Attention To A Shared, Burning World

In Wildness by M. Stone and Woodland by Knox Gardner (Entre Ríos Books, 2019)

Reading M. Stone’s limited-edition chapbook In Wildness and Knox Gardner’s full-length, collaborative art text Woodland alongside each other recalled for me Georgia O’Keeffe’s profound attention to the small and ephemeral in the natural world. In observing the overlookability of a flower, O’Keeffe suggests the analogy of a relationship, a friend: “Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time.” Our relationship with the natural world fuels both of these books of poetry—the simultaneous smallness and importance of species in Southern Appalachia, in M. Stone’s In Wildness, and the global yet, somehow, quickly disregarded fires in Woodland. Between chapbook and full-length, the reader moves from the personal to the conceptually large, from Appalachia to Paradise, California. Still, despite shifts in tone and form, the reader is ever included and implicated in the natural worlds to which the poetry of these books attends (and music, in the case of Woodland). We haven’t time, both books acknowledge—but we must make the time, else the environmental erasure and burnings continue unchecked.

In Wildness

M. Stone’s website: https://writermstone.wordpress.com

In Wildness, M. Stone’s hand-bound chapbook with an initial micro-print run of 50 copies, was shipped by the author to any reader who made a donation to an environmental conservation organization of their choosing. Stone’s choice to limit the printing and exchange copies of In Wildness for environmental donations demonstrates, among other things, the resource-conserving potential of micro-presses. As In Wildness’s prefatory note explains, “Each poem in this book focuses on a species or subspecies endemic to the Appalachian Mountains, many of which are considered critically endangered or imperiled, with several being vulnerable or near threatened…it is my hope that the poems will encourage readers to learn more about these species, along with so many others in dire need of environmental protection and conservation.”

Yet, what draws the reader into In Wildness is the personal—a close-at-hand, “I” speaker, and the speaker’s physical and familial connection to the Appalachian environment. The opening poem, “Virginia Fringed Mountain Snail (Polygyriscus virginianus),” begins, “I think of you, my kin, / admitted to a psychiatric hospital / overlooking the New River.” Life and history, family and trauma seeps into the quietness of the poem, the focus returning from kin to the fringed mountain snail:

After the first shock treatment,
you would have said anything to go home.
You could not have known, would not have cared
that within shouting distance,
a miniscule creature believed extinct
burrowed in bluffs

above the rushing water. Subterranean
and sightless, it found a guardian
in snarls of honeysuckle vines.

We are not built into nature, as the hospital overlooking the New River, but are of a piece of it, the poem suggests, our survivals linked; “Today a rarest snail reemerges / in spite of all the grim predictions, / having survived the quarry and reservoir,” the speaker observes.

The intimacy of the lyric in In Wildness is a bright lure, often taking the form of domestic images. For example, in “Candy Darter (Etheostoma osburni),” the speaker tells how, “the male reminds me / of old-fashioned Christmas candy: / festive stripes in a crystal-dish stream.” In “Maureen’s Shale Stream Beetle (Hydraena maureenae),” the speaker reveals the beetle’s habitat through a series of images:

Your presence, hidden
on a mid-fall evening with a near-
full moon above the lake—
lidless jar spilling into a creek
you call home.

The speaker, too, is a lidless jar of environmental witness and image, and in “Virginia Round-Leaf Birch (Betula uber)” confesses:

I must share these details with you,
try to describe as best I can
the way a species can be
present but unseen,
the epitome of peripheral.

The quietness of looking deeply, of actually looking, pervades In Wildness, fills the poems with attentive stillness (and creatures). It is also, as “Virginia Big-Eared Bat (Corynorhinus townsendii virginianus)” demonstrates, filled with the invasive physical presence of humans, and the line “Humans with ruinous footprints” repeats in each of the poem’s four quatrains, resounding the way human steps do in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “God’s Grandeur” (“Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; / And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; / And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell”).

