On the “Great Distance” Poems of Marianne Moore, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Layli Long Soldier
by Katy Didden | Contributing Writer
This essay is being published in conjunction with Didden’s poem “‘The White Volcano with No Weather Side’: An Interview.”
There’s a neighborhood park in Seattle that I love: Lake Dell, Leschi. It juts out from the side of Leschi hill in a narrow panhandle, and it doesn’t look like much from the street, but if you follow the path behind a row of Madrona trees, you arrive at a lookout with a sweeping view of Lake Washington. When the sky is blue with a few bright clouds, and the afternoon light blurs the North Cascades to one dark green, you can see Mount Rainier in the far distance. Though the mountain has been fixed in place for millennia, it remains one of the most unstill objects that I can imagine—unstill, and unsettling.
The mountain is always there, but you can’t always see it, and you can’t always predict this by the weather. I’ve seen it in sharp detail on gray days, and barely visible, like a pink mirage, on hazy days. When it’s invisible, you start to think it could be anywhere, and when it’s out, it floats on air—you can feel it shift the cells of your body from single to double space. It’s not unusual to see people stare at Rainier, a little stunned, as if they were facing an enormous, wordless creature, alive and breathing, in the eerie stillness before it strikes: a mammoth, a dragon, a giant octopus of ice.
The summer after my junior year in college, my friend Carol and I sublet a room across from Greenlake in Seattle. I worked the closing shift at Guido’s Pizza, so I had the mornings free. I used to walk to the top of the alley behind our house to get a view of Mount Rainier, and I’d sit there, holding a paperback copy of Marianne Moore’s Complete Poems. I would read “An Octopus,” Moore’s homage to Big Snow Mountain, and then I’d stare at the mountain itself. Since then, poetry and the Pacific Northwest have been closely connected for me. In fact, I cannot look at the mountain, its vermillion and onyx and manganese-blue interior expensiveness, without hearing lines from the poem in my head. If it is not, as Wallace Stevens once wrote, that the poem “took the place of the mountain, ”it is something close to that, a kind of evolving inter-relationship, an unfolding of text and tectonics.
In her book, The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp claims that our imaginations are “hardwired” to a preferred focal length: “All of us find comfort in seeing the world either from a great distance, at arm’s length, or in close-up. We don’t consciously make that choice. Our DNA does, and we generally don’t waver from it.” I love how Tharp locates the process of art-making in the body, like reading anatomy in a signature. I also like how this distance is, for the artist, what you’re able to perform, to re-tell for others. I wish I were a poet of the close-up or middle-distance. As soon as I read Tharp’s description, though, I knew my creative DNA was of the “great distance” variety. That perspective activates my imagination, which is why so many of my poems take place in dramatic landscapes like Patagonia, Death Valley, and Iceland.
It would be easy to say the long view stirs an inner restlessness, and that any view of the mountains makes me want to see what’s beyond the next ridgeline, to move, to climb, to leave the known behind. In my pursuit of the poem mountain, I have moved across the country a lot, from one graduate program or teaching job to another. But as much as I’m addicted to the promise of possibility, I hate leaving people and cities behind, and this feeling of loss is why the “great distance” perspective feels like fate, the story I’m born to tell. What the great distance represents for me is less a restlessness so much as a willingness, as though the view makes setting new directions possible.
My poetic process mirrors my affinity for distance. Like Moore herself, who wrote “An Octopus” only after she’d returned from her visit to Rainier in July 1922, and after she’d read guidebooks about the mountain, I tend to write about places I’ve only visited or come to know through research. Both the act of looking back and of gathering information are like reading a topographic map. For me, great distance writing means tuning in to those memories or ideas that some mysterious energy elevates above the sea of thoughts.
What does it mean not just to look, but to perform looking?
Maybe this approach resembles Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility”; maybe any discussion of the great distance perspective invokes the Romantic poets, and the sublime. Think of the moment in The Prelude when young Wordsworth unties a boat from a willow tree, and rows out on a silent, moonlit lake. While he gazes out at the horizon, he watches as “a huge peak, black and huge / as if with voluntary power instinct / upreared its head”. Or think of Keats, in “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer,” who compares his discovery of Homer to eagle-eyed Cortez, staring at the Pacific, “silent, on a peak in Darien.”
