Ecologies of vibrant matter in contemporary poetry

This essay explores how ordinary objects and substances are given agency to become, in Jane Bennett’s words, ‘agential actants’. I review the importance of Bennett’s work in vital materialism where she rethinks the value of inanimate objects and our relationship to them. Then, drawing on the work of selected poets including Simon Armitage, Kathleen Jamie, Luke Kennard, Judith Wright, John Kinsella and Oodgeroo Noonuccal, I explore how these poets deploy humble, inanimate objects and substances (plastic; dust, industrial, chemical and green waste) as ‘vibrant matter’ to intensify, subvert and foreground the ecological meaning and being of objects in their poems.

I show that while certain poetic explorations of rubbish and waste predate the rise of vital materialist theory, such theory provides new ecological ethical frameworks for re-thinking inanimate forms in poetry. I finally suggest that vital materialist ideas facilitate urgent creative and critical re-evaluations of poetic ‘objecthood’ within poetries of the ‘so-called’ natural world. To that end, poems from Kinsella, Reilly, Armitage, Kennard and Jamie arise as provocations to idealised and romantic portrayals of nature in which figures of waste and rubbish have mostly been elided. This essay therefore participates in current posthuman thinking which casts remaindered objects and substances as ecologies of lively matter alongside the human. 

 

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By a reef off Indonesia’s Sumbawa Island, a tiny seahorse grasps a pink ear bud.
Photo: Justin Hofman, Sewage Surfer, part of the Wildlife Photographer of The Year Exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum, published 16 September 2017.

 

Key words: poetry — objects — matter — rubbish — trash — actants — intra-actants — new materialism — vital materialism — pastoral poetry —ecocriticism

 

Nature is a scene by Casper David Friedrich
It points to a place beyond peaks and pinnacles
And seems to redeem the general pillage
But children circle the garbage piles
Evelyn Reilly, ‘Broken water’ (2008)

 

Introduction: Object paradigms in vital materialism

As Australian poet John Kinsella has observed, ‘There is plenty of room for misunderstanding forms’ (2016: 224). Alongside Kinsella, and sounding deceptively like a modern poetry critic rather than a vital materialist philosopher, Jane Bennett considers forms of nature, ethics and human affect to propose that we ‘turn the figures of “life” and “matter” around and around, worrying them until they start to seem strange, in something like the way a common word when repeated can become foreign nonsense sound’ (Bennett 2010: vii).

But in her essay ‘The force of things’ (2010), Bennett’s language moves inadvertently closer to that of the poet. One warm summer day in June, Bennett does not simply put out the trash; the trash puts her out, in the sense that it provokes in her a poet’s attention to displacing ordinary and habitual perceptions of certain material objects, in this case rubbish, or ‘trash’, as Americans call it. Closing the distance to the debris surrounding her, and with the deep attention worthy of a poet or bowerbird building a flirtatious blue cathedral, she notes:

Glove, pollen, rat, cap, stick … they shimmered back and forth between debris and thing — between, on the one hand, stuff to ignore, except insofar as it betokened human activity (the workman’s efforts, the litterer’s toss, the rat-poisoner’s success), and, on the other hand, stuff that commanded attention in its own right, as existents in excess of their association with human meanings, habits, or projects … I was repelled by the dead (or was it merely sleeping?) rat and dismayed by the litter, but I also felt something else: a nameless awareness of the impossible singularity of that rat, that configuration of pollen, that otherwise utterly banal, mass-produced water-bottle cap. (Bennett 2010: 4)

For Bennett, this ‘contingent tableau’ or horizontal ‘assemblage’ of seemingly inert things begins to shimmer and spark; it is part of the weather, the morning, the asphalt street, her bodily self:

In this assemblage, objects appeared as things, that is, as vivid entities not entirely reducible to the contexts in which (human) subjects set them, never entirely exhausted by their semiotics. In my encounter with the gutter on Cold Spring Lane, I glimpsed a culture of things irreducible to the culture of objects. (2010: 5)

Bennett’s experience does not quite conjure a poem, but nonetheless, a kind of lyrical, ecopoetical attention attends her trash epiphany. Not for nothing does she reprise lyrical transcendentalist Thoreau (‘For I came on the glove-pollen-rat-stick with Thoreau in my head, who had encouraged me to practice “the discipline of looking at what is to be seen”’) (Bennett 2010: 5),1 as if the pastoral/animistic spirit beloved by the temporary woodsman had been newly identified in the mire of suburban American rubbish, and was now suddenly reverberating in meanings too subtle for mere human intellect to fully parse. For Bennett, the journey to the top of the junk mountain is always worth it, worth conquering perhaps, if only to possess an intensified view and sensual hoard of sundry ‘crap’ found at such an altitude. As Thoreau writes, ‘There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world, and yet we tolerate incredible dullness’ (Thoreau 1995 [1854]: 215). Thoreau also writes, however, that ‘life is in us like the water in the river’ (215).

For Bennett, inanimate substances ‘produce effects dramatic and subtle’ (2010: 6), and the items that she saw on the ground that June day were ‘vibratory’ (2010: 5). But are worrying rhetorical remnants of Romanticist ethnography glimpsed from time to time in Bennett’s full-hearted embrace of trash-after-Thoreau, in which a detectable idealisation of toxicity (the dump replacing the cottage at Walden Pond) is sometimes apparent in her praise of the atomic? I found myself asking, after reading many Bennettian ‘faith statements’ around the potentials of garbage, if she wanted to have her dynamic object and pray to it too.

