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May 15, 2012

The Ecopoetics of Space in Snyder, Merwin, and Sze

By Jenny Morse

Environmental concerns are overwhelmingly concerns about space: Is there enough space for the expanding world population? Is there enough space to grow or raise the food supply that population requires? Is there enough space for our garbage? Our planetary space is limited, and the growing threats to that space require us to reconsider our relationship to that space and use of it. Ecopoetry has emerged as a poetic response to these growing environmental concerns. While the relationship of humans and nature has been a primary concern of lyric poets at least since Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798), and poets like Walt Whitman have made this relationship a central focus, ecopoetry, which is rooted in the environmental movement, aims to reconnect humans to nature in the face of a threatened world. Many critics have tried to define ecopoetry[i], and their varied assertions all reduce to a primary concern with representing the interdependent relationship between the human and non-human, and a secondary concern with impending environmental crises. Ecopoetry, then, seeks to reimagine the connections among living things in such a way as to encourage activism and environmental responsibility (Bryson West Side 2). However, what is missing from these ecopoetic concerns—or more likely assumed within them—is an attempt to deal with the central environmental problem of space.

Despite ecopoets’ intent to reframe the relationships of humans to the natural world, their conceptions of those relationships are premised on a particular idea of space as boundaried: this is the human world; that is the natural one. This essay investigates how boundaried conceptions of space limit the natural world in the work of prominent ecopoets Gary Snyder and W.S. Merwin, which undermines their attempts to reconfigure human/nature relationships. As will be shown, the problem these boundaries create is to separate the human from the natural, preventing the successful integration that ecopoetry seeks. In order for ecopoets to represent the interdependence of the human and natural world, an alternative construction of space must appear. By looking, finally, at the work of Arthur Sze, a poet often mentioned but rarely engaged by the ecopoetic community, this essay intends to illustrate how his poems present a possible articulation of space that may benefit ecopoets in achieving their desired ends.

In order to understand the boundaries Snyder and Merwin impose on space in their poetry it is necessary to uncover where these conceptions of boundaries originate. The idea of space as boundaried emerges from the human experience of the world. Yi-Fu Tuan, a cultural geographer, investigates place, space, and their relation to each other and to our human condition. He explains how humans learn space prior to understanding place:

Biology conditions our perceptual world…The infant has no world. He cannot distinguish between self and an external environment. He feels, but his sensations are not localized in space. The pain is simply there, and he responds to it with crying; he does not seem to locate it in some specific part of his body. (20)

The infant, according to Tuan, only understands space. Everything is space, all possibility. But when infants start to learn the limits of space, to locate pain in a specific part of the body for example, it is then that place begins to become a relevant idea.

As infants develop, Tuan explains, they begin to orient themselves, to understand forward, backward, up, down. This sense of the self in space becomes an understanding of place in space. Place is particular and specific:

Place is a type of object. Places and objects define space, giving it a geometric personality. Neither the newborn infant nor the man who gains sight after a lifetime of blindness can immediately recognize a geometric shape such as a triangle. The triangle is at first “space,” a blurred image. Recognizing the triangle requires the prior identification of corners—that is, places. (17)

Places are points in space that can be identified and named. Lawrence Buell summarizes the relationship by compiling ideas from several authors:

…space as against place connotes geometrical or topographical abstraction, whereas place is “space to which meaning has been ascribed” (Carter, Donald, and Squires 1993: xii). Places are “centers of felt value” (Tuan 1977: 4), “discrete if ‘elastic’ areas in which setting for the constitution of social relations are located and with which people can identify” (Agnew 1993: 263). (Environmental Criticism 63)

To use a mathematical analogy, space is the field and place is a point of any possible size in the field. The particularization of place makes it appear as a stable point in the field, a permanent location that has a clear boundary in space. Space is the vast expanse; place is the local known.

In order to for a place to become known, though, it must be learned. Tuan cites a maze experiment performed by Warner Brown to show how people learn to distinguish place from space. Blindfolded participants walked through a maze over and over again feeling their path to the exit. With each successive attempt, the participants were able to identify significant markers and began to use language to name parts of the maze in an effort to organize and control the space in which they found themselves: “At first only the point of entry is clearly recognized; beyond lies space. In time more and more landmarks are identified and the subject gains confidence in movement. Finally space consists of familiar landmarks and paths—in other words, place” (71). Being able to land-mark allows the person to control the space by turning it into nameable, identifiable, marked place.

Once a place becomes identified, people take comfort in its knowability and the control they can exert over its boundaries. Buell explains that “the more a site feels like a place, the more fervently it is so cherished, the greater the potential concern at its violation or [P1] even the possibility of violation” (Endangered World 56). Places are sites of identification and experience; a place that someone knows well “feels like home.” Having lived somewhere, the place becomes assimilated into a person’s sense of home. Tuan observes that “home is an intimate place…hometown is an intimate place” (144). Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space also begins with this premise that place is home:

…all really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home. In the course of this work, we shall see that the imagination functions in this direction whenever the human being has found the slightest shelter: we shall see the imagination build “walls” of impalpable shadows, comfort itself with the illusion of protection—or, just the contrary, tremble behind thick walls, mistrust the staunchest ramparts. In short, in the most interminable of dialectics, the sheltered being gives perceptible limits to his shelter. (5)

Essentially, the human instinct is to make places into a kind of home and then protect them. Through their focus on concerns like “violation” and “protection,” both Buell and Bachelard indicate that the idea of home evokes a concern for maintaining boundaries. Places, like homes, necessitate a kind of protection of the periphery.

