From Ecocide to Ecopoetics: Can Poetry Save Us From Ourselves?
Written by Leonora Simonovis
In his essay “The Language of the Master,” Paul Kingsnorth argues that language is a form of ecocide because it creates a divide between us and our surrounding reality. The author observes that language “is both our most effective tool and our most powerful weapon.” It can be –and has been– used to manipulate and control others, as well as to impose worldviews and ways of living. It was what colonizers in the Western hemisphere did, and many of the official languages spoken today are living proof of this fact. They have been legitimized and validated, while other languages –indigenous and creole languages, for example– are either in danger of becoming extinct or only spoken at home.
Many indigenous languages have a direct connection with the environment. For example, Sherri Mitchell, who was born and raised on the Penobscot Indian reservation (Penawahpskek), writes that in her language “the word ‘the’ does not exist, so there are no words that objectify our relatives in the natural world.” Mitchell also adds that “the teachings surrounding our traditions demonstrate a complex understanding of things that science is just beginning to understand.” One of these is Quantum entanglement, which is the idea that once matter has been connected physically, it can never be disconnected energetically– and in many cultures there’s the belief that we all come from the same source and that we are all related.
Considering that human beings rely on language for everyday interactions and communication, I wonder if language can become a tool to heal and connect, instead of destroying and dividing, and whether this is possible in a world that increasingly sees diversity as a threat. While I don’t have the answer, I believe poetry does attempt to reestablish our connections with the world at large in a way that brings language back to itself. Mexican poet Octavio Paz says in his book The Bow and the Lyre, “Poetry is an operation capable of changing the world, and poetic activity is revolutionary by nature, it’s also a spiritual exercise and a method of internal liberation,” (my translation).
Paz adds that poetry gives us access to the source of everything that is and even though his reflection borders on the metaphysical, he raises a valid point. Reading a poem allows the reader to notice and feel what otherwise would go unnoticed. It invites us to pay attention to what is not being said, to the silences and absences. Poetic images connect objects and situations that seem to be complete opposites, bridging the gap between language and reality. Poems don’t necessarily carry answers, but they might generate questions that lead us to approach our reality in a non-linear, non-reductive way.
One example of this is the poetry anthology Here. Poems for the planet (Copper Canyon Press, 2019), edited by Elizabeth J. Coleman and with a foreword from the Dalai Lama. It includes 128 poems from a variety of writers–as well as a good number of translations– including Julia Alvarez, Kamau Brathwaite, Natalie Diaz, Ross Gay, Lorna Goodison, Robert Hass, Kimiko Hahn, Joy Harjo, Brenda Hillman, Katerina Iliopoulou, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Natasha Sajé, Tracy K. Smith, and Shu Ting, among many others. It also incorporates a “Guide to Activism by the Union of Concerned Scientists” at the end, in which the reader can find a call to action –contacting representatives, reaching out to the media, etc.
The poems are organized in sections that speak to the sensory details present in our world–that usually remain unnoticed. For example, Part 3 is titled “As if They’d Never Been: poems for the animals” and the themes range from the communal life of bees and their fierceness, to the loneliness of an old ibis, the potential extinction of tortoises, and pigs being taken to the slaughterhouse, among others. The questions that arise in this part, which and that the poems address, explore the act of relating to a non-human compassionately, as well as taking the time to observe and learn from animals. Like the poem “Characteristics of Life,” by Camille T. Dungy,
I speak for the damselfly, water skeet, mollusk,
the caterpillar, the beetle, the spider, the ant.
from the time before spineless was frowned upon.
This poem begins with an epigraph from BBC Nature News that states that “A fifth of animals without backbones could be at risk of extinction.” It plays with the word “spineless” by challenging its known uses –coward and weak– and brings it back to its more literal meaning –not having a backbone. The speaker names a series of invertebrate animals and highlights characteristics of their life she identifies with,
Ask me if I speak for the nautilus and I will be silent
as the nautilus shell on a shelf. I can be beautiful
and useless if that’s all you know to ask of me
The poem makes us aware of how ignorance and misunderstandings have led to the belief in human superiority–and how language has played a key role in this. Language shapes our perspective of reality, but we can be persuaded to care for and to love what we objectify by closing the distance between ourselves and what we see. Language can be the thread that sews together the two sides of a wound.
In this sense, poetry is a genre that values each word for what it is and where precision truly matters. When we read a poem and we take each word at face value, we come to understand its meaning and what it reveals, not what it might be trying to say but what it’s actually saying, as in the poem “Voice” –by Lauryn Brown,
I can hear it,
the whispers of the tress,
melody of the wind,
the woven tale of the soil,
echoing into the past,
into the future.
Nature has a voice
If only you’d listen
The last line is beautiful and haunting, because it is a reminder of the fact that we have stopped listening, not only to the world around us, but to each other. For Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, “words are symbols for shared memories” and if we think about storytelling and how important it has been for maintaining traditions, socialization, and building community, we can come to the conclusion that language does bring us closer to our reality. The complications arise from trying to categorize and name what we see, hear, smell and touch so that we become passive observers rather than active participants.