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A Very Warm Mountain

Richard Gilbert
Frogpond, 27:2, Summer 2004

autumn mist oak leaves left to rust

        marlene mountain (Frogpond 26:1)

 It was Ursula K. Le Guin who re-conceptualized the genres of science fiction and fantasy, introducing new visions of humanity which delved into issues of politics, feminism and human potential, among diverse topics. Le Guin has also entered the canon of nature writing in American literature, with her essay from which this article takes its name. In haiku, Marlene Mountain has likewise crafted an oeuvre which offers numerous haiku re-conceptualizations in the gendai spirit, an important term from the Japanese haiku tradition meaning “modern, contemporary.” Mountain offers readers a range of possibilities for presenting contemporary social issues in haiku, and importantly, through her prevalent one-line form, has presented gendai re-conceptualizations of the natural in haiku.

 The above haiku is one of her more imagistically concrete poems: even the register shift of "rust" coming at the end of the line remains strongly visual. But “rust” creates imagistic irruption and so, naturalistic irruption. Does rust reinforce the sense of season? This is how irruption seems to create a tension, in terms of nature. The uneasiness; rust instead of russet; rust as weathering metal, as technos not geos. Rust is sometimes sharp-edged, ragged, something that gets you cut (so, cutting), infected; the feeling of decay deforms any rising romanticism concerning beauty of the leaves of the autumn oak in mist. It also seems that the irruptive collocation "mist oak" really catalyzes this unease; this language seems to rebel against meaning, forcing us out of the poem, so we lose contact with the natural, with the naturalness of the read-image, read naturally. Then the power of rust (vivid, solid color, substance) throws us back in again, but as garbage, detritus: cast-off or broken. And yes it's the leaves turning, dying, drying out. But we can't quite accept this in a facile way.

 And why is that important — not to believe? Yes, why should we lose our belief in how we habitually find nature? Just perhaps, nature tainted by the consciousness of language is more honest, in a surprising way. Why may this be? It is painful to look at the truth of our contemporary relationship with nature. The field of literary ecocriticism, shared by Le Guin and Mountain, offers us relevant contemplations which directly impend upon haiku. While there are a number of avenues to consider, one that strikes me in relation to Mountain's haiku is that of Bill McKibben, whose 1991 book The End of Nature showed us that human civilization has lost, in our time, is the very idea of nature as something apart, indomitable, pure: the molecules our biosphere have now been altered by human civilization. From global warming and ocean temperature-rise to acid rain and ozone holes, no heretofore natural biome remains unaffected. In another text, The Abstract Wild, Jack Turner shows how the wilds have been converted to managed zones. How can haiku deal with these new truths, concerning relationships between nature and society? Does "pure" nature even exist, except as a romantic concept?

 Contemplating such deformations of nature and the wild, it may be said that at this point in time, naturalistic haiku are highly artificial. And conversely, that there is a strange and rather mysterious naturalness that arises from deformation. James Hillman discusses this in terms of the need for the pathologic in soul-making — it's become very difficult to recover nature through either romantic or naive modes. This is one reason why the realism-inspired shasei representation style of Shiki, which we have been following as a main haiku guideline, is limited. Not irrelevant by any means, but partial.

 For haiku, we need to ask: where in the natural is the wild? Is there a last refuge? Perhaps it is mind itself that is at root wild, beneath language, outside of it; but to reach this sense, language and habitual conceptualizations (propositions, constructions), must be deformed, irrupted. It is fair to consider that haiku, through their unique techniques of juxtaposition and disjunction, have already given Western literature just this sort of paradoxical truth, but to the present, our haiku tradition has feared deformations of the natural image, and has mainly rejected language-based (textual) irruption, as a main technique in revealing haiku resonance. Thus, as relevant literary needs and concerns have shifted (the academic field of ecocriticism did not exist as such, two decades ago), haiku have come to seem increasingly managed. We might propitiously ask, has our poetic genre become little more than a conglomeration of “haiku parks” tended by conceptual park-rangers? Do formulaic concepts too often cordon off our poetics from the wild? Have we lost sight of the importance of the wild, of how we might be able to connect with untrammeled nature? Such a need as we now face may not have been a main concern of Bashô, in terms of direct representation: the idea of language deformation as a means of reading the land. Neither, perhaps, was an irrupted psychic landscape a necessary entry point leading to a recovery or memento mori of nature, to awaken "the lion [who] roars at the enraging desert" of modernity, to quote Wallace Stevens. Nevertheless, wildness was Bashô's concern, regarding mind and being. Haiku, at their best, activate an indomitable wildness, a sense of mind which is uncontrollable, reaching beyond the humanistic realm, relativizing our place in cosmos, reminding us of relative scale, nurturing our unknowing.

 Questions such as "where is the wild," and "what is nature" must likely be relevant for poets these days, and they are crucial questions for haiku. Coupled with these questions are the polemics of haiku viz nature. It would be ironic indeed, witnessing increasing ecological chaos, to leaf through page-after-page of picaresque juxtapositional haiku scenes of serene contemplation- — some future literatur might well ask, "what were those people thinking?" These days, our zeitgeist demands fresh poetic responses to our global predicament. One dimension of Mountain's search has been to artfully seek the wild in haiku, with a rare and unflinching honesty, and in doing so provide approaches that challenge us to reflect honestly upon our time, and the poetic and political relevance of the modern haiku tradition.

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