When I start to think about the great distance poem in terms of craft, several questions circle in my mind—what techniques do poets use to convey scale? How do poets create the sensation of a vantage point? Does that vantage point reveal anything about how poets conceive of seeing itself, and our relationship to visual technologies? What does it mean not just to look, but to perform looking? How do we invite readers to that looking?
Not surprisingly, there is a strong correlation between the Romantics’ great-distance poetics and their contemporary visual culture. This was the age of spectacular devices such as eidophusaikons, dioramas, camera obscuras, and Claude glasses. It was also the age of one of my favorite visual phenomena: the panorama. Panoramas were enormous, 360-degree paintings set inside a viewing rotunda; patrons ascended a central tower to gaze at city scenes, historical events, or dramatic landscapes. Panoramas offered viewers the illusion of finding a single vantage point that could reveal an entire landscape. In turn, this perspective affected the way that people encountered nature. As Stephan Oettermann notes in The Panorama: History of a Mass Medium, “More than just the aesthetic counterpart of a natural phenomenon, the panorama was both a surrogate for nature and a simulator, an apparatus for teaching people how to see it.” Taking a cue from this, maybe we could name poems where a solitary speaker confronts the beauty and terror of a massive landscape “panoramic,” especially those poems where the centrality of the speaker, and the act of looking, is important.
Consider Shelley’s ode, “Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni,” and how Shelley begins the poem by asserting the presence of the human mind: “The everlasting universe of things / Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves.” Shelley describes the landscape with glorious intensity; frequently, he also depicts himself looking:
Dizzy Ravine! and when I gaze on thee
I seem as in a trance sublime and strange
To muse on my own separate fantasy,
My own, my human mind, which passively
Now renders and receives fast influencings,
Holding an unremitting interchange
With the clear universe of things around.
I’m intrigued by how Shelley’s stance of looking is essential to the meaning of the poem, as he invites us to watch him in the trance of his own “separate fantasy.” It’s a fascinating move, and it points to what I think is the main way Shelley builds a sense of distance: tone. Addressing the Mountain directly, Shelley gives the illusion of authoritative certainty, of stability and predictability in the “everlasting universe of things.” He also claims that poets have god-like power: “And what were [the mountain], and earth, and stars, and sea / If to the human mind’s imaginings / Silence and solitude were vacancy?” Shelley questions why it is we associate remote mountain peaks with this “unremitting interchange / with the clear universe,” and assigns humans the power of affirming presence in nature. Still, when I read the poem, I often feel like I am listening to a man shouting at a cliff, from a cliff.
Perhaps this is similar to the effect Oettermann describes when he writes of the famous painting by Caspar David Friedrich, Traveler Looking Over a Sea of Fog: “His painting includes a figure seen from the rear and thus simultaneously shows a panorama and a visitor to it[…] What is presented in Friedrich’s landscape paintings is not a panorama per se, but rather a view of the world as panorama.” Even though Shelley talks about the interrelation of nature with his own mind, by showing himself looking, and by performing shouting, he maintains a sense of separateness, or even dominion, in the way the world stretches out before him—an attitude that feels less persuasive now.
Moore’s “An Octopus” shares some things in common with “Mont Blanc,” including serpentine glaciers (Shelley notes how “the glaciers creep / Like snakes that watch their prey”; Moore’s ice-fields have “the concentric crushing rigor of the python”). But Moore’s “An Octopus” is a poem of a different species. I can think of few other poems that are as lush, as disorienting, and as epic in scale as “An Octopus.” Reading it, I feel an awe not unlike what I feel seeing the mountain itself. This is not because Moore gives a photo-realistic description of the mountain (who would recognize “the glassy octopus symmetrically pointed” as Mount Rainier, out of context?). But it does come from the way she moves through the poem.
As scholars like Tom Gunning, Jonathan Crary, and Ross King have argued, the spectacular devices of nineteenth century visual culture were pre-cursors to cinema. This helps me to think of Moore’s poetics as the next step: as cinematic. This is not to say that the panoramic perspective disappears—I don’t think the evolution is that linear. But cinema introduces new ways of accessing the “unremitting interchange” with the universe, and adds new perspectives to the aggregate of looks. The camera-lens model of perspective is a radical departure from a person standing at the panorama’s fixed distance. Instead, we have Moore looking, at multiple angles, from multiple distances, through multiple lenses, and splicing together separate takes into a coherent whole. Consider “An Octopus”:
“Picking periwinkles from the cracks”
or killing prey with the concentric crushing rigor of the python,
it hovers forward “spider fashion
on its arms” misleadingly like lace;
its “ghostly pallor changing
to the green metallic tinge of an anemone-starred pool.”
