This FEELed Note is the fourth in a series written by Natalie Rice, the FEELed Lab Researcher in/of/on Place this year.
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“Every time you step into the river you change it,” says artist Susan Derges who uses river and moonlight to expose images on photographic paper. During her creation process, she began to notice that many of her images printed with two streams of vertical water. She later realized these were the imprint of her feet as she stood above stream as the photo was developing. Alice Oswald says, “[the] poem isn’t always what happens in the poem, but the trace the words leave inside you as it vanishes.” In her lecture, “The Art of Erosion” she describes the kind of poetics that “[is] interested in the edge, where the mind gives up and matter begins to describe itself.” Just as an imprint of time becomes visible in a moon-exposed photograph, like Oswald, I am interested in a poetics that allows the wind, water, ground, sunlight, moonlight to fall into and across and through the poem. A poetics that “wears holes.”
Last month, I travelled around the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja peninsula with erosion in mind. The introduction of cattle, goats, bores, and other grazing species have led to a fragile and eroded landscape. The Sierra La Laguna Biosphere Reserve protects the most important hydrological reservoir in the area, and I spent many days walking the riverbed under palms, ocotillo blooming red, and circling vultures. I had recently listened to an audio recording of Norah Bowman reading her poem “Anti-Colonial Romance” and made a wind-transcription which was tattered and worn through. Many of the words were lost between the wind and a poor Wi-Fi signal.
It was there in the river—which would eventually run to the Pacific Ocean—that I experimented with another layer of erosion. I submerged the wind-transcription of Norah’s poem into the river and allowed it to be read for a few minutes, as I was afraid of losing pieces of paper downriver. “Speech gives itself so listeningly to its subject that it is dented by it or destroyed by it,” says Oswald. And it was.
The poem became worn, paused, eaten away. Afterwards, I placed the sheets of paper on a rock to dry and photographed them. There were sections that had been erased by the water. A few small parts came off entirely, but the words land and land back held together, just by their chance placement on the page and where the current was running. With every new layer of erosion, something was peeled away. Or, through each erosion process was the gap in which matter began to describe itself.
This brings me back to earlier thoughts on the power of anaphora or repetition such as in work by Juliana Spahr. In “On the House that Ecopoetics Builds: Juliana Spahr’s ‘eco’ frame,” Chrisholm says, “The refrain is her primary poetic device for de/framing the oikos/ house that we habitually inhabit, as well as for analysing the political and cultural make-up of the ecological and natural, and vice versa…” (pg 3-4.) The article suggests that by continuously arranging and rearranging phrases, Spahr actually “deranges” the poetic house she builds. “[Her sonnets] assemble figures of repetition in lines and lyrics that become asyntactical and arhythmical, and that compound meaning with metrical and semantic discord. In short, Spahr’s refrain deforms its content of expression with a framework of lyrical derangement” (pg 6.) Similarly, giving the same body of text over and over again to the earth feels like the poetic device of refrain. I’m curious to see how far this poem could be tumbled until it too becomes a lyric derangement. A gap (such as in the poems of Sappho) is as much the poem as the language is.
To be eroded is as much a destructive force as it is an opening for anything to enter: wind, granite, mineral, river-time, moonlight. Nature’s engagement with this text reminds us that nature is not like a book. It is the book. For the words land and land back to hold together in Norah Bowman’s text through the erosion process, gestures towards the ways in which land back can also enter.
Chrisholm, Dianne “On the House that Ecopoetics Builds: Juliana Spahr’s ‘eco’ frame.” Textual Practice, 17 December 2013. Pgs. 1-25.
“Susan Derges Lecture.” ICP Photographers Lecture Series: Susan Derges, 14 March 2012. https://www.icp.org/browse/archive/media/icp-photographers-lecture-series-susan-derges
“The Art of Erosion: Professor of Poetry, Alice Oswald.” The University of Oxford, 19 December 2019. https://podcasts.apple.com/ca/podcast/the-art-of-erosion/id1491471530?i=1000459928907