This idea that places require protection is one that has excited eco-minded writers and critics because “…an awakened sense of physical location and of belonging to some sort of place-based community have a great deal to do with activating environmental concern” (Buell, Endangered World 56). Snyder and Merwin have taken up this idea and, it will be shown later, employ boundary tactics as a method of conveying this care for place, and sharing a protectivist instinct for their places, with their readers. Their work creates natural places that people can then imagine as home and desire to protect it. If people imagine natural places as part of their home, they will protect them.  All that is required is the expansion of people’s interpretation of place to encompass the whole of the earth, a now familiar environmental slogan: The Earth is our home. Buell summarizes this goal: “therefore it is in the interest of planet, people, and other forms of life, even if not perhaps in the interest of every person or interest group, for ‘space’ to be converted—or reconverted—into ‘place’” (77). As a result of this metonymic relationship of home to world, place-making (to use J. Scott Bryson’s term for turning space into place) has become a prevalent tactic used by ecopoets in order to particularize and familiarize the natural world.[ii]

However, place-making closely parallels the historical imperative to civilize the wilderness. Place can be taken to mean a site where civilization exists, where space is dominated or controlled, while space is the wilderness. Tuan makes this connection when he imagines how civilization begins:

Think of the way a new country is settled. At first there is wilderness, undifferentiated space. A clearing is made in the forest and a few houses are built. Immediately differentiation occurs; on the one side there is wilderness, on the other a small, vulnerable, man-made world. The farmers are keenly aware of their place, which they have created themselves and which they must defend against the incursions of wild nature. To the passerby or visitor, the fields and houses also constitute a well-defined place, obvious to him as he emerges from the forest to the clearing. (166)

In this way, creating place is the equivalent of creating civilization. Place demarcates the boundaries outside of which is space and wilderness.

Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind elaborates on this same binary of civilization and wilderness through a historical lens. Nash begins his investigation of American wilderness with a hypothetical picture wherein wilderness constitutes a primary threat to early humans:

Lines began to be drawn with the advent of herding, agriculture, and settlement. Distinctions between controlled (domesticated) and uncontrolled animals and places became meaningful, as did the concept of controlled space: corrals, fields, and towns. For the first time humans saw themselves as distinct from and, they reasoned, better than the rest of nature. It was tempting to think of themselves as masters and not as members of the life community. The conceit even extended to the idea that they “owned” it. (xi-ii)

By drawing lines around what was tamed and theirs, and segmenting it from the rest of wild space, humans began to think in terms of dominating space and wilderness. Nash goes on to trace the influence of that perception of wilderness on the development of the American frontier. To the pioneers, wilderness continued to be a threat and the goal was to subdue and overcome it. Villages grew into towns which grew into cities as the capacity for domination encompassed all the available space in the country. Around the middle of the 19th century, the balance began to shift from a concern for dominating wilderness to a concern for protecting it (Nash 69). Civilization had progressed to the point where wilderness was no longer substantially threatening, but was now threatened by the imminent destruction [P2] of the frontier and the ever-expanding American population.

As a precursor to the environmental movement, the conservation movement built on the ideas of Henry David Thoreau and naturalist John Muir, among others, to encourage the preservation of resources. Both the conservationalists and the present environmentalists desire to save what seems to be disappearing. They want to draw lines around what is not available for consumption. In the face of rapid industrialization, it is understandable that such protective measures seemed a reasonable and immediate approach to take. As more places have been differentiated out of space, as civilization has poured more and more concrete, space and wilderness have been reduced, and so preservation is an admirable and necessary tactic; however, there are limits to what can be protected by these measures and protectionism itself is only a partial solution.

The biological need to locate the self in space, the personal comfort that arises from identifying places in the midst of space, the drive to dominate and control space are all part of the same impetus that has led to the environmental crises the eco-minded are trying to avoid: civilizing the wilderness. Frederick Turner sees this contradiction of activism and asserts that, “More often than need be, Americans confronted with a natural landscape have either exploited it or designated it a wilderness area. The polluter and the ecology freak are two faces of the same coin; they both perpetuate a theory about nature that allows no alternative to raping it or tying it up in a plastic bag to protect it from contamination” (45). To circumscribe space, to create place out if it, is to limit it and thereby dominate it. Thus the boundaries that ecopoets like Snyder and Merwin rely on, the place-making that is trying to engage our protective instincts, is reinforcing traditional ideas of place and space that can only lead to circumscription: exploitation or protection.

Gary Snyder clearly engages in the practice of place-making, turning natural spaces into natural places. His poems’ titles alone demonstrate extensive use of this technique, since the majority of his titles name a specific natural site or location. Naming is intimately related to place and the connection of that place to a sense of home:

The act of naming may itself be a part of the process of establishing a sense of place. This is fairly easy to understand in a personal sense, that is, giving personal names to special components of a place, but it also may apply in the case of generic names. Perhaps the naturalist, with his penchant for learning the names of everything, is establishing a global place, making the world his home…(Evernden 101)

Snyder certainly uses names to make the world his home. His range of specificity swings from simple proper nouns (“Piute Creek”) to proper nouns within prepositional phrases (“By Frazier Creek Falls”) which give the speaker’s location in relation to the place. Further specification leads Snyder to include time elements (“Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout”), specific establishments (“Dillingham, Alaska, the Willow Tree Bar”) and even GPS coordinates (“Longitude 170 West, Latitude 35 North”) These titles not only show that place is being specified in the poem, but that it is constructed with respect to the presence of a speaker through direction, time, and mapping. The speaker names the places, and by having access to those names, the speaker controls, determines, and circumscribes those places.