“What use have we for a rose so rare / that few will notice when it winks out / of existence?” the speaker asks in “Virginia Meadowsweet (Spiraea virginiana).” With this poem, I am reminded of H.D.’s first collection Sea Garden, containing the poems “Sea Rose,” “Sea Lily” and “Sea Violet.” At the same time, I am reminded of the critical importance of acknowledging the work that women do as participating in specific traditions, which would be to recognize that Stone’s poetics, from subjects to stanzaic form, participates in a literary tradition of both image and ecopoetics, as well as the presence of women in American literature (H.D.’s work was singled out and promoted by Ezra Pound, which is an interestingly gendered literary history and power dynamic to pair alongside In Wildness, self-published and hand-stitched by its author). H.D. was named an “imagiste” by Pound, who published three principles of imagism in the March 1913 issue of Poetry Magazine:

1. Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective.

2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.

3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of musical phrase, not in the sequence of a metronome.

The principles of early twentieth-century imagism resonate with M. Stone’s work: the sequence of musical phrase, the direct treatment of the “thing,” the linguistic focus on the presentation of the image (although Stone is less concerned with compression, and her poems often have an easy, spoken quality to their lines). But Stone does something more than imagism requires, choosing to merge the presence of relationship and the personal to the “things” in the poems of In Wildness. “Virginia Meadowsweet (Spiraea virginiana)” opens:

You evolved beside flood-prone rivers
but natural selection could not prepare you
for rapids so often jumping their banks,
for deluges ripping your roots
from the soil like fistfuls of hair.

The reader, alongside the poem’s speaker, cannot abstract or disassociate themselves from the poem’s habitat: the local environment of the Appalachian Mountains. In Wildness is not about place, it is place: where the speaker’s feet walk, where their body moves, so follow the poem and the reader. It is this understanding of mutuality and presence that makes for the best reason to preserve the environment: that environmental independence is a human myth, bought by a lack of attention. Against such a myth, M. Stone’s In Wildness welcomes the reader to attend to our shared world.


Woodland

Woodland, the first full-length book of poetry by Knox Gardner, publisher and editor of Entre Ríos Books, exemplifies the vision of Entre Ríos to publish “collaborations between poets and artists of all types.” Woodland is more than poetry—it is a collaborative visual, poetic and musical response to environmental fires as well as the artistic fire between Gardner and musician Aaron Otheim. Think Susan Howe to the nth degree, as Woodland does not work with an existent library so much as create its own burning archive.

Woodland is a text inseparable from fire, beginning with its cover photograph of the “Eagle Creek Fire Burning in the Columbia River Gorge on September 4, 2017,” which shows the dark silhouettes of pine trees eclipsed by orange flames. Turning the cover, the first French fold notes that the book was “started during the early season fires of 2017 in British Columbia, written that burning year, and finished as the Camp Fire obliterated Paradise, California.” The fold also notes that the text, “includes a new ‘score’ by keyboardist Aaron Otheim. Burning the 19th-century parlor music of Edward MacDowell’s Woodland Sketches, Otheim fractures the recognizable melodies of this arch-romantic work with both studio and post-recording manipulation to create a startling and darkly timbred composition.” Fire, then, is at the core of the book’s conception, both in subject and in terms of creating new music from what has been scorched.

After the first French fold, two black, facing pages with white, capitalized font and the words: THIS IS A BOOK ABOUT FIRE. Turning the page, a smoky, ghostly image of Columbia River Gorge photograph appears in reverse. Fire is visually everywhere in the book—the reader cannot escape its visual heat, the drowning movement of the flames, the visual terror (and sublimity, in the Romantic sense) of the images, as on the first section page of “DENDRO.”

Woodland risks being large, in its conception and execution; it risks being specific in its tenderness; it risks romanticism with its vocative “O.” The book also risks needing gallery space—the poems and the photographs of the burned music score hung on the walls, Otheim’s music and Gardner’s lilting vocals playing in the background. Woodland walks a delicate line between apparatuses of sound, image and information, but it also asks its reader to consider what they would risk for this one (tenuously) habitable world: “Were you the extravagant match, / the field of slander sticks?” a section in “DENDRO” queries. The section wonders (a significant word for Woodland, along with awe):

O tinder,
such a staggered palmistry the way
one cups a flame
in the roaring wind.

