Wednesday, November 23, 2022

VULGAR ERRORS/ FERAL SUBJECTS #3: BLOOM, PIG!

 



Hello everyone, and welcome to our third posting for Vulgar Errors/ Feral Subjects, an informal poetry workshop with a particular focus on writing (and writing through) the abject animal other.

In last week’s IRL workshop we used the thirteenth century Latin poem, Vox Clamantis, by John Gower (an estate satire of the 1381 Peasants Rebellion), as a lens through which to explore the imaginative animalising of poor others within literature and across history. We spent some time in “Wolf Land”, reflecting on the ways in which the destruction of animal populations and native languages are fiendishly entangled; we discussed the ethics of representation, and whether or not it is possible – or indeed desirable – for art and poetry to get at the animal other. We discussed some strategies for disrupting the instrumental eloquence of what Jonathan Skinner refers to as ‘the monocrop’ of ‘hegemonic English’, through splicing, collaging, hybridising, glitching and remixing different kinds of authoritative text. Finally, we touched on the feral as an excess of joy and a form of survival – even resistance. To that end, here is the wonderful ‘Poetry is Not a Luxury’ by the immortal Audre Lorde:

https://makinglearning.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/poetry-is-not-a-luxury-audre-lorde.pdf

We are definitely going to be talking more about that! But first I wanted to backtrack a little and think in slightly more detail about the idea of representation. I’m going to start with a quote, not from a poem or by a poet (because counter-intuitive is the name of the game here), but from the novel The Atom Station by Icelandic author and out-spoken socialist Halldór Laxness. The novel is the story of Ugla, who moves from the mountains in the North of Iceland to work as a housemaid for her local Member of Parliament. It's a book about political and social hypocrisy centred on a decision to sell part of Iceland to provide a US airbase as an instrument of Cold War Anti-Soviet manoeuvring. The bit that is relevant to us, is Ugla's meditation on the difficulty of representing Nature/nature:

 

In this house there hung, so to speak, mountains and mountains and yet more mountains, mountains with glacial caps, mountains by the sea, ravines in mountains, lava below mountains, birds in front of mountains; and still more mountains; until finally these wastelands had the effect of a total flight from habitation, almost a denial of human life. […] Quite apart from how debased Nature becomes in a picture, nothing seems to me to express so much contempt for Nature as a painting of Nature. I touched the waterfall and did not get wet, and there was no sound of a cascade; over there was a little white cloud, standing still instead of breaking up; and if I sniffed that mountain slope I bumped my nose against a congealed mass and found only the smell of chemicals, at best a whiff of linseed oil; and where were the birds? And the flies? And the sun, so that one's eyes dazzled? Or the mist, so that one only saw a faint glimmer of the nearest willow shrub? […] What is the point of making a picture which is meant to be like Nature, when everyone knows that this is the one thing which a picture cannot be and shouldn't be? Who thought up the theory that Nature is a matter of sight alone? Those who know Nature hear it rather than see it, feel it rather than hear it; smell it – good heavens, yes – but first and foremost eat it. Certainly nature is in front of us, and behind us; Nature is under and over us, yes, and in us; but most particularly it exists in time, always changing and always passing, never the same; and never in a rectangular frame (p.39)


I think the Laxness is referring to a particular kind of twee geography porn that tries to make the outdoors palatable to people who wouldn't be caught dead there, but I also think it points to some of the ethical dilemmas inherent in those ‘rectangular frames’ of canvas and page, however rigorous or well-intentioned. Specifically the passage thinks about the limits of representation, everything a cultural artefact is unable to contain or to express. At its best, poetry is only ever going to be an imperfect sieve for lived experience; strained through both the unique subjectivity and the cultural context of its author (and its audience). If we're talking about writing as an act of preservation or conservation, then perhaps we need to accept that what we are preserving is only ever partial and necessarily mediated. We stop its course, arrest its flow, amber it in time and space. The creative act records and remembers, but it also dilutes and distorts.

 



We spoke a bit last week about the way Nature/ nature becomes hijacked and repurposed in the service of various political, nationalistic, and corporate scripts. The mountain canvasses, with which the walls of a prominent political figure are adorned, aren't there simply because he enjoys looking at mountains, rather they are symbolic of a particular Icelandic National Character and values; they are being enlisted as a form of propaganda that has very little to do with the conservation and care of the real Iceland. In fact the real Iceland is backgrounded, becomes an absent referent.

 If we were looking for a modern example from visual media that speaks specifically to the animal other, we might think about Coca-Cola's comic Christmas polar bears (nauseating, I know, but stay with this). I think during the last brand audit in December 2020 Coca-Cola was named as the world's worst plastic polluter for the third year in a row. Organisations such as Greenpeace stress this is not merely a litter or ocean problem resulting from the manufacture of single use plastic, but a fossil fuel infrastructure issue, a health issue, a social justice issue, and significantly, a climate issue. While Coca-Cola's anthropomorphised polar bears are used to promote the brand, the company continues to profit from practices that destroy that animal's habitat.  Potentially worse, recent years have seen Coca-Cola subtly reposition their brand, so that the polar bear becomes a vehicle for what environmentalist Jay Westerveld defined - as far back as 1989 - as “greenwashing”, the practice of falsely promoting an organization’s environmental efforts while spending more resources promoting that business as green than on engaging with environmentally sound and sustainable practices.

If we're thinking about the way poetry itself enlists or exploits nature, we might think not only of the way in which animal and environmental subjects have historically been utilised towards ideological ends, but the way in which they have become a metaphorical and imaginative resource.

