Syntax pushes us ahead in the assumption that meaning adds up, as we thrust through time in the arrow’s forward motion. This allows sequential progression, and allows us to strip the economy (household rules) without looking too far forward or back. Numbers tell many stories, but they don’t tell all the stories. Not everything adds up. The simple acts of metaphor or simile pierce the closed system, and suggest simultaneity. We look through the poem’s microscope and see that a cell nucleus resembles a sea urchin. A minute resembles a mitochondria, and it’s our mother’s. These images — of endoplasmic reticulation, of ribosomes and golgi, have always sent me swooning. At first I thought it was because I was destined to be a microbiologist. Early in the math requirements, I discovered that it was the differently arduous path of poetry.

In the economy of the poem, a cardinal is a flying tulip.

In the poem, economy and ecology adhere.

I have never been one for logic, or even Plato, when possibility seems to swarm at every corner, and I cannot see my way to closing the system; but I have been one for naming and systems of naming, for nets of belonging where word may slip from thing to thing but the aim is: no possible thing is ever lost.

Words are, language is, despite our demands upon it, its own ecosystem, its own wild collection of species and mutations. It growls, it pounces, it purrs, it grovels, its populations rely on each other, they die out, they explode. Language comes from the world, the human and animal and planetary household which birthed it. Each possible word, even our ofs and our ands, is itself webbed to the world, and this is its further and perhaps its ideal logic. This evolutionary symbiosis of the word stuns me.

Early on, I loved leafing through biology and oceanography books, magnetized by the richness of language and forms found there. These pages were haunted by Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy, and his invention of naming, ranking and classifying organisms — a system that has completely permeated our worldview. According to Canadian anthropologist Hugh Brody, most hunter-gatherer languages don’t have categorical words, like fish or tree; they have specific words, like trout, salmon, perch, elm, maple, aspen, but not the broad-stroke word under which all these words fall. (Whence comes the cliché that the Inuit language has a hundred words for “snow”; in fact, it has no word for snow; instead it has many specific words for types of snow.) Apparently ours (i.e., this English) is no longer a hunter-gatherer language. What does that mean in terms of consciousness, how we approach the world? As I was working on The California Poem, a long aggregate that wallows in the excesses and losses of my home state, it began to occur to me that our basic bilateral symmetry might have led us to thinking about language and the world in a bilateral way. As you know, we’re based on a mirror plan (except for the heart and mistakes), and language, too, is a mirror plan, enantiomorphically reflecting the world. That is, like the body in a mirror, they do no match up, tree and word, when superimposed. I began to wonder what kind of language the ocean animals I’ve always loved— an animal of pentamerous radial symmetry like the cnidaria (which include the jellyfish), or echinoderms (starfish, urchins) — would make, given that their symmetry is radial — a kind of infinite and round possibility, when you can be sliced in any direction and still have more or less matching halves. (Some animals, too, like certain scallops and sea hares, have what you might call radial sexuality.) How would a radial language change the world? Does bilateral language lead us to in/out, dark/light, tyger/lamb? I’ve often heard language described as a technology, but it could more aptly be described as a living, protean organism, not unrelated to other zoological forms or ecosystems. How dependent is the one on the other?

The dancer Martha Graham once claimed that her time as a child amidst Santa Barbara, California’s lush flora had a profound impact on her method of dance. Growing up in that same town, the authority of the Pacific Ocean (a few blocks away) held powerful sway, shaping my sense of sound, language, mystery and beauty.

The sea is like God’s big eye, where the edges of our own eyes bleed into the ocean, in saline ratio and roundness.

It expresses an indifferent monotony that might resemble what really happens in anyone’s day. Alongside the quotidian, it also experiences event and catastrophe, the other major forms of meaning-making in our lives.

The animals and processes and elements around us show us how to work within the altogether different-from-them media of language and thought. Whereas air might represent the silence and breezes in a poem, and light might travel in some of the same telemetrics as syntax, the sea shows how meaning accretes in rhythm and sound; beads of language repeat, resifted again and again to articulate pattern, cycle, recurrence. (The sea’s thought is not unlike the imagination of the poem.)