The chimes unbalance
the filling sky, how it pelts us
with sorrows

so empty without
us — without our fanning worry.

I was that field when I heard
the striking.

Such lines as those above create an evocation, a mood, a song. The reader cannot always place themselves in them, but that seems part of the point—that the lines unsettle how we look at the world, how we feel it, move our bodies in it.

One section in Woodland that especially resists abstraction is a curated list of burnings around the world, titled simply “SOME BURNING: 2017.” A date, a place, and a brief description accompany each line, for example: “Jan 02 Chile   Fire Destroys Homes above Chilean Port City,” or, “March 11 Kenya Fire Destroys 50 Hectares of Menengai Forest.” The list includes evacuations, arson, the death of firefighters, forest and urban fires, wildfires. The neatly ordered list is five pages long, and to read every item is an exercise for the conscience, extending the scope of Woodland to include the burning world and its many fire-related injuries and home/forest loss. “Some Burning: 2017” is an absolutely sobering element of Woodland, and demonstrates how empathy can be the outcome of a project of attention to data at a global level.

The poem, “ONE: A WILD TENDER” from the WOODLAND section, captures both the speaker’s love for their subject and an attention to sound at the level of syllable. The sonics are evocative of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ delight in sprung-rhythm and hyphenated compounds, or Susan Howe’s love for the ordering of the monosyllable:

wild roses stern-
hipped — fieldfare

field-edged &
clamber

O pinch scarlet, this giving

let (( pleasing

immemorial tho what
I said was just

this once always shifted
always

The poem’s closing sections continues:

& so loved
the mortar
of this world (  flakes )

to be unheld
accursed

& lo
& lo

teeters (  the cart )

A primary tension in Woodland comes from the presence of the dramatic visuals—for example: the scorched pages of MacDowell’s “To a Wild Rose”—interspersed with Gardner’s compressed, tender lyrics. The speaker is in love with the world, and is angry and grieving in the context of that love. Aaron Otheim’s piano accompaniment trills and haunts, jars and discords as Gardner’s lyric absorbs both the beauty and loss of the burned texts and the burning earth. “No tender / no hold,” a couplet reminds the reader in Woodland’s third section, “HARD CLIMATE NEVER,” playing on the homophones of tender and tinder: soft touch and flammable substance.

The fourth section of Woodland, THE ROOF IS ON FIRE, is a lyric essay—one that provides context for Woodland’s visual-poetic project rather than a conclusion. In this essay, Gardner gives an account of himself as a forestry-student-turned poet, as a queer writer and thinker, as a person waking up one September morning in Seattle, “to soot pelting me…to find our entire house filled with forests from hundreds of miles away…I understood then I’d been writing about fire all summer.” The focused attention of Gardner’s essay is a radically vulnerable gift in terms of the threads it pursues and how it wonders about the speaker’s world and its making/unmaking. Gardner writes:

I often think there is a seam in queer writing, particularly in the way we write about the landscape. A site angle and distancing that reflects our initial distrust of the body and its longings, not the things we learn ourselves which make our lyric and erotic poetry so compelling, but a fracture in actual corporeality and solidity of things we have somehow wronged by our being. The world itself there, a solid block rubbed smooth by others and completely baffling.

The vision of Gardner’s work, from his poetry to his editing and curating of other artists, is one rooted in ethical contexts, in shared language and shared earth. But the seams appear, rather than disappear, as Gardner considers our divided spaces, habitats, and society. Gardner notes, “It seems as likely that…the retrenchment in fear, authoritarianism, and religion will bode badly, as it always has, for the queers…it is that fear that drives this book—its fracturing, its side glances.” Gardner’s essay shows how the violence of our language and actions (words are also deeds) pervades our life with others and our world’s climate. And yet, and yet, I want to say: look at the responsive world that Gardner’s poetry, written collaboratively with the visual and musical work of Aaron Otheim, models for us. Consider the tender/tinder; consider the fire; consider the hold readers find in the expansive project of Woodland.

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