How might eco-inflected poetries most constructively address not only what gets lost, but what gets left behind? How might scholars keep pace with the Great Acceleration of present-day environmental change, even while pointing to more untimely (though nonetheless quite prescient) poetic temporalities? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Margaret Ronda. This conversation, transcribed by Phoebe Kaufman, focuses on Ronda’s Remainders: American Poetry at Nature’s End. Ronda is an assistant professor of English at the University of California-Davis. Her articles have appeared in PMLA, Post45 Peer Reviewed, the minnesota review, English Language Notes, and Genre. Her first book of poems, Personification, won the Saturnalia Books Prize and was published in 2010. Her second book, For Hunger, is forthcoming from Saturnalia in August 2018.
ANDY FITCH: Could we first sketch a historical trajectory on which the pastoral-inflected notion of appealing to nature as source of renewal or refuge becomes no longer possible (at least within a North American poetic tradition emerging out from 19th-century models you give: Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson, Whitman)? Could we provisionally parse this great acceleration into several escalating stages, concerning crises of preservation, systemic crises, globalized crises? For each stage, could you provide a representative point of ecological focus, and a characteristic approach to poetics, critical thinking, and/or everyday life practices?
MARGARET RONDA: Certainly in 19th-century American poetry and literature, Transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau come to mind. They develop both an interest in preservation and an ethos of precarity against which they posit this preservation. Walden emerges in part through Thoreau’s firsthand experience of the deforestation and industrial encroachment reshaping Concord. By then colonialism and capitalist practices already have changed, in fundamental ways, that local terrain’s ecology, and Walden attends quite sensitively to the pond’s ecosystem (its animal and plant life, its seasonal patterns) while also tracking those anthropogenic reshapings. Other early-19th-century poets like Lydia Sigourney and William Cullen Bryant also register an incipient awareness of destructive socio-ecological transformations, often through portrayals of unknowable futures that these poets pose against the deep time of ecosystemic processes. Sigourney’s “Fallen Forests,” for instance, places slow trans-generational forest growth and cycles of agricultural cultivation against the present and future unknowability of ecosystemic destruction. She writes: “neither he, / Nor yet his children’s children, shall behold / What he hath swept away.” Bryant’s “The Prairies” ends with an ominous image of a coming “multitude” disturbing the prairies’ peaceful quiet — a quiet that itself registers the violent dispossession of Indigenous peoples. So again you can find the groundwork for subsequent American environmental poetics emerging out from this early dialectic of natural preservation and precarity, which attends to the rapid and fundamentally violent transformations these poets witness.
The later two stages you mentioned (the poetics of systemic crisis and of globalized crisis) come to understand these transformative anthropogenic activities in more totalized ways. In turn, the pastoral imaginary I chart in post-45 poetics involves more explicit and expansive investigations of nature as a negative category. Lorine Niedecker offers an example of this second modality of crisis, through her immanent attention to various scales of systemic change becoming perceptible in her surroundings. Through her patterns of condensation and scale-shift, Niedecker creates portraits of historical change in action, depicting broader patterns of enclosure/development as palpable in the small lifeforms and habitat changes around her. The local emerges not simply as a positivistic or empirical category, but as a category through which she can think about ecological transience and precariousness, as well as about the broadening reach of capitalism’s productive and extractive capacities.
Remainders goes on to describe poetic responses to contemporary globalized crisis, with these responses conceiving of nature as an explicitly idealized and negative category, and offering reflexive attention to that very unthinkability. The pastoral becomes, in this way, a mode for recognizing the impossibility of ecological preservation, the unavailability of sites of refuge amid conditions of generalized crisis. With Juliana Spahr’s work in particular I track that ascendance of nature as a negative concept through which new modes of subjectivity and affective response arise. So from Thoreau, to Niedecker, to Spahr: each meditates on ways in which we might understand nature through an idealization (a category no longer available to us), and each offers a distinctive formal approach for apprehending rapid socio-historical change in earth systems and processes.
