"We had ended nature as an independent force, [. . .] our appetites and habits and desires could now be read in every cubic meter of air, in every increment on the thermometer."—Bill McKibben, The End of Nature
"Postmodernism is what you have when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good."—Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
"The only question is: how do we handle nature after it ends?"—Ulrich Beck, World Risk Society
Thinking the End of Nature
Among familiar critical pronouncements, the most common commonplaces, of the past twenty-five years, the insistence that the "end of nature" has arrived must surely rank high. Such pronouncements (of which these epigraphs serve as illustrations) do not merely historicize the term "nature" by insisting on its meanings as always bound up in particular social formations, or critique its essentialist determination, or pluralize the term to allow for multiple contexts and definitions, but instead declare its wholesale extinction as salient material entity and conceptual apparatus. 1 Stripped of independent empirical parameters or causal agency, nature becomes the absent absent cause, disappearing into human history—in fact, already "gone for good." These declarations of nature's non-existence depart from the "domination of nature" thesis, which details an ongoing process by which nature comes under the aegis of human control, its cycles, phenomena, and events increasingly yoked to modernization's rationalizing and subjugating forces. Under this older twentieth-century theory, central to environmental studies discourse beginning in the 1960s (and also associated with Frankfurt School and Heideggerian philosophy), nature remains a powerful external force that stands as the essential antagonist of industrial modernization. By contrast, the "end of nature" thesis asserts that under late capitalism, this process has drawn to a definitive close. Nature has been entirely vanquished, its cultural meanings depleted, its status as an "independent force" destroyed.
The provenance of this phrase and its logic of total rupture can be traced to Bill McKibben's The End of Nature (1989). In this book, often described not only as the first mainstream text on climate change but as a groundbreaking theory of planetary ecological crisis, McKibben lays out the above claim in detail: the structural antagonism between nature and human culture central to modernization is finished, and a new epoch is upon us, in which human activities determine (but do not necessarily control) all dimensions of ecological life. The signature demarcation of this new universal condition is global warming, which stands in McKibben's book as both the material fact of nature's end and a figure for the new ways of thinking that this end necessitates. He writes:
This new rupture with nature is different in scope and kind from salmon tins in an English stream. We have changed the atmosphere and thus we are changing the weather. By changing the weather, we make every spot on earth man-made and artificial. We have deprived nature of its independence, and this is fatal to its meaning. Nature's independence is its meaning—without it there is nothing but us. 2
McKibben insists on terminal terminology here because the changes he describes are no longer preventable; we are now in the realm of necessity, not speculation. McKibben's book thus diverges from the environmental jeremiad tradition associated with the domination of nature thesis, with its double rhetoric of apocalyptic warning and tactics of prevention and preservation. 3 If the temporal logic of the jeremiad is incipient, future-oriented—'we are running out of time'—The End of Nature locates its argument in a determined present where nature's time has already run out. The paradigmatic image of this difference, for McKibben, is the weather itself. Unlike the salmon tin in the English stream—a marker of environmental "damage"—the weather stands as the master-sign of anthropogenic effects that are daily and systemic, visible and non-localizable. By changing the weather, McKibben claims, we have already produced a permanent break, not only in the material operations of atmospheric and geochemical systems, but in the cultural "meaning" of nature.
McKibben's book was published in the same summer as Francis Fukuyama's essay "The End of History?"—both appearing in that year of great world-historical significance, 1989. While these two texts might be seen as diametrically opposed in tone and conclusion, they share a basic narrative: that of the total triumph of fully industrialized, global capitalism and its consequences for political systems (Fukuyama) and ecological conditions and relations (McKibben). The end of history, emblematized by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the decline of Communist governments, means the vanquishing of the great Other of actually-existing Marxism and the "unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism." The end of nature, signified by carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and melting polar caps, means the vanishing of any environmental realm left untouched by anthropogenic activity and of an "idea of nature" as "the separate and wild province, the world apart from man to which he adapted." 4 In both cases, the great forces of otherness, material and conceptual, that serve as limit or counterbalance to capitalist modernity, are fully extinguished. Of course, the "end of nature" and the "end of history" might be said to require each other; the triumph of globalized capitalism rests, at least in part, on the disappearance of nature into resource, commodity, "managed risk." As Dipesh Chakrabarty writes in his recent essay, "The Climate of History: Four Theses," "most of our freedoms so far have been energy-intensive," produced not only through exploitation of human labor but through resource extraction and development on a global scale. 5