Moore not only blends multiple voices into this poem, citing quotes from sources as varied as The National Parks Portfolio, the Illustrated London News, Cardinal Newman’s Historical Sketches, and W.D. Hyde’s The Five Great Philosophies, but she also jump-cuts between diverse creatures, from diverse ecosystems (periwinkles, pythons, spiders, anemones), that serve as animating metaphors for the mountain. What’s curious is how this multiple-looking, while it is Moore’s signature technique, actually dislocates the speaker—she is no longer at a fixed point in space or time. Maybe this disembodiment is why Moore’s cinematic description is particularly apt to capture the “ghostly pallor” and shape-shifting of the mountain that disappears in veils of clouds.
Moore builds scale by way of syntax and juxtaposition, with tumbling, Whitmanian lists:
Big Snow Mountain is the home of a diversity of creatures:
those who “have lived in hotels
but who now live in camps—who prefer to”;
the mountain guide evolving from the trapper,
“in two pairs of trousers, the outer one older,
wearing slowly away from the feet to the knees”;
“the nine-striped chipmunk
running with unmammal-like agility along a log”;
the water ouzel
with “its passion for rapids and high-pressured falls,”
building under the arch of some tiny Niagara;
the white-tailed ptarmigan “in winter solid white,
feeding on heather-bells and alpine buckwheat;
and the eleven eagles of the west,
“fond of the spring fragrance and the winter colors,”
used to the unegoistic action of the glaciers
and “several hours of frost every midsummer night.”
“they make a nice appearance, don’t they,”
happy seeing nothing?
By using a long sentence structured as a paratactic list, Moore asserts a democratic equality between “a diversity of creatures.” She levels humans with non-humans—the mountain guide is as oddly curious as the chipmunk, and the water ouzel is a tourist in its own right, venturing towards a “tiny Niagara.” In this way, Moore troubles the paradigm that humans are the center of the universe.
Moore performs another sleight-of-hand with her descriptions, one that contributes to the sense of Rainier’s enormity, as she moves between instantaneous actions (the chipmunk running, the water ouzel building, the ptarmigan feeding) and long-term actions “the mountain guide evolving from the trapper.” She invokes the winter, spring, and midsummer habits of these creatures, implying that the speaker has observed this environment through multiple seasons. Furthermore, Moore builds scale by alternating between close-ups and establishing shots, from the tiny “nine-striped chipmunk,” to the sweeping, “unegoistic action of the glaciers.” In doing this, she suggests that the thing observed, the mountain, is too large to capture at one glance, from one angle. Curiously, it is precisely the movement between those two positions (close-up and panning shot) that gives us the sense that we’re traversing a great distance.
The sense of scale in “An Octopus” also comes from the magnitude of Moore’s poetic process, and how you can see the evidence of this process in the work itself. I’ve read “An Octopus” hundreds of times and I’m still bewildered by the density of Moore’s descriptions and allusions. She assembles a vast network of voices (integrating quotes from sources as various as articles on fashion, guidebooks, and treatises on Greek philosophy), and creates an avalanche of ongoing, simultaneous, and shifting perceptions. Though Moore provides extensive notes for “An Octopus,” they are less a guidebook than peculiar maps meant to lead readers far afield. She immerses us in language differently, as orderly tracks of iambs give way to new methods of orienteering. It could be that, above anything else, it is the very sense of being lost in the poem that gives me the feeling that I’m inhabiting a real environment (and a massive one).
