Thursday, October 06, 2011

Kidland and Other Poems, by Paul Kingsnorth

A few months ago, I discovered the work of the Dark Mountain Project. It is a collective of artists/scientists/environmentalists with some shared premises: that our society is not actually serious about solving its environmental problems; that we are driving towards a wall of firm ecological limits; that, even with the parts falling off our industrial machine, we will fairly soon hit this wall with a greater or lesser degree of violence; and that any environmental vision that imagines our Western lifestyles continuing unchanged with a few solar panels and hybrid cars is an unworkable fantasy.

The sooner we abandon this fantasy, they argue, and acknowledge the coming cataclysms, the sooner we can start talking about—not solutions, but other visions of society and culture that might work in a world of severe and chaotic weather, depleted soil and oceans, and very little remaining oil.

There are statistics to defend these claims, but if you haven't felt, emotionally, the bankruptcy and destructiveness of the modern industrial project, I doubt they will convince you. For whatever reason, I am already at that place. When I read the Dark Mountain manifesto—and I am not usually the sort of person to read manifestos—I felt page after page the ring of absolute truth.

I still have to get copies of the Project's two anthologies, but I read some of Paul Kingsnorth's contributions—he is one of the Project's founders—and felt a deep affinity. His favorite poets are also mine—Edward Thomas, John Clare, Robinson Jeffers—and he has a belief, which I hope is not delusional, that the arts have something to contribute in changing the consciousness of people who are losing faith, with good reason, in industrial society and its promises.

Kingsnorth has mainly written journalism up to this point, but from his website he seems to see himself fundamentally as a poet. Kidland is his first book of verse. It may seem strange to see a cyclone on the horizon and emerge from your shelter to present the storm with some poems—but, well, the world needs poems along with guides on organic farming; they make life worthwhile whether disaster is a year or centuries away. And in any case disaster is always approaching.

The question remains, though: what kind of art does one make for a society that has no long-term future? If you believe this is a silly question, and aren't convinced about any of the premises I mentioned in the first paragraph, don't bother with Kingsnorth, because his work won't make sense to you. If any of them struck a chord, though, I think his poems will be worth your time.

I read Kidland with pleasure and with disappointment. It is an extremely uneven book: too eager to make points, heavy-handed, and now and then very beautiful. It reminded me of a Robert Musil quote that you can't feel profoundly out of step with your society without doing some damage to yourself. Rage and a sense of disconnectedness from one's potential audience—and from humanity as a whole—injure as much as they inspire. Declining civilizations often cripple their own genuine talents in this way; this is part of how the disease wards off the possibility of healing.

Let me give an example. Here is an excerpt from “Kidland,” the long narrative poem at the center of the book. It is about a man who has set up camp in a forest in Northern England—a “utopia of one,” in his words—because of disgust with the ecological destructiveness of his species. There is also a young city woman, Sarah, who stumbles upon his camp, and a farmer who is abandoning his land in the area. The quote below is from the man in the woods, who is speaking to Sarah:
Where is the urgency? he was saying. Can you not see
how things are? The great forests are burning, the great
of the world. The breath of your lungs is taken from you
and what do you do? There are a million jewelled creatures
that you will never see, that the world
will never see again. There is poison in the water
and in the air and in every cell that you are made of.
Poison: our gift to the world. Do you ever wonder
What the place would be like without us? Free
I would say, to breathe again.
Every one of these thoughts can find a home in my mind, but when I read these lines they are just words. The music is missing—that something that carries the words into the deeper consciousness and makes them larger than the ideas they contain. “Talk / is cheap,” Sarah responds, a fitting response. This long, ambitious poem then goes on to feature a heavily allegorical rape and a sudden death. As with some of Jeffers' narrative poems with their extremes of emotion and violence, for anyone expecting realism the story can feel a bit ludicrous.

I think it is telling that Kingsnorth's most ambitious poems are, to my mind, the least successful, while the small lyrics are often wonderful. Here, for example, is the poem that follows “Kidland.”

and the trees

and the trees on the hill stand waiting to reclaim the field
and the field lies yellow and cut beneath the sky
and the sky hangs grey above the grassline
and the grasses quieten at the approach of night
and night comes and I rise and move towards the trees
I hope they will have their way soon
and I tell them so

Let that sit for a second. Try to read it slowly if you can; I know the monitor makes it difficult. The thought is the same—the sense of sympathy with the non-human world, the question of what it would be like if we were gone, or at least left things alone. Here, though, the lines sing. They are coming from a deeper place, as they do in another poem about trees, “A chaos of you,” which ends with this description: “They dream, rooted, of the hills beyond their kerbside / and in the autumn, unexpected but meant for the moment, / their dreams are carried away to be born.”

Robinson Jeffers wrote something interesting once in a letter to Mark Van Doren about Van Doren's now-forgotten poetry: “I have a criticism,” he wrote, “and no doubt from me it will surprise you. I think you are too (vulgar word) pessimistic...Civilization is bitter to the singer, it is bitter in that essential way to everyone, but I think we can remember that there was a time before it and will be a time after it, and can keep an important part of us timeless enough to be uncivilized.”

Jeffers knew that he was handling material that was difficult to make poetry out of—but he was rooted in the natural world and also in a historical sense of the ebb and flow of civilizations. He often seems to be flying at an enormous height where he calmly sees the wreck of our modern civilization just a few miles down from the ruins of Rome and Kahokia and Palenque, along with the mountains and rivers that have survived them all. The fact that his society was in decline did not strike him as an unprecedented calamity but part of a longstanding historical pattern.

Kingsnorth's best poems have some of this timelessness, but a great deal of his work is instead filled with an entirely understandable disgust, not just with the world modern man has created, but with humanity itself. There is almost a longing for apocalypse. In several poems, a character stands in for Man and Kingsnorth writes about fundamental flaws in his character: too much greed, too little foresight. Again, one can sympathize, but the attitude makes the poetry captive to a few ideas: “I give you what you ask for, / you ask for more. I leave you / alone in the place, you wreck it all,” says the creator figure in “Changeling.”

Disgust, I think, is hard to make poetry out of—you say temporary things when you are disgusted, and in such moods it is best not to try to make points about humanity. In one of my favorite poems, “Parable of the tares,” though, the disgust deepens into a kind of acceptance, and Kingsnorth captures the fury and distraction of the masses living within a disintegrating system—it is a worthy successor to “Rearmament,” the Jeffers poem that gave the Dark Mountain project its name.
Nothing is permanent, everything pulling apart, cascading
away from the highest peaks. Vibrate the strings of this
   once green world
one final time, make merry, go with laughter
and with fury, almost-masters.
“Almost-masters”—there, I think, is the hand of a real poet. If there are only a few such moments in this book, that's more than most of us ever manage.

I wrote earlier that declining civilizations find ways to resist their own renewal, not only by how they treat artists but also by stunting and distracting the public that might encounter the ideas these thinkers produce. The machinery of distraction, though, requires resources, and eventually it comes apart along with everything else. As the official narrative frays, once marginal ideas begin to get a hearing. Many of these ideas will be crazy; the Dark Mountain Project and Kingsnorth are not. They strike me as some of the few people looking at our likely future with open eyes. As a poet, Kingsnorth is still finding his voice, but he is walking down a genuine path and has my gratitude.

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