Snyder’s place-making extends beyond just proper nouns in titles; he also creates places by going to them. For Snyder, the natural world is somewhere one has to go. The titles Snyder uses indicate natural spaces, creeks, falls, mountain, Alaska; and he imagines these areas are different from the rest of the civilized, territorialized world. For example, he writes in “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout”:

I cannot remember things I once read

A few friends, but they are in cities.

Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup

Looking down for miles

Through high still air. (399)

The speaker’s position is given in the title and this second stanza indicates that the natural place he occupies is distanced from other people, who “are in cities.” He has escaped the city to get to a natural place that he can occupy himself and name both spatially and temporally. He has written this poem from a place; not a civilized one, but one in the wilderness. The poem locates the speaker in a natural space as opposed to a civilized space and allows the downward gaze of his position from the lookout onto the landscape to illustrate the distance between those two places: I am in this place, and they are in that place, and there is a journey between them. The distance separating the two places aids in protecting the natural place from civilization.

In the poem “By Frazier Creek,” the distance between the two places and the vantage point that allows the speaker to look down on the wilderness scene also enables him to reflect on what humans are capable of, on the power humans have to live outside of civilization:

Standing up on lifted, folded rock

looking out and down—

The creek falls to a far valley.

hills beyond that

facing, half-forested, dry

—clear sky

strong wind in the

stiff glittering needle clusters

of the pine—their brown

round trunk bodies

straight, still;

rustling trembling limbs and twigs


This living flowing land

is all there is, forever

We are it

it sings through us—

We could live on this Earth

without clothes or tools! (477)

The poem opens with the clear framing of the narrator’s position: “standing up” and “looking out and down.” From this perspective, the landscape is revealed and explored by the eye. The wilderness is claimed by the speaker in that the land is the speaker: “we are it.” And that realization of reciprocity between land and human that comes out of this viewing of the land causes the speaker to realize what is possible, that “we could live on this Earth / without clothes or tools!” Snyder is trying to reclaim nature here, but it is definitely a claim of territory. The fact that the speaker wants to live “on” the Earth and not “with” it already indicates how the speaker imagines the land. The Earth is still framed as a resource here, even if it is a resource to be protected and enjoyed.

Snyder’s poems do not always present landscapes from this top-down perspective. More often, the natural places are experienced as journeys from civilized to natural place. In the poem “Riprap,” rather than gazing upon the civilized place from the position of the natural lookout or claiming the Earth as a resource, Snyder calls upon the reader to see the poem as the imaginative place of the world:

Lay down these words

Before your mind like rocks,

placed solid, by hands

In choice of place, set

Before the body of the mind

in space and time:

Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall

riprap of things… (404)

Snyder turns the words of the poem into rocks that have been placed in a particular location, selected and called into place out of space. He is building out of rocks the path that will connect the speaker to the natural place he wishes to reach. Furthermore, Snyder points to natural objects as solidifying the positionality of the poem, including a wall which marks the boundary of the natural place he is differentiating from the expanse of space. Once the place has been created through the poem’s opening, Snyder suggests that all these places must be gone to: “The worlds like an endless / four-dimensional / Game of Go.” The fact that the place must be reached indicates that the space nature occupies is boundaried and specific. Travel, departure and arrival, requires places to leave from and go to, and the path between them establishes their positionality.

Snyder’s poems often indicate pleasure in the effort it takes a person to get to these places: the travel is part of the protective boundary. For example, the poem “A Walk” is about the journey to one of these natural places:

…Early sun: I’ve eaten breakfast and I’ll

take a walk

To Benson Lake. Packed a lunch,

Goodbye. Hopping on creekbed boulders

Up the rock throat three miles

Piute Creek—

In steep gorge glacier-slick rattlesnake country

Jump, land by a pool, trout skitter,

The clear sky. Deer tracks.

Bad place by a falls, boulders big as houses,

Lunch tied to belt,

I stemmed up a crack and almost fell

But rolled out safe on a ledge

and ambled on.

Through slide-aspen and talus, to the east end,

Down to grass, wading a wide smooth stream

Into camp. At last.

By the rusty three-year-

Ago left-behind cookstove

Of the old trail crew,

Stoppt and swam and ate my lunch. (430)

This poem describes Snyder’s trip from one place to another, even calling up another place along the way, Piute Creek. The travel between places, at least three miles in this poem, is part of what makes the natural place valuable. Not everyone is willing to go on this trip, and so the place is protected by a boundary which many may approach but only a few will enter. Snyder marks points along the trajectory: “creekbed boulders,” “rock throats,” “a steep gorge,” “a pool,” “a falls,” “a crack,” “a wide smooth stream,” “a camp,” staking claim to them as he recounts their presence.

Interestingly, Benson Lake is a natural place already marked by the remnants of civilization. The presence of the “cookstove / Of the old trail crew” provides evidence that this place is known and experienced by some people, but the place is preserved by the natural boundary that surrounds it and the requisite journey to get to it. This is a civilized place within a natural place; the natural place is already marked by the encroachment of civilization which Snyder is so concerned about escaping.