In terms of negative idealizations, could you provide a couple models for the types of remainders that give this book its title? If we first conceive of remainders as, say, physical objects lingering on beyond their appointed cycles of organic life and death (or of commodity consumption); and if we then broaden this remainders concept to include material remnants merging the human/nonhuman, the animate/inanimate, the natural/historical, the organic/cultural/linguistic/textual; and if we then can conceive of our contemporary selves as remainders producing remainders, or if we can picture the Remainders table at the bookstore as the ultimate destination for even the most celebrated contemporary poetry; or if we can start to track how poetry might, instead of pursuing a more recognizably innovative avant-gardism, build into its structure figures for this remaindered outmodedness and obsolescence, have we begun to approach what it might mean to think of, through, from the remaindered object, subject, site? Or what else has changed recently in how the (perhaps always remaindered) text always remainders its reader?
That’s great. I want to take that question in a couple directions. My book develops its remainders concept in dialogue with new-materialist and posthumanist approaches in recent ecocriticism, to think about the dissolve between subjects and objects, between humans and nonhumans — to approach matter as something transhuman (the ultimate ecological concept!). But my remainders concept, by contrast, is a historical-materialist one. My book emphasizes ways in which capitalism as a world-system constructs a world-ecology, as geographer Jason Moore has argued. I point to the ways that capitalist processes appropriate and reshape biospheric capacities, phenomena, and cycles, and also to how these transformations entail unexpected, often unknowable effects. Those lingering, protracted effects from the imbrication of capitalism and nature of course manifest in many of the systemic changes graphed on various Great Acceleration charts: changes to ocean acidification, to nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, spikes in emissions and pollution levels, etcetera (the remainders of capitalist productive processes). The book tries to theorize human interactions with the natural world, then, not by flattening ontology and portraying material relations of enmeshment and immersion, but by demonstrating how history necessarily gets embedded within every object, entity, phenomenon, including ecological entities and processes. This history, of course, becomes (like the commodity itself) reified, not directly available to perception. I draw on the Frankfurt School’s dialectical idea of natural-history to develop this point. So the remainder becomes, conceptually, a means of highlighting historical determination at all levels, pointing back to socio-ecological forces that shape and remake biospheric matter and processes (rather than that move towards some posthuman dissolve). Remainders then argues that attention to this historical determination takes on new urgency and force in the post-1945 era, the period of the Great Acceleration, with its scaled-up planetary transformations.
This book’s literary intervention addresses how poems across the post-45 period develop a persistent topos of remainders as a way of registering and reflecting on intensifying environmental change. Many, many examples of this topos I don’t even discuss in the book. Poets such as A.R. Ammons, Ariana Reines, Kim Hyesoon, Joyelle McSweeney, Ed Roberson, Myung Mi Kim, CA Conrad, and Jennifer Scappettone all meditate on the matter of detritus, its historical forms and temporalities. And while I describe this wide-ranging remainders topos as a poetic mode for exploring the negative concept of nature and the historical character of ecological forms, I also want to consider how this mode illuminates the changing status of poetry itself in an increasingly post-literary, post-poetic culture. How might these poems reflect not only on socio-ecological change but also on poetry’s own shifting or diminishing cultural status? That’s one way to track the remainder’s dialectical work as a particular literary-historical intervention.
Here I also want to think about how poems measure not only a sense of historical punctuality but also of untimeliness, anachronism, belatedness (of matter and form out of time). This particular approach of course begins in the Romantic period’s poetry and poetics, as many great works of Romanticist criticism have argued. Part of my Remainders project, then, involves thinking about how this longer Romantic inheritance reappears, albeit in different guises, in contemporary meditations on poetic time that position poetry as belated, recursive, out-of-sync. This book raises the question: what might we see by attending to these dimensions, rather than formulating our critical genealogies around modernist imaginaries? So I pose this meta-poetic ethos of poetic remainders against languages and logics of innovation that emerge from modernist and avant-garde literary criticism — in order to ask different questions about characteristic representational forms at work in this period, addressing both ecology and poetry itself.
