(ESSAY) A Shining Mess: Anthropocene Poetics in Caspar Heinemann’s Novelty Theory
In this essay, Maria Sledmere unpacks Caspar Heinemann’s Novelty Theory (The 87 Press, 2019) as an example of anthropocene poetics, challenging what it means to write about ‘Nature’, being, identity and everyday life in the context of the paradoxical deep-time ~novelty~ of our ‘newly’ fraught geological epoch.
> There’s this John Cage quote, paraphrased in Joan Retallack’s The Poethical Wager (2003), which goes like, ‘Let the mess shine in!’. I can’t find the quote anywhere else, but such contingency or obscurity feels relevant: where do we find anything in our obsessive mess of discourse? Cage’s quote captures the idea that mess bears recognition as a critical term, a technical concept. Caspar Heinemann’s Novelty Theory, published earlier this year by London-based The 87 Press, is a highly dense poetry collection whose ethos seems to match that of Cage’s. The title plays with all doomsday passé around ‘the end of theory’ and energises this question of explanation, thought and principle with novelty: that is, a carte blanche array of pop cultural reference, paratactic punch, playful registers and ‘millennial irony’. This is a book of the commons, of reversals, conflicted feelings, endless things. Bhanu Kapil’s blurb declares Novelty Theory ‘an anthem for alien beloveds everywhere’. Certainly, Heinemann’s poetry deals equally in intimacy and strangeness, subjectivities and otherness, capitalism and mysticism, leaving a petulant scent of patchouli in its wake. Novelty Theory is an anthem, sure, kissing the winds of extinction: a song of praise for living with contradiction, embracing chaos in the want for order.
> To know yourself as an alien beloved: at once a stranger but warmly held, to be loved but not to be wed to identity. Embracing yourself, your kin and the more-than-human around you as alien beloveds might be a central ethic for living in the anthropocene — not to mention its knotty entanglements of late-capitalism, colonialism and gender politics. I want to suggest that in Novelty Theory, letting the mess shine in is a tactic of what David Farrier (2019) has named anthropocenepoetics. Distinct from the established traditions of ecopoetics and nature poetry, anthropocene poetics is less about elegising or celebrating a specific idea of ‘nature’, and more about dramatising the existential conditions of living in a geological epoch distinguished by human intervention within the earth’s systems. Another feature of anthropocene poetics is its conscious situatedness within, response to and divergence from histories of nature writing or lyric renditions of subjectivity through ‘world’. Anthropocene poetics problematises the very idea of self and world, of ‘presence’ itself, while highlighting the material contradictions we experience in everyday life, in relation to late-capitalism as much as ecological crisis (and of course, the twain meet symbiotically). No facet of quotidian existence is off limits: where the nature poem (bear with my crude distinctions) typically looks to the hills and woods, the anthropocene poem might trace the material histories, ethical dilemmas and affective intensities felt in locales of domesticity, leisure and labour. Its setting may well be the city, the internet and the gentrified coffee shop, its registers conflicted, overburdened or charged with the weight of what Timothy Morton (2010a) calls ‘the ecological thought’: this enmeshment and total intimacy with nonhuman entities. I don’t mean to be prescriptive about what anthropocene poetics is; rather, I’d like to explore Novelty Theory as a case study in what anthropocene poetics, as a set of thematic gestures and formal tendencies, might provoke in our readings of contemporary texts, within the developing ontologies, ethics and (con)texts of climate emergency.
> While a broader discussion of anthropocene poetics and its emergent practitioners is outside the scope of this review, suffice to say Heinemann might be situated as part of a generation who have grown up around increasingly mainstream questioning of ecological responsibility, crisis, ethical conflict, identity politics and material precarity. I want to situate Novelty Theory alongside works that split apart the colonial, often masculinist or heteronormative narratives of typical nature writing. We might think of CA Conrad, Craig Santos Perez, Cecilia Vicuña and Evelyn Reilly: poets who work with ritual, lyric unravelling and juxtaposed collage to dramatise the necessary hypocrisies of everyday life in the anthropocene, alongside a sincerity of commitment to improving ecological attunement. Writing that unpicks the colonial, racialised, ruralised, heteronormative and ableist assumptions often present in traditional nature writing. Writing that works with ‘Nature’, but often in a state of refusal which shows up the term’s historical uses and abuses. Another recent 87 Press publication, Callie Gardner’s naturally it is not (2018), is a good example of this engagement with ‘Nature’: structurally challenging the existential arrangements and sensory associations we attach to traditional seasons. In the reader’s notes, Gardner reminds us, ‘“Nature” itself is a capitalist and imperialist invention, designed to protect those aspects of the world it does not want to change and to abdicate its responsibility to anything outside of “culture”’. My sense is that anthropocene poetics does valuable work in performatively blurring the pedestalled ‘Nature’ with the elusive ideologies of ‘culture’, exploding the complexities and assumptions held within such prior distinctions.