Bennett is ultimately too savvy to simply link her political project to hagiographic historical cultural epiphanies of transcendent nature, to document new colonisations of the seen. Similarly, as Laura Dassow Walls has observed, Thoreau living in isolation in his cottage ‘found not objects apart from subjects but networks, agents’ (Dassow Walls 2011: 99). For example, Thoreau writes:

Every one has heard the story … of a strong and beautiful bug which came out of the dry leaf of an old table of apple-tree wood, which had stood in a farmer’s kitchen for sixty years, first in Connecticut, and afterwards in Massachusetts, — from an egg deposited in the living tree many years earlier still, as appeared in counting the annual layers beyond it; which was heard gnawing out for several weeks, hatched perchance by the heat of an urn. (Thoreau 1995 [1854]: 215)

Thoreau’s rambles and writings, his collecting of objects of all humble kinds, continue to open up an ecocritical space for thought and action between subjectivity and objectivity, science and the humanities. Thoreau, with his pockets full of objects, berries and paper, was also, busily, practically ‘imagining the limits of modernism and outlining an alternative’, as Dassow Walls puts it (2011: 99). For Bennett, this may be the most relevant aspect of Thoreau’s work and an historical template for new engagements with the world of substances and objects. As Bruno Latour has keenly observed in relation to the 1997 Kyoto accords on climate change, ‘Politics has to get to work without the transcendence of nature’ (in Morton 2015: 255).

The term ‘new materialism’ was first used by philosophers Manuel De Landa (1995) and Rosi Braidotti (2002). New materialism in essence shows how the mind is always already material (the mind is an idea of the body), and how nature and culture are already ‘naturecultures’ (Haraway 2003) rather than endlessly binaried, dialectical entities.2 Bennett’s political philosophy emphasises ‘thing power’ (2010: 4), while her new materialist colleague, Karen Barad, uses the post-atomic term ‘intra-actions’ to describe relational, dynamic assemblages of material forms (Barad 2008: 135). For Barad, as for Bennett, the world is made of entanglements of ‘social’ and ‘natural’ agencies, where the distinction between the two emerges out of specific intra-actions. ‘Intra-activity’, Barad’s key term, is seen as an inexhaustible dynamism that configures and reconfigures relations of space–time–matter.3 Matter, Barad says, controversially, ‘feels, converses, suffers, desires, yearns and remembers’ (in Dolphijn and van der Tuin 2012).

Latour’s term ‘actant’ evidently remains central to both Bennett’s and Barad’s theses on inanimate forms. Bennett extends this term to both human and nonhuman realms:

An actant is a source of action that can be either human or nonhuman; it is that which has efficacy, can do things, has sufficient coherence to make a difference, produce effects, alters the course of events. It is any entity that modifies another entity in a trial. (Bennett 2010: viii; on Latour 2004: 237)

Bennett’s and Barad’s ideas are inspired by Deleuze and Guattari’s exploration of ‘material vitalism’ (1987). Following Spinozan theism,4 these theories propose that vitality is perceived as immanent in all matter. Bennett and Barad similarly believe objects are alive because they are efficacious, producing effects and altering the course of events historical, ecological, physical and cultural. To endow inanimate objects with agency is to re-think the centrality and verticality of human energy and control. To embrace the notion of matter, even discarded matter, as vibrant, is therefore, for artists and poets, a potentially intensely political conceptual act.

Also in Bennett’s theoretical-philosophical carrier bag of influences is Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, a text that pre-empts vital materialist manifestos by demonstrating how the immanence of living bodies extends to all living things; that the human gaze, ‘prompted by the experience of our own body, will discover in all other “objects” the miracle of expression’ (Bennett 2010: 5; see Merleau-Ponty 1981 [1945]: 197). That is to say, Bennett could not, could not, therefore, know glove, pollen, rat, cap or stick without apprising these objects through the medium of bodily sensation and awareness.

Bennett’s thesis on inanimate things draws directly upon Merleau-Ponty’s ideas on the co-existence of objects and the primacy of embodied knowledge over Cartesian consciousness as the centre of knowledge: ‘Any seeing of an object by me is instantaneously reiterated among all those objects which are apprehended as co-existent’ (Merleau-Ponty 2002: 144–45). The philosopher’s emphasis here appears to rest upon the spatial-visual perception of objects, as does Bennett’s, but this is deceptive, for he subsequently critiques the limitations of ‘seeing’, the colonising, anthropocentric view, when he reflects that:

I regard my body, which is my point of view upon the world, as one of the objects of that world. My recent awareness of my gaze as a means of knowledge, I now repress, and treat my eyes as bits of matter. They then take their place within the same objective space in which I am trying to situate the external object. (2002: 148)

In Merleau-Ponty’s pluriverse, then, all objects have a ‘reciprocal determination’: ‘We must discover the origin of the object at the very centre of our experience; we must describe the emergence of being and we must understand how, paradoxically, there is for us an in-itself’ (2002: 149).