Traditions of ekphrastic writing also stood out as I read Remainders, alongside related questions concerning what it might mean for a poetics of prosopopoeia to render a material/immaterial epiphenomenon like climate change. And to begin moving towards such topics, I probably first should note that I very much appreciated Remainders’ ability to rapidly reposition its textual subjects on axes of temporality, then axes of spatiality, then back again. To give one example of what I mean, you present Niedecker and Gwendolyn Brooks (both intimately associated with specific geographical locales), less as cartographers of fixed place than as chroniclers of socio-ecological transformation. And in terms of an untimely attention to complex dynamics of transience and endurance, Niedecker’s conception of folk time stands out for concretizing what your book describes as the lag and drift of rural lasting, as a mode of resourceful yet precarious, slow but nonetheless quite fleeting existence — pitched against prioritizations on speed, disposability, abstract quantifiability, infinite exchangeability emanating from cities conceiving of themselves as “centers.” And I especially appreciate, in your pivots between spatial and temporal axes here, your intriguing sense of historical time itself as unevenly distributed across the geographical U.S., as well as across demographic divides of race, gender, class. On a more personal level, as a professionally displaced poet of sorts, having moved from Manhattan to Wyoming in pursuit of a job just when the national economy collapsed, but also just when a cluster of technological developments (spikes in social-media participation, in smartphone possession, in online and app-driven reshapings of urban daily life) seemed to catalyze an even greater Great Acceleration, I feel acutely attuned to the extent to which not only public landscapes, but also our supposedly private subjectivities develop with a great degree of historical unevenness. So without taking us too far into reflection on the (to my mind) outmoded regionalized lyric, could you start to address who among us, who within ourselves, might most readily identify with postwar poetry’s materialist remainders — perhaps by starting with how Niedecker (operating generations before our nation’s purported Big Sort) explores the significance of such uneven distributions?
Yes. You’ve pointed to one of this book’s key dimensions, and you’ve helped to illuminate how this remainder concept carries both a negative and a positive valence. To a large extent the remainder functions as an ecocritical means for tracking capitalist development’s fundamentally pernicious effects. Throughout the book I chart various stages of destructive, unforeseen, and still-unknowable effects. But Remainders also traces ways in which these poetic works refuse the supposed linearity of progress, through their attention to unevenness, to experiences and lifeworlds that remain marginal or out of sync. Poetry can dwell in and register those eddies of uneven time. It can stage multiple temporalities in a given present — precisely because of its abilities to condense, juxtapose, jump scales, draw parallels, repeat. Among the poets my book examines, Niedecker best demonstrates this sense of attention to uneven development (or to an unevenness of the present), as well as this deliberate affiliation with what lags or what cannot be narrativized as a part of historical progress and innovation. Other figures from the book also pick up and bear those ideas forward. Gwendolyn Brooks certainly does something similar, as do Gary Snyder and Diane di Prima (through a more primitivist imaginary). Each of these poets arrives at a present groundedness even while depicting that present as discontinuous, uneven, or multiply unfolding. By attuning to those other presents within the present, these poets hold open (however temporarily or lightly) other imaginaries, other ways of thinking about present and future possibilities. The end of Spahr and Clover’s “Misanthropocene” poem turns in this direction as well, though in a different register.
By pointing to these portrayals of historical unevenness, I want to think with Walter Benjamin’s ideas about the practice of historical-materialist criticism as a means of diverging from any triumphal progress of homogenous time. Kristin Ross takes up some similar ideas about alternative possibilities, alternative approaches to the present (she calls them “anticipatory designs”) in her recent book Communal Luxury. Such designs do offer powerful ways of imagining otherwise. They set forth a certain Benjaminian counter-tradition of socio-ecological thinking that develops under the pressures and determinations of a given present.
