Tuesday, November 03, 2009

475. Poem Entitled "Untended Cemeteries" Revealed Through Mike Davis Writing and Landscapes Class at University of California, Riverside

The PDF of the poem "Untended Cemeteries" can be found here: http://sites.google.com/site/stokastika2/untendedcemetariesPOEMFINAL.pdf.

It's funny to think I wrote this poem back in June of 2009 but I wasn't really excited, nor eager to share it with anyone, perhaps because I sincerely felt that I as the author am expecting the reader to be in tune with environmental details. Perhaps because I am expecting some form of natural science background such that the reader would appreciate the comparisons and metaphors that unite the entire streamline of poetic thought. In short, the formation of this poem began when my housemates Karl and Kyle asked me to "prune and clean around this tropical plant in the dark, back corner of our backyard." Boy, I didn't know I was going to delve into a rabbithole, physical and mental! Apparently this tropical plant with extremely large leaves and very sticky sap/xylem/phloem in its branches had not been tended to for at least 3 years. There had been an extensive accumulation of layers upon layers of dead leaves, tangles of rope-like vines, all coated with damp-goopy dust-muck, with bonus strata of spider webs with no orderly shapes.

That was it. That was the ultimate spark. My mind went down the rabbithole. The theme was DEATH, more specifically HOW ORGANISMS RELATE TO THE DEAD BIOMASS of their own kind, humans included. I have come to realize throughout all these ecosystems I have been in outside of the human world, most organisms are pretty sloppy about their tending to their dead. I was particularly shocked by the "cemeteries of living among the dead" in kelp forests--living EATING the dead... cannibalism... how unethical! Biomass is recycled in the ocean, largely, seemingly through the profession of "scavenger" and in terrestrial plant ecosystems, recycling relationships between living and dead seem to be more "biogeochemical," in which there is decomposition and other mediating abiotic factors aiding the process (e.g. wildfire).

And then I make reference to "frugal" burials as to which my best Chinese friend Talei referred me to--how several people in China are buried face-down in mudswamps in faraway mountains. And speaking of mudswamps... such an environment led to my reference to the very recent discovery of a mummified baby mammoth, who was presumed to have croaked in swamp like environment. Sometimes taphonomy creates LAGERSTATTEN MOSQUITO-AMBER-SAP CIRCUMSTANCES in which a fossil almost serves to be a CRYSTAL BALL to the past (not included in poem, dangit).

And then my mind drifts into HUMAN ABSURDITY--"tended cemeteries" within our lifespan, in which emotions and memories run rampant and wild in our heads, and so we don't cannibalize our dead grandparents, and laying them to rest in a box or a pile of ashes at some tree is essentially a form of our own "resting of our minds, our souls" through the passing of a "loved one." It seems from here, four options can happen: (1) if you're in a graveyard, you will be dug up by anthropologists a few hundred years from now, or by aliens a few million years from now (when all emotions and memories no longer exist in any living head, depends on your degree of preservation, must choose wisely your "natural burial site" some good basin with rapid deposition of sediments, a geologist would know), might end up in a museum, cool (2) you might instantly become mummified and be a part of the Bodyworks show (not included in poem) (3) if you're cremated, you become "ecologically reincarnated" into the system from a biogeochemical perspective (I referred to ecological reincarnation only once in Blog 350 (which included sketch descriptions of my grandfather's passing). My father told me that Ray's and Marion's (my grandparents) ashes are mostly made of calcium and they will dissolve in the winter rains and snow fast enough.

It's funny. I wrote this poem before my immediate family (Bub, Mumsy, JenJen) had a formal memorial for my grandfather Ray (up in the sugar pine behind the cabin) and grandmother Marion (by the incense cedar to the right side of the cabin). I'm sure if I wrote the poem afterwards, I may have approached it a little differently... or even added a little more information. An affiliated poem I wrote post-grandparents-memorial is "Death of Anonymous Meaning" (Blog 453).

