“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank…” —so asserts Charles Darwin in his conclusion to Origin of the Species, and so begins James Sherry’s 2016 Chax Press book, entangled bank: a conceptual memoir of language ecosystems.
What a canny gift the poet gives us: an invitation to contemplate each poem as a community of living language bits, co-evolving and interdependent, shaped by the environment—an environment in which the reader participates. As a “memoir,” Sherry acknowledges that each page recalls a language ecosystem as it was, now fixed on the page as a portrait. But when a reader takes up the invitation to contemplate how these pages are entangled ecosystems, the reader revivifies the poems with new sense, perception and culture. We are vulnerable to, participating in, and culpable for this entangled bank.
Calling it a “conceptual” work directs attention to the way systems work rather than the charismatic critters (e.g., poets) within those systems. Yet it is irresistible to read the book as a memoir of the poet himself. The works contemplate what it is to be a poet among poets, interdependent and in community, co-adapting the practice of language, all within a violent and destructive culture. Sherry suggests that change and adaptation in language ecosystems are ways to survive—yet the poet also places himself, mortal and vulnerable, as a critter among critters.
Entangled. When the oar of your boat is tangled in a kelp forest, your physical presence becomes environment to sea urchins, otters, kelp, wolf eels and myriad other creatures that provide food, shelter, competition and more to one another. And in turn, as you free your oar, the kelp forest changes you. Your adrenaline sends inter-kingdom signals to the millions of critters in your personal microbiome, profoundly changing their environment. You are not simply ensnared by the forest, you are intricately interlaced with it. You set particles in motion. They in turn affect the position, spin, momentum of other particles—even at a distance. That’s the working of an ecosystem. And those are the relationships that Sherry encourages to contemplate, as one style of writing tangles with another, each in turn affecting the way the other appears, is read and written.
The first nine pieces in the book include six “Beautiful Poems for My Friends” separated by poems with beautifully divergent language ecosystems. In the first two of six “Beautiful Poems for My Friends,” it is hard not to hear Joseph Kaplan’s Kill List as part of the environment of the poems, as Rae Armantrout noted in her comment on the book (even though Sherry has said that the first of the Beautiful Poems were written in 2002). Like Kaplan’s list, the poems categorize and sort poet-friends into a taxonomy. It’s not passive; the taxonomy is charmingly conscious of the taxonomist.
For Kim Rosenfeld
You are beautiful
I caught you looking
Pitiless and forgiving
For thinking you beautiful (16)
These contemporary poets are part of the living ecosystem of the author. Their names, captured on the page, also become part of a taxonomical language ecosystem.
Where Kaplan categorized by a concept of socioeconomic class, Sherry sorts by types of beauty. Present in the environment of these poems is the current culture: beauty has been shirked by poets like Sherry for a generation. Yet these poems revive the value of the concept of beauty in nature, beauty in death—and the critique of beauty—all those concepts that postmodernism buried.
And what of beauty in contemporary culture? By the third and fourth versions of “poems for my friends,” the phylum of “friend” extends beauty beyond romantic dominant culture expectations to include public figures (Barack Obama) (29), civic figures (My Boss Frank), corporate “persons” (Toyota Motors) (34). A community of poets, immersed in contemporary culture, is classified by a poet dwelling in the same culture, according to a taxonomy reviving a romantic concept that, when read against Kaplan’s poem, could be an antithesis to a socioeconomic concept. Entangled, indeed.
How do these discrete Beautiful Poems tangle with other poems in the volume? Take “Passive Voice: Forcing Amaryllis” for example (18). It’s a poem set in the midst of a human-created climate change crisis: “Forced change is climate’s government” (18). The behemoth force that is our capitalist economy, and the herculean task of evolving our economy to address the crisis—that’s the macro-climate of the poem. The sub-sections then invite critique of language at all strata of our social taxonomy, how the “…moral force occurs in parts of a word” (20) and “…the politics of resistance became a school for shoppers” and there is “Oligarchy disguised as an entangled bank” (20). But it offers no simple prescription for how to “save our world from us” (20).
We are led to question individuality: what happens when singularity dissolves (“the power of one organism fails”) and, right along with it, the language ecosystem driven by a single entity (“to write words on purpose”) dissolves (19). The poem suggests that to force an alternative risks being nothing more than the “pretense of change.”(18) But to be “loosely responsive to spontaneous change” (22) and to “release control/of yourself” (23) may catalyze a change that brings survival of a sort. And yet: “It’s not easy to break those links / To the deeper inner you.” (22).
Reading “Forcing Amaryllis” next to the Beautiful Poems highlights the mythology of “you” and “I.” What comfort it brings to think of ourselves as discrete and autonomous! But also: what comfort to be individuals nestled within a species, belonging in an ecosystem. “Forcing Amaryllis” enlivens both perspectives, and more—thematically and within syllabic and phrased structures.
In the wrenching prose piece “Written in the Subway Stalled Under the East River”, Sherry admits he wants, as a person, to disentangle from his relationship with the dying poet Stacy Doris:
Her voice sounds more distant. I am worried for both of us, but I try to distance myself from her, to disentangle, because I convince myself that her cancer was advanced and mine remains minimal. I don’t want to be dragged down by our community and try to be independent…(77)
In some ways, Sherry succeeds in becoming independent and in some ways, he realizes that both the connected life and his independent organism are him. Style and labor are intimately connected, as in “Memoir”:
And what’s left to talk about?
Our hapless handholds
On slippery fashions,
With more work to support them. (85)
“Written In The Subway” is positioned in the company of a series of poems at the end of the book reflecting on individual mortality. The Beautiful Poems return, this time for dead people, and the task of classification gives way to the task of elegy (84). Even as the works emphatically call on readers to acknowledge interdependence, the power of individual identity is part of the same ecosystem.
A line from “Written in a Subway” ends: “…we’re screwed.” It’s true. We’re so deeply screwed. Climate disruption, nitrogen cycle imbalance, multiple gigatons of nuclear weapons, mass extinction, life saturated in persistent petrochemical contamination, rising rates of chronic disease, neurodevelopmental harm rampant, life-long changes built in to disruptions the first thousand days of human life—I could go on.
Yet that’s all quite evident. Nobody needs to make the case that we’re headed toward doom as a keystone species in ecosystems worldwide. As Allison Cobb suggests in her book, After We All Died, It’s time to grieve. It’s time to come to terms with the systemic origins of our destruction (Stephen Collis might call it Geophysical Capitalism), embrace creative practice (as CA Conrad would prescribe) and find a new way.
Sherry invites readers to contemplate whether there are Darwinian “laws of nature” at work, from the cellular to the syllabic, that have led us to become so screwed. Sherry suggests that change—not forced, but as an adaptation—may be a way for the entangled bank to persist in some way, even as the mortal, vulnerable critters that are individual beauties give way.
James Sherry. Entangled Bank, Chax Press, 2016.
Allison Cobb. After We All Died, Ahsata Press, 2016.
Stephen Collis. “The Rise of the Biotariat” Web blog post. Jacket2. Accessed 29 March 2018. https://jacket2.org/commentary/stephen-collis-1
Jonathan Hobratsch. “2017 Poetry Month: An Interview With CA Conrad.” Huffington Post. 21 April 2017. Accessed 29 March 2018.