I first came to poetry as a sound, a music that is neither the melody of speech nor the melody of what we generally call music, but its own song that shifts and hovers needle-like between the sounds of the human world and the various noises out there, like the hissing in outer space that is the aftermath of the big bang. Language, when it pushes toward a poem, gathers around frictions and rhythms in syllables. While we read the poem silently to ourselves, an orchestra crashes around inside the skull bones as k’s and t’s cacophonize and d’s and e’s euphonize. I feel intuitively certain that human language developed along the lines of the surrounding soundscape. “From the snapping of twigs, we learned k’s and t’s.” The poet Louis Zukofsky points out that Shakespeare hears the birds in lines like “Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang” (Sonnet 73).

“To float the ear in beauty” listen to the sea.

The musical horizon of poetry, which depends on the human voice “permits anybody”…”to ‘tune in’ to the human tradition, to its voice which has developed among the sounds of natural things, and thus escape the confines of time and place” (Zukofsky, Prepositions, 20). So says Zukofsky in “A Statement for Poetry.” They say you can hear the sea crashing in Homer’s Greek. You can most certainly hear it in Whitman’s English:

Soothe! soothe! soothe!
Close on its wave soothes the wave behind,
And again another behind embracing and lapping, every one close
But my love soothes not me, not me.

I’m not the first to suggest Whitman learned form, the shape of his strophe, from the long breath of the sea, and the line’s variation from the raggedy tides. In Whitman, language, like water, is loving each rock and syllable as it comes in. Syncopation might be offered by a Roseate Tern (a bird almost wiped out in the 1880’s for millinery supplies), whose cries conjoint with the waves’ might be comparable to the strange protuberances in a line’s rhythm. Like a wave, a line can come in quietly, or a line can screech, “like some old crone rocking the cradle…” At the edges of this continent, we hear Whitman’s push and recession of sound. Hush and roar, hush and roar.

Poetry, according to Zukofsky, is “precise information on existence out of which it grows, and information of its own existence, that is the movement (and tone) of words. Rhythm, pulse, keeping time with existence, is the distinction of its technique.”

How do we keep time with existence in a human era that seems to be bent on wiping most life forms, and even a number of elementary forces, out?

We come back to the poem, to the world, to these complex adaptive systems.

Systems that adapt to change, despite the absence of central control.

Marked by non-linearity.

Let us consider how the blood vessels in a wolf’s paw pads are specialized to increase circulation so a wolf may walk on the ice without freezing her feet. Then let us consider the rest of the wolf — her leg, her belly, her muzzle, her caribou, her world, her winter, her field mouse, her fox.

We quickly see that each point on the body, each point on earth or in space, each point in the poem can be infinitely expanded in thought and study, proliferating information and meaning.

And we see that we cannot see the wolf as the caribou sees her or even as a human standing on the ground 100 feet away sees her. We have not a consistent light, system, set of conditions. So, the poem. So, the world.

Like consciousness
the whole never equals the parts

And here is the poem. A thing I will never fully understand, its adaptive syntax, grammar, its submerged intentions, and here is how I love it — darkened not by mind or by time, but darkened and brightened, like extra control knobs on the TV screen, by complexity and mystery.

Open systems loop into each other. No ocean, no poem, no black-footed ferret population is a closed system.

Poetry inhabits both the foreground “reality” as well as all the dark creases and folds of possibility between (linguistic and other) realities. It is a parallel universe (universes), although one that doesn’t require mathematical formulae … and I can misapprehend the science in my apprehension of language and the world. Like science, it is both theoretical and real, and perhaps unlike some forms of science, is not so concerned with the division between these states — actually, poetry collapses the border between the theoretical and the real.

Language is the only place we have some animals left.
(Act, actor.)

[Eleni Sikelianos is the author of The Monster Lives of Boys & Girls (for which she recieved the National Poetry Series Award), Earliest Worlds, The Book of Tendons, The Lover's Numbers, To Speak While Dreaming, The California Poem, and The Book of Jon. Her most recent book is Body Clock (Coffee House Press, 2008).]

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