No More Words for Snow

And if the sun had not erased the tracks upon the ice, they would tell us of […] polar bears and the man who had the luck to catch bears.
– Obituary for Simon Simonsen, called ‘Simon Bear Hunter’ of Upernavik¹

 Ilissiverupunga, Grethe muttered. Id only recently learnt the word. It meant Damn! Ive put it away in a safe place and now I cant find it.

Mornings at Upernavik Museum: an endless round of kaffe and conversation as local hunters dropped by to discuss ice conditions. Wishing to make progress in my research into Greenlandic literature, Id asked Grethe, the museum director, whether she knew of any poetry books. But the bibliographic collections held mainly old black-and-white photographic records of the settlements, and kayaking manuals.

Illilli! Grethe called an hour or so later, There you are! She emerged from a doorway almost obscured behind a stack of narwhal tusks and proudly presented me with a 1974 hymnbook, its homemade dust-wrapper culled from an offcut of pink wallpaper.

*

Upernavik is a small, rocky island on the west coast of Greenland. At 72º north, it is well within the Arctic Circle, and the museum claims to be the most northern in the world. The regions coastline is described as an open-air museum. That is to say, people suspect there are interesting artefacts lying, undiscovered, everywhere under the ice. No matter that they cannot be seen. They exist, and the empty museum building awaits their arrival patiently. One of the museums prize possessions is an old motorboat in which, during the short summer, Grethe visits people in distant coastal settlements who claim to have found an interesting specimen, perhaps a carved flinthead or an unidentified bone. As these visits are often combined with trips to distant family members and rarely seem to result in artefacts being brought back to the museum, the institution evidently fulfils a social function, knitting together isolated communities along the shores of Baffin Bay.

During my stay on Upernavik as writer-in-residence at the museum, I wanted to discover more about my peers, the contemporary poets of the Arctic. The local people I met denied any knowledge of such activity. Research doesn’t always lead in the direction you expect: instead of books, it was my conversations with the islanders and observation of their interaction with the landscape that gave me a new perspective on the practice, and the endurance, of poetry in Greenland.

Grethe’s hymnbook was a perfectly logical offering. In Arctic tradition, elevated verbal expression took the form of songs rather than poems. These songs have been roughly categorised as charms, hunting songs, songs of mood and songs of derision. The ‘charms’ were used in shamanic rituals to cast spells or cure illnesses, and were closely guarded secrets; they could be used, for example, to stop bleeding, make heavy things light, or call on spirit helpers. The other categories were public, being performed at feasts and flyting matches, accompanied by drumming and dancing. When the Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen began to transcribe the songs, he declared that his neat written language and [] sober orthography [] couldnt bestow sufficient form or force to the cries of joy or fear of these unlettered people

The measure of poetic success was that a song was worth listening to, as Tom Lowenstein demonstrates (in his translation of Rasmussens transcription of a song by Piuvkaq):

I recognise what I want to put into words,
but it does not come well-arranged,
it does not become worth listening to.

Lowenstein describes the intense performance anxiety the poet might suffer: Forgetting the words, in a culture without paper, would be like losing the song. No-one would be there to prompt. It would be as if the words no longer existed at all. This fear of forgetting is resonant, considering the losses faced by Inuit culture today, now that many traditional practices have fallen out of common use.

For a long time the Inuit did not know how to store their words in little black marks They had no inclination to. Had they felt a need to apply their technical ingenuity to the problem of recording language, the course of bibliographic history might have been altered. As it is, publishing technology was introduced to Greenland by Danish missionaries during the late 19th century. The printing press preserved some legends, but the songs – because of their strong shamanic connections, not to mention occasional explicit content – were suppressed. The drums used in shamanic rituals were burnt in an attempt to oust heathen beliefs, an act as sacrilegious as a book-burning in Europe.

Hushed and drumless, the Danish colonists tried to locate the rich sounds of Kalaallisut, the Greenlandic language, within their known orthography. The Roman alphabet was introduced to facilitate printing with conventional metal type imported from Europe. Kalaallisut, the standard dialect, is caught between cultures, one of the few Eskimo-Aleut languages to use an alphabetic rather than syllabic orthography (compare its close relative, Inuktitut or ᐃᓄᒃᑎᑐᑦ, found in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, Canada). Yet what impact has two hundred years of printing made? In 2009 the Unesco Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger designated Kalaallisut as being ‘vulnerable’ and predicted that the North and East Greenlandic dialects will disappear within a century.

*

When I began to learn Kalaallisut I had to ask my teachers to write the words down. They were bemused that I should find this more useful than hearing them spoken. Each time a word was written it would be spelt differently, and so the bemusement was passed on to me. Grethe told me that schools are not overly concerned about spelling: little children are bamboozled by the long words, and surely it is understandable that they get lost in the middle and miss out a few syllables? Teachers are more inclined to indulge the children than instil superficial spelling conventions.

Many of the islanders found expressing themselves in writing challenging. Speech is still the touchstone for communication: mobile phones and Skype are just as popular in Greenland as they are in the UK, whereas emails are approached with even more dread. It seems inevitable that future Arctic archives will be as sparsely furnished as those of the past.

I began to find English finicky and prim in contrast with Kalaallisut. As though they were knucklebones used in a game of dice, I shook up my tiny words and scattered them before my audience, having little influence on the score. Kalaallisut is more densely woven than English, with its smaller alphabet (18 letters) and polysynthetic words. When it is spoken, the suffixes are uttered so softly that an untrained ear cannot hear them. Sentences seem to trail off into silence.

Kalaallisut will use a single word to express a concept that English tiptoes around with a phrase. I was delighted to find signifiers for the sea rises and falls slowly at the foot of the iceberg (iimisaarpoq) and the air is clear, so sounds can be heard from afar (imingnarpoq). The language is famous for its many words for snow. This wide vocabulary for environmental conditions is of fundamental importance in understanding the Arctic ecology. As Barry Lopez points out in his book Arctic Dreams, contemporary scientists who arrive in the Arctic to assess climate change without a grasp of Kalaallisut risk being as crude as the early explorers who rushed to make their conquests of the North Pole without using established Inuit techniques for transportation and survival on the ice.