Moore’s montage-work is also a collage of quotations, one that troubles ideas of authorship in a way that anticipates the concerns of today’s ecopoets, asking questions such as: who is it that speaks? and what does it mean to represent, or to name, nature? The name Mount Rainier dates back to 1792, when George Vancouver, a captain in the British Navy, named the mountain in honor of rear admiral Peter Rainier. In all 193 lines of “An Octopus,” however, Moore never refers to her subject as Mount Rainier. Instead, she privileges Native American connections to the mountain, calling it “Big Snow Mountain,” or “Mount Tacoma.” In fact, Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest have many names for the mountain. The Lushootseed people refer to it as “Tahoma, Talol, Tacoba, or Tacoma,” which translates to “the mother of all waters.” I’ve also read that Tahoma means “higher than ‘Kobah,’” with Kobah being a Salish word for neighboring Mount Baker. Currently, an alliance of tribal leaders is seeking to re-name it “Ti-Swaq,” meaning “it touches the sky” or “sky swiper.”
Moore’s relationship to Native American culture was complex. She grew up in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and soon after she graduated from college, she taught business classes at the Carlisle Indian School. As Lesley Wheeler and Chris Galaver argue in “Imposters and Chameleons: Marianne Moore and the Carlisle Indian School,” there is some evidence that Moore inspired her students to know and assert their rights; at the same time, she also “staked an isolated, neutral ground” during a Congressional investigation into “allegations of violence as well as corruption” at Carlisle in 1914 and was decidedly silent at a crucial juncture. Nevertheless, I find her choice not to call the mountain Rainier consistent with the poem’s implicit critique of a possessive, colonialist culture.
The way we take in the view is not meaningless; there is an ethics to looking.
In fact, throughout her work, Moore seems as much concerned with how we are looking as she is with what we are seeing. That is to say, the way we take in the view is not meaningless; there is an ethics to looking. The park in Leschi neighborhood is one example—the reason you can’t see the mountain from every point along the downslope of Leschi Hill is because people built enormous houses there—something Moore might name, as she does in “A Grave”: “Man looking into the sea,/taking the view from those who have as much right to it as you have to it yourself.” Moore frequently calls attention to, and overturns, any notion that to see is to stake a claim, to see is to possess. In Moore’s economy, possessiveness signals a lack of spiritual perspective, and in more than one poem, freedom from possessiveness is what marks a visionary.
I’ve always known the seismic upheavals that created the stunning volcanoes and mountain ranges go hand in hand with earthquakes, eruptions, and tsunamis in the Pacific Northwest, but the level of destruction is hard to fathom. For the last century, like a giant screen, Mount Rainier hasn’t seemed to change so much as register the changes happening around it—the weather, the pollution, the light, the season; the reflections signal passing time: the world is changing, you are changing. Still, I think the mountain astonishes onlookers mainly because, at any moment, it could erupt again. Since I am a poet, one way I come to terms with this inevitable fact is through the lens of my creative life, and my ambitions for poetry. Perhaps it is hard to identify, from the middle of this moment, the patterns evolving in poetic form right now, but I do think that there are key questions in the ether: To what extent is looking towards the future an imperative of the contemporary environmental poem? Can poems alter our awareness in such a way that will help us survive as a species? What does that look like? Or, rather, what kind of looking is that?
One way today’s great distance poets assert vision is by calling us to take the long view not just across space, but also across time.
If the leap from Romanticism to Modernism has parallels in visual culture’s expansion from panorama to cinema, how would we characterize our current relationship to visual culture? Today, since we are inundated with visual representations of places, it is not as necessary to stand on a pinnacle to see great distances—we can launch remote-control cameras, or travel via Google Earth. If our view isn’t limited by where we stand, then the place where we position ourselves in a poem becomes even more of an argument. Wouldn’t today’s great distance poet, taking the long view, write poems shaped by the knowledge of climate change, the fact of resource scarcity and war, and the unfathomable scale of human-induced destruction? I would argue that one way today’s great distance poets assert vision is by calling us to take the long view not just across space, but also across time; we build a sense of colossal scale by taking historical events, and their repercussions, as our subject, and by finding forms that expose those consequences in new and innovative ways.
One poet who interrogates our looking apparatus is Layli Long Soldier. Long Soldier’s Whereas provides an essential counter narrative to American exceptionalism and the fraught history of manifest destiny. In her poem “38,” she recounts the history of the Sioux Uprising in 1862, and the death by hanging of thirty-eight Dakota men. Her poem works against the annihilation of that history, and she performs this by adopting a tone of factual reporting and rejection of artifice, as she writes, “I do not regard this as a poem of great imagination or a work of fiction/ Also, historical events will not be dramatized for an interesting read.” Throughout the poem, she presents historical facts in unadorned sentences:
You may or may not have heard about the Dakota 38.
