Review: Ecstatic Emigre by Claudia Keelan

Ecstatic Émigré: An Ethics of Practice by Claudia Keelan (University of Michigan Press, 2018)

Reviewed by Michelle Mitchell-Foust

To hold a forest dear is easy in Oregon. Where I live, forested land preaches the tenacity of growth, overgrowth, understory. Scented speech, the call and response between plants and plants, and plants and animals, is everywhere, almost terrifying in its abundance. One might say that the forest remains the third terrain of my life, after field and desert. And in its arms I have been fighting the loneliness that comes from a years-long absence of poetry, or rather, my own lines of poetry in conception. Or perhaps I have been listening to an overabundance of words that I can’t place. Regardless, this is not an even exchange–forest for poem-making–but the cursive of branches and the color of eccentric miniature often make the poems of my days. For the time being, searching the characteristics of the smallest visible life is the sublime.

The rarest agaricomycetes I can only find in winter. My watching for them puts me in the spirit of time’s passing. On this matter, poet and essayist Claudia Keelan writes, “To experience time passing and to know the sensation is the truth and province of poetry” (9). Therefore, I am in the right wilderness. I have only to write….

Claudia’s consideration of time has to do with what she wants to do in poetry as much as it has to do with what poetry can do, as she expresses in her generous book Ecstatic Émigré: An Ethics of Practice, a wonderful collection of essays and interviews that interweave memoir, criticism, pedagogy, and manifesto. Her themes of time, desert, wilderness, Whitman’s “generation over self-knowledge,” witness, language, and practice intersect, so it wouldn’t be fair to say that one particular essay deals with one particular theme. The themes often merge during her conversation with us.

Claudia was the first to have conversations with me about the wilderness and the human mind. We were discussing the human recreation of wilderness long before I moved to the Pacific Northwest. I’m delighted that readers can now benefit, as I have, from Claudia’s profound intelligence with Ecstatic Émigré. They/we can be at home with these essays because they are intimate. She invites us into the experiences of her literary landscape, such as in “A Concrete Memoir,”:        

Looking out my window, everything is itself—the quail, trees, sage, creosote, globe mallow, roadrunner, brick wall around our land, broken toys, etc.—and evidence of an ongoing creation and decreation. The Mojave is where I find paradise or nowhere. Whatever energy things give off dying are also themselves. (20)

Her desert is my forest. I see the water leaving the mountain in a mist from my kitchen window, the seventh kitchen window in as many years, in a life that breeds a nostalgia best described by Claudia in “A Garden Is a Frame Structure”:

Am I victim to nostalgia? Nostos “returning home,” because of my algos, my “pain and ache?” If I am it is for a state I have experienced variously from time to time, as a form of freedom from home, freedom from possessions my acquisitive self procures for my tribe’s longevity, freedom from the names I’ve given to the people, the poems, and conditions I love. (71)

Claudia speaks to an artist’s need for dislocation, because what is unfamiliar participates in a poet’s generation, as does the original wilderness. Claudia prefers the wilderness that Thoreau knew, one that dislocates our naming. In “It Might Have Begun Differently,” she writes, “…it is the uncompromising Thoreau who has calmly directed that I must ultimately parent myself” (30):

Thoreau subverts dominant paradigms of sovereignty, and paves the way for the modernity of phenomena in American poetry from Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Black Mountain, the Beats, the San Francisco Renaissance, to contemporary poets as different as Alice Notley, Brenda Hillman, Lyn Hejinian, and Eleni Sikelianos. (34)

This modernity involves considerations of “revising” time in poetry, such as Stein’s desire to create a continuous present in her work, and a new relationship to the everyday, as well as to examine one’s national identity. Claudia shares this desire:

…[Stein’s] writing practice identifies human interiors that lead her to write in syntaxes formed by participles, gerunds, and impersonal pronouns that move with deliberateness and mirror mental processes. Her method is procreative…. In Stein’s dialectic, by becoming themselves, the Americans place their social contract in the ever evolving other of national entity… (119).

Claudia also looks to Adrienne Rich and Robert Creeley as a way of confronting poetry’s urge to distinguish the self in the face of atrocity. In “Revising the Parade: Against the Poetry of Witness,” she quotes Rich, who identifies her own understanding of the obligations of poetry:

For a poet, in this time we call “ours,” in this whirlpool of disinformation and manufactured distraction? Not to fake it, not to practice a false innocence, not to pull the shades down on what’s happening next door or across town. Not to settle for shallow formulas or lazy nihilism or stifling self-reference. (107).

Claudia includes Creeley’s “The Hill” as part of her examination of the motives behind the poetry of witness. Creeley reminds her that we writers and readers have to face our own anger…

…the magnanimous cruelty,

which is in me

like a hill. (42)

Ultimately, she believes that the poetry of witness fails because it consoles, when poetry should not console, if consolation lessens the blow of what should, as Franz Kafka writes, take an axe to the frozen sea of our minds. For Keelan, a poem itself should not lessen the blow of tragedy, but rather, bring us more deeply into the mind or minds of those involved in the tragedy.” Claudia remembers her child self in the context of protest. She writes, “I will always be an incomplete version of the child in a civil rights parade. It is the configuration of her next word for which I’m listening now. Essentially unforgiven” (43). In Claudia’s beautiful ‘Rabbits,’ the will toward self-erasure is an ecstatic paean dedicated to the continuing world:

Pressed beyond zero                              I pressed my ear to her

I found a channel          & radioing        Came a colony

Rousseau’s rabbits                    A dream of population

                        A dream of unpreparing To prepare

A population of rabbits  I would never see But dream of

                                    Forever In my absence from them

In the generation the newest population I and my dream

                        Of them            Became her       Then it was I was under

I was below stars           I gave up my dream there

                                                                        Under as in beneath

A light so profound a light very possibly streaming

                        From a star Dead already thousands of years

And yet I saw it So you can see me As you see her

                        As I give up me For generations To prepare by (106)

I have been carrying Claudia’s Ecstatic Émigré with me for months. It begins with a definition of ecstasy, “from existani, to ‘displace’” (9). And from displacement comes the eventual assemblage, ragged as a parasite’s pattern on a leaf, and sometimes as gorgeous. My break from making poems, then, is forested ecstasy. Claudia Keelan’s assemblage in Ecstatic Émigre: An Ethics of Practice is gorgeous, abundant, and important. I hold it towards you.

Buy this book: University of Michigan Press

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