Remembrance for Lost Species: Why Do We Need To?

Thirtieth November is the international Remembrance Day for Lost Species.

Recently I was talking to a friend about an event in commemoration of species now extinct. She looked a bit puzzled. ‘Why?’ she asked. OK, that threw me. I’m not good at explaining stuff on the fly, and everyone else I’d spoken to had just ‘got it’, like a wake for lost species was a completely normal idea. I started talking about the importance of taking time to mourn, of the way society views extinction through the lens of science, but ignores the cultural importance of grief, and…  she interrupted me again, ‘Do we need to? I mean, they’re extinct, can’t we just move on?’

Do we need to? Earlier this year I saw Feral Theatre’s ‘Thylacine Tribute Cabaret‘ (Thylacine: Tasmanian Tiger; hunted to extinction by 1936). A phrase from that stuck in my mind like a tolling bell: ‘Nobody is alive now who knows what a Thylacine sounds like. The world will never hear its voice again.’ Do we really just shrug that off and keep going? We cannot change it, we cannot bring back species from extinction. Scientists are currently trying to clone the passenger pigeon, which was wiped out in 1914. They admit that even if they succeed, it will still only be a hybrid with a ‘normal’ pigeon, and DNA from one animal doesn’t make for sustainable genetic diversity. Surely a failure to acknowledge, or to mark the passing of such losses is just one more disconnect between ourselves and the world we inhabit? We are humans, we are animals. We berate our rich politicians for being out of touch with the lives of the majority, while we ourselves remain out of touch with the lives of the majority of animals on this planet.

thylacine-tasmanian-tiger
Thylacine, the last Tasmanian-tiger

If my sister dies of lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking, would I be ‘normal’ to shrug and say ‘She’s dead, so what? There’s nothing I can do.’ Or would society understand if I asked for a leave of absence from work to grieve, to organise a funeral and write an obituary, or if I suddenly developed an interest in campaigning for cancer research, or restricting government lobbying by tobacco firms? If we can see ourselves as part of the incredible variety of life on this planet, we unlock a sense of connection that enables us to see something as huge as extinction on a much more immediate scale. To truly comprehend that a voice has been forever silenced, not just that a tick box on Wikipedia has gone from ‘Critically Endangered’ to ‘Extinct’.

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Extinction symbol

30th November is a chance to reconnect ourselves to the turning of this planet; to learn about lost species and tell their stories, and to renew commitments to those remaining. It is about art — music, dance, song, stories, all of it — setting its light to fill out the stories that science shows us the bones of. To make it real, immediate, and something that touches all of us. This year, one such event takes place a week later, on 7th December (venue logistics care nothing for your dramatic timing), featuring three amazing artists who each have a strong cause to be drawn to the theme of engagement with nature, environment, and loss. Tim Ralphs, storyteller and interfaith minister, says that when we are faced with something as shocking, hard and seemingly inevitable as climate change or mass extinction, we first need to pause and sit with our fears, our grief, and acknowledge how we feel; to talk, to sing, to find the stories that help make sense of the world. Sarah Smout, poet, cellist, and singer-songwriter, adds: ‘While I can’t berate humans for advancing, intellectually and technologically, I feel that the ensuing disconnection from nature is at the very heart of our destruction to the planet.’ This is one of the things that spurred her to embark upon her ‘Polar Line’ project; a travelling, collaborating, writing project to the Arctic and beyond, to ‘sit in quiet, remote lagoons of thought, to feel the pulse of the land.’ To grieve. Nancy Kerr, singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, speaks of our collective need to sometimes just take the time to ‘have a good wallow’. Steeped in the folk tradition, she talks of how folk songs put a name and a human experience to the vast, complex and seemingly uncontrollable forces of war, death and loss.

Together they offer this evening as catharsis, as a connecting with hurt and grief to better understand and move through it. So that we can remain connected and still remain sane, so that we can engage instead of avoiding — and be left bigger by that engagement, not broken by its enormity.