If this is the first time you’ve heard of it, you might wonder, “What is the Dakota 38?”
The Dakota 38 refers to thirty-eight Dakota men who were executed by hanging, under orders from President Abraham Lincoln.
To date, this is the largest “legal” mass execution in U.S. history.
The hanging took place on December 26th, 1862—the day after Christmas.
This was the same week that President Lincoln signed The Emancipation Proclamation.
In the preceding sentence, I italicize “same week” for emphasis.
Long Soldier, in her choice of tone, creates a radical relationship between poet and reader. Throughout the poem, she demonstrates a sympathetic awareness of her audience: she anticipates their questions, and she openly acknowledges the plurality of their experience (“You may or may not have heard about the Dakota 38”). In the context of perspective, I understand this as a profound shift from the solitary, sublime stance that is so entrenched in our understanding of the great distance poem. Here, Long Soldier calls us to understand that we do not look across the great distance as solitary viewers; instead, we look out, elbow-to-elbow, with others.
In “38,” Long Soldier states: “Keep in mind, I am not a historian/ So I will recount facts as best as I can, given limited resources and understanding.” In this line, she makes clear that to create history requires resources. Can a poem be a history? Maybe the object of any work of art that tackles historical subjects is not to be objective—we go to art to engage with the artist’s interpretation or argument. Long Soldier addresses this tension openly: “I want to tell you about The Sioux Uprising, but I don’t know where to begin./ I may jump around and details will not unfold in chronological order.” In these lines, Long Soldier both questions and preserves a distinction between the work of a historian and the work of a poet. If images have become ubiquitous and disembodied from time and space, the work of the artist is to arrange images into context, and thereby create imagery (for a great discussion of this concept, read Irmgard Emmelhainz). Since history is in many ways part of our collective experience, and since we are able to access historical facts through research, to choose a historical subject paradoxically frees the artist from the need for chronological organization. The non-chronological organization can foreground rhetorical argument, as well as the artist’s sensibility and power of interpretation. I’d argue that it also opens possibilities for other modes of organization, including lyric forms that are governed by rhythm, musicality, and repetition.
For Long Soldier, the fact that the recounting of history is often a non-linear process seems essential to what she’s exploring:
The U.S. treaties with the Dakota Nation were legal contracts that promised money.
It could be said, this money was payment for the land the Dakota ceded; for living within assigned boundaries (a reservation); and for relinquishing rights to their vast hunting territory which, in turn, made Dakota people dependent on other means to survive: money.
The previous sentence is circular, which is akin to so many aspects of history.
As you may have guessed by now, the money promised in the turbid treaties did not make it into the hands of Dakota people.
In addition, local government traders would not offer credit to “Indians” to purchase food or goods.
Without money, store credit or rights to hunt beyond their 10-mile tract of land, Dakota people began to starve.
The Dakota people were starving.
The Dakota people starved.
In the preceding sentence, the word “starved” does not need italics for emphasis.
One should read, “The Dakota people starved,” as a straightforward and plainly stated fact.
Long Soldier does recount historical facts, but the way that she breaks from a strictly chronological report shapes a clear argument about injustice, and how atrocities like genocide can recur. Her choice of diction, syntax, and repetition ensure that this history will not be archived, but will continue to be shared, performed, and kept alive.
While Long Soldier does not give ecstatic descriptions of panoramic vistas in this poem, nevertheless this poem is a portrait of the land, one that does not ignore the connected history of people, and the link between land and language. Harnessing the out-of-time powers of lyric, Long Soldier offers a conclusion that responds both to the body of history she’s recounting, and to the body of the poem she’s composing. Her speaker does what the hanged men cannot do, which is to call today’s reader’s attention to the inescapable fact of their death. She does not offer a solution, but an image of the body returning to the land:
Things are circling back again.
Sometimes, when in a circle, if I wish to exit, I must leap
And let the body swing
From the platform
to the grasses.
By refusing to adopt a historian’s performance of a neutral stance, and asserting the techniques of the poet (storytelling, repetition, lyric fragmentation), Long Soldier shatters our perception for a new vision of what that event was like.