A couple of other points I didn't include in the poem. (1) I removed a stanza about the "efficiency of ecological reincarnation." I would feel good feeling instantly useful to the rest of the ecosystem as soon as I croaked. (2) My housemate Kyle brought up the point of "untended nurseries." I think from his point of view, Kyle was emphasizing the notion that organisms just "accept the environment around them as a default, a given. Organisms in general don't "tend the environment," or at least at the SCALE that humans do. I feel that we humans are discrediting other organisms in terms of their degree of "maintenance and constructionism" of their environments. Other organisms are by default "landscape planners" and "engineers" of their environments, intentionally or unintentionally. Default examples are primates using stick tools, beavers building dams, birds building nests, most mammals rearing and tending to their young, ants building underground colonies, gophers building tunnel networks. All of these activities require construction and maintenance. And by default, an organism occupying space, consuming resources, pooping out wastes, and replicating, is BY DEFAULT, engineering their environments. Simple biological existence requires engineering, with varying degrees of tending. So? I have not been motivated to write an "untended nurseries" poem, even after three months time. Oh well.

So, I'm posting this poem simply because I was so stimulated when being immersed in Dr. Mike Davis' "landscapes and writing" graduate creative writing course at the University of California, Riverside. It's tragic that I didn't have a chance to attend the class earlier, but at least I'm being exposed now. I was fairly quiet with the class. I was, as Jules would say, "Reading the Conditions," figuring out the composition of students of the class. And I DO SAY, I AM IMPRESSED. THIS TRULY IS A GRADUATE COURSE. This writing is by far a step beyond the writing I have been exposed to at the undergraduate Creative Studies courses I've sat in at UC Santa Barbara. What a fresh breath of mental air. Good brain pollution this evening. Very good. No one really seemed to mind my presence. Diverse group in the class. I am amazed by the use of humor, satire, wit by most everyone. I was more impressed by the male writers than female writers thus far. One piece stood out fairly well as an overall stand alone of all factors, substance + consistent style; it was a modern description of Venice Beach. Another article was about how some angry dude who was dumped by some ex-girlfriend bxtch and was therefore angrily traveling along the Route 66. Though he had adjectivious supersaturation, I thought the ex-girlfriend added solid motivation to the story, and he had some brilliant anthropomorphizing of his technologies--his beaten up truck and his cell phone. Three brilliant metaphors of the evening: (1) describing the Missouri landscape as "a pop-up book without the splendor." (2) describing Route 66 as the "birth canal for the west." (3) identifying insects on windshield wipers and car windows based on "splatter patterns" talk about hilarious taphonomy! studying the death of organisms!

I noticed how I felt and where I was at in terms of "environmental writing" and other people's baselines. I am beginning to notice "states of consciousness" of my inner thoughts. The state of highest consciousness is when my mind creates a system and a story that is a completely alternate reality--which lives up to Picasso's "art is a lie to help us realize the truth" comment. So, my mind has currently "left this Planet Earth" into these alternate realms of higher consciousness. So any form of description of an outing, like, "I went to this street in Fontana and saw this and that and here's a sprit of satirical humor, and then I called my friend and went to that street that had this landfill with a flower on top and it was profound, and here's another interpretational sprit." My writing was like that--an inventory of everyday events with sparse interpretation--that was back when I was 18-19 years old, but I'm still seeing this pattern among a few students in the class--they're still very "inventory-descriptional" with their writings, and perhaps overloaded with adjectives (which makes it pseudointerpretational). I guess that's called "flowery writing." It made me come to realize that from age 18 to today, my "final draft writing" has become more and more "interpretational" than descriptional. And it compounds; it's additive. So each piece of writing, seems to become more and more dense. And when I have a story still rooted to planet Earth, like The Mountain's Last Flower, I packed it with as much surrealistic metaphor as possible, within means of controlled exaggeration, of course! My head is in such an alterate universe that my capacity to "retain memory of regional details, like names of plants and birds and sedimentary rocks" has been in this "unretrievable" dormant section of my mind.

