December 15, 2017KR Reviews

The Synecological Poem: On Tree Talks: Southern Arizona by Wendy Burk

Lockport, NY: Delete Press, 2016. 76 pages. $18.00.

Since Hellenic oracles first spoke for the rustlings of the sacred oaks of the Dodona, trees—solitary trees, magical trees, enchanted groves, and woodlands—have populated our literature.  It is only in the last few decades that we have become increasingly aware of their contributions to the interactions of the earth’s ecosystems due to the imminent dangers of deforestation, global warming, and the carbonization of the atmosphere, all of which have given rise to ecopoetry.  Wendy Burk’s Tree Talks: Southern Arizona is a collection of such poems.

However, unlike nature poetry and the ecopoetry that treats nature, including trees, as objects of affection or wonder or concern, trees become human parallels, cohabitants, “subjects” in a series of “interviews” which offer a different dimension in the ongoing development of the ecopoem. In this way, Burk’s approach does what Forrest Gander proposes in Redstart: An Ecological Poetics, “a poetry that investigates—both thematically and formally—the relationships between nature and culture, language and perception.”

The structure of the poem, its book-frame, consists of eight interviews with as many species and employs the methods of the social sciences: descriptions of subjects are given, including the use of their Latin names (Prosopis velutina, Velvet Mesquite), along with time, place, and length of the interview, usually twenty to thirty minutes.

This book-frame method of social science interview is a gamble, one not lost on Burk.  Her approach could easily be taken as a satire on research methodology (why record the time, date, location, and description of an interview with a tree?) as well as a satire on rationality itself.  For all we know, sapience may have its own vascular communication; it may reside in the sapling as it resides in sap. When faced with originality in any art form, first responses are often bewilderment and discomfort. We may sense this, and we know our best literature is never far from the spoof, the hoax, the put-on, and this is the risk—and the gamble—in Burk’s collection.

For example, the interviewer visits a Ponderosa Pine in the Coronado National Forest on June 12, 2010 and says, “I: Hello.”  A bird responds, “weet! weet!” followed by the sounds of wind, “hhhhhhh/hhhhhhh,” and another question: “I: You are surrounded by trees, that, like you, were damaged by fire.  What we would call corpses are scattered around you.  Do you feel this?  Can you describe what it is like?”

The Subject’s responses are the hushed h’s we’ve just heard in the wind, followed by bird tweets and alphanumerics, including diacritical marks, )))) ((((, ////, ***, scattered through the text.  These may indicate motion and expression in time—the direction of breezes, wayward music from a building, birds arguing—or, in some instances, may function as the marks of expression unique to the transcriber. They may suggest the inability of semiotics to decode environmental systems or point to the postconceptual, what Johanna Drucker in “Beyond Conceptualisms” calls “the End of the Individual Voice,” which may require a reassessment of our human notions of communication in terms of what our environmental relationships actually are. They may suggest that the primacy of human language, like the primacy of the species itself, serves only to resist, if not reject, our synecological relationship with other species, or that the “languages” they produce may be as vital as the act of communication itself, and not its symbols-as-meaning, but rather a cooperation with, rather than the domination of, our interconnected ecosystem.

The interviewer’s other questions are often empathetic (“Do you feel safe here?”) or amusing (“[louder] Do you feel safe here?”) or wry and ironic, as among the last lines of the book, asked in the presence of a Weeping Fig: “Is there someone or something here that you feel you can communicate with?”  The response is an ellipsis in brackets suggesting the closure of what has been a swelling polyphony of integrated sound and movement throughout the text.

In this ensemble of recorded sound, there is mimicry, and it serves the text well, as it is one way of interacting with “the Other” and may signal a mutual acknowledgement of a diverse and much larger community.

In visiting the Blue Palo Verde, a mockingbird mimics passing cars; the song of the Curve-Billed Thrasher, itself a mimic, enters the aural community, and nearby, children at play mimic ducks.  Natural theatre.

Burk’s interconnectedness includes ambient sounds—snatches of birdsong, crickets, fragments of the speech of passersby, cars, footsteps, airplanes, thunder, the rustlings of leaves (the oracles’ sacred oaks come to mind)—that are not lesser or greater than other sounds into which they braid like a cacophonic conversation and that, while they may resist decoding as do trees themselves, allow for an organic reality of community and consanguinity.

The pastoral has changed.  “The End of the Individual Voice” may allow for the introduction of a collective voice of a kind we’ve not yet experienced.  Burk’s recordings introduce us to such a voice; they move the poem, the poet, and the reader away from the anthropocentric to an ecocentric perspective, essential for survival in every sense and thus closer to a mutual relationship of co-presencing.  In an age of critical consumption which drives clearcutting, global warming, ecological disasters, and the overwhelming consideration that we have been, since the end of the last ice age, in the early stages of the next great extinction, this poetry calls out for reimagining our relationships—cultural, physical, and linguistic—to the natural world.

If “ecopoetry is nature poetry that has designs on us, that imagines changing the ways we think, feel about, and live and act in the world” and that “can also make environmentalism happen,” as John Shoptaw suggests in “Why Poetry,” then it is difficult not to see how Burk’s poetry takes this as foundation and then moves into synecological relationships that, in their inclusivity, elevate our awareness of the evolution of ecology as a concept and as an application, increasing our understanding of ourselves in the world.

Michael Gessner
Michael Gessner has authored eleven books of poetry and prose. His most recent collection is Selected Poems, (2016). His reviews and articles appear in American Letters & Commentary, North American Review, The Edgar Allan Poe Review, Jacket2, and others. He is a voting member of the National Book Critics Circle.