Bennett, following Merleau-Ponty, cannot resist a transcendental tweak of her own ‘object creed’ (my emphasis) when she proposes an ecologically updated Nicene Creed for vital materialists:

I believe in one matter-energy, the maker of things seen and unseen. I believe that this pluriverse is traversed by heterogeneities that are continually doing things. I believe that it is wrong to deny vitality to nonhuman bodies, forces, and forms, and that a careful course of anthropomorphization can help reveal that vitality, even though it resists full translation and exceeds my comprehensive grasp. (2010: 122)

Bennett thus extends Merleau-Ponty’s thought to furnish a secular ethic in relation to the bodily apprehension of objects and substances, even remaindered or toxic substances. How, she asks, might rubbish, waste and chemical run-off be thought and respected anew in the world by human beings? For the purposes of this exploration of vibrant matter in poetry, then, what ‘reciprocal determinations’ exist between the human being and being-as-rubbish or being-as-waste? If we attribute beingness to things, is thingness exceeded? And how can poets attribute a compelling ‘in-itself’, in Merleau-Ponty’s ontological phrase, to objects that have historically been denied status in poetry and culture generally?

 

Culture, poetry and vital materialism

It can be shown that poets, past and present, working intuitively, intellectually or both, have variously been working to develop a fully post-animist, post-pastoral ethics of the object. Mandy Bloomfield has identified numerous English poets such as Harriet Tarlo, Evelyn Reilly and others whose ‘work is interested in exploring and expanding vocabularies, epistemologies and ontologies pertinent to ecological questions’, even where that means unsettling contested notions of sustainability with a ‘poetics of discomfort’ (Bloomfield 2015: 21). This may not always be the same thing as risking the aesthetics of a work of art for purely political purposes, though that must be acknowledged as a desired outcome for environmental poet–proselytes.

New materialist ideas often interconnect with older poetries sharing political impulses to reimagine and distribute agency to (other) bodies and environments. As Percy Bysshe Shelley famously wrote in ‘A Defence of Poetry’, ‘reason respects the differences, and the imagination the similitudes of things’ (2009 [1840]). For Shelley, as for vital materialist thinkers, this is not an argument for a homogenisation or blanket democratisation of things, but for attributing agency, energy, and capacity to things in nature, so-called.

For British environmental poet Evelyn Reilly, drawing attention to ‘similitudes’ of things helps point to deleterious relations between subjects and objects: ‘You’re filthy! They [the children] say to the doll leaking effluents / Vegetation climbs up over the precipice / As planes touch down on the landing strip / Friction is an exchange of energy and tarmac … They hand the sentence to the subject / They subject the subject to time / The subject is treated like an object / The sentence is said to be “life” / And no one has objected’ (Reilly 2008). Here, Reilly creates a strange assemblage of things that are co-existent, without hierarchy.

As Bennett might say, following Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of assemblages as ‘ad hoc groupings of diverse elements … living throbbing confederations’ (Bennett 2010: 23), we too, as individual actants, are part of the ‘agency of the assemblage’ (2010: 24). Spinoza directly inflects her thesis: ‘The key idea I want to take from Spinoza’s rich and contestable philosophy … is this: bodies enhance their power in or as a heterogeneous assemblage’ (23).

In this, Bennett is also influenced by fellow vital materialist philosopher Manuel DeLanda, who has observed that outside the great industrial ‘progress’ narrative of modernity, even the most humble elemental and/or compound substances can self-organise and exhibit remarkable diversity beyond industrial requirements:

the nineteenth-century quest for [material] uniformity may have damaging effects for the philosophy of matter … [but] we may now be in a position to think about the origin of form and structure, not as something imposed from the outside on an inert matter, not as a hierarchical command from above as in an assembly line, but as something that may come from within the materials, a form that we tease out of those materials as we allow them to have their say in the structures we create. (DeLanda 1995)

DeLanda favours a directly anthropomorphic language as a basis for radical ecological thinking. We must allow materials ‘to have their say’, he insists. How then do poets enable material objects and substances to have their say? What poetic techniques are best suited to this kind of disquisition? If we don’t allow materials to ‘have their say’, if we fail to ethically activate the metaphors used to describe, assemble, narrativise and render objects, then we may risk, as Swanson et al (2017) have pointed out, a failure to recognise the importance of symbiotic markings or sympoiesis. ‘Symbiotic relationships must be constantly renewed and negotiated within life’s entanglements’, they write (2017: 5). This, they say, referring back to Donna Haraway (2003), ‘is just the beginning of “staying with the trouble” … Symbioses are vulnerable; the fate of one species can change whole ecosystems’ (Swanson et al 2017: 5).

The project of vital materialism, then, as for new poetries of the object and the object in the natural world, is less a performative and/or literary/aesthetic/spiritual one, than an ethico-political, posthuman one. Yet some commentators believe that material ecocriticism has been ‘less forthcoming in its examination of emotional affect; that is, in exploring ways in which cultural forms might dramatise those affects’ (Marland 2015: 122; see also Marland & Parham 2014). This is because, as Marland continues:

such an investigation might be seen as undermining one of the central drives of the new materialisms — that of focusing on the vitality and agency of non-human matter in order to assist in the dismantling of the notion of a discrete and uniquely agentic human subject (2015: 122).

Bennett herself warns of this post-humanist paradox, how it seems both ‘necessary and impossible to rewrite the default grammar of agency, a grammar that assigns activity to people and passivity to things’ (2010: 119). She does not hesitate to ask the difficult questions: ‘Is it not, after all, a self-conscious, language-wielding human who is articulating this philosophy of vibrant matter?’ (2010: 120).