A map by the cartographer R.T. Gould in the National Maritime Museum in London delineates the last known steps of one such expedition led by Sir John Franklin, an ambitious Victorian quest to find the North-West Passage (18458). Goulds map depicts a land marked not by geographical features but by ominous xs: caches of letters, pemmican and bones found by search parties. These clues to Franklins disappearance, linked by a red dotted line, eventually peter out in a question mark surrounded by blank paper.

The North-West Passage can be located by satellite these days, and few uncharted regions remain for those wishing to make their reputation as explorers. Yet despite advances in knowledge, Arctic geography still challenges the complacency of the modern traveller. Much of the visible environment is characterised by transience. The Pole is a shifting entity rather than a fixed point. Icebergs drift along the horizon, an ever-changing mountain range. The shore-fast ice forms an increasingly unpredictable border between land and sea; it disappears almost as fast as the tracks that pass across it. The geographer Nicole Gombay writes that these conditions ‘require an awareness that the future cannot be predicted. As a result, people must focus on the present. Inuit have often told me, “Today is today, and tomorrow is tomorrow. Dont bring today into tomorrow, and dont bring tomorrow into today.”’4 Peoples distrust of fixing future plans is balanced by an ability to let go of the past. As Heraclitus might have said, it is impossible to step on the same ice floe twice.

c-1-nancy-c_greenland-1-img_2489


S
ome mornings when I sat down to write at my desk overlooking the harbour, the sea outside my window seemed like a black cauldron covered with dark frost smoke (as Robert Scott once described the phenomenon in his Antarctic journals). Other days, it was hidden by ice, and I watched the hunters make their way across the perilous expanse until they were just little black marks in the distance. The shadowy figures stepped carefully, pausing often, and tested the ice with their chisels before putting any weight on it. They were adept at interpreting patterns and sounds in the ice, which told them where to step to avoid falling into the freezing water. Each man’s understanding of the ice was essential to his survival. (Once upon a time, the intense dangers faced during such expeditions had inspired the composition of songs, and even provided a metaphor for the process of composition: in a common trope, ‘the right words’ are as elusive to the singer as a seal or a caribou.)

The hunters ramshackle workstations awaited their return. These illukasik had no walls, no roofs and no doors. There was nothing to obscure a hunters view of his terrain, and nowhere to hide a secret. Domestic objects were left to rust under the open sky. The snow was a part of these skeletal structures as well as their backdrop; deep drifts were conscripted as tool racks. Ladders were lashed to the upright timbers but rather than providing a means of ascent they held struts together or secured them to the ground. Green twine wound about the cornices in endless orbits that stood in for more sturdy knots. The whole island appeared to be held together by an armature of twine and chicken wire beneath the snow.

Illukasik evolve. Beams are nailed to the joists, clothes racks tied to the beams. Sealskins are sewn to stretching frames and fish are hung up to dry out of reach of ravenous dogs. An accumulation of clothes pegs, knives and beer bottles adds a distinct signature to each hunters creation. Between snowfalls, the outer boundaries of the illukasik are pitted with holes cast by phlegm, drops of oil and cigarette butts. Fresh lines of blood are traced across the island nightly as seal carcasses are hauled from the successful hunters plots to waiting kitchens.

Sometimes, silhouetted in twilight, the illukasik looked like creatures rising from the sea. In these manmade objects I sensed something more than functional architecture. Folk tales describe hunters who created living monsters, tupilak, from sticks and stones and breath. The traditional Inuit religion is animist, and the culture is strongly influenced by the belief that an inue or soul imbues every material thing, from a rock to a harpoon head, informing its purpose. And so, as the wind howled around the illukasik, I thought of them as expressive marks on the landscape, almost akin to song. While Inuit songs were intensely personal, and singing anothers composition without crediting the original author was frowned upon, the singers employed respectful variations on traditional themes. The ikiaqtagaq or ‘split song’ was a conversation over time, its lyrics added to, and developed, by successive singers. Likewise, the design and materials of these improvised buildings diverged little from those I had seen in old photographs in the museum. Here was the continuation of a creative tradition that I sought.

*

When you store something away in a safe place, there’s always the danger you won’t find it again. Perhaps it is simpler to accept loss at the outset. The absence of printed language in the Arctic seems to hold more poetic resonance, more potency than the more tangible literature I had grown up with. I wondered whether a poet writing in English today could be active without publishing, and even whether there might not be a case for silence as a poetic stance in a culture so unremittingly orientated towards self-preservation and self-promotion?

With these thoughts I turned from the museum’s bookcase (or, as I had learnt, illisivit the root word of ilissiverupunga) to the gallery vitrines. There I found evidence left by earlier visitors: barometers and log books from explorers’ vessels, and the highlight of the collection – the Kingittorsuaq Runestone, engraved with a short text by three Norsemen around 800 years ago and left in a cairn on a nearby island. Only the men’s names could be read; the second half of their message is lost, written in mysterious characters that can’t be deciphered, even by experts. The truncated story of these Viking travellers is emblematic of the history of the Norse in Greenland. None of these settlers would survive the 15th century, in part because they were unable to withstand the cooling climate of the Little Ice Age. The Runestone also demonstrates that giving a message material form does not necessarily guarantee communication.

With the media saturated by images of the Arctic, it seems no longer necessary to convey its appearance, but rather the timbre of its many voices. The anthropologist Edmund Carpenter suggests that in cultures where transience is more evident, process is valued over preservation: ‘Art and poetry are verbs, not nouns. Poems are improvised, not memorised; carvings are carved, not saved. The forms of art are familiar to all; examples need not be preserved. When spring comes and igloos melt, old habitation sites are littered with waste, including beautifully designed tools and tiny carvings, not deliberately thrown away, but, with even greater indifference, just lost.’5 

It is increasingly apparent that our planet, including all its museums and libraries, is facing a devastation even more extreme than that of the great Alexandrian repository. Gombay addresses Western society as well as that of the Inuit, saying, In the face of knowledge that ultimately we are at the mercy of forces over which we have no control, how are we to react? We can choose to ignore such awareness – dig in our heels and do all that we can to find a means of establishing supremacy over the essential instability of existence, or, we can give in to it and accept that our experience is ephemeral.6  When the last of the ice has melted, the vanished tracks upon it will be the least of our concerns. No-one will be there to prompt. It will be as if words never existed.

