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Cynthia Hogue’s The Incognito Body as Ecopoethics

- Elizabeth Jane Burnett


There is much discourse around the term ecopoetics; what the subject constitutes, and how it can be approached; as explored by Jonathan Skinner in his journal of the same name.1 The ecopoetic work that Hogue’s 2006 collection The Incognito Body2  is concerned with, establishes areas of shared concern across ecology and poetics, as specifically relating to the implication of human intervention in environmental degradation. Human impact is approached through linguistic devices exploring the roles of indeterminacy, time, and individual agency. This attention to global environmental stress through localised, linguistically innovating, attention to the human condition, is in this review termed “ecopoethics” - a term suggested by Jane Sprague in her essay in the Ecopoetics section in the journal How2.3 Parallels between landscapes of the human body and the natural world form a key trope in ecopoethical work of this kind, with Hogue’s text also offering narrative discontinuity, an engagement with found materials, and a sense of multiple, co-existent conceptions of time, as methods of writing ecopoethically, in a mode that is responsibly aware4 of ecological systems and issues, and the human impact upon them.

A particular tension exists in contemporary ecological and ecocritical studies, between the need to didactically call for immediate, definitive action on environmental issues, while also incorporating indeterminacy. There is a difficult compromise to be made between keeping ecological discussions open, while also taking decisive action on pressing environmental issues such as climate change, which many argue can not be kept waiting while discussion continues. This tension also has implications for poetics. What might this vacillation between acting on what is known, versus ongoing experiment, mean for creative writing, and how can ecopoethics articulate the existence and functioning of doubt in both ecological and literary areas? 

Greg Garrard and Dana Phillips5 have critiqued ecocriticism for its tendency to appeal to the reality of nature as a source of authority, and to favour traditional nature writing, that often does not attempt much more linguistically than simple mimesis, as its subject. Garrard argues that ecocriticism currently gravitates towards a poetics of authenticity, which assumes there is a fixed standard we ought to try to meet in our interactions with the environment, even though the science of ecology suggests that natural systems are far more complex and mutable than this.6 Against this, he calls for a "poetics of responsibility"7 which employs a shifting, pragmatic sense of the relationship between nature and culture to focus on human actions and their results, which accords with the ideas of poethics and responsibility that Joan Retallack outlines in The Poethical Wager. To write “poethically” is, Retallack suggests, “to place ethos in the foreground of the discussion of aesthetic process.”8 In ecopoethical writing, the ethos of living ones life in an environmentally sustainable way, humanely, taking responsibility for human impact on ecological systems is foregrounded. Retallack also factors indeterminacy into this “poetics of responsibility with the courage of the swerve, the project of the wager - what I call a poethical attitude.”9 She explains:

my idea…is that the world situation is so complexly interrelational from weather to neural networks to all forms of culture, there are so many variables, that large-scale or even modestly scaled predictive accuracy is impossible. Certainly when you get down to the level of individual agency, the effects of any one person’s actions or work…are quite mysterious.10

The idea that indeterminacy occurs in nature and needs to be investigated and understood as much as any other ordering principle, is well documented in contemporary poet(h)ic theory. Tina Darrah posits in a(gain)2st the odds:11

I am consoled by the existence of the random function as an ordering principle.  We think of "random" as "helter-skelter", but as a programming concept it is used to define parameters within which the diversity is productive…If poetry can be thought of as having a role to play in our culture, one aspect of the job would be to make this random function - as a process, as an organizing agent - visible, tactile, part of our sense of the world."12

In a world where, as Retallack states: "radical unknowability is the only constant,"13 ecological enquiries grounded in scientific predictive patterns appear to be missing part of the picture.  There is a growing poetic responsibility to engage with doubt in ways outside of science’s established probabilistic approach. Retallack's The Poethical Wager from which the following excerpt is taken, articulates this responsibility:

JR: ...Radical unknowability is the only constant.
QS:  That's a daunting view if part of your program is ethical or political.
JR: It's daunting if your primary concern is control.  What we need is a robustly nuanced reasonableness, one that can operate in an atmosphere of uncertainty, that gives us the courage to forge on, to launch our hopes into the unknown - the future - by engaging positively with otherness and unintelligibility.
QS: I don't see the logic in that.  I would think it would be precisely the other way round - to engage now with the little certainty we can muster.  At least we'd have the best chance of charting some kind of predictable trajectory.
JR: Well, that's the probabilistic approach of the sciences.  I think it's just what we have to relinquish in the arts - that illusion of predictable trajectories.  Think of how narrow a trajectory must be in order for it to remain predictable...What we need is dubious prototypes of difficult processes.  Long-range inquiries and exercises of imagination that are an entirely contingent praxis of constructively reasoned agency...This is a synergy, not a dichotomy.14