What is left in the wake of these ends is, as McKibben puts it, "nothing but us." This is the essential phrase, measuring the negative or subtractive thinking ("nothing but") of these theories and their heightened determination of the "us" that remains. McKibben's phrase points not only to a new imperative to think without the master-concept of nature but to the difficulty of that task, the imaginative barriers it involves. What would it mean to imagine "nothing but us"? It is a feat of thinking that begins with the recognition of irretrievable loss, unrecuperable absence, and that dwells strangely, almost vacantly, in that logic of the break, the "nothing but." It is, in other words, elegiac thinking, bound up in the work of learning how, as Wallace Stevens might have it, "not to think." McKibben's argument, of course, offers the direct inverse of Stevens' thought-experiment in "The Snow Man," as it "beholds" in the wind precisely the signs of human presence that Stevens attempts not to impose. As McKibben says, "Yes, the wind still blows, but no longer from some other sphere, some inhuman place." It is this "no longer," and this "still," that I am interested in here, signs of a sustained attempt to reckon with the imaginative loss of a central cultural idea in a postnatural era. Such elegiac thinking pervades McKibben's text—and despite Fukuyama's largely jaunty and triumphal tone, his closing note too is melancholic, describing the "sad time" of the posthistorical age, drained of struggle and imagination. "I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a nostalgia for a time when history existed," Fukuyama declares wistfully. 6
Fukuyama's Hegelian-Kojèvean claims now tend to be read in symptomatic terms as illustrative of a certain end-of-Cold-War ideology. Indeed, his nostalgia for Cold War struggle highlights a crisis in historiography produced by the end of this defining historical antagonism. In turn, Fukuyama's later qualifications of his argument in the post-9/11 era—both in relation to Islamic fundamentalism and Bush's war on terror and to the complex potentialities of biotechnology—reveal the limits of his triumphalist narrative of Western liberal democracy's universal appeal. At the same time, they provide a powerful demonstration of an ongoing recalibration of historical thinking in the post-Cold-War era. Tracing these modifications in detail, a task beyond the scope of this essay, would provide a primer-in-miniature of historiographical change after 1989, as the idea of "history" is redefined, rather than resolved, in light of the dominance of global neoliberal capitalism and its attendant geopolitical dynamics. By contrast, the ideas described in McKibben's work have remained central to theories of the environment over the past two decades. It is not merely that his arguments about the material impact of anthropocentric action on the planet have been borne out by all available standards of empirical measurement (the rate of Arctic icecap decline, the concentration of carbon dioxide and methane in the Earth's atmosphere, human population growth, species extinction, rising temperatures and sea levels, air and soil pollution, the projected availability of fossil fuels, water, and other natural resources, to name a few), but that the idea of the end of nature as an independent domain and a salient cultural concept continues to be reasserted anew. Nature's end has retained a rhetorical constancy as a means of describing the cumulative, and still accumulating, environmental impact of capitalist development in the present.
This idea has gained additional heft by the rise into scientific prominence of the Anthropocene as a human-determined geological epoch, which began, according to geologists and climate scientists, in the late eighteenth century with the increasing use of fossil fuels as industrial energy source, and which dramatically intensified in the second half of the twentieth century. 7 Understanding the Anthropocene, as Chakrabarty points out, necessitates not only new periodizing approaches—"it is only very recently," he writes, "that the distinction between human and natural histories—much of which had been preserved even in environmental histories that saw the two entities in interaction—has begun to collapse"—but a reckoning with what the unmaking of these longstanding definitions means for the possibility of historical thought itself. Chakrabarty's preliminary historicizing of the Anthropocene dwells, like McKibben's end-of-nature thesis, in the logic of the break: "a fundamental assumption of Western (and now universal) political thought has come undone in this crisis." 8 This "coming undone" in turn involves an almost unfathomable "scaling-up" of collective human agency—thinking of collective human agency as "a force of nature in the geological sense." Chakrabarty suggests that our narratives of history and humanist methodologies must be altered in order to comprehend this "geological agency"—an agency whose contours have only become recently apparent in light of the preeminence of globalized capitalism.
It is striking how unexplored this paradigm shift and its radical implications have remained in the field of literary studies. Certainly ecocriticism has offered interpretive frameworks for rethinking questions of nature in relation to ecological crisis. Yet concepts like Lawrence Buell's "toxic discourse" or Tim Morton's "ecomimesis" (to take two influential examples) tend to privilege an essentially observational and mimetic ethos—a literature of what is. By contrast, the more radical idea of nature's end demands an emphasis on what is not, on the negative workings of creative imagination in light of a concept's withering-away. There is, in fact, an emergent literature of this "end of nature" paradigm, engaged in these new modes of thinking—negative, indebted, elegiac—necessitated by global ecological crisis: the field of ecopoetics. 9 In the face of increasingly dire scientific warnings about encroaching planetary "tipping points" and persistent political failures to combat environmental crisis (perhaps best exemplified by the unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001), ecopoetics has developed, over the past decade, as what Jonathan Skinner calls a "practice of emergency." 10 This literary mode, largely unexplored by critics of contemporary literature, can be characterized by a strong distinction from nature-poetry approaches that tend to frame "the environmental imagination," in Lawrence Buell's famous terms, as not only a restorative treatment for the "environmental unconscious," but as leading directly to ethical, transformative action. 11 Instead, a governing ethos of ecopoetics might be glimpsed in a phrase by Brenda Hillman in her recent book of poems, Practical Water (2009): "We must do something but what." 12 Resisting a perspective of innocence or ethical outrage that would suggest an observational, distanced vantage, these works emphasize ecological interrelationality and complicity in environmental destruction, and often explore collective feelings of vulnerability, hopelessness, and dread.
