The Elegy of Ecopoetics
THE ELEGY OF ECOPOETICS
(originally published in Interim Volume 29.)
The poet CA Conrad recently at a talk mentioned the upcoming extinction of the polar
bear. Scientists are attempting to preserve polar bear sperm and eggs, and of course
there are polar bears kept in captivity, but Conrad felt it was better to let it go. “Keep it
wild,” (I paraphrase). “Every single polar bear kept in captivity is mentally ill. They need
hundreds of miles to roam—they need wilderness. We humans deserve its
The polar bear is not the only being about to disappear. In a rage of pre-emptive
nostalgia, New Orleanians bought up sea species engulfed by an black and red tide of
oil and oil dispersants.
full of oil. Unpeeled white
gulf shrimp. Brown speckled
trout and pompano. Charred
meat or processed. Sausage.
Black drum and sheepshead.
After the the Haiti and Chile earthquakes, the Iceland volcano, the Gulf oil spill and,
more recently, Hurricane Sandy—it occurred to me that ecopoetics may be becoming a
form of elegy. These events are so large, their effect on us, on the world, so palpable
that how to continue the discussion of ecology and poetry? Can poetry enter this
unspeakable space of mourning, and how to mourn that which we hardly knew?
Because after all, ecology, we hardly know ye, even though you are also us. As I said in
another essay, “The Ecology of Poetry,” “Nature has changed from an perceptually
exploitable Other—most easily compared to a book to be decoded by the (human)
reader—to something intrinsically affected by humans. We ourselves are the wilderness
destroying the very systems of which we are a part, in a role we utterly do not
That is why ecopoetics to me is investigative. But it also is, as Kristin Prevallet says in[I,
Afterlife] [Essay in Mourning Time], the process of investigating a gesture: “This gesture
of approach is the closest you will get to the other side.” And how much more “other” is
nature? I am so very extraordinarily baffled by how we, humans, fit into it. At times it
seems as though everything we touch, every desire, every process for life we have,
turns nature to dust. Where indeed do we come from? But we have to speak into this
mystery. Ronald Johnson, from The Green Man:
for this earth, beneath,
to move, to issue some dark, meditated syllable perhaps – something more than this
Kamau Brathwaite writes on the destruction of his land at Cow Pasture, land for which
he had a vision of a learning and creative center, an area of tradition and traditional,
I cannot even die here now. no strength to even burn myself upon this
pasture as I want to do. As I still may. Because my love, whe else is there
to go, to try to build again at 75? tho I not beggin for your sympathy tho
that good too I askin you to LISSEN . one mo Emmerton. xcep unlike the
Mighty Gabby song which sing & say far more than any prose I prose can
say, me na give up. me nvva will accept unrighteousness, If this was
SandlyLane wd we be treated so? again today the tractors wheel an
thump. I can’t accept to so unfairly go
I wrote to Brathwaite after this last heartbreaking letter, asking what happened. I never
heard back. Instead, silence. Where then does the elegy stop? Where does it keep the
unspeakable unspoken? Charles Bernstein writes after the death of his daughter Emma
that he received so many cards saying “There are no words.”
The problem is not that words are inadequate but that such a terrifying turn as this
leaves us speechless, is unspeakable, or let’s say puts us on the border of sense and
senselessness, cry and communication. For us – Susan and Felix and me – all the
words we have been offered have been welcome and appreciated, as water to those in
a desert, even, maybe especially, those words that begin by saying there are no words
We can’t accept to so unfairly go. Lissen. We have to put language into this space and
see what echoes back.
How do we stumble onto the words for the ecological disaster that is ourselves? One
commenter at Huffington Post took personal blame for the oil spill, saying (again,
paraphrased), “I buy plastic things. I fill my car with gasoline.” We all do. We discuss
how to acknowledge the web of life and how interdependent we all are. The problem is
that we are too interdependent on a giant industrial system that depends on oil. It’s
actually amazing, and even horribly beautiful, how entwined we are in a web of
electricity, in the way enormous industrial landscapes, like the meadowlands, are
beautiful and awesome. Says Charles Olson in Call Me Ishmael:
We are still soft about our industries, wonder-eyed. What’s important is the energy they
are a clue to, the drive in the people. The things made are OK, too, some of them. But
the captains of industry ain’t worth the powder, etc.