What, then, of poets wielding language? Do particular substances — rubbish and marginalised elements/assemblages in particular — require ever more careful gleaning, sorting and foregrounding within contemporary poems in order to compensate for historical idealisations of pastoral poetry in which natural objects are nearly always beautiful and nearly always passive/stilled? What specific imaginative strategies, affects (and technologies) might be summoned so that poets do not lapse into hierarchies of subjecthood and objecthood, binaries of passive and active matter?

 

Tactics for cultivating vibrant matter in life and poetry: Junk alignments

Simon Armitage (2014) has written with noticeable empathy of a dumped tyre spinning through the farmlands of the moors and its encroaching suburban settlements:

Tractor-size, six or seven feet across,
it was sloughed, unconscious, warm to the touch,
its gashed, rhinoceros, sea-lion skin
nursing a gallon of rain in its gut.
Lashed to the planet with grasses and roots,
it had to be cut. Stood up it was drunk
or slugged, wanted nothing more than to slump,
to spiral back to its circle of sleep,
dream another year in its nest of peat.
We bullied it over the moor, drove it

 There and then we were one connected thing,
 five of us, all hands steering a tall ship
 or one hand fingering a coin or ring.

 

The opening of this poem suggests human control of, then brotherly fealty with the tyre as the narrator and fellows ‘guide its sleepwalk’ through fields to level ground (2014: 86). But as the free verse odyssey proceeds, the tyre’s young minders see that it is perfectly capable of ‘lying in the gutter, playing dead’ (87), of picking up pace and freewheeling, resisting human force and moving ‘up through the gears’ (86), ‘carried away by its own momentum’ (87). Through these intensified verbal anthropomorphisms, the ‘self-organising’ capacities of the rubber tyre become apparent even though it does not ever literally speak (in the sense that an inanimate object in a fairytale or an object in a poem is given direct speech). The poet is nonetheless allowing the object to have its say (see DeLanda 1995). The tyre’s agency is irrefutable; it is not something to be kept ‘like a giant fossil’ (87). The children, gobsmacked by the tyre’s loss after overseeing its burning-rubber rampage through the village, finally know that the tyre:

had travelled too fast for its size and mass,
and broken through some barrier of speed,
outrun the act of being driven, steered,
and at that moment, gone beyond itself
towards some other sphere, and disappeared (2014: 87)

As part of its circling, spinning dynamism, the tyre moves on to other alignments, to new landscapes and relationships with other ‘intra-actants’ in order to cause effects both ‘dramatic and subtle’ (Bennett, 2010: 6).

In the inventive, unbound contexts of contemporary poetry, ordinary objects like Armitage’s tyre have often been portrayed as ‘agential actants’ even if that has not been poets’ terminology of choice (Bennett 2010: viii). Such explorations often pre-date or intuit the philosophical contributions of the new materialism. The scope and contribution of poets’ formally and ethically imaginative investigations of objects, as Marland suggests, remain nonetheless under-documented, particularly where discourses of ecocriticism and vital materialism coincide (2014: 122). For many poets, substances and objects are no longer alive in mechanistic ways, haunted by transcendental and humanist-dualist categories, by the auratic halo of the commodity fetish. They are energised in their complex relationships, trajectories and propensities. Poetic objects are as strange as they ever were. But for many contemporary poets, as for new materialist critic, they are often also alive.

* * *

Below, I consider how a selection of British and Australian poets from last century and beyond recast and reactivate humble inanimate objects and substances (plastic, rubber, pulp dust, bitumen, weeds, organic rubbish, industrial, chemical and green waste) as ‘vibrant matter’, as strange and strangely lively dynamisms. In their hands, objects are not only made strange, they are portrayed as part of an assemblage in which human beings are co-existent. They are one more element in the object field, as Merleau-Ponty has it. For most, the imperative to examine the dynamics of matter is compelled by ecological and/or postcolonial ethical intention, though it must be pointed out that not all British and Australian poets are similarly compelled and nor should they be.5

Jane Bennett is finally elusive, almost airily poetic, regarding ‘tactics’6 for cultivating an ability to discern the vitality of matter. But for poets, tactics of discernment around matter must also be supported by practical tactics, poetic techniques that matter. Bennett at least comes close to suggesting an opening program for writers and artists when she identifies the cultivation of an intensified anthropomorphism, with its associated risks of ‘superstition, divinization of nature, romanticism’ (2010: 120). Not rejecting it out of hand, she believes, may actually work against anthropocentrism. She believes ‘it is wrong to deny vitality to nonhuman bodies, forces and forms and that a careful course of anthropomorphization can help reveal that vitality, even though it resists full translation and exceeds my comprehensive grasp’ (2010: 122). It is up to all of us, then, to ‘expose a wider distribution of agency’ as a means of challenging human mastery over nature (2010: 122).

We are, in other words, being asked to discern ‘a kind of life irreducible to the activities of humans or gods’, to find ways of knowing that this ‘material vitality is me, it predates me, it postdates me’ (Bennett 2010: 120). She avers: ‘If environmentalists are selves who live on earth, vital materialists are selves who live as earth, who are more alert to the capacities and limitations — the ‘jizz’ — of the various materials that they are’ (Bennett 2010: 111).

