The Dark Mountain Blog

Storm of Progress

2016 has been a year of turbulence, change and revolt, especially in the West. Starting next week, we’re commissioning some familiar and not-so-familiar voices to reflect on the past twelve months, stepping outside the clamour of angry instant opinion to bring you a series of blog posts from the Dark Mountaintop. Watch this space!

In the meantime we bring you a bird’s eye view of progress, by Keith Helmuth.

622j52c
A year ago this past January
, under the light of the full moon, I looked from the window of a jetliner over a vast expanse of the Amazon watershed. I saw the large slowly winding main trunk of the great river gradually disappearing into the eastern horizon. Just ahead I saw the confluence of a large tributary that had begun its multi-stream course on the flanks of the northern Andes. Closer at hand, and just below, another major watercourse curled into view from under the body of the plane, and meandered for some distance on a northward course before also merging into the main body of the Amazon River.

I was not prepared for this view. I was transfixed for over an hour, taking in the slow rolling scene of the slow rolling rivers and the vast forest of this still largely intact upper basin region. I knew the route and had followed the flight path monitor closely on the overnight trip to Buenos Aries two weeks earlier. But two weeks earlier there had been cloud cover, no moonlight, and I was sitting on the side facing the Andes.

Looking far to the east I could see clusters of lights at points along the river bank signalling human settlements. Scanning closer as we came directly over the course of the river, I could also see smaller clusters of lights coming further up stream. A few lights were also dotted here and there on small tributaries now visible. These settlements rose up in my mind’s eye: A fishing village here, rubber tappers there, hunters, loggers, mineral prospectors, plant researchers, all with their diesel generators pushing like demons ever deeper into the biotic integrity of the land. Indigenous peoples, resource raiders, and bio-pirates all mixed up on the leading edge of the great storm of progress.

Then, the scene changed. Coming even with the great river, and looking to the land flowing north and east, I began to see rectangular outlines and distinctly different shadings in variegated blocks. Between them and through them ran arrow-straight lines of a much lighter hue: Roads through the forest, and whole tracts of forest gone.

I have seen a lot of clear-cut forestland close-up, but from 36,000 feet the vast scale of this destruction was stunning. When I was earlier looking down on forestland yet intact, I thought about the communities of life that are tucked into every nook and cranny of this region. Those of nocturnal habit would now be out. Later, with the sunrise, another group of residents, adapted differently, would employ their life skills to good effect. With clear cutting, this fabric of life is blasted, smashed to smithereens. With clear cutting, the storm of progress has truly mounted to hurricane force.

Lifting my eyes to gaze one last time over the whole panorama rolling out to the horizon, another story of this land came into view — fire. To the southeast I saw a few smudges of orange flame and hanging smoke. And then due east and to the north, more fires; some small, some very large, considering the distance at which I was seeing them. The refuse of the cleared forestland was being burned, releasing large amounts of carbon from long-term storage into the atmosphere.

Here was another feature of the storm of progress; firestorms burning up the rain forest, preparing the way for the beef industry and the soybean business. I slumped back in my seat and thought about Bruce Cockburn’s classic 1988 song, ‘If a Tree Falls’. Speaking specifically of rain forest clear cutting, he sings:

Green brain facing lobotomy
Climate control centre for the world
Ancient cord of coexistence
Hacked by parasitic greedhead scam –

Take out trees.
Take out wildlife at the rate of a species every single day.
Take out people who have lived with this for 100,000
years.

If a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?
If a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?

Does anybody hear the forest fall?

*


There is a kind of knowledge that comes to us as a fully rounded comprehens
ion of reality, a sense of overarching and underlying relationship that cannot be achieved by understanding an accumulation of details. Formed as we are within spheres of relationship, this knowledge is born of participation. We can call this knowledge the wisdom of the soul. Coming to this knowledge is not a matter of chronological age. It is a matter of a certain kind of experience of the world. And the earlier in life we come to this experience, the greater our chances of living within the order of the soul.

We can come to this kind of experience in delight and wonder. We can come to it in anger and agony. Wherever on this spectrum we come to this defining experience, its signal characteristic is communion – that merging of identity with the forms, presence, and process of the great world beyond the boundary of our skin and the reach of our mind. Cockburn’s song runs the gamut of this experience. Its presentation of vision and pain had long contributed to my image of what is happening to the great rainforest of the Amazon region and to many other forested areas of Earth.

