Evelyn Reilly: “Environmental Dreamscapes and Ecopoetic Grief”

This talk was originally delivered, in slightly shortened form, as part of the panel titled “Environmental Dreamscapes and the Heedless Sublime” at the 2013 Conference on Eco-poetics at U.C. Berkeley. Other participants were Jed Rasula, Brian Teare, and Nathan Brown.

Four years ago, I wrote a book that I thought of at the time as emerging from an interest in materiality—not the materiality of language, although of course all poetry is “about” that—but the materiality of the human fabricated world. I’d seen an exhibit of art by Rudolf Stingel at the Whitney, which included works made of flat pieces of styrofoam insulation that looked as if they’d been walked over in boots covered in paint thinner. I found them extremely strange and evocative, and I immediately started writing about the beauty of fabricated materials. It started as a celebration of human creative plasticity, but quickly engaged ironies such as aesthetic versus environmental notions of “the eternal.” The book ended up titled Styrofoam, and after it was published I found I’d become an eco-poet. At the time, honestly, I was a bit ambivalent about this.

Then for a while I became interested in the intersection of dystopic sci-fi and apocalyptic literature. I was particularly curious as to whether our moment was uniquely marked by a kind of catastrophic end-time imagination or if this was just an amping up of something always part of the human psyche—the fight-or-flight mechanism compulsively monitoring, on a micro- to macro-scale, the potential for various kinds of impending disaster. I’d been struck by a talk given by the environmental writer Philip Fradkin (who, sadly, just died this year) at a conference on water in Marin County. He spoke about catastrophic change being the rule rather than the exception from an environmental point of view, and of course many have made the point that this is probably also true of human history, that crisis, if not catastrophe, might even be another word for history—a perception strengthened by what seems like the regularity of our now thoroughly-interwoven social and environmental disasters. As a result, I starting writing rather dark poetry inspired by both the TV series Battlestar Galactica and the biblical Book of Revelation, and soon found that not only was I an eco-poet, but had now written two books characterized by what Elizabeth Robinson called “the humor of the bereft.”

I started this talk with a bit about my own trajectory, because it strikes me that while there are ever more interesting aspects of ecopoetics being discussed in papers and at conferences such as this one—it’s very difficult to make any very direct connection between these discussions and the quandaries of actual poetic practice. So I thought it might be useful to others to confess, after writing several books of what might be called ecopoetry, to having come to an impasse.

When Jed Rasula reviewed two anthologies of ecopoetry recently, he quoted from Josh Corey’s introduction to The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (edited with G.C. Waldrep) which states that “this book is a call to imagination—not to the imagination of dire futures, but to the interruptions of poetry.” Rasula notes that the editors of this particular anthology seemed to realize their topic “might provoke a crisis in poetry.” If we agree that crisis is a primary characteristic of the present, that we may in fact be standing on a historically unique brink of catastrophe, does that then call for some equally major disruption (or “interruption” as Corey, probably too mildly calls it) in writing?

Some of the responses to the idea of ecopoetics have already reacted to the dangers of the notion of the “exceptional” quality of our current crisis. Angela Hume’s interesting work on the “ecopoetics of emergency,” as well as sloppier critiques of ecopoetics, such as BOMB Magazine’s dismissive bombing of the Arcadia anthology, point to some of the possible problems with the linking of a uniquely disastrous moment to a call for uniquely interrupted or disrupted responses. It’s also possible that, on the contrary, we are in a moment of amplification, of more, just more and more poetry related to the ecological, that, in an inverse of “no poetry after Auschwitz,” we are in a moment of “all poetry after Katrina,” or the Deepwater Horizon, or Sandy or whatever it is that comes next.

The pitfalls of thinking of ecopoetics as a developing genre have been present from the start. Not only are there the facile dismissals to deal with, there is also the aesthetic disappointment of much that might fit into such a genre: updated nature writing, ruined-landscape writing, over-earnest science-inflected writing, call to arms writing, none of it really anything to get the big aesthetic glands salivating—and I say this as someone who has written most of the above. Which brings me back to my initial ambivalence and secondary impasse: Why would any poet want to touch this stuff?

Perhaps because it is not “stuff” at all, meaning it is not a genre or a movement, but rather a fact of writing in a world of accelerated environmental change, meaning one cannot not touch it. And this makes me wonder if it is a poetics at all.

At the end of Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” the narrator, after a journey through a ravaged environment, finds himself surrounded by figures of collective failure—“the lost adventurers my peers.” Having given up any traditional notion of progress or quest, he nonetheless puts a rather fantastical and dubious instrument, a “slughorn,” to his lips and blows, an apt figure, perhaps, for the situation of a poet of the early 21st century.