This essay will examine one key poem in this developing field, Juliana Spahr's "Gentle Now, Don't Add to Heartache" (2005). "Gentle Now" is one of the most well-known works of ecopoetics, reprinted in several recent anthologies, including The Ecopoetry Anthology (2013), The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (2012), and American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics (2007), as well as in Spahr's book well then there now (2011). Among the preeminent younger poets of the post-Language generation, Spahr is often compared to Whitman in her thematics of collective intimacy as well as her formal devices of catalog, repetition, and apostrophe. Interested in "this connection of everyone with lungs" (the title of her acclaimed 2005 collection), Spahr's poetry explores the inextricable interrelation of interior and exterior, individual physiology and global network. At the same time, her work highlights the logics of neoliberal privatization that divert attention from collective commitments toward individual interests and private encounters. "Gentle Now" takes up many of these questions, but reframes them in terms of ecological relations, marking a decisive turn from a poetics of immanent intimacy to an elegiac stance.
My aim here, then, is to explore how what Chakrabarty calls the "coming undone" of the idea of nature is reflected and reflected on in the workings of "Gentle Now." I am interested not only in the ways this ecopoetics text enacts the elegiac or negative thinking that I have been characterizing as an essential feature of the end of nature paradigm, but how it conceives the consequences of such thinking for its own literary operations. 13 This essay considers the ways "Gentle Now" defines nature as an imaginative resource—an elemental site of figuration and the essential sign of otherness against which the work defines its existence—whose meanings are available only as afterimage, negative vision. 14 Nature's absence as symbolic site of renewal is the "heartache" governing the poem's melancholic structure—an absence at the center of elegy itself. What is no longer available to the elegy as a form, Spahr makes clear, is precisely its conventional dependence on nature as the figurative resource that regulates the mourning process.
This constitutive absence is also the central theme of the poem, which narrates subject-formation as a form of elegiac self-recognition that takes ecological destruction as its tragic precondition. While this narrative of subject-formation has important affiliations with Romantic characterizations of the modern subject predicated on environmental estrangement, Spahr departs from these accounts in her insistence on "scaled-up" human culpability. In "Gentle Now," self-recognition emerges from the awareness of one's material determination as a destructive agent, and the poem details the unresolvable, melancholic grief that accompanies this realization. By poem's end, the speaker takes responsibility for not taking responsibility, grieves for not grieving—and it is through these acknowledgments that its subject comes to be. What renders the narrative structure of "Gentle Now" particularly complicated, however, is the fact that its elegiac framework does not become apparent until the final sections. Instead, the first three sections document, in bildungsroman form, the developmental education of the narrator into an ecosystem and the enchantment she discovers there. It is only midway through "Gentle Now" that this narrative of ecological intimacy is revealed to be a reconstitution of an origin story from a retrospective position of guilty grief. In this way, the poem reveals not how humans actually encounter the natural world, but how we represent this encounter once it is no longer available to us.
Juliana Spahr's poem never mentions the word "nature," and, as Marianne Moore would say, "omissions are not accidents." The entire work might be read as an exploration of how nature becomes an impossible and unthinkable term, an inquiry into what it means to think "nothing but us." "Gentle Now, Don't Add to Heartache" elegizes a set of relations, a way of thinking, and an imaginative resource, all organized by the modern idea of "nature," which are no longer available to the speaker. 15 Its operations involve a retrospective attempt to comprehend how this loss occurred and to grapple with its significance. Across its five sections, the poem's workings mimic those of conventional elegy: retrospective idealizations, disenchanted reckonings, an attempt to discern culpability, and a final logic of substitution. And yet "Gentle Now" also points, again and again, to the inadequacy and incompletion of its work of mourning. This inadequacy begins in the fact that the poem never defines precisely what its loss consists of, as if the loss is at once too intimate and too totalized to name. This mourning without an object reflects an absence whose scale and consequences remain unfathomable, and yet which remains central to (indeed, constitutive of) this speaker's sense of self. Thus elegy's traditional questions of responsibility, guilt, and self-realization are ratcheted up to a powerful degree, as the poem considers what it would mean to be what Chakrabarty calls a "geological agent"—a guilty recognition that cannot lead to reparative action.
Yet the opening sections of "Gentle Now" attempt to forestall this recognition, lingering in the wishful space of idealized union that signifies the poem's animating desire. These sections describe relations that will only later be definitively revealed as idealizations that speak not to what is, or even what once was, but to what cannot be. This impossible desire is captured in the poem's opening section, which narrates a universal origin-story of entrance into the world:
We come into the world.
We come into the world and there it is.
The sun is there.
The brown of the river leading to the blue and the brown of the ocean is there....
And we begin to breathe.
We come into the world and there it is.
We come into the world without and we breathe it in.
We come into the world and begin to move between the brown and the blue and
the green of it. (124)
"We come into the world and there it is," the speaker says, offering a vision of a world that preexists us and is complete without us. The human is simply one among many creatures moving and breathing amid a swirl of colors, patterns, and life forms. World is absorbed in body; body is absorbed in world.