An older, trendy-looking man sitting right next to me shared Mike's Syllabus and Basic Definitions for the course. The first few lines in the syllabus prompted my reference to Untended Cemeteries. If you dug underground from where you were standing, what would you find? With our shoves, we are digging our way home... in the landscapes our minds, our hearts. Some themes that kicked in right away: (1) most creative writers are character and plot driven, the setting sucks "lazy, thin descriptions" and non-interactive (2) "landscape" is a central word and basically goes based on my premise "the environment is a construct of your mind" (3) landscape ecology is the investigation of "what is" (e.g. Environmental Impact Reports) and landscape planning is the imagination of "what ought to be" based on "what is" (e.g. Bulldozing and House Building) aka "purposeful intervention" or "engineering." (ecology more "objective" analysis "science" and planning is more "normative" value-ridden synthesis "art") (4) One thing NOT talked about is the "INNER LANDSCAPE" the interaction between the "inner landscape" emotions/rationale and the "outer landscape." (5) What is valued and appreciated in the class is predominantly the NOVEL and the UNEXPECTED, and CONSISTENCY-CONTINUITY-WITH PRECISION space-time-emotions-rationale. (6) Balancing personal experience with universal truths. (7) Visuals and words go hand-in-hand, writing a story is like the making of a painting. The Matrix of the Mind. Mapping Language on Landscapes (see this BLOG and this BLOG) (AND PLEASE SEE THIS BLOG).

I talked to my father El Bubsy this morning--I was so excited and enthusiastic about class last night that I walked around a bunch of streets with just my socks (no shoes), so they ended up acquiring a lot of dirt. I didn't talk much in class but my personal experience was that in the beginning of things, especially in high school, the concept of the "environment" and "nature" was some form of non-interactive "static backdrop." One big amorphous blob "out there" that had no inner personal connectivity. And over time, by hanging out with my dad and learning ecology and evolution at UC Santa Barbara, this big, static outer "nature blob" started to become this dynamic, interactive system, that had connections, relationships, interactivity with my own self and sense of existence. I started to acquire this "Matrix of the Mind: Mapping Language on Landscapes" type of thinking, I shut down my language brain and started to re-describe my sense of reality from a visual, cognitive mapping point of view. My resolution of the outer world and its connections to my inner universe started to become more and more connected and intertwined, highly resolved... the layers of the land, litho, hydro, bio... and the anthro world for sure... this whole matrix of interacting variables.... NOW... I just have to DRAW this sense of personal evolution... that's all.

Personal thoughts that came up:
(1) diffusion of social responsibility, viewing other humans as objects versus subjects (e.g. riding bike across campus at UC Riverside)
(2) evolution by collective action problems, Gaia-Medea-Phoenix effects (Blog 424)
(3) environmental CONTINGENCY of human behavior
(4) living in a Truman Show Bubble "eusocial ecological niche space" or log-log scale of reality
(5) inherited versus acquired traits, Darwinian versus Lamarckian evolution, have versus have-nots, people inherit property or resources versus earn and acquire them (Blog 336)
(6) the "shifting baseline syndrome" the notion that people live in a place without any context of this place's history or natural history is more so an "American construct;" whereas the GREEK CONSTRUCT of my mother is "I know my Greek history; it's so much to know and remember that I hate it all together."
(7) Words have a "usual context" and connotation in the English language, and you have to work very hard to take this word out of its usual context and make it meaningful and applicable to the story at hand (Barry Spacksisms).
(8) Relationships between setting, character, and plot. Most of the time the setting is close to non-existent, very immediate-proximate-surfacial "thin description" effect, and it's mostly the interaction between characters to drive plot. And then you have Cormac McCarthy... you have thicker, juicier descriptions of landscapes, but to what degree to they INTERACT/INFLUENCE the character and plot? Horses are very important in the film, and they essentially become "characters" because of the degree of interactivity. The highest degree of relationship-interactivity of setting is that a particular set of elements interact SO MUCH to a point in which these elements become major "characters" and agents that drive the plot (and this is what I strive for).