In Snyder’s poems, natural places must be protected by boundaries. Natural places are only available to the few people willing to travel to them. The poems suggest that the distance between nature and civilization rightly limits who can get there and therefore celebrates those few who do make the effort to go. The poems encourage readers to go “Off the Trail” in order to discover natural places: “Because no place is more than another, /All places total” (562). By making a path into the wilderness, by naming markers along that path and the location that is reached, place is created out of space. The place exists so that someone will care about it, but it must have a border, some point beyond it where civilization stops. For Snyder, poems are about two places—one civilized, one natural, and the path that connects them.

While Snyder’s poems indicate the existence of boundaried spaces through place-naming and further emphasize their separation by describing the paths one takes to arrive at natural places, W.S. Merwin’s poems rest themselves right on that border. He meditates on the liminal spaces, the portals between the spaces, as if he can see them blend into each other and recede from each other. His poetry shows a different orientation toward the same perceived boundaries that Snyder engages.

In contrast to Snyder’s frequent place-making titles, Merwin’s titles often point to the borders themselves: fields which, as cultivated and controlled natural space, mark the boundary of civilization and nature (“Low Fields and Light,” “In the Night Fields,” “Green Fields”); waterways that transition from land to open water (“The Wharf,” “The Estuary,” “Tidal Lagoon,”);  and markers of boundaries themselves like walls, windows, and gates (“Grandmother Watching at Her Window,” “West Wall,” “Gate,” “Threshold,”). The absence of directly naming places, like Snyder does, comes from Merwin’s concern that names themselves indicate dominance. Leonard Scigaj explains that for Merwin “Naming gives humans a conceptual ‘control’ over things that can all too readily create ‘barriers’ between the self and things. The feeling of control soon leads to the anthropocentric exploitation of nature” (30). Merwin is occupied with the relationship between naming and place, but he has not been able to completely extricate himself from the tangle of traditional boundaries. All of these titles rely on a differentiation between spaces, fields, waterways, and boundary markers; they point to the in-betweenness of places.

In addition to the titles, several poems specifically about the wilderness indicate the separation it has from civilized space. An early poem, “The Wilderness,” begins with the line “Remoteness is its own secret” (30). The distance indicated by “remoteness” demonstrates both the border between the spaces and the travel necessary to reach them. Another poem called “The Wild” indicates this same passage from one place to another, hidden, natural place:

First sight of water through trees

glimpsed as a child

and the smell of the lake then

on the mountain

how long it has lasted

whole and unmoved and without words (515)

In this memory, the speaker recalls coming upon a particular natural place, a lake and a mountain, that represented the wild place. The particularization of that place can be seen in the choice of “whole and unmoved” indicating that this space is complete, boundaried, and centered. Place is stable. The fact that these borders around the wilderness exist demonstrates that Merwin, like Snyder, envisions nature as a place one must go to.

Though more of Snyder’s poems focus on the travel between places, Merwin, too, thinks about this requisite movement. For example, he writes in “Walkers”:

Then I could walk for a whole day over the stony

ridges along fallen walls and lanes matted with

sloe branches and on through oak woods and around springs

low cliffs mouths of caves and out onto open

hillsides overlooking valleys adrift in the distance

and after the last sheep in their crumbling pastures

fenced with cut brush there would be only the burr of a wren

scolding from rocks or one warbler’s phrases repeated

following through the calls of crows and the mossed hush

of ruins palmed in the folds of the crumpled slopes

in deep shade with the secret places of badgers…(367-8)

The poem continues with the speaker having a staring contest with a boar and then talking to an old woman whose dilapidated house is in the depths of all this wilderness. The speaker walks to her place from his place and narrates the passage between them. His description even takes note of the boundaries—“fallen walls” and fenced pastures—he passes as he moves from a civilized place to a more natural one.

In “Emergence” Merwin’s speaker stands on the boundary itself, a wall, and looks down on the civilization and the wilderness below. He is not moving between the places at this point, but noticing where they are and, like Snyder, using his vantage point to reveal the landscape to the reader:

From how many distances am I to arrive

again and find I am standing on the bare outcrop

at the top of the ridge by the corner of the ancient wall

with the sloe thickets the sheep tracks the gray ruins

oak woods abrupt hollows and the burials of the upland

rolling away behind me farther than I can guess

and before me the path down through rocks and wild thyme

into the village its tiled roofs washed out with sunlight

its trees glinting in the faded day and beyond them

the valley blue and indelible as a vein…(382)

The speaker travels to this place, this border land, arriving over an implied distance to be here. From this point on a ridge, he can look down on the “sheep tracks the gray ruins / oak woods abrupt hollows and the burials of the upland / rolling away” and, at the same time, he can see the path between the places and the civilization of the village settled in the valley. At this apex, Merwin’s, like Snyder’s, view allows him to control and circumscribe the places he stands between. Merwin senses the difference between particular places, but his poetry is interested in the borders themselves.

On that border, Merwin tries to find a balance between place and space. He is not place-making so much as place-noting. For example, he writes “In the Doorway”:

From the stones of the door frame cold to the palm

that breath of the dark sometimes from the chiselled

surfaces and at others from the places between them

that chill and air without season that acrid haunting

that skunk ghost welcoming without welcome faithful without

promise echo without echo it was there again

in the stones of the gate now in a new place but its own

a place of leaving and returning that breath of belonging

and being distant of rain in box thickets…(378)

The gate and the door frame are both liminal objects indicating passages from one place to another, and even the stones that create those passages are places for Merwin. Where one might typically note the spaces between stones, Merwin makes those gaps into places, particularizing each chink. These openings in the inhabited place require this meditation that considers “leaving and returning” and “belonging and being distant” as places. This poem exists only in between what is civilized, within the door frame and the gate, and what is natural, outside the door frame and the gate.