Notes

1 Quoted in Hansen, K. Nuussuarmiut: Hunting Families on the Big Headland, Meddelelser om Grønland, vol. 345: Man & Society, vol. 35, 2008, p. 146
2 Rasmussen, Eskimo Folk Tales, Kessinger Publishing, 2010
3 Ibid.
4 Gombay, N. ‘“Today is today and tomorrow is tomorrow”: Reflections on Inuit Understanding of Time and Placein Collignon B. & Therrien M. (eds), Orality in the 21st century: Inuit discourse and practices. Proceedings of the 15th Inuit Studies Conference, INALCO, 2009
5 Carpenter, E.S. Eskimo Realities, Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1973, p. 57
6 Gombay, op.cit

Images by Nancy Campbell.

Top: Houses look out over Disko Bay, in Ilulissat, Greenland. Ilulissat means ‘icebergs’ in Kalaalissut.
Bottom: Kayaker in Ilulissat Icefjord, Greenland.

 —

You’ll find more where that comes from in our latest book.

The Scythe and the Slaughterer


Notes on the Use of the Austrian Scythe

Emma Must

You can no more lend a man your scythe
than you can lend him your false teeth,
so take my day instead, borrow this meadow.
I’ll heap sheaves of hours inside your ward
then babble about what I’ve learnt of mowing:
nibs and tangs and snaths, heels and toes
and edges – esoteric glossaries
for parts of tools grown rusty through disuse;
the sharpening of blades; and principles
of movement, trimming techniques, windrows, spill.
I have a hunch all this might interest you –
who drove us at weekends to run round woods,
who pointed out sea-birds, steam trains, castles –
and knowing your appreciation of the technical,
if I can communicate how vital
it is to keep the hafting angle tight,
and how though the neigung doesn’t simply
translate it can be altered with a shim
of plywood, it might transport you for an evening
from your fixed intravenous
existence where time is marked by the sickly
drip, drip, drip of antibiotics
disrupted only by the clatter of supper
sharp at six, the tea-girl’s cheery ‘Cuppa?
Orange squash? Hot chocolate? Champagne?’
I hesitate to dwell too long on sharpening
the blade … I’ll paraphrase: with a quality
natural whetstone, never a klumpat,
make one complete pass from beard to point.
That’s honing. Then there’s peening:
to trick life from the scythe for years to come
tap the edge of the blade with a hammer,
tease it out like pastry… But time is getting tight
so what I want to finish on tonight
are those principles of movement: staying true,
the simple shift of weight from foot to foot,
keeping give in the knees and judging the lean,
meditating on how we breathe
so we avoid those unexpected blips,
the woody stumps that send our pulses skittish.
Let’s focus now on minimising spill
as late sun curves around the outfield,
concentrate on holding a line,
get satisfaction from a job well done,
hope that we have learnt enough to guide us
through the mass of grass as yet uncut.[/poem_content]


Slaughterer 

 Vahni Capildeo

 

The tears curled from the cattle’s eyes, their horns curled back, their coats curled like frost-ferns on windshields or the hair on the heads of Sikandar’s soldiers. Two of my grandfather’s sons, when he knew he was dying, took him from his bed. They supported him out of the doorway so he could say goodbye to his favourite cattle. The cattle wept. They knew him. They are not like cattle here. They live among the household and on the hills, which are very green, and they eat good food, the same food as the household, cut-up pieces of leftover chapatti.

You do not get stories like that in books. I am telling you because you only have things to read. Whenever anybody tried to make me read a book or anything, I would fall asleep; my head would just drop.

What is the use of reading books? What can you do after that but get an office job? Do my friends who stayed at school earn as much as me? They all have office jobs; could they do a job like mine? Could they slaughter for seventy hours without getting tired or needing to sleep?

It was hard at first. I used to dream the cattle. They would come to me with big eyes like mothers and sisters. After a few weeks, they stopped coming to me in dreams. After about five years, I stopped feeling tired: I do not need to sleep. We do three or four thousand a day in Birmingham, only a thousand a night in Lancaster.

Tonight I am going to Lancaster. I will talk to you until Lancaster. Where are you from? You are lying on me. No, where are your parents from? Are you lying on me? I came here as a teenager, and at once they tried to make me read. How old are you? Why do you only have things to read? I am sorry I am talking to you. You have brought things you want to read. Beautiful reader, what is your name?

You can feel the quality of the meat in the animal when it is alive: the way its skin fits on its flesh. You can feel the quality of life in the meat. The cattle here are not good. They inject them. Their flesh is ahhh.

Look, look how beautiful. I’ll show you pictures of the place. Look, it is very green.

Image: Kit Boyd
Another World
Etching and aquatint


‘Inspired by the Antony and the Johnsons song of the same title, this elegiac image of an imaginary landscape distils the essence of the British countryside I love into another world. Finding refuge in the subconscious, I create images 
that are a balm to the harsh reality of our modern lives, and which I hope lead the viewer down winding paths into a protective, womb-like environment.’Kit Boyd lives and works in London and shows at galleries across the UK. Before becoming a full-time artist, he worked for many years for the Campaign to Protect Rural England and then the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales. He maintains strong links with Mid Wales where he gained his degree in Visual Art and has recently lived. His work follows in the British romantic tradition and is inspired by neo-romantic artists of the 1940s and Samuel Palmer.

You can find more where this came from in our latest book.

The Persistence of Poetry and the Destruction of the World

What it pleases us to call the New World is in fact a very old world – just as old, at any rate, as Asia, Europe, and Africa. It is part of the ancient continent of Pangaea, born from the same geological matrix as Europe. Its rivers and forests, and its ecology and geology, were thoroughly developed long before Columbus. And it has been inhabited by thinking, speaking, knowing human beings for several thousand years.

But an inhabited world, with its own philosophical, artistic, scientific, and literary traditions, is not what the European conquerors and colonists wanted to find. It is therefore not what they saw. They saw instead an empty world, free and ripe for the taking. They saw a gift of God meant for no-one but themselves.