Storyteller Tim Ralphs The Telling, Doncasater

If you are based in the North of England, an evening of Remembrance for Lost Species is at the Moor Theatre Delicatessen, Sheffield, on Wednesday 7th December. Tickets £9/12 available here. There is also a Facebook page here.

If you are based elsewhere in the world, we encourage you to join another remembrance event nearby, or start your own — have a look at the online map of events for 30th November 2016:

For further reading, Remembrance Day for Lost Species made the international press with this Guardian article published earlier this month.

Poems of Genesis and Degeneration

Civilisation begins in wonder and awe: the visions of the planets crawling across the ebony sky; the descent of gods from the heavens who came down to take up their dwellings at the tops of ziggurats; the building of the pyramids; the raising of the cathedrals, with their transformation of the metaphysics of light into the jewelled phenomenon of the precious stones of the New Jerusalem; in every single case, it is wonder that is the motivating principle that brings new civilisations into being.

But the vision that brings the civilisation into being, alas, is mortal and eventually dies out. As the inspiring Idea is depleted through the process of incarnating it repeatedly — in art, science, music, literature, etc. — the society loses touch with the vision, and ends by becoming a practical affair of engineering achievements and technological wonders. Hence, the movement from Zeus, Apollo and Athena to the degeneration of the Colosseum, the Roman aqueducts and the huge forums that function as technological supplements and replacements for the beauty and majesty of the early gods. And when that inspiration finally loses touch with the spark that set the initial flame, the flame sputters and dies out and it cannot be revived.

This was the informing vision of Oswald Spengler’s 1918 book The Decline of the West, which Spengler had inherited from Goethe who, before him had taken it from Vico, while Vico borrowed it from Hesiod.

I have structured the following division of poems in accordance with Oswald Spengler’s cultural cycle of the birth and death of civilisation, dividing the first half into ‘Poems of Genesis’ filled with a sense of wonder and awe at the mysteries of the world as a revelation unto itself. In the second half, ‘Poems of Degeneration’, the mystery is gone and technology has taken over, enframing and blasting the world with technological substitutes: in the first cycle, living forms, stars and atoms are made by gods which constitute a powerful revelation of their informing energies. In the second cycle, technology attempts to appropriate the powers of these gods by stealing their creative abilities and substituting them with analogues in the form of genetic engineering, splitting the atom and technical wastage of the planet.

The poems below are from the forthcoming collection These Things We No Longer Are.

 

Centaur

It was not possible
But one day they were digging
And they found the skeleton of a centaur.
In the hot dry dusty air,
They swept the dirt from the bones
Astonished as they examined the vertebrae
Which dissolved and fused with the backbone of a horse.

For a while they simply stood there
And no one knew what to say.
And the empty, scared faces of the archaeologists
Stared at one another, aghast.
But after a debate that lasted all afternoon,
They came to a resolution
And buried it again.

No one was ever allowed to speak of it
And they all agreed that it had somehow been a mistake
      of perception.

Meanwhile, the bones of the centaur slumbered beneath the dirt
And returned to the earth’s memory
Where it dreamed of an age of gods with legs like serpents
And men with the hooves of horses.

 

Palo Verde

It lay there upon the sand
A wreck from a vanished age
Rusted metal tubing and pipes
Massive chunks of curved concrete
Huge, fossilised, dreaming of another life

But in the desert where palm trees drank the hot sun
People lived in it: they built little houses made out of palm
Trees upon it and they crawled in and out of it
Finding decrepit metal chunks to be used for this or
…..That task
      They knew not what it was or what it had ever been
      For they had no memories of the glorious civilisation that had been there long, long ago.

But after a while some of them began developing sores on their skin
Hair falling out
Teeth loosening
Mysterious burns from some hidden invisible fire appearing on them

One day, some shaman among them said that he had had a dream:
Where they were living there was enormous power buried under the ground
Power that had once been harnessed to run entire cities
And that they must leave at once.
Evil magicians, he said, had cast a spell upon the place.
But nobody listened.

