23 June 2010

Rob Halpern on "In Felt Treeling"

Rob Halpern's amazing review of my In Felt Treeling just appeared in the new issue of American Book Review (March/April 2010, Vol. 31, No. 3) in a special feature edited by Kyle Schlesinger (alongside other "must read" articles including Gregg Biglieri's review of Alan Bernheimer and Thom Donovan's "Three Contemporary Activist Presses"). Thank you to Rob for crafting such a beautiful response, to Kyle for the special feature, and to David Felts for permission to republish the article here. If you have a moment, check out what ABR's up to.

There are no real forests.
—Karl Marx

Words, like trees, can be suddenly deformed or wrecked.
—Robert Smithson

“Customary rights to the woods, and the use of common lands”: these are two forgotten provisions of the Magna Carta and its sister document, the Charter of the Forest, which codified the disafforestation—or the return to common use—of all woodland that had been enclosed during the reign of the charter’s sovereign signatory in 1217. Eight centuries later, the very memory of any connection with the commons has all but vanished, and yet airs of its material history remain rooted in all our words for woods.

In his recent book, The Magna Carta Manifesto (2008), Peter Linebaugh scrutinizes a crucial proviso of the Magna Carta, which guaranteed a widow “her reasonable estovers in common.” Estovers—from the Norman French—connotes all the benefits afforded by the usufruct of the land: the means for food, firewood, and building materials. The Magna Carta checked the privatization of the woods, and limited the wholesale conversion of woodland to timber. It protected the poor—specifically emphasizing the protection of women—from the tyranny of lords and kings who had the power both to defoliate and decapitate.

Marx reminds us that what we often think of as forests are but confections made by fiat, enclosed parcels designed for recreation, hunting, or the harvesting of timber—fuel. Linebaugh reads the history of forests as a gendered story of dispossession, one still full of grave implication for women. In Nigeria, to take but one example, women recently lost their customary rights to wood by the ongoing expropriation of mangrove forests, in response to which hundreds of women seized the Chevron Escravos Oil Terminal; while in Vietnam, the current enclosure of forests prevent women from collecting the firewood, bamboo shoots, medicinal plants, and vegetables they need in order to sustain their upland hamlets.

Michael Cross’s first book of poems, In Felt Treeling, abides with these concerns and activates a forgotten history of trees, while recalling the violent political and economic structures—afforestation, expropriation—that shape landscape and woods alike, forces that have diminished not only our access to, but our memory of, common resource.

In Felt Treeling sings the long disdain of woods—of sycamore, compost, and nettles—where what is sunned becomes sundered, and what is ceded becomes another’s yield. Just as there are no natural forests, Cross’s syntax of the forest risks its own “unnaturalness” in the interest of precision:

     (an ardor
     sunned there fabric grass

     as sunned the whole tree
     could sunder sheaves
     a body littered knit.

There is no shade to “lisp this useless.” The whole troubled question of use—of common resource, in woods and words—is under intense pressure in this book, refigured through “the fabric trees” that feels what otherwise goes unfelt. This is a song of dispossession—“useless slag / of villainy”—a song whose carefully scored textures otherwise go unheard, just as the commons goes unremembered. In In Felt Treeling, the widow’s estovers become “stunned / in the wet covers,” as if a whole suppressed history of customary rights were being quietly transported, anagrammatically resounded and released in a set of broken lines:

     the pleasure / left
     burden / droves

Similarly, the seventeenth-century conversion of arable land to sheepwalks for an emergent textile industry—which resulted in the proletarianization of the peasantry—can be heard in lines like these:

     (threads left hover
     some in song
     disdain the wood
     a darker mouth
     though wool spate
     lop their wings
     a threaded ave
     flight against the throat.

What remains of this history—“threads left hover”—recedes into the airs of Cross’s libretto for an unsung opera that partitions its voices among a narrating Forest, a mezzo-soprano named Lavinia (Mourning Becomes Electra [1931]?), and the choral Eumenides, whose power to affect justice has long since been transferred.

Sound errs paronymically on unstrung chords, so that “to be hung thin / the body of a tree” is to be sung without a cord of wood in the afforested woods. Dispossessed, the contracted voice of song is infelt as guilt, lament, mourning. Born of villainy, such airs find a line of flight in “burlesque,” and the poem dons its “pasties,” “sequins,” “make-up,” and “dress” to cover up the deep wound of dispossession. If one listens closely, one can hear in these airs the song of a vast migration from woods to the city, the feminization of poverty, the becoming-commodity of labor, the becoming-prostitute of the shepherdess.

Such a song may hide its scars, but In Felt Treeling makes lesions audible: the “welts,” the “harm,” the “raked,” the “gashed.” All that is felt issues in folds on a forest floor where song has all but withdrawn. These folds become the caesurae in Cross’s poems where a reader might loiter (for gleaning has been proscribed) as chords precipitate a “wetted talk” from a throat that’s been all but stopped.

     (beneath the sycamore
     drew crystal to the wood
     spun iron lungs
     the trees breathe shade
     lisp addled haling
     open mouth, o wisp

     wrought / a lithe wood
     drawn / the light sank
     there / applied the make-up
     made a surface dent /

     the remnants of which / lust came off so
     we didn’t speak / the mouth cracked
     what it meant / moving and soft sounded
     ribbons / our compost tongue
     pressed flat against my side
     the wine / out gilded age

In Cross’s libretto, the tension between lyric modesty and operatic excess allegorizes the historical contradictions between wood and timber. The book thus affords a corrective to the whole history of pastoral—the history of hydrocarbons—a history born as soon as the poet turns a back to the economic forces that condition the possibilities of song itself—who sings? and of what?—when the lyric voice unwittingly submits to the very powers that subjugate it.

From “wood,” “shade,” and “compost” to “crystal,” wrought,” and “gilded,” In Felt Treeling traces lines of flight from the cordoned forest to the metal fields of urban industry, whose secret history errs in remnants of song as Cross’s poems score the scars of lyric’s own silent expropriation. This is language rising as air from wood-ash, singing the song of protracted siege, lamenting the loss of words for things once held in common.

On the eve of WWII, Bertolt Brecht wrote, “What kind of times are they when / A talk about trees is almost a crime / Because it implies silence about so many other horrors.” Nearly twenty years after the war, the American poet George Oppen responded: “There is no crisis in which political poets and orators may not speak of trees.” Oppen reads Brecht’s reference to “talk about trees” as Brecht’s own aversion to the aesthetic at a time of sociopolitical crisis. For Oppen, however, the aesthetic is critical for “the good life,” which he argues requires an aesthetic definition, and “will be defined outside of anybody’s politics, or defined wrongly.”

Brecht rejects the sentimentalized tree in the interest of politics. Oppen rejects politics in the interest of the unsentimental tree. But Oppen’s commitment to a language of encounter unfettered by ideology and politics is perhaps naïve, at least when it comes to trees. Cross supercedes this tension in In Felt Treeling, performing the tree as always caught up in political—gendered—histories, for to bracket these histories is to stage, yet again, the suppression of the commons that is the history of the forest.

Rob Halpern is the author of several books of poetry, including Rumored Place (2004) and Disaster Suites (Palm Press 2009). He lives in San Francisco.

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