Long Soldier provides an example of how today’s poets perform and re-think vision by taking the act of looking itself as the subject. Ultimately, I would argue that the great distance poem is important to us now for this very reason—because it is a poem about seeing. It asks us to think about how we see, and to question the limits of our seeing. Long Soldier’s Whereas includes dozens of examples of poems whose forms jar readers out of a passive, absorptive space. I’m particularly interested in a poem from the chapter titled “Resolutions” where Long Soldier re-casts the sentences of the 2009 Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans into a new format, highlighting a phrase, “this land,” that gets repeated throughout the apology:
for this land
the this land
thousands this land
of this land
years this land
that this land
they this land
have this land
Along the left margin, Long Soldier distills the document to a direct statement: “I commend and honor Native Peoples for the thousands of years that they have protected this.” The left margin has a feeling of wholeness and order—this is, perhaps, what makes the page into a place, but it also serves to heighten the sense of dislocation and displacement that comes from reading Long Soldier’s repeated phrase “this land,” scattered across the page. In this poem, the space between language becomes a kind of terrain encoded with the gaps and silences that mark the consequences of trauma.
Long Soldier’s unfixing forms expose the seams of the sublime story, and let other stories surface.
I’m also interested in how the text itself becomes the site of intervention. Not only does Long Soldier highlight the instability and changefulness of language (and all words evolve across a nexus of political transactions), she also shows the way that governmental texts, laws, resolutions, and treaties, can be literally imposed on places, and how those texts in fact alter the natural world, and the fate of those who live there. In fact, you could say Long Soldier develops scale both in the choice of subject (focusing on what the consequences of past actions have been and will be) and in form, because this form itself keeps a record of what existed, and how it has been altered, and it asks us to consider that evolution. Long Soldier’s unfixing forms expose the seams of the sublime story, and let other stories surface.
In the short time I lived near Lake Dell-Leschi, I saw the effects of a collective layering. When I first started going to the park, it was small. Half of what the park is now was the side-yard of a cliff-side house—I remember it as a huge, yellow house, with a turret room at street level. The house tilted eastwards towards the lake, and it was propped on the cliff by a crosshatch of beams. One time I walked by at night and saw a woman drinking coffee in the turret room and I imagined how it would be to live there, on the side of the neighborhood that had the views. The house is totally gone now; workers dismantled it before it fell off the hill, and neighbors petitioned to expand the park.
What happened next seems like a symbol of community. Running by once, I saw a man sitting at a keyboard in violet sunlight; he played classical music under a magnolia tree while a work party planted the Madronas that are there now—seven or eight saplings spaced evenly on either side of the path. The trees took root in human music, in the baroque, and though Madronas are native to the area, these grow in a weirdly thriving garden of French hydrangeas and camellias that are remnants of the former owner’s ideal landscape. Neighbors reshaped those ruins toward their dream of an open-access park, and what they created is itself a hybrid text. Over the next year, volunteers and city workers widened the path and covered it in wood chips. They added a split-rail fence around the lookout, and rolled in large boulders for sitting. The park is still small, and there seems to be an unwritten rule that if someone else is there, you leave to let them “be alone with nature.” I’ve heard that some trees have grown so high they’ve partially blocked the view of Rainier, but you can still see it if you know where to stand.
How are we seeing? Shelley saw how seeing involves a dialogue between the world and the human mind. Moore understood that our seeing is a composite of looks, and how we only take in Shelley’s everlasting universe of things through a chorus of quotations: the cavalcade of calico competing /with the original American menagerie of styles. But maybe the new question, the one poets like Long Soldier are leading us towards, is one that calls us to re-trace the circle, asking: what am I not seeing? why can’t I see?
Here’s what happens when you shift the lens: houses on either side of the park are valued near a million dollars, and the roads that lead there are indirect. Even people who live a few blocks from it might not know the park is there—it’s hidden on the curve of the road, and it’s not on the way to anywhere else. When early pioneers built houses there, Lake Washington was already home to the Duwamish tribe. Although this history is preserved by the land, the people, and the place names, to see it requires a willingness to ask questions, and to fracture the manicured landscape with the long view. Completing a circle, you have been deceived into thinking that you have progressed.