John Watson portrays agential ‘jizz’ in his typographically playful, award-winning poem ‘The Dangar Island garbage boat’, showing how a great rubbish barge (2016: 1):

Eddies in the ferry spume                                            descriptive opening
Too metrically perhaps to seem quite apt
In such a general shimmering.
                                                                                                     sustain
The barge is loaded long and high
With bags in brilliant green and blue                                           sustained
Glistening with dew. Where lace wings find
An acrid sweetness, they decide to stay.
                                                                                   with Luke on board.

But rubbish is not confined to the boat, at a remove from a pristine, orderly world, for we learn (2016: 3):

                                                                     Bougainvillea rampant in this
A fire is burning in the bougainvillea,
Old Woodthorns sand coloured,                                        gulf stream clime           
Smoking ferns and tassels,
Streaming succulents and bracken green.

 

For Watson, garbage is not confined; garbage is virtually everything, everywhere. Abjection and deconstruction work hand in hand as poetic tactics, though abject imagery, that which brings us close to the corpse in ourselves, is coupled with lyrical shimmering imagery, alerting us to the fact that that abject imagery alone in relation to portrayals of garbage/waste may not be sufficient to advance the posthumanist poem. As fragmented narratives compete across left and right sides of the page, changes in the font size of each suggest the river topography, its distant islands and run-off streams, oil smoke on the water, close then distant, through which the barge passes. Even human speech becomes implicated as a material object through ‘entanglement’ with other things (Barad’s term), for it is ‘Almost as if its [the boat’s] departure / Were seriously tangled, held back at the last / By lines and hawsers of what has already been said’ (Watson 2016: 5).

Watson’s ‘rubbish poem’ exposes the notion of the ‘I’ as a fiction, as one subject relative to many others. This is in keeping with poststructuralist explorations of the self. It is also in keeping with vital materialist perceptions of the human as one of many forms, entangled with others. Thus the poet inhabits that which Freya Mathews (1991) has dubbed the ‘ecological self’.

In her essay collection Findings, Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie maps her experiences of rubbish collecting around Outer Hebridean wrack zones. The phrase ‘wrack zone’ refers to the shifting region just above the high-tide line, where seaweed, woody debris, and floating objects of all kinds are deposited by waves: the collective noun for all those objects is ‘wrack’ (Beachapedia 2015).

A coastal wrack zone may imply that the journey for many rubbish objects has finished, but in fact the wrack zone is a site of ongoing life and generativity. As visual artist Sarah Pirrie observes:

walking the wrack line provides a mechanism by which to explore the qualities of substances and regimes of attraction. Through entanglement and placement, arranged in a hierarchy or order determined by tidal pull, storm progression, coastal topology, the very ecology of things, detritus form connections between the natural and the anthropogenic. (Pirrie 2017: 40)

Jamie also explores these connections, gleaning objects from her local wrack zone, and demonstrating a ‘palpable apprehension of the material interweaving of human and more-than-human worlds’ (Marland 2015: 126). This enables Jamie to take ‘a somewhat unexpected and apparently almost accepting view of the plastic waste’ that litters the Hebridean sands and dunes (Marland 2015: 126). These include whale bones, tiny feathers on a bird skeleton, a rotting whale, dead birds, aerosol cans, shoes, parts of a small aeroplane, plastic floats and bottles, endless coils and twists of orange polypropylene rope, doll heads, traffic cones and other things:

They had their own fascination, the shampoo and the milk cartons, the toilet-cleaner bottles we could turn over with our feet. Though the colours were faded and the labels long gone, we knew their shapes, had seen them ranked in supermarkets and hardware stores. (Jamie 2005: 59)

Jamie’s preserve is never a distant one. She closes the distance between things, between material ‘kinfolk’, attempting to chop off the head of a dead gannet and remove the flesh so that she can preserve its skull as a sculpture upon a desk which her husband has made from a piece of old pier timber found floating in the river Firth. She regrets not bringing the doll’s head home as well, she ‘with her mad tufts of hair and her sea-blue blinking eyes’ that stand in some way for the fate of the human who may decay much faster than the vacuum-formed plastic object (Jamie 2005: 69).

Strategies of imagistic abjection predominate in Jamie’s poems and creative nonfiction; as Marland and Parham note, material ecology means ‘confronting our remainders’; cultural enumerations of junk, filth and waste help us testify to the profound deep ecology that shapes all life (2014: 2). Or to orient abjection as a writing strategy via Julia Kristeva’s guiding definition, abjection ‘draws me toward the place where meaning collapses’ (2002: 11); ‘It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules’ (2002: 4).

In Jamie’s wrack zone poem, ‘Fianuis’ (2015), kinship relations are sounded loud and clear, but creaturely borders are also disturbed as corpse meets living corpse:

Well, friend, we’re here again — 
            sauntering the last half-mile to the land’s frayed end
to find what’s laid on for us, strewn across the turf — 
gull feathers, bleached shells,
                                         a whole bull seal, bone-dry,
knackered from the rut
(we knock on his leathern head, but no one’s home).

everything else is provisional,
                                         us and all our works.

If we accept Le Guin’s (2017) notion of kinship between animate and inanimate things, we can no longer take for granted that the friend in this poem (the ‘we’) is solely human, even if the implication of a human collective is incontrovertible towards the poem’s end (‘everything else is provisional / us and all our works’).