This deliberate hallucination is still with us, like the star of a Christmas without end.

The European colonists’ arrival in the New World marks the escalation of a war that had been fought in Europe and Asia for more than two millennia and continues even now. It is the war between those who think they belong to the world and those who think that the world belongs to them. It is the war between the pagans, who know they are surrounded and outnumbered by the gods, and all the devotees of the number on – one empire, one history, one market, or one God – and who nowadays insist on the preeminence of everyone for himself: the smallest number one of all.

It is no accident that prophets of monotheism, including Plato and Mohammed, have often banished the poets. These prophets understand that the poet is a pagan and polytheist by nature. In a certain sense, even Dante, Milton, San Juan de la Cruz, Teresa of Ávila, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and T. S. Eliot are pagans. Without admitting it, they seem to understand, like the peoples of the Altiplano of Bolivia and Peru, and like many Native Canadians, that it is best to interpret Christianity as one more form of paganism.

But Mohammed and Plato are poets too in their way, monotheistic and tedious at times, but very much livelier and more pluralistic at others.

The great danger is single-mindedness: reducing things to one perspective, one idea, one overriding rule.

A polytheistic understanding of the world survived in Europe even in the time of the conquistadors, though it was then forced to take a wordless form. Music gave it refuge. It is found in polyphonic music, which is the music of multiple, simultaneous and independent voices. The churches of Europe overflowed with music of this kind in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It did not change the course of history, but it preserved an essential perception of the plurality of being. It preserved the essential, faithful heresy that reality is not of just one mind.

European music of more recent centuries is, for the most part, homophonic. It is the music of one voice that speaks in the names of all and of many voices that answer as one voice.

In the meantime, the conquest continues – in South America, North America, Asia, Australia, and in Europe too. It continues in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where a tradition of oral epic poetry survived from Homer’s time until even a few months ago. Now, at this moment, the villages in which those poets lived are rubble and mass graves.

From Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, and from Ireland to Japan, the forests fall and subdivisions replace them. The homes of the gods are supplanted by the houses and garages of human beings. It is hard work, this eviction of the gods and of all the cultures that acknowledge their existence. We keep at it even so.

The Haida poet Skaay refers to human beings as xhaaydla xitiit ghidaay: ‘plain, ordinary surface birds.’ Creatures with more power – killer whales, loons, grebes, sea lions, seals – know how to dive. They pierce the surface, the xhaaydla it is called in Haida. If we go with them – if, that is, we are invited to go with them – we enter the world of the myths. We come back speaking poetry.

Two thousand kilometres south of the country of the poet Skaay, in the Ruby Mountains, the country of the Paiute, now part of the state of Nevada, there are pines of the species Pinus aristata, bristlecone pines. These trees live longer than any other creatures on the earth. The oldest individuals – not much taller than I am – are 5000 years of age or more. A few years ago, a person who called himself a scientist found in these mountains a pine that might, he thought, be the oldest of all. He cut it down to count its rings. He killed what may indeed have been the oldest living being in the world, to convert it into a statistic. Then he published his report, without the least apology, in a scientific journal.¹

This is not science. It is one more thoughtless manifestation of the conquest, one more step in reducing the world to human terms.

The American novelist William Faulkner, when he received the Nobel Prize, concluded his address, by saying, ‘Mankind will not only survive, he will prevail.’ I am an admirer of Faulkner, but I think that his prediction is logically impossible. I think that if humanity survives, it can only be because it does not prevail, and that if we insist, like Ozymandias, on prevailing, we will surely not survive.

I have been listening to the world for barely half a century. I do not have the wisdom even of a young tree of an ordinary kind. Nevertheless, I have been listening– with eyes, ears, mind, feet, fingertips – and what I hear is poetry.

What does this poetry say? It says that what-is is: that the real is real, and that it is alive. It speaks the grammar of being. It sings the polyphonic structure of meaning itself.

In the great ceiling of the Sistine Chapel there are readers rather than writers. The prophets and sibyls scrutinize their folios and scrolls. Nothing is written there that we can read. The great pages in their laps and in their hands reflect what happens as if they were mirrors. In front of these blank mirrors the blind prophets are listening. There is only one writer, Jehosaphat the scribe, tucked away in the corner with his scrap of paper, listening to those who really listen.

The theme of the ceiling is the poetry of the world, not the glory of the poet. It is true that the face of Michelangelo is there in the midst of the chapel’s big back wall. It is rendered, this self-portrait, as a face still attached to a human hide freshly peeled from someone else’s living body. The sculptor is subsumed in his own tale. The listener listens to himself. In the midst of his own vision, the visionary can be seen. But he is peeled. In the midst of that most sculptural of paintings, the image of the sculptor is reduced to two dimensions.

When I was a youngster in school, someone asked me, ‘If a tree falls in the forest with no-one there to hear it, does it make a sound or not?’ The question is demented. If a tree falls in the forest, all the other trees are there to hear it. But if a man cuts down the forest and then cries that he had no food, no firewood, no shade, and that his mind can get no traction, who is going to hear him?

Poetry is the language of being: the breath, the voice, the song, the speech of being. It does not need us. We are the ones in need of it. If we haven’t learned to hear it, we will also never speak it.

Robert Montgomery: Leogang poem, Austrian Alps, 2015, Light installation (photo: Mik Freud)
Robert Montgomery: Leogang poem, Austrian Alps, 2015, Light installation (photo: Mik Freud)

Beings eat one another. This is the fundamental business of the world. It is the whole, not any of its parts, that must prevail, and this whole is always changing. There is no indispensable species, and no indispensable culture. Especially not a culture that dreams of eating without being eaten, and that offers the gods not even the guts or the crumbs.

When he sees his own people destroying the world, what is the poet to say? Stop? Or more politely, Please stop, please?

All the poets of all times can only say one thing. They can say that what-is is. When he sees his people destroying the world, the poet can say, ‘We’re destroying the world.’ He can say it in narrative or lyric or dramatic or meditative form, tragic or ironic form, short form or long form, in verse or prose. But he cannot lie, as a poet, and offer himself as the saviour. He can believe or not believe that salvation is possible. He can believe in one God or in many gods or in none. He can believe or not believe in belief. But he cannot finally say anything more than the world has told him.