> In Tommy Pico’s landmark Nature Poem (2017), the speaker blatantly rejects essentialising associations between indigenous peoples and ‘Nature’, while framing this rejection in the ironic genre politics of a sequence titled Nature Poem:
I can’t write a nature poem bc it’s fodder for the noble savage narrative. I wd slap a tree across the face, I say to my audience.
There’s an explicit ‘audience’ here, the necessity of establishing lyric voice as performance. Anthropocene poetics draws out a processual, reflexive legacy that goes back to Wordsworth, using a kind of dramatic irony to remind us of the speaker’s presence in the ‘world’ of the poem, and all her accompanying dilemmas, commitments and responsibilities around and towards the subject.
> Pico is an American Indian (NDN) poet who situates anthropocenic conditions of sexuality, identity, consumerism and urban space within a reflexive critique of what it means to write a Nature poem. Nature Poem throws up questions around colonialism, indigeneity, essentialism and poetic tradition which challenge ideological constructs of Nature. As Morton puts it, much ecological thinking thus far has ‘set up “Nature” as a reified thing in the distance’ (2010a). Pico’s work explodes such reification within everyday life, showing that Nature is something we ‘do’: it’s an instant message (‘gaia is alive in those pipes’), it’s in the way we relate to objects, to each other, the way we ‘break’, the way we fall or feel or fuck. Eileen Myles argues ‘a poem says I want’ and Nature Poem asks what it is to want anything at all when almost everyone’s trying to identify you with the ‘natural world’ — as, essentially, a backdrop, a static facet of landscape.
> What does it mean to write or read a Nature Poem from the heart of Brooklyn (where Pico currently resides), mindful of fellow New York poet Frank O’Hara’s famous assertion, ‘I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life’. There’s something deliciously liberating about Pico’s punk attitude to eco-clichés: ‘The world is a bumble bee / in the sense that, who cares?’. Anthropocene poetics involves wrestling with a generational nihilism or general air of hipster indifference towards what might be perceived as a useless, dying ‘Nature’. But it also means playfully staging our very immersion in the conundrum of what that Nature might mean: ‘Nature is kind of over my head’, ‘Nature keeps wanting to hang out’. Pico’s casual personification of Nature serves to remind us of the term’s social construction while staging its ideological invention within material, affective and social contexts.
> If it’s difficult, nigh impossible, to actually think extinction, maybe what we need is an ethics of life instead. An amalgamation of Romanticism, physical immediacy, queer desire and the act of a pause becomes, in Nature Poem, the redeemable expression:
Knowing the moon is inescapable tonight and the tuft of yr chest against my shoulder blades— This is a kind of nature I would write a poem about.
The strange, specific pathos of that line, ‘a kind of nature’. By saying ‘The world is a bumble bee’, Pico plays with the arbitrariness with which we define the world as such, its conflations of scales and agencies. As Timothy Clark (2018) reminds us, a ‘given scale’ is ‘a kind of grammar whose presence is overlooked in our habitual attention to individual things’. What Pico and other poets’ work does is recalibrate our grammar of scale by twisting familiar Nature tropes within the aesthetic and ethical contexts of quotidian life. The moon of Pico’s poem is not dressed up in metaphor but simply there, ‘inescapable’. It doesn’t replace anything else, it’s nobody’s feeling. There’s a lowkey opulence to that sense of urgency. Poetry warrants acknowledgement of the beauty of what’s left of Life. And sometimes that’s as cheap as knowing you can’t cut the moon out of your poem, your night — you probably wouldn’t even want to.
