A version of this paper was first shared at the 2019 Association for the Study of Literature and Environment Conference on the Vegetal Feminist Experimental Creation roundtable organized by Caitlin McIntyre and Kellie Sharpe with co-panelists Jeannette Schollaert, Mirja Lobnik, Hanwei Shi and Yugon Kim.
We may look to the work of contemporary experimental women and non-binary writers for how they live, think and write with vegetal life. Amanda Ackerman and Gerbera Daisy, Janice Lee and moss, Harryette Mullen and jacaranda, Emji Spero and mycelium, and Maya Weeks and seaweed all ask us to rethink our lives as a radical relationality living with humans and nonhumans alike.
Here I focus my reading on Amanda Ackerman’s The Book of Feral Flora, a poetic compendium – a medley of narrative prose, poetry, plants, flowers, botanicals, gardens, gender, sexuality, ecological urgency – feral in its gathering of different forms and modes of making.
Feral also in its call, an invitation to notice the worlding around us. Reading Ackerman’s text expanded my already amplified attention to the renewed plant life taking place this summer in Los Angeles. We are in a super bloom. We are in multiple super blooms – with flowers, blossoms, buds, biota many of us haven’t seen in years of drought: this fire state. On my daily walks, I notice wild and cultivated growth, native and succulent gardens, California poppies in small patches everywhere, yucca on hillsides, bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, alive. As I open to new perceptions and relationships in my environment, I’m increasing aware of personal and shared biochemical-emotional changes and how these blooms affect our moods and ability to connect with one another – human to human; human with living others. I offer this as a reader response of sorts: how reading Ackerman’s book is a practice of attunement, asking me to be differently in and with the world.
Ackerman’s work is a feminist poetics of plant-human relations with poems written by the poet and poems written by plants. The Table of Contents cues us to plant presence with titles, “Clearing and Preparing Landscape. ‘Weed Course.’” and “Emerging Buds. ‘One Heart Is Better Than No Heart.’” It likewise introduces plant authorship, with rewritten Tables of Contents on the following pages titled: Table of Contents Written By Iris and Table of Contents Written By Morning Glory and Table of Contents Written By Iris (Later in the Day). An excerpt of the latter reads:
In an affective and literary practice, Ackerman’s engagement with plants includes scent, ingestible essences, touch, being-with, and technology. She writes, communing with iris by drinking iris infused tea and contemplating the iris, we could say she writes collaboratively, Amanda imbued by iris –
Shifting her body via sensory engagement, Ackerman’s practice is ritual and radical receptivity. She tunes into subtlety, sensitivity, and also faith, in energies and exchange between humans and nonhumans. When I imagine her writing practice, I enter a different pace, a slowing down from hyper speeds, what might be a refusal to move at momentums that tune us out from everything but the blur of city-labor life.
I hear Luce Irigaray’s discussion of her own convening-with and her claims that to build “a relational world,” we begin with “silence […] crucial for being-with, without domination or subjection.” It is, she states, “the first dwelling for coexisting in difference,” experiencing “the energy potential that sharing with another living being might bring to [one].” Irigaray’s call to convene suggests, be quiet, attentive, intentional, in a with-ness that recognizes alternative, non-oppressive ways of living in the world. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson lists plant recognition that “is about presence, about profound listening, and about recognizing and affirming the light in each other as a mechanism for nurturing and strengthening internal relationships to our Nishnaabeg worlds.” In “Asters and Goldenrod,” Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, “My natural inclination was to see relationships, to seek the threads that connect the world, to join instead of divide.”
In The Book of Feral Flora, Ackerman’s depicted scenes of encounter are what Vinciane Despret might call “affected and affecting bodies” together creating “a beautiful case of influence.”
Beautiful with all its serious feminist stakes at the fore. Ackerman’s plant poetics and its committed with is a with integral to feminist politics – as a challenge to patriarchal hierarchies that differently value humans and nonhumans, to how knowledge is made, and to our current interlocking capitalist-ecological-nationalist-racist crises. The Book of Feral Flora’s with-ness de-centers masculinist conceptions of “the human” and all that continues to cling to it.