Seeing the Amazon by moonlight has lodged an image in my mind that is among the strongest and most deeply imprinted experiences of my life. It resides in a zone of memory that comes into focus unbidden and with great frequency. It has become one of those constant images that connect.

To be so powerfully imprinted by a landscape from over six miles in the air, and at night, is hard to account for. It is a puzzle, but a puzzle with an answer. And the answer lies in the image, and in all the prior images and the stories they compose about this region of Earth that I have had the good fortune to encounter.

This unanticipated experience of the Amazon landscape by moonlight has enlarged my sense of communion and added to my knowledge of what it is that cannot be fully understood but, nevertheless, in our quest for guidance, must be communicated among us.

Author’s note: The irony of my story does not escape me. My experience of the Amazon was delivered while cradled in the wings of an agent of the storm of progress – an ozone-blasting jetliner. This is not a trip we ever imagined making, but when one of our sons married a woman from Buenos Aries, and a grand celebration with her family and friends was scheduled, we booked our flight. Such are the wonders of the storm of progress. Such is the story I have to offer.

Keith Helmuth has had careers in college teaching, library development, bookstore management, farming, and non-profit publishing. With his son Brendan, he is developing a small publishing company from their home in Woodstock, New Brunswick, Canada, which is focused on advancing a sense of place — the natural history and cultural heritage of the St. John River Valley. www.chapelstreeteditions.com

Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.

Remembrance for Lost Species: Why Do We Need To?

2016 has been a year of turbulence, change and revolt, especially in the West. In December we’re commissioning some familiar and not-so-familiar voices to reflect on the past twelve months, stepping outside the clamour of angry instant opinion to bring you a series of blog posts from the Dark Mountaintop. Watch this space!

In the meantime, we bring you news of this year’s Remembrance Day for Lost Species.

sarah_italy

30th 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

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’.

symbol1

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.

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.

Abi Nielsen is a Cotswold-born, Yorkshire-based artist with a penchant for improbable projects, and a very short attention span. Over the years she has worked with refugees and asylum seekers, both adults and children, and started a community garden on an inner city plot which wasn’t really hers (motto: ‘It is easier to ask forgiveness than permission’ – it worked).

Chats with Dougald Hine and Iona Hine drew her into Dark Mountain; she teamed up with Warren Draper and Rachel Horne to help produce The Telling– another ‘do first, ask later’ kind of project – and with Jon Nielsen to start monthly Dark Mountain conversations in Sheffield (Dark Mountain Thing). She often works with storytellers to produce artwork of all kinds to accompany events, and is a self-taught embroiderer.

Images from top to bottom: Sarah Smout, Thylacine, Extinction Symbol, Tim Ralphs

Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.

Poems of Genesis and Degeneration

2016 has been a year of turbulence, change and revolt, especially in the West. In December we’re commissioning some familiar and not-so-familiar voices to reflect on the past twelve months, stepping outside the clamour of angry instant opinion to bring you a series of blog posts from the Dark Mountaintop. Watch this space!

In the meantime, we publish two poems by cultural critic and author John David Ebert, from his forthcoming collection ‘These Things We No Longer Are’.

14469453_10210328154149233_2213092708057460147_n


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.

John David Ebert is a cultural critic and author of nineteen books of cultural criticism, including Art After Metaphysics, The New Media Invasion and The Age of Catastrophe.

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.’

Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.

Somewhere

2016 has been a year of turbulence, change and revolt, especially in the West. In December we’re commissioning some familiar and not-so-familiar voices to reflect on the past twelve months, stepping outside the clamour of angry instant opinion to bring you a series of blog posts from the Dark Mountaintop. Watch this space!

In the meantime, we publish a beautiful reflective piece from a new contributor, Mike Freeman.

rsz_2img_0300
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.

Mike Freeman is a full-time parent in New England (USA) and the author of the memoir Neither Mountain Nor River and Drifting: Two Weeks On the Hudson, a river narrative exploring the cultural and ecological frictions currently causing global unrest.

Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.

Things Fall Apart

13902565_1412549175425707_5300139546832389840_n

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.’