In its evocation of this fantastical state before division, individuation, and loss, Spahr's swirling "blue and brown and green" calls to mind Peter Sacks's description of the "evocation of life in the presence of the mother" built into elegiac recollection. 16 The Freudian sense of now-lost "attachment to a unity that seems to precede a sense of individuation and of separate mortality" is here symbolized by gentle color-in-motion and lulling anaphoric repetition of the originary moment of entrance. 17
Tellingly, however, the opening sequence of "Gentle Now" is not simply a vision of non-differentiated union—it is a fantasy of non-agency. The originary fantasy of these lines is that humans "come into the world" without any negative impact, acting in perfect synchonicity with its ongoing movements. "Gentle Now" will reveal the reverse to be the case, detailing the determining force of humans on ecosystems and the narrator's constitutive dissociation from her environment. Thus we might read this section as the poem's imaginary, which speaks powerfully to a collective human wish not to harm, to "breathe in" and "move between" other species in affirmative, nonviolent coexistence. It betrays a wish to remain undifferentiated, immersed. In turn, this opening section signals the distinctive determination of the poem's elegiac speaker, whose particular form of idealization is not only an undifferentiated unity with the natural world but a non-culpability that is never in fact possible. The poem's beginnings in a timeless present-tense where "heartache" seems not yet to exist—a present-tense suffused with the poignant aura of an impossible wish—lays out the negative work of the poem, which will dispel this aura by confronting what this initial section willfully represses.
The following section of "Gentle Now" opens again with a moment of origin, this time in a past- rather than present-tense perspective. Here, the speaker, while still plural, is localized, describing a particular childhood by a particular stream. This second start highlights distinctively human concepts of temporal progression and development, telling a story of childhood intimacy with the natural world that gestures, in hindsight, to the impossibility of the first section's assertions of non-differentiated, ongoing belonging. Spahr draws on Romantic conceptions of nature as the first site of human education: it is in and with "the stream" that our perceptual and relational capacities first emerge, these sections claim. The second section opens:
We came into the world at the edge of a stream.
The stream had no name but it began from a spring and flowed down a hill into
the Scioto that then flowed into the Ohio that then flowed into the Mississippi that
then flowed into the Gulf of Mexico.
The stream was a part of us and we were part of the stream and we were thus part
of the rivers and thus part of the gulfs and the oceans.
And we began to learn the stream.
We looked under stones for the caddisfly larvae and its adhesive.
We counted the creek chub and we counted the slenderhead darter.
We learned to recognize the large, upright, dense, candle-like
clusters of yellowish flowers at the branch ends of the
horsechestnut and we appreciated the feathery gracefulness
of the drooping, but upturning, branchlets of the larch.
We mimicked the catlike meow, the soft quirrt or kwut, and the
louder, grating ratchet calls of the gray catbird.
We put our heads together.
We put our heads together with all these things, with the caddisfly
larva, with the creek chub and the slenderhead darter, with
the horsechestnut and the larch, with the gray catbird.
We put our heads together on a narrow pillow, on a stone, on a
narrow stone pillow, and we talked to each other all day long
because we loved.
We loved the stream.
And we were of the stream. (124-125)
These lines of "Gentle Now" describe an education into the natural life of "the stream" as definitive of human childhood. Humans learn to know and to love not through the primary maternal bond or by enculturation into human social life, but by "putting our heads together" with all the beings of the stream. Nature emerges here as the Wordsworthian "teacher," the primal, always available source of fundamental goodness, innocence, and receptivity. As Schiller describes this Romantic idea in "On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry" (1795), his essay which names the elegiac as the governing aesthetic and philosophical mode of modernity, "Nature in this mode of contemplation is for us nothing other than voluntary existence, subsistence of things through themselves, existence according to its own unalterable laws"—forms of simple, essential presence exemplified here in the sounds, textures, and motions of the stream's inhabitants. 18 In turn, human self-development emerges through recognition and active mimicry of these qualities: we learn to be by being like nature. This immersive education is the foundation for all forms of love and the basis of all complex knowledge we develop. "This is where we learned love and where we learned depth and where we learned layers and where we learned connections between layers," Spahr writes.
These lines insist on the innocence, receptivity, and openheartedness of the speaker, extending the premise of non-agency set out in the opening section. Employing the pastoral idealization central to elegy, they depict an idyllic site of natural simplicity and contentment where the now-lost beloved and the speaker once dwelled. The pastoral fiction of an entirely horizontalized and innocent relation to "the stream" is crystallized in Spahr's image of "putting our heads together on a narrow pillow" and "talk[ing] all day long." Spahr's scenes of pastoral enchantment invoke powerful, enduring human fantasies of ecological coexistence grounded in innocence and mutual protection from harm. Yet if these scenes lay the ground for the banishments to come, they also speak poignantly to the psychic need for these fantasies. As Clifton Spargo suggests in his work on the modern elegy, "it is the often delusive, always wishful quality of elegy as a recuperative hypothesis of reciprocity—whether the elegist writes that reciprocity anew or, as is often the case with nostalgically inflected revisionings, for the first time—that constitutes much of its emotional, surprisingly ethical persuasiveness." 19 For Spargo, and for Spahr, the cultural power of elegy derives in part from this very assertion of wishful and impossible reciprocity, expressed in the language of ineffable "heartache." Such assertions set the stage for and yet importantly counterbalance the guilty conscience that will emerge, in the final two sections of "Gentle Now," as the abiding psychic condition of the human subject in the Anthropocene.