There are moves in current ecocriticism to adopt such a logic, moving away from traditional nature writing, to view the fractured narrative construction and deconstruction in postmodern writing as a prototype of difficult linguistic processes, through which the idea of any ultimate authority is questioned. The poetics of responsibility that both Garrard and Retallack15 endorse is aligned by Karla Armbruster in her article in the most recent issue of Green Letters, Studies in Ecocriticism, “Ecocriticism and the Postmodern Novel: The Case of Waterland,” with a narrative discontinuity prevalent in postmodern writing:

In its postmodern questioning of narrative constructions of reality, Waterland takes on the instability and constructed character of the nature/culture dualism, thus potentially contributing to the discussion that Wallace indicates ecocriticism needs to have.16

She is referring here to Molly Wallace’s  assertion that: "the development of a  theory (or theories) that can somehow deconstruct the nature/culture binary without reducing one side to the other is one of the most important challenges facing ecocriticism."17 Armbruster suggests that the narrative disruption found in Waterland, and symptomatic of postmodern writing, allows the nature/culture divide to be viewed ultimately as a construct, that can be dismantled, interrogated and re-aligned, as readily as conventional nature writing or early ecocriticism might present, or argue for, a more starkly drawn, immutable dichotomy. Within a poetics of responsibility, human intervention in the natural world is examined in terms of both its cultural and ecological impact, with human action placed centrally.  As Jane Sprague argues in her essay in How2, “ecopoetics…(can be viewed)…as intrinsically tied to the human organism”.18

Linked to these ideas of indeterminacy and human agency in ecopoethical writing, is a newly attuned perception of time and memory. As Retallack outlines:

The metaphorical placement of history - as “the past” “back there” rather than “here” - is to see history as having literally “passed” out of current space-time. Could this semantically embedded misconception make the problem of linking a poetics/politics of tragic memory to a poetics/politics of constructive agency all the more difficult?19

In ecopoethical work, “tragic memory” is invoked in terms of an acknowledgement of earlier traumas inflicted (by humans) on the landscape - ravages of war, the spectre of the atomic bomb, the depletion of natural resources; how these and many more events have shaped and contributed to the contemporary environment, and also affected the human psyche. This magnifying of historical events through the present tense lens of contemporary writing, is described by Waldman as the development of a “co-emergent wisdom.”20

Co-emergent wisdom, where past experience informs present cognitive processes, presents itself in Hogue's "Interior", the first sequence of poems in The Incognito Body, as dislocated time. Hogue paints a mental and physical landscape of in-between-ness, where "nothing...has happened yet" (5-6).  A place "beyond remembrance" (10-11), where "a car zooms up a valley /road toward... (but not reaching)... noon" (20-21).  This is a point of indiscriminate time, which, in occurring "beyond remembrance", hints at the kind of perspective given by trauma studies, outlined by Stef Craps in Trauma and Ethics in the Novels of Graham Swift: No Short-Cuts to Salvation:

Remembering nothing, it turns out, is not a matter of simply forgetting something that happened in the past and that one fully experienced at the time, but rather of remembering the occasion of nothing happening: one’s obliviousness to events which one could not grasp or make sense of when they occurred.21

Trauma emerges alongside time as experienced reality that cannot be integrated into one specific authoritative standpoint, narrative, or landscape.  Armbruster asserts that:

one of the major roles that stories play in Waterland is to help make sense of the world and "domesticate" a potentially traumatic Crick tells and retells the stories of his deepest traumas from different angles, he slowly becomes able to think about and acknowledge the effects of his own actions and choices on others".22