And, one by one, they all sickened and died.

Image by Mary Church.

Mary Church is an artist whose work is featured on the cover of the poetry collection entitled These Things We No Longer Are.

Somewhere

No need to rush. The sun wouldn’t set for a few hours and the farmers never mind how late we stay. It’s a Historic New England property, part of a constellation striving to do what we all do to varying degrees – embalm heavily-curated visions of the past. This farm has been operating on Narragansett Bay’s Conanicut Island since just after the Revolution, and today’s stewards tend sheep and cows roughly in line with that original family, internal combustion aside. Three days a week the public can wander all two-hundred some acres, most of it outcrop-spattered pasture running down to the bay. Our daughters adore it, as do we.

Shannon was five now, tall, still so wildly autistic that Karen and I ended a recent midnight conversation the only honest way we could:

‘It’s like we’ve healed a crippled wolverine,’ I said, ‘and are just waiting to see if she’ll stay.’

Anyone listening would have taken that as I would have with an outsider’s ear, but from the inside it only plunged our affections deeper. Beyond swimming we weren’t sure if we’d taught Shannon a thing, but for us she’d been a fountainhead.

Having sat on the sun-warmed stones, she was naked now, pitching shale nits to an ebbed tide. Here or elsewhere it wasn’t the first time I’d forgotten dry clothes, and when we reached the shore a half mile from the farmhouse I’d simply stripped her. At the very least, I knew, she’d wade, but with the windless day making the bay more lake than ocean she went right in, paddling up top and below, rubbing salt-soaked eyes. Once out, I sat a few yards behind her with the brine evaporating off each of us and a brace of herring gulls drifting close. Eyeing what she threw, they lilted out front like decoys before a blind.

It can’t be helped. People romanticise. We do it to everything. Past, present, future. Baseball, warfare, nationhood, love. Everything. This farm testifies to that penchant, our gift for breeding nostalgia with the future’s equally idyllic numina, all to heal a present in which we never seem settled. No matter how peaceful the age, no matter how self-satisfied the generation, a hunch shadows the human experience that in this moment – now, right now, across the world – a spiritual rot oozes from our failing morality. If we could only regain the past’s simplicity along with its accompanying rectitude we’d secure our children a spotless future.

I’m as susceptible as the rest. In witnessing the farmers’ earthy work here I succumb, envisioning what might be if we dropped it all for those scythes and shears. There aren’t many mechanical sounds on the acreage, just the occasional tractor huff outdoing the murmuring livestock, the katydids and orioles, the bobolink bustle over the hay. Whatever success, however, in preserving the past is equally attributable to absence – the sights and sounds memory purges. Slavery once poxed these islands, while the ships feeding it departed the bay in fleets, and if any one place could have tilted Native fate another way it’s Narragansett’s southern shores, where three-and-a-half centuries ago two blood-choked years fixed that compass.

Reflection, too, scrubs away life’s lesser dramas, those affecting us from the beginning. In imagining the farmers who worked this land, we only see their honest toil, not the attendant spectrum of untoward behaviour – the back-biting, the infidelities, the petty-intrigues, human life’s everyday grime. Homage, then, is quite a detergent, particularly when projected onto the coming age.

Children, of course, we romanticise most of all. Kids carnalise hope, spawning vision. At a glance Shan might squelch such dreamwork, but in time her primitive core radiates clarity.

As she does, she stood abruptly. She may have seen all she needed of splash patterns. The sun may have been too much, or the naval transport planes – groaning a few thousand feet above, performing near daily manoeuvres – might have finally disrupted her. Regardless, she erected herself, striding knee-deep back to the sea, putting one gull to sloppy-footed flight while the rest edged away. The flier turned, cupping a tight circle overhead, eliciting from Shan a delighted peel.

‘Bird,’ I said. ‘Bird,’ but if she understood or even heard there was no indication.