If we’re to refashion our perception of the environment to something other than a commodity, maybe it begins by perceiving it in the stark light of elegy. Maybe it starts by pressing the name of the park like a hyperlink, and remembering one person for whom that park and the surrounding neighborhood are named: Leschi. His tragic story is emblematic of the conflicts between Native Americans and white settlers in Seattle. The first U.S. Governor of the Washington Territories, Isaac Stephenson, appointed Leschi and his brother (both respected members of the Nisqually tribe) to represent their people at the signing of the Medicine Creek Treaty in 1854, a treaty that ceded much of current-day Seattle and its surroundings to the United States, and restricted native peoples to reservations. Because United States law required that Isaac Stephenson negotiate with a tribal leader, he himself designated Leschi as chief, even though Leschi’s Nisqually tribe was not organized into the power hierarchies that Stephenson understood. There is abundant evidence that Leschi sought peace, even after United States militias routed him from his home and his property. But Stephenson’s view was myopic, as he forced the territory to conform to the military structures of the United States government.
Leschi protested the terms of the Medicine Creek Treaty as unjust, and he resisted white occupation of the land. Later, he was accused, convicted, and hanged for assisting the murderers of two white militiamen, though many people—Native Americans and white settlers alike—considered his actions justified in a time of war (many believed he wasn’t actually involved in the first place) and his hanging unconscionable. No plaque or park sign at Lake Dell-Leschi explains this history. Most of the people I see at the park are white.
Why can’t I see? What am I not seeing? Maybe the work of poet Arthur Tulee, whose poem “The Ascension” celebrated Mount Rainier’s centennial as a national park, helps to reshape the frame:
What’s your approach to climbing Rainier? Longmire’s? Or from the east?
I do not have an approach, I have never had an approach. I do not climb mountains empirically, for ego, for western achievement, for claiming beauty.
My appreciation of beauty involves distance and non-interference. I do not conquer anything by scrambling over it. […]
My boundaries are as much in thoughts and behaviors as in geography and geological features. My maps are drawn up by culture, custom, tribe, family, and myself.
In Tulee’s poem, every line questions the history of the western, conquering mentality. Tulee aims for “non-interference” and the desire “to leave things as I have found them.” He maps the long distance here by reconfiguring the topographic map as an interconnectedness of “culture, custom, tribe, family,” and the self. As Tulee demonstrates, orienting towards non-interference takes an entirely different compass, an entirely different relationship to the environment, not as something to be exploited, but as something to respect and let be.
In my own poems, I’ve sought ways to represent my questions and wonderings about the earth and our relationship to it. I know I relate to Mount Rainier by way of Moore’s poem, and how she animates the mountain as a creature and a home to creatures, and I also admire Tulee’s call for respecting the mountain, for letting it be. When I look at the volcano, I perceive it not only as dynamic matter, but also as a kind of consciousness. As soon as I try to name what feels something like spirit, something like consciousness in the mountain, it coalesces as a voice. How does the lava itself speak? This is a question I’ve been wrestling with for the last four years, as I’m working on a manuscript titled “The Lava on Iceland.” When I was searching for a form that would help me approach the voice of lava, I thought of the poetic form of erasure, a form that adds layers (of readings, of ink) over the existing text. During the process, the new poem emerges like a topography; the poem gains spatial depth. I’ve found that working in this form yields collisions of phrases and sound patterns beyond my go-to lexicon.
When the subject of the poem is obliteration, when the poet wants to call attention to annihilation or obliteration or mutilation, there can be value in using erasure as a process.
Erasure as a poetic form is controversial. In a series of blog essays, Andrew David King reads erasure as a political act; to some extent, he attributes the recent craze in erasure-making to the national climate post-9/11. His reading feels persuasive to me, and especially relevant today—as though erasure mimics the process of finding the truth inside political speech. Another central voice in this discussion is Solmaz Sharif. In “The Near Transitive Properties of the Political and Poetical: Erasure,” Sharif argues that the poetic form of erasure is dangerously related to state tactics of the redaction and censorship of text, and thus to the disappearance and obliteration of bodies. Though Sharif finds the form problematic, she includes a list of “possible and political aesthetic objectives for poetic erasure.” For example, Sharif cites M. NourbeSe Philip, who is herself aware of erasure as a mutilation of language and sees how this relates to the mutilation of slaves, as an example of an author who “expose[s her own] authority and, therefore [her] role as culpable participant.” I think that in some ways, when the subject of the poem is obliteration, when the poet wants to call attention to annihilation or obliteration or mutilation, there can be value in using erasure as a process.