> In response to an Elizabeth Bishop poem, ‘At the Fishhouses’, Farrier writes: ‘Difference persists; in this granular vision, the qualities of the particular (texture, depth, grain) mark the queerness of all bodies in the deep strangeness of evolutionary time and of our Anthropocene future’ (2019). Such ambitious claims for anthropocene poetry can also be applied to a poetics of riff, repetition, modulation, phraseology and collaged register. Heinemann: ‘my drag / persona is called Nature’ (‘Full Moon Leech Party’). What do we wear of what’s over there in the weave of our lines, identities? Where Bishop’s poem connects material detritus — ‘the silver of the benches’, ‘the small old buildings with an emerald moss’ — with deep time, Pico proclaims the violent theory of contradiction and connection: ‘the fabric of our lives #death / some ppl wait a lifetime for a moment like this #death’, ‘just do it #death / Got #death’. Borrowing from the associative, non-linear clusters spelled by the hashtag, Pico renders death a hotspot within the general web of extinction, a pedal note thrumming hypnotically through its song. Repurposing familiar commercial slogans, Pico confronts cultural taboos with a gleeful insouciance. Nature is death as much as Life — a practical fact — and maybe, with an eye to Lee Edelman’s No Future (2004), this acknowledgement is one way out of ‘reproductive futurism’. Instead of ‘the colonial legacy of the future’, its depressing speculative intricacies, just ‘Give me / a minute’ (Pico 2017). Like chill, the world is warming but we’re here and now: let’s talk. The pragmatism of anthropocene poetics, perhaps, is a making of space; not just buying us time but also scattering the seeds with which we might still (in spite of our increasingly precarious lives) nourish ideas, philosophise, interrogate and experiment what it means to live and die in what’s happening — at the scale of the planet and that of the microbes inside us, tweaking our ethical and affective inclinations. ‘[E]thics for the Anthropocene’, Joanna Zylinska argues, should urge ‘a return to critical thinking […] a reparation of thought’ (2014), wary, of course, that ‘catalogued over bullshit reams, praxis makes nothing happen / to the seeds in snow’ (Gardner 2018).
> Heinemann’s Novelty Theory resurrects a dusted signifier, ‘theory’, as a gestural architecture for holding the book’s sprawling morass of impressions, encounters and streams of thought. Like Kapil’s work, a degree of enchantment runs through reems of disaffection or cynicism: where Kapil often references minerals, colour (the pink lightning of Ban en Banlieue) or a quality of light, in Novelty Theory this is held in the ritualistic detritus our speaker returns to — spices and flowers, herbs and teas. Heinemann dares you to critique the value of what might be called twee: ‘the tragedy of it all / lukewarm milky surrender punk upholstery / the bittersweet kettle i needed for this nettle tea’. Acts or artefacts of ritual significantly conduct the order of how we deal with everyday trauma. Heinemann’s poetics has that candied, medicinal quality of internal rhyme: good enough to chew but might (as) well sting. It makes you stop to think, pursuing its own excess. The Nature of Novelty Theory is monstrous, opulent, ‘thick and deeply slimy everywhere’ (‘Theses on Land Masses (After Iain Hamilton Finlay)’). In their Goldsmiths dissertation, ‘FUCKING PANSIES: Queer Poetics, Plant Reproduction, Plant Poetics, Queer Reproduction’, Heinemann argues that poetry itself is a ‘speaking through flowers’, and in being so
the consequences of communication are non-linear, cross-pollinated and dispersed, the eternal and cyclical affectively and effectively meeting to produce models of life which could be described as pragmatically opulent.
Pragmatically opulent seems to me an extension of Cage’s imploring to Let the mess shine in!, albeit situated within genuine political and bodily struggle. Pragmatic opulence is a strategy for queer survival but also world-making, a way of ‘produc[ing] models of life’ within pressurised social systems. It problematises familiar symbolic objects as kitsch synecdoche for some Natural paradise over there:
Nature in the sickly pine air freshener fighting its discrete privately commissioned battle against the zombie economy of life, the shape of the pine tree as futility. (‘Theses on Land Masses (After Iain Hamilton Finlay)
There’s something sickly, abject even, about the landed associations of pine forests, the deep ecology of a dark green wild. The air freshener hangs limply, ‘fighting its discrete’ war against life eating life. The shape of this Nature is useless; it’s not even beautiful. It isn’t life so much as a cheap, deified logo, as pre-millennial passé as your uncle’s old air freshener. What we need is a more eclectic ambience.
