by G.C. Waldrep on May 3rd, 2013
(Joshua Corey’s paper from our 2013 AWP Arcadia Project panel)
THE MÖBIUS FIELD: EDITING THE ARCADIA PROJECT
Eight years ago, at another AWP Conference, in Vancouver, I took part in a panel titled “The New Nature Writing,” for which myself and four other poets presented papers on the intersections of avant-garde poetry and nature writing. My co-panelists, for the record, were Jonathan Skinner, Karen Leona Anderson, Sally Keith, and Richard Greenfield. It was sometime after this panel that my future co-editor, G.C. Waldrep, began to nudge me about the possibility of editing an anthology of poems in this vein. He identified a small but resonant constellation of innovative contemporary poets whose work was engaged, sometimes from surprising and slanted angles, with the legacy of Romantic nature poetry. I became excited when I realized that for every poet he could name who was engaged in such a project, I could name two more; and then he thought of more, and more. Before I knew it, he had persuaded me that we should work together on this anthology of what we eventually dubbed “postmodern pastoral.” And so the idea for The Arcadia Project was born.
Naturally I had no idea what I was getting myself into. We spent the next several years reading hundreds of poems and dozens of books by an increasingly diverse assemblage of poets. When we had worked out what we thought might compose the core of the book, and after we had received a commitment from Janet Holmes, our publisher at Ahsahta Press, we issued an open call for submissions, and received hundreds more poems, most of them excellent, which renovated and transformed our notions of what was anthologically possible. We did set a few boundaries: we restricted ourselves to poems written in English on this continent, which in practice meant the United States and Canada. We also decided that our anthology would not be primarily historical or concerned with establishing a lineage for postmodern pastoral: we selected no poems that had been first published before 1995. We wanted a snapshot of the ecopoetic now, of post- and postmodern and anti- and avant-pastoral poems written in the consciousness of environmental emergency that constitutes our present tense. Then there was that word “pastoral” itself. Why persist in using that term, when fresher language is ready to hand? The up-and-coming term now is “ecopoetics,” which was the subject of an energizing conference in Berkeley just a couple of weeks ago: a broad term that has become a big tent for poets whose work engages with the more-than-human world but that for the most part disavows Romantic attitudes toward what we used to call “Nature.” Why then do we still need “pastoral” to kick around?
I might begin by saying that all pastoral is ecopoetic, but not all ecopoetics is pastoral. Pastoral is most often thought of as a rather narrow genre concerning the activities of shepherds in an idyllic, quasi-imaginary landscape. But I have always been interested in genre not as a convenient label for this or that grouping of work, but rather as a manifestation of the self-consciousness of writing itself. It is when we become conscious of genre that it begins to crumble beneath our feet, opening itself to parody and critique. And pastoral is an old genre: it has been conscious of its own limitations and ideological structuring for a very long time, as least as far back as Theocritus and Virgil. Pastoral poems are not nature poems—the nonhuman world is not their essential focus. Rather, they focus on the imaginary, ideological, fundamentally political relation between human beings and nature: they are explicitly phantasmic dreams of adequation between subject and object, of flight from unsatisfying or exploitative social relations; and, as dreams, self-undermining at their core. I return often and often to Virgil’s Ninth Eclogue, in which dismayed shepherds learn that their land, their commons, has been expropriated by the state, and that they are now in exile. The first shepherd says disbelievingly (in David Ferry’s translation):
But I was told Menalcas with his songs
Had saved the land, from where those hills arise
To where they slope down gently to the water,
Near those old beech trees, with their broken tops (IX, 71).
Notice how song—pastoral poetry—is here ascribed the power of boundary-making and boundary-keeping. But the reply is disillusioning:
Yes, that was the story; but what can music do
Against the weapons of soldiers? When eagles come,
Tell me what doves can possibly do about it?
If the raven on the left in this hollow oak
Hadn’t warned me not to resist, I might have been killed.
Menalcas himself might very well have been killed. (IX, 71-73).
In this early moment of self-conciousness, pastoral acknowledges its own weakness in the face of military and political power. “The weapons of soldiers” cannot be countered or even replied to by poetry: when poetry confronts power, silence is the result; and as we were taught not so very long ago, silence equals death. And yet Virgil here ascribes a scrap of what Heidegger calls “saving power” to a poetry capable of imagining an alliance with the natural world against power: it is the raven, a speaking bird, a scavenger, not so easily lent to the symbolic as the eagle or the dove, that saves the poet’s life for other risky engagements with power, and for future song.
Et in Arcadia ego–I, Death, am also in Arcadia. Arcadia, like Robert Duncan’s meadow, is a made place, constructed on an unstable boundary or ecotone between human and nonhuman, the country and the city, the margin and the imperium. It was the Romantic poets who introduced the notion of the sublime into that boundary—making the pastoral safe for a half-domesticated species of terror. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries our sense of unease persisted and deepened. Are we destroying and degrading the environment, or are we energetically and unsystematically erasing the imaginary boundary between foreground and background, human and nature, upon which the pastoral relation depends?
It is primarily as an affective structure that pastoral has persisted and thrived within the larger project described by “ecopoetics.” Since there is no subtracting affect and ideology from our approaches to nature, I believe pastoral will continue to play a crucial role in that project. Postmodern pastoral well describes the affect proper to our encounter with what Timothy Morton calls “hyperobjects”: entities that blur the boundary between human and nonhuman, whose reality is undeniable but which evade our senses as phenomena: global climate change and the halflife of plutonium are Morton’s chief examples of hyperbojects, but consider also your relation to genetically modified organisms in the food chain, to the quasi-religious ritual of dropping a plastic bottle in a recycling bin, or to the “selfish genes” of your own DNA. That is why the title of our anthology playfully alludes to Walter Benjamin’s unfinished masterpiece. “Nature” has become an archive of hyperobjects concealed by increasingly archaic, and therefore increasingly historical, images of animals, wilderness preserves, English country houses (Downton Abbey et al), and the weather. Postmodern pastoral is your all-access pass to this archive, to the junkheap of “Nature” that has become inseparable from the junkheap contemplated by another Benjaminian construct, the Angel of History. Call it the opening of the Möbius field: a surface with only one side and only one boundary, though the illusion of doubleness and separation persists.
Through the four sections or divisions of The Arcadia Project, G.C. and I tried to illuminate different yet linked affective relationships with the discredited, unreplaced idea of “Nature” that pastoral situates itself against. New Transcendentalisms presents poems explicitly or implicitly engaged with Thoreau’s memorable and misleading dictum, “In Wildness is the preservation of the world.” Textual Ecologies opens a space for work that explores how poetic language is always itself a landscape even as it can’t help but refer to the actual. Local Powers presents poems that tests the nostalgic or elegiac affect of pastoral writing in particular local and historical situations. And Necro/Pastoral reinvents pastoral as a kind of zombie genre, a Möbius meadow for the mutants and cyborgs that we already are, horribly contagious and alive. Or as contributor Chris Green puts it in the anthology’s final poem, “Macbeth for Everyone”:
: be not so happy.