These assertions of strange heartache also illuminate the difference Spahr's contemporary elegy presents from the elegiac Romanticism of Wordsworth and Schiller. Subject-formation in Schiller's elegiac theory is governed by a properly "sentimental" view of nature as lost experience but ever-present ideal. Of nature's laws and forms, Schiller writes, "We therefore perceive in them eternally that which is missing from us, but after which we are required to strive, and which, although we never attain it, we nevertheless may hope to approach in an infinite progress." 20 If we must leave nature behind—if we must "change," as Schiller asserts—it is with the assurance that nature "remains the same," that it remains available as an ideal against which we can measure our difference and toward which we can "strive." "Gentle Now" explores the very absence of this availability, the absence of nature's knowable presence and constant renewal, as the motivating force of its elegiac work. And in turn, the differentiated subject who emerges by way of this loss must diverge from the Romantic version, which defines modern subject-formation vis-à-vis nature as both loss and gain, deficiency and triumph. 21 For Schiller, our constitutive estrangement from the natural world highlights the "fullness" and "advantage" of human capacities of imagination, reflection, and reason. Spahr's subject, by contrast, cannot find "abundant recompense," as Wordsworth's narrator in "Tintern Abbey" finally discovers. "Gentle Now" insists that this gain-by-loss establishment is precisely what its speaker lacks. Who, then, is the subject emerging on the other side of this loss?
The poem's final sections begin to grapple directly with this question. "It was not all long lines of connection and utopia," the opening line of section four asserts. Standing as a powerful turning-point in the negative thinking of "Gentle Now," this abrupt, disenchanting gesture recasts the prior portrayals as naïve and suggests a newly demystifying procedure will follow. We now see "the stream" as composed not only of various plant and animal species but destructive toxins and waste:
It was a brackish stream and it went through the field beside our house.
But we let into our hearts the brackish parts of it also.
Some of it knowingly.
We let in soda cans and we let in cigarette butts and we let in pink tampon
applicators and we let in six pack of beer connectors and we let in various other
pieces of plastic that would travel through the stream.
And some of it unknowingly.
We let the run off from agriculture, surface mines, forestry, home wastewater
treatment systems, construction sites, urban yards, and roadways into our hearts.
We let chloride, magnesium, sulfate, manganese, iron, nitrite/nitrate, aluminum,
suspended solids, zinc, phosphorus, fertilizers, animal wastes, oil, grease, dioxins,
heavy metals and lead go through our skin and into our tissues. (131)
This section reveals a portrait of ecology far uglier and messier in its intimacy: an interconnectedness where industrial byproducts coexist with insects, tampon applicators with blue herons. Reckoning with the falsity of its prior idealization of the "stream" as a purified space of peaceful coexistence, the poem now reframes this coexistence as always-already mixed, impure, "brackish." "Nature," in the Romantic sense that Raymond Williams describes as "an inherent original power" distinct from humanity, disappears entirely. 22
Yet Spahr's evocation of a toxic ecological intimacy, where anything and everything is "let in," must be read as a part of the poem's elegiac operations, not as an "ecomimetic" description of the stream's real ecology. The denatured, polluted stream serves here as the site of elegiac recognition through which the speaker comes to understand her own agential powers. Indeed, we might see this section as undertaking an initial attempt to comprehend the contours of the "geological agency" Chakrabarty describes. This agency precedes and exceeds the speaker's direct knowledge; it is a condition, Spahr claims, which the speaker was "born" into:
We were born at the beginning of these things, at the time of chemicals
combining, at the time of stream run off.
These things were a part of us and would become more a part of us but we did
not know it yet. (131)
The narrator is born into external forces that are a part of her from the beginning and that shape her inexorably. These lines shed new light on the insufficient origin-stories of prior sections: all along, the speaker has been a participant in the stream's destruction, even before she is aware of it. Culpability precedes intentionality; causality precedes consciousness. These facts are not mitigated by the love, identification, or aesthetic appreciation that the prior sections detail. The confessions of what was done "knowingly" and "unknowingly" thus signal the emergence of a differentiated subject, driven by the need to measure the extent of her blameworthiness. 23 And this section's revised portrait of visible and invisible pollutants coursing through stream and skin stands as the sign—like McKibben's figure of the weather—of the radical agential force of humans on their environments, a force beyond any ability to control. As in McKibben's theory, this agential force, whose effects have already materialized, necessitates a scaled-up conception of human agency—not posthumanism but humanism, with a vengeance.
The fifth and last section of "Gentle Now" finally names the speaking subject as a differentiated "I," a self-naming coextensive with an elegiac admission of guilt and grief. This closing section repeats a phrase again and again: "I did not know." This is the defining phrase of Spahr's elegy. With these words, Spahr uncovers an all-consuming, totalizing, but also importantly negative grief—a grief for what one did not know that is also a grief for what one is not. If the elegiac process of subject-formation involves a retrospective reckoning with one's former ignorance, the subject of Spahr's elegy now knows herself to be wholly non-innocent. She implicates herself as active agent, involved in the everyday work of destroying the "stream":
I turned to each other and I began to work for the chemical factory and I began
to work for the paper mill and I began to work for the atomic waste disposal plant
and I began to work at keeping men in jail. (133)
At the same time, the speaker's feelings of love are now rechanneled into new sources of amorous enchantment, as she is "ensnared, bewildered" by the lures of the private sphere: romantic eros and consumer goods. The narrator turns toward a human beloved, abandoning the stream entirely: "I did not know that I would turn from the stream to each other. / I did not know I would turn to each other" (132). In the eroticized body of her human beloved, the narrator rediscovers the beauty and variety formerly described in terms of the stream: the "softness of each other's breast, the folds of each other's elbows, the brightness of each other's eyes" (132). Similarly fascinating to the speaker is the realm of commodities, whose names draw on (in the most inverted terms possible) the name and qualities of "the stream": "Lifestream Total Cholesterol Test Packets," "Snuggle Emerald Stream Fabric Softener Dryer Sheets," "Streamzap PC Remote Control" (132-33).