English poet Luke Kennard makes his own ‘findings’ in a suburban wrack zone. Kennard’s ‘assemblages’ in his poem ‘The persistence of rubbish’ (n.d.) close the mythic distance between moon and earth as he writes of lunar detritus from the vantage point of a Birmingham shopping centre and its reflective surfaces:

The moon reflected in a broken pair of
star-shaped children’s sunglasses.
The perfect feet of a knocked down statue
survey the abandoned shopping centre.
The cat describes the arc of a fountain as it leaps
the lip of the busted fountain. Grit crackles.

                        ….

The moon reflected in the journalist’s iPhone
contains detritus of its exploration:
space junk, giant foil wrappers, glass,
an everlasting bootprint, our new logo:
A dust so fine it won’t wash off.

Here, Kennard evokes a magnetic and reflective junk zone between moon and mall. In this zone of magnetism, a cat ‘describes’ and ‘grit crackles’ with plenty of anthropomorphic sonic boom; the feet of a broken statue ‘survey’ all that they see. Fine dust covers everything — logos, phones, cats, statues, fountains, space junk; decay and atomic devolution become our shared inheritance, the poet suggests (but not entirely gloomily), though the pace of decay for plastic and moon, space junk and flesh is never parallel, is dependent on a range of factors intrinsic and acting upon each. As both Jamie and Kennard differently show, kinfolk are possible in time, but not necessarily over or across time. As Le Guin writes in ‘Deep in admiration’, one way

to stop seeing trees, or rivers, or hills, only as ‘natural resources’ is to class them as fellow beings — kinfolk.

I guess I’m trying to subjectify the universe, because look where objectifying it has gotten us. To subjectify is not necessarily to co-opt, colonize, exploit. Rather, it may involve a great reach outward of the mind and imagination. (2017: 16)

But how else might poets tackle the process of ‘kinning’ (my term) in relation to portrayals of rubbish. What more direct anthropomorphic strategies are available to the poet?

Too often, Bennett says, ‘the philosophical rejection of anthropomorphism is bound up with a hubristic demand that only humans and God can bear any traces of agency’ (2010: 120). What we can do in this situation, she suggests, is relax into ‘resemblances discerned across ontological divides’. She proposes that:

you (mis)take the wind outside at night for your father’s wheezy breathing in the next room; you get up too fast and see stars; a plastic topographical map reminds you of the veins on the back of your hand; the rhythm of the cicada’s [sic] reminds you of the wailing on an infant; the falling stone seems to express a conative desire to persevere. (Bennett 2010: 120)

This poetical notion of resemblances is beguiling in the extreme, but associative image-making is an old song for poets, and does not always guarantee radical anthropomorphism on the page. ‘Resemblances’ at least motions towards a technical toolkit, stressing heightened anthropomorphic analogy between images. But despite myriad literary references to Thoreau, Emerson and their nineteenth-century transcendentalist literary brethren, it is surprising that Bennett seldom alludes to the tactics of either historical and/or contemporary poets, who, in recent decades, have not only explored notions of resemblance in interesting ways, but also rejected forms of anthropomorphism (what I am naming malanthropomorphism) that assert mastery of nature.

In any discussion of debris, detritus and matter, it needs to be noted that poets have, over recent decades, also generally moved to disassociate themselves from instrumentalising tropes of wildness and wilderness, and depictions of nature and culture in which indigenous cultures and women have too often been deleted. These tropes are entrenched in Australian pastoral colonial poetries, especially elegiac landscape poems in which objects — Indigenous artefacts, sheep, fences, homesteads, graves, bush swags, billies and so on — are ‘arranged’ like so many vanitas or still life forms, to signal ‘the passing’ of a way of life. This effects a clearing of cultural space in order that object-vocabularies befitting colonial progress narratives (cleared land, submissive fenced bush, lone settlers on horseback, flourishing English-style gardens, polished rifles, grand homesteads) may be introduced to triumphal new verses. Such poetries have served colonial nation-building while obscuring Indigenous cultures and thereby contributing to cultural genocide (Gibson 2016).

Against that legacy, scattered postcolonial poetic explorations of vibrant matter in the Australian setting can be identified. Australian poets, often simultaneous with political interrogations of sentimental or proleptic colonial elegy, have also explored ‘the stilled voice of the inanimate object or insentient standing of trees’ (Mary Jacobus, in Le Guin 2017; see Jacobus, Romantic Things). For example, the life and poetry projects of Judith Wright, Oodjeroo Noonuccal, Randolph Stow, Dorothy Hewitt and others have served postcolonial and environmental activisms of different kinds. These poets have let themselves, like Bennett, be ‘put out’ not just by rocks and trees, by streams and deserts, but by the flotsam and jetsam of white colonial ‘wrack zones’ even where in some instances, sea becomes mythic inland.

When the late Randolph Stow writes of the so-called waste of places of Western Australian country in his poem ‘The land’s meaning’, he unsettles notions of empire through metaphors of waste and decay, re-landscaping the objects of a desolate colonial desert bar (glass, weed, flyspray can, tin, dust) as a strange postcolonial agentic assemblage:

The love of man is a weed of the waste places,
One may think of it as the spinifex of dry souls.
            …

And certain of our young men,
who turned in despair from the bar, upsetting a glass,
and swore: ‘No more’ (for the tin rooms stank of flyspray)
are sending word that the mastery of silence 
alone is empire. What is God, they say,
but a man unwounded in his loneliness?