There's a potentially useful quote from The Value of Ecocriticism by Timothy Clark (Cambridge, 2019), speaking specifically about the Romantic project, but which is also relevant to the field of contemporary lyric practice:


the reputation of [ …] William Wordsworth as a ‘nature poet’ has become contestable, with the realisation of how a problematically human – and even male-centred – stance structures a poem like the famous ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud.’ For this is concerned with natural phenomena (daffodils in this case) overwhelmingly as a psychic resource, to be celebrated in almost consumerist terms for their contribution to personal growth and pleasure (‘I gazed and gazed, but little thought / What wealth the show to me had brought’ (emphasis added) – a ‘great wildlife spectacle’, in effect. (p.11)


So, will any attempt to frame or transmit the natural world be morally suspect, or doomed to failure? And just to prove our sessions aren’t all rampant Wordsworth bashing, I also offer this from Carol J. Adams book, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory (Continuum, 1990): ‘radical feminists talk as if cultural exchanges with animals are literally true in relationship to women, they invoke and borrow what is actually done to animals…’ She writes about the way in which using meat and butchery as metaphors for women’s oppression is voicing our own ‘hog-squeal’ at the expense of the squeal of the literal hog, while acknowledging that male dominance and animal oppression are linked by the way that both women and animals function as absent referents in meat eating and dairy production; that feminist theory logically contains a vegan critique, just as veganism covertly challenges patriarchal society. Patriarchy is a gender system that is implicit in human/animal relationships. 


I wonder how we feel about that? And while we're wondering, let's take a look at the mighty Kim Hyesoon. Writing in a lyric essay about her practice, Hyesoon states the following:


In all this time that I’ve been writing poems, why have I tried so hard to reside within countless rats, pigs, birds, bears, ghosts, and women?

Did I not write about them so much as think I was “doing” them?

Why was I, unbeknownst to myself, using the voices of the dead or the disappeared?

[...]

You can say my poems are an endless “doing” from the in-between of doing-woman and doing-animal. These poems are adamantly me, and at the same time are a process of “doing” that is geared towards what is different from me, or not me—things that are humble, fragmented, people who seem insignificant. If poets do not involve themselves in this process or halt it and remain unmoving, they may choose to call themselves realists but they are neither real nor are they doing poetry. They are just manufacturers of slogans or metaphors, people who believe the sentimental is the real. This “doing” follows a line of affect. But the end of this line is endlessly delayed, and doing-poetry is a continuous flow, like a river forever open towards a certain direction.


Here’s the full essay:

 https://www.kln.or.kr/lines/essaysView.do?bbsIdx=650


And here is Kim Hyesoon, doing poetry:


BLOOM, PIG!

From Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream. Trans. Don Mee Choi (Action Books, 2014)


Has to die even if it didn’t steal

Has to die even if it didn’t kill

Without a trial

Without a whipping

Has to go into the pit to be buried


Black forklifts crowd in

No time to say Kill! Kill!

No time for the blood to splatter onto the shit-smeared walls or light bulbs

No time for the piglets just popped out from the stomach to get skinned and made into cheap colorful shoes


No time for the pale-faced interrogator wearing dark sunglasses to yell Fess up! Fess up!

No time to gamble with terror as if skipping rope, whether I can survive the torture or not

No time to bite the flesh of my mouth as if biting the hand that’s hitting my friend’s cheek in the next room

No time to tie up hands and feet and pull my head back and force water into me

No time to say Mommy please forgive me, I was wrong, I won’t do it again

No time to put a towel over my face and pour water from a pot

No handcuff or strap


Every night I read my country’s history of torture

Then in the morning I open the window and sing loudly at the roofs below the mountain

How could I possibly forget this place?

I have Pig who needs to be rinsed with a song then go

Dear Song, Please stay stuck to my body for 12 hours


A horde of healthy pigs like young strong men get thrown into the pit


They cry in the grave

They cry standing on two legs, not four

They cry with dirt over their heads

It’s not that I can’t stand the pain!

It’s the shame!

Inside the grave, stomachs fill with broth, broth and gas


Stomachs burst inside the grave


They boil up like a crummy stew

Blood flows out the grave

On a rainy night fishy-smelling pig ghosts flash flash

Busted intestine tunnel their way up from the grave and soar above the mound

A resurrection! Intestine is alive! Like a snake!


Bloom, Pig!

Fly, Pig!


Boars come and tear into the pigs

A flock of eagles comes and tears into the pigs


Night of internal organs raining down from the sky!

Night of flashing decapitated pigs!

Fearful night, unable to discard Pig even if I die and die again!

Night filled with pig squeals from all over!


Night of screams, I’m Pig! Pig!


Night when pigs bloom dangling-dangling from the pig-tree


What do we think of Hyesoon’s poem? Does it build a solidarity between experiences of oppression and abjection, experiences that take place both within the world and within language, across the human and the animal? Could Hyesoon’s practice be usefully described as feral? What makes it so?

*

And here arrives another seamless segue: an extract from John Berger's 1980 essay 'Why Look At Animals?':


To suppose that animals first entered the human imagination as meat or leather or horn is to project a 19th century attitude backwards across the millennia. Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises. For example, the domestication of cattle did not begin as a simple prospect of milk and meat. Cattle had magical functions, sometimes oracular, sometimes sacrificial. And the choice of a given species as magical, tameable and alimentary was originally determined by the habits, proximity and “invitation” of the animal in question.


Here's the full thing, and well-worth the read:

file:///C:/Users/onlye/Downloads/Berger_Why_look_at_animals.pdf

We don't have to accept Berger's statement wholesale, especially if we think about the magical and instrumental properties of an animal as being more closely related than he seems to suggest (i.e. perhaps cattle became endowed with magical significance precisely because human beings depended on them in so many practical ways), but I decided to share this quote because I think the idea of  a ‘magical’, ‘sacrificial’, or ‘oracular’ way of understanding the animal is one way of accessing the feral. And I wanted to introduce the idea that although a poem might replicate or comment upon the ‘contest of mastery’ or the unequal dynamics implicit in animal-human relations, it might also offer us a way of resisting this idea.