The poem, which early on includes the rather Beckett-like lines,

Nothing but plain to the horizon’s bound.
        I might go on; naught else remained to do.

So, on I went.

quickly turns into an anti-quest, a journey that leads only to a devastated landscape, in lines such as

                . . . I think I never saw
        Such starved ignoble nature; nothing throve:


As for the grass, it grew as scant as hair
        In leprosy; thin dry blades pricked the mud

and much more such writing, not, by the way, entirely innocent of the pleasures of the lurid. And then, comes impasse:

                . . . Here ended, then,
Progress this way.

from which point the poem descends deeper into nightmare. The narrator arrives at the tower, which is just a meaningless wreck. The destination is not a destination, and yet, still is “the place,” perhaps meaning “all places.”

And then comes the really interesting abortive ending. The narrator/poet/pilgrim just stands there and the poem ends, or rather, the writer “wakes up” and another of the unfinished dream poems of the Romantics comes to a stop. Except in this case, there remain the abrupt and rather ambiguous final lines with their after-echo of folk tale and Shakespearean impasse or despair:

Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,
        And blew “
Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.”

There is something in this proto-eco anti-epic poem that I think resonates with our current poetic questions: the Romantic turning to dream in reaction to the daymare of early industrialization; the need to articulate unacknowledged darknesses and dreamstates obscured by the chilly half-light of the Enlightenment; the reinvestigation of some elements of the Gothic cast aside under the rubric of progress.

Sometimes I think we are at another such moment, that there might be a yawning gap in what so far has been considered ecopoetics. I myself have been thinking of it in the somewhat crude terms of “how to attach denser cultural resources to it.” In the same way that Romanticism was a response to the liberating, but narrow, emotional register of the enlightenment, I’m wondering if ecopoetics also needs to address a similar narrowness.

Alan Gilbert is a very interesting poet and critic, whose book Another Future: Poetry and Art in a Postmodern Twilight neglects all genre divisions such as poetry, visual art, performance and pop culture in a search for the meaning of our post po-mo post lang po moment. In this book, he calls for “an interdisciplinary outlook that echoes the interdisciplinary methods supplanting the mixed-genre styling of postmodernism.” This approach, he says, “reflects the cultural—and technological—multiplicity of the present in a way postmodern pastiche and fragmentation cannot.”

Jonathan Skinner has said something parallel regarding the poetic/political “compass rose” of ecopoetics, whose “vectors” he says attempt “to orient writing toward a range of engagements . . . [which are] not encapsulated in a single gesture.” He says, “In one context it might be more ‘political’ to speak like a deconstructionist, to signal reflexive awareness of the blind spots constitutive of one’s discourse; in another, it might make better sense to trade in the language of representation . . . Ecopoetics is this site of converging, intersecting practices and is most politically useful, I would say, when it keeps as many of these frictional nodes as active as possible.”

Both of these statements are noticeable for their lack of postmodern ironizing and even for a kind of hopefulness. But one has to ask if these calls for “everything” risk being “no-thing” or are they, on the contrary, a proper “non-essentialism” applied on a meta-critical level?

Gilbert writes not as a reactionary debunker of postmodernism, but as one who recognizes its accomplishments, while pointing out its lacunae. In an essay on the installation artist Martha Rosler, he writes that “What Rosler substitutes in the place of [an aestheticized and formally self-sufficient art object] is a cultural product conceived of as a social or historical document.” He then asks: “Is this challenge to the art object itself the product of a specific set of historical conditions, or is it one in which history finally supersedes art?” To extend this question to ecopoetics, we would ask if all this strenuous eco-aesthetic yearning is a longing for history—reconceived as a bio/cultural construct—to supersede poetry?

Gilbert continues: “The trumping of history by art was part of the dream of modernism, the sleep of which has remained to a certain degree in postmodernism, but without the utopian component that sometimes accompanies dreaming.” He then asks, “Does this make postmodernism a nightmare?”

In Tarkovksy’s 1972 film Solaris, which I think could be called a work of post-earth imagination, the irradiated oceans that are the ambient environment for a team of space station scientists turn out to be an externalized imprint of human desire. As one of the characters puts it, “the ocean derives guests from us while we dream,” itself a very interesting statement of our present circumstance in which the oceans, the entire biological world, might be said to be “en-guested” (which would be a very polite word for it) by the dreamworld of uncontrolled human desire.

Tarkvosky has often been described as having created a “poetic cinema.” To me, Solaris, which is based on a novel by the great Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, as well as Tarkovksy’s later film Stalker, are marked not just by a poetics of film, but an ecopoetics of film, perhaps emerging from his experience of the industrially-polluted Soviet landscapes of the time.