> Throughout Novelty Theory, Heinemann’s poems fly between forms: jagged lines that read with the transient glaze or aphoristic charm of a text message, block stanzas, a travel diary, all-caps and extravagant use of punctuation — particularly the slash and the exclamation point, marking moments of undecidability, rupture or dramatic emphasis. This variety comprises a non-linear, variable and maximalist poetics of play, subversion and flourishing within the everyday contexts of late-capitalism and the anthropocene. It shows the necessity of confronting these contexts with a queer sensibility, if we recall Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s classic definition of queer as ‘the open mesh of possibilites, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically’ (1993). To queer-read Nature, like gender, is to work with that ‘open mesh’. For Heinemann, that seems to demand a kind of pragmatism and opulence, a stylised critique of real conditions, their desires and demands.
> I want to trace what kinds of pragmatic opulence are found in the life of Novelty Theory, aware that in naming a book of lyric poetry Theory, Heinemann is surely inviting us to question the very division or frisson between life and theory, voice and world within contemporary existence. We might describe the whole book, in fact, as a kind of theoretical or speculative world-building. The poems engage in acts of redress or recontextualisation, kind of anthropocene camp: ‘I actually think capitalism is quite a beautiful word and look forward to appropriating it to mean something like spring dawn sunshine ladybird sex’ (‘Travel Diary Summer 2016’). Throughout Novelty Theory, Heinemann has this radical ostentation that blithely redefines the things it challenges: poetry as active world-making, ethics as poiesis, chipping away at fixities to let forth what’s glowing, proliferating and strange underneath. In a recent Zarf review of the book, Gloria Dawson notes the collection’s ‘wit, bratty polemic, and knotty etymological adventuring’ (2019), which seems about right. What happens if we took the capital out of capitalism and made it a five-syllabled evocation of sticky, butter-fingered summer afternoons? There’s a childlike quality of vivid bricolage to Heinemann’s craft. What if this revamped capitalism itself was a knotty, queer ecological utopia, a stubborn arbor of vines, a mesh of delicious instants, or is this just sheer sly irony on Heinemann’s part? We have to sit with that contradiction, swinging our legs over the verge where conflicts might connect.
> Back to Sedgwick’s idea of the ‘open mesh’. Queer ecology, for Timothy Morton, is the manifest ‘mesh’ of all life-forms: ‘a nontotalisable, open-ended concatenation of interrelations that blur and confound boundaries at practically every level: between species, between the living and nonliving, between organism and environment’ (2010b). Queer ecology would be some kind of intersection between nonessentialist views of gender, sexuality, biology and evolution more generally. Novelty Theory stages this enmeshment through its lateral poetics of interwoven association, its registers of irony, darkness and play. Its speaker’s identity coyly thrown around like laconic copy from a Tinder profile: ‘i’m a leo moon dickhead w a gay agenda’ (‘according to wikipedia i am in the “initial struggle for success” phase of my life as bruce springsteen’s life’), rewriting Linnaean systems or evolutionary rules via casual astrology patter. The mysticism that runs throughout is part of Novelty Theory’s disjunctive world-building, its problematising of distinctions between inside and out, dream and reality, virtual and actual. Take the Borgesian tenor of statements like ‘All land is fictional, that is both the problem / and a potential source of the solution’ (‘Theses on Land Masses (After Iain Hamilton Finlay)’). The critical thrust of Novelty Theory is its mycelial ability to expose the undercurrents and assumptions of everyday life within late-capitalism and the attendant anxieties of the anthropocene. Often this takes a surrealist twist:
a thousand constellations held in a single double stomach romantic service station burger king the wormhole could be anywhere (‘A CHEMTRAIL IN CURVED AIR’)
This collapse of scale, the inside and out, is highly symptomatic of anthropocene poetics. It’s easy to read the poems of Novelty Theory alongside, say, Morton’s idea of hyperobjects as ‘things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans’: with characteristics of viscosity, nonlocality, nonhuman temporality and interobjectivity, hyperobjects usher us into ‘a new human phase of hypocrisy, weakness, and lameness’ (2013). There’s a kind of sublime here which takes David Hockney-esque Americana or pastel suburbia and transplants it through the ‘wormhole’ of environs and spacetimes enmeshed by ecological relations, ethical patterns and constellations of cause and effect, showed up to us in the twenty-first century as though by x-ray. You are what you eat, and here it’s infinity. Elsewhere, however, it might be ‘the banal / constantly flowing cappuccino of existence’ (‘another empty threat to disappear’). Wherever we look, Heinemann puts a decadent rip in your Cath Kidston jacket, lets the fantasy flora free, wears the countryside as highbrow punk with pocket-knife irony.