To return then to historicity, perhaps we could focus on Brooks. Many potential positive valences that Niedecker detects in untimely communal practice pick up more corrosive, claustrophobic connotations in the contemporaneous displacements addressed by Brooks. Brooks tracks the workings of a slow (sometimes accelerated, no doubt) violence of sociological, economic, ecological disparity and marginality playing out as nascent, NIMBY, suburban-centric environmentalism arises alongside a consolidated environmental racism — a particularly compressed alienation providing less some folk-time sense of resourceful communal sharing than a persistent depersonalized dose of daily precarities and anxious competition. I don’t want to discount the life-affirming aspects of Brooks’ milieu, and what you call “its essential sanity, black and electric.” But given your book’s emphasis upon figurations of the remainder, I wonder if you could speak to Brooks’s depiction of the densely populated Mecca complex as both ineffable, all-too-easily-forgotten social ecosystem deserving its own forms of epic preservation, and as allegorical pointer or clairvoyant precursor to more discomforting figurations of the remainder — say the discourse of a so-called “natural unemployment rate,” or the institutionalized regime of mass incarceration in which individual citizens take on even more extreme remaindered social status as inmates with life sentences.
In terms of Brooks’s In the Mecca, your question makes me think about the remainder in relation to modes of social surplus, to the socio-ecological and subjective dimensions of surplus population. Many of Brooks’s poems about urban Chicago offer complex renderings presenting the inside story of such concepts — portraying the daily habitations and social configurations that emerge through postwar urban forms, as well as through the long and ongoing historical processes of black exclusion and dispossession in the U.S. Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices and Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun do similarly vital work representing the white-supremacist framing of black life as a remainder within that specific historical moment and setting. Ed Roberson’s City Eclogue might offer a more contemporary version of attending to the racialized dynamics of urban development and the subjective experiences of those rendered surplus. These authors’ writings seem diagnostic. I would not read them as wholly pessimistic, but as charting something like what Fred Moten calls “exhaustion as a mode or form or way of life.” Their work charts the somatic effects of environmental racism (toxic air, unhealthy quarters, garbage and landfills) as these combine with other aspects of racialized experience, such as police violence and discriminatory employment and housing policies. At the same time, these authors do want to insist on that “sanity, black and electric” that Brooks sees in the Mecca. That emerges in different ways across their work: for example, in the later, more assertive portraits of black insurrection in Brooks’s work, or in Roberson’s scale-leaps that draw collective black life into affirmative connections with various nonhuman phenomena such as galaxies, deep planetary time, birds and trees.
Again in terms of diagnostics, I wonder if we could pivot to John Ashbery’s later-60s/early-70s writings. Socio-ecological-poetic tropes of catastrophe unfolding at various speeds (say of the oil spill, of everyday toxicity’s seepage, of a landfill’s non-biodegradable lifespan, or of radioactive waste) pick up newfound formal clarity in your treatment of “uneven” aspects (“catalogs, metonymic chains, paratactical leaps and slow transitions, shifts in diction, citations and borrowed phrases, scalar and perspectival shifts, and aposiopesis”) in Ashbery’s poetics. I’d love to hear you describe how such uneven registers and ever-changing proportions of the present, how such felt (even when not consciously integrated) shifts in the presencing of environmental pressures, correspond to a dawning social consciousness concerning overlooked yet systemic forms of environmental destruction occurring among some of the most transparent and/or elemental components of our ecosystem: air, water, soil. Or I’d love to consider your historically-minded take on Ashbery’s processual poetics not (as in certain preceding critical formulations) appealing to some timeless mystical mode of consciousness, so much as tracing and/or tapping intimations of collective affect not yet cohered into articulation — as indexing ambient, immanent experience, even while pointing towards more ominous developments still to come.
