Visceral Ecopoetics: On Jordan Scott (& Other Writing Bodies)

by Jonathan Skinner

The self-reliant individual who goes into the woods to live deliberately and front the essential facts of life, or as the case might be, to plan an act of civil disobedience or a bombing, owns a fluent, abled, unmarked, free body.[*] Despite Thoreau’s visceral poetics, his pulmonary disability, or his porous sensuous contact with environment, his legacy as a social critic, holding up the mirror to society from a “place apart,” overrides stories of the body.[1] Thoreau’s extravagance, his identification with grotesque forms of the railway sand embankment, to the point of composting body into environment—making him an apostle of the aesthetics of relinquishment, if not a prophet of experiments in self-reliance gone wrong—have little marked the environmental writing tradition he helped launch.[2] Between the abstractions of ecology it engages and its many experiential precipitates, environmental writing can be as disembodied as Emerson’s transparent eyeball. When not entirely scopic, the environmental body prefers pneumatically cushioned phenomenology, an exchange at the skin that leaves viscera untouched. The principle mode of environmental writing is descriptive, where traces of the writing body are nearly always effaced, and where reading happens politely, in silence.

Yet the book that brought the word ecology into the mainstream, Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring, focuses not so much on the environment, on nature or wilderness—though ecology of natural terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems certainly plays a strong role—but on the body, the cell, the viscera: “We spray our elms and the following springs are silent of robin song, not because we sprayed the robins directly but because the poison traveled step by step, through the now familiar elm leaf–earthworm–robin cycle. . . . But there is also an ecology of the world within our bodies. In this unseen world minute causes produce mighty effects.”[3] In her study of the migration and induction of cells of the embryo, Sandra Steingraber refers to the body itself as a “wetlands”: “Organogenesis begins with three flat layers and, one week layer, produces a coiled, segmented object that looks like an architectural detail on the end of a stair banister. Three weeks and a few more folds later, a ‘grossly recognizable’ human being resides in the wetlands of the uterus.”[4] Ecology and the environment begin with the body, at the depth of its viscera.

The metaphors of ecology—“a vernacular science . . . strongly connected to a history of verbal expression”[5]—can also efface the body. Once again, the ability to disappear privileged bodies enjoy, occupying their unmarked position in the ideology that normalizes them, seems reciprocal to ecological thought. It is an able body that diagnoses the health or imbalance of ecological systems, just as the transport of metaphor presumes a body free and able to be transported. Jordan Scott opens his tour de force of dysfluency, blert, with an indictment of metaphor: “It is part of my existence to be the parasite of metaphors, so easily am I carried away by the first simile that comes along. Having been carried away, I have to find my difficult way back, and slowly return, to the fact of my mouth.”[6]

Certain contemporary poets want to rescue the body from metaphor, to return writing to the body for a more immediate access to its energies, whether they be libidinal, athletic, choreographed, dramatized, or even ventriloquized: the poem as direct extension of energy. It is in this context that I read Jordan Scott’s resistance to metaphor, his return to the mouth itself:

Urchin scattergun larval plume an iris-thick gelatin flops coral’s cerebellum. Mesoderm gluts. Urchin bloom. Mucus hue, pink plume, spindles aerobic tentacles to chuck cocoons riddled with Ordovician retinas, haunt yellow as lilac grains. Plankton crumbs hum in current soak, pry buccinators for photophore hunt, or the syllable for gill.

Narwhal back arc spasms pancake ice as alder root sambas soil phonic dipslip mukluk harpoon croon sonar’s marrow hip — dipped arctic cream bongs tusk knots.[7]

blert, which Scott says was “written as a spelunk into the mouth of a stutterer,” is deliberately stocked with language “as difficult as possible for [him] to read.” There is an ecological equivalency at work, as the poet imagines his mouth “suctioned to all that mimics its movements. I construct thick glossaries of tongue protrusions and rogue waves, enamel grinding and plate tectonics, chin spasms and plankton swarms.”[8] The writing does not perform an able mouth’s mimicry of natural phenomena, nor does it invoke a natural image such as “urchin bloom” for the extent to which it might describe the dysfluent mouth. Rather, the phrase “suctioned to” directs us to an autonomic process, a contact zone of symptoms provoking constructions that thickly gloss, i.e. literally tongue, and chomp the language into difference.