When I think of the great distance view from Lake Dell-Leschi, I am aware that both to see it (the awesome scale of tectonic force), and to see how I’m seeing it (through the momentous forces of capitalism), are meditations on creation and destruction. In the way that erasure is a form of consuming text, it could be that it merely mirrors capitalism. Still, can tracking the process of consumption also point to what is lost? To me, the first thing erasure does is dismantle the idea of single-genius authorship by pointing back to the author of the source text. King argues that erasure is a kind of monument to reading: “The erasurist resembles the reader: there is something about any erasure […] that mimics the sensory experience of encountering those source texts themselves.” In this way, preserving the source text shines light on the basic mechanism of all writing by directly indexing the relationship between reading and writing. To create “The Lava on Iceland,” I am erasing a series of source texts about Iceland (everything from geologic surveys, to interviews with Bjork, to historical articles, to literary passages), so what remains represents the voice of lava. I find the poems that emerge from this process can take any number of stances towards the source text—sometimes they engage with the subject of the source text (as a summary, or a response, or a talking back), and sometimes they riff on sound patterns and rhythms in the original. Erasure is a means of acknowledging how I appropriate source material.
Ultimately, I believe erasure is a form uniquely responsive to our current relationship to the environment. It registers our eco-conscious anxieties because it emphasizes both the instability of language and of place, particularly when the subject is the history of land. Take a work like Ronald Johnson’s Radi os, his undoing of Milton’s Eden. Or look at Jen Bervin’s The Desert, an erasure of John Van Dyke’s 1901 book of the same name. I find erasure’s ecopoetic possibilities to be true especially in the cases where erasure practitioners preserve the original layout of the source text—I’d name this particular technique not just “erasure” but “exposure.” To what extent can this process expose the polyvocality already inherent in the poetic process? For “The Lava on Iceland,” I am collaborating with graphic designer and illustrator Kevin Tseng, who figured out how to achieve the look of lava on the page by layering grayscale and highlighted text over photographs. Furthermore, we solicit photographs from fellow artists and writers who have traveled to Iceland. This has meant that every completed image-text is the result of a series of conversations and correspondences between me, the texts, Kevin, our editors, and our friends who contribute photos. Somehow, the voice that emerges is a combined voice, its text is palimpsest, one that approximates a composite of visions.
I find erasure compelling in no small part because it shifts the spatial scale of the page. Where most erasure practitioners erase down to the words of texts, I work down to the letter, where the potential for finding lines (and rhyme) increases exponentially. In this encounter with language, words dissolve back to sound patterns, to graphemes and phonemes, and the yield is mystical. To what extent can this process expose our relationship to texts and lands and history? Erasure makes the page layered, more like a place. If the text is a field of potential collisions and separations, each word is a core sample.
Earth’s in motion; all rocks were molten flows. Why should the mind’s-eyed image of a mountain make me still? It’s a petrified wave. When tremors unseal the hot spot the mountain will triple its height as ash, flood the plains with boiling mud, and send us running. I’ve heard of poets who keep human skulls beside them as they write, to make every minute shine against death’s shadow. Is that what staring at the mountain gives us? The certainty of knowing we’re fleeting, an assurance of mortality that stays the impulse to flee? The more I see the mountain, even from thousands of miles away, the more I trust that nothing’s mine, that to be is to belong to infinity. If this desire to perform distance requires moving and uprooting, can a poem, with its time-folding rhythms, be a home? Can an hour be? The more I move, the less certain I am of a fixed self, except as one who needs to share what I see: the white volcano with no weather side. When it erupts, we will know the mountain was nowhere near what we imagined it was. It will alter its shape, slip the rigging of its names, and it will rename us.
Katy Didden is the author of The Glacier’s Wake (Pleiades Press, 2013). She earned a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Missouri, and her poems and essays have appeared in journals such as The Kenyon Review, The Spoon River Poetry Review, Ecotone, 32 Poems, Diagram, and Poetry. She is currently an Assistant Professor at Ball State University.