To which end, this gorgeous shape-shifting poem by Daria-Ann Martineau:


Carnivorous, with a varied and opportunistic diet

2020


Call me lagahoo, soucouyant. Call me other.

I came ravenous: mongoose consuming

fresh landscapes until I made myself


new species of the Indies.

Christen me how you wish, my muzzle

matted with blood of fresh invertebrates.


I disappear your problems

without thought to consequence.

Call me Obeah. Watch me cut


through cane, chase

sugar-hungry rats. Giggling

at mating season, I grow fat


multiples, litters thick as tropic air.

Don’t you find me beautiful? My soft animal

features, this body streamlined ruthless,


claws that won’t retract. You desire them.

You never ask me what I want. I take

your chickens, your iguana,


you watch me and wonder

when you will be outnumbered.

My offspring stalking your village,


ecosystems uprooted, roosts

swallowed whole.

I am not native. Not domesticated.


I am naturalized, resistant

to snake venoms, your colony’s toxins—

everything you brought me to,


this land. I chew and spit back

reptile and bird bone

prophecy strewn across stones.


What I like about this poem is that the speaker mocks the attempts of the addressee to map categories of identification or status onto her ever shifting form. She is one minute an animal, then a human, then a plant, then a supernatural entity. This suggests that the frictionless distinctions we draw between these categories are, at best, grossly oversimplified, worse, fictional, illusory. When  the speaker states: ‘I am naturalized, resistant/  to snake venoms, your colony’s toxins—/ everything you brought me to’ she signals the sorry history of colonial conquest, but also, I think, how a neat distinction between the natural and the man-made is now largely impossible: human beings are making changes to the biosphere that will be preserved in the geology, chemistry and biology of our planet for thousands or even millions of years. We are entering a period of unprecedented and catastrophic ecological crisis. And the scene of writing is not somehow magically immune from this changed dynamic between “civilization” and the natural world.  This poem advocates for adaptation and evolution, and for hybridity and ambiguity as mechanisms of survival. I love this poem’s darkly triumphalist tone. It is a warning: that which colonisers think they change can end up changing them just as surely. With pressure, the colonized person, or animal, or land, or language becomes stronger, more resilient, more capable and inventive. 


Martineau's poem is still staying within the bounds of the free-verse lyric form, using a (relatively) stable speaking subject in a project of direct and urgent address to an accused other. This feels important and necessary for this poem: it draws a parallel between the physical body of the colonised ‘other’ and the textual body of the poem. This implicates literature and the act of writing in the process of colonisation. It reminds us of the risks and consequences of words. 


*


And this seems like a good moment to offer an interjection about lyric practice in general, and the scope and limits of poetic (ecocritical) innovation, particularly with regards to the feral.


Specifically, I'm wondering about work that derives its potency and heft from a collision of the pure and profane, of 'nature' and its abused survivals. There's a suggestion within these kinds of image that something does not quite belong, that there is matter out of place, that a boundary has been transgressed. The problem with the feral is that it is equally at home in the landfill or the sewer. Waste is so often conceptualised as unwanted, discarded, leftover and useless, yet there are categories of both human and animal life (hyenic scavengers, gulls, waste-pickers) who disrupt the idea of trash as the mere inert residues of consumer society. Scavengers and synanthropes make trash come alive, part of a 'mutable, transnational, temporal process by which humans, to greater and lesser degrees, recognize and extract value and utility from matter. And as a process, trash is interwoven with rapid urbanization, energy consumption, climate change, international movement of toxics, and other major environmental challenges of our time' (Ted Mathys, 'Wastepickers and the Seduction of the Ecopoetical Image' in Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Trash, Issue 37, January 2014).


Something to think about, anyway. And here I'd like to introduce the idea of the 'necropastoral' with a quote from the essay 'What is the Necropastoral?' by Joyelle McSweeney:


The Necropastoral is a political-aesthetic zone in which the fact of mankind’s depredations cannot be separated from an experience of "nature" which is poisoned, mutated, aberrant, spectacular, full of ill effects and affects. The Necropastoral is a non-rational zone, anachronistic, it often looks backwards and does not subscribe to Cartesian coordinates or Enlightenment notions of rationality and linearity, cause and effect.  It does not subscribe to humanism but is interested in non-human modalities, like those of bugs, viruses, weeds and mould […] The Necropastoral is literally subterranean, Hadean, Arcadian in the sense that Death lives there. The Necropastoral  is not an "alternative" version of reality but it is a place where the farcical and outrageous horrors of Anthropocenic "life" are made visible as Death. […] The obscene: that which should be hidden away but forces its way through the membrane. Obscene event = Apocalypse…


Here's the full essay:


https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet-books/2014/04/what-is-the-necropastoral


We'll be returning to the necropastoral next week, but for now, here's a brief summary and food for thought for the final poem of the session: if pastoral poetry is concerned with an idealised depiction of nature, with the aim of moral or spiritual improvement, then the ‘necropastoral’ says that a jolt of fear or discomfort can be far more effective than romance in motivating change. Necro, of course, comes from the Greek nekros, meaning death or corpse. The necropastoral invites us to imagine a landscape filled with dead bodies, enslaved bodies, diseased bodies, mutilated bodies; worms, rats, cockroaches, rabid animals, decaying trees, polluted rivers, smog, rotting food, ruins, and blazing wildfires. The necropastoral repurposes or subverts the aims of the traditional pastoral, by forcing us to look at blighted nature, to consider sin, evil, fear, and destruction so that we might reflect on our mortality, morality, and ethics.


