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Five Canadian Women Eco-Poets

By Camille Dungy

I’m in Canada right now at the biennial conference for Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE).  In honor of my host nation, I thought I’d write about a few Canadian women poets whose work I enjoy.

Since I’m at the ASLE conference, thinking about the intersection between poetry and discussions of human impact on the environment, I should start by talking about Di Brandt.  Brandt has been concerned about these issues for most of her career.  In a review of her collection Now You Care, Jeff Gundy of the Georgia Review writes, “Brandt roams this industrial landscape like a feminist environmentalist postmodern Apollinaire, one who finds beauty and destruction wherever she goes.”

One of my favorite poems in the collection reads as a transcription of that terrified and terror-inducing back seat driver most of us have had the eventful misfortune of sharing a car with at least once.  This poem ramps up to a frothy fear as it rolls along the border between Detroit and Windsor:

See how there’s no one going to Windsor,
only everyone coming from?
Maybe they’ve been evacuated,
maybe there’s nuclear war,
maybe when we get there we’ll be the only ones.
See all those trucks coming toward us,
why else would there be rush hour on the 401
on a Thursday at nine o’clock in the evening?
I counted 200 trucks and 300 cars
and that’s just since London.
See that strange light in the sky over Detroit,
see how dark it is over Windsor?
You know how people keep disappearing,
you know how organ thieves follow tourists
on the highway and grab them at night
on the motel turnoffs,
you know they’re staging those big highway accidents
to increase the number of organ donors?
My brother knew one of the guys paid to do it,
$100,000 for twenty bodies
but only if the livers were good.
See that car that’s been following us for the last hour,
see the pink glow of its headlights in the mirror?
That’s how you know.
Maybe we should turn around,
maybe we should duck so they can’t see us,
maybe it’s too late,
maybe we’re already dead,
maybe the war is over,
maybe we’re the only ones alive.

(Di Brant, from “Zone: <le Détroit>” in Now You Care)

This book is full of long, wonderful riffs.  The twelve section “Songs for a Divorce” is one of the most intriguing perspectives on the subject in awhile, and the twenty seven section “Heart” shifts between heartbreak and elation, covering most emotions in between. “Interspecies communication” is the most graceful poem about the collapse of the bee colonies I’ve come across thus far:

And then everything goes bee,
sun exploding into green,
the mad sky dive
through shards of diamond light,
earth veering left, then right,
then left, sweet scented,
the honing in,
the buzz,
the yes no dance,
the quantum leap into
open swoon of calendula,
yellow orange delphinium starflower,
ultraviolet milkweed forget-me-not,
caress of corolla carpel calyx….

(Di Brant, from “Interspecies Communication” in Now You Care)

I love how the language in this poem grows more complex as the ecosystem surrounding the bees appears.  At first the details of their “yes no dance” come easily off the tongue, but then we get to the “open swoon of calendula” and the “caress of corolla carpel calyx” and suddenly everything is more intricate than we had presumed it to be.

Equally applicable to this talk about women poets living in Canada and writing with an eye for the details of the natural world is Elise Partridge’s book Fielder’s Choice.  I’m struck by Partridge’s attention to the specific components of each of her subjects, which you can read in this online example of her recent work.

Rachel Rose’s Notes on Arrival and Departure has several poems I’ve come to enjoy revisiting.  One is “The New GRE,” riddled with Rose’s particular brand of sly wit and insight:

1. Write an essay on why the most popular TV channel during Christmas is the picture of the Yule log burning.

2.  North American adults replace their dining-room table on average as often as they replace their spouse—1.5 times in a lifetime.  Discuss….

7.  The average worker bee gathers a thimbleful of honey in her lifetime.  The most precious Persian carpets were a life’s work for the girls imprisoned their entire lives to hook a single carpet.

a) Express the value of the carpet in an inverse ratio to the value of the girls.

b) Calculate the weight of each girl to the nearest thimbleful of honey.