Wracked by a recent storm, knots of eel grass drew her next and she sloshed ashore, gathering a gnarled ball. Burying her face, she breathed deep then licked a green, ribbon-like blade. The assessment complete, she stepped forward, vaulting the grass ocean-ward, re-piquing the gulls. Whatever bacteria she picks up from such explorations doesn’t bother me, but I’ll never shake other worries. This bay, after all, birthed America’s industrial might, pumping in its heavy-metal postpartum across two centuries.

Toe-walking toward the woodline, Shannon stepped from rock to rock now, wind-milling her arms and torqueing her body as anyone with vestibular equilibrium wouldn’t. She looks like a courting crane at such times, but somehow rarely falls. The low tide had left pockets of aired-out blue mussels. Squatting, she plucked one like a mushroom, pressing it to her nostrils then slipping the oblong capsule in her mouth, swishing it from cheek to cheek before spitting. Out front, mid-bay, an inbound oil tanker cut toward Providence, the heavy August sun lighting blue water all around.

I stood, gathering Shannon’s clothes, her diaper, then followed. She’d gained the wooded trailhead, rooting around in last year’s leaves. Fondling an early walnut drop, she thumbed the green hull before tossing it, next making her naked way to pasture’s edge. Locked in forested shadow, I forgot how helpless my daughter really is, and as she fingered sun-plumped blackberries I let go. Somewhere, I thought, the Bible maybe, or deeper, down in our intuitive substrate, it must say ‘And a child did lead them.’ It must. From the canopy the season’s first cicada let loose its metallic whirr. Summer didn’t have long to go.

Things Fall Apart

The day Donald Trump wins the US presidential election, here’s a song from our friends The General Assembly.

‘This is not a single. It is a howl.’

 

Image by Sam Irving Photography

The Details

JR: You have said, ‘Philosophy is thinking in love with clarity.’ Can you tell me what poetry is?

JZ: Poetry is a big genus! Epic, formal verse, free verse, nursery rhymes, song lyrics to be distinguished, at least sometimes, from lyric poetry it’s a long list! Most poetry involves rhythmically structured or patterned language, but even that (or what I’m trying to point to with that) is not true of prose poetry, which attempts to evoke the mood or emotional tone of lyric poetry while avoiding what we might call a ‘singing’ line. Wittgenstein would tell you that poetry is a ‘family resemblance’ concept: everyone in the family is related, somehow, but there’s no single trait that every family member shares. (Cousin George looks like Grandad Atwater, and Maisie looks like Bill, but none of ’em looks like anybody else.)

Within that family, one of the members, lyric poetry, interests me a lot. And if it’s OK to shift the focus a little, I can try to say something about lyric thought and expression (whatever the medium).

The word ‘lyric’ in English comes from the Greek word for lyre and so its lineage involves music. Music clearly means, but it doesn’t mean the same way that language does. Music’s meaning is a function of resonance and resonance involves a kind of integrity. Think of a chord. The chord is what it is because of the multiple resonant relations that its individual tones have to one another. If you remove one of the tones, or alter it just slightly like turning an E natural into an E flat you fundamentally change the nature of the whole. A perfectly tuned chord, we might say, is coherent. And that, I think, is the basis of what we mean by lyric thought: it’s thinking in love with coherence. It seeks understanding by finding coherence, and it strives for coherence resonant integrity in expression.

So is lyric poetry a kind of poetry that’s literally musical sort of sing-song? Not exactly, or not always: for there are many things we describe as lyric that don’t have any aural component at all. Think about Vermeer. When you hear people saying ‘Vermeer’s paintings are lyric (which they often do) what could they mean?

I’m compressing the argument here, but this is my guess: we say Vermeer’s paintings (or Wittgenstein’s Tractatus) are lyric because every detail counts. Every thing in them is resonant, every aspect is attuned to at least some other aspects. In compositions where the degree of attunement among aspects is very high, there is no real distinction between details and centres; such compositions are, we might say, radically coherent. Lyric poetry is an attempt to express lyric thought or awareness in language, and it tries to use language in a way in which every detail is resonant.