This telling and retelling of stories from different angles, which Armbruster elsewhere describes as: "fractured nonlinear narrative that simultaneously works towards grasping these traumas and doing justice to the ways they cannot be captured in language"23 is also illustrated by Hogue's plotting of time through these first Incognito Body poems. Hogue presents a shared terrain of human body, the natural world, and time experienced as both tangible and intangible, past and present, known and unknown. Imagery from the natural world: "breeze", "gale-force winds", "slug-moves", "shore", "white sand" and "sea so salty"; establishes a connection between the narrator and the landscape that builds through the sequence of poems.   At this initial encounter, the body as landscape is a passive being, to and on which events occur, reflected in the passive tense of verbs: "clattered...flattened...pouched" (3-8), and the insipid verbs: "I limp...I float" (12-17).  It is a passivity that we also encounter in “In a Mute Season”: "To feel alone is merely the mind's last defense - /a physiological whiteout - from the spirit's largesse" (23-26). The body is at once represented by primordial reptilian “slug- /moves” (6-7), and associated with a natural world represented by modern materials, through a “satin- /sheen of blue” (1-2). The link between body and landscape continues into the second poem, "The Hour of Lead" which begins: "All fall I a high tide /of pain". This is the first depiction of pain within a cycle of seasons, a motif made explicit in the ninth poem entitled "A Season of Pain" and later with "In A Mute Season."  Time is shown to be both packageable into the discrete unit of an hour (the "Hour of Lead"), and stretching "all fall".  Time is indistinguishable from pain: "Pain... /made /the days" (5-7), and pain from time: "All fall I a high tide /of pain" (1-2).

With their fourteen lines, "The Hour of Lead", and the next poem in the sequence, "The Nerves Like Tombs", form sonnets.  The initially jarring combination of subject matter (bodily trauma) and form (one usually assigned to love) coheres through use of imagery from the natural world. The seasons, pastoral imagery, and musings on the passage of time inform many Elizabethan sonnets, which address loss, the aging process and pain, as well as the more popular themes of beauty, love and seasonal fecundity. Shakespeare begins sonnet 2 with the line:  "When forty winters shall besiege thy brow /And dig deep trenches in thy beauty's field", blending natural and human landscapes in a hostile depiction of time. A closer analogy to Shakespeare’s sonnets comes with sonnet 106; "When in the chronicle of wasted time", which concludes: "For we which now behold these present days /Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise." A similar muteness is addressed in Hogue's "The Nerves Like Tombs", which reads: "I don't know why I stutter, /or sentence stops and words like crows /wheel, cawing away" (8-10).   Shakespeare's "wasted time" is reflected in Hogues's sonnet, where time "blurs in fall and disappears /in spring". Hogue’s plumbing of Elizabethan sonnets and traditional pastoral motifs illustrates a formal working through of co-emergent wisdom, with her formal strategies of writing moving conterminously through past and contemporary spheres.

Hogue’s fourth poem, "Body Scans", develops the use of the second person singular to attempt a distancing of pain. Previously, although pain has produced ruptured and disorientating experiences of time, it has remained predominately located in the narrator's own body, with the "I" doing the experiencing.  As the body is submitted to scans, the location of the pain shifts to an external "you", as if it is now happening somewhere outside the body, or to a different body, detached.  "Almost comforting, cradling & /claustrophobic, the metal /tunnel surrounds you" (1-3) - beginning with an unfixed state of "almost" comforting "&" claustrophobic, this line refuses to align fully with any one state of experience, jostling instead both between states, and in a combination of states. The fracturing of language hinted at by abrupt changes in narrative voice and temporal discontinuity in the preceding poems becomes more explicit in the fifth poem “Much That You Don't Remember”, where capital letters are used to create words within words.  The letter "o" is frequently capitalised, adding a textual sounding of pain, as with the lines:  "You were gOing to say, /Could think of nOthing to say /Had sOmething to say" (7-9) - the "o" repeats like a cry through these lines that speak of inarticulacy; of having nothing to say, or of having something to say and yet not saying it.  What Hogue describes as the "Mute season" of experienced pain, is made audible through the articulation and repetition of the "O".  Capitals create linguistic, narrative and subjective splintering elsewhere in the poem as in the line: "As art this SHATTERing". The capitalisation also, in places, celebrates playfulness, as with the word: "disPLAY" in the next line, and in the switch from French I ("je") to English "I" in the word: "subJEctIve".  Harriet Tarlo has described Hogue's work as being "painfully haunted by hope"24 - here the lyrical "I" is playfully interrogated within a landscape of pain, producing an undaunted sounding of traumatised experience that might here be described as a playfully hoping pain.

Narrative disruptions and misplacings of the lyrical I are extended in the sixth poem “Since You Cannot Think” by the introduction of boxed texts taken from scientific discourse (“excerpted from an unpublished article entitled “Experiencing Health with Rheumatoid Arthritis: An Anthropological Study of Illness, Treatment and Cure,” by Jon Haukur Ingimundarson. PhD” Hogue, 92).  The first box reads: "Attempts have been made to evaluate physical, emotional, and social well being.  Patients score high on tests designed to reveal hypochondriasis, depression, hysteria and sexual aversion, but low on tests designed to measure self-esteem."  Combining anthropology with medical research produces an interdisciplinary discourse where the authoritative scientific voice jostles not just alongside the lyrical “I” and second person singular voices already established in these poems, but within its own parameters of discourse, as two differing epistemologies converge. In this light, the title "Since You Cannot Think", points towards the difficulties placed on a reader offered multiple authorities from which to draw, and the confusion encountered upon finding that the "expert" scientific opinion provided in the poem is flawed and unreliable.  Following the logic through, we reach a state or process of thought whereby uncertainty (lack of authoritative voice or narrative) is the only ‘known’ starting point.  The poem occupies a space not in thought, but "since" thought, where reasoned agency gives way to indeterminacy.