That’s a great way of phrasing it. My book considers Ashbery both in terms of his immanent poetic modes and ecological portrayals of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and also in terms of a wider cultural imaginary that (I argue) his work makes apprehensible. Ashbery’s poems from this period investigate what it means to know and not to know, to know partially, to sense something, to sense something not actually sensible or perceptible, to sense beyond one’s senses. Three Poems and The Vermont Notebook especially concern themselves with these questions of epistemology and perception, in relation to various dimensions of ecological relationality and experience — all during an era, of course, when “the environmental crisis” gets named as such, and constantly gets discussed in the news media and mass-market books, and when a majority of Americans list environmental issues as one of their top national concerns. The first Earth Day takes place in 1970, a galvanizing moment for the American environmental movement. Ashbery writes against this backdrop of a very public, urgent conversation. He explores the vicissitudes of consciousness confronting ecological change and crisis. He considers the fundamental unevenness or recalcitrance of environmental change as a perceptible phenomenon, and tracks complex modes of recognition and repression, largely through explorations of air as a relational phenomenon. Air will change its proportions, get personified or rendered terrifyingly other in Ashbery’s work. His writings represent air as an enveloping, nurturing surround, but also as a bearer of disturbing, unfathomable change. Air becomes, like various details of The Vermont Notebook’s commodified suburban landscapes, a means of tracking capitalist development’s totalized scope (but routed in more uncanny ways through the elemental conditions of Earthly existence). Ashbery stages how ecological consciousness and consciousness of crisis always remain variable, shifting, recalibrating. In this way his poetry speaks to our present as well. Despite a seemingly endless parade of spectacular events (most recently Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, or San Francisco’s record heat), and despite decades of scientific research on climate change and other forms of environmental destruction, we still unevenly perceive the realities of ecological crisis. Naomi Klein and Naomi Oreskes have written about various dimensions of environmental denial, particularly in relation to political maneuverings on the part of corporations and right-wing organizations. And Rob Nixon’s groundbreaking book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor directed attention towards the recalcitrance to representation of slow-moving patterns of environmental degradation. Ashbery’s poetry uniquely shows us, however, what he calls the “experience of experience” — here of ecological change amid an intensifying crisis.
By extension, I’d love to hear how critical prose might provide its own equivalent experiential capaciousness. And since you so cogently position Ashberian poetics in contrasting relation to prevailing ecocritical emphases upon awareness and ethical action, and since your “The Advancing Signs of the Air” chapter suggests in particular that, amid our ongoing experience of irreversible breach from some presumptively legible/perennial environmental surround, it might make sense to embrace a poetics of emergent unreadability, I wonder if we here could start applying an analogous logic to poetic scholarship or criticism. How, for instance, did composing this quite abstracted, elegant chapter shape your perspective on critical prose addressing less what we know than what we sense? How might such a prose point to broader incomprehensibilities even while cultivating local clarities? How might it provide less a receptacle of knowledge than a palpable, formally encoded, medium-specific chronicling of material transformations and mysteriously borne personal/social/disciplinary histories? Did I err in sensing some such questions in the air as you tracked the air in Ashbery’s poetics?
Good question. My chapter on Ashbery does model an attempt to track ideas and perceptions coming into being in poetic form. I try to stay with Ashbery’s poems in a way which doesn’t resolve itself into definitive answers. These poems remain in various states of unknowing, or of partially knowing what they sense and what they don’t sense, what they see and what remains omitted or opaque. Partly, writing about Ashbery’s poetics and logics just requires a pretty thoroughgoing commitment to thinking with the processual, the partial, the contradictory, the divigational. But I sense you’re also speaking to a certain imperative I felt in writing this book more generally. I do try to follow the poems’ lead as I track this developing literary ethos. I want to stay attentive to what these poems represent as no longer thinkable, as negative or occluded, as provisional or possible. I try to follow how their logics and forms tarry in strange temporalities and modes of ongoing bewilderment. This involves processes of close reading, but also reading in a more dialectical vein, reading for what almost or partially or no longer emerges or remains. And this type of reading does diverge from the orientation that I associate with ecocriticism as a critical practice. Ecocriticism’s default orientation toward ethical imperatives often means that a text gets presented as prelude to action in the world, as a space through which we learn how to behave differently, or think or act differently. Ecocritical readings often stress either an inherently resistant ethos or an ideologically complicit ethos in a given text. Remainders focuses more attention on the resistances and logics of a poem as it opens out onto larger senses, and sensings, of ecological being and becoming amid a period of radical transformation. I do believe that through this immanent attention to poetic mediations on a particular present we glimpse something like historical experience “in solution,” as Raymond Williams says.