This way of thinking about lyric poetry obviates another conception of ‘lyric’, familiar to lots of English students: the Romantic conception of lyric poetry poetry as quasi-confessional, poetry that exalts the individual ego. In the kind of radically coherent composition I’m interested in, you often don’t get a confessional stance or a preoccupation with the self: you get a preoccupation with the world. The self as inevitable player in the whole can be present; but it’s not the focus. It’s there often as a gesture of humility, an acknowledgement of a perspective on the whole, but reaching toward that whole nonetheless. Is the poem about the moon, or about the finger pointing to it? In the conception of lyric I’m interested in, it turns out almost always to be about the moon.

JR: So poetry opens possibility as opposed to the way language, in a ‘scientific’ or objective way does not?

JZ: Could we make another distinction here? Science itself, and the way many scientists think, is not always that different from lyric thought. So we really do need to use the word ‘scientific’ in scare quotes, as you do, when we’re setting up this contrast. When we use it this way, we’re referring to a picture of science one common in the media and in academic humanities departments. That picture sees science as a kind of thinking bound by rigid and simplistic canons of logic, aimed at exploiting and controlling the world. This is really, still, Francis Bacon’s mid-seventeenth century conception of science.

What is the relation between lyric thought and this Baconian picture of science? I don’t think lyric poetry is ‘subjective’ in a sense that contrasts with Baconian ‘objectivity’; it’s not (principally) aimed at voicing an unchallengeable, irreducibly personal view. But I do think that if you read a good lyric poem, you have to give yourself to ways of thinking that aren’t conditioned by the Baconian ideal. And that allows you to acknowledge that you do know things in a way that Baconian science doesn’t. Culturally, we try to control such knowing by marginalising things like lyric poetry and saying, ‘Oh, the arts are about imagination, and the imagination is for making things up. What they say isn’t true“; they’re not “objective”.’ It’s all politics, that talk. It’s a way to control ways of knowing that are inimical to a cultural alliance between capitalism and technology, which is part of the West’s inheritance from the Enlightenment. The imagination can but doesn’t always ‘make things up’; in fact, imagination which allows us to perceive likenesses and similarities is fundamental to knowing the way things are.

JR: When we think of ‘environmental literature’ there are at least two aesthetic modes we might have in mind. One is the kind of writing (poetry and ‘imaginative’ writing) that is called Literature, and the other is any writing at all about the environment. In the ‘literary’ mode, poetry seems the most common form of expression about environmental ideas.

JZ: Hm. So you’re saying we don’t find as much fiction that has nature as its primary focus as we do lyric poetry? You may be right. And there’s one reason that lyric poetry might be a common way of voicing our experience of the natural world. If every detail in a lyric poem manages to be in resonant relation to the whole, then the poem is a kind of ecology. This allows its structure to be enactive, to express awareness of some other ecology without distorting it. (Of course not every lyric poem is perfect! What matters is that it is a serious attempt at enactive expression; this is what it’s aiming at. So the gesture is not, at root, structurally hostile to what it is trying to say.)

You go down to the marsh, say there are the bull rushes, and there are the water striders, and there are the frogs’ eggs. And there are little downy seeds in the air and they land on the surface of the water as it is cooling. All these ‘details’ matter to how the marsh holds together, and when we are connected to the world, breathing with the world, how we know requires a medium of expression that doesn’t, in its own structural gestures, undercut our insight. The kind of knitting, the kind of coherence we experience in the marsh, and our experience of our relatedness to it, requires a non-Baconian form of expression to do it justice. On the other hand, if you think the world is a machine, then the best way to say that is with language that functions like a machine.

JR: In her review of Lyric Philosophy Phyllis Webb says,The lyric may have had its day. Why? Because of our difficulty in maintaining a coherent world view when our personal, private psyches are fractured and the world we view [is] appalling.