In the eighth poem, "The Exhibit of Pain", pain is presented in a series of five 'panels' of text displayed in different galleries (The Blue, Gray, Red, Yellow and Magic galleries).  These panels are the same shape as the boxed text presented in the previous two poems, denoting the voice of (questionable) scientific discourse.  By this point the mode of discourse has veered still further from that of scientific authority, citing evidence from a "fortune teller" in the Gray Gallery panelled text. It is the "fortune tellers' error" (8) that is used as supporting evidence for the founding of a "belief" in the "continuation of pain and misfortune" (10). The scientific methodology of grounding theories in results that constitute a series of successes and errors contingent upon ability to conform to hypotheses, is called into question by the introduction of a fortune teller (representative of a very different approach to the search for knowledge) into this methodology. This intrusion from an alternative knowledge and discourse suggests the scientific model is fallible; open to attack, intrusion, and contamination. Hogue writes that "The fortune tellers' error constitutes hopelessness, the belief in an indefinite continuation of pain and misfortune"(Hogue, 57) but as this panelled text continues to break down and question its own authority, any stated belief is read as questionable and subject to change.  The final reference to a "Magic Gallery" in the poem, continues the questioning of the existence of sources of ultimate authority, as when this authority cannot be found in science, or in fortune telling, it also looked for in magic.  The parallel to linguistic experiment is ever present in these poems.  The structure of the poem as a gallery (medical or artistic), with pain presented as a series of exhibits, suggests that the conventional lyrical narrative that began the sequence ("wake to breeze and satin- /sheen", “In Another Country”, 1) is not sufficient to adequately express, or enquire into, landscape and trauma, but requires the input of other discourses. The statement in the panelled text in The Yellow Gallery: "Overgeneralization causes depression” (Hogue, 58) can likewise be applied to language. "Overgeneralization" is not a scientific term or concern, and the belief that it can cause depression is not one based in scientific truth, yet this line can perhaps be read as the voicing of a frustration at the inability of scientific enquiry to adequately diagnose traumatic experience, and of scientific discourse's inability to fully articulate the problem. 

One of the ongoing tensions in ecocriticism is the difficulty presented by using the scientific discourse of ecology to approach and articulate the personal, subjective issues relating to human agency and human interactions with the environment. "Stones", an early poem in Hogue’s book, begins with a citation from George Oppen: “The universe is stone, but we are not” (Hogue, 21). The distinction of humans as distinct from the natural world is a necessary yet problematic one, often leading to the closed binary simplifications implicit in considerations of a nature/culture divide. Marcella Durand questions the “prepositional mystery, whether we are in or of nature:”

We live in nature but are not of it, because why?  Because we are human? Is what we make (manufacture) intrinsically set off from nature, because it came from our head and hands (and machines, with machines begetting machines)?  Where does the line between us and nature begin and end?…These are questions that poets can bring to poetry, and have been bringing for centuries…25

There is a sense of a human (and poetry’s) responsibility toward acting as witness to environmental (and political and bodily) stress, to trespass and atrocity, but the poetic issue of how to articulate this vigilance, and how to document this history of accumulated trauma remains. "Stones" runs as a dialectical rhetoric in a question/answer motif. "Will you teach them morality and courage? /No, morality and courage cannot be taught /but they can be learned" (25-27) – a dichotomy is exposed here, between knowledge that needs to be learned, yet cannot be taught. Likewise the final cryptic couplet: “When will they know they have learned? /I will know when they know” (31-2).  The answers are not straightforward, illustrating that the questions are likewise more complicated than they might initially appear.  The frustratingly inconclusive nature of the answers in this poem, hint at the limitations of rhetorical discourse in encouraging a shared ethical response to the affronts of trauma on the human, environmental and political landscape. When Hogue asks: “Are all the stones you see immoral? No, only the ones I imprison” (10-11), issues of taxonomical bodies of knowledge surface.  Morality is incorporated in the practice of processing knowledge – to imprison within physical or rhetorical cages becomes an immoral process.  As Armbruster notes:

one of the most pressing concerns within ecocriticism about postmodern thought is the challenge it seems to pose for finding grounds for ethical decision-making about human relationships to the natural world.26