Bryson also notices the betweenness that occupies so many of Merwin’s poems and suggests that Merwin is a Tuanian explorer of space and place:

Like many other ecopoets, he deals with this conflict by offering a vision of the world that values the interaction between two interdependent and seemingly paradoxical desires. In the words of cultural geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, these two desires are (1) to create place, making a conscious and concerted effort to know the more-than-human world around us and (2) to value space, recognizing the extent to which that very world is ultimately unknowable. (West Side 101)

These two “paradoxical desires” prevent Merwin from decisively engaging either. Instead, he persists in the liminal space between. Merwin, Bryson argues, is trapped between an awareness of both place and placelessness that makes space visible to him, but impossible to incorporate into his poetic project because of his sense of the limitations of space:

The problem for Merwin is not that his sense of place is overcome by his space-consciousness. In other words, it is not that he loses sight of his devotion to the nonhuman world and what takes place around him. Rather, his awareness of Tuanian space, that is, the humble awareness of his own and humanity’s limitations, sometimes prevents him from fully articulating that devotion to place; thus, in his poems the harmony is not always apparent…But his skepticism regarding human language, human intentions, and human knowledge is so great that he becomes extremely dubious regarding our ability to fully interact with, commit to, and communicate our place in the world as a home. (110)

So it is, perhaps, Merwin’s understanding of the limits of space and the limits of place that paralyzes him on the border between civilized and natural space. What his poems show, as in “Emergence” and “In the Doorway,” is a conscientious pacing of the border that exists between them and an awareness of both. Even the wavering patterns of his lines in so many poems, justified to indented, seem to illustrate the boundaries his poems move along. The problem for Merwin is that he cannot escape the borders at all. He sees them as stable and localized, and therefore as markers of place. He knows that place-making is not a sufficient tool for him to completely achieve his ecological goals. However, he can point to the boundaries place-making creates, even if he can’t change them altogether.

Both Merwin’s and Snyder’s poetry rely on the differentiation of place out of space and the presence of boundaries in nature. Angus Fletcher suggests that any environment-poem necessarily deals with these boundaries:

To render and convince us vividly that any environment exists, the writer must always connect the elements of the scene with humans. Indeed for poetry, unlike science, human belonging and not belonging is the criterion for membership in any environment, and all environment-poems strive to present this structure on two levels: (1) the poetry will express the mere existence of those creatures who belong or do not belong, and (2) it will show how this belonging occurs, especially tracing the boundaries that define inclusion and exclusion. In widening circles of analysis, this poetry therefore studies boundaries, edges, hedges, and horizons. (127)

Both Snyder and Merwin clearly delimit the boundaries of civilized and natural space in a manner consistent with Fletcher’s expectations of the environment-poem. Snyder suggests that those who can reach particular places are thereby members of it, and Merwin traces the boundaries, but can’t decide which side is inclusive and which is exclusive. In both cases, the boundaries themselves create static places which signal an “us” and a “them,” even if the particular members have yet to be determined. Bernard Quetchenbach suggests that these seemingly permanent distinctions are inaccurate representations of humans and nature: “The relationship between humanity, especially urbanized and industrialized Western civilization, and nature constitutes something of a paradox; as creatures, humans are part of nature, yet in our effort to understand and manipulate our surroundings, we view nature as the ‘other’ or ‘not me,’ the physical creation as a thing apart from the human ‘me’ or ‘us’” (1). The differentiation of place from space, civilization from wilderness, has seemingly removed humans from that natural setting. Instead of seeing ourselves as the natural within civilization, we imagine that nature has been excised, removed to some other place.

But ecopoetry seeks ways to re-imagine the relationship of humans to nature, to reconnect the human to the natural, to recognize interdependence among living things. Distinguishing between civilized and natural spaces, circumscribing them and seeing boundaries between them, prevents those connections from forming. By limiting nature to particular places, the same implications of control and dominance exist, even when they are well-intentioned. Stable, centralized place-making allows boundaries to develop. As long as nature is located outside of civilization, as long as humans are considered to be outside of nature, visitors or boundary-pacers, the primary concern of ecopoetry cannot be achieved, and the secondary concern of environmental crisis remains a problem because our concept of space has not changed.

The same ecocritics who support place-making are also skeptical of it. Buell cautions that, “If every place on earth were cared for as we like to think a ‘protected’ reserve is cared for, then perhaps the health of planet and people might be secured. But taking a good thing too far (place-attachment and stewardship at the local level) manifestly can produce bad results too” (68). And Bryson specifically turns his focus from place to space, advocating an awareness of space that can support place-making: “while the process of place-making is a vital activity in the work of ecopoets, we should also realize that it is almost always balanced or, better yet, harmonized, with a healthy dose of space-consciousness, since to see oneself as a metaphorical place-maker is to be tempted also to see oneself as owner, or even literal creator, of the surrounding landscape” (West Side 18). However, neither of these admonishments effectively alters the type of place-making ecocritics see as productive and useful. Exponential place-making can only further differentiate and circumscribe all possible space, until no wild space remains. Instead, a space-making consciousness needs to arise in order for the renewal to be successful. By forging connections through space among places, by interweaving place with space, space might expand again in a new and different vision.

