Monday, December 05, 2005

NEW! Review of Jonathan Skinner

Political Cactus Poems by Jonathan Skinner. Palm Press.

Reviewed by Chris Pusateri

Among the most difficult tasks facing an emerging poet is the crafting of a poetics. This undertaking is often complicated by opposition from above: it is a longstanding pastime for established poets to treat the contributions of subsequent generations with reactions ranging from mild bemusement to outright hostility. As we look back at American literary history, we see that each new wave of poets has had its professional foil--almost invariably an academician of canonical stature--who led the charge against the scurrilous influence of the young.

This pervasive skepticism has spawned a number of responses both public and private. One of the more even-handed treatments of the subject came in a recent issue of Boston Review, where Hank Lazer speculated that the poetics of the early 21st century were given more to refining earlier innovations than to creating new ones. He attributes this, at least in part, to the recent professionalization of poetry, which privileges craft--or the mechanical application of technique--over formal experimentation.

Upon first glance, one might think a book entitled Political Cactus Poems extends that earlier innovation known as ecopoetry. We recall that once upon a time, the prefix eco- politicized any word it modified. With its emphasis on sustainable practices and ecological interconnectedness, it was assumed to be antagonistic to the aims of global capitalism (a market logic in which increased productivity promoted limitless consumer appetites).

If anything, Skinner seeks to revive environmentalism’s radical roots. Ecopoetry is, for him, more than simple nature worship; it is a political act located in the space where humans encounter their environment. Not content to forward a warmed-over variant of nineteenth-century pastoralism, Skinner eschews the radical individualism of Thoreau in favor of a collective politics: one that sees people as an extension of their surroundings.
untroubled by impasto, her biography
would include a history of colors
nails, she conceded, were gutsy
but imperfect in this age of plastics
the spewed and shredded earth
hung about her ears, with one foot
she typed the word sardonic

There is little doubt that nails in the age of plastics are risky business. With broad strokes, Skinner lays the plasticity of human invention over the faux-permanence of the natural world, so as to point out that the boundaries between the organic and the synthetic are increasingly difficult to demarcate.

This book also intimates that any theory of eco-logic must acknowledge that the majority of the world’s populace now lives in cities. While environmentalists of the past dismissed cities as part of the problem, Skinner suggests that any modern ecological politics must count the urban environment as one of its core concerns.

hiccup then what
a side of something or peas
clattering down the way
elevator siding Tifft’s fence
Santa Fe Rail’s last ride
smashed down
in the brake with a muskrat
a friendly wave from the engineer
rattles the loose change

As the book’s endnotes suggest, the reference to Tifft is an allusion to Tifft Farm Nature Preserve, which, as Skinner points out, is “264 acres of secondary forests and wetlands reclaimed from 1.6 million cubic yards of municipal waste, since 1975, within the city limits of Buffalo.” The inclusion of Tifft subtly expresses the arduous but necessary task of resuscitation. A viable ecopolitics must not only critique environmental damage, but propose plans for its rehabilitation. As a people, we are fond of making our problems invisible (for instance, municipal dumps are typically located in remote areas or in urban districts adjacent to poor neighborhoods). Such strategies confirm the aphorism that putting something out-of-sight indeed places it out-of-mind. By making these sites (and their rehabilitation) occasions for poetry, Skinner makes them visible once again.

But as goes nature, so goes society: if we are to reverse environmental degradation, we must first examine those factors that contribute to it, such as overconsumption, poverty, and war. An ecopoetics, if it is to be effective, must realize that all environmental crises are the result of social problems and that no real progress is possible unless those issues are addressed.
the terminal, dome-like cephalium
of orange-brown bristles
at the thought of anything less
than total self-destruct, controls
one half by blowing off limbs
in random cow fields

Here we see the poetic field as a mine field, as a site of hidden peril. More procedurally, we see passages of textbook description intercut with the rough-hewn statements of political declaration. Beneath a seemingly beautiful fa├žade lurks a threat both literal and figurative. Yet under the layers of beauty and danger, we have the makings of something sacred, something new.

If we return to Lazer’s earlier point, we might see Skinner’s ecopoetics as begging a larger question: what, precisely, is innovation in the arts? Since all progress is nourished by the developments that precede it, at what point does refinement give way to innovation?

Should we argue this point long enough, we’ll end up sounding like copyright attorneys who quarrel over an operational definition of “original work.” Skinner, however, has more practical goals in mind: the cultivation of a poetics whose concerns exceed the merely theoretical and whose lessons might extend from the page of a poetry book to our everyday lives. While Auden might have questioned the efficacy of poetry, Skinner’s book implies that, in a time characterized by war and social atrophy, the thing we can least afford is a poetry that does nothing.

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