The ground Hogue is laying is one that is aware of poetic trajectories linking backward to Oppen, Woolf, Duncan, H.D., Marianne Moore, and Wallace Stevens, all of whom have poems in the book dedicated to them, and forward through a poetics of logical sig- /nIFying FORMations” (“Much That You Don’t Remember,” 25-26), including an engagement with contingency, where: “Enlightenment is an accident” (“Elemental Attention. Stillness,”18). That these voices, separated by history, conjoin in the space of Hogue’s page is described by Waldman as “co-emergent wisdom.”  She states:

Co-emergent wisdom…is something like “negative capability” – both, both – living inside and appreciating the paradox or contradiction of reality with “no irritating reach after fact or reason.” This co-emergence is alchemical, transformative.27

Ethical decision-making in this context links poetic and ecological discourse through a shared concern for establishing human relationships to the natural world that remain vigilant, urgent, and subject to, even welcoming, change arising through contact with indeterminacy. 

Discussing the novel Waterland in Green Letters, Studies in Ecocriticism, Armbruster concludes that:

While the novel repeatedly frustrates any attempts to find truths about the natural world or solid grounds for ethical decision-making, it holds out the process of creating narrative, a process fueled by curiosity as itself a potentially ethical relation to the world, provided it is a process that simultaneously remains open-ended but that moves in the direction of taking responsibility for its results.28 

I would challenge the assumption that the writing process must take "responsibility for its results".  If the importance of a "process that...remains open-ended" is agreed, how can a responsibility towards the results of the enquiry be likewise stressed?  Is the responsibility not to the process rather than the result?   Can a process really be open-ended if the results impact heavily on the enquiry - recalling Retallack: "Think of how narrow a trajectory must be in order for it to remain predictable."29 Something seems to escape Armbruster's critique - she supports open-ended approaches to narrative and discourse, acknowledging the "impossibility of capturing the real in language"30 but falls short of an acknowledgement that the "real" is not one singular entity to be captured by language but is itself an evolving collection of systems for living that always incorporates an element of wager and unintelligibility, which it is as much the role of language to articulate, as the more readily scientifically or culturally legible elements.

Hogue’s strategies for allowing indeterminacy into her work include the use of found texts and external sources of information which allow other people’s words into her lexicon, and allow meanings to develop that are contingent upon the collision of external texts with her own.  This strategy operates in the first poem in the Incognito Body sequence, where excerpted text from the Duchess of Malfi jostles not only against Hogue’s own words, but also against Adrienne Rich’s, since this same excerpt also appears in Rich’s essay “Voices from the Air”, as explained in Hogue’s editorial notes.31 Poems 6, 7 and 8 feature text excepted from a medical article by Jon Haukur Ingimundarson, and a number of poems include quotations from other writers; Elaine Scarry and Adrienne Rich in the first Incognito Body poem, and Paul Bowles, author of novel The Sheltering Sky, in the last.  Poems from the rest of the book include quotations from George Oppen, Muriel Rukeyser, Alice Fulton, Virginia Woolf, Robert Duncan, Julia Kristeva, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Denise Levertov, Leslie Scalapino, and Joan Halifax’s talk on Buddhism at the Omega Institute, New York, August 2000.  These poems are to an extent multi-authored, with the reader also implicated to a degree as author of meaning for the work, required to identify the sources of these borrowed texts, and identify the links between them and Hogue’s own text.