For McSweeney, our political calamites are inseparable from those that decimate the natural world. Which means that we, as poets, can not write as neutral, outside observers to the unfolding ecological crisis. It also means that we have an ethical imperative not to conceal or to beautify. McSweeney’s work is against the notion of catharsis and consolation, as a refusal of reality, a kind of letting-off-the-hook or willed inattention to what’s going on around us. She states that the necropastoral is ‘The lethal double of the pastoral and its fantasy of permanent, separated, rural peace. In emphasising the counterfeit nature of pastoral, the necropastoral makes visible the fact that nothing is pure or natural, that mutation and evolution are inhuman technologies, that all political assertions of the natural and the pure are themselves moribund and counterfeit, infected and rabid.’


Necropastoral poetry then is a space in which death and damage are viscerally visible, and in which we are entangled with nature, a nature that is ‘poisoned, mutated, aberrant, spectacular, full of ill effects and affects.’


Sounds like a hoot? Wait until you get a load of the final poem. In the session we looked at 'RENDERED' from The Cow by Ariana Reines (Fence Books, 2006), and I'm providing a link to the full text here (excuse the crappy quality of the scan, but I think it's still legible):


the-cow-ariana-reines.pdf


In her essay on The Cow, Daisy Lafarge writes about how certain kinds of poetry might offer spaces of criticism, not only of society, but of poetry itself:


In a poem, the body of the animal can only be conjured by the poet, and is subject to their (anthropo-) perspective, objectified in writing to illustrate a point, or else fetishized in metaphor, hollowed out as symbolic vessel in which something else can be smuggled – whether that be emotion, event or a part of the poet’s own psyche. This ‘exploitation’ is so much the lifeblood of poetry that it goes largely unchecked; any semi-fluent reader knows that Hughes’s crow, Blake’s tyger and Coleridge’s albatross amount to ‘more’ than zoological studies.


What poetry can do is ‘name and lay bare’; the damage done to animals in such a way that the reader is forced to recognise their own complicity. There's a pact, in a great deal of lyric poetry, between writer and reader, to uphold the animal as a metaphor. But what happens when a writer strives, as Reines does, to move beyond metaphor, to – as she puts it – ‘get to the other side of the animal’?


The Cow’s approach to the animal is intensely aware of the overlaps and gaps between how animals are treated by both the ‘machinery’ of poetry and that of the global meat industry. The book performs a kind of critique of how the animal is used as a linguistic figure, an edible resource, and a source of capital. I think Reines is also exploring the association between women’s bodies and animal bodies – as objectified and consumed by men.


‘Cow’, of course, is a loaded word within English. We might usefully ask ourselves if the poet can ever escape the weight of associations that accrete around the bovine as metaphor. Even when attending to the suffering of the literal animal, is a cow ever just a cow?


The Cow looks at the instrumentalisation of animal and human bodies in a system – namely the late-stage capitalist patriarchy – that does not regard either as worthy of care or preservation. This disregard is a process the environmental and feminist philosopher Val Plumwood, writing in Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (Routledge, 2003), refers to as ‘backgrounding’. It amounts to:


making the other inessential, denying the importance of the other’s contribution or even his or her reality, through mechanisms of focus and attention.


We can refer this back to the idea of disenchantment and rationalisation, the same process taken to its logical conclusion.


The Cow asks what comes of the attempt to foreground the animal. Although we exist in a time in which the rights and agency of nonhuman subjects are being theorised and considered more than ever, these same candidates are simultaneously subject to increasing exploitation and destruction at human hands. Reines’ book frames lyric lines within the clinical language of a livestock manual. The poems focus on ‘abjection, female filth and the damage we inflict on animal bodies’, shredding texts and physical forms alike, fusing and remixing human and animal identities, registers and lexicons, playing feminine artifice against the clinical language and graphic descriptions of guidance texts for the practice of butchery:


Boys rinse their / arms in what falls from my carotid. My body is the opposite of my body / when they hang me up by my hind legs.


In The Cow, woman and animal speaker are conflated; textual body and brutalised animal body are merged. In the poem ITEM, the reader is told that the omasum (the third part of a cow’s stomach) ‘is also called “the book” owing to its many leaf-like folds’. At one point Reines asks:


    What happens to the world when a body is a bag of stuff you can empty out of it.


    Errors, musculatures.


    Can I empty language out of me.


    What difference does it make how a thing dies.  Consciousness.  Nobody knows


    what that is…


*


All of which would seem to be enough to be getting on with. So I'll leave you with this week's prompt: write a poem about a blighted or deadly landscape from which animal life has been - or is being - expunged, and human habitation is becoming increasingly vexed. Or write a poem about how animals and/or humans find ways to exist in these blasted landscapes. Please send me the results, and feel free to bring them to the workshop next week!

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

VULGAR ERRORS/ FERAL SUBJECTS #2 VOX CLAMANTIS

 



Hello everyone, and welcome to our second posting for 'Vulgar Errors/ Feral Subjects', an informal poetry workshop with a particular focus on writing and writing through the abject animal other. The content I'm going to share today covers our IRL session for the 16th of November, as well as a bit of supplementary material for the week we missed, starting with this wee video version of our talk:

https://youtu.be/j0KqqbGWJp8

We start by looking at the dehumanising or animalising of ‘others’ in poetry and beyond, and delving into some of those strategies of representation and the long shadows they cast. We’re going to begin with a text that holds a particular kind of morbid fascination for me: the thirteenth century Latin poem, Vox Clamantis, by John Gower.

Vox Clamantis or The Voice of One Crying Out is both a dream vision and an estate satire of the 1381 Peasants Rebellion. The title is well chosen, it comes of course, from the Book of Isaiah, roughly, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Make his paths straight.’ And in this proselytising vein, Gower’s poetic persona is both stridently moralising and prophetic. He claims to record the complaints of the vox populi, to speak on behalf of 'the people', to reform while embodying his very particular vision of its collective concerns and voice. The cry, in its various guises, is central to Gower’s text, whether as articulate lament or feral howl.

