This year we have chosen to look back on all the authors that make up the Hiraeth Press circle. Each month we will focus on one Hiraeth author and revisit their works. In May we are celebrating Leonore Wilson, author of Western Solstice and poet laureate of Napa Valley.
This week, author Theodore Richards reflects on the theme of “embedded revelation” in Leonore’s poetry. Stay tuned int he coming weeks as we share more thoughts and reflections on Leonore’s work from our authors. Western Solstice is available for purchase from Hiraeth Press and other online retailers.
Eco-Poetics and the Apocalypse:
The Embedded Revelation in the Poetry of Leonore Wilson
Just think of the blossoming parsnip, or the button
quail as divinity
We’ve heard a lot about the apocalypse lately. The New Age appropriation of the Mayan calendar is only one of many failed predictions that the end is coming, predictions that, in the Christian era, date back to the very genesis of Christianity. Paul, the man who in some ways created Christianity, repeatedly said that the end was coming soon. Jesus, however, the man who initiated the movement that later became Christianity—the man whom Christianity is supposed to be about—was mixed in his assessment of the end. His most unique contribution to the apocalyptic tradition seems to be his espousal of realized eschatology, the notion that the end is something we can encounter within ourselves, at this very moment, if we can transform our hearts and minds.
It is in this spirit that only the poet can inform us. Perhaps the reason for so many failed predictions is our prosaic approach to the subject, taking literally and linearly what is meant to be mythic, poetic—that is, not so much a prediction of distant future or history of distant past, but a revelation of pregnant present.
What, then, is this end (eschaton) and what is being unveiled (apocalypse) at this moment? While the imagination has frequently conjured the grotesque images of the rapture such as those depicted in the popular, fundamentalist “Left Behind” series, a more nuanced understanding of the apocalyptic reveals something more complex and, well, nuanced.
The apocalypse refers literally to that which is unveiled when we reach the end of the cosmos, of space and time. Neither the Israelites nor Paul nor his modern-day descendants are unique in how spectacularly wrong they were about the imminent destruction of the cosmos. These predictions of the end of the cosmos arose out of an encounter with the end of a cosmology, of a paradigm, a way of seeing the world and understanding our place in it. The objective world did not end, but the subjective worldview did; the objective cosmos did not pass away, but the subjective cosmology did. Psychically, these ends are very much the same.
THE END AT THIS MOMENT
Try to imagine a world without wood warbler,
flycatcher, wrentit, jay;
no longer a stubborn rustling in the underbrush,
that unfailing pleasant semitone
akin to flickering bereavement and regret.
And when our soundscape disappears…
what of further loss…
We are in the midst of what could certainly be described as an apocalyptic catastrophe, as described by the poet Leonore Wilson above. Her work is indeed a revelation, or at the very least prophetic in its desire to confront the horrors of the world we are creating.
But this is also an apocalyptic moment because there is always a way in which we are at the edge of our world. We can always give birth to something new. The poet reveals to us that which is already there: through the great mystery of language, she reveals to us the way to re-imagine the world.
At the same time, we are at a unique moment in history: external changes are leading to the end of old ways of seeing our selves and our world. In the context of Jesus Christ, whose people were confronted with Hellenistic culture and Roman power, this meant the end of the power and cosmic centrality of the Temple. The cosmos, as with many axial movements, was interiorized. The center of the universe was no holy mountain; it was in each of us.
What, then, is the uniqueness of this moment? In what way we are we approaching this edge? First, the external forces. There are many ways to describe this moment in human history, but I’d like to focus on the economic and ecological consequences for the fossil-fuel-consumption based economy.
We’ve been told over and over again, with a conviction that is nothing less that religious in its intensity, that the ever-expanding, ever-growing (“biggering” is the word Dr. Seuss uses in The Lorax) economy is the best way for us prosper. What is seldom said is that this formula for growth is a fraud. It has nothing to do with the esoteric formulas of the economist; it is based simply on our ability to extract cheap fuels from the earth, to harness the energy of the sun. This economic formula requires an Uroboros of Consumption: on one end, we must consume as many goods as possible; on the other, we must extract as much of the earth’s resources as possible.
The Uroboros of Consumption has led us to a three-fold catastrophe: (1) as we run out of oil, we are at the brink of economic catastrophe; (2) as we have been taught to consume, we have forgotten how to make our lives meaningful without buying objects; and (3) as we have depleted resources, we are on the brink of ecological collapse.