(Rachel Rose, from “The New GRE” in Notes on Arrival and Departure)

Throughout Notes on Arrival and Departure and Rose’s other book, Giving My Body To Science, you’ll find Rose’s mixture of common and esoteric knowledge woven throughout poems written in a variety of forms.  One of my favorites is “Sestina of the Geographic Tongue” which begins with an epigraph from the New American Dictionary which describes the “geographic tongue” as “One with raised areas due to thickening of the surface cells, giving the appearance of a map.”  Rose takes this tidbit and runs.  And oh how she runs!

I would be remiss to close any post about Canadian ecologically-minded women poets without mentioning Erin Mouré ‘s Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person or Stephanie Bolster’s Pavillion or White Stone: The Alice Poems. I could go on for quite some time discussing these three engaging books.  In fact, I would like to go on further, but I’m in Canada, after all, and rather than sitting inside writing about women poets whose writing engages the natural world I’d like to go outside and be a woman poet who engages with the natural world.  Thanks for obliging me.

Comments (15)

  • On June 4, 2009 at 7:23 pm Terreson wrote:

    I read the post because of the promise in its title: poets ecologically minded, which has been a driving concern of mine all of my career. By way of making a living I work with honey bees. I make queens, I manage apiaries, I assist in research into problems, pathogens, viruses, and parasites complicating a honey bee colony’s life cycle, and then I make more queens selectively bred who are better able, genetically, to deal with such problems. By day, Mendel is my patron saint.

    I am passing tired of poets and other writers who look to make hay out of honey bees without bothering to get some knowing of their natural history or with how they think and behave. The Brandt poem quoted from does not speak to my day to day experience in an apiary. Nor does it speak to the probable causes (the debate is still ongoing) of CCD (colony collapse disorder). It only speaks to the poet’s preoccupations. It has nothing to do with the natural history of either honey bees or with the pathogens that impact them.

    I won’t bother poets with what I figure are the probable causes of CCD. If I am right honey bee foragers see less light in their eyes and more fungi producing dysentary in their intestines that wears them out, wears them down to where they can’t make it back to home.

    Now there is the poem-line Brandt should have pursued. And seriously, know your nature history before looking to capitalize on it.

    Terreson

  • On June 5, 2009 at 4:40 am Zachariah Wells wrote:

    A poet I’d add to this fine list is Karen Solie, whose latest book, Pigeon, is downright riparian in its preoccupations. Karen writes beautifully about the ugly intersections of urban and wild, highway and river.

  • On June 5, 2009 at 8:52 am mearl wrote:

    Terreson,

    You do us a service to fill us in on your work and on the seriousness of CCD. I’ve read that bee populations have been shrinking steadily since the 1970s for a variety of reasons. But the catastrophic loss (correct me if I’m wrong) came much later. Colony collapse disorder was given a name in 2006.

    I don’t think your knowledge, as an expert in the field, should preclude appreciation of what is a gorgeous poem and a excellent and sensitive reading by Camille.

    Di Brant’s poem comes from a book that was published in 2003 – I’m sure the poem was written will before 2003, given the time lag in publishing poetry these days. My point is the the poem predates colony collapse disorder by some years. Perhaps if the poet were writing the poem today she would write it differently, just as Thoreau would have written differently about 21st century bean fields.

    Martin

  • On June 5, 2009 at 3:05 pm Andrea Nicki wrote:

    What an interesting comment. I am a Canadian eco-poet and I have been working on poems about bees, matriarchy, and environmental problems. I have been reading science books about bees, but I would love to hear about your first hand experience about working with bees. Andrea Nicki, nicandr4@aol.com, author of Welcoming, Inanna Press.

  • On June 5, 2009 at 7:41 pm Terreson wrote:

    Martin Earl and others, I am not trying to be obnoxious. Nor am I looking to put down a poem for the sake of putting it down. Hell, I don’t even know the whole of the text.