And the question (applauded, derided) falls like dust

(Stow 2010 [1969])

Existential questions, like objects, are also eventually covered in dust, just as in Kennard’s poem. In Stow’s poem, a ‘spinifex of dry souls’ makes for an ambiguous, ashes-to-ashes Christian image on the one hand, while also alluding to Indigenous presence through reference to the plants and landforms of Western Australian ancestor country.

Judith Wright often created list poems as part of a personal ecology of place and home: ‘Too long away, too far / now I come back to you; / the seven stones / the brown clay jar, / the carved seashell, / still in your former place, familiar peace / persisting still’ (Wright 1976: 53). Wright’s list is a rather static, talismanic one, but through the personalisation of the objects (‘now I come back to you’) being is signified, as is interrelation between narrator and designated things. The verb ‘persist’ also subtly signifies atomic agency and endurance of forms.

Wright’s sometime collaborator, poet, environmentalist and Indigenous activist Oodgeroo Noonuccal, writes more forcefully and perhaps more ‘horizontally’ of trees, bitumen and human-made objects in a rhyming poem that may be considered both vital materialist and postcolonial in ethos. In ‘Municipal gum’, from her 1966 collection The Dawn is at Hand, she writes:

Municipal gum, it is dolorous
To see you thus
Set in your black grass of bitumen —
O fellow citizen,
What have they done to us?

Noonuccal’s assemblage of objects in this poem comprises gum, tar, tree, broken horse harnesses, broken horse, rider and the focaliser-narrator. But the hierarchy of things changes across this deceptively simple poem. It opens with a distanced narrator opining directly to the tree: ‘Gum tree in the city street, / Hard Bitumen around your feet, / Rather you would be in the cool world / Of leafy forest halls / And wild bird calls’ (1966: 10). Nonetheless, the tree’s gentle anthropomorphisation is empathically driven. On the one hand the poet uses the tree form with its concealed ‘feet’ as an analogue of the human (and perhaps for the rhythmic feet of the poem), imagining the suffering tree as a person tarred inside an urban landscape. On the other hand, the tree itself becomes her fellow citizen, her non-human kin. For Noonuccal, in both instances, bitumen is toxic, abject, no matter how neat the grid of white civic order. This clever pastoral poetic bypass also functions as a metaphor of colonisation in which the feet or cultural roots/strength of the Indigenous subject are elided through dispossession. By the poem’s elegiac conclusion, poet and tree share agency, becoming ‘kinfolk’, in Le Guin’s terms (2017: 16).

This powerful poem raises concerns that cannot be addressed fully here. How can violent histories of colonial dispossession and the new materialism with its universalising notion of agentic assemblages be reconciled, particularly given ongoing contestations regarding expropriation of country, resources and culturally significant objects? To reprise environmentalist–anarchist–pacifist poet John Kinsella, ‘There is plenty of room for the misunderstanding of forms’. Humans still have an ‘unsteady relationship with the elements / we praise’ (Kinsella 2016: 224).

Many poems in Kinsella’s Firebreaks reveal themselves as emblematic of new materialist ideas. The poet writes of ‘The paradox / of the woodheap and the ecology that sets in when less / is lifted off or none at all … Winter lizards resettle … and make their way across for a better place to persist with hibernation, / ants scouring for skin cells and body parts to carry away’ (2016: 224). Elsewhere he becomes both ecological proselyte and didact in poems like ‘Why I let other living things stand my ground and how the inorganic can be living, too’ (2016: 227). In ‘Phenomenological spheres at Jam Tree Gully?’, he writes of ‘Ball-bearings encased in the abandoned red car’. He speaks of a farm vehicle that keeps ‘spherical secrets … The perfection of eggs of so many insect species’ (2016: 165). The poem continues to tell of agricultural ruin and neglect:

No sandalwoods are left to fruit

The tormented spheres. But I imagine spheres
Without belief or desire in perfection: the perfect
Being a tyranny and just a flaw waiting to happen.
Ball-bearings encased in the abandoned red car —
Farm vehicle — keep[s] secrets; marooned. (2016: 165–66)

In his microcosmic view, the environmental activist writer is one of many material forms alongside ball-bearings, rusted car bits, the ‘plutonic patience’ of ancient geology, the ‘silk sack of redback spiderlings’ (2016: 165). Thus, the universe energises, expands agentially.

 

Conclusions that matter

Poets are writing about ‘things’ as they have always done, but in the present time they are arguably doing more to demonstrate kinship links between humans and nonhuman creatures as well as depicting less hierarchical relationships between human beings and inanimate things. That is to say, they aim for a more distributive subjectivity between things, even where speaking subjects and human narrators remain present in some poems.

A radical meditative tactic underpins the poems discussed above and their representations of rubbish and waste; diverse poetic techniques enable recalibrations of inanimate matter. Some poems predate, and therefore preempt, the philosophical complexities of new materialist thought; other poems come after. Some poets clearly use intensified anthropomorphic strategems and ‘resemblances’ in line with new materialist ideas; others do not, even if they too, in their own different ways, are attempting to foreground ‘thing power’, Bennett’s counterculture-like term.

