(REVIEW:) Meadows and Lemons: Ecological Enmeshment in Timothy Berrigan’s ‘By Letting Rooms’
Still from Life More Abundant, 98 – Marc Johansen (animation with sound)
I’d imagine that if a lemon were a season this would be it. – Timothy Berrigan
‘>Things,’ Timothy Morton says rather cheerfully, in his new book Being Ecological, ‘are much more mashed together than we like to think, and also much more distinct. The biosphere is made of its parts. But it’s distinct from its parts’. It’s a simple but astounding observation. You can take a lemon. You know that the lemon is part of the biosphere, the food-chains of various species; you know that lemon is also a quality of something, one link in a chain of synecdoche—intimations of azure afternoons on the Amalfi coast, an abstraction to pastel, the hints of the sour beneath every sweetness, a tree with vaguely religious significance. When life gives you lemons. If lemon were a season, would the season be pale but surprisingly juicy, or would it be tart and unhappy? Difficult to stomach? A trouble for the nerves? Medicinal? Here in this medicinal season.
>Yet the lemon in question—what is meant by the lemon as much as the lemon itself—always eludes. We get one side but there is always another side in shadow. We have the lemon’s notes: its yellowness, its waxy aromatic peel, its heft in your palm, its scent of sugar and summer promise. But we don’t have the lemon. We don’t know what a lemon feels like, and even if we did, we’d never quite feel it all because the lemon itself is never simply just a lemon. It’s everything else that’s in a lemon: the bacteria, the water, the tiny flecks of earth on its surface. There’s a delicious mystery there, the object-oriented admission of a thing’s ontological withdrawal. What can you do next? How do you probe the life of the thing, while keeping conscious of its enmeshment with other things?
>Timothy Berrigan’s ‘By Letting Rooms’ is a poem that refracts things through things. Scale and distance and metaphysical categories play into one another across the speaker’s prismatic vision of cause and effect—of memory and speculation triggered through fact, impression and reflection. One thing is another and another; Berrigan reels through Steinian chains of ontological unfolding. Being is being different things at once. The title itself suggests a kind of adjacency, to be alongside elsewhere. These letting rooms, with their implication of temporariness, hospitality. A placement of the self in locations estranged; a placement subject to certain conditions. A placement deferred and delayed. A placement to be in the future replaced. Perspectives shift.
>Line after line in each paragraph is a statement: sometimes the speaker’s own, sometimes the echo of another’s. ‘This softness hardens into that weather. I wilt among weathers while you remain citrus spritzing. […] Simplicity is not ease you tell me’. The indirect, swept-up quality of such perspectives adds to a sense of ambience swarming; the thingliness of everything is a case of acquiring the notes of other things. Metaphoricity and metonymy abound, leading us crisscross over the x and y axis of a Jakobsonian playing field of signification.
>If this sounds awfully complicated, don’t let it put you off. Berrigan’s piece is also a delightful, bewildering whirlwind. It makes you think of recording observations on your phone, line after line, until you realise you’ve unfolded a surprisingly accurate assemblage of everything. Like, actually everything. Except just when you know it, glimpse it, this temporary omniscience slips back into clusters, bits, fragmentary declaratives. It makes you think of a vast mycological network, coldly glowing above the surface of the ground. You know there is so much more underneath. Every line packs spores of swelling implication, threatening to later dissipate: ‘Trash day is a museum of the week’. It’s no wonder a few footnotes swish their way in. It’s up to the reader whether or not to pop the cloud, to attempt the sorting through of further meaning, those dusty motes of connotation. We might get side-lined by twists in syntax, the switch to imperatives or yearning tones of childlike hunger, frustration or curiosity: ‘There was a point in time in which I thought a potato’s inside was potato, butter and salt’. The organic object replaced by its human transformation. Materials are mixed and becoming things that replace things.
>When Kele Okereke sings ‘Things replace things / Days replace days’ in Bloc Party’s ‘Positive Tension’, he’s conjuring the double negative spark that might claw at change in a world made dull by ‘consumption’ and ‘yearning’. The commodity fetish replaces the thing with its shimmering fizz of capital aura. Where to get back to ‘authenticity’? There’s something about the way Okereke cries out ‘Play it cool boy’ that always disturbed me. How much rage stirs beneath the affectless veneer? Berrigan keeps it cool, keeps it clipped. His lines are matter of fact, but their arrangement and pairing finds space for wonder and weirdness within the banal. Tropes such as lemons and bliss are modulated and repeated, culminating in Blakean reverie or vibrant surrealist transfiguration: ‘A grapefruit is just a lemon that saw an opportunity and took an advantage of it’. Here we are with a pared-down, quotidian sublime. You might call it a new epistemology: a flicking through glossy catalogues or reel through the ontological slot machines to find what’s good and evocative, rich.
>The lemon/grapefruit quote, according to Berrigan’s footnote, is apparently ‘Credited to Oscar Wilde’. There’s a sway and assuredness to Berrigan’s piece that stirs up our favourite Irish dandy. If things replace things, it’s with a certain decadence held in tension. I picture Oscar arranging ornamental objects on his desk, tsking his way through their relations like characters in a playful drama. I think of Jane Bennett in Vibrant Matter, noting how a dead rat, bottle cap and spool of thread tell a whole new story when found alongside each other, apart from their individual narratives.