In “Green Surrounds the Mind of Summer” from the Incognito Body sequence, the authority of scientific discourse and the methods of news dissemination used by the media are questioned: “You do not read about this /“isn’t news” /If nothing means anything /the medical report /a construction of meaning /to mean something” (27-32). This passage hints at the flaws in the operation of scientific enquiry, and the inability of science to articulate a reality that is shifting and contingent. But poetry can perhaps do this.  Poetry can articulate a confidence in lack, which from an ecocritical point of view, returns us to one of the first environmentalists, Gilbert White, who theorized plots of land as attempts at containing what will always lie beyond knowledge.32 The line “Overgeneralization causes depression" from The Incognito Body sequence is recalled, and placed in relation to other work in Hogue's oeuvre.  Overgeneralization, is a fault often levelled at the media, with scaremongering, sketchy media reports of environmental or human disasters often misrepresenting the issues.  Anne Waldman has critiqued the large scale euphemism adopted by media discourse, proposing that one of the key functions of contemporary poetry is to expose this euphemism and offer alternatives to this style of news presentation.33 We see this at work in Hogue’s ongoing collaboration with the photographer Rebecca Ross, All That’s Gone: Hurricane Katrina’s Evacuees (Interview-poems and Images),34 which attempts to use documentary reportage in a way that avoids euphemism.  Speaking of this work at the Skylines Ecopoetics forum, Hogue said that she did not know what other type of language to use to describe the trauma of those living with the legacy of the hurricane. She felt she did not have the right to speak on their behalf, or to mediate their words with her own emotional response; therefore found materials, interview transcripts and photographs were her only possible materials. There are vacillations here between attempts to present news media without euphemism in order to appeal on a more directly personal level to the audience, and yet not feeling equipped with the authority to impart her own personal response to a catastrophe she was merely a witness to, and not the direct victim of.  This uncomfortable relationship with news media is also hinted at within the Incognito Body sequence.  In the tenth poem “She Forecasts the Future,” we are presented with “a news producer who’d been out the day before with a crew filming a few spouts in the distance” (Hogue, 61), while she herself witnesses the blue whales in question at close quarters, “so close that he could have flipped the boat” (Hogue, 61).  She describes the encounter not through the impersonal distance of a camera, but directly, emotionally and physically: “we felt the joy in our bones” (Hogue, 61).  This is a report Hogue appears to feel comfortable describing through terms of her own emotional and physical response. Perhaps as it was experienced directly at first hand, and, as a pleasurable experience, it might not hold the ethical anxiety attached to discussions of collective trauma.  This is a concern carried through to one of the later poems in the book, “Till I Have Conquered in Myself What Causes War”.  Beginning with “the documentary montage of now” (2), Hogue asserts, not through her own voice, or that of the media documentary, but simply through the voice of “a woman:” “ ‘Faced with genocide, 99% of us /would kill them /to survive ourselves’ ” (6-8). The poem articulates a crisis of responsibility; a poetics of responsibility tipping precariously over the edge of agency, whereby the ability to write is threatened by near crippling feelings of culpability for human and environmental disaster.  “We knew /nothing and will not bear /your ashen blame” (14-16) the poem ends, in the italicized voice of an external source.  Perpetual shifts in narrative voice and choice of personal pronouns convey the difficulty in selecting or maintaining an authoritative standpoint when the issues at stake are at once personal and global, human and environmental, known and unknown.

In "A Season of Pain" we again see the human body squarely aligned with landscape in the title, and are presented with bodies experiencing pain as endured passages of time. Against this pained experience of time, is contrasted nature’s experience of time as indicating the growth and fruition of crop cycles (events affecting the body of the earth) in measured sequences.  When seasons are referred to in terms of the landscape, there are often associations of plenteousness (crops are said to be "in season") that the poem also presents in "The rounded hips, overflowing breasts" (12) described.  However, the description of the body (and sentences) as a series of "small shames" (5) complicates.   This is no cosy image of Mother Nature - "maternal /is such comfort with her cream soups, /homemade breads: Motherly" (13-15), - the "Motherly" italicised, as if drawing attention to its authenticity, as words can be italicized to signify speech marks; an act of naming that the author has called into question.  The word "maternal" is perhaps italicized to signify an approximation of a concept (motherly love, maternal instincts) that has no bearing in the corporeal reality of pain. Time is again disrupted by pain: "A sentence lasting all /year, then another in present /perfect: am having pain" (1-3).  Time and nature are not bountiful except in pain, while notions of abundance and nature's harvest are stopped prematurely by thoughts of death, as the citation from Paul Bowles in "My Body In Dream-Language" indicates: "Because we don't know when we will die /we come to think of life as an inexhaustible wealth". 