JZ: This is a counsel of despair. This is to say, it’s over so don’t try. No, it’s to say more – it’s over so you can’t try.

I revere Phyllis as a thinker and artist, and agree with her that it’s over; but I think there is much beauty in the world. Even in Western European human beings, even in the midst of barbaric suffering, in the camps, on the streets. And it’s overwhelmingly present in the rainforest, under the prairie sky, on the coast of Ellesmere Island, even as these ecosystems die. I understand why Phyllis says what she says, but I actually think it’s wrong not to respond to beauty with love, to refuse to see because of pain. The world, even under threat of cataclysmic human-induced change, is a lyric whole; and opening ourselves to perception of this can heal our culturally fractured psyches.

JR: You say, ‘It’s over.’ What is?

JZ: I think massive economic breakdown is coming soon. It’s happening independently but it will ride on the heels of environmental degradation. Sea levels are going to rise. That’s all it will take. But we also know that marine ecologies are unravelling at a staggering rate. We also know that global warming is already having serious effects on many biotas. Everywhere. We can’t save them with science. We can’t save them with this culture. This culture will pay the price with its death, and with the deaths of a lot of other cultures and beings, both human and non. My guess is that the cockroaches and the anaerobic bacteria are going to survive, along with the jellyfish. How much else? I don’t know.

JR: That seems like thinking that could scare people into inaction. What other choice is there?

JZ: But don’t we do people a disservice if we think they are what? too ill-equipped? too immature? to handle the truth? Death is coming to this culture and it’s the kind of death that’s going to be like a slow motion car accident after centuries of cultural drunk driving.

‘Do what you can!’ The idea of political activism is itself woven into the fabric of Enlightenment thought. Our culture is not a culture of acceptance, nor of adapting the self to the larger circumstances. It aims to adapt the circumstances to the desires of the self. This attitude is actually part of the problem. But are there alternatives in this culture? Yes, I think so. Our situation is in some ways similar to the Warring States period in China. Think of the way intellectuals and poets reacted then – they withdrew, and embraced poverty, in order to meditate on the natural world. And there are those striking observations of Thomas Merton. He talks (is it in Seven Storey Mountain?) about the sense that he has that somewhere a couple of dozen guys are praying and they’re holding the whole damn thing together. It’s an echo of the Hebrew notion of the Lamed-Vav Tzaddikim, the thirty-six just people. What we see in all these cases is a reaction that is essentially the reaction of prayer. And by that, I don’t mean ‘Let’s pray to God so God will make it alright.’ I mean deep, reflective, meditative immersion in and compassion for what is happening. A widening of the self. There is both an acceptance of responsibility and an acknowledgement of truth in that gesture.

It’s how lyric poetry can matter, if it’s authentic. Praising and mourning. The praise song and the elegy are two sides of the same coin and they are annealed. We speak elegies when the thing that naturally draws praise from us is gone. It is in this praising and mourning really experiencing what is, and what is happening that we begin the reconstructive work of changing the culture.

And, as part of this meditative work, we recycle, and we walk or take public transit, we don’t waste water, we don’t waste heat we try to act responsibly, that is, responsively toward the other beings with whom we cohabit. But we don’t try to ‘fix’ the world. We adapt our desires to what respectful and thoughtful living allows, and in this find joy. Real joy, not some puritanical satisfaction at having ‘done the right thing’. The self widens.

JR: I’d like to ask you about your assertion that the world is ‘real’ and is ‘out there’ independent of us. I wonder if the contention that the world is real and ‘other’ than us creates a bigger separation between people and the world. Isn’t part of the problem that we see ourselves as unnatural?