The General Assembly are a band from Melbourne, Australia. Their first EP, ‘Dark Mountain Music’, was released in September 2010. Their debut album is coming out soon. 

Image by Sam Irving Photography

Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.

The Details: an interview with Jan Zwicky

We’re delighted to announce the launch of our latest book, Dark Mountain Issue 10: Uncivilised Poetics – a beautiful hardback volume of essays, poems, artwork and interviews, accompanied by an audio CD. You can order it for £15.99 from our online shop, or for a special rate of £9.99 if you take out a subscription to future issues of Dark Mountain.

In the last couple of weeks, we’ve been sharing a tantalising selection of what you’ll find in its pages. For our sixth and last installment we bring you Jay Ruzesky in conversation with Jan Zwicky, with an image from the Drunken Poet’s Project by Andy Knowlton.

Andy Knowlton: Drunken Poet's Project

Andy Knowlton: Drunken Poet’s Project

 

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

Jay Ruzesky is a poet and fiction writer whose most recent book is a work of creative non-fiction called In Antarctica: An Amundsen Pilgrimage (Nightwood 2013). He is on the editorial board of The Malahat Review where he has edited special issues on environmental writing (The Green Imagination Issue) and on the work of poet P.K. Page. He teaches at Vancouver Island University. wordpress.viu.ca/ruzeskyj/

 —

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…

You can buy a copy of  Issue 10: Uncivilised Poeticsfor £15.99 from our online shop, or for a special rate of £9.99 if you take out a subscription to future issues of Dark Mountain. With poems, essays, visual art and an accompanying audio CD, contributors include Sheryl St. Germain, Mark Rylance, Robert Montgomery, John Kinsella, Susan Richardson, Robert Bringhurst, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Caroline Dear, John Haines, Bernie Krause, Robin Robertson, Alberto Blanco, Mourid Barghouti and Robert Hass.

Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.

Seven Circles in the Book of Sharks

We’re delighted to announce the launch of our latest book, Dark Mountain Issue 10: Uncivilised Poetics – a beautiful hardback volume of essays, poems, artwork and interviews, accompanied by an audio CD. You can order it for £15.99 from our online shop, or for a special rate of £9.99 if you take out a subscription to future issues of Dark Mountain.

In the last couple of weeks, we’ve been sharing a tantalising selection of what you’ll find in its pages. For our fifth installment we bring you a poem by Rob Carney, with artwork by Kate Walters.

Kate Walters: Creature Carrying Humans

Kate Walters: Creature Carrying Humans


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

Rob Carney is originally from Washington state in the northwest corner of the USA. He is the author of four books of poems, most recently 88 Maps (Lost Horse Press, 2015). His work has appeared in dozens of journals, as well as Flash Fiction Forward (W.W. Norton, 2006). He is a regular contributor to the online journal Terrain: A Journal of the Built and Natural Environments, where his poems and features are archived at http://www.terrain.org/tag/rob-carney/. He is a Professor of English at Utah Valley University and lives in Salt Lake City.

There’s more where that came from…

You can buy a copy of  Issue 10: Uncivilised Poeticsfor £15.99 from our online shop, or for a special rate of £9.99 if you take out a subscription to future issues of Dark Mountain. With poems, essays, visual art and an accompanying audio CD, contributors include Sheryl St. Germain, Mark Rylance, Robert Montgomery, John Kinsella, Susan Richardson, Robert Bringhurst, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Caroline Dear, John Haines, Bernie Krause, Robin Robertson, Jan Zwicky, Alberto Blanco, Mourid Barghouti and Robert Hass.

Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.

No More Words for Snow

We’re delighted to announce the launch of our latest book, Dark Mountain Issue 10: Uncivilised Poetics – a beautiful hardback volume of essays, poems, artwork and interviews, accompanied by an audio CD. You can order it for £15.99 from our online shop, or for a special rate of £9.99 if you take out a subscription to future issues of Dark Mountain.

In the last couple of weeks, we’ve been sharing a tantalising selection of what you’ll find in its pages. For our fourth installment we bring you an essay by Nancy Campbell.

c-1-nancy-c_greenland-3-img_2864

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.