In “Among Pain”, Snyder's Earth House Hold 35 becomes "earth's house - /hold of pain" (19-20) - everything reduced to pain, and pain materialized in everything.  Just as the maternal is no longer presented as nurturing and fecund in "A Season of Pain", the domestic is no longer a safe space signalling a retreat or interior space hidden away from public view.  Instead it is highlighted and occupied by pain: "the back fence...still bleeds" (14), the "body in pain...cannot rise /from its chair"(16-17). Nor is it a shopping list that is calculated within this domestic space, but instead the "mind scrolls through a list of the disappeared, /decimated beings" (21-22). The domestic space is hollowed out, to house “cOMplete withDRAW /no sexual /no touch /was to flOat /without gravity /emptied Out until nO “I” left tO act human gONE,” (“Much that you don’t remember,”12-20). It is a desensitized, dehumanized space, where trauma acts on the body, and the body merely houses a detached acceptance.  We turn to Anne Waldman’s discussion of the body politic in Outrider36  in this context, where “domestic” is used to describe a political agenda, complicit in oppression operating within the author and reader’s own country of residence – these issues are not simply relating to those images of “other” as perpetuated by governments and the media, but within this site of interdisciplinary ethics, they are always to be located and addressed internally, personally.  Waldman writes: “stop all torture now /domestic & abroad /white phosphorus eating at bodies brought down in Fallujah /body bag body bunker body count body snatcher /corpse cadaver carcass /this is the political agenda.”37 Permutations of the word body range from the dead body housed in a “body bag” to the dehumanized body, represented only through the abstract numbers of a “body count.” When Hogue’s “mind scrolls through the list of disappeared, decimated beings” (“Among Pain” 21-22) she concludes that “If there is no escape, no separation, there are also no lies” (22-23). There is a sense of  unravelling truth in the co-emergent wisdom Hogue’s work inhabits, in which words from past poets are coterminous with Hogue’s own words, and atrocities witnessed by history are presented as contemporary with the time of writing, occurring in the present tense, from which there is “no escape, no separation.” 

The Greek root “oikos” or “eco”, meaning home or dwelling has been addressed in much of the discourse around the term ecopoetics. Tarlo has opined, with reference to Jonathan Bate’s The Song of the Earth:38

this emphasis on the domestic space of “home”, the language of house-making rather sticks in my throat. Frances Presley notes…that, in Bate’s book, reference to the oikos as the “woman’s domain” sits alongside a return to “the principles of Romanticism in which the feminine male can speak for both genders.39

Hogue’s depiction of the domestic also problematises gender, as she refuses to present the female body in comfortable allegiance with a maternal, natural world.  The female role within the generative condition, as providing a home for new life through the body in pregnancy, and through subsequent orchestration of a domestic setting, is also at once acknowledged and confused by the conflation of home and pain, wherein “pain blooms in a body” (25).  “Oikos” cannot be confined to “woman’s domain” as in Bate’s prescription, when trauma overspills into and troubles every material and subjective condition. When faced with this, Hogue describes how: “In the mind everything goes, larger than sky /or God, the heft of all being in perception /the weight of weight, of sense the same /only through feelings everyone shares” (“Among Pain” 4-7). Hogue positions the domestic on a coterminous sense plane with the political (“there is no escape, no separation” 22-23) and historical (“the mind scrolls through a list of disappeared, decimated beings” 21-22), within a present tense subjectivity released from narrowly conceived ideas of female subjectivity and agency within the world. Hogue’s brutal depiction of a troubled domestic space that cannot be painted over by nature poetry’s lyrical tendencies (the “fuchsia and lilac overtaking /the back fence…still bleeds” 13-14) aligns with Waldman’s call for a poetics of witness and documentation to the conflicts committed on the body, with Garrard’s poetics of responsibility, and with Retallack’s poethics of the continuous contemporary, developed in response to a need to discover:

How…imaginative, responsible, meaningful agency… (can)…thrive in such a complex and perilous world, fallen many times over, hardly off its knees when it comes to matters of hope?40

Retallack explains the necessity for this agency to operate in a temporally homogenous space:

Insofar as they exist at all in the imagination the horizon of the future and the horizon of the past are one and the same. There is no temporal direction for gazing at the past or the future, other than nondirectionally outward.  Get up and look around, as Cage once said.  You will see everything there is to work with right there, at the conceptually contingent location of your besieged senses.41

Predictably, the final poem in the sequence, “My Body in Dream-Language”, refuses to morph into a solid conclusion.  External voices are still permitted to enter the narrative, as italicized text excerpted from Bernado Bertolucci's The Sheltering Sky illustrates.  Questions still resound through the text: "I'm riding a horse (for a last time?) (1)...How many more times will you remember (12)...Perhaps four or five? (19)...How many /more times watch the full moon rise?" (19-20). Frequent "yets" and "buts" create a text of hesitant, opposing positions, and the double use of brackets allows for inconclusive or alternative, multiple statements.  The final lines in the poem, and of the sequence as a whole, read: “Yet it all seemed so limitless. //But we do not fall” (21-22). Here is Hogue’s pronouncement on these poems of playfully hoping pain. Multiple discourses jostle for authority, as the lack of definitive outcome and tolerance of indeterminacy provide sources of hopeful, hybrid thinking. This ecopoethical writing, where the ethos of making material newsense42 from the issues surrounding past and present environmental degradation and human culpability, complicates, yet also energises, writing produced in the shared terrain between ecology and poetics.