As I started to read Mike Davis' hand out on a brief history of the envisioned "agriculture/citrus and gardens" of southern California throughout the 1900s (early 1900s), I really started to see the synthetic, nonlinearity of Mike's mind. He perceives the "city" as an organism, a collectivity, a higher level of organization beyond individual human agents. A human coral reef, eh?. Where does this city-organism get its air? water? (Los Angeles River, Eastern Sierra, Colorado River) food supply? How does it settle (instead of being vagrant larvae)? And expand and grow, like a kid who drinks too much milk? And how does it REGULATE its growth? (More so a LACK of regulation... sigh). And this metaphor is extremely powerful--I even use it myself. Quite a bit. There are strong parallels in this "superorganismic quality" of cities, but not ENTIRELY parallel. So the CITY as an ORGANISM shall remain as a METAPHOR, and not a THEORY.

WHAT I AM FINDING MYSELF DOING HERE IS BEING EXPOSED TO NATURAL SCIENCES AS MY BASELINE, AS I AM BEING EXPOSED TO SOCIAL SCIENCE WORDS, I KEEP TRYING TO FIND NATURAL SCIENCE EQUIVALENTS. FOR EXAMPLE... WORDS TRANSCENDING NATURAL-SOCIAL SCIENCES. I wrote a lot about this in Blog 424, based on my experiences and observations of academic behavior at the Origins conference at Arizona State University. And here we go again... Cool word here: HEGEMONY is the dominance of one group over another, like IMPERIALISM (like overlapping lichens growing and competing for space on rocks; ha ha lichens and coral reefs are being hegemonious and imperialistic amongst each other, what a riot!). INCUMBENCY is prevailing spatial and temporal dominance of an entity on the landscape. Like bivalves and brachiopods. And so the list shall keep growing.... It's all back to the commonality of photoshopping reality and the adaptive grid model....

Another running theme of Mike Davis' course is how individuals establish IDENTITY relative to their environments/landscapes. Landscapes and identity, thank you! There are certain professions in which the landscape identifies you tremendously: being a rancher, cowboy, and fishermen for example. What else?

Some quotes:

"To be alive / and to know that you're alive / is the greatest thing / you could realize."
(fragment of Vic's Legacy poem)

"To carve a new trail / beyond your own home / beyond your own life / beyond your own space / beyond your own time." (fragment of Vic's Legacy poem)

"There's a mean bxtch at the bottom of every man's heart." (Mike Davis, in class)

"It's a classic trait to use 'the other sex' as a prime mover for human behavior." (Mike Davis, in class)

"Love is an American construct. The French and the Chinese don't believe in love." (Thank goodness I'm not the only one!)

"The fundamental principle of feminism. 'Women don't need men.'" (Mike Davis, in class, oh, now I get it!)

"Fear. It's an addiction." (Karl Thompson, geologist extraordinaire, exposing the roots of the male mind, and how I discovered that I was a "conservative adventurist")

"In American Literature, men are portrayed to operate mechanically: thinking [linearly?] with their brains and their gonads. British literature is different... most of the playwrights were closeted gays."

"I represent myself by editing the minds and lives of others." Victoria, the Savage Idea Thief and Film Documentarian. "What?! I end up being other cool people's secretary, because they ain't secretaries to themselves!"

Well, what can I say? Mike's course is pricking a lot of "dormant" ideas that need some tending to. I am excited to finally revisit and complete my thoughts... and one day weave them together into my next layer/level of coherence.