In this subject's turn to her lover and her consumer goods, we might discern both an embodiment and an inversion of what Peter Sacks calls the "substitutive turn" of elegy, in which the mourner replaces the beloved with symbolic images of the natural world 24. The work of mourning in elegies from Milton to Hardy is grounded in an environmental framework that evolves from initial disruption toward ultimate reintegration into natural cycles. In such traditional elegies, the natural world provides figures through which the lost beloved is mourned, figures that ritualize the process of grieving by offering symbolic correlatives for loss and consolation. But in "Gentle Now," in place of the natural image that provides symbolic substitution for the loss of the human beloved, the human image and the commodity provide substitutes for the lost stream. "I just turned to each other and the body parts of the other suddenly glowed with the beauty and detail that I had found in the stream" (131). This substitution appears, at first, to provide a standard elegiac arc in which a relationship's loss is consoled by the "reattachment of affection to some substitute for that object." 25 The speaker has discovered, by poem's end, new sources of enchantment and love through which she becomes fully integrated into the normative social sphere. Yet "Gentle Now" proposes that mourning is actually prevented by this substitution of the human beloved. Unconscious displacement has entailed forgetting rather than remembering, integration without closure. And it is this failure to mourn, this exchange without any commemorative work of mourning, which motivates the poem's elegiac retrospections.
"Gentle Now" ends, then, with the speaker's recognition that her mourning has yet to begin. The speaker "didn't even say goodbye," an acknowledgment that gains force through its repetition four times across the final section:
I didn't even say goodbye elephant ear, mountain madtorn, butterfly, harelip
sucker, white catspaw, rabbitsfoot, monkeyface, speckled chub, wartyback,
ebonyshell, pirate perch, ohio pigtoe, clubshell. (132-33)
The anaphoric catalogs and rhetorical negations of this final section of "Gentle Now" point again and again, in a form of repetition-compulsion, to what was not done and to a loss that defies resolution. This realization emerges into full clarity in the final lines, where the speaker, bedded down with her human beloved, confesses:
And I did not sing.
I did not sing otototoi; dark, all merged together, oi.
I did not sing groaning words.
I did not sing otototoi; dark, all merged together, oi.
I did not sing groaning words.
I did not sing o wo, wo, wo!
I did not sing I see, I see.
I did not sing wo, wo! (133)
With these closing words, Spahr draws on the ululations of grief found in Greek tragedy, such as the lament of Xerxes at the end of Aeschylus's The Persians and Cassandra's cry in Agamemnon, to mark a powerful contrast with the speaker's unexpressed grief. As Robert Harrison has noted in his writings on the cultural work of mourning, these tragic cries of "primitive grief," while appearing "pathological" to modern ears, are in fact part of a "rule-bound performance." 26 Such "elaborate ritualization and formalization of mourning behaviors" function "to master grief by submitting its potentially destructive impulse to objective symbolization." 27
To sing one's grief is to turn away from the annihilating pain of loss toward the social and to locate the self vis-à-vis the lost other. By contrast, Spahr preserves the primitive power of these laments while refusing their ritualized enactment. "I did not sing," the speaker insists, acknowledging her failure to undertake the work of mourning that would master this grief. Uttered by the poem yet left unsung by the narrator, these primitive cries signify a pain that can never be worked through and thus does not end. This is the "heartache" that points back to the poem's first section, with its impossible fantasy of originary connection without harm, to begin the negative work of mourning anew.
This endlessly circular rather than progressive logic must be understood as melancholic. In Freud's theory, to successfully mourn is to relinquish the other and to fully adopt the norms of self-possession and social integration; melancholia refuses this consolatory and commemorative work of mourning by tarrying in guilty retrospection. Where in mourning, "respect for reality gains the day," in melancholia the loss "absorbs" its sufferer entirely. 28 At the same time, the loss itself is constitutively different in melancholia: it is "loss of a more ideal kind," a loss that resists complete comprehension. "Melancholia is in some way related to an object-loss which is withdrawn from consciousness, in contradistinction to mourning, where there is nothing about the loss that is unconscious," Freud writes. 29 This is the idealized and unconscious form of loss in "Gentle Now," where what is lost remains undefined. Is it the beings in the stream—the "elephant ear," the "ohio pigtoe"? Is it the stream itself? Do the stream and its creatures actually die, or does the speaker merely turn away from them, so that they are lost to her consciousness? That none of these possibilities seem quite right is precisely the point. The stream stands for a loss that is "withdrawn from consciousness"—a loss of an idea and its associated forms of experience, whose absence is at once too all-pervasive and too close to name.