This One Weird Tip
> Speaking of infinity, a word on the internet: an obvious theme and modality within Novelty Theory. ‘My anxiety levels get up and stay hard for hours with this one weird tip’ (‘Travel Diary Summer 2016’). The masculinist, ambient-porno imperative to ‘stay hard’ is here conflated with anxiety and the suffusing presence of internet ads offering impossible, faux-sage advice with ‘this one weird tip’. I wonder if this is also a dig at deep ecology, whose commitment to embracing wilderness and environmental immersion often comes off with a stinky, viagra-macho flavour. Getting deeper into the book’s web, conspiracy theories are cited with the kind of exuberance that weaves their dismissal as nevertheless somehow essential to a broader resistant narrative: ‘recruit, recruit, recruit! i WISH that the queen waws a lizard’ (‘the only reason i was abducted by aliens in kathmandu in 1994 was that in 1994 i went to kathmandu to be abducted by aliens’). There’s an ouroboros sense that you get eaten, or at the very least bitten, by the narratives you pursue online — or indeed in any virtual mode (including poetry — see Ben Lerner for more on ‘virtual poetics’). You could call it meme poetics wired up to the trembling motherboard of lyric. Who or what gets charged and when. Where did they get those minerals? What if I won’t turn on tomorrow?
> The hyperconnected consciousness enabled by our online lives is also manifest in Heinemann’s playful intertextuality. Every other line seems to reference or code a cultural trope, to cite some other poem or tradition. ‘No value / just pina coladas’ (‘according to wikipedia i am in the “initial struggle for success” phase of my life as bruce springsteen’s life’) weirdly took me back to William Carlos Williams’ ‘No ideas but in things’. Maybe that’s a clickable blink that activates poetic lineage, extends the song of Heinemann’s polemic under the deep canonic sea. Sometimes they play with aphoristic or supplementary modes to ‘tack on’ a certain message or dramatise a violent fact (i.e. extinction), forcing you to hold all declarations in the bewildered, hyper-stream adjunctive mode of email, IM, browsing: ‘p.s. imagine a world without wild life’ (‘Travel Diary Summer 2016’). There’s a psytrance version of a New York poem in ‘If you think pigeons are too common to be beautiful don’t call yourself a communist’, where a salutary coke is poured for Frank O’Hara and the streets become the stage for contradiction, Picasso’s dog, pain and ‘The slobbering ecstasy of now’. Psytrance because this is a collection of ecstasies achieved with your tongue firmly lodged in your cheek, your jaw gurning hard with each stream of detail, flash, repeat. Syncope. Like Nat Raha, Heinemann has weaponised the grammar of breath to speak vulnerability and power within and between each jagged line, strikeout, blank or marked delay, caesura. A catalogue of bodily pleasures and social conundrums, unsolved ethical dilemmas in the modernist canon: ‘I am a Picasso dog / Picasso was a misogynist / but it’s okay, dogs have no gender’).
> Anthropocene poetics often stages its own conditions of production. There’s a turn between inside and outside, a questioning of representational agency. For instance, in Ash Before Oak (2019), a diary of survival and gardening reminiscent of Derek Jarman’s iconic Modern Nature (1991), Jeremy Cooper’s gloomy protagonist muses, ‘I ask questions of the mole I’d do better directing at myself’. What do we put upon the more-than-human that really we want or demand from ourselves? How do we write in this space of curiosity or lack? In Novelty Theory, awareness of the body’s contingencies, its material traces and hormonal surges runs throughout. With some degree of irony, Heinemann maps the kinds of everyday precarity experienced by the millennial freelancer onto the broader precarities of climate crisis. Maybe it’s not to write from curiosity but anxiety. At one point, Heinemann even dramatises the real-time of ‘writing’ in relation to the body’s nervous arousal:
i fill the keyboard with all my leftover skin shit, same as the next hoarder of sentient excess some just trade it all in for gold just like that all gone in the blink of an eye the world vanishes and reappears and vanishes and reappears so many times every minute and yet i am still so scared every single time don’t fucking stop (‘I like scaffolding as much as the next attempt to create order’).