For Scott, the dysfluency that necessitates a return to the fact of his mouth, is also an ability, offering access to physical energies. Jordan Scott is not an expressionist, but there is an energy poetics at work in blert, for which models, theories and histories in ecopoetics are just now emerging. A visceral poetics does not voice an habile perceiver (i.e. holder, “ability” coming from habere, to hold) of something we call “the environment,” as if we actually could see what surrounds us — the environment being by definition what escapes a system’s view, does not communicate within the system’s own terms — but in its grappling collisions with language enacts a mouth, a body that provokes the environment, itself a system of other bodies, to change: “The burn and crush [of Blert] in your own mouth is dysfluency”[9]

Other contemporary North American poets who bring the viscera into ecopoetics include CAConrad, angela rawlings, Brenda Iijima, Lila Zemborain, Will Alexander, Eleni Stecopoulos, Robert Kocik, and Hoa Nguyen. The body, or bodies, are foregrounded in such work, whether gestured at (or from), thematized, or enacted—whether it be Conrad orchestrating a (Soma)tic ritual of pulling tarot cards in a meat locker (“Tarot as Verb/ Taroting Meat”); rawlings dream-writing “a night in th life of comma or croceus or maera or cossus cossus or mormo maura” in Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists; Iijima “thrashing disability” in an exchange of feline brains on “Remora mound where body/ | Went was covered/ In grassy expanse” (“Panthering”); or Zemborain, in “Orchid and Bumble-Bee,” seeing bodies from the standpoint of cells, “as indeterminate masses of an/ ethereal substance with movable edges, like the/ fuzzy limits of a flock of birds or the clouds of/ mosquitoes.”[10]

These writing bodies are often vulnerable, dependent, threatened, invaded, fighting back. The visceral poetics they engender constitutes a search for a new science of the body in poetry, ways of relating to and of reading the body, placing poetics in the viscera—whether as Alexander’s “Mesmeric Remora” “swarming in decibels/ in chronicles of electric mirror suns/ in telepathy by watery sonar grasses”; Stecopoulos addressing “organs of feeling” (“splachna”) in “Donor Nation”; Kocik’s “extraorganopoeia,” as “subtilization of the body, saltation skills, coming up with the next organs/organizations”; or Nguyen, in “Yoga pants and hecate lochia,” detailing “bean smears on the counter” or “wormhole in the good squash,” in gestural turns and stabs of daily ecology.[11] Visceral poetics is not about ecology; it is ecology felt at the depth of viscera, body as ecosystem, extended into and penetrated by other ecologies, perceiving themselves at the boundary of the human, a radiant darkness, in all the terror and promise of its untold shapes.

[*] Versions of the first two paragraphs of this essay also appear in “Visceral Ecopoetics in Charles Olson and Michael McClure: Proprioception, Biology, and the Writing Body,” an essay forthcoming in Ecopoetics: Essays in the Field, eds. Angela Hume and Gillian Osborne (Wesleyan University Press, 2018).

[1] Sellers, Christopher. “Thoreau’s Body: Towards an Embodied Environmental History.”

[2] Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture, 105-6, 143-79.

[3] Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, 189.

[4] Sandra Steingraber, Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood, 15.

[5] William Howarth, “Some Principles of Ecocriticism,” The Ecocriticism Reader, 71-74.

[6] Jordan Scott, blert, 7.

[7] Ibid., 28.

[8] Ibid., 64.

[9] Scott, blert, 65.

[10] CAConrad, “(Soma)tic Poetry Ritual & Resulting Poem: Tarot as Verb/ Taroting Meat, n.p.; angela rawlings, Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists, 81; Brenda Iijima, If Not Metamorphic, 109; Lila Zemborain, Mauve Sea-Orchids, 19.

[11] Will Alexander, Kaleidoscopic Omniscience, 120; Eleni Stecopoulos, Armies of Compassion, 61; Robert Kocik, “Further Note,” ecopoetics 01, 131; Hoa Nguyen, Red Juice: Poems 1998-2008, 222, 242; As Long As Trees Last, 37.


Jonathan Skinner has authored the poetry collections Chip Calls, Political Cactus Poems, Birds of Tifft and Warblers, in addition to numerous critical essays, and is founding editor of ecopoetics. He teaches in the Writing Program and in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick.

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