“the boldness of our going”: On Linda Russo’s Participant
by Phillip Rafferty | Contributing Writer
The relationship between poet and environment is, as Linda Russo says in her title poem “Participant,” “kind of Euclidean.” This Euclidean space—the space between a set of points that satisfies a certain relationship—makes up the wonderful drama of Russo’s book. Her work reads as a contemplative stroll, a responsive and interrelational experience with nature and the world.
Participant opens with an epigraph and a definition:
All interspersed with weeds, […]
Gathered from many wanderings-
– Emily Dickinson
Wan’der-ing (n.): peregrination; a traveling without a settled course;…
– Noah Webster’s American Dictionary (1844)
The 19th century dating of Webster’s dictionary represents her first engagement with the Euclidean space she is exploring. We are prompted to imagine a fourteen-year old Emily Dickinson in her Amherst home turning to Webster’s to look up the word. The frame exemplifies the relationship between Dickinson’s “wanderings” and Webster’s “peregrination.” Russo is interested in what she calls “inhabitory” poetics. The poetic mode is one entrenched in place as well as associations, carefully orchestrated in the space between Dickinson and Webster.
“Weed Gathering,” the first poem, made up of just eight lines, elaborates on the epigraph, setting the tone for the rest of the work. Russo writes of the “she” in the poem, “She watched a more visible world in the folds.” The line is rich in its evocation of Dickinson’s “interspersed with weeds,” weeds being a product of “the folds” or the Euclidean point of between. This is the place that Russo wants to be and struggles to occupy in her work. “Inhabitory” poetry is that which want to achieve a “spatially-located way of knowing.” The poem ends with the line, “leaves like so many letters pulling closer,” encouraging us to see the distances within this line: between Dickinson and Russo, between language and the natural world, and between the real and the artificial. We are shown the “interspersed” as “leaf like letters,” what she will call back to in her last poetic sequence of the collection, “Leaflets,” as “sun/gleaming lightly/through leaves.” The light in the last line is the invisible becoming the “more visible world” which works to give a language to her poetry, the leaf-like letters coming together to form words.
“Participant,” the title poem, forms a centerpiece. This poem is where we encounter her “Euclidean” frame directly. In the opening lines of the piece, Russo writes:
The streets are paralyzed
kind of Euclidean
I’m not saying it happens but I’m existing with it
as it happens
These lines represent an enduring interest in what is not finite, that which is ever-moving. Even so, Russo is not secure in her embrace of this stance, hence “kind of Euclidean,” rather than wholly so. Along these lines, the final stanza of the opening poem reads:
I’m afraid of my overempowerment
unleashing realizations in the leaves
stabbing points on a powerful map.
Russo’s ecopoetical thinking is bound up in this hesitation, this fear of unleashing. The danger is that of responding. Russo fears if she takes too much in the response, this gesture would be not empowering, but over-empowering. The tension between agency and restraint is what drives the collection.
This binary arises from a drama housed in the poet who is afraid. To this end, Russo juxtaposes life and death. Russo writes:
my idea is the world is not only delightful
because of how much time we spend in it
but that the boldness of our going makes
the occasion so grand
We get a line profound in its pedestrianism; who among us hasn’t thought about life’s “grandness” as product of its temporality? But there is an “unhingedness” here, as if it means something more to Russo, that she must find the proper Euclidean connection with the world before her going. The participation in the world, by way of wandering, is a staccato act. Russo’s poet wanders, but does so almost compulsively, traversing spaces besides highways, hopping fences. She is constantly scanning look for her way into the pure place between herself and the spaces. Inhabitory poetics are tiring.
The speaker of the poems is sometimes interrupted. “Three bees swoop across my face,” she writes. But she continues to look in the in-between spaces for the “unleashing” she seeks. As said early on, there is a danger in this act. She might find it and once having been found it might be too much.
The poet strives to connect, to find herself subsumed in the natural, often falling short, in the end alienated from even her imagined self:
the hum of traffic leads me,
into the undertone of the other world
Yet the poet continues to cultivate a more natural poetic geometry. “What happens here, happens,” she writes of the ecological world, quickly elaborating: “I’m an unsteady mimic of this plurality.”
Many of the poems function as what she terms a “recycling” while at the same time struggling with the authenticity of this act:
In my commentary I make
a pile of dirt in my daybook
a right crappy environmental portrait
The playfulness and self-referentiality render the book humorous at times, and wholly refreshing. There is an admitted “mimicking” of the natural in this book. The poet eats a lunch taken at a “respectable distance” from the nearby trees. We see Russo’s speaker as unable to find the right entry point for the inhabitation she desires.
The narrator eventually “inducts into this space” of nature, having “gotten over the fear / of the different forms” unearthed by all of her wandering. She relinquishes “anticipation” and in doing so finds herself among the leaves. Finally, Russo admits that, “I’d feel so dead by the end of i t/ if I had to read the whole world.” Artifice intrudes, sound disturbs. She writes:
my ear bitten by the sound
traffic and leaves
along a continuum
The poem linguistically and structurally exhibits this “dragging” back and away. The pages of “Participant” are filled with broken lines and ruined structures, as if the words themselves were leaves through which light intrudes. The form mimics the wandering of the poet. Our eyes trek through the jagged margins, the odd spacing, mimicking the poet’s zigzagging movements. The structure is the record of Russo’s “internal map” of her wandering which she claims a general “unawareness” of:
unaware of internal maps
we carry and stretch and thicken [it]
thrilling and daring as uncertain
as a potential or future
my wings a feature
my organism an homage
to wind in trees
Russo’s work reveals her to be a poet paying homage through her role as a “participant” with the places she inhabits. The poet is one who knows to fear less because of her “wanderings” and is admittedly “just finding out how leaves make a place that listens.” We have by reading traveled parallel with her through this process and are let out of it at that “thrilling and daring” point as a potential and future “Participant” ourselves in the countless wanderings, the “the boldness of our going,” which as Russo reminds us, “makes the occasion” of this “so grand.”
Philip Rafferty is a teacher, poet, and critic living in Portland Oregon. His work has appeared in the publications: Typehouse, Cacti Fur, Blackheart Magazine, The Portland Book Review, and Montage, among others.