I also appreciate how Remainders enacts its own critical fidelity in part by providing a clarifying vantage on long dormant or obscured possibilities for ecological intervention. Here the excavational repositioning of Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island and Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters comes to mind — particularly for their (and your) visionary articulation of a radicalized sensibility prioritizing the speculatively over the documentarily ecological, the galvanizingly simple over the enervatingly literal. You describe this impulse towards what you call a “revolutionary pastoral,” no longer even recognized as such amid an incrementalist, institutionalist, liberal/bureaucratic approach to environmental politics crowding out the ability to conceive of alternative possible agendas at present. Here I particularly appreciated your distilled presentation of historical contradictions arising as a 1960s/70s rhetoric of liberatory potential arrives just when technological innovation in fact entrenches ecological eclipse occurring at an ever-greater intensity. And I thought I noted this chapter’s prose itself lightening and crystallizing, as if emulating that aspect of its subjects’ self-presentation, and/or imagining new potential audiences for its scholarly/historical/aesthetic/social argument.
That process of thinking with these poets, of trying to understand the emergent forms available to Snyder and di Prima, really forced me to come to grips with alternative horizons of socio-ecological imagination. Not that these texts aren’t acutely attentive to conditions and historical pressures of their moment — in fact, this revolutionary-pastoral vision emerges through their sense of the environmental enclosures of their historical present. The poems develop these visionary pastoral responses organized by a complex dynamic of punctuality, recursivity, and anachronism that tells us a great deal about their present (precisely by what they refuse or turn away from). It seemed crucial when reading these poems to excavate those radical sensibilities and revolutionary commitments. Yet the turn toward speculation, the turn away from modern progressive time, also becomes absolutely essential here. I wanted this chapter to stay attentive to ways in which these poems don’t only reflect on conditions of their present, but also (through their pastoral framework) point to other imaginative possibilities, other socio-ecological trajectories.
Here as we start to approach our own present, I think of your response to Juliana Spahr’s “Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache.” You incisively frame this long poem as presenting something like the elegiac without the elegy: reversing that genre’s conventionally redemptive trajectory, replacing nature’s regenerative power to substitute for the loss of a beloved (here with the more problematic outcome of the human beloved substituting for an ever-more irreversibly lost nature). You argue that self-recognition emerges amid “Gentle Now’s” gradual realization of the poetic subject’s (also of course the reader’s) status as the central destructive agent, the unwitting cause of this loss, with that recognition provoking irresolvable mourning and enervating melancholia. You incisively read through this poem from the disillusioned perspective attained in its concluding sections, a perspective which precludes any prospects of peaceful coexistence from the start. But here again I wonder if/when/how it might become constructive for criticism to emulate the polyvalent temporality picked up by poetry on the page, a temporality existing (for the reader) simultaneously as a stable, complete text, and as a kaleidoscope of momentary portals — more like the “gentle now” that Spahr’s poem mourns, to which it poignantly keeps appealing, yet which it never can reach along the way. So as both a very sensitive and a very expansive reader into ecopoetic visions, could you describe your own lived experience amid the swirling affective/epistemic currents of reading this text’s “gentle now” or that now’s prosopopoeiac absence? Or if that points us to the unhelpfully personal, could we pause on Spahr’s admittedly polyvalent invocation of a gentle now, and ask when our present conception of ecological “loss” itself seems too narrowly possessive, materialistic, deterministic — as we calculate how predecessors’ industrial gains have curtailed our own prospects for future “profit” in the Emersonian sense? Or when do our appropriately ominous predictions of the future become enervating, self-fulfilling prophecies? How and when can criticism, which, like “Gentle Now,” assumes the vantage of having read through already, maintain some sense of experimental/experiential potentiality?