When he sees that, in absolute terms, we human beings are now too numerous –in addition to the fact that we seem too powerful as a species – what is the poet going to do? Pull a trigger? Sing a song of praise to Herod or to Hitler? It is hard to say it to other humans, and humans of course, are loathe to believe it, but this is the fact: humans beings have built a world in which humans need to die more and faster then they do. Yet even in this condition, murder is not the answer.

Long ago, in a book of poems protesting the war in Vietnam, I read a simple statement that stays with me. I have not in thirty years been able to find the book again, and I am told that the lines I remember are really quoted from a speech by Martin Luther King. I remember seeing them in a poem, but perhaps the book in which I saw them was published only in my dreams. The lines as I remember them, in any case, are these:

When one is guided by conscience only,
there is no other side
to which one can cross.

There is no other earth to cross to either. There are no new worlds. Paradise will not be our asylum, and our hell will not be anywhere other than here. The world is one, at the same time that it is plural, inherently plural, like the mind. The proof of this plurality is the persistence of poetry in our time. It is extraordinary but true, in the present day, that poetry survives in the voices of humans, just as it does in the voices of all the other species in the world.

 

¹ The first-person account of this event is in Donald R. Currey, ‘An Ancient Bristlecone Pine Stand in Eastern Nevada’, Ecology 46.4 (Durham, North Carolina, 1965): 564-6. Galen Rowell retrells the story well in High and Wild (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1979): 99-105.

Images: Robert Montgomery

Robert Montgomery follows a tradition of conceptual art and stands out by bringing a poetic voice to the discourse of text art. Montgomery creates billboard poems, light pieces, fire poems, woodcuts and watercolours. He was the British artist selected for Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012, the first biennale in India. Montgomery has had solo exhibitions at venues in Europe and in Asia, including major outdoor light installations on the site of the old US Air Force base at Tempelhof. The first monograph of his work was published by Distanz, Berlin in 2015. robertmontgomery.org

You can find more where this came from in our latest book.

Dark Mountain Issue 10: Uncivilised Poetics

The Cracked Urn

What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
– John Keats, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’

When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by people who are not afraid to be insecure
– Rudolf Bahro

There’s something dishevelled and unsettling about poetry. In 2016, at a time of escalating global violence and uncertainty, poetry might seem irrelevant. What’s the point of poetry when the streets of Syria have been bombed beyond recognition? What’s the point of poetry when the permafrost is melting? But poetry matters because it offers an alternative reality – it refuses the logical, reductionist, materialist aspects of industrial culture; aslant, it invites us to feel our way in the dark. And most importantly, it matters because it often fails. Poetry often fails to speak universally, but succeeds in trying over and over again to speak. Poetry is a shabby, uncivilised failure that we badly need in these unravelling times; if for no other reason than as a mirror for our human imperfection.

American poet Adrienne Rich, in her anthology Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (2001), asks ‘what kind of voice is breaking silence and what kind of silence is being broken?’ In this tenth Dark Mountain anthology, our second themed publication, myriad voices continue to break silence on the crumbling narratives of our time: ecological, social and cultural. Many ask what it means to experience a felt sense of the world, when the lives we inhabit are defined by the ‘self-congratulatory self-promotion of capitalism’, gasping against a backdrop of resource depletion. With our centuries-long reliance on logocentric thinking and being in the world, how do we feel our way to an understanding of what it means to be human today? Poems, resilient and germinal as they are, can forge a path into these questions.

It’s true that we don’t have to read poems to discover poetry, since it can be found just about anywhere. Poetry isn’t necessarily language or the construction of carefully crafted syntax and rhythm. Poetry can be found in the silence, the spontaneous images and realisations that emerge from a creative contemplation of the world: poetry as awareness or revelation, from which we gain new insight into ways of seeing and being in the world. But poems are always striving to reveal their poetry and the more poems we read, the more chance we have of discovering some. It’s precisely this chance that Uncivilised Poetics is inviting readers to take. This is an anthology of poems, essays, visual art and an audio CD, which urges us, at a time of converging crises, to reimagine ourselves and the world in which we live. As American poet William Stafford suggests, ‘it is important that awake people be awake.’

Robert Bringhurst writes about the survival of poetry depending ‘to a degree, on the failure of language’; that is, on the failure of language to try to pin down or co-opt poetry. Unlike many things in the 21st century, poetry (as distinct from poems) cannot be bought or sold, locked up or put on display. If there’s one thing that remains free of the tentacles of capitalism, free in fact from any system or ideology or marketplace, it’s poetry. Not anthologies of poetry – not even this one, uncivilised as it may be – but poetry that equates to an imaginal shift, that moment of awareness or revelation, which Margaret Atwood calls a ‘state of free float’.

In 2016, it’s true that poems, like most things in our materialist culture, have become business. Not just in the sense that publishers can make money – albeit little – out of successful poets, but in the way in which poets may be tempted to slip more and more towards a kind of formulaic writing; to produce poems which tick all the right boxes in terms of scansion, syntax and poetic strategy. These days there’s often praise for the sonnet that doesn’t put a single foot wrong, or the esoteric, perhaps hyper-intellectual poem, which only a small coterie can relate to. Not that there’s anything wrong with crafting poems – hyper-intellectual or not; the problem is the misperception that the business-like attainment of poetic craft equates to the production of poetry. Federico García Lorca suggested that ‘ability is not important, nor technique, nor skill. What matters here is something other.’ Technique and skill aside, it’s true that without that something other, poems remain at the level of linguistic foreplay, clever Homo sapiens’ system construction, the bones of something with no wind blowing through it.

Perhaps, in order to participate in poetry, we must open ourselves – writers and readers alike – and realise that poetry is accessible and alive to anyone who waits patiently, listens attentively and responds. Even the simplest poem– such as Najat Abdul Samad’s ‘If’– can uncover poetry; can, as Lorca suggested, have that ‘something other’. Reading and writing poems is a way towards discovering poetry, if we remain open, perhaps even vulnerable, in the face of poetry’s power and integrity. It isn’t that poets should stop writing poems – on the contrary – but that we come to recognise ourselves as immersive participants, writing with dirt under our fingernails, instead of as ‘poets-to-be-watched’ in a world that, frankly, has very little to do with poetry at all.

