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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Ecopoetics Postcard: “Modern Pastorals” by Jane Joritz-Nakagawa

A modern day eco-feminist "pastoral" poem goes something like this:

We'll hang on
to what proved useful

Eggs are full
of flame retardant

(from "Headline Song" by Armantrout,
2005, p. 94)


Noah's ark wrecked, a wreath on reefs
untallied ho and compass clatch
insurgent, strategic mass proctored
by priests of weed and wrack, full
fathom strive to earn this infamy,
president pretzeled in Bosnia tank

(from "Safe Haven" in Schultz,
2000, p. 54)


and daggers sloughed off
as evidence of old, if imagined,
wars against spirit or self--
lost in the high grass that
dissolved ages hence, however
strait our gates and warm

(from "Baudelaire's Knee", in Schultz, 2000, p. 45)

As in Baudelaire's "Reve parisien":

Et le ciel versait des tenebres
Sur ce triste monde engourdi

Harriet Tarlo, analyzing a portion of Rosmarie Waldrop's Lawn of Excluded Middle, one of the books that prompted me to start writing poetry again, observes:

Certainly when we follow the 'logic' of the piece, we
find, as we often do in women's experimental writings,
that it is thwarted, just as the female speaker is in her
quest here.
(Tarlo, 2000, p. 252)

Prominent for me here is the word "thwarted" -- because it seems to capture well the feeling I have when writing in recent years, or perhaps the impetus or impulse for my writing [anything] at all, as a human struggling not to be swallowed up . . . .

Schultz quotes an email from Charles Bernstein:

. . . in the wake of September 11, I felt a continued
commitment to poetry, to poetics and indeed to teaching.
If anything, 9/11 made me feel an intensified sense
of the relevance of the office of poetry. Not the
demeaning sense of poetry as 'comforting' in a time
of crisis . . . I mean poetry as a way of thinking in, around,
and through 'the real,' and in particular, a way of going
beyond the deafeningly deceptive representations of
'reality' provided by the massed media.

(Schultz, 2005, p. 211)

Repeated televised versions of the events of 9-11 traumatized me as I watched this for me at first seemingly surreal film from afar in my living room in Japan (I had a similar feeling watching the breaking news of the sarin gas [Aum Shinrikyo] subway incident here both because journalists did not yet understand what the events were that they were reporting and the use of the word "sarin" confounded me as initially I assumed it could be an ordinary word of Japanese I had not yet learned...). A student of mine was a 9/11 eyewitness in New York; the song lyrics he wrote in English in my creative writing class upon returning to Japan haunt me still, as do poems such as Maxine Kumin's “The Beheadings” published in the November/December 2005 American Poetry Review:

After they sawed through Nicholas Berg's neck
with an inadequate knife while he screamed,
after the heads of David Pearl
and Richard Johnson were detached
in midthought, in terror but
caught alive on a grainy video, what
did their stored oxygen enable them to mouth

and some of the poems published in, e.g. the all female anthology A Chorus of Peace, such as "War Photograph" by Kate Daniels which begins:

A naked child is running
along the path toward us,
her arms stretched out,
her mouth open,
the world turned to trash
behind her

. . . even a poem of Margaret Atwood called “A Women's Issue” in her Selected Poems II: 1976-1986, which, after describing incidents of female genital multilation and rape, comments:

You'll notice what they have in common
is between the legs. Is this
why wars are fought?

While my own teaching and writings pre-9/11 dealt with gender, war and environmental destruction, post-9/11 it has often seemed difficult to teach or write about anything else. I have found myself almost desperately seeking out writings by, most especially, feminist female poets, innovative as well as sometimes more stylistically conventional, that engage such topics as the effects of patriarchy and capitalism on the ecosphere, including war and rape, war and environmental destruction, war and notions of masculinity/femininity, including works connected to wars earlier in the world's history, such as Japanese female poet's works connected to the second world war and Japanese feminist issues:

People bore children
and the children went to war
when they came back
the children bore children--
there are children everywhere.
But the women, they simply bathe.
It will all be over soon
perhaps the grass will grow
and people will die in the grass

(from “Will You Marry Me?” by Taeko Tomioka,

Because I felt too full of rage listening to President Bush's 'logic' during his televised addresses to the public attempting to justify war, I had to go read them later on the internet after calming down. Yet examining such texts seems to fuel the almost involuntary habit of writing as imperfect antidote to the "massed media" and patriarchal control of the ecosphere.

While the avant garde is frequently linked to a rejection of patriarchy, and realism and formalism to (political) conservatism / the political right, poets might exercise caution -- to avoid imitating devices of oversimplification and divisiveness used by politicians. Spahr has written:

Lyric is not and never has been a simplistic genre,
despite its seeming innocence. It is only recently,
after modernism, that it has gotten its bad name
for being traditional, for being romantic in the derisive

(in Rankine & Spahr, 2002, p. 1)

Yet in Belsey (2002) can be found a succinct statement summarizing an idea treated in great detail in books such as Poggioli's "The Theory of the Avant-Garde" published in English in 1968:

The avant-garde is not just a matter of style. Because
it poses questions, it undermines all certainties,
including the certainty that you possess the truth--
and are entitled to kill people in its name.

(July 19, 2007)

Works Cited:

Armantrout, R. “Headline song” (poem). In J. Goldman and L. Scalapino (eds).
War and Peace 2. Oakland: O Books, 2005.

Atwood, M. “A Women's Issue” (poem) In Margaret Atwood. Selected Poems II: Poems Selected and New, 1976-1986. Boston: Mariner Books, 1987.

Baudelaire, C. From “Reve parisien” (poem). In Les fleurs du mal/Flowers of evil (p. 52). Trans. G. Dillon and E. St. Vincent Millay. New York: Washington Square Press, 1962.

Belsey, C. Poststructuralism: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Daniels, K. “War photograph” (poem). In A chorus for peace. M. Arnold et al, eds. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press 2002.

Kumin, M. “The beheadings” (poem). American Poetry Review (November/December 2005).

Poggioli, R. The theory of the avant-garde. Trans. G. Fitzgerald. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968.

Rankine, C. and Spahr, J. American women poets in the 21st century. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.

Schultz, S. A poetics of impasse in modern and contemporary American poetry. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005.

Schultz, S. “Baudelaire's knee” (poem). In Aleatory allegories. Applecross: Salt Publishing, 2000.

Schultz, S. “Safe haven” (poem). In Aleatory allegories. Applecross: Salt Publishing, 2000.

Tarlo, H. `A she even smaller than me`: gender dramas of the contemporary avant-garde. In Mark, A. and Rees-Jones, D. Contemporary women's poetry: reading/writing/practice. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Tomioka, T. “Will you marry me?” (poem). In other side river. Trans. L. Lowitz and M. Aoyama. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 1995.

This postcard forms part of the forthcoming feature on Ecopoetics in the next issue of

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