Whereas the Lyric: On Joshua McKinney’s Small Sillion
By Matthew Cooperman
Parlor Press | 2019 | 99 pages
It is increasingly easy, though despairingly so, to feel the unraveling of earth’s garden mythology. Climate change has revealed, with daily ferocity, the expanded bandwidth of the new normal, and “the living hand” that’s extended (in poetry or the environment) is anything but pastoral. But that’s to be expected. The radical premise of the pastoral is that it’s always already a past garden. Et in Arcadia Ego, “I too was in Arcadia,” sings the dead Grecian shepherd, “you should’ve seen it.” The writing of the pastoral, lyric formulations of elegy or loss, describe a semiological crisis between word and world that’s been there since, well, “the fall” into alphabetic language. And the garden itself has turned out to be a much more complex ecology than first thought. Indeed, while the pastoral metaphor of earth has never been a particularly accurate trope, the exposure of its fallacies (static, agrarian, temperate, humid, past) trebles the very foundations of Western ontology.
In America, founded so meticulously and ruthlessly as an Edenic vision, this self-consciousness is painful. Yet ecopoets are making clear the deep mesh of interconnectivity, and occasionally these poets rise to the surface of popular consciousness. I’m thinking of Layli Long Solider and her National Book Critics Circle Award-winning title Whereas of 2017. Or David Baker’s Scavenger Loop, or Camille T. Dungy’s Trophic Cascade. Or perhaps less visible but no less counterveiling, recent books like Joan Naviyuk Kane’s Milk Carbon Black, Cody Rose Clevidence’s Beast Feast, or Jennifer Scappertone’s The Republic of Exit 43. Each of these books revises or replaces overly Romantic (or overly green) configurations of the garden, offering new, globally intertwined revisions to or rejections of the garden trope. One can only hope that these alternate narratives will usher in a period of bracing counter-pastoral American poetics.
As example, take the opening pages of Whereas: “Now/make room in the mouth/for grassesgrassesgrasses.” At this moment Long Soldier is simultaneously righting an American atrocity (giving voice to the historically silenced “38” Lakota Sioux ordered hung by Lincoln on the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation; and responding to President Obama’s 2009 half-hearted Resolution of Apology to Native Americans), invoking Whitman, and Leaves of Grass, and clearing a space for an indigenous counternarrative of North American inhabitation. I’d venture she’s giving voice to the grass itself as well. The book is deeply concerned with place, with the semiological gap between word and world, and with an environmental crisis that calls for a radical transformation of ethics; it is “whereas” writing, writing which subverts, overturns, destabilizes, corrects. If from a garden, what material conditions, what legacy: “shhh //// this grassshhh /// shhhh //// who have I become?”
This question of legacy––of a pastoral poetics and of the North American garden––drives Joshua McKinney’s gorgeous fourth book Small Sillion. I invoke Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas specifically at the outset not to describe a surface similarity but to suggest a parallel effort at counterpastoralism. Whereas, and the other books mentioned above, all gesture toward radical, planetary interconnectivity. Where Long Soldier uses prose, race, and the political record to deconstruct “American” identity, McKinney employs an alternately keyed and flattened lyric to expose faulty ecological thinking. “Who have I become?” haunts the pages of Small Sillion, asking plangently if the lyric still suffices, and what it means to employ it in 21st century America. Indeed, on a planet enduring such rapid transformation, what does singing for your lunch actually do? Are there practical uses for the lyric, for the pastoral, and might it counter-sing? McKinney labors to know. And: “with ear to hear earth / breath will wren thee” (“Sealm”).
The wren in “Sealm” is emblematic of McKinney’s approach. A small, brown, rather inconspicuous songbird, the wren expresses a certain humility that is also a visibility; one of the New World’s most extensive passerines, the wren is singing all around us. Again and again, McKinney’s birdwork chirps attention laterally: “their dark sayings shining / to any ear inclined” (“To the Chief Musician”). And bird leads to bug leads to dog leads to snake, a panoply of beastly encounters that summon, if not song, the animacy of the field. One of the real pleasures of Small Sillion is the myriad immanences found in situ––in the garden, by the river, on the delta (it is Central Valley California that proliferates the pages; and it is saunter, dog walks, and runs that often induce the poems). Before words, before alphabets, intuitions, by small syllables, of a common language… do they speak across species? McKinney’s notations detail the trace:
Each morning the scrub jay proclaims something I’ve forgotten something sacred something wholly mundane.
Not in his tongue does the fallacy exist only in my translation of it?
Two words in this passage––sacred and mundane––are markers of McKinney’s investigation, and serve as structural touchstones across its three sections (single poems bracket the book as “First” and “Last”). The first section, “Point of Reference,” establishes place, amazement, and the semiological crisis between word and world; the second, “A Mundane,” describes the life of an “earth dweller” (an archaic definition of the word), detailing the ordinary, the daily, family durations, encounters with death; the third section, “In Paradise,” suggests that as earth dwellers, we’ve never fallen. That paradise is this body on earth, mortal, meaty, shared; that language is our very struggle of matter. And it’s a spiritual struggle, this immanence, to be here now:
From above every miracle is a storm. I am come here with this life on my body, that I may accept earth : look up and see a whyless sky : hear the wounded eachness of thrushsong in a blessed stand of wheat and more silence.
