In a quote that recently made the rounds on Twitter, Tumblr, and the poetry internet-sphere, Bertolt Brecht quipped, “You can’t write poems about the trees when the woods are full of policemen.” The quote is often used to (rightfully) criticize poetry that worships monolithic, apolitical notions of natural beauty, ignoring the state violence present in daily existence. However, it also implies that writing about trees somehow precludes the presence of sociopolitical realities, situating the forest as some kind of utopic Arcadian haven.
Cody-Rose Clevidence’s collection Beast Feast—which reveals the woods to be a site of ecological contamination, economic oppression, and white supremacy—suggests that this assumption is false. While Beast Feast locates us in a rural space, it’s not a Glückian garden of talking flowers; rather, Clevidence’s writing hinges upon the assumption that capitalistic violence permeates the forest and, especially, the Romantic rhetoric that we use to talk about rural life. If Emerson theorized an ecopoetic tradition oriented around the transparent eyeball, Clevidence manifests a razoring open of the eye (and the I) à la Un Chien Andalou, rupturing the fantasy of the bodiless subject, as well as the heteronormative, patriarchal hierarchies always embedded within the Romantic gaze. Clevidence’s poems are the blood and fragmented bits of cornea that drip from Emerson’s mangled socket, creating a radically queer language that encompasses queer theory, scientific and ecological diction, internet-age abbreviations, raunchy puns, and older aesthetic idiosyncrasies we might associate with a Romantic poet like John Clare. In effect, the language congeals into an uneasily signifying stream that resists static textures and temporalities:
o my doe sweet as grass-
fed beef o my lily-white
ass & lucre shined eye-
bright my golden god damn-
nation o my love
salt in the nostrils &
mud in yr stud Orion
While Clevidence’s poems resist any notion of normative beauty, they gesture towards a frenzied rapture, a gender-fucked ecstasy that I swear approximates some kind of universal joy while simultaneously shitting gleefully upon all universalisms:
<<O value, weigh me, wrap me in yr dazzling pulsing blanket of numbers
like a thousand blinking stars. I will transverse yr peaks & gullies, bathe in
yr streams, drink from yr springs & eat the hyper-ripened fruit of your symbolic trees.>>
let’s cast aside these castrated lilies, slip out of this graceful masculinity, what idyll is rough-hewn from raw cement, what cash is pure, what baboon erects a monument to god—a monument of coin.
Much of Beast Feast is concerned with the relationship between queerness and signification—in the sense of reconfiguring the relationship between subject and object, between signifier and signified, “human” and “animal,” disturbing the Cartesian hierarchies that drive post-Enlightenment ecological thought. At its most alluring moments, Clevidence’s language actually enacts the collection’s preoccupation with the slipperiness of signification: words and phrases are redacted, ruptured, melting into each other, creating a tension between text- as-signifier and text’s uneasy (dis)contents:
: LOAM EATER : LEAKT OPTICS FROM A SPIGOT : OXALIC : UNZONED
UNARCHETYPE UNLEGALY TENDER : & YET TENDER : UNPASTURIZED
: UR RAMPANT ANARCHISM : LACED OR LACERATED FACE : SLUT
OF THE MEADOW : U TRASH U UNBROKEN : THICKET : THICKLY HELD
a state of nature
a natural State
The wordplay of the above passage manifests a semiotic dissonance. “Tender” becomes associated with both currency and tenderness, evoking the close relationship between love and consumption that exists under late capitalism. “Lace”—which we might associate with delicacy or normative beauty—is only a few letters away from the ferocity of “lacerate,” foregrounding the violence implicit in language and the Romantic gaze. And what, ultimately, presents the misogynistic realities of the pastoral—both its Golden Age horniness, and gendered conceptions of “nature”—more accurately than “slut of the meadow”?
About halfway through Beast Feast, an otherwise blank page states, “THIS IS THE FOREST.” What follows is a series of poems with a substantial amount of text—some letters, some symbols; some transitive, some not—arranged in symmetrical columns running across the pages. In these poems, text is revealed to not merely function as a signifier for the forest, but as a forest in itself, an indeterminate living field whose boundaries are ultimately delineated by human hierarchies (not unlike the anthropocentric conception of nature). I’m reminded of Emerson’s assertion that a work of art is “the result or expression of nature, in miniature.” But whereas Emerson’s claim posits a hierarchy between the “reality” of nature and the “artificial” status of the art object (i.e., the artist serves a mimetic role), this boundary doesn’t exist in Clevidence’s poems, which foreground the physical status of the text. They’re an ecology in themselves, a textual appendage growing out from the body, from the forest (the book is, after all, made from the resources that the forest provides).