Deborah Massey in For Space articulates the principles of space that make it possible to create an alternative to stable boundaries:

First, that we recognize space as the product of interrelations; as constituted through interactions, from the immensity of the global to the intimately tiny…Second, that we understand space as the sphere of the possibility of the existence of multiplicity in the sense of contemporaneous plurality; as the sphere in which distinct trajectories coexist; as the sphere therefore of coexisting heterogeneity. Without space, no multiplicity; without multiplicity, no space. If space is indeed the product of interrelations, then it must be predicated upon the existence of plurality. Multiplicity and space as co-constitutive. Third, that we recognize space as always under construction. Precisely because space on this reading is a product of relations-between, relations which are necessarily embedded material practices which have to be carried out, it is always in the process of being made. It is never finished; never closed. Perhaps we could imagine space as a simultaneity of stories-so-far. (9)

Space must be seen as interrelational, multiple, and under constant construction. Space can be created out of the multiplicity of place, by connecting all the places-made and shifting from one place to the next. Space is the opening up of place. In this model, space is never-ending and an ecopoetry that uses this space model may have a real impact on the ways in which space is imagined and how an ecological consciousness can develop.

Arthur Sze’s The Redshifting Web provides a look into how space-making can create this new ecological consciousness. His poems use place to create space. Instead of being place-centered to produce boundaries, like Snyder and Merwin, Sze’s poems are place-shifting. Place is present but constantly relocating, moving, unsettling, in such a way that place becomes entangled, destabilized, and decentered; places are woven back into space. For example, Sze’s poem “Here” uses the repetitive deictic gesture to present a number of possible places:

Here a snail on a wet leaf shivers and dreams of spring.

Here a green iris in December.

Here the topaz light of the sky.

Here one stops hearing a twig break and listens for deer.

Here the art of the ventriloquist.

Here the obsession of a kleptomaniac to steal red pushpins.
Here the art of the alibi.

Here one walks into an abandoned farmhouse and hears a


Here one dreamed a bear claw and died.

Here a humpback whale leaped out of the ocean.

Here the outboard motor stopped but a man made it to this

island with one oar.

Here the actor forgot his lines and wept.

Here the art of prayer.

Here marbles, buttons, thimbles, dice, pins, stamps, beads.

Here one becomes terrified.

Here one wants to see as a god sees and becomes clear amber.

Here one is clear pine. (174)

Each line of this poem points to something different. The line opens with “here” to indicate an object or event: in this location, x. Some of these are natural images (a snail, twigs, a humpback whale), but others are particularly human (the ventriloquist, a kleptomaniac, the outboard motor). All of these images are blended together through the formal presentation of one per line and the anaphora which asserts the equality of each image. The reader is carried forward by “Here” through a series of possible places, each one particular, specific, and all mapped out formally in the poem as related. The poem is dislocated even as it insists on location. But the whole poem encompasses all of these things, compiling places into an aggregate of space.

The unusual aggregation of places in Sze’s poem stands in contrast to the typical use of “here” to indicate one particular place, the place where the speaker is. For example, when Merwin writes in “Old Walls”:

…here I listened

to the clack of the old man’s hoe hilling the potatoes

in his dry field below the ash trees and here I looked up

into the quince flowers opening above the wall

and I wanted to be far away like the surface

of a river I knew and here I watched the autumn light

and thought this was where I might choose to be buried

here I struggled in the web and went on weaving it

with every turn and here I went on yielding

too much credit to an alien claim and here I came

to myself in a winter fog with ice on the stones

and I went out through the gap in the wall and it was done

and here I thought I saw myself as I had once been…(384-5)

it is clear that the “here” being evoked by Merwin is one location. Although the speaker expresses many different ideas from this position, he is obviously in one place and gets up from that place to go “out through the gap in the wall” when he is done with his meditation. The place where the deictic “here” occurs is singular. However, Sze’s “here” is not necessarily continuous. All of the things, actions, beings in Sze’s “Here” are present, but where that is remains unclear and unnecessary. The multiple subjects are each in their own “here” at the same time that they all share the same “here” in the poem. In this way, Sze’s poems create an ecology that emerges out of the entanglement of multiple positions in each poem. The natural world is not sequestered from the inhabited one; they are integrated and overlaid upon each other.

The place-shifting, like “here” always being a new and different place in “Here,” creates its own ecology, an interrelationship of many places which reopens the possibility of place-made space and therefore allows the reader to reconfigure her consciousness in terms of nature and living things. The shifts of place evidenced in “Here” are even more explicit in the poem “Whiteout”:

You expect to see swirling chunks of ice

flowing south toward open water of the ocean,

but, no, a moment of whiteout as

the swirling ice flows north at sunset.

In a restaurant with an empty screen,

a woman gets up and sings a Chinese song

with “empty orchestra” accompaniment.

Prerecorded music fills the room,

and projection from a laser disc throws

a waterfall and red hibiscus onto the screen.

You are not interested in singing and

following the words as they change color

from yellow to purple across the cueing machine.

Instead, you walk out on blue-green glacier

ice and feel it thin to water in spring.