In recognition of the fact that human beings have failed to understand the axiomatic truth that we inhabit this Earth alongside other beings, we have chosen to place interrelationship at the heart of this anthology. Uncivilised Poetics is woven together to highlight the essential, relational nature of co-existence. Both written and spoken work is gathered to reflect (on) the relationship between species; between genres; between oral and literate, and between logos and mythos. In a culture which encourages the idea that humans are separate and ‘apart from’ other beings, and which reinforces an individualistic perception of being, it feels necessary, even urgent, to counter this with the reality of interrelationship. In keeping with this, we’ve chosen to honour and celebrate the original languages in which the poems were written: there are inclusions here in Mexican Spanish, Japanese, Swedish and Arabic, alongside their translated counterparts.

The Uncivilised Poetics CD is the first audio release made to complement a Dark Mountain publication. It includes a mix of well-known poems, accompanied by music and soundings (Robin Robertson; Mairi Campbell reading George Mackay Brown); fiery new poems by Francesca Beard and Mark Rylance; bioacoustics by Bernie Krause, and a sound recording by Peter Cowdrey. The audio component of Uncivilised Poetics is intended to celebrate the necessity and potency of oral poetry – not just as a reminder of poetry’s origins, but of its performative nature, a form that connects us, amongst other things, to land, myth and dreamtime. Poetry needs to be heard as much as read.

Why ‘poetics’? Traditionally, the word refers to the analysis of poetic syntax and form, linguistic techniques. But there’s an elasticity in the term that allows it to encompass both poems and poetry, and therefore both poems and other artforms. Poetics feels like an exploration rather than a presentation of creative work; there are open-ended questions inherent in its making, rather than a fait accompli assertion that here be poetry. Uncivilised Poetics because modernity and its colossal ideas are collapsing. The urn has cracked. The work gathered here explores what happens in the gaps, what shape the shards, when the world as we know it fails. A kind of kintsukuroi in book/CD form – that careful Japanese art of building a new pot from its broken predecessor; not patching back together, but moving beyond original form to one which embraces flaws, even sees beauty in imperfection.

It’s possible to arrange the work in Uncivilised Poetics into different categories: ecological poetry; socially-engaged narratives; artistic explorations into the relationship between land and body, human and animal; contemplation of the spiritual and ineffable; ecofeminist calls to act; philosophies of ‘the real story’– and none of this would be necessarily incorrect. We could talk about the way in which the contemporary nature poet is turning her attention to an ever more rapidly diminishing natural world in today’s technological, consumer capitalist era (Susan Richardson); or the way in which we have lost touch with the oral poem and its shamanic origins (Daniel Nakanishi-Chalwin). And we could talk about the radical importance of guerilla poetry in the cities (Audrey Dimola) and the mountains (Robert Montgomery). But sometimes such analysis and categorisation seem to lead us away from an appreciation of poetry, no matter what artform it arises in, towards a troublesome pinning down, explaining and controlling –precisely the opposite of what poetry is in the first place. As Bringhurst suggests, it feels like ‘one more step in reducing the world to human terms.’

Essentially, Uncivilised Poetics is a holding vessel for multiple voices, well-known and new, human and nonhuman, trying at a time of global suffering and loss, to honestly express what is. ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ but that isn’t all we know on Earth and it isn’t necessarily all we need to know.

The Editors, August 2016

Cover design by Nick Hayes
Crayon
‘I was given two poems to work from for this front cover, each telling a story of the importance of poetics in the wake of a devastated environment. I wanted to draw an image of time passing, the sun and the moon, the cold spring and warm autumn colours, and give an idea of nature flourishing through the ruins of civilisation. The image of the two silhouetted characters is meant to suggest the function of storytelling, providing a line of communication through past time. And the severed statue head and the Greek urn were references to Shelley and Keats respectively, and their words on poetics and the fall of civilisations.’

Text from ‘A Ritual to Read to Each Other’ by William Stafford.

Nick Hayes is a writer and illustrator living in East London. He has published two graphic novels with Penguin Random house: The Rime of the Modern Mariner and Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads. The third book, Cormorance, will be out this autumn. His website is foghornhayes.com, and Instagram is #nickhayesillustration

You can find more where this came from in our latest book.

It is Time to Kiss the Earth Again

We can never recover an old vision, once it has been supplanted. But what we can do is to discover a new vision in harmony with the memories of old, far-off, far, far-off experience that lie within us.
— D.H. Lawrence

All things are full of gods.
— Thales

One existence, one music, one organism, one life, one God: star-fire and rock-strength, the sea’s cold flow
And man’s dark soul.
— Robinson Jeffers

For the last three decades, anarcho-primitivism, a particular subculture that developed out of the anarchist community in the American Northwest in the 1980s and ’90s,  has been the dominant form of anti-civilisation critique. During this period, the crisis of techno-industrial society has intensified to previously unimaginable levels. For those of us who are enemies of civilisation, we are sure of the problem but the solution is less clear. Many anarcho-primitivists have adopted the tactics of other anarchists; property destruction, sabotage, tree-sits, vandalism, and other form of direct action. The underlying idea that motivates these actions is that they will eventually cause people to ‘wake up’ and recognise the oppressive nature of civilisation. As such, anarcho-primitivism orients itself as an essentially political movement. In this essay I will argue that the critique of civilisation must be liberated from all politics and reframed solidly within the context of religion and spirituality, that primitivism must part ways with anarchism.

While certainly acknowledging its impact on the natural world, anarcho-primitivism tends to emphasise the ways in which civilisation is harmful to humanity: alienation, poverty, depression, mass shootings. Hunter-gatherer society is held up as a ideal of perfect human happiness and equality while all forms of social injustice are linked to civilisation. Civilisation, in other words, is essentially presented as a social problem. It is conceptualised as a particular form of social organisation that has produced a number of undesirable circumstances. In this regard, anarcho-primitivism is no different from socialism or any of the other post enlightenment social philosophies that present a vision of society without suffering. Its critique of civilisation is based on what is best for humanity.