    By way of an intro, the blogger says this: “Interspecies communication” is the most graceful poem about the collapse of the bee colonies I’ve come across thus far.” Now either an assumption has been made about the nature of the poem itself, or the poet has traded on the notion of colony collapse. I am simply going on the information handed me, that the poem is about colony collapse. About twenty years or so ago there was a reported phenomenon similar in appearance and symptoms to today’s so-called CCD. It was called something like Disappearing Colony Syndrome, or something of the sort. The causes and the condition were never fully understood. It could have had to do with a then new varroa mite cominbg out of Asia and introduced into the Western Hemisphere by way of Argentina. My only point being that a poem written in ’03, in fact, could refer to a kind of colony collapse or colony disappearance, the difference between which two descriptions I would say is moot.

    My post is not intended to comment on the poem as poem. I observe here that the poem’s lifted strophe(?) is language rich and shows a fine degree of facility with the language. The point of my post is this: know what you write about and know it from the inside out. If you write about love know about love (and its abscence). If you write about war know about war. If you write about honey bees, especially when you are looking to hang a metaphor on their natural history, then know the natural history. The write-about-what-you-know-school is the one I belong to. The beekeepers I know would read the passage, shrug their shoulders, and go back to what they do know from the inside out. (By the way, Martin Earl, I am no expert about honey bees. The people I cavort with are experts. They’ve worked at it for twenty years plus. Me just seven. They can think like a bee, so to speak. I am still learning the habit. They know what they know from the inside out. Such a simple principle that sometimes seems to be lost on all but poets.)

    Andrea Nicki, Inanna is one of the reasons I got fascinated with honey bees.

    Terreson

  • On June 5, 2009 at 8:54 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Speaking of honeybees…

    .
    Mockingbird

    I see God’s hand in amber clouds
    with golden rays above blue seas,
    in black stripes on orange fur.
    I see His plan in honeybees,
    in mockingbirds and flowering trees,
    in every desperate cur.

    Call me crazy…well, they do,
    but I see His thoughts in cobras, too.
    I see His will in crocodiles.
    They see God in human beings
    and Satan in the wild,
    but I see the Devil in you and me
    and in every human child.
    The roots of Poison Ivy
    always grow new vines.

    I see that mockingbird on the fence over there
    just winked his eye at me.

    .
    Copyright 2008 – SOFTWOOD-Seventy-eight Poems, Gary B. Fitzgerald

  • On June 5, 2009 at 11:03 pm Colin Ward wrote:

    Interesting perspective piece, Camille. Di Brandt is from here but I’ve never thought of her in these terms. When I ponder living Canadian nature poets I tend to think of Anne Simpson first.

    Zachariah Wells beat me to the punch. Karen Solie is, IMHO, the best of the younger non-metrical print poets.

    “Irony takes you out at night
    but appetite drives you home …”

    “…the waiting moment, buckling into circumstance…”

    – K.S.

  • On June 6, 2009 at 8:33 am mearl wrote:

    Terreson,

    Thanks for the added clarification. In the end I do agree with you that “eco-poets” should know their stuff. Forrest Gander teaches a course on eco-poetry at Brown and there’s some discussion in his posts (archived here at Harriet) on the subject.

    I don’t entirely agree with you that poets need to know everything about any subject about which they might chose to write. I think it depends on the subject and what our idea of “knowledge” is. But I do agree with you that certain subjects call for a more exacting empiricism – even on the part of poets – than do others.

    I’m particularly glad to see, in a thread like this, your introduction of a different critical standard. There needs to be more traffic between the different discourses. I’d be fascinated to here from both the author of the poem, and of course, from Camille, about what you have to say.