Environmental Writing/Ecopistemology Related Materials. See a Blog from Shelly Lowenkopf's Writing Group (Lion's Den) in Blog 283.

Key words: environmental writing, landscapes and writing, ecopistemology, poem, untended cemeteries, ecological reincarnation, life and death, phoenix, lagerstatten, human absurdity, ecological engineering, constructionism, Mike Davis, scale, brain pollution, landscape, landscape ecology, urban planning, landscape design, normative, unexpected, consistency, precision, matrix of the mind, mapping language on landscapes, Shelly Lowenkopf, nature, landscapes static, dynamic, city as an organism, natural-social science language equivalence, hegemony, imperialism, incumbency, landscapes and identity, identity and environment


Victoria "Stokastika" said...

I have a newly modified version of "Untended Cemeteries," with additional details and modifications, which can be found by venturing to this website: http://sites.google.com/site/stokastika2/untendedcemetariesPOEMFINAL2.pdf.This poem has a nontraditional spatial organization. I am a strong "believer" that reading needs to be a visual experience as well as a "language decoding" experience.

Victoria "Stokastika" said...

I encountered a Ph.D. student in History at the Starbucks in Riverside by the name of Stephanie Wilms, and she greatly encouraged me to bring a piece of writing to class. So I decided to print out Untended Cemeteries, which was read aloud in class by Caitlin? The way how it read made the poem sound very "technical." It seems I have been taking for granted that people know what "bryozoans" and "taphonomy" is. One student said the poem sounded "morbid," which it is.... Stephanie mentioned how the poem made comparisons of patterns of death among human systems and other organisms. Mike Davis had quite a few comments, all mostly positive: (1) promoting poetry that is unafraid of science, using your special skill or discipline and adding it to the field of creative writing (2) most good poets stretch associations and metaphors of the familiar, but adding metaphors of one's specialized discipline into creative writing invents a whole new ball game of associative creativity (3) death is a very complex subject, it's not a simple matter, many things recycle decay, some things preserved and unearthed and reexamined, and humans are downright ludicrous for creating the illusion of "tended cemeteries" (4) specific lines sticking out "unintended taphonomic experiments" and "cross-encrusted grave in a Grecian boneyard, though tidy and eyekept" (5) described as "spontaneous avante garde" poetry (6) Mike claimed that this type of poetry makes him feel "three feet tall"--oh come on! He claims not to be a great practitioner of poetry; I'm sure he's GREAT at it!

Victoria "Stokastika" said...

Barry Spacks also had a response to Untended Cemeteries. I wrote this poem in June as was a bit ashamed to show it to anyone because it is a bit technical. Barry enjoyed the poem, but he felt that the poem started for him on the third stanza with the China man in the mudswamps. I explained that the first stanza was like a thesis of investigating the relationships among the living and the dead. The second stanza was portraying a montage of locations in which most people see as "beautifully alive"--such as grasslands and kelp forests--and I was trying to re-describe them as more chaotic systems of "untended cemeteries," the living thriving off the dead. Barry also mentioned that the poem had an interesting suite of associations but "lacked a clear intent." I agree, there was a level of meandering of themes. Theme 1: exploring the relationships of living and the dead in human, biological, geological systems. Theme 2: modes of burial and use of the dead, humans bury their dead either in a cheap or expensive way (mudswamps or caskets), or ecologically reincarnate into the biogeochemical system through cremation, other organisms either consume the dead (kelp forest dynamics) or through physical processes, the living biomass recycles the dead biomass (grassland dynamics), Theme 3: the cool part is that with taphonomy, some dead systems end up being very highly preserved "taphonomic life," and end up becoming private and scientific curiosities for studying history, Theme 4: though humans seem to have "tended" cemeteries in the present generation, when all memories and emotions dissassociation, the future generations will dig up the boneyards once again for research....

Basically, I think writing this poem was a superb set up for writing a comparative humorous essay of the relative properties of death across all domains of life on earth.