Instead, Ackerman’s text enacts ways of relating otherwise, embodying feminism as a questioning praxis that might help us get somewhere and somehow other than where and how we are now. The text’s imperative to transform our relations is intimately connected to Ackerman’s feminist poetics as experimental poetics: writing known to trouble received forms via questioning language use and meaning. Language itself is not a given but rather a site of impasse and possibility and, as Ackerman’s text avows, it can be one way for humans and plants to relate to each other. Languaging is a compositional practice that posits language as a way for humans and plants to relate. For Ackerman’s The Book of Feral Flora, language is key to the with-ness.
In a closing “Process Note,” Ackerman explains that after she wrote her poems imbued by irises, she recorded herself reading the poems and sent them to poet-programmer Dan Richert in Michigan. Dan “created the technologies that allowed the plants to rewrite the pieces by responding to the sound frequencies of [her] voice.” What this looks like: small sensors on various plants, perceiving Ackerman’s text, creating their own compositions via their electrical impulse to write their own poems.
The book’s section “Feral Iridium Animate Matter: flowery uneconomical language” presents a series of these poems. “Shipping” written by Ackerman-communing-with-iris begins a series of poems also titled “Shipping”:
It opens with the line “I bring the irises to the iris,” signaling likeness in difference, the eye’s iris to the plant iris, followed by sentences as lists. The first is spatial, architectural, describing the speaker looking at the iris. More sentence lists follow. The lines move with words conjuring music, painting, invention. Driven by sonic relations, “sparks” to “arc” to “a chord” “a canvas,” we are in the realm of poetic making propelled by the language. In the closing lines the “I” subject returns to describe an exchange: “I give. I beckon […] I bear” with a wish for the future “I hope to see the birth of gentler children.” In a book that repositions a human “I” to a being-with, the poem ends with “I” and an expanse –
Other “Shipping” poems include: Written by Peppermint, Written by Peppermint (later in the day), Written by Privet, Written by Privet (later in the day), Written by Iris, Written by Iris (later in the day):
Ackerman’s poetics ask us to think about plants and language in ways that trouble a binary that places language on the side of humans versus all non-human others. Further, the book’s poems by plants trouble the idea of an ‘outside’ of the linguistic as the only site of human-plant relations.
I think about Ackerman’s attention to language alongside others doing related work. Mel Chen’s project “to [recover] the alchemical magic of language [and the] “ways that it animates humans, animals, and things in between.” They examine how language oppresses when ordered according to animacy hierarchies that rank humans according to dominant criteria and along a line “running from human, to animal, to vegetable, to stone.” Eduardo Kohn’s challenge to the idea that language, as representation and communication, is a human-only activity. Instead, Kohn suggests, language, as a system of representation, communication, and meaning making, “is part and parcel of the living world beyond the human.” adrienne maree brown’s activist engagement with plants and other nonhuman forms shows what they may teach us about living better together in our increasingly dire political-social-ecological emergency.
I close with a turn to another text by Ackerman:
In a 2010 pamphlet titled Theory of Language, Ackerman writes, “we need language and it needs us. We are in a time of ecological quickening and imbalance.” She calls for us to “begin the process of creating ecologies of language.” Imagine, she says to the reader, “the world will be able to teach us, and us the world.” Her text is theory-as-call-to-action, both positing and asking for a return to language as mutuality, as bridge, as ongoing consent and connection.
Amanda Ackerman, Theory of Language, eohippus labs, 2010.
Amanda Ackerman, The Book of Feral Flora, Les Figues Press, 2015.
adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy, AK Press, 2017.
Mel Y. Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect, Duke UP, 2012.
Vinciane Despret, “The Body We Care for: Figures of Anthropo-zoo-genesis,” Body & Society, 2004
Luce Irigaray, Through Vegetal Being: Two Philosophical Perspectives, Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder, Columbia UP, 2016
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Milkweed Editions, 2014.
Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human, University of California Press, 2013.
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance, Minnesota UP, 2017.