Olson says the machine is the only master of space that Americans know, that it gives
“trajectory.” The American will is not to be free, but to overwhelm nature. Only recently,
have we barely started to realize that we are overwhelming ourselves. We’re now
caught in our own Web.
In this moment, in this incredible young decade that has already seen enormous
cataclysmic ecological change, my appreciation for our terrible and glorious interrelated
currents of energy has the strong and metallic taste of mourning.
Writing is already akin to mourning—we write to what is no longer there, or what was
never there. Not always, but sometimes.
There is an immeasurable distance between the mind and geography that makes
walking through a landscape tenuous. Your feet may be touching the ground, but where
is your mind?
Blaise Cendrars sees and mourns his severed hand in the constellation of Orion. In this
unknowable other we can find the solace of emotion. Dogs listen and they don’t talk
back. Can we learn to find consolation in the detritus of humanity—consolation in the
pistons, gears and nitrogen-mixed cement? Will we turn to the species that have
learned to co-exist: felines, canines, coyotes, deer, groundhogs, rats, pigeons, starlings,
cockroaches? We see in their wiles and germiness a darkened mirror of ourselves—
they are carnivores, predators, infectious. They arrange nature about them to keep
living. The more delicate species we admire and kick the platforms out from under.
The ogre said to his daughter
Sixteen miles from this place
Is a tree
Round the tree are tigers
And bears, and scorpions
On the top of the tree
Is a very great fat snake
On his head
Is a little cage
In the cage is a bird
And my soul is in that bird
–Jack Collom, Exchanges of Earth & Sky
Collom typically pushes ecopoetics to be of language and of what is around us—the
actual, without throwing up nostalgic or sentimental (or just plain false) divisions of what
is “natural” and what is “beautiful” and what is “human.” Beauty is constructed and
reconstructed—not always intrinsic. But this poem, somewhat un-Collom-like, read in
tandem with CA’s point about the polar bear, posits a strangely accurate take on our
situation now—our “soul” is in a vulnerable being, protected only against other wild
beings by captivity. It’s a nightmare mirror of what we face in trying to preserve what
we’re destroying—two simultaneous drives. We are domesticators, only able to abide
nature if it inhabits our domain—yet for that nature which follows our rules, we have only
Is there an ecopoetics elegy that is large enough to encompass grieving for an entire
system? And where, within this elegy, is action, is the necessary and coming change?
Kristin Prevallet talks about how to move personal grief to something more universal, to
move from interior to exterior. “The poem, scratched out on the surface of the page,
scratches then at the surface of the world ‘outside’ of the poem.”
I’m asking a lot of questions, too many questions, maybe. But right now, I’m not feeling
the answers. What in our hearts and minds and needs physical and emotional led to this
moment in ecological history? How can we mourn, and question, and activate, all while
also respecting the autonomy of language, letting the seemingly inessential, the
unpolitical, the nondidactic in, allowing the independence of the poem, allow a space for
the other to speak?
I don’t want to dominate language the way we strive to dominate nature—I want to
respect the “inarticulate warble & seething.” I don’t want to find order where no order is.
I look to Emily Dickinson, gardener and poet, for a gesture toward the process of how to
My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—
In Corners—till a Day
The Owner passed—identified—
And carried Me away—
And now We roam in Sovereign Woods—
And now We hunt the Doe—
And every time I speak for Him—
The Mountains straight reply—
In her poetry, she upsets the concept of “my,” ownership, dominion, over herself, over
nature, over words—can we look to Dickinson and many other revolutionary thinkers
who posited and posit less authoritarian relationships with the other, for an alternative
version of being-in-nature? In Dickinson, I wonder at the movement between the
particular and the universal. And this takes me to remembering the first talk of this
series on The Green Man and Ronald Johnson, and how he moved between the hereand-now
and the universal, and how poetry is perhaps a chronicling of that movement
between spirit and earth, that space where we as a species remain so very unresolved.
*This talk was originally given as part of the “Ecopoetical Futures” panel at Poets
House, May 2010, shortly after the BP oil spill.
Marcella Durand is the author of AREA (Belladonna) and Traffic & Weather (Futurepoem). She is currently working on a book-length alexandrine titled In This World of Twelve Months.