You notice two moose along the thawing shoreline

browsing for buds, and see the posted sign

“No shooting from here.” But “here” is “there.” (216)

The poem starts with a natural image—the ice floes in a snowstorm—but then it switches to an indoor scene where there is karaoke and projected natural images. Outside and inside are completely opposed in terms of environment: the snowstorm and the tropical flower, the open ocean and the room of the restaurant. It is hard to imagine that both are possible in such close proximity, but this reflects the real world where natural space is rarely out of reach of civilization: the boundaries are eroding. Sze’s poem jumps among possible places, positing “you” in each. At the end, even the season changes, moving quickly from a whiteout to spring. In this moment, the “you” is supposedly floating on an iceberg outside a karaoke restaurant, a rather precarious position which is further destabilized by the final transposition of “here” and “there”. Not even location relevant to the speaker is stationary in this poem, since the “here” gesture indicating proximity changes in a moment to one of distance.

While the shifts in “Whiteout” undermine the possibility of being located, in the first section of “Apache Plume” particular places are drawn together carefully in order to build the connections between the variety. Space is made through a constellation of particular “spots”:

1    The Beginning Web

Blue flax blossoming near the greenhouse

is a luminous spot, as is a point south

of the Barrancas where two rivers join.

By the cattail pond, you hear dogs

killing a raccoon. In mind, these spots

breathe and glow. In the bath I pour

water over your shoulder, notice the spot

where a wild leaf has grazed your skin.

I see the sun drop below the San Andres

Mountains, white dunes in starlight;

in the breathing chiaroscuro, I glimpse

red-winged blackbirds nesting in the cattails,

see a cow pushing at the wobbly point

in a fence. In this beginning web of light,

I feel the loops and whorls of your fingertips,

hear free-tailed bats swirling out into the dark. (35)

The first point in the constellation is the blue flax at the greenhouse, the second where the two rivers join, the third the cattail pond. Out of these three spots, the web begins and holding them all “in mind” gives them presence. The spots continue to multiply: on the shoulder, “the San Andres Mountains,” the dunes, the nest, “the wobbly point in a fence.” All of these are the places that are entangling into the web; all of them are held together in the mind of the speaker, in the lines of the poem. They form the points that make up the “web of light.” They are treated here individually and equally. There does not seem to be any distance between them as there is in Snyder between the cities and the lookout. The decentralization of a primary place enables the democratic connections among them.

In addition to his conscientious shifting of place to make space, Sze also looks directly at the potential borders that Snyder produces and Merwin anguishes over. For example, in “Strawberries in Wooden Bowls” Sze writes:

The sunlight rains through the glass.

As you reach across the table

the fences outside disappear.

The fields are green with their rain

and the wind curls the stars in the cold air. (62)

As in Merwin, windows (glass), fences and fields appear in this second stanza of the poem, but for Sze these symbolic boundaries dissipate. The glass of the window pane is permeable by the sun, fences overtly disappear, and the fields turn green, which can suggest both that they become wild again and that they show fresh growth.

In the first section of “Archipelago,” Sze also shows his perception of boundaries:

1          I walk along the length of a stone-and-gravel garden

and feel without looking how the fifteen stones

appear and disappear. I had not expected the space

to be defined by a wall made of clay boiled in oil

nor to see above a series of green cryptomeria

pungent in spring…(253)

Again, the garden is a somewhat liminal space and it is bordered by a wall upon which the speaker stands. He is literally treading the boundary, but that boundary is punctured: the stones that make up the wall have spaces between them, like the “places” Merwin noticed between the stones of his door frame. But where Merwin makes that emptiness full of place, Sze simply notes what seems to the speaker to be an almost contradiction that space could be defined by a wall. The surprise here for the narrator is that the separate stones might even be perceived as a wall, in the face of its permeability. For Sze, boundaries fall apart just where they are expected to hold. These markers between places are not permanent; they shift as the places shift, as the location and identity of the places shift.

The multiplicity of positions and the mutability of those positions is further reflected in the construction of the poems themselves. Sze’s poems are both multiple and singular—one title, many sections. Many of Sze’s poems are presented as sequences, or variations on a theme[iii],which allows for multiplicity, a feature of space prominent in Massey’s conception of it. Snyder’s and Merwin’s titles are relevant to place, naming places and boundaries, but Sze’s poems are spatially and temporally multiple. Furthermore, these sections occupy distinct pages which are linked together through their chronological connection and subordinance to a common title. For example, “The String Diamond” has 7 sections; “Kaiseki” (which is a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner) 9; “Six Persimmons” 6; “The Leaves of a Dream are the Leaves of an Onion” 6; “Archipelago” 9. What these sections show is that for Sze there is almost always more than one presentation of an idea, more than one possible position that it can occupy. These sections are both physically decentered, since they occur on multiple pages, and temporally decentered, since they occur one after another. The place that each sequence title occupies is shifted through both time and space, evoking the instability of position.

The final tactic of destabilizing place occurs in Sze’s syntactical patterns. He uses parataxis to create layers of images. For example, section 8 of “Kaiseki” reads:

8         A heated stone on a white bed of salt—

sleeping on a subway grate—

a thistle growing  in a wash—

sap oozing out of the trunk of a plum—

yellow and red roses hanging upside down under a skylight—

fish carcasses at the end of a spit—

two right hands on a brush drawing a dot then the character,


The lines of this poem consist of sentence fragments. Marked by both the extra space between the lines and the dash ending each, the images are disparate. The grammatical structure which would allow the reader to understand their relation to each other has been removed, which gives them each an equal weight. It seems as if any image might appear at any point in the poem. The connections between each thing are not clear, but their presence in the poem indicates that they are meant to relate to one another. Without obvious relationships, these lines mark places that draw together simply by occupying the same space of the page. The images call up both natural—“a thistle,” “a plum,” “yellow and red roses,” “fish carcasses,” “water”—and civilized spaces—“a subway grate,” “a skylight,” “a spit,” “two right hands.” Nature integrates with civilization.