Well again, as a critic, one wants to respect these poem’s immersive quality — not simply to foreground their conceptual frame or argumentative telos, but to make palpable the ways a poem, particularly a multi-faceted poem such as Spahr’s, moves through many moments, images, perceptions, each of which bears its own heft and meaning. I love “Gentle Now’s” recursivity, its elegiac architecture. Spahr’s poem actually moves in a linear progression in order to think nonlinearly, or to think in some complex, uncanny, and bewildered sense. By focusing on ecological relationships, this poem’s progressive motion puts pressure on or pushes against its own momentum. Our experience of that resistance brings into focus the poem’s deep emotional complexity, its profound reparative desire. In that sense, we can’t really consider the poem’s early parts untrue. They just take on different dimensions as the poem moves forward. The poem asks us to hold various affective dimensions (various powers of fantasy and forms of recognition) in mind, to see how these unmake and remake each other anew. And in turn, I would say that the poem stages a refusal of its own ending, naming what remains yet to be undertaken, returning the reader to the poem’s opening. Here I also think of another great ecological elegy, Inger Christensen’s alphabet, which similarly opens up a complicated, multi-layered space for reckoning with what is, what was, what might be. alphabet imagines and then un-imagines nuclear cataclysm, less as ominous prediction and more as a negative, transpersonal space the poem dwells within. Both poems, it seems to me, work through this accounting process that adds and subtracts, that holds the generative and the negative, potential and loss, in dialectical relation.
Along these lines of accounting processes, one snag that the Snyder/di Prima chapter raised for me had to do with their critique of an environmentalist incrementalism. If I think of the unbearably few societies approaching potentially sustainable futures right now, I (ignorantly perhaps, or anecdotally at least) picture the most sturdy, placid, incrementally minded of nations, say those of Scandinavia, as quietly, over several decades, demonstrating the limitations to a more showy 60s-style California-based revolutionary rhetorical model. In your lived experience again as an impressively wide-ranging eco-reader, do more incrementalist ecological visions ever make for a particularly compelling or at least useful poetics? Or in what ways might inherited preferences for finding new and innovative (even if innovatively anti-innovative) literary practices prevent us from recognizing the most intellectually/epistemically/efficaciously ecological texts? Or does a parochial attachment to the local, to the land, in much eco-inflected writing prevent us from picking up constructive possibilities from other landscapes, languages, localized cultures?
One good way to answer would involve turning to works by Indigenous poets who provide fundamentally different approaches to the concepts of historical (incremental, revolutionary, progressive) time, and to land relations than those we’ve discussed. Here I think of Mark Rifkin’s recent argument in Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination about the divergent temporalities of “settler time,” and the pluralized temporal orientations of Indigenous cultural life. I’d point to the poetry of Allison Hedge Coke, dg okpik, Simon Ortiz, Linda Hogan, and Joan Naviyuk Kane for some contemporary examples of works that redescribe socio-ecological relations through temporal and spatial modalities — modalities that refuse the determinations of settler time (even as they acknowledge its ongoing dominance). I also think of the Chamorro poet Craig Santos Perez, whose poetry often draws together reflections on the precarity of island populations and habitats (particularly in a time of global climate change) with explorations of Chamorro folklore, land relations, foodways, and rituals. In all these cases, the works do not portray ecological incrementalism per se, but instead offer vantages on what Native scholar Gerald Vizenor calls “survivance.”
Stepping outside my most familiar conceptions of incremental/revolutionary/progressive time also helps to clarify one related question. In terms of how to shape a non-redemptive criticism, I did wonder about the seemingly purgative relation to “capital” that plays out in various statements across this book. The sole acknowledgment I could find of Marx’s own inclinations toward resource extraction left me wondering whether avowedly (no doubt incoherently) socialist countries’ own dismal record of 20th-century ecological destruction deserved more consistent acknowledgment. Capitalism certainly has caused much such destruction, less-regulated U.S.-style capitalism especially, but again, how might criticism most incisively engage our all-pervasive (however occluded) complicity with this apocalyptic regime and yet refrain from creating our own rhetorical waste product, our own projectively remaindered nemesis forever to be liquidated (washed down the drain) through repeated acts of ritual cleansing? Please reject any and all implications you find problematic within this question, but could we outline, in whatever ways you see fit, perhaps based on whichever of Remainder’s source texts you want to cite, what a non-purgative ecological poetics might look like amid the expansively though not inevitably, sufficiently though not necessarily, capitalist context of environmental catastrophe that we face today? Or most basically: what types of proactive prescriptive responsibilities might get forced on ecopoetic scholarship, criticism, theory when it can’t focus on critiquing capital?