JZ: Well, you know, I think many of us are unnatural. (I include myself!) Elsewhere, I’ve connected this issue to the notion of wilderness. Wilderness, I think, exists in greater or lesser degrees wherever we allow communities of non-humans to shape us at least as much as or more than we shape them. This is what it is for a human to be ‘natural’. If you don’t pay attention to the clouds and the forest, let the things you do and want be conditioned by what they do and want, you have become, to a degree, ‘unnatural. When you become more responsive, you become more ‘natural’. It is also possible for a person in the midst of an intensely urban landscape to become attuned to the chrome and the glass and so become ‘natural’ there. But then there’s the question of the relation of the chrome and the glass to the non-human world

JR: We seem a little hopeless as a species these days. And yet we do go on. I was listening to Jean Vanier’s Massey Lectures and I picked up on a line I liked very much. He says, ‘The purpose of civilisation is to help us pretend that things are better than they are.’

Somehow we seem bent on seeing order in this chaos.

JZ: We have to define ‘civilisation’. If we mean ‘culture, it’s quite clear that not only human beings possess civilisation in that sense. It’s another word for ecology. When we think of human cultures, we sometimes think of stuff artistic and intellectual efflorescences, or more recently, in this culture, technological ones. But really culture is a way of being in the world, a set of dynamic relationships.

Clearly non-humans live in cultures too. Just spend half an hour paying attention to the world ‘out there’! It’s not chaos: it’s a succession.* Plants, animals (as well as human animals) interact, depend on, communicate and have relationships that are extended in time. The idea that only humans have culture is at the heart of an anthropocentric way of seeing. Maybe that is the quintessence of this culture: that it imagines non-humans live in a kind of chaos. This is deeply sad.

JR: That sheds new light on my question: does Nature speak or does Nature listen? Well, nature speaks, we just don’t get it.

JZ: But we get enough of it to know that communication is happening, which is why there can be real, deep, interspecific relationships. And we can get better at getting it. There are human cultures that are much more predisposed to ‘get’ more of it. Sustainable cultures. If you have the good fortune to be born into a sustainable human culture, chances are the natural world is speaking loudly and with complexity to you most of the time.

JR: Such a culture would hear the resonances!

JZ: Exactly, because the humans in it would be listening.

University of Victoria, 23rd May 2008

*a term in botanical ecology

Image:

Andy Knowlton
Drunken Poet’s Project

Found materials

‘The Drunken Poet dolls are small dolls that I make by hand from trash I find on the streets. Each doll holds a little bottle and inside of the bottle, I put an original poem. I leave the dolls on the streets for people to find and keep. It feels like I am making a personal gift for someone, and hopefully, when they find it, they feel something special. I want to take people’s minds off of their daily routines by surprising them with something unique. I have made over 300 dolls, and I leave them in different neighbourhoods all over Seoul, but I have also taken them to Japan, Taiwan and the United States.’

Andy Knowlton is a poet and mixed media artist based in Seoul, South Korea. After graduating from university, he wrote a novel and several short stories, but realising it was hard to get published decided to put his poetry in the public for people to read. He put his poems in coffee shops, inside the books at the bookstore, in the pockets of clothes at the clothing store, in the cracks in the wall, and, in the Drunken Poet’s Project, in small bottles held by dolls. andyknowlton.com

Jan Zwicky has published nine collections of poetry, including Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, Robinson’s Crossing and Forge. A new collection, The Long Walk, which deals directly with ecological cataclysm, is forthcoming in 2016. Her books of philosophy include Wisdom & Metaphor and Lyric Philosophy, recently reissued by Brush Education, as well as Alkibiades Love, published by McGill-Queens. Raised on the northwest corner of North America’s great central plain, she now lives on a small island off the west coast of Canada.

There’s more where that came from in our latest book.

Seven Circles in the Book of Sharks

The cousin of a shark is a manta ray;

and the cousin of a manta ray, a hawk;

and the cousin of a hawk is lightning, the ocean reborn,
returned skyward and alive with storm;

and the cousin of storms is a waterfall;
and the cousin of falling is the wind;

and the cousin of wind is erosion
leaving rock, the bones of the mountains, scattered;

and the cousin of the mountains is a row of teeth,
and another, and another behind;

and those teeth are the cousin of the manta ray,
lightning, the wind

*

In a story seldom remembered, sharks were ghosts
guarding the afterlife

since their rendered bodies had no skeletons,
just teeth.

