Review @ Los Angeles Review of Books
January 11, 2023
How can experimental poetry possibly help us solve the titanic problem of global climate change? Author and publisher James Sherry is going to tell us, in his new book Selfie. Why ask such a total question? Climate change is a total problem; everyone, even poets, ought to be doing their part. Outlandish and extreme positions can make good examples, this we know.
Why call such a book Selfie, named after that insidious inward-looking obsession our phones have got us all hooked on? Simply, writes Sherry, because we cannot escape our own perspective. Every opinion, every poem, every photo, every outburst onto the world always comes from our own particular point of view. Poetry, that most original and personal form of literary expression, the one that bends the rules of grammar and sense to our own momentary wills, is the selfie of selfies, the most individualistic of art forms. While this leads some to say it is the lightest, the most ineffectual, Sherry argues on the contrary that it can be the most perceptive and the most powerful, even when asked to confront the crisis of crises, the total challenge of the twenty-first century. “The background of any selfie,” he writes, “is often the reason for taking the photo then and there. In the background, you’ll see where I am, who I’m with, how I adapt my perspective to different locations, and adopt other relevant writers. I want to show the background in different lights that reveal even a single habitat as multiple.”
Ecological metaphors stream right into Sherry’s writing from the outset. Astonishingly, Selfie is the fifth of Sherry’s books on poetry and the pragmatics of ecology. First came Our Nuclear Heritage, (1991) then Oops (2013), followed by Entangled Bank (2016), poetry built around the environmental model, and most recently The Oligarch (2017), a rewriting of Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, to show the difference between form and operations of governance in political ecosystems. He’s clearly not glomming onto a fad, but has been deeply immersed in this subject over the many decades he’s edited and published Roof Books, between a loft on the Bowery and his home deep in the Hudson Valley.
His text alternates between poetry and prose, as his writing always has:
Talking about number calculates
a sustainable understanding
where I and you
are one and many.
Here is a foray toward an environmental model. Organisms operate with conditional autonomy to breathe, to eat, to reproduce, and to thrive. As I perform these functions, I separate myself and "sing myself." In this way, beings with outlines, not only through ego, but also through our bodies, initially posit a simple binary: my organism and the world, an organismic binary.
The machinations of ecology can read factual, even though they are about the wondrous interconnect! Poetry can help bring out the beauty, beyond the touchy-feely woo woo origins of any ecology ‘movement’ onward to uniquely expressed and profoundly pragmatic beauty:
The poem does not exist alone. The details of poem construction, its operation, and identity
under various conditions need elucidation for the environmental model of self and poetry to be useful. Farms do not produce food without friendly climate. Poets do not write without prior poems, including a supportive climate of ideas extending far beyond poems. You, connected
reader, are here with me, you poets, you thinkers, you amateurs in our friendly climate of poetry
readings, poetry books, and poetry discussion that help create a contemporary poetry identity while climate change looms ever more present in the weather and on our pages.
This is the basic appeal of ecology, the hope we glean from it that can touch us all: declaring interdependence, everything is connected to everything else. Thinking this way can be profound but can also turn any original idea into mush. Poetry, if any good, strives to bring clarity to the sudden juxtaposition of all related things.
If you are looking for poems and poets to bolster your belief in the value of ecological thinking, Sherry offers us long and involved lists of people and works to check out: Lyn Hejinian, Evelyn Reilly, Rae Armantrout, Holly Melgard, Che Quanzi, to name a few. No surprise there, he’s been at the game so long he knows so much and we would do well to listen. My favorite parts of the book, though, are when he digs deep, when he picks single works to interpret and dive into, revealing their ecological meanings.
Sherry is a brilliant polymath in the tradition of Buckminster Fuller, Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour, or Adrian Parr, continually surprises us in the breadth of his knowledge and the diversity of his knowledge and experience. Quoting the underrated Lorine Neidecker he exclaims:
learn a trade
to sit at desk
Modernist succinctness in poetry, non-emotional geometry in Bauhaus architecture, and other minimalisms in visual arts, mirror the need for speed and efficiency in capitalist industry and autocratic efficiency. How can poetry today extend beyond the self and society to the biosphere without including concision and extension in the right context? Adapt!
Adaptation sounds easy, but it is no cop out. Poets, he cautions, should not worry if their words are used as propaganda, in their eloquence to help further the cause. Poems celebrate ambiguous language by refining it toward beauty. In a time as totally confusing as this we need to take it more seriously. “The facts,” writes Sherry, “move toward poetry.”
Now we can see
from one thing to another,
how to adapt methods
of connecting can become,
well, natural, by which I mean
inherent in all the performances
in the biosphere. How we adapt
to global warming appears
itself in parts of speech like verbs.
What happens to our understanding when we write the prose text like this? Does it then automatically appear as poetry and thus each word and its rhythm become more profound as the words are reconfigured into lines? Call yourself a poet and you have a license to spill, to let it all come loose and explore syntax over borders, daring over discipline, experiment over regulation. The self in nature demands such expansion. We have to get the order right, as Sherry continues:
Getting the order right: things in themselves have lost their sovereign logic.
Getting the order right: the direction of climate change must be reversed.
Getting the order right: we start with our connections to others
and by social dynamics move in a somewhat determined,
somewhat purposeful direction from there.
Getting the order right, we do not reason from outliers.
I have to respectfully disagree. James Sherry is an outlier—no one person should try to think about problems from so many sides! Extremes as I said above make good examples—we should reason from outliers, take solace in perspectives from the edges; how else can avant-garde literature, philosophy, or science be of any use? Selfie shows exactly how logic and reasoning can be best around walls and edges—I wouldn’t say it is an especially emotional book but instead shows us how precision in language can still expand its meaning far beyond the limits we usually set for ourselves. If its angles and arguments make your head spin, that is a good thing. The re-casting of everything is only a beginning of a new way of thought and many possible solutions. Experimental writing and thinking can and must be incredibly pragmatic, and even the most radical art can be a useful part of the great mending of the world. James Sherry is ultimately optimistic, and that is a position to celebrate.
What exactly is this “language poetry” that Sherry supports and believes in? No need to mention any more names. No ideas but in words:
Processes act like things
under certain conditions
and things act like processes.
Things combine in multiple forms
as nodes and as channels between them.
As node both perceived and interoperating,
as channel carrying language
and in language metaphorically
things scale in three directions.
Metaphor looked at this way operates more like an ecology in the biosphere.
Hopefully by now you see the way Sherry thinks and writes… in between genres, in between things and processes, imagining our words and their rules may also be seen as interconnected ecologies. The metaphor remains infectious… Interconnectedness can permeate all our arts, sciences, and possible solutions. It’s the only way we will survive.
David Rothenberg wrote Why Birds Sing, Bug Music, and many other books. He has thirty recordings out, including One Dark Night I Left My Silent House on ECM. He has performed with Pauline Oliveros, Suzanne Vega, and Iva Bittová. His latest books are Nightingales in Berlin and The Possibility of Reddish Green. Rothenberg is Distinguished Professor of philosophy and music at NJIT.