For Freud, melancholia's pathology lies in the fact that these self-reproaches are out of proportion to the original loss. The melancholic punishes himself out of narcissistic and sadistic impulses that become improperly outsized in relation to the original loss. "Gentle Now" presents a different form of melancholia, where the speaker's self-accusations are both entirely appropriate and never adequate. It is the loss itself that is outsized. "Gentle Now" lingers in self-punishing grief because there is no way to cope with or atone for the sense of human culpability that emerges here, no way even to grasp its material or psychological consequences. Spahr suggests the only viable work is to return, again and again, to an imagined realm of origins, in order to fathom this very imperceptibility, this withdrawn loss. This recursive structure of wish-denial, recognition of guilt, and ceaseless heartache offers a powerful account of how the determined, aggrandized human agency of the Anthropocene might be experienced—the feeling, that is, of thinking "nothing but us."
In this way, Spahr's poem might be productively compared to, and finally distinguished from, Tim Morton's recent writings on ecology and elegy, which similarly highlight the importance of melancholy as an alternative to elegy. Morton's ecotheory directs ecological art toward the present rather than the past, abjuring the elegiac poetics of loss, sorrow, and grieving for the uncanny, melancholic "reality" of ecological coexistence. Morton asserts that ecological poetry must "transcend the elegiac mode" in favor of portrayals of a disenchanted, uncanny ecological mesh. Elegy, Morton asserts, is too "apocalyptic," too totalizing. Instead, melancholic representations of ecology, by focusing attention on ongoingness rather than ends, finally reveal, in fact, that "nothing is determined yet." 30 From an anti-apocalyptic, melancholy perspective, new forms of "enchantment" can arise. 31
By contrast, Spahr's melancholy takes, as we have seen, a decidedly more pessimistic form. Indeed, if Morton is interested in understanding "ecology without nature," Spahr dwells on the painful consequences of being "without nature," refusing to move 'beyond' this loss. She is interested, moreover, in the questions of obligation, culpability, and guilt that Morton's melancholy finally skirts. The poem insists, then, on the determinative force of humans rather than indulging a claim that "nothing is determined yet." "Gentle Now" maintains the importance of elegiac retrospection and its language of necessity and loss. Its melancholia, in turn, emerges from the recognition that these conventions are finally inadequate to their current task, and that any attempt to take responsibility for this determination is never sufficient. In this way, melancholy in "Gentle Now" definitively refuses "enchantment," refusing to turn away from the work of impossible mourning.
The poem's melancholic thinking extends, finally, to its inhabitation of elegy itself. The question that underlies "Gentle Now"'s mobilization of elegiac procedures is whether elegy is even possible in light of the poem's subject matter. Can there be elegy, the poem asks, without the 'absolute other' of nature? Part of the reason the poem's elegiac operations of idealization, substitution, and reintegration necessarily fail is that the imaginative resource so central to these conventionalized workings has become the object of mourning itself. With this shift, Spahr suggests, elegy turns in on itself, unable to fulfill its preordained tasks. Thus "Gentle Now" mourns, as well, for an idealized elegy that is now impossible, an elegy whose forms of closure are no longer inhabitable. If the drive toward closure characteristic of the genre operates, in part, to secure the poem's inheritance within a larger tradition and to reaffirm this tradition's significance, "Gentle Now" stages this literary transmission as unavoidably incomplete. Its relation to elegy uncannily echoes its depiction of the determination of the subject. The poem must speak the language of elegy, but this elegiac language must in turn speak its own constitutive failures. Unable to escape elegy's perimeters, but also unable to inhabit its logics and processes fully, the poem lingers in a properly melancholic relation to the genre. 32 Like the ever-incomplete mourning process "Gentle Now" describes, elegy never ends, and its work is never done.
Margaret Ronda is assistant professor of English at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, where she teaches modern and contemporary American poetry. She is currently at work on a book entitled Remainders: American Poetry at Nature's End.