For some, like twentieth-century poets Stow or Noonuccal, rubbish or waste is a metaphor for colonialism’s failures and oppressions, is pure ruinous overlay, where country is literally concealed by it. For contemporary poets, like Armitage, Jamie, Kinsella, Kennard and Watson, remaindered objects form part of agential assemblages. Objects have their own vivid ecologies, though each poet’s image-making may not always connect directly to spheres of environmental activism. Where it does, such engagements may be many and varied, expressed differently over historical time (as a comparative study of Noonuccal’s, Wright’s and Kinsella’s respective poetry-objects and activisms might illuminate).

Perhaps what all these ‘poets of the discard’ have in common, aside from varied ecological motivations, is the fact that they are also responding in diverse ways to the fact that in capitalism, as Catriona Sandilands argues, ‘history is garbage. And nature is garbage’ (2011: 31). But, as Sandilands adds, ‘garbage is also garbage, and, for [Walter] Benjamin, it is in the careful examination of the detritus of “progress” that the historical materialist might find the past beyond its apparent assumption of the present’ (Sandilands 2011: 31).

Postmodernist cultural theorist David Banash strikes similar notes to both Benjamin and Bennett, discussing the role of materiality and objects in collage culture since Marx: ‘Commodities and money make it possible to substitute having for being, but the real fear is that the force of having actively interferes with the cultivation of new, deeper, and more human dimensions of being’ (Banash 2013: 219).

In light of such ‘interference’, I have shown how many poets have ‘managed to make meanings and engage in practices that develop or transform their human senses through new relationships to the objects of commodity culture’ (Banash 2013: 220–21). One might add the word ‘byproducts’ here, the sundry waste substances and objects remaindered in commodity production. Rubbish/waste has long been an abject underclass in a world of all possible material objects (and subjects for poetry), but in a context of global environmental despoliation, Bennett reminds us it too deserves reconsideration and the conferral of subjecthood. Its stories need to be told.

However, in order to connect an aesthetics of rubbish with pressing ecological concerns, I finally suggest that each of the poets above is ultimately forced to review and interrogate conventional generic portrayals of objects, challenging the notions of authorship and connoisseurship on which those representations rest. Examples include Noonuccal’s and Watson’s rejections of the typical poem of the natural world in which bitumen, plastic and other garbage do not feature; and Armitage replacing Ted Hughes’ foxes, otters and badgers with a giant wayward tyre. Evelyn Reilly points deftly to the gap between landscape painting (a genre of mythic, high-cultural capitalist objects) and abject environmental reality when she says, ‘Nature is a scene by Casper David Friedrich … / And seems to redeem the general pillage / But children circle the garbage piles’ (Reilly 2008).

Philosophers Jane Bennett, Karen Barad and Manuel DeLanda provide useful critical frames here; their thinking enables us to close the gap between high and low culture, things and non-things, restoring complex agency to the inanimate. Bennett asks, ‘would patterns of consumption change if we faced not litter, rubbish, trash, or the “recycling”, but an accumulating pile of lively and potentially dangerous matter?’ (2010: viii).

To embrace the notion of discarded matter as vibrant is therefore, for artists and poets, an intensely political conceptual act in and of itself. Implicit in tackling such ecological imperatives is the poet’s desire to express posthuman, horizontal readings of energy, matter and world.

 

Notes

1. Thoreau’s often-quoted line from Walden is ‘The question is not what you look at, but what you see.’

2. Natureculture is a synthesis of nature and culture that recognizes their inseparability in ecological relationships that are both biophysically and socially formed (Haraway 2003). Natureculture is a concept that emerges from the scholarly interrogation of dualisms that are deeply embedded within the intellectual traditions of the sciences and humanities (e.g., human/animal; nature/culture). See also Agustín Fuentes and Linda D Wolfe (eds) 2002 Primates Face to Face: The Conservation Implications of Human–Nonhuman Primate Interconnections, Cambridge UP.

3. Unlike Bennett, Barad shies away from using Latour’s (2004) term ‘actant’ and even the word ‘agent’ because ‘these terms work against the relational ontology I am proposing’. In Barad’s world of entangled intra-actants, it might be said she takes a hyper-anthropomorphic stance. In this she also parallels Bennett’s re-claiming of anthropomorphism.

4. Baruch Spinoza’s work on ethics is also foundational to recent reconsiderations of matter and nature. In propositions 7–9 of his great work Ethics, he says: ‘It pertains to the nature of a substance to exist; Every substance is necessarily infinite; The more reality or being each thing has, the more attributes belong to it’ (in Nadler 2016). Most intriguingly, he states in Proposition 11: ‘God, or a substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence, necessarily exists’ (in Nadler 2016).

5. The scope of this analysis cannot offer nationally-bounded surveys in this regard, but simply points to continuity of shared environmental themes and a diversity of political and aesthetic motivations in relation to the subject of rubbish and discarded matter. Beyond the ambit of this essay too is study on the subject and ethics of survivalist gleaning practices as explored by artist and film maker Agnes Varda; and a discussion of the ways in which archaeological disciplines work with remaindered high cultural and low cultural artefacts.

6. As David Banash points out, strategies beloved of artists and writers such as:

Gleaning and tinkering are perhaps best characterised as what Michel de Certeau names tactics. In The Practice of Everyday Life, De Certeau does not foment revolution. Instead he seeks to understand how ordinary people subjected to the overwhelming demands and constraints of modern technocracy and consumer culture manage to make meaning in their lives without becoming mindless, fascistic zombies. (2013: 222)

 

 

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