The poem itself is a startling allegorical vision of social revolt, where rebellious peasants are transformed – literally – into wild animals, and London becomes a terrifying and bestial wasteland. These peasants are struck by the curse of God, morphing into pigs, dogs, and monstrous poultry. As they begin their transformations their voices degrade into animal cacophony, they leave their cosy heaps of dung and descend upon London like a biblical plague.

For Gower, the ‘common people’ speak – and cry – with one voice, they have the same needs, aims and ambitions: social harmony brought into being through good governance. The problem with society – the source of the cry – is that nobody is fulfilling his divinely ordained role: from ineffectual kings to worldly clergy; from supine nobility to lazy and feckless peasants. To speak as one – in God’s name – is the medium through which discontent is expressed, but it’s also a powerful force of social and spiritual cohesion, language is the instrument of redress and healing.

It is really telling, then, that the peasantry in Vox Clamantis are singing off-key. Gower excludes them from the mass of common humanity by transforming their voices into discordant war whoops and animal grunts. He shuts them out (and up) of the vox populi, which is besieged by and cries out against them. As Sarah Novak writes in her fab essay ‘Braying Peasants and the Poet as Prophet: Gower and The People in the Vox Clamantis’, Gower believes ‘in the power of language to repair the ills of society, to compose peace. However, just as God denies wealth and freedom to the peasant class for the common good — because someone must work the land — Gower deprives them of language, which would prove too dangerous in their mouths.’ (Novak, 2013).

Thinking back to our discussion last week about how we characterise the feral, do we think Gower’s peasants qualify? What’s different and monstrous about Gower’s rebellious peasants? Where in the text do we see the best evidence of their feral nature? I think feral here is not merely about wild or morally disquieting behaviour. I think this is feral as a form of potentially liberating refusal. (Here's a picture of Watt Tyler to celebrate).



Something we might usefully think about is the way in which the ‘curse’ renders literal the peasants' abject separation from the mass of obedient, patient and pious poor, and Gower’s text is both compelling and uniquely nauseating in this regard. It’s frustrating, because on one level the Vox Clamantis acknowledges the prevailing attitudes towards the poor held by their superiors, and the degrading treatment that results. To that rather limited extent, Gower is sympathetic to reform, but he is only able to advocate for these decent poor through the imaginative creation of a feral underclass, who don’t accept their lot, who dare to demand better. All peasants are equally lowly and coarse, but the humble and suffering peasant is closer to God, the rebellious peasant nearer not only to the beast, but the wild, dangerous, and unpredictable animal. 

The subjects of Gower’s divine curse are doubly monstrous, then: they regress first to the level of animals, but those animal forms are themselves subject to distortion, exceeding their known, stable parameters. Chickens become vultures, dogs become wolves. The domesticated beast suddenly bites the hand that feeds it, runs wild, goes rogue. Gower’s therianthropes are in violation of both natural law and social order. Natural law and social order are, in fact, presented as synonymous. The poor have always been one rung below personhood; this inherent inferiority excused their relative lack of freedom, and justified their exploitation. But the pacified poor, like their animals, were at least fit to be harnessed as edible resources or sources of labour. The rebellious poor turned the world upside down, a shapeless, surplus, violent mob. Yet, perhaps we could argue that they still possess a different kind of symbolic value: as scapegoats.

Bataille is really useful here, I think, when he notes that although association with the scummy, wretched masses is forbidden to the sovereign subject, this same feral population must remain as an ever-present cipher of disgust and fascination: an ob/abject lesson that sustains and contours the oppressor’s sovereignty and self-rule.  Law and Order governments need a criminal underclass. Nobody is working to put themselves out of business. But society needs its underclass for less tangible reasons too: in order, for example, to constitute an ideal expression of identity, to enact and reaffirm this identity against a mass of abject, subaltern others; to maintain and propagate this identity by fomenting and policing distinctions between citizen-subjects and across communities until this strict division of identities becomes naturalised as inevitable. I think we’ve got a nice contemporary example of this in the political evocation of “hard working families”, which pits poor, normative workers against unwaged, single, or non-normative social units.

So, one interesting thought might be that while the abject other disrupts and threatens social and political boundaries, they also function as a key component in the work of category maintenance, something for ideal or ‘sovereign’ subjects to measure themselves against. Their exclusion from society serves as a warning to the would-be deviant; the revulsion they excite and the banishment that results, solidifies those categories – hard working vs unemployed, sedentary vs traveller, etc. – as meaningful, in the face of those who would menace and disturb them. The oppressor, if you like, recuperates their use value as symbolic and political tools, as bogey men, as propaganda.

All of which is very interesting (at least I think so) but what is perhaps most germane to us as poets is how bound up this is with language, with the idea and status of language itself, with whose voice is allowed to be heard, and whose speech is ascribed the the status of language.

As a for instance, and to provoke a bit of discussion, I offer the following from my personal bette noir, the Victorian novelist, ethnographer, and self-proclaimed Gypsylorist, George Borrow. Borrow set himself up as an expert in and arbiter of “Gypsy” language and culture. He and his fellow “experts” coined of the phrase “poggado jib” (or “chib”), which they translate as “broken tongue”, to describe the degenerate speech of impure itinerants as opposed to that of the “true” or “pure” Romanies. Here’s a lovely wee quote to give you an idea of the man:

‘These people [“Abraham men” or “Pikers”] have frequently been confounded with the Gypsies, but are in reality a distinct race, though they resemble the latter in some points. They roam about like the Gypsies, and, like them, have a kind of secret language. But the Gypsies are a people of Oriental origin, whilst the Abrahamites are the scurf of the English body corporate. The language of the Gypsies is a real language, more like the Sanscrit than any other language in the world; whereas the speech of the Abrahamites is a horrid jargon, composed for the most part of low English words used in an allegorical sense’ – George Borrow, Romano Lavo-Lil (1874).