‘Sentient excess’ sums up a lot of Novelty Theory. Sentient because Heinemann’s speaker is highly reflexive but also human: a bundle of nerves, hormones, skin and bones, pleasure and pain. Writing the world is a fort-da process of vanishing and reappearing, it has a kind of sexual imperative that mingles pleasure and pain, presence and absence — ‘don’t fucking stop’. Desire is terrifying but we just can’t help it. The world is a virus, flashing upon your screen. And then again it just is your screen. It’s in the code. It’s a form of capital, ‘gold’, and writing is its supplement, the unfinished gesture towards holding, structure, containment. The keyboard generates worlds, bears our traces in time. Heinemann’s poetics are lucid, striking, high-retina. Let the mess shine in.
Millennial Hell or Heaven
> Novelty Theory is a book of a certain generation: it challenges the affects of ‘millennial existence’, both riding on and unravelling the assumptions put upon us. It’s a cheap cliché to say choice makes us miserable, but now the imperative is to choose to be happy. In ‘Depression Calculator’, Heinemann chiastically quips: ‘i can’t be ideological about my happiness even though happiness / is entirely ideological’. In The Promise of Happiness (2010), Sara Ahmed writes: ‘Happiness shapes what coheres as a world’, it can be used as an affective tool for ‘redescrib[ing] social norms as social goods’ — for instance, in the phrase ‘domestic bliss’. This quote from ‘Depression Calculator’ mirrors the guilt I feel in trying to write about the anthropocene while, say, being in a joyous state of mind, feeling loved or inclined to a state of play. The point is, we shouldn’t have to choose one or the other. Who benefits when the capitalist guilt-machine shames us into recycling, taking the heat off the wider environmental abuse of toxic corporations? When Heinemann writes of ‘the hollow surface of liquid soluble anxiety’ (‘visualisation…’) I think of Morton’s description of the ‘chocolate layer’ of ‘shame’ that coats ecological awareness, a ‘dark-sweet’ quality within its depression. Grief, shame, depression: in confronting the anthropocene, these are the affects we ‘melt’ into with a degree of both pleasure and suffering. Is there relief? Novelty Theory is a good exercise in working through such contradictory affects in relation to everyday life, as well as the praxis of writing about the anthropocene from the p.o.v of an actual, breathing person — who takes the days as they come, who both suffers and thrives but doesn’t necessarily claim this as their sole identity. Who doesn’t assume a set, heteronormative route to happiness and human flourishing. Who dwells upon a ‘tender verge’ (‘another empty threat to disappear’). Is this what a queer form of staying with the trouble (speaking with Donna Haraway here) looks like?
> One thing to love about Novelty Theory is its conflict of registers. Unlike a whole tradition of ‘serious’ ecopoetry, the book invokes the tropes of current anthropocene discourse in a parodic manner which nonetheless falls upon sincerity:
the forest’s infrastructure is devastated by Dutch elm disease, which is not the point it’s just also happening in the world near the point outside the harsh city limits of the point is everything that constitutes the periphery leaks into the centre, the centre is undeserving of the bioluminescence in the centre of the octopus
(‘visualisation: you are a small shark in the aquarium in the office of the CEO of a nondescript corporate body in a mid-80s postmodern swirl carpeted disaster zone where all the glass is cleaned except yours, the day is broken with elevator music but you don’t know this is what this is. You are nibbling on some plankton and waiting for communism and you write a poem on the discretely moulding moulded glass of your aquarium. the poem reads:’).
Riffing off the ‘tentacular’ thought of Haraway et al, Heinemann evokes a grandiose vision of arboreal devastation as one ‘point’ among many that slide between the centre and periphery of the everything that is the anthropocene, or indeed extinction. Heinemann asks: for who do we write this kind of poetry, what is the instrumental ‘point’? If we pursue that imperative, do we just end up with ‘make narrative fate again’ and surrender our agency to the forces of (Manmade, Trumpian, triumphant) history? If Dutch elm disease is a hyperobject, somehow it also leaks, viscously, into the ‘bioluminescence’ emitted from another life-form surviving deep within some other element, thousands of miles away. And let’s not forget that in this poem, the addressed reader is ‘a small shark’ encased in a 1980s corporate office environment.