Zhou Xiaojing notes this integration as the core of Sze’s work: “It is precisely in rejecting a dichotomous relationship between culture and nature that Sze’s ecopoetics differs from that of traditional pastoral poetry” (187). And through this rejection, Sze’s poetry can achieve other possible imaginations of space through which the human and nature can connect: “Rather, Sze is concerned with exploring alternative modes for understanding the world and the self in which human beings and nature are part of its ‘redshifting web’” (ibid). The paratactic syntax Sze employs allows the relationships between images, both of civilized and natural spaces, to coexist without hierarchy or boundary. The spaces coalesce in their presence on the page.

Sze’s construction of space out of place seems essential to the ecopoetic project in that it allows for a more embedded ecology to arise. His space-making reflects what Tuan calls a “spatial frame”: “Space that is stretched over a grid of cardinal points makes the idea of place vivid, but it does not make any particular geographical locality the place” (150). The poems do not deliberately dismantle boundaries between nature and civilization so much as present a variety of positions through which nature and civilization interact and overlap. These positions are made available through the place-shifting of “here,” the dissolution of boundaries, the multiplicity represented by sequences, and the paratactic alignment of disparate images. In the potentiality of these places and their various connections to one another a new spatial map is created, one that encompasses all places. By reimagining the relationships among these various points, by shifting place so that it is never permanent, and therefore are never boundaried, Sze’s poems demonstrate a possible achievement of interrelatedness—an actual eco-poetry.

Jenny Morse is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois—Chicago. In her free time, she tries to travel as much as possible and will complete her visits to all 50 U.S. states with Oregon, Washington, and Alaska this June. Her poetry has been published in Menacing Hedge, Flashquake, and The Notre Dame Review. among others.


Works Cited

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Scigaj, Leonard M. Sustainable Poetry: Four American Ecopoets. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1999.

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[i] In the first chapter, “Ecopoetry and Contemporary American Poetry Criticism,” of his book Sustainable Poetry (1999) Leonard Scigaj reviews many possible conceptions of ecopoetry from Robert Finch’s and John Elder’s position that “the purpose of nature writing is to connect humans to planetary biological processes” (10) to Karl Kroeber’s four premises of ecocriticism: “(1) the need to assert a holistic sense of interdependence…; (2) a celebration of everyday ‘beingness’; (3) the joys of dwelling with a distinct locale…; and (4) an inquiry into…what poetic best serves the purposes of ecocriticism” (14). Scigaj himself offers: “One might define ecopoetry as poetry that persistently stresses human cooperation with nature conceived as a dynamic, interrelated series of cyclic feedback systems” (37). J. Scott Bryson in his Preface to West Side of Any Mountain (2005) also discusses a wide variety of definitions including Terry Gifford’s “green poetry,” Patrick Murphy’s “American nature-oriented literature,” and David Gilcrest’s “ecological poetry.” Both Scigaj and Bryson look to Lawrence Buell’s four characteristics of environmental literature, which Bryson summarizes as “the presence of the nonhuman as more than mere backdrop, the expansion of human interest beyond humanity, a sense of human accountability to the environment and of the environment as a process rather than a constant or given” (West Side 2). Bryson also provides his own three point definition of ecopoetry: “an ecological and biocentric perspective recognizing the interdependent nature of the world; a deep humility with regard to our relationships with human and nonhuman nature; and an intense skepticism toward hyperrationality, a skepticism that usually leads to condemnation of an overtechnologized modern world and a warning concerning the very real potential for ecological catastrophe” (ibid.) Further discussions of the name and definitions of ecopoetry can be found in Andrew Elkins’ Another Place (2002), Cheryl Glotfelty’s and Harold Fromm’s The Ecocriticism Reader (1996), Richard Kerridge’s and Neil Sammells’s Writing the Environment (1998) and Bernard Quetchenbach’s Back from the Far Field (2000).

[ii] Discussions of place-making with respect to the larger field of nature writers can be found in many ecocritical texts. J. Scott Bryson’s anthology Ecopoetry deals with these ideas and his West Side of Any Mountain investigates place-making more specifically in terms of the poets Wendell Berry, Joy Harjo, Mary Oliver, and W.S. Merwin.. Andrew Elkins in Another Place also looks at a variety of Western poets in terms of their place-making techniques.  Lawrence Buell’s chapters “The Place of Place” in Writing for an Endangered World (2001) and “Space, Place and Imagination from Local to Global” in The Future of Environmental Criticism (2005) both look at the role of place-making in the environmental imagination. Further discussions of the importance and significance of place appear in Terry Gifford’s Green Voices (1995),David Gilcrest’s Greening the Lyre (2002), Cheryl Glotfelty’s and Harold Fromm’s The Ecocriticism Reader (1996), Richard Kerridge’s and Neil Sammells’s Writing the Environment (1998), Bernard Quetchenbach’s Back from the Far Field (2000), and Leonard Scigaj’s Sustainable Poetry(1999).

[iii] While sequences require a chronology, Sze’s poems suggest that they are more to be read as versions of one idea. For example, “Six Persimmons” would not intend that the Persimmons would appear in a particular order, or that they would be counted from left to right. Despite the order in which the sections are presented, all the Persimmons have equal weight which is not affected by the order in which the section appears. The sections can be thought of like Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” which presents thirteen possible perspectives.

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