- #1 These alternative formulations are central to the critical discourse of ecocriticism. For an extended consideration of these ideas in relation to the end-of-nature paradigm, see Arturo Escobar's "After Nature: Steps to an Anti-Essentialist Political Ecology," Current Anthropology 40.1 (February 1999): 1-16. [↩]
- #2 Bill McKibben, The End of Nature (New York: Random House, 1989), 58. [↩]
- #3 Environmental jeremiad is often framed in terms of a choice that will determine the outlook of the future: "Either we change our ways or we face global catastrophe, destroying much beauty and exterminating countless fellow species in our headlong race to apocalypse," Cheryl Glotfelty writes. See, for example, Glotfelty's foreword to The Ecocriticism Reader, eds. Cheryl Glotfelty and Harold Fromm, (Athens: U of Georgia P, 1996), x. [↩]
- #4 McKibben, 48. [↩]
- #5 Dipesh Chakrabarty, "The Climate of History: Four Theses," Critical Inquiry 35.2 (Winter 2009): 197-222. [↩]
- #6 Francis Fukuyama, "The End of History?" The National Interest 6 (Summer 1989). [↩]
- #7 The term "The Anthropocene" was first coined by Nobel-Prize winning chemist Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer. In 2008, the Geological Society of America published a statement that accepted this term and its geological dating. Chakrabarty, 210. [↩]
- #8 Chakrabarty, 207. [↩]
- #9 The term "ecopoetics" has emerged over the past decade and is most prominently associated with the experimental journal, ecopoetics, founded by Jonathan Skinner in 2001. Ecopoetics is not a solely North American phenomenon; see Harriet Tarlo's anthology of UK poets, The Ground Aslant: An Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry (Exeter, UK: Shearsman, 2011). [↩]
- #10 Skinner does caution against defining ecopoetics solely in terms of crisis, arguing that a "practice of emergency" can also include explorations of "the emergence of new forms of life" in present-day ecology. Angela Hume, "Imagining Ecopoetics: An Interview with Robert Haas, Brenda Hillman, Evelyn Reilly and Jonathan Skinner," ISLE 19.4 (Autumn 2012): 751-66. [↩]
- #11 See, for example, this formulation by John Felstiner, from his recent book Can Poetry Save The Earth?: "Simple recognitions ... can awaken us, poem by poem, to urban, suburban, or rural surroundings, east or west, at home or on the road.... First consciousness then conscience—a passage we all know as single spirits. Stirring the spirit, poetry could prompt new ventures, anything from a thrifty household, frugal vehicle, recycling drive, communal garden, or local business going green, to an active concern for global warming." Can Poetry Save The Earth? A Field Guide to Nature Poems (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2010), xiii-xiv. [↩]
- #12 Brenda Hillman, Practical Water (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2011), 84. [↩]
- #13 Spahr's poem was first published online in the journal Tarpaulin Sky and is available here. [↩]
- #14 See Adorno's key formulation in Aesthetic Theory: "Authentic artworks, which hold fast to the idea of reconciliation with nature by making themselves completely a second nature, have consistently felt the urge, as if in need of a breath of fresh air, to step outside of themselves. Since identity is not to be their last word, they have sought consolation in first nature [. . .] The extent to which this taking a breath depends on what is mediated, on the world of conventions, is unmistakable." What does it mean for a literary work not only not to "step outside," to "seek consolation in first nature," but to stage this incapacity? If, as Adorno points out, this act of "taking a breath" is governed by longstanding "conventions," what happens when those literary conventions become unavailable? This is a key preoccupation in "Gentle Now." Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1998), 63. [↩]
- #15 See Raymond Williams on the definition of "nature" in Keywords: "Indeed one of the most powerful uses of nature, since C18, has been in this selective sense of goodness and innocence. Nature has meant the 'countryside', the 'unspoiled places', plants and creatures other than man. ... Nature is what man has not made, though if he made it long enough ago—a hedgerow or a desert—it will usually be included as natural. Nature-lover and nature poetry date from this phase." Raymond Williams, "Nature" in Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (London: Fontana Press, 1988), 219-224. [↩]
- #16 Peter Sacks, The English Elegy: Studies in the Genre from Spenser to Yeats (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987), 99. [↩]
- #17 Sacks, 100. [↩]
- #18 Friedrich Schiller, "On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry" in Naïve and Sentimental Poetry and On The Sublime: Two Essays (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1966 ), 80-190. [↩]
- #19 Clifton Spargo, The Ethics of Mourning: Grief and Responsibility in Elegiac Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2004), 165. [↩]
- #20 Schiller, 100. [↩]
- #21 Thomas Pfau has recently read elegy itself as "the defining characteristic of aesthetic production in Modernity" (546-48). He reads Schiller's essay as the decisive text in defining the elegiac aesthetics of modernity. See Thomas Pfau, "Mourning Modernity: Classical Antiquity, Romantic Theory, and Elegiac Form," in The Oxford Handbook of the Elegy, ed. Karen Weisman (New York: Oxford UP, 2010). 546-564. [↩]
- #22 Williams, 223. [↩]
- #23 Here Spahr employs the Judaic structure of confession and atonement, where the sinner confesses his "intentional" and "unintentional" transgressions. The poem as a whole employs a Judeo-Christian logic of postlapsarian loss and constitutive guilt. Indeed, its portrait of negative grief as central to subject-formation bears strong resemblances to Calvinist ideas of fallen humanity. [↩]
- #24 Sacks, 4 [↩]
- #25 Sacks, 6. [↩]
- #26 Robert Harrison, The Dominion of the Dead (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003), 58. [↩]
- #27 Harrison, 65-66. [↩]
- #28 Sigmund Freud, "Mourning and Melancholia." The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV (1914-1916): On the History of the Psychoanalytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works. (London: Hogarth Press, 1953): 243 [↩]
- #29 Freud, 244. [↩]
- #30 Timothy Morton, "The Dark Ecology of Elegy," in The Oxford Handbook of the Elegy, 255. [↩]
- #31 Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2010), 104. [↩]
- #32 This is, then, a form of elegy that bears important family resemblances to the modern elegy as theorized by critics such as Jahan Ramazani and Clifton Spargo. Both Ramazani and Spargo argue that elegy from modernism forward follows a melancholic path, emphasizing discontinuity and lack of closure along with skepticism toward elegy's preoccupation with social cohesion. If, as Spargo argues, melancholia offers an "ethics of mourning" through its acknowledgment of "the other's uncancellable and unassimilable value," Spahr's poem explores what it means to have already "canceled" this "value"; its "ethics," then, can only be construed as negative rather than subversive or resistant, as in Spargo's version. See Spargo, 13. [↩]