This is the ensemplastic work of the contemporary green lyric, to gather with and through the body to, if not an organic unity in the manner of Coleridge, a shape, an answering form. Is it accurate? Does it sound sense? What furrow of attention resides in “a blessed stand of wheat and more silence?” The spiritual is practical, and field notation––a sillion––is one of the ways McKinney makes the lyric work. The echo is Hopkins, and if we consider his poetry as private recitations with God, often composed in the field, we can feel both the humilitas and ambition of McKinney’s poems. If the lyric is to work as contemporary practice it must embody our doubts as much as our ecstasies, and it must do so phenomenologically. What vessel and voice, this body, what agency? Robert Duncan, considering the sensorium: “the hand and the eye estimate / and we feel what we see.” Thus, to prehend the world through its sensorial handle; what the poet’s eye can feel is precisely the increment his hand can write. Such an experiential formulation both feels right and thinks right in this Anthropocene moment, and describes the powerfully materializing action of McKinney’s lines. From the stunning opening poem “Hum”:
When I smelled green through the blur where its wings were, felt the whir of their arc, heard the red of its ruby throat scales, tasted the heart of its forked tongue afloat in the foxglove––my only desire was
to tell you.
Beyond the synesthesia (one of the book’s wonderous gifts), the poem nicely limns the problem of Cartesian dualism. More intricately, I feel it traces the paradox of language––its simultaneous arising and retreating from the sources of the world, and so offers at the outset a of the collection a kind of urgency to report what the senses hum. Green lyring and also a whereas writing; this is a “fall” from grace, and the compensatory language of “fall from grace.” To speak in a human tongue, however accurately, is not, ultimately, to know the vegetal world. And yet, this very gap is what inspires, literally breathes in, the filaments and pollens toward form. Always some act of translation, the desire is to have attempted it: “Once, to be / at one meant to act, so I have tried to make this / matter.” Matter indeed, a small sillion, a turn in the earth and a turning of the line, labor in time, atonement and attunement. Over and over again in McKinney’s Small Sillion we experience–– through gap syntax, open field constructions, and deft enjambments––the line itself as a leap of faith.
A trio of epigraphs frame the book, and offer both the form of attention––“Selion, n. A furrow turned over by the plough (Oxford English Dictionary); and “No wonder of it: sheér plód makes plough down sillion / Shine” (Hopkins)––and the necessity to act: “To say: I have lost the consolation of faith / though not the ambition to worship // to stand where the crossing happens” (Forrest Gander). As a kind of small ‘w’ witness, Small Sillion “stands where the crossing happens.” It may manifest in moments of fleeting beauty (“The Current,” “In Paradise,” “Spelt”) or in situations of doubt (“Another Day in the Perishing Republic,” “Chalk,” “Animism”); it may also be as simple as the turning of the seasons, the rising and falling of the day (the book is filled with aubades and serenades), or the awareness of the more-than-human world.
It is this last element that suggests the lyric’s efficacy is in its birdtalk with the shapeshifting animal world. Here’s “A Morphology” in total:
The wind taught me that I am not a hawk the oak that I am not a squirrel scurries circles up a tree
flames too spiral trunk-bark toward the crown of smoke thick where the sun drowns
dark-veiled I am not the wind the hawk I think blames me for this
is the fault of the mind the wind moves the smoke yet drives the fire the moral of which is ask is
change in form aims to be always never what it was its kind the same
An expanded bandwidth, an intersubjective conversation, close observation leading to new formulations of animacy, Small Sillion opens the wondrously whereas world of the non-human.
But what of that original question of value: what can the lyric do? In Josh McKinney’s counter-pastoral practice, it can substantiate the particularity of the world by witness; it can map the intricate mesh of relations, languages, and ecologies of the natural world; it can notate the passing of days, years, temperatures; it can show the etymological filaments that tether, however provisionally, word to world; and it can dramatize the intersubjective web of species that truly articulates, birdlike, the biodiversity of the planet. That’s a matterful thing, a singing thing, a shapely thing, and, indeed, a cosmic whereas thing: “without knowing your name, / I know you, for tonight’s true example is / that nothing // between me and the ghost-light of stars is a space / with no shape to occupy / And that nothing / requires our belief” (“Flammarion”). Be refreshed; read Small Sillion.
Matthew Cooperman is the author of Spool, winner of the New Measure Prize (Free Verse Editions/Parlor Press, 2016), Disorder 299.00 with Aby Kaupang (Essay Press, 2016), the text + image collaboration Imago for the Fallen World, with Marius Lehene (Jaded Ibis Press, 2013), and other books. A professor of English at Colorado State University, he is also co-poetry editor for Colorado Review. He lives in Fort Collins with his wife, the poet Aby Kaupang, and their two children.