Academic journal article Chicago Review

Ego and Eco: Saying "I" in Expressions of Sea Level

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Ego and Eco: Saying "I" in Expressions of Sea Level

Article excerpt

Expressions of Sea Level: about the sea level, or by the sea level? The first would be to take the title of A. R. Ammons's 1963 poetry volume as descriptive, or performative. The second would be to posit sea level as maker, in "the talk of giants, / of ocean, moon, sun, of everything, / spoken in a dampened grain of sand" ("Expressions of Sea Level"). The latter position is as ecologically sensitive as the former is traditional, Romantic, and potentially exploitative. Ammons seems to have heard it this way, too. In an interview in the Paris Review, he recalls one day when he was nineteen, sitting on the bow of a ship anchored in the South Pacific:

   I thought down to the water level and then to the immediately changed
  and strange world below the waterline. But it was the line inscribed
  across the variable land mass, determining where people would or
  would not live, where palm trees would or could not grow, that
  hypnotized me. The whole world changed as a result of an interior
  illumination--the water level was not what it was because of a single
  command by a higher power but because of an average result of a host
  of actions--runoff, wind currents, melting glaciers. I began to
  apprehend things in the dynamics of themselves--motions and
  bodies--the full account of how we came to be a mystery with still
  plenty of room for religion, though, in my case, a religion of what
  we don't yet know rather than what we are certain of. I was
  de-denominated. (1) 

"De-denomination" encompasses the loss of a name--or loss of the human power to name--as a consequence of thinking not from on high but, instead, down at water level and below. Seeing the world as if from its own perspective--"from the imagined vantage point," as Donald Reiman observes, "of other creatures and of the processes of nature" (2)--Ammons acquires a sudden understanding of its causes and fundamental conditions. In that moment, Ammons conceives of sea level as a living, kinetic organism, an event beyond scenery--not an object for the eye but rather an "I" in its own right, a self-directing dynamic around which the human would be consigned, peripherally. This model suggests one of the primary directives of ecopoetics, defined by Evelyn Reilly as "a search for a language congruent with a world that is not filled with objects or subjects, that is not 'the context,' nor 'the setting' for subjects or objects, but that is a permanent state of flux between subject-objects and object-subjects." Ethically necessary, ecopoetics "requires the abandonment of the idea of center for a position in an infinitely extensive net of relations." (3)

The ecopoetic agenda assumes an author's willingness to vanish into nature, in favor of the would-be background moving to the fore. But how far might an author consent to his removal before he has initiated his erasure? At times, Ammons seems happily aligned with the orientation that Reilly proposes, "another in a series of human decenterings" whereby "the self dissolves into the gene pool and the species into the ecosystem." But in early work like Expressions, to the degree that "his poetry explores the ecological balance points between the human self and nature," Ammons cannot but regard those points as precarious and often unbalanced. (4) Speaking of equilibrium: in the essay "Surfaces" (1974), in which he states that "writing poetry is like surfing," Ammons celebrates the poetic moment when "our own expressiveness is inseparable from all expressiveness," a harmony that hails from "waves in the self" coinciding with actual waves. The poet tries "to catch the wave," which is different from being consumed or subsumed: "We are not exactly swept away." If, however, "we miss," he cautions, lamenting the situation that ecopoetics would privilege, "we spill, and the poem ends in the confusion of grinding bottom, the surfboard tossed free and wild, the self made the object of, rather than the master of, forces greater than itself. …

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