Review of Janet Kauffman’s in-class discussion of ‘Eco-dementia’ (9/26/17)

By: Adam Malinowski


“i believe any string of words put together makes meaning” — Kauffman, at Emu, 9/26

the image of the fish (or, the logic of k=q=e) is the magical manifesto of Janet Kauffman’s Eco-dementia, a book of poems where all things—language, life, and all beings—are equal. Kauffman’s poetics nestle language thick inside the ecology of the physical world we all inhabit, but are quickly losing touch with, quickly forgetting, as we deepen our de-realization with life, the body, and the infinite bodies within and beyond us, committing ourselves (those of us plugged into the techno-capitalist machine, the majority of us) to technological alienation. Kauffman’s critique of positivist technological utopianism was best summarized when she stated, “physicality is much more important than meaning.” Meaning being the universal sign, the rationalist logic of the prevailing sexist, racist, homophobic, and imperialist social order. The body is in opposition, always & already, to this logic of domination. The body lies still in a thicket, in wildflowers and wild weeds, laying still beneath the sound of geese flying south in October. Delayed migratory patterns. Delayed apprehension of the materialist logic of late capital, misunderstood best in the deep seat of the thicket.

“Caught between rocks, the blue

mud ushers in

glacial till.” (p. 4)

Language is an aural medium for Kauffman. Perhaps she herself is a medium of sorts; her poems are best understood as spells, operating w/in a magical logic of associative verse and making something happen in the world that otherwise is imperceptible. Kauffman previously worked with an environmentalist group in lower Michigan that lobbied Lansing politicians to change pollution laws (her farm is somewhere along the watershed of the Maumee river, which connects to Lake Erie, and experiences huge algae blooms due to industrial pollution). although k=Kauffman knows her poems won’t change policy, she begs the question: on what level can they effect change, on what level are they affecting? Kauffman’s poetry, in her own words, is an assemblage of language tantamount to the “collections of talismans people places on their windowsills”—for Kauffman, poetry is memorious and felt, guiding our way, like crystal magic does, through the loss of contact with the physical world (home reduced to 4 walls and a front door) into the expansiveness of the planet as home, where our shared ethic is invisibility.

Kauffman’s poems are also informed not just by the loss of contact with the world, but by her own loss, the death of her father, who lived at the end of his life with dementia. her father would never know where his home was, and neither do we. place is not the highway, not the car, not the suburb, or the city. it is the ecosystem that underpins our artificial environs, the biosphere that sustains us all, that we are currently placing in peril. what grows at the side of the freeway? herbs and flowers and bushes and waterfowl and wildlife and kinds of trees. someone once told me St. john’s wart, an herb to ward off depression, is often found at the sides of Midwestern highways. the earth responds, poetry responds, but do we? only under conditions of immense psychological change, do we begin to respond differently. Kauffman felt less in grief about her father than she spoke about him in awe. The way he saw the world was not inaccurate, but less easily understood to humans living in present reality. Rather, Kauffman suggests, he may have seen the world in a less filtered, less mediated way. He would see things that were not “there,” or comment on things “not going on.” The poems respond similarly—to that which we cannot see, but which are, in fact, part of our reality.

—> in this sense, the poems are interventionary.

“because nothing makes a sound not one of us

animals in the end behind walls even the air

drowned out mouths open in every cell” (p. 47)

This poem (c. 2004), written under conditions of personal illness, rampant corporate pollution in lower Michigan, and the horrors of U.S.-sponsored torture in Abu Ghraib overseas, in particular, not just responds to these events, but if we take the poem as a discrete spell, a discrete aural and linguistic event, intervenes in our reality (or in reality), shaping our heads and twisting our brains, giving us new sense, like all good poems ought to do. My question now is: who do these poems ask us to become?