 —

Nancy Campbell is a writer and book artist whose work responds to cultural and climate change in polar and marine environments. Nancy’s publications include How To Say I Love You In Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet (winner of a Birgit Skiöld Award) and the poetry collection Disko Bay, shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2016. She is currently touring The Polar Tombola, a live literature project documenting the relationship between endangered languages and landscapes. nancycampbell.co.uk

There’s more where that came from…

You can buy a copy of  Issue 10: Uncivilised Poeticsfor £15.99 from our online shop, or for a special rate of £9.99 if you take out a subscription to future issues of Dark Mountain. With poems, essays, visual art and an accompanying audio CD, contributors include Sheryl St. Germain, Mark Rylance, Robert Montgomery, John Kinsella, Susan Richardson, Robert Bringhurst, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Caroline Dear, John Haines, Bernie Krause, Robin Robertson, Jan Zwicky, Alberto Blanco, Mourid Barghouti and Robert Hass.

Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.

Uncivilised Poetics: The Scythe and the Slaughterer

We’re delighted to announce the launch of our latest book, Dark Mountain Issue 10: Uncivilised Poetics – a beautiful hardback volume of essays, poems, artwork and interviews, accompanied by an audio CD. You can order it for £15.99 from our online shop, or for a special rate of £9.99 if you take out a subscription to future issues of Dark Mountain.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing a tantalising selection of what you’ll find in its pages. For our third installment we bring you poetry and prose from Emma Must and Vahni Capildeo, with artwork by Kit Boyd.

Kit Boyd: Another World

Kit Boyd: Another World


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.

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.

Formerly a campaigner on environment and development issues, Emma Must is currently completing a PhD in the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queens University, Belfast. She won the Templar Portfolio Award in 2014, and her debut poetry pamphlet, Notes on the Use of the Austrian Scythe, was published by Templar in 2015. In 2016, Emma was named as one of the Rising Generation of poets by Poetry Ireland Review.

Vahni Capildeo is a British Trinidadian writer who has published five books and two pamphlets, most recently Measures of Expatriation (Carcanet, 2016), which was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize and Forward Best Collection Prize, Simple Complex Shapes (Shearsman, 2015), and Utter (Peepal Tree, 2013). She is currently travelling and writing non-fiction and poetry on place and the boundaries between the human and the natural, thanks to the Harper-Wood Studentship (St. John’s College, Cambridge)

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.

There’s more where that came from…

You can buy a copy of  Issue 10: Uncivilised Poeticsfor £15.99 from our online shop, or for a special rate of £9.99 if you take out a subscription to future issues of Dark Mountain. With poems, essays, visual art and an accompanying audio CD, contributors include Sheryl St. Germain, Mark Rylance, Robert Montgomery, John Kinsella, Susan Richardson, Robert Bringhurst, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Caroline Dear, John Haines, Bernie Krause, Robin Robertson, Jan Zwicky, Alberto Blanco, Mourid Barghouti and Robert Hass.

Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.

The Persistence of Poetry and the Destruction of the World

We’re delighted to announce the launch of our latest book, Dark Mountain Issue 10: Uncivilised Poetics – a beautiful hardback volume of essays, poems, artwork and interviews, accompanied by an audio CD. You can order it for £15.99 from our online shop, or for a special rate of £9.99 if you take out a subscription to future issues of Dark Mountain.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing a tantalising selection of what you’ll find in its pages. Our second installment is an essay by Robert Bringhurst, with artwork by Robert Montgomery.

screenshot-2016-10-16-at-15-21-00

Robert Montgomery: Berlin Billboard 8

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.

Robert Bringhurst is a Canadian poet, typographer, cultural historian and translator. He has published over a dozen collections of poetry, and many books of prose. He lives in British Columbia.

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

There’s more where that came from… 

You can buy a copy of  Issue 10: Uncivilised Poeticsfor £15.99 from our online shop, or for a special rate of £9.99 if you take out a subscription to future issues of Dark Mountain. With poems, essays, visual art and an accompanying audio CD, contributors include Sheryl St. Germain, Mark Rylance, John Kinsella, Susan Richardson, Robert Alcock, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Caroline Dear, John Haines, Bernie Krause, Robin Robertson, Jan Zwicky, Alberto Blanco, Mourid Barghouti and Robert Hass.

Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.