Italian Marxist philosopher Bifo Berardi suggests that part of this apocalyptic moment has to do with language. This argument is based on the idea that, as economies evolve, language co-evolves. Economies are intertwined with worldviews, which are extremely difficult to change—even when faced with apocalyptic scenarios—because we lack the language to change them. Our language reinforces and creates the paradigm to such an extent that we perceive its values (“growth and consumption are good”) as givens. For example, the industrial revolution precipitated and increased abstraction in language, but also language that looked upon the world as a machine (“Time is Money”). Compare this to the agrarian metaphors of the New Testament. Berardi points out that we are in a post-industrial economy of abstract finance. We have lost the capacity to think poetically; instead our language mirrors the abstraction of our financial markets, markets that produce and create nothing.
The abstract financial markets cannot be separated from the radically discontinuity between mind and body, humanity and ecology. We destroy the planet, in part, because it is no longer sacred. And the act of making sacred is the work of language, specifically of the mythmaker and the poet. If the radical shift of the axial period was to see the cosmos embedded in the human—and therefore the sacred as the center of the human, either in emptiness or in soul—the radical shift of this moment, our apocalypse, is to see the human as embedded again in the cosmos as expressed ecologically. This is not an either-or proposition. One does not have to reject the uniqueness of the human soul in order to contextualize it ecologically. I am not proposing some sort of scientific materialism here; but to avoid this choice between materialism and spirituality, a new language is required. Wilson’s voice—not merely her words, but her voice—is part of this great work, to borrow the term that Thomas Berry borrowed from the alchemists for the transformation that occurs with the re-imagining of the story.
If today’s apocalypse is that, in reaching the edge of abstract finance and fossil fuel extraction, in destroying our ecosystems and sterilizing our lives through a cult of consumption, we are called upon today to reveal a new language, rooted in ecology and in the poetic voice, that re-embeds us in our ecological and cosmic context, then the work of the mythmaker-poet is partly to address what could be described a as religious question: What is the sacred? On its good days—and I acknowledge that religion has many bad ones—religion asks this question. But one can approach it from beyond the bounds of organized religion. (Indeed, it is perhaps best approached from, if not a non-religious viewpoint, then at least a non-sectarian one; part of the new paradigm is, I believe, a movement toward a more interfaith world.)
Wilson’s Western Solstice is similarly rooted in a cosmology of ecological embeddedness. In “World as Church” she writes, “Just think of the blossoming parsnip, or the button/ quail as divinity.” Wilson is perhaps less exclusively focused on ecology than such poets as Jamie K. Reaser and Mary Oliver. She explores more directly the human world and its sorrows. Wilson reminds us that human sorrows are of a different type from the natural world, but are part of the same continuum.
In “That Easter” she tells the story of a naked woman, running from the husband who had beaten her:
… I saw her at a distance
they had her handcuffed, they were taking her
down the mountain, it was starting
to rain, she had her head down,
the Jesus had his head down ready for
the crucifixion, she was that scrawny.
I put my body in her body…
This is one of many examples of human suffering and violence, interspersed with calls for ecological justice. There is a broader cultural movement toward patriarchy that cannot be separated from discussions about the ecological destruction of recent times. Wilson not only recognizes this connection—she feels it, intuits it. That is the power of good poetry. She is not suggesting that we pity this woman, but that we listen to her—and that we listen to ourselves and find her in us.
Wilson is bringing forth what Richard Tarnas would call “intimations of a new worldview.” She is, to paraphrase Thomas Berry, telling a new story. My own response to the work is one of both joy and sadness. And this is the whole point of good poetry and good story telling. It elicits and emotional response, and provokes a dialogue between reader and writer, teller and listener. And like the great farmer and poet Wendell Berry, she is unafraid to address not merely the beauty of our natural world, but the sadness of its loss. “Try to imagine,” she exhorts us, a world without all that makes it beautiful.
While ideas about Wilson’s work are important, what cannot be lost is its poetic form. It matters that she is a poet. Imagining a world without that which makes it beautiful is important because it requires us to bring forth the world before us with our imagination. Indeed, ecological crisis is very much a crisis of imagination.
It is easy to talk about embeddedness, much harder to live one’s life with an eco-poetic sensibility. The risk at this moment, I would venture to say, is not a grand apocalypse that we experience together. It seems that the risk lies in a million little, lonely apocalypses—each of us experiencing our own end, alone.