This is a problem because at the root of the civilised consciousness is the idea that human beings are the most important thing in the universe. Thus, if anarcho-primitvists continue to focus their critique of civilisation on its harmful effects on humanity and continue to champion hunter gatherer society as an egalitarian paradise, they will ultimately be perpetuating the belief that what occurs among humanity is more important than anything else.

Is it true that in the absence of civilisation many humans would be healthier and happier than they are now? Probably, yes. The problem with this perspective is not that it values humanity but that it values humanity above all else. To remove the anarchist or political or social justice element from the critique of civilisation is not to say that the suffering of humans is unimportant. It simply puts that suffering into a larger, broader context. The suffering of a human is no more or less important than the suffering of a fly. Needless to say, as human beings, we will naturally experience the suffering of our family and friends more intensely than the suffering of a fly. This ultimately does not make it any more significant, however.

If we accept that the life of a fly or a speck of moss is as important as a human life, as I suspect most anarcho-primitivists do, we must also accept that we have left the realm of politics behind. In this context, the concerns of human society, the specific struggles of this particular group or that, are irrelevant. I love the earth more than I love humanity. At the core of this position is a fundamentally religious attitude that I believe primitivists should embrace.

Animism is the belief that all natural things — not made by humans — have souls: trees, ferns, grasses, rivers, mountains, pebbles as well as all creatures. Everything in the world is sacred and nothing more or less so than anything else. This understanding of sacredness is not dependent on any particular idea of god, it is simply the acknowledgement of the divinity in all things. And this divinity does not need to be substantiated or proven. As the ancient daoists understood, any attempt to say ‘what it is’ must be doomed to failure. The dao that can be named is not the dao. We, as creatures of civilisation, have been conditioned to accept nothing without precise definitions and convincing logic. This desire is the desire of the scientist, the engineer, the technician.  Likewise, the soul that can be named is not the soul. Any definition of this soul or divinity that exists within all things must necessarily be hopelessly limited by human consciousness and language. Though perhaps we can say, like the ancient Greeks, Romans, Hindus, Jews, Chinese, and others, that the concept of the soul or spirit is related to the breath. And, if we quiet the mind and listen carefully, we can perceive the breath of the rocks, the streams, the desert sands.

Historically, animism has been tied to particular places, specific mountains, specific rivers. There are as many different animisms as there are tribes and peoples. As such, any particular animism cannot be universal. The animism of one particular tribe of central American peoples cannot be the same as a particular community of Scandinavians or Mongols. In this regard, however, we can think of the zen koan: the finger can point to the moon’s location but the finger is not the moon. The finger matters little; the moon is really the thing. In other words, the particular animistic spirits of a particular community are merely the finger. We must look to the moon: the universal sacredness of the earth.

Until now, anarcho-primitivism has insisted on engaging in the realm of intellectual arguments. For all that critics of civilisation reject the social and cultural structures that dominate our lives, there is a strong tendency to tacitly accept certain civilised modes of thought, namely secularism and empiricism. In much anarcho-primitivist literature by seminal writers such as John Zerzan and Kevin Tucker, there is a clear commitment to demonstrating truth through the presentation of valid empirical evidence and persuasive logic. Appeals to reason are made. Arguments are constructed and deployed. Facts gathered by experts are cited ad nauseum. These are the master’s tools, civilised tools, and history is the graveyard of the ideologies that thought themselves immune to the influence of the tools and tactics they used.

Anarcho-primitivists seek to ‘make their case’ to those who do not reject civilisation.  People that embrace civilisation do so not because they don’t have ‘the facts’. One could present thousands of facts ‘proving’ the relative happiness and ease of hunter gatherer life and not a single person would be willing to abandon their current way of life or even concede that the critique of civilisation has merit.

Ultimately it does not matter what hunter gatherers did or did not do. It doesn’t matter which historical societies were authoritarian or cultivated crops. The critique of civilisation should not be based on arguments. The critique of civilisation should be made based on the belief in the spirits of the earth. Civilisation is not bad because it causes groups of humans to quibble amongst each other and suffer. Suffering is an inescapable part of life and need not be lamented. Civilisation is bad because it is a war against the gods.

In their fervour to convince others anarcho-primitivists become increasingly dogmatic. They rage against ‘leftists’, they argue about veganism, they debate the relative merits of immediate-return economies versus delayed-return economies, they become hopelessly bogged down in endless bickering concerning the morality of violence, they delight and despair alternately in the face of new abhorrent technologies. As such, the critique of civilisation is utterly solipsistic. And it is not merely that anarcho-primitivists tend to theorise endlessly without any attempt to apply praxis. The few actions that one does see, as we have said above, are meaningless and only symbolic in the broadest and most vague terms.

It is time to leave all of this behind. It does not matter what the philosophers say. It does not matter what the scientists say. We must accept that our beliefs are religious in nature and depend on faith.

It is time to reassert the nature-based spirituality of our collective human past. If the natural world is not sacred, then why should it matter? The only alternative is to say that the natural world is important because we depend on it for our own survival as a species. This is to say, as we have seen above, that humanity is really the thing we care about and nothing more: that the natural world is important to us only insofar as it serves our needs. Any argument for the inherent value of all natural things can only be made from spiritual grounds.

It is time to give up writing pseudo-scholarly books, essays, and articles, fighting cops, organising protests, destroying ATMS, and setting things on fire. These are the tactics of those who wish to improve human society for particular groups of humans. These are not actions that reflect the belief that natural life is sacred.

Humanity will not change its fate through action. Not through the actions of governments and companies, not through the actions of mass movements, and certainly not through the actions of a handful of disgruntled anarchists. Humanity’s fate is sealed. The world it has known for 10,000 years will not last. It is foolish and vain to try to predict the nature of its collapse or to picture the world that will follow. Will it be good? Will it be bad? It does not matter. It will occur and humanity will be forced to respond to it. Perhaps human society has a future in some other form. Perhaps humanity will be extinguished entirely.

The path has always been clear to those who choose to see. We must shun civilisation and the things of civilisation. In our hearts if not in the wild world itself, we must go into the forest and never come out. We must reunite our souls with the souls of the trees, the rocks, the streams, the dirt. We must meditate on our place in the cosmos. In doing so, we will not change the fate of this world but we will be, at last, true to our nature once again. The world of the Paleolithic hunter gatherers is gone for good. We cannot return to the past. But the gods that we once knew are still waiting for us in the wild places of the world. If we go to them, they will embrace us.