Again, I think Bataille offers us a useful lens to read through here, when he writes about peoples disenfranchised to such an extent that they are ‘disinherited [from] the possibility of being human’.  He refers to classes of humanity so thoroughly omitted from the usual processes of representation as to render them paradoxically classless. These, the feral, whom Bataille calls the abject. He states that the process of abjection is an essential component of sovereignty, which must, as an imperative, constitute a portion of the population as moral and spiritual pariahs, ‘represented from the outside with disgust as the dregs of the people, populace and gutter’ (Bataille, 1993). Oppression must concentrate within its static, self-contained, highly individual form, whereas ‘the oppressed are formed out of the amorphous and immense mass of the wretched population’, its voice a discordant animalistic babble.

When Borrow refers to Travellers as the ‘scurf of the body corporate’, he is evoking both the diseased bodies of the poor white other, and the besieged body of the state or the national culture. Here is the other at metonym for an embattled and infected whiteness. Scurf is from the Old English for to gnaw: to burrow under, undermine, to wear away with the termite teeth of poverty. Scurf is also to cut and to fragment. The “pure” body broken up from within. The social body, and the body of language.

I wonder what are some of the implications for poetic – especially lyric – practice? Which in itself is predicated upon a selective and highly controlled mastery over its materials? How do we communicate the complex set of power dynamics between languages and modes of speech? How do we make space for a collective and amorphous voice? 

As both a bonus, and one attempt to answer this question (and we're definitely going to talk about this more next session) please enjoy Sean Bonney's The Commons:

http://static1.1.sqspcdn.com/static/f/436447/4272776/1254103816363/sean-bonney-the-commons-ii.pdf?token=EHpW4Qw3Jn3ZiwXqzRWun2386Jw%3D

Embedded in the way we use language are a whole host of assumptions about degrees of agency and sentience. The thing with Man™, is that Man™ is a domestic animal. That is, he frames himself as uniquely artificial: his signal qualities are language, artifice, and the abstract thoughts which these things frame. He is the animal that domesticated itself. This idea is what Donna Haraway refers to as the doctrine of ‘human exceptionalism’ (Haraway, 2008), and it has been used as a lever to deny variously sentience, soul, mind, language, self-consciousness, technology, morality etc., to both nonhuman subjects and to animalised humans, so that the meaningful body becomes mere flesh, ripe for exploitation. In When Species Meet one of Haraway’s chief and most compelling contentions is that ‘The philosophic and literary conceit that all we have is representations and no access to what animals think and feel is wrong’. It’s an expedient position that justifies their death and suffering, every bit as contingent and socially created as Gower’s notion that God created the peasants to labour and struggle. How do we feel about that? Can we know an animal ‘other’? If they can be represented in writing, what are the ethics of this proposition?

We might ask what does it mean to represent and to be represented? We might ask, like Spivak in her landmark essay, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ (1988) Is speech for the nonhuman or even the feraltern subject possible or safe in a language that enables only its colonised (tamed and domesticated) forms? Can we, as Derrida suggests, render ‘delirious that interior voice that is the voice of the other in us’, or will our attempts to “get at” the animal ultimately dissolve into mediation, metabolising, assimilation?





Another of my trade-mark seamless segues leads us to language and imperilled animality through the lens of wolves, starting with the Topographia Hiberniae (1188) – an account of the landscape and peoples of Ireland by Gerald of Wales –  which depicts the Irish as bestial beings who express their inhumanity through intercourse with animals. It's a brilliantly bonkers text in which werewolves are a significant feature: a race of mainly treacherous, occasionally pious, human-shaped Irishmen, exemplars of low-cunning, and dirty animality. What has always struck me about this characterisation is how deep rooted and persistent it is. John Taylor would come to metaphorise the killing of protestants by howling ‘Irish wolves’, and Heylyn famously described an Irish race as behaving ‘scarcely like men’. For Cromwell, of course, the Irish were simply ‘beasts’ (Bartlett, 2010), candidates all for occupation, imprisonment, exile or extermination. We can bring this back to Spivak again through the idea that the barbaric practices of these wolfish Irish create a pool of victims who must be 'saved' from them via the forces of colonisation and civilisation.

Fun fact: the occupying English’ original name for Ireland was Wolf Land, an appellation that links the very real dangers of that country’s animal population with the presumed national character of its human inhabitants.

Wolves were one of the first known targets of animal destruction, and they became extinct in Ireland by 1770, an active project of annihilation that ran concurrently with Cromwell’s determined – but by no means novel – efforts to exterminate the Irish language. Attempts to render Ireland less ‘savage’ through the suppression and control of its language had been frequent throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The 1537 Act for the English Order, Habit and Language stated that in Ireland ‘the English tongue’ must be ‘used by all men’, associating ‘diversity’ of language with a ‘savage and wild kind and manner of living’ among Irish persons. A 1657 proclamation stated that citizens must raise their children to speak only English or face forcible transplantation to Connaught (a territory reserved for those who continued to practice Catholicism despite laws to the contrary).