The shock of that discovery
must have added new verses to songs

and widened the net of old omens,
but nobody knows. Those details

aren’t the details that lasted.
Only this: The dead

step out of their bodies, walk down
to the sea, swim out to the horizon.

For some, the passage is easy
a day, a night, a warm current there to guide them.

For others, the journey goes on and on
if they killed a bear, or left a wolf’s mate howling

and the water is cold as a shark’s eyes.
And then they see the fins.

*

Under the first full moon of summer,
they would carry bowls of water,

the light reflected on the surface making more,
a procession of moons moving forward.

In the centre of town was a rowboat
being filled one bowl at a time,

and this was the boat of anyone lost at sea,
gone without a burial.

Those in mourning floated candles and petals.
There may have been music on flute or strings,

but we don’t know; it’s a ritual fallen away,
and all we have left are the wives’ tales.

They say their empty bowls filled with quieter sorrow,
and with memories of the dead to carry home.

They say the boat would be gone come sunrise,
just the anchor there,

still as a headstone
by others from the years before.

*

We have one such anchor on display in the museum,
arrangements of fishhooks,

even spears tipped long ago with sharks’ teeth,
and figure, That’s that,

think the past
fits into our pockets.

We wander about
then buy a bar-code souvenir.

But the past is more like the wind behind us,
and the present more like a ship,

and the only pockets on a ship that matter
are the sails

*

and they’re wrong about the skeletons,
apart from the age of the bones,

bones buried deep but seated upright together,
all of them facing the sea

so the ancient world believed in guardian spirits
watching over the living,

and a salmon was placed with the deceased
to keep the spirit fed.

Fish bones wrapped in deerskin
were discovered in every grave

a plausible explanation, but it’s wrong.
The living were playing the part of angels,

guiding the dead to the edge of heaven,
seating them upright to find Forever in the waves.

But what about the salmon?
Well, that’s counterclockwise too:

The salmon were meant as an offering,
a present for the sharks,

a thank-you for taking our spirits
into their home.

*

Spearing a shark means seven days of work
that long to do the rendering

and all you get is a set of jaws and teeth,
some fragment to hang in a window

or look at over the fireplace
instead of at the fire.

I’ve heard there are monks somewhere
using human skulls as paperweights.

Not to keep old scrolls from rolling up,
or pages in place while they bind them,

but to bear in mind
we aren’t the measure of Creation. Just a part.

*

The edge of the sea is a teacher
so many bones:

all the shells and the sand dollars,
all the barnacles encrusted on the pier,

even wood
it used to stand upright in forests

even ash left behind in our fire pits
dug to keep warm, to boil water

and empty our crab pots
even steam rising up like the spirit of rivers,

joining clouds that drift above our graveyards,
and higher still

the moon keeps sailing through its phases,
all of them the colour of bone.

Artwork:

Kate Walters

Creature Carrying Humans
Monotype with oil bar and ink

During last winter I spent six weeks working on the Isle of Iona. The Bhagavad Gita was a constant companion, as were Rilke’s ‘Duino Elegies’. I was particularly inspired by what Rilke explores in the ‘Eighth Elegy’: animals always being in the womb of creation. In this picture the Creature carries us all, in all our stages of imperfection.

Kate Walters studied Fine Art in London, Brighton and Falmouth. She has exhibited in Jerwood Drawing and in many other national selected exhibitions and has taken part in several residencies, including the Isle of Iona (2015 – 6), the RCA (National Open Art Resident artist) and in 2017, the Isle of Shetland. Interested in sharing the phenomena which illuminate and inspire her, she’s given presentations at many UK and European Universities. As a curator, Kate recently brought together a group of artists working with the feminine paradigm called Drawing down the Feminine. Her work is inspired by many poets, especially Rilke, Raine, Mallarme and the raw physical poems of First Nations peoples. katewalters.co.uk

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