First I should point out that many of the poems in this study are not purgative in the sense you describe. They don’t elaborate eco-social visions explicitly contingent on alternative societal arrangements. At the same time, this book’s historical backdrop does concern the interpenetration of capitalism and the earth’s systems and cycles, and how capitalism does intensify effects and new forms of ecological crisis throughout this period. So it is no coincidence that all these poems engage, from various angles, the dynamics of capitalism as a world-making system, and as the motive force driving ecological transformations. I try to attend to the immanent positions that these poems occupy, from the revolutionary visions of di Prima and Spahr and Clover to the resistant realisms of Brooks and Cheena Marie Lo, as a means of formalizing these authors’ eco-historical situations. More generally, I would say that I don’t understand capitalism as a nemesis we can simply name and ritualistically reject, either in critical or literary works. I don’t think any of the poets in this project think so either! I see these poems as offering distinct vantages on the astonishing generative scale and force of capitalist productive relations as these shape not only biospheric entities and processes but everyday experience and modes of relation. At the same time, I think we surely need more purgative forms of thinking, more resistant and oppositional visions, to face the conditions of our present and future. That’s where the book lands.
It also lands specifically in its coda, with you writing from an ongoing (intermittently flooded) California drought. The temporal dynamics of lasting and passing tracked by your book seem especially present there. Throughout, I have admired your avowed decision to stick with figures and forms of calamity, and not to transform these into narratives of sustainability and hope. But gradually I also have begun to wonder if criticism’s diagnostic function inevitably brings along (even when undesired) its own sense of closure. As soon as criticism can isolate and articulate a lack of agency, a collectivized ongoing bewilderment, it can seem to enact its own departure from those abject states. So as you developed your own preferred focus on untimely, uncanny, irredeemable endurance, what did you learn about how criticism might best persist in some exemplary unsuccessful state? How might criticism linger most intimately, most empathically, and most efficaciously on what your book’s concluding lines describe as “the insurrectionary imaginations and strategies we find, and the kinship we form to fight for what remains”? What models could you offer or would you like to see for how a non-narcissistic, non-grandstanding, yet palpably embodied, ecologically situated scholarship might keep failing (thereby enduring, remaining), rather than successfully describing our loss (thereby redeeming criticism)?
This book argues, in part, that we haven’t finished grappling with the immensity of these eco-historical changes — and that, in a way, we haven’t even begun. I think about the devastating recent projections for climate-change scenarios in our near future: all the forms of population displacement and immiseration, species and habitat loss, and other calamities already underway and set to scale up dramatically in the next 50 years. So maybe I could describe Remainder’s project as exploring how these particular poems find various means of defining and responding to this conceptual, intellectual, material, ecological problematic. They explore ways in which this problematic eludes or exceeds comprehension or narrativization, or necessitates recursive or nonlinear approaches. So they undertake an engagement with their own limits, offering forms of negative thinking with regard to ecological being and knowing, even as they provide a complex and versatile repertoire of poetic approaches.
As you suggest, the danger for the critic comes from delineating and reifying such approaches, so that they become conceptually static rather than differentially unfolding. The point instead is to chart how these works portray historical motion, the dynamics of eco-historical change. So Remainders tries to remain attentive to these poems’ lags and drifts, as well as to their own account of what lies on the verge of perceptibility. At the same time, each of these poems contributes to the larger portrayal of a historical conjuncture, and we cannot lose sight of the particular dynamics defining that conjuncture. Critics have to keep thinking dialectically about what the imminent, the emergent, might illuminate about these broadest dimensions of the world-system and its ecologies. I do think poetry’s non-narrative modes, its strange temporalities and scale-jumps, and also its complex methods of voicing absence and loss, make it particularly amenable to these kinds of inquiries.