Both films, in different ways, place humans in devastated land- or planet-scapes and introduce art almost arbitrarily into the scene. On one hand, this is simply a Tarkovsky trademark. He inserts art he loves into his films however incongruously, seemingly just for the pleasure of it. In Stalker, it’s poetry, in Solaris, it’s a group of Brueghel paintings, which hang inside the space station library. The camera pans lovingly over these reproductions, especially Hunters in the Snow, as if longing for a world irretrievably lost.

Earlier in the film, one of the scientists aboard the space station welcomed a disoriented new-comer with the suggestion, “Attach strips of paper to the air vents. At night it sounds like the rustling of leaves,” which the character does in an act of “nature nostalgia” that only emphasizes the uselessness of pseudo-solaces, be they natural or cultural, for the “earth-lorn.” In fact there is a kind of insomnia that plagues those in Solaris that cannot be cured by any such consolations. It is as incurable as is the failed love of the main character, a psychiatrist, and the psychic illness he has been sent to treat, which is basically hopelessness.

At the end of the introduction to Gilbert’s book, he also turns to the subject of hopelessness and hope. “If the cultural conditions that arise in the wake of postmodernism call some of the questions of postmodernism into question, then how does one begin to define the idea of hope? . . . After postmodernism’s thorough debunking of the idea of a linear progress of history . . . it’s difficult to justify clinging to either this linear model or the paradigm of enforced modernist utopias that paralleled it.” He then proposes the following: “Perhaps by hope one means something more like resistance . . . not a resistance of the imagination, but an imaginative resistance. A resistance that is as fluid and ubiquitous as power.”

I’m not exactly certain what this “imaginative resistance” is, except that it is presented as a contrast to a more escapist “resistance of the imagination” and also puts the politically-inflected “resistance” in the lead, with imagination as its “helper.” This also brings me back to Josh Corey’s “call to imagination—not to the imagination of dire futures, but to the interruptions of poetry.” In my own moment of poetic impasse, these formulations are intriguing, if still fairly out of focus, but by invoking various notions of the imagination, they both led me back to Williams’ Spring and All, the book that so presciently acknowledges what might be considered ecopoetic themes.

This is a book that I read as an early work of what could be called a post-human-centered imagination, especially in lines that acknowledge both macro and micro-scales of time and space—what Williams describes as “that huge and microscopic career of time.” At times this vision is seemingly inspired by disgust for his own species which, he says, “watching its own horrid unity, boils and digests itself within the tissues of the Great Being of Eternity.” This is Williams the doctor/biologist, giving vent to his own Childe Roland-ish anti-epic, anti-progress rant, and yet, this is, famously, a work in which, still, it is SPRING in capital letters.

For Williams, this Spring is a work of the IMAGINATION, also an all-caps concept for him, as in “Only the imagination is undeceived,” a statement we would now find naïve and unhelpful, unlike another statement of his, which we probably could take as a mandate of ecopoetics, that “The word must be put down for itself, not as a symbol of nature but as a part, cognisant of the whole—aware—civilized.”

For Williams this notion of Spring, a Spring that is “written” as a part of nature, did bring another beginning, a species of hope at a time when the apocalyptic ravages of World War I were still fresh in human memory. It’s a Spring that embodies the processes of evolution, which he describes rather oddly as more a repetitive plagiarist than an experimental alterer, but that nonetheless keeps bringing forth a WORLD all caps that IS NEW all caps, and of course releases the poetry that famously includes:

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds . . .

This is a poetry of urban nature amid human animal sickness, of potted plants and of cockroaches that eat the adhesive glue of gummed labels, and that also includes some of my favorite lines:

The universality of things,
draws me toward the candy
with melon flowers that open

about the edge of refuse

The book as a whole, with its acknowledgement of geologic time, its call for a “post-European mind” and its formal inventiveness—a book that in fact busts up the whole notion of “book” or “poems” or “prose”—remains an inspiration to poets who have been formed by the language humilities of postmodernism and yet want to move beyond some of its limitations to a new attachment of word to world, even as word is recognized as itself a piece of the natural world.

Or in other words, in our post-utopian moment, maybe there’s still a way to wake to a kind of sober hopefulness, even if colored by our pre-dawn apocalyptic fears, something which has probably been our animal task since the beginning of the species.


evelyn reillyEvelyn Reilly’s books of poetry include Apocalypso and Styrofoam, both published by Roof Books. Essays and poetry have recently appeared in Jacket2, the Eco-language Reader, Interim, Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment and The Arcadia Project: Postmodernism and the Pastoral. Her work will also appear in the forthcoming anthology &NOW Awards2: The Best Innovative Writing. She lives in New York City.