> You could say this is a post-vaporwave poem, where office hauntology evokes sympathies between trapped animals and trapped human-animals (what if the aquarium was just your computer, what if plankton is all we can eat in the future-past, what if we all became (loan)sharks in the credit extinction, trying and failing to eat what’s left on the Darwinist food chain of neoliberal survival?). We’re asked to visualise this poem, experience it in a medial, meditative way: it’s clear there’s a dark ecological poetics of attunement here, a staged duration. Heinemann plays with the temporal confusions of the anthropocene and prods our susceptibility to a certain pastoral nostalgia with lines like ‘like most people, the earth just gets hotter with age’. The earth as a (excuse me) ‘bod’ is one way of figuring, literally, the existential dilemma of the anthropocene as a man-made decimation of earthly systems.
Requiem for Sustainable Theory
> By no means has this been an exhaustive review of Novelty Theory, let alone this thing I’m calling, after Farrier, the poetics of the anthropocene. With its Matthew Welton-esque marathon titles, Heinemann’s book has the air of a James Ferraro track: all cut-up, glitch and ambient late-capitalism set to the tone of a slick, surreal sublime. Yet there’s something freeing in the all-too-real dreamscapes of Heinemann’s poetics of anthropocenic disorder, millennial anxiety and conflicted desires, inclined to banality. The low-caps ‘i’ that jumps across the collection like a dissident pro in poetic parkour refuses essential identity and makes room for incident, contingency: a more fugitive and less hubristic lyric. What forms of tenderness are at stake here? How might we flip an ‘Adorable pastoral avant garde’ (‘Theses on Land Masses (After Iain Hamilton Finlay)’) into something useful? What is the ‘point’ in everything, and moreover who will look after the octopus as it wraps its tentacles around the world so grossly? Where do we situate anthropocene poetics in relation to ecopoetics, consciously or otherwise on the part of the poet’s intentions, given that the godfather of ecopoetics Jonathan Skinner suggests the form is a ‘site of converging, intersecting practices and is most politically useful […] when it keeps as many of these frictional nodes as active as possible’?
> Perhaps anthropocene poetics is unique in presenting a degree of situatedness within ‘avant-garde’ traditions, which historically bear a more urban resonance (although with the anthropocene, of course, such distinctions of urban/rural are broken down in the mesh of everything). Writing of their book We Are Made of Diamond Stuff (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2019) in relation to Novelty Theory, Isabel Waidner notes: ‘Relationship with the historical avant-garde: complicated’ (2019). This ‘shared investment in, but disappointment with, the promises of the historical avant-garde’ (Waidner 2019) — whether Situationist dérive or Dadaist collage — is felt throughout Novelty Theory: not as a roadblock in literary history so much as a set of what Waidner refers to as ‘portals’. Think again of Sedgwick and Morton’s invocations of the mesh. Anthropocene poetics needs to be something that queers, dis-identifies, labours and exposes everyday strangeness; it needs to let fall where we stand while also holding us. It needs to be a shining mess. It needs life and death, irony and sincerity, collapse and creativity, journey and destination, work and play. It needs to not choose but somehow continue to dance, seduce, weave theory and upset the representation of what comes before or after, because image is power: ‘i’m regressing again / but all i hope is when we picture the end of the world / we end the picture of the world’ (‘Ferocious Lack Harmony’).
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Retallack, Joan, 2003. The Poethical Wager (Berkeley: University of California Press).
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky, 1993. Tendencies (Durham: Duke University Press).
Zylinska, Joanne, 2016. ‘Photography After the Human’, Photographies, Vol. 9, Issue 2, pp. 167-186.
Against its general usage in academic and news discourse, I deliberately de-capitalise anthropocene to recognise the term’s assimilation into a broader cultural vernacular, whose shifting interpretations bely the insistent fixity implied by a capitalised proper noun. With anthropocene, not Anthropocene, we are working with a pliable term whose definitions are open to critical resistance and semiotic play. We are figuring out the definition of the anthropocene through practice, rather than accepting a totalising framework which suffers from a similar hubris around species as that which underlies the anthropocene ‘condition’ or ‘cause’ as such. I follow Joanna Zylinska in thinking of the anthropocene as more of ‘a thought device that helps us to visualise the multiple event of extinction — but also to intervene in the timeline of the extinction’ (2016).
Following Timothy Morton (2010a), I will occasionally capitalise ‘Nature’ to, as Morton puts it, ‘highlight its “unnatural” qualities, namely (but not limited to), hierarchy, authority, harmony, purity, neutrality, and mystery’.
Novelty Theory is out now and available to buy here, via The 87 Press.
Text: Maria Sledmere
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