By Tarn MacArthur
When we talk of “environmental poetry” we are talking of a poetic genre rooted in traditional ideas of nature, a genre which, historically, elevates specific ecologies to invoke the physical and temporal proximity of the living, breathing world. In doing so, environmental poems have tended to prioritize a connection to the local, forging the bonds of intimacy with what can be held in the senses long enough to become reliably known—this forest, those cliffs, that river, these animals—and eventually defining what it means to be considered presently here.
For this reason, environmental poetry, even in its most wild and pessimistic forms, has often provided latent comfort to readers precisely because it functions as a mimetic representation of systemic structures that can usually be scientifically and logically accounted for—think, for instance, how environmental disaster poems center a recognized and measurable subject (forest fire, extinction, global warming) whose presence can be factually explained and vividly described, if not welcomed and praised. If we consider the etymology of the word environment, this poetic process begins to make some definitive sense, environ having derived from the Old French, environer, meaning “to surround, enclose, encircle.”
Such poems that evoke these concretely present and local environmental matters are, therefore, a form of conservation, supporting a given issue by fencing it within the margins of the page, educating readers on the consequences of harmful forces and, with a touch of luck, committing them to action. Both the factual content and actionable qualities of conservationist poems are also what have made them the poster-poems for environmental literature. However, while they certainly inform what environmental matters readers should consider, these poems less often explore ways in which poetry informs how we consider our relation to the world around us.
It is unsurprising that poetry confronting environmental questions would loosely divide into categories of activism and philosophy, there being a pressing need to not only instigate immediate and effective change in human behavior, but to provoke a manner of ecological thinking that dismantles ingrained notions of human exceptionalism and the need for constant material progress. We can see this two-fold approach exemplified in the works of one of the twentieth century’s most esteemed environmental activists and ecological philosophers, Arne Naess, who draws on a range of practical and theoretical sources—Spinoza’s Ethics, Gandhian nonviolence, mountaineering, Buddhism—to both address pressing environmental issues and theorize long-term changes in how humans relate with their worldly surroundings.
Moving into the realm of poetry, if we consider the conservationist wing of environmental poetry to be at work in facilitating active change within the framework of the concrete and local, perhaps it follows that the place to begin considering the philosophical wing would be through poems addressing the opposite end of this spectrum—namely, the absent and cosmological. In fact, this idea is one not only supported by prominent contemporary ecological philosophers like Timothy Morton, who writes that “the best environmental thinking is thinking big—big as possible, and maybe even bigger than that, bigger than we can conceive,” but can be traced back through seminal texts across numerous cultures and geographies. Consider, for instance, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species—“all animals and all plants throughout all time and space should be related to each other”—and Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, in which the poet-philosopher reckons with the infinitely generative nature of the cosmos and humanity’s position within it.
In contemporary poetry there are few poets whose body of work has been as steadfastly dedicated to exploring ideas of interconnectedness on a cosmological scale as the late Canadian poet, Don Domanski. While Domanski’s poems are traditionally environmental in their choice of the natural world as primary subject, they eschew the conservationist mode’s use of language as a means to define and re-create their subject on the page. Instead, Domanski sees the porous nature of words as an embodied reminder of our mutual cosmic origins—meaning begetting meaning on a seemingly infinite scale in the vein of Darwin and Lao Tzu.
In his essay, “Flying Over Language,” Domanski describes his poetic process as making “a quantum leap, from an unarticulated silence to a system of symbols” where “what is lost to consciousness is integrated, finding its home in flesh and bone.” This poetic expression might be best explained as super-linguistic, reminiscent of different forms of meditation in which the repetition of a sound, word, or phrase brings about a physical and psychological state of realization, albeit one whose exact meaning is abstract. In this way, Domanski’s poems create meaning through their recognition of what is both present and absent, said and unsaid, emphasizing the notion that each individual thing is only definable in relation to others, and that no thing can be seen as independent of the rest. As a result, Domanski’s poetic subjects tend to be incapable of confining themselves to a mimetic unity recognizable as a real-world systemic event, but instead they point outwards to a present-absence, a reminder that for something to be considered here and real does not imply that it can always be pointed to as there.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate Domanski’s poetics is by considering how his poems animate the concept of “place.” Whereas the conservationist mode creates a sense of place by conforming to the parameters of the material world, Domanski’s approach is reminiscent of the classical Japanese poet, Matsuo Bashō, whose poetics reflect the Buddhist idea of co-dependent origination. As Sam Hammil explains in his introduction to Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings, “Bashō is not looking outside himsel —rather he is seeking that which is most clearly meaningful within, and locating the ‘meaning’ within the context of juxtaposed images that are interpenetrating and interdependent.” Like Bashō, Domanski’s images are deployed in a manner that not only creates this type of juxtaposition but also challenges our understanding of material reality. In his poem, “Biodiversity is the Mother of All Beauty,” for instance, we find the lyric refrain, “When I think,” linking descriptions of subjects that appear materially present with theoretical images containing those subjects on a simultaneously microscopic and cosmic scale:
when I think of blood drops and little hurts
entering a field filling the field
when I think of dandelions off their leashes
and the Noh play of dragonflies airborne
red and metallic blue light as silk
when I think that one sigh was the progenitor
of all life that the binding of oxygen
and hydrogen is the most erotic calligraphy
that every thought human and otherwise
is an astronomical unit
that each is star-laced to its very core
Here, we begin the poem with a distinct sense of place, “blood drops and little
hurts / entering a field.” While these words are semi-abstract, they are still metaphorically cohesive—consider wounded animals. This idea of place is further
developed through descriptions of dandelions and dragonflies, however, what
comes next not only juxtaposes the material reality of the scene but seems to also contain what came before it. We can attempt to piece the second stanza together in a fashion that makes some logical sense—the “one sigh” as the big bang, “oxygen / and hydrogen” as elements for building life—but this seems to fall strangely in on itself when we consider that “every thought” is not only an “astronomical unit” born out of our cosmic origins, but contains the cosmos itself as it is “star-laced to its very core.” The poem then continues to shift between the theoretical and material world, building its web of interconnectivity, setting image within image as a kind of poetic Menger sponge so that it is impossible to say what begets what in any linear or logical form:
when I think
that inside every genome there
is a line of sight that surrounds the earth
when I think that deer move elegantly between
trees like the great tea master Rikyū
did among his bowls
when I think of parallel universes colonizing
the edges of birdsong
Then we arrive at the last stanza and image:
when I sit here knowing this is a dying world
nothing could be more effortless more sacred
than this sleepy forest at dawn.
As a result of the poem’s mantric refrain, when the ending comes it is not so much expected as felt, arising out of the kokoro—what Hamill translates from the Japanese as the “heart/mind”—both a physical and psychological realization. By settling the poem into a final concrete and present setting, Domanski not only returns to the material world but to a place whose existence reaffirms those subjects that came before. Through the process of instilling interconnectedness as an inherent aspect of being, “Biodiversity is the Mother of All Beauty” finally arrives at an intuitive realization that the forest is sacred not because it is scarce or valuable or beautiful by any human standard, but because it embodies our universal interdependence, which gives it a broader reach and deeper consequence than we could ever materially measure.
Tarn MacArthur is a George Buchanan Ph.D. scholar at the University of St.
Andrews. He is the recipient of a grant from the Québec Council of Arts and
Letters and the Walter and Nancy Kidd Fellowship in Creative Writing at the
University of Oregon. His poetry and prose have recently appeared in The
Poetry Review, The New Statesman, Poetry London, Bad Lilies, and The Los
Angeles Review of Books.