Imagine thus the pond:
There is a tongue under the water.

(Dan Beachy-Quick, “This Nest, Swift Passerine”)

The anthology The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral, edited by Joshua Corey and G.C. Waldrep, takes on an ambitious task. Its aim is no less than the reformulation of the pastoral for contemporary times, and, while there are flaws in the outcome, the book itself is rich, complex and inventive. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetic Forms designates as the “pastoral”:

a fictionalized imitation of rural life . . . ; its ends are sometimes sentimental and romantic, but sometimes satirical and political . . . . Only when poetry ceases to imitate actual rural life does it become distinctly pastoral.

In keeping with this, the overall focus of the poems that emerges from the The Arcadia Project is not the landscape–not the pastoral space–but rather the ways in which language is limited in this imitative function, serving as both barrier and access point to what is outside the human, outside the “I.”

Ahsahta Press. 576 pages. 2012.

Ahsahta Press. 576 pages. 2012.

As stated by Corey in his introduction, these are largely lyric poems, and although they are poems of individual subjectivity, they are constantly outward looking–the few poems from an “I” perspective are outnumbered by those of the “you,” the “we,” or those eschewing pronouns entirely. There are also dominant modes of form appearing throughout the book: of the 126 poems, approximately 40 were prose poems, and a remarkable number of all poems were litanies and list-based poems. Those not in prose or litanies often took the form of an Armaetrout-ish column, and, especially in the second section of the text, the influence of Language poetry is overwhelming. This is not to say that any of these are necessarily bad poems, but that, in an anthology studded by poems of formal inventiveness and rare innovations in diction, it edges towards repetitiveness despite its over 500 pages. It would have been interesting to hear from the editors whether these features of the book were products of the period (all poems selected are from after 1995), or deliberate editorial choices.

Corey goes some way to acknowledging the bent of the collection in his introduction, stating, “because this is an anthology of poems, its primary orientation, its allegiance, must be to the aesthetic, to the movements of language and the imagination,” but I would have liked to see the idea of “aesthetic” widen out beyond the lyric mode to be interrupted at times by narrative or poems of a more personal “I.”

Some other critics have called into question the scarcity of introductory material and the use of the four sections–“New Transcendentalisms,” “Textual Ecologies,” “Local Powers,” and “Necro/Pastoral”–as an organizing principal for the book. Indeed the anthology and sections could be explained in greater detail, but I did not find that they needed to be; although it treads a fine line, one of the joys for me in this anthology was the work left to me as a reader in creating my own understandings of these terms.

“New Transcendentalisms” is comprised of poems investigating the legacy of the American Transcendentalists. Accordingly these are poems of reverence, using language to fuse the human with the natural, as in Timothy Donnelly’s “In His Tree”:

To surrender to it means you taste its invincibility
deliquescing in your dune-dry mouth, its properties

becoming yours, as when vigilant in a cherry tree
one converts into the branches, the drooping downy-
undersided leaves, the frail umbrella-like flowers
and impending fruit, until you forget what you were
watching for to begin with, the need to know now
culminating not in dominance, not in control, but liberty.

When we move into “Textual Ecologies,” language largely ceases being connective, and the poems turn towards examining the artifice of language–the separation between word and semantic. The fragment is the unit of composition here, as in Michelle Taransky’s “Barn Burning, An Eclogue”:

Have divorced a few apple trees with no ideas

About red
As if it has two mother

Languages–they are the bad pruners
The unhorse
Crediting the no

From the destabilization of language that occurs in “Textual Ecologies,” “Local Powers” offers a radical, and welcome, re-envisioning of what exactly constitutes our local environment. As a reader, when I encounter something called “Local Powers” I immediately assume it to be populated with poems of particular geographic spaces. Yet from the first poem in the section, Jennifer Moxley’s lovely “The Sense Record,” the local comes to mean our human selves, our immediate environment: our body. What is then troubled in this section is the idea of the ecological self. The human is both kept separate from the natural as a textual body and approached as an environment. It is one of the more surprising and interesting turns the anthology takes.

After occupying the human self of “Local Powers,” in “Necro/Pastoral” the gaze is directed towards the man-made world. Taking its heading from Joyelle McSweeney’s “Arcadia, or, Anachronism: A Necropastoral Effigy,” this section is indeed about death, the outcome of human consumption, climate change and environmental destruction. While some of these poems tend closer to the didactic than those in the other sections, Jane Sprague’s “Politics of the Unread” is beautifully rhythmic and forceful depiction of a world where

response–an utterance
what words do rise up in iris
flipped gaze the mimic
to stutter arctic–or just tic
a long thigh a long thick
finger of grease
spill leak from something
these monstrous yachts
doth offend thee oh evermore
than any Ulsan oil seep

In his introduction Corey quotes Shelley: “We want that creative faculty to imagine that which we know,” and the best poems of the anthology live up to this maxim. What is immensely successful and satisfying about the book is when different forms and dictions are used to wrestle the familiar into the fresh. Brian Teare’s “Transcendental Grammar Crown” is an example of this. Opening with a series of epigraphs from Transcendentalists, the poem is an intertextual fractured sonnet crown that is in direct dialogue with Emerson, Thoreau, Ives, Fuller and E.D., while simultaneously investigating the sonnet form, as in the section “Sonnet” where he writes:

–no monument                  no moment                  no human

passion                                    just spider’s fiber                  cantilevered.

Similarly the best of the litany poems, Juliana Spahr’s long “Gentle Now, Don’t Add to the Heartache,” can be read in the shadow of Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and “Song of Myself,” except here Spahr celebrates how “we learned and we loved the black sandshell, the ash, the American bittern, the harelip sucker, the yellow bullhead, the beech” and so on, only to describe their loss. In section four she writes, “we let into our hearts the brackish parts of it also. / Some of it knowingly,” and then the listing changes to man-made, the “run off from agriculture, surface mines forestry home wastewater treatment systems, constructions sites, urban yards, and roadways into our hearts.” The end of the poem is an extraordinary lament:

          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!

The power of this poem is the fusion of the loss of poetic heritage with the speaker’s separation from the natural world.

Undergirding Spahr’s poem is a specificity of diction. Many of the other poems of the anthology share this trait in rewarding ways. Often the diction is a scientific one; the entire anthology is a study of how to integrate the sciences into poetry. Some poems are perhaps too technical, or the combination of clinical tone with this diction leaves the poem a little flat. But when the diction is deployed successfully the results are rich, unusual poems. Such is the case in Peter O’Leary’s “The Phosphorescence of Thought,” where the scientific diction becomes a way of elevating the natural into prayer:

a kestral’s fovea has
one million cones and each photoreceptive cell
directly represents its data in the brain. Imagine
the words of your thoughts dropping from your ears onto
the pavement, piled there.

and later:

Hermit thrushes’ spooking ghostflow through the underbrush.
Flocked starlings’ geometric detonations
inspired like fireworks. Migration’s notes:
the woods’ logophragous originator, song.

For all its limitations, The Arcadia Project is a vital book, overflowing with lyrical verve and ambition. It drives the conversation forward, not just on what the pastoral might constitute in contemporary times, but demands we play closer attention to how poetry as a whole can interact with what lies beyond the poet.

Caitlin Maling