About the Poems
by Lucas Farrell
Kenneth Patchen writes: “The moon is a white mouth eating the poor heads of trees.” I’m trying to understand what it means to “effectively” describe natural phenomena (see, in particular, the poems “An Identical Beginning Gave Way To Us All (II)” and “On Physiography”). An éventail of predications: Rilke’s rapturous musings on the color blue (a “listening blue”); the geographic juxtapositioning of a Matsuo Bashō; the parched and vivid landscapes of William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy; the urban wildernesses of Brandon Shimoda; the elaborate cloudscapes of Gerard Manley Hopkins (“Through such clouds anvil-shaped pink ones and up-blown fleece-of-wool flat-topped dangerous-looking pieces”); the dizzying similes of Frank Stanford (“I watched the clouds / Mosey over / Like blind men / Picking apples”). What interests me is the sheer array of descriptive registers, and the potential value (cultural and ecological, as well as literary) of writers’ differing conceptualizations and depictions of landscape features.
In this respect, I’m currently intrigued by the work of geographer David Mark (SUNY Buffalo) in the emerging field of ethnophysiography, which examines geographic ontologies across different cultures and linguistic communities. Part of my interest in all this sprouts, I think, from nerdy concerns I’ve retained from my days as a geographic information systems (GIS) technician. Unlike entities in other domains, geographic entities lack clear boundaries (which is to say, boundaries that correspond to physical discontinuities in the world). Where does a hillside or a mouth of a river begin and/or end? As such, the definitions of these objects are a matter of fiat; they invite and more heavily rely upon (for precision) qualitative conceptual categorizations conveyed by natural language. Mark and others are discovering that conceptualizations themselves vary across different cultures and speech communities. That is, the basic level categories in a language are indeed tuned to the variations in the particular environment in which a speech community resides. Intuitively this makes sense. The popular myth that there are 600 or so Eskimo words for ‘snow’ is an absurd exaggeration of an otherwise real tendency of environmental variation to influence vocabulary. (What is more confusing, however, is that terms for natural features in some communities depend on the perspective or viewpoint of the speaker. For instance, for the Yindjibarndi people of northwestern Australia, the same cliff edge is termed “gangkalangga” when perceived from the valley below and “gunkurr” when perceived from a neighboring mountain top.)
Thus, ethnophysiograpy moves beyond incorporating folk taxonomies and indigenous knowledges into standard definitions of place. In effect, it calls for an active amalgam of heterogeneous components that exposes, dissects, respecifies, enriches, and complicates the terms of our landscapes. I am seriously turned on. When I compare the current anthropological linguistic fieldwork of Mark and others with, for instance, the rich geolexical data gathered by Barry Lopez in Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, or the post-pastoral visions collected by Camille T. Dungy in Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, or Jerome Rothenberg and Dennis Tedlock's anthological work in the field of ethnopoetics, my heart quickens. Why? Because all of this speaks to the sustaining fact that, despite what the digital age promises us, we are still learning how to see. I am certain (these days, anyway) that I am a poet (as well as a person/active citizen) to the extent that I am conscious of and driven by this fact. If Western society acknowledged this, particularly when it came to managing our lands and natural resources, our stewardship of said lands would improve tenfold. Is what I believe.