The Eco Language Reader edited by Brenda Iijima
(Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs and Nightboat Books, Brooklyn/Callicoon, NY, 2010)
If Not Metamorphic by Brenda Iijima
(Ahsahta Press, Boise, ID, 2010)
As the parentheses that appear on the cover may suggest, The )((Eco (lang)(uage (Reader) is not interested in creating a predictable and staid academic niche. Instead of delineating an easily definable subject, the essays in Iijima’s collection disrupt and reconfigure the way we approach the categories of environment, nature, poetry and language. As Evelyn Reilly writes in her contribution, “in some ways ecopoetics is a correction, an amendment, a set of rejections” (Eco-Noise and the Flux of Lux”).
The origin of the nineteen essays in The Eco Language Reader lies with a panel hosted by Iijima and Reilly as part of the Segue Reading Series in 2006. The writers in the collection responded to a prompt that asked, among other things, “How can poetry engage with a global ecosystem under duress?” Given the wideness of the remit, Iijima’s collection appropriately cuts across a multitude of concerns. Tracie Morris’ “Aurora Afro-Americana,” for example, collapses the distinction between eco-politics and racial politics through a reading of lyrics by Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Meanwhile, in “Thinking Ecology in Fragments,” Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands uses Walter Benjamin’s dialectical theories to read the landscape and history of Cape Breton Highlands National Park. There is even a photo essay by Julie Patton that uses painted children’s blocks to challenge the way we think about the linguistic representation of nature.
If there is a tentativeness to many of these essays, that is to their credit. Most of the writers here are not experts in the field of ecology, but poets and critics looking to open up new ways of thinking about language and environment. Although some of the essays work towards a definition of ecopoetics, these definitions create a self-reflective practice, not a closed set of arguments. As Jill Magi writes in her essay, “Ecopoetics and the Adversarial Consciousness,” “There may be no need for the word ecopoetics. I would define ecopoetics as a practice aware of the context of its own terminology.”
Iijima’s own contribution to the collection, the unusually titled, “Metamorphic Morphology (with gushing igneous interlude) Meeting in Language: P as in Poetry, Poetry Rhetorical in Terms of Eco,” mirrors the diverse nature of the book as a whole, as it moves across varied terrains making unexpected connections. Among other things, Iijima touches on the work of numerous poets including Jennifer Scappettone and CAConrad, examines the pesticide poisoning of our water, and challenges conventional understandings of disability. This interrelating of seemingly disparate subjects serves to complicate and deepen our understanding of the issues at hand. As such, her method stands in conscious opposition to an “economic imperialism” where “Being is converted into abstractions of zeros and ones.” Outside of the narrow economic world, Iijima asserts that there is a “teeming microlevel that hasn’t been reaped for profit,” a microlevel that poetry with its attention to “language opening and interrelating” is positioned to explore.
Iijima’s essay and The Eco Language Reader as a whole serve as an engaging and useful companion to the work of many contemporary poets, whose push to explore the interrelations and transformations of our many environments functions as a form of ecological investigation. Certainly, the diverse, disruptive and explorative aesthetic presented in the Reader is mirrored by Iijima’s own work, as evidenced by her new collection, If Not Metamorphic.
The extraordinary title piece of Iijima’s new book resists the temptations of lyrical ease and comfort by turning statements into questions (and sometimes questions into statements). The preponderance of question marks produces a disruptive reading experience, where the reader is not allowed to find a comforting rhythm:
A soft, green, beautiful mountain?
The strangling, like anger?
One nude war? Kelp?
Illusionary? Encloses the neck?
There can’t be many poems that reference Kelp (a type of seaweed that is industrially harvested for its use in everything from ice-cream to shampoo) and that is partly why the question mark is so important. Iijima prevents the word from floating by, and asks us to stop and engage with it. We interrelate with Kelp, even if we don’t know it exists. Likewise, the question marks in Iijima’s poem invite us to participate in the poem and so remind us of our intertwined existence.
Elsewhere in Iijima’s collection, the mismatch between the world of “zeros and ones” and the “teeming microlevel” is made evident. In different parts of “Tertium Organum,” for example, environment is experienced as both the controlled office, “Self-aggrandizing grids and procedures/ Come into cubical for white light and carpet” and the organic intricacy of the wild, “So among the brook and hemlock outcroppings/ wildness hindered unhindered spiraling.” More often though, we encounter both worlds simultaneously in a collision of environments: “Spider dizzy with each cluster/How dense our politician eyes all natural obsolescence.”
In the final poem of her collection, “Panthering,” Iijima’s poetry achieves its maximum intensity, as can be seen by the opening lines:
—Torn when edges
Remora mound where body—
| Went was covered
In grassy expanse
We exchanged feline brains—
—A twin incarnate coat
| Changed into globe
to spin worlds |
These lines have a ferocious energy, which is accentuated by the dashes, italics and vertical lines. The “Thrashing disability” is here not experienced as an impediment, but as a transformative force, what Iijima describes in her essay as the body asserting itself “in a burgeoning dynamical interplay along a spectrum of possible logics.” This is the “possible logic” of becoming another animal, of breaking the bounds of human encasement.
“Panthering” is a fitting ending to a collection of unusual synchronicities and dizzying transformations. If Not Metamorphic is as far from polite nature poetry as the Eco Language Reader is from a stale textbook on poetry and the environment. Both books renew the idea that ecology is connection and metamorphosis and convince us that poetry too can be ecological. As Iijima writes in her essay, “language is involved, so are you.”
Harry Thorne's poems, essays and reviews have appeared in Chain, How2, The Indypendent, Octopus Magazine, and Textual Practice. His essay on Ted Berrigan's C Magazine can be found in Don't Ever Get Famous: Essays on New York Writing after the New York School edited by Daniel Kane and published by Dalkey Archive Press. He lives in Beacon, NY.