The Irish had long been supposed to have wolfish and even hyenic tendencies. Edmund Spenser’s hysterical polemic A View of the Present State of Ireland (1596) claimed that the Irish were in the habit of eating wolves, forming various relationships with them, and ultimately transforming into them. This is a characteristic Spenser ascribes not only to the Irish, but to other others: ‘the Scythians sayd, that they were once every yere turned into wolves, and soe it is wrighten of the Irish’ etc. The text presents the Irish as ‘creeping forth’ on all fours from every corner of the ‘woods and glynnes’ to ‘eate the dead carrions’. This intimate association of the Irish with wild – and abject – animal behaviour has a poetic, but also a deeply political basis. As early as 1610, Lord Blennerhasset, Chief Baron of the Irish Exchequer, describes outlaw ‘woodkernes’ – peasant rebels – who reside in the forest as ‘human wolves’ who ought to be tracked down ‘to their lairs’ and destroyed. Deforestation becomes a potent symbolic act, and political resistance is repeatedly coded as inherently bestial, with the hunting of both wolves and dissenting humans celebrated and rewarded by the state. Ireland’s status as a colony has long been linked to its identity as a fearful and fascinating ‘wolf-land’ for the occupying English. this feral disobedience concentrates in Irish bodies: in the 1650s a Captain in general Ireton’s regiment described the slaughter of an Irish garrison at Cashel. He claims that among the bodies were found ‘divers that had tails near a quarter of a yard long’. The amorphous hybrid nature of those bodies justifies the logic of producing them. Feral subjects. Matter out of place.

So here’s a related question: how do we describe the destruction of a language or a dialect when the language we use is implicated in that very destruction? For those of us with only fragments of an ancestral or prior cultural tongue, how are we to articulate loss when the thing that is lost is language itself?

And if that wasn't enough, here’s another difficulty, especially for those of us writing primarily in English. The Māori poet Vaughan Rapatahana speaks eloquently about the ‘Hydra-like dominion’ of the English language across the globe, pushed by agencies such as the British Council, for reasons of economic and cultural power. Rapatahana describes this as a form of linguistic neo-imperialism, stating that ‘the more we are pushed and pulled into Anglo English language entrapment, the further we are also lured into learning that dominant language’s distinct cultural tropes at the expense of our own.’ We might add this cautionary observation from Ann Wierzbicka, writing in Imprisoned in English: The Hazards of English as a Default Language (Oxford University Press USA, 2014): ‘while English is a language of global significance, it is not a neutral instrument or one that, unlike other languages, carves nature at its joints […] if this is not recognized, English can at times become a conceptual prison’.

In his essay ‘Ecopoetics’ (more of that anon) Jonathan Skinner writes about how a variety of poetic modes or tactics modelled on the natural world – such as non-linearity, recycling, complexity, collage – work to 'diversify the ‘monocrop of a hegemonic language like English’. Here Skinner is using an analogy from agricultural practice. Monocropping is growing a single crop year after year on the same land, in the absence of rotation through other crops. We know now that planting the same crop in the same place each year removes nutrients from the earth and leaves soil weak and unable to support healthy plant growth. Furthermore, because soil structure and quality is so poor, farmers are forced to use chemical fertilizers to stimulate growth. Skinner compares this practice of monocropping to what he calls ‘hegemonic English’, deliberately reducing space for linguistic and cultural difference as an expression of power. It tells us there is a proscribed way to write and to sound and to think, and it marginalises or erases contributions to culture that don’t conform to those narrow parameters. As Donna Haraway writes in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women (Taylor & Francis, 2013), ‘Grammar is politics by other means.’

Heavy stuff which lead to this week’s prompt: try to find some of endangered words from within your own life and experience. They might belong to another language or dialect; they might describe a place or an occupation that no longer exists; they might refer to extinct species from your local environment, they might be rooted in folklore or legend or belong to a particular vanished cohort or subculture. Draft a poem that uses any number of these endangered words to write a poem that addresses both environmental and linguistic threat, united animal and language together.

 


PS: Remember! Extinction is not primarily cultural. It is environmental. While language and nature are inextricably linked, ecological decline is also its own distinct species of horror. As Ursula Heise writes in Imagining Extinction (University of Chicago Press, 2016), narratives of ecological destruction, which often borrow from genre conventions such as tragedy and elegy, can easily turn into narratives of human decline. Environmental crisis ‘typically becomes a proxy for cultural concerns’, writes Heise, and this risks erasing the very ‘others’ we seek to signify and mourn.


Delve a little deeper?

 Here are some interesting and provocative ideas from the works cited in this week's discussion. A strange world of anxiety and affinity. Dive in!

* Novak, Sarah, 'Braying peasants and the poet as prophet: Gower and the people in the Vox clamantis', Études anglaises, vol. 66, no. 3, 2013, pp. 311-322

file:///C:/Users/onlye/Downloads/ETAN_663_0311%20(3).pdf

"Before fleeing in terror, the dreamer sees the curse of God strike bands of peasants, who are all transformed into domestic and wild animals, such as donkeys, pigs, poultry, dogs and flies  and then descend upon London. They leave their cozy heaps of dung— a number of the groups of animals are described as sleeping contentedly in their own filth, fimum, before they leave it to join the crowd. [...] The morphed animals deviate from their nature: the newly-formed pigs are like wild boars, the dogs like wolves, the chickens like vultures and so forth. Thanks to this dream device, Gower can give free range to hyperbole and has no obligations to fact or even to verisimilitude: rivers flowing with blood, Gog and Magog, the race of Cain, Cerberus and Ulysses’ former companions all join in the peasants’ march. [Gower's text] precariously unites the voice of God with that of the people, both urging him to record the unspeakable crimes of the serfs. Meanwhile, before this heavenly voice intervenes, the only voice to be heard is that of the mob of peasants, and they do not speak as one—they roar, bray, hiss, snort flames, and most of all, they act. They pillage, burn, hunt down innocent prey, and commit gory murders in hordes. When all these creatures are assembled, their collective noise convinces all who hear it that the Apocalypse is at hand"

* And you can check out an English translation of the Vox for yourself here:

http://gowertranslation.pbworks.com/w/page/149185233/Vox%20Clamantis%20Book%20I

*Our old friend Bataille again. Bataille Georges, ‘Abjection and Miserable Forms’, More and Less, ed. Sylvère Lotringer, trans. Yvonne Shafir (1934; MIT Press, 1993) on the heterogeneus society:

"basic element of subversion, the wretched population, exploited for production and cut off from life by a prohibition on contact [...] the dregs of the people, populace and gutter"

* A fascinating essay on Borrow and the abject othering of Travellers, here:

Lee, Ken, ‘Orientalism and Gypsylorism’, Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice 44, no. 2 (2000): pp.129–56. 