>As well as this creative, perceptual enmeshing, there’s a gesture of everything to come/apart: ‘Of all time isn’t all time or all the time. And for now a plant is an accurate unit of measurement. And for now a rain drops into debris’. Measurement of what? Emotion, time? I measure out my life in the growth/death cycle of a sunflower. There’s that stop-motion sense of recording incremental change. When a ‘plant stretches in instalments. We come and lay down beside it’. There’s the human attention to nonhuman affects and processes. The intimacy that results, its slippage between lines, the tricksiness of causality that occurs in certain playful phrases. Whose time and how? ‘[F]or now’ implies a conditional time, a time held solely in ecological process. This is organic, fluid time; time apart from modernised, synchronised, capitalist reality—the tick-tock clock-time of GMT. This is the slow, luxurious time of a corolla unfolding, of fungi expanding and merging, leaves shivering, the time of the mind enmeshed with everything.
>If the Anthropocene describes the geologic time of the human, this also necessitates a sense of a world without humans. Our damage is ultimately damage to us. The world will go on in its broken form; we are but specks upon geologic or botanical/arboreal history. As Berrigan reminds us, ‘civilisations are a homage to trees’. There’s a deprecating erasure of human exception. It is more interesting, maybe, to experience space and time as a plant might, at gradual, surprising scales: ‘We sit shimmering in instalments. An echo flutters into a plant into evening’. Objects seem to emit or ooze time, drawing us into their micro-worlds. There’s a tranquilising effect, like giving yourself up to the whims of a certain narcotic. Falling into the temporal hole that seizes your nerves and notions of time. The piece aligns its process with myriad compounds: stretching, fluttering, melting
>What of the ecology of this form of attunement? Morton often references Talking Heads’ ‘Once in a Lifetime’ when discussing the uncanny reality of dark ecological awareness, that epiphanic sensation that all we took to be is not quite as it seems: ‘This is not my beautiful house!’. However, there’s another Talking Heads song, ‘(Nothing But) Flowers’, that explores a more explicit pastoral fantasy, conjuring a world where the shopping malls and parking lots of late capitalism have been replaced by meadows and flowers, ‘highways and cars […] sacrificed for agriculture’. In this world, the singer dreams of ‘Dairy Queens, and 7-Elevens’, ‘cherry pies’ and ‘candy bars’; the cultural detritus of postmodernism is clung to in its bright and tacky debris, as he finds himself ‘stranded here’, alienated from the ‘lifestyle’ of this new Eden.
>Berrigan’s speaker is petulant, ecologically-frustrated: ‘I’m sick of coke machines. I want orchards or groves’. The aluminal crunch and satisfying click of on-point brand semiology slips away. It’s intangible. Millennials, maybe, demand nostalgia for apples or green spaces, Coxes or copses. Except the desired objects are vague and nonspecific—‘orchards or groves’—maybe they are born out of virtual representations more than genuine memories. How much of my longing for farmland and rural rain and wood smoke is born out of my Ayrshire childhood, and how much from playing Harvest Moon or reading Laurie Lee?
>A meadow, for Morton, is a tricky thing. Tricky because its limits of definition are nebulous. ‘How many blades of grass do I have to remove for this meadow not to be a meadow?’, he asks. Since the question is impossible, statistically arbitrary, he concludes it is better to think of a meadow as present and absent simultaneously, violating the Law of Noncontradiction: ‘There is a meadow, but we can’t point to it directly, because it’s not constantly present’. The meadow is a meadow because it is also other things, like grass or cowslips or molehills; it is simultaneously itself and other things. We might think of the term ‘meadow’ as a letting room, rented to everything inhabiting it. There’s quite the jostling crowd in there.
>Berrigan’s metonymic and metaphoric poetics help us get a handle on this spectral ontology of lifeforms. There’s at once a playful sense of objects personified (‘The banana bread thinks of you’) alongside evocations of the aesthetic dimension oddly magnified: ‘The thunderstorm would frost and a kiss would feel it’. For Morton, the aesthetic dimension is the causal dimension (see 2013’s Realist Magic). Objects interact through their qualities, or ‘notes’ as Graham Harman puts it. Berrigan unveils the beautiful implications of this, substituting objects for objects to metaphorically reveal their physical potential: ‘Glass is a paused puddle’. There is a flickering between things, like two shards of light dancing on a mirror where the sun splits the blinds.
>‘By Letting Rooms’ negotiates the difficulty of locational identification, of getting a handle on one’s place in relation to other things. There’s a crumbling of one thing into the other, of cause into effect, of memory into presentness: ‘Black and white photos are ground into dust right next to where your feet are’. Time, as the piece concludes, is externalised and loosely gauged by the actions of nonhuman objects: ‘An ice cube melts’. With references to lemons, ice cubes and glass, it’s not difficult to conjure a textual cocktail that brims with implicit metamorphosis. Alcohol transforms. Objects transform, oozing with things that are not themselves. We read our futures in the stars or seasons in the bruise of a fruit, its zest of syntax.
>In Berrigan’s poem, ‘4’ found within issue #6 of SPAM zine, repetition of a quoted line and CAConrad footnote injects the piece with a performative imperative, one that lends the rest of the lines the heft of ontological implication now connected to affect: ‘“say it with grEen paint for comfort and healing of their wounds”’. We are not sure who ‘they’ refers to. We are not sure what magical effect this green paint might have, or the exact purpose of the ritual. We know green is ecological. The statements clipped between lines (‘A sea willing to sit still / is expensive’) become less facts than transformational entities, swarming aside one another in axes sometimes vertical (metaphor) and sometimes horizontal, sequential (metonymy). Berrigan effectively thinks through the ecological mesh in both form and content, probing those junctures and connections around the sometimes uncanny contiguities of Anthropocenic time and causality at the level of daily life: the toxins and details, metabolic processes of ‘laundering bodies’; ‘a century assembled inside that colour’.
‘By Letting Rooms’ can be read here.
- Text by Maria Sledmere