Breaking Boundaries, Healing Climates

Boundaries (dancing girl press & studio, 2017) by Erin Coughlin Hollowell and Little Climates (Bull City Press, 2018) by L.A. Johnson

Hollowell’s Boundaries is a poetic exercise in psycho-spiritual healing. While the word boundary connotes the existence of two separate entities or domains, a glance through the collection reveals that our poet is determined to joyfully collapse that perennial, deeply Eurocentric dichotomy between humans and the natural world. It is a pesky dichotomy that has proven more resilient than nature itself. While the earth burns, melts, floods, and overheats, its human inhabitants continue to ignore both its finitude and its fragility.

Hollowell knows that there are deeper, more abysmal boundaries in need of urgent breaking: the boundary between the spiritual and the material, between what is inside and what is outside. Most crucially, it is the boundary between language and experience that seems particularly responsible for propping up the tendency to abstract ourselves from nature. Quoting Robert MacFarlane, we are reminded that “language is fundamental to the possibility of re-wonderment, for language does not just register experience, it produces it.”

But we do not need the wisdom of sages to confirm that, it fact, there’s an interdependency between what we experience and the beliefs we contrive to make sense of, and even control, that experience. Hollowell completely dispenses with the knowledge-versus-perception debate, resisting altogether “the delirium of naming.” For the poet, knowledge extracted from its concrete, experiential origins is impoverished, even suspect. The alleged division between touch and truth is the real fiction. We are told that “shadows have more to tell than unbroken light,” and if we want to learn to see differently, we must give up conventional notions about what we think shadows are. If we are to transform our posture toward the environment from one of objectification to one of profound appreciation, we must respect its power to speak to our senses.

When poetry is not defending itself against the many misconceptions mainstream society ascribes to it—that it is sentimental, impotent, lacking any quantifiable purpose—it permits us to engage in an unique form of meaning making in which we perceive and express simultaneously, circumventing our executive mind’s rational filters. Boundaries is, unsurprisingly, a bold advocacy of the poetic sensibility, because while the earth needs eco-friendly laws and scientifically-informed policies and intelligent legislative initiatives to protect it from further abuse, these things are only effective insofar as they are accompanied by a fundamental renewal in perspective. If the rainwater doesn’t wash our imaginations, all ecological progress will only ever be incremental. 

Hollowell is aware that the obliteration of boundaries between humankind and their ecological environments must come second to the destruction of psychological, conceptual, and linguistic boundaries that exist a priori in our minds. Boundaries asks us to consider how poetry can facilitate this process of becoming (re)attached, (re)connected, and even coextensive with our surroundings. It contains a dual defense of the natural world and the capacity for poetry to remedy the alienation we have been made to endure with respect to our relationship to the earth.

Hollowell has written a deeply imagistic and sensorial collection. We feel “god shifting under the soil” and our “moss-riddled” clothes. It is visual elegance and total immersion—there’s a palatable lack of similes and even metaphors since it is not comparison or precise communication that Hollowell is after. We’re also reminded that this “green world” is intrinsically divine, that it is suffused by “a theology all moving on the tips of the wind’s fingers.” Boundaries routinely inverts many of the foundational assumptions of traditional Christian theology: if the material is mundane, Hollowell decrees that mere water is “reverence revealed.” Hollowell flouts the conventions of grammar to create striking, painterly visuals whose sharp juxtapositions successfully conjure the natural world:

Blackberry vines smother bleached broken fence

To think of poetry as an environment,

festooned with berries sweet sour filled with pips that scour

as a space of imitation,

gummed flowering bright along a fallen log stripped down

is to learn to read 

While the breaking of the boundary between humans and nature is the main theme in this collection, it also serves as an overarching metaphor for the breaking of boundaries between words and images, words and their worlds. The task of ecological refamilarization is the task of learning to comprehend the poet’s peculiar epistemology of conceptual collapse; only by this collapse can humans become creatures rooted in Earth’s existential ground.

L.A. Johnson’s Little Climates likewise illustrates that knowledge—in particular, self-knowledge—can come from one’s engulfment, both physical and psychological, in the environment. Little Climates uses a kind of reverse bathos: profundity bursts onto each poetic scene only after the reader becomes acclimated to more ordinary “climates”—the kitchen, the yard, the bedroom. Little Climates asks us to envision sacredness in the the seemingly unremarkable experiences of our daily life and consider them as climates unto themselves, “mircoclimates” that contain their own complex ecosystems. As in Hollowell’s Boundaries, “re-wonderment” can inspire novel experiences and new understandings of the self, of others, and of nature. 

In “Epistemology,” objects in the kitchen—the icebox cake, the porch, the kettle—precipitate a moment of self-revelation that sharply contrasts the (perported) mundanity of its domestic context. “I never had quiet times in the kitchen / making an icebox cake” the poem opens, and by the end, the speaker’s initial restlessness sparks her eventual self-revelation: 

Stranger, if only things had been

a little different, I could be

old-fashioned in my happiness,

blushing and easy to love. 

While Johnson is certainly playing with the semantic options available in the word climate, she also relies on its commonplace definition to meditate on nature. It’s not just that the word “climate” provides a metaphor for any kind of environment: the environment the poet finds herself in is often an ecological one (“Night Passage,” Solstice,” and “Auroras”). We are dealing with literal climates as much as we are conceptual climates. If Boundaries is about our collective reintegration into the environment, Little Climates traces the individual’s quest to put words to her total immersion in the land. The voice that speaks in this chapbook is a voice deeply inflected by rain, branches, wildflowers, and foxes. 

This enmeshment is most evident in “Self-Portrait as Norway Spruce,” a poem in which the categorical distinction between tree and human is completely collapsed:

I had been quiet once and for a long time:

turned by needles inward with discretion, 

tolerated both birds and wild radishes. 

When they came to possess me with twine

and metal, they counted, patiently, each limb.

I never had a mother or a child—

nothing to bind me to the earth but myself.

And when I become to thin to stand,

bring me to the thieves, seal my mouth

with calla lilies, and call it a burial. 

Stylistically, the spruce tree functions as the poem’s primary conceit, allowing the speaker to conceptualized herself as a subject of nature. It is easy to interpret this poem as an exploration of life from the perspective of the spruce, compelling us to read its lines as a personification of a non-living object. As a “self-portrait,” however, it is clear the speaker has become existentially intertwined with the spruce, enlivening it with her descriptions, injecting her own animus into its being—its needles, its discs, its sapwood, now also the body of the poet.

“Self-Portrait” proposes a theory of sameness and unity between the self and the spruce that, like Hollowell’s Boundaries, questions the binary between humans and nature. Instead, we are invited to understand humans as indistinguishable from their ecological companions—at least in terms of status, but perhaps in other ways as well. In the end, we are uncertain whether the spruce is a host for the poet or if the spruce speaks a language which the poet has learned to hear, a language to which she can now relate. This collection is a testament to the invigorating influence on the psyche that the natural world can give those who view themselves as citizens first and foremost of the earth. Little Climates has no interest in discussing boundaries, because boundaries do not really exist, except perhaps as illusions we live by.

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