* Here's a link to a totally crazy undertaking, specifically and English translation of Topographia Hibernia:

 the https://www.yorku.ca/inpar/topography_ireland.pdf

* My personal favourite. Haraway, Donna, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: the Reinvention of Nature (Free Association Books, 1991) p.36:

''Our relations with 'nature' might be imagined as a social engagement with a being who is neither 'it', 'you', 'thou', 'he', 'she" nor 'they' in relation to 'us'. The pronouns embedded in sentences about contestations for what may count as nature are themselves political tools, expressing hopes, fears, and contradictory histories. Grammar is politics by other means. 'What narrative possibilities might lie in monstrous linguistic figures for relations with 'nature' for ecofeminist work?"

I was able to find a pdf of the text as well. Enjoy!:

https://ia903101.us.archive.org/34/items/harawaydonnajsimianscyborgsandwomenthereinventionofnature/Haraway_Donna_J_Simians_Cyborgs_and_Women_The_Reinvention_of_Nature.pdf

* And here is Spivak's landmark 1988 essay, 'Can the Subaltern Speak?'

https://abahlali.org/files/Can_the_subaltern_speak.pdf

* And Johnathon Skinner's essay (p.105):

https://ecopoetics.files.wordpress.com/2008/06/eco1.pdf

* Bunce, Pauline with prof. Robert Phillipson, Vaughan Rapatahana, Ruanni Tupas, Why English: Confronting the Hydra (Multilingual Matters, 2016).

* Wierzbicka, Ann,  Imprisoned in English: The Hazards of English as a Default Language, (Oxford University Press USA, 2014)

* You may or may not also be overjoyed to hear that I found a complete pdf of Ursula Heise’s brilliant Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meaning of Endangered Species:

ursula-k-heise-imagining-extinction-the-cultural-meanings-of-endangered-species

* Do also check out Haraway, Donna When Species Meet (University of Minnesota Press, 2008), and the brilliant The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003) which I happen to have a pdf of.

haraway_companion.pdf

Finally, here is an extract from Vox Clamantis


From Vox Clamantis by John Gower

Trans. Robert J. Meindl and Mark Riley

 

 

Here begins the Chronicle called Vox Clamantis.

 

 In the beginning of this modest work, the author intends to describe how the peasant serfs rashly arose against the freeborn and the nobility of the realm. And because an affair of this sort was like an abominable and hideous portent, he says that he saw in a dream various mobs of the rabble transformed into different kinds of domestic animals. However, he says that those domestic animals, turning away from their nature, took upon themselves the savagery of wild beasts. Concerning the causes for which such outrages occur among men, he discusses further according to the divisions of this book, which is arranged in seven parts, as what follows below will clearly show.

 

[…]

 

I thought I walked in fields to gather some flowers,
When Mars himself venerates his own day.  
My way had not been long, when near at hand I saw                                   
A host of very frightening portents,                                       170
Many malicious sorts of the common people,
Wandering through the fields in untold mobs.
And while my eyes thus looked upon the swirling crowds,
And I marvelled at so much peasantry,
Lo! the curse of God flashed suddenly upon them,
And, changing their shapes, turned them into beasts.
Those who before had been men, of innate reason,
Took the likeness of irrational beasts.
Different shapes characterized different mobs,
Marked each one by its own occupation.                                   180
Since dreams signify, I’ll show the wondrous events
That make me yet more fearful now I wake.
 I saw rebels, by sudden novelty, prideful
Asses, and nobody held their bridles.
For, their guts suffused with the fury of lions,
They ventured forth in search of their own prey.
For halters are useless, and can’t control their heads,
While the asses prance wildly through the fields;
Lo! their racket terrified all the citizens,
While they bray their hee-haws all together.               190
The donkeys have become violent wild burros,
And what had been useful is now useless.
They decline further to carry sacks to the villes;
They don’t want to bend their backs with the weight;
Nor do they care for the coarse grasses in the hills,
But from now on seek something more tasty.
They drive others from their homes, and want without right
To have the rights of horses for themselves.
 The asses from now on presume to enjoy jewelled
Saddles, and to have their manes always combed.                 200
As old Burnellus once so foolishly wanted
His own docked tail to be lengthened anew,
So these wretches seek in vain for new spacious rears,
To be from behind alike lion and ass.
 The ass adorned his back with a leonine pelt,
And his vainglory overstepped all bounds.

 

[…]

 

Great things suit great people, and small things, small people,
But those who are born low want to be grand.
A thought that has lasting effects is sudden born,
And lightly incurs an endless burden.                                    220
So the foolish asses, whom arrogance stirs up,
Refuse neglected duties set by every law.
The insanity in the air corrupted them,
So they were changed as if portents for me.
Those whom I had known formerly by their long ears
Bore long horns in the midst of their foreheads.
The two-edged sword does not cut more fiercely than those,
And they were drenched with the blood from fresh wounds.
They who, lazy by nature, were wont to loiter,
Ran at the fore with the quickness of stags.                           230








VULGAR ERRORS/ FERAL SUBJECTS #3: BLOOM, PIG!

  Hello everyone, and welcome to our third posting for Vulgar Errors/ Feral Subjects, an informal poetry workshop with a particular focus on...