    Martin

  • On June 6, 2009 at 11:55 am Terreson wrote:

    I too should like to read the opinion of others on the subject of eco-poetry (a regrettable term at best). My starting point has always been the attitude of Robinson Jeffers who, if not the quintessential, certainly the most radical of eco-centric poets. He called his position Inhumanism. He explained what he meant this way: “a shifting emphasis from man to not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificance.” In his Roan Stallion poem he also said:

    Humanity is
    the start of the race, I say
    humanity is the mold to break away from, the crust to
    break through, the coal to break into fire,
    The atom to be split.

    Terreson

  • On June 6, 2009 at 3:45 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Speaking of honeybees:

    .
    Mockingbird

    .
    I see God’s hand in amber clouds
    with golden rays above blue seas,
    in black stripes on orange fur.
    I see His plan in flowering tree,
    in hummingbirds and honeybees,
    in every desperate cur.

    Call me crazy…well, they do,
    but I see His thoughts in cobras, too.
    I see His will in crocodiles,
    in spider webs with morning dew.

    They see God in human beings
    and Satan in the wild,
    but I see the Devil in you and me
    and in every human child.
    The roots of Poison Ivy
    always grow new vines.

    I see that mockingbird on the fence over there
    just winked his eye at me.

    .
    Copyright 2008 – SOFTWOOD-Seventy-eight poems, Gary B. Fitzgerald

  • On June 6, 2009 at 8:21 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Hah! I was concerned because my post never showed up. Now it’s there twice.

    (and in two different versions, no less.)

    Thanks.

    Thanks.

    Ain’t life fun (and weird)?

  • On June 7, 2009 at 12:26 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    This failure to post replies in anything even approaching real time is very frustrating. Now I have two versions of the same poem but my post explaining this strange phenomenon is not here.

    Of course, as soon as I post THIS one it will show up and then I’ll look COMPLETELY insane.

  • On June 8, 2009 at 8:59 am Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Like I said.

  • On June 25, 2009 at 12:45 pm Marcella D. wrote:

    I’d like to take issue with the idea of the poet, or even the ecopoet, only writing what he or she “knows,” as Terreson puts it, “from the inside out.”

    First, the poem is a creative endeavor—an exploration, a live entity that unfolds as it’s written and read. If everything within the poem is known before it’s even begun, then what’s the point of writing or reading it? Poems are not factual reports, intended to convey knowledge in the most transparent, most denotative language possible. Instead, a poem may use (hopefully) unexpected language or surprising juxtapositions that may not even make any immediate sense. A poem ostensibly about bees and colony collapse disorder could end up with tractor-trailers or issues of immigration in it, or veer toward an abstract translation of what flower markings might “say” to bees. I believe it is for this quality that poetry may be quite valuable in exploring ideas of ecology, in that it is able to make those surprising jumps—to hypothesize about the unknown, to be the fools who venture in, to explore inappropriate subjects, images, or language—to make those connections that most wouldn’t dare approach, for fear of being “inaccurate.”

    I know the disciplines of science and poetry are vastly different in their methodology, and it can be difficult for one to appreciate the other. And I’m not arguing that poets be deliberately ignorant of the facts. But, I also think it’s essential to preserve a freedom to construct a poem that is not necessarily a delivery system for those facts; instead, an ecopoet may enter writing a poem to discover what may happen if, for instance, the language of a corporate memo is used to describe a field of genetically engineered corn. Another example is how the poet Tina Darragh explores the language of the animal rights movement, and how it can be broken apart and reconstructed within a poem. Anyway, I guess the gist of this is that I wouldn’t recommend reading a poem for your most up-to-date and accurate information on colony collapse disorder, but I would recommend reading it if you wanted a jolt to your innards and a fresh perspective on the subject!

  • On June 25, 2009 at 1:44 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    I’d like to take issue with the idea of the poet, or even the ecopoet, only writing what he or she “knows,” as Terreson puts it, “from the inside out.”

    Marcella,
    The way people talk about ecopoetry baffles me entirely. As does the poetry that ends up being in this category.

    Very worrying indeed. Thanks for your post, which does get at some of the possibilities.


Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, June 4th, 2009 by Camille Dungy.