One of the “forest” poems, “[ZYG],” functions nearly like an aesthetic statement for the book. Beginning with a claim that “Queerne //ssnecessi // tatesarad // icalizedl // anguage,” the poem theorizes how queerness might reconfigure our understanding of ecologies and “natural” beauty. But if queerness itself exists in opposition to universalisms and stable taxonomies, Clevidence’s poem perhaps encourages us to distrust the conventions of academic discourse and the theoretical treatise. The typographical arrangement makes reading Judith Butler seem easy, and it also disturbs the inherently teleological nature of most academic writing. The text is meandering, and the absence of paragraphs makes it impossible for the claims to have any stable rhetorical ordering. As a result, the poem gestures without making any static conclusions, maintaining the flux explicit in notions of queerness.
Clevidence approaches this same tension in the recurring poems throughout the book that play with the diagrammatic language of the dictionary definition:
gilt ver. (f) lisped river [heal’t] wide crop to vulture “cashmere” battled-
over & unzipped carcass-relation earthward hulk. in sno-blue be a pretty
boy, spin. this ugly harp erodes the acred realm I built a palace in. f. only.
[aspen & quake] yr “dire” need eat dirt
As far as oppressive taxonomical language goes—its obsession with gendering, with stringent rules—nothing is quite as severely precise as the dictionary definition. This is, of course, related to why our dads don’t understand the concept of preferred pronouns, and it’s maybe why my writing students always begin their essays with dictionary definitions (e.g., “Dictionary.com defines friendship as…). Taxonomy is foundational to the way that institutions encourage us to think about language, ensuring the stability of cultural hierarchies and the status quo. By utilizing the definition form, Clevidence works from inside the space of confinement. The word is given no more primacy than its definition; the definition revolts and refracts, rotting into the soil and decomposing into new definitions.
Like language, the forest ultimately fails to be a container. But if it can signify anything in these poems, it’s a queer space that resists anthropocentric and capitalistic dominance—it is, ultimately, a space of wildness, of ecstasy, of BEASTLINESS, where the signifier doesn’t fully signify, where transitivity and the heteronormative, patriarchal control of language can be relinquished, allowing the cart to freely fly from the heights of a grassy knoll, careening through idyllic hills and streams saturated with run-off waste. Beast Feast’s title appropriately invokes the “beast,” a fauna category predating the more stable Cartesian hierarchies implied in the post-Enlightenment conception of “the animal.” Clevidence creates a space that queers imperialistic dominance, where hierarchies erupt, where the beasts—both human and not—feast freely on each other on an equal plane, choosing bedlam and excrement over rationalism. (“Mark Antony: O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,/And men have lost their reason.”) But while Clevidence depicts the forest as a site of ecstasy, it isn’t regenerative or purified—in their poems, rural space is directly connected to commerce, to economic violence, to a legacy of colonialism and oppressive whiteness:
I have an entire handful of dirt probably with some shit in it & the work of many generations of worms • there is some myx in my nectar • this lush inheritance • forest growed on “such strange fruit” • on such mass migrations • how can we even • at all • how can I • the clearing is thick w. pre-existing forest
In this passage, Clevidence touches upon a tension that is identifiable—or should be identifiable—for any contemporary white poet whose aesthetic identity is oriented around notions of ruralness or hickness. And as a white dude poet from the country who claims “ruralness,” this tension is something I think about a lot. (I specify white poets here, because we have the privilege not to ask these questions.) By claiming a regionalist orientation, how do we keep from reifying the violence of the country/city binary (c.f. Wendell Berry)? How do we work to reject the Romantic gaze? How do we work against the problematic hierarchies that facilitate racialized, economic, anthropogenic, and gendered inequality in the first place? I feel fortunate to be part of a broader poetic community filled with poets—like Cody-Rose Clevidence, Abraham Smith, Tim Earley, Shelly Taylor, and the recently departed C.D. Wright; like the poets published in The Arcadia Project—who don’t default to viewing rural spaces as either abject or idyllic, who interrogate the inequalities particular to the country without disconnecting them from urban contexts, from intersectional inequity.
At their absolute best, Clevidence’s poems feel, finally, like the product of joy—and this, in my mind, should be the end goal of experimental writing: an exploration of language’s liberating, dirty, illogical bliss. In its giddy adventurousness, Beast Feast is a far cry from, say, the disinfected nature of so much bloodless conceptual writing, as well as the sterile post-avantisms that aren’t ultimately too different from Bread Loaf / Stegner fuckery. Clevidence collapses the supposed divide between affect and intellect, between heady poetry and somatic writing—and for this, I’m truly grateful. I love this book.