1 Skinner initially outlines the term ecopoetics in the journal’s first issue: Skinner, Jonathan, “Editor’s Statement”, ecopoetics, no.1, Winter 2001: 5-8; and later in Skinner, Jonathan. “Statement for ‘New Nature Writing’  Panel at 2005 AWP (Vancouver)”. ecopoetics, 4/5, 2004-5: 127-129.

2 Hogue, Cynthia. The Incognito Body, Red Hen Press, Los Angeles, 2006

3 Sprague, Jane, “Ecopoetics: Drawing on Calfskin Vellum”, “Women and Ecopoetics”, How2, 3:2. Sprague speaks of  her “(eco)poethical reading of… works.”

4 Retallack, Joan. The Poethical Wager, University of California, 2003, p.3.  Retallack’s term is “responsible awareness.”

5 Phillips, Dana. The Truth of Ecology: Nature, Culture, and Literatures in America. New York: Oxford UP, 2003, p. 211; Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism. New York: Routledge, 2004, p. 168, both cited by Armbruster in Green Letters, Volume 10, p.23

6 Garrard, p.168; cited by Armbruster in Green Letters, Volume 10, p.23

7 Garrard, p.168; cited by Armbruster in Green Letters, Volume 10, p.23

8 Retallack, p.12

9 Retallack, p.3

10 Retallack, p.44

11 Darragh, Tina. a(gain)2st the odds, Elmwood, Conn,: Potes & Poets Press, 1989

12 Darragh, Tina. Extract reprinted in Retallack, p. 48. 

13 Retallack, p.22

14 Retallack, p. 22-23

15 Garrard, p.168; cited by Armbruster in Green Letters, Volume 10, p.23; and Retallack, p.3

16 Armbruster, Karla. “Ecocriticism and the Postmodern Novel: The Case of Waterland,” in Green Letters, Studies in Ecocriticism, Volume 10

17 Wallace, Molly. “ ‘A Bizarre Ecology’: The Nature of Denatured Nature.” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 7. 2 (Summer 2000): 137-153. Extract re-printed in Armbruster, p.25

18 Sprague, Jane, “Ecopoetics: Drawing on Calfskin Vellum”, “Women and Ecopoetics”, How2, 3:2

19 Retallack, p.9

20 Waldman, Anne. Outrider, p.78

21 Craps, Stef. Trauma and Ethics in the Novels of Graham Swift: No Short-Cuts to Salvation. Sussex Academic Press, 2005, p. 27. Reprinted in Green Letters, Volume 10, p.29

22 Armbruster, p.34-3

23 Armbruster, p.34

24 Tarlo, Harriet. “Women and Ecopoetics”, How2, 3

25 Durand, Marcella. “Spatial Interpretations: Ways of Reading Ecological Poetry” in Reilly, Evelyn and Ijima, Branda. ((eco(lang) (uage (reader)). Portable Press at Yo Yo Labs, 2007; cited in Tarlo, Harriet. “Women and Ecopoetics”, How2, 3

26 Armbruster, Karla. “Ecocriticism and the Postmodern Novel: The Case of Waterland,” in Green Letters, Studies in Ecocriticism, Volume 10, p.30

27 Waldman, Anne. Outrider, p.78

28 Armbruster, Karla. “Ecocriticism and the Postmodern Novel: The Case of Waterland,” in Green Letters, Studies in Ecocriticism, Volume 10, p.35

29 Retallack, p.22

30 Armbruster, p.31

31 Hogue, p.91

32 White, Gilbert, The Natural History of Selbourne. First printed London: 1789.

33 Waldman, Anne. Kelly Writers House, Philadelphia, 2007; cited in Osman, Jena, “Is Poetry the News?: Poethics of the Found Text”, Jacket, 32, 2007

34 Showcased at Skylines, CCANW, Devon, June 2009. An Ecopoetics project I curated, project details online at:

35 Snyder, Gary. Earth House Hold: Technical Notes and Queries to Fellow Dharma Revolutionaries, New Directions, 1969

36 Waldman, Anne.  Outrider, Albuquerque, La Alameda Press, 2006

37 Waldman, Outrider, p. 62-63 

38 Bate, Jonathan. The Song of the Earth, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000; cited in Tarlo, Harriet. “Women and Ecopoetics”, How2, 3

39 Tarlo, Harriet. “Women and Ecopoetics”, How2, 3

40 Retallack, p.13

41 Retallack, p.14

42 Retallack, p.12



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