The Ik and the Old Way

Due to drought and disruption by national boundaries of the traditional cycle of movement, the Ik live in such a food- and water-scarce environment that there is absolutely no advantage to reciprocity and social sharing. The Ik, in consequence, display almost nothing of what could be called societal organization. They are so highly fragmented that most activities, especially subsistence, are pursued individually. Each Ik will spend days or weeks on his or her own, searching for food and water. Sharing is virtually nonexistent. Two siblings or other kin can live side-by-side, one dying of starvation and the other well nourished, without the latter giving the slightest assistance to the other. The family as a social unit has become dysfunctional. Even conjugal pairs don’t form a cooperative unit except for a few specific purposes. Their motivation for marriage or cohabitation is that one person can’t build a house alone. The members of a conjugal pair forage alone, and do not share food. Indeed, their foraging is so independent that if both members happen to be at their residence together it is by accident.

Each conjugal compound is stockaded against the others. Several compounds together form a village, but this is a largely meaningless occurrence. Villages have no political functions or organization, not even a central meeting place.

Children are minimally cared for by their mothers until age three, and then are put out to fend for themselves. This separation is absolute. By age three they are expected to find their own food and shelter, and those that survive do provide for themselves. Children band into age-sets for protection, since adults will steal a child’s food whenever possible. No food sharing occurs within an age-set. Groups of children will forage in agricultural fields, which scares off birds and baboons. This is often given as the reason for having children.

The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph A. Tainter

A people of northern Uganda, written about in the 1970s by anthropologist Colin Turnbull (The Mountain People). Wikipedia reveals that Turnbull’s methods and conclusions were later called into question: his study of the Ik was limited to a period of famine brought on by a two-year drought, and he over-relied on informants from a rival grouping.

Nevertheless, there is enough that’s credible in Tainter’s retelling of Turnbull’s findings to chill you to the marrow. Tainter’s point is that the Ik hadn’t always lived that way. Clan surnames and village cohabitation indicated a former level of social organisation that had collapsed – whether lost or abandoned.

It’s a familiar trope. Strip away the veneer of civilisation and what remains is the Hobbesian war-of-all-against-all. The dystopian destiny of The Road. There’s a Lord of the Flies in all of us, by this way of thinking. It’s simply who we are. Thank goodness we have the modern world to keep a cap on all that.

But maybe we’re not doing ourselves justice. The boys in Lord of the Flies are exemplary little mid-twentieth-century Brits, crudely replicating the hierarchies and violence of empire in which they’ve been schooled. The Road is peopled by survivors of a nuclear winter who also happen to be remnants of an arrogant, rapacious civilisation overrun with soulless weapons and machines. And the Ik who Turnbull encountered were in the midst of a holocaust, with no-one to nurse them back to health. In each case, victims-turned-malefactors, equipped for a hazardous new environment with the wrong skills and values – skills and values developed for their formerly complex, sick society.

The Kalahari Bushmen who in the 1950s were still living in what Elizabeth Marshall Thomas called ‘the Old Way’, clung to an apparently precarious existence on arid terrain among lethal predators. But they were not sick and there was no war of all against all. Theirs was an interdependent way of life, honed over hundreds of generations and tailored to the available environmental niche. A way of life which, if Marshall Thomas is right, long pre-dated humankind’s sideways step, via settlements and farming, into civilisation.

The Bushmen devoted much energy to establishing and maintaining harmonious relations, both locally and across a dispersed web of kith and kin. The necessities of life were shared, and there was a constant traffic of long-distance visits, facilitating the spread of news and the circulation of little gifts, handmade hairclips and the like. Qualities or advantages in an individual which might manifest as arrogance, or trigger envy, were downplayed. Discord was discouraged, with the whole community on hand to pacify and reassure disputants. Violence was rare. There were no stockades and no Lord of the Flies-style brutality. Children were not cast out to fend for themselves.

The Ju/wasi [Bushmen] were unfailingly good to their children. An infant would be nursed on demand and stay close to its mother, safe in the pouch of her cape, warm in cold weather, shaded in hot weather, complete with a wad of soft grass for a diaper. Ju/wa children very rarely cried, probably because they had little to cry about. No child was ever yelled at or slapped or physically punished, and few were even scolded. Most never heard a discouraging word until they were approaching adolescence, and even then the reprimand, if it really was a reprimand, was delivered in a soft voice. At least the tone was soft, even if the words weren’t always.

We are sometimes told that children who are treated so kindly become spoiled, but this is because those who hold that opinion have no idea how successful such measures can be. Free from frustration or anxiety, sunny and cooperative, and usually without close siblings as competitors, the Ju/wa children were every parent’s dream. No culture can ever have raised better, more intelligent, more likeable, more confident children.

The Old Way: A story of the first people by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Those confident, likeable, intelligent children grew into accomplished, collaborative, self-assure adults. But it’s gone now, the Old Way. The Bushmen were evicted from their ancestral lands to make way for pastoralists, farming settlements, and safari-style game reserves. They were thrust into the cash economy on its bottom rung, exposed to the ravages of extreme poverty just as they were struggling to accommodate complete cultural dislocation. Yet the Old Way, the memory of it, was their culture’s parting gift. An ancient code for living relatively peaceably, relatively in balance with nature, without the prop of modernity.

That capacity for harmonious living in challenging circumstances must be deeply rooted in all of us, beneath those more recent codes and values we rely on to function in this bewitching, troubled world. Amid relentless pressure to compete and consume, the rest be damned, we do still find ways to support and encourage one another, and nurture our habitat to boot. Perhaps the fate of the Ik, in their time of crisis, doesn’t have to be the only future that awaits.

Image by kind permission of James Suzman at Anthropos. See more of his Kalahari portraits at Things from the Bush. ‘The Holboom is a giant baobab tree estimated to be 4,500 years old. It lies near the village of Djokxoe in north-eastern Namibia. It feeds both the Ju/’hoansi [Ju/wasi] and elephants that devour its pods.’