25 Points: The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral

by Patrick James Dunagan

arcadiaThe Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral
edited by Joshua Corey and G.C. Waldrep
Ahsahta Press, 2012
576 pages / $28.00 buy from Ahsahta Press or SPD







1. The Arcadia Project is not in the least a conclusive project, but rather quite inconclusive. As stated in the Introduction: “an anthology such as this one must be a living and motile assemblage.”

2. Editors Joshua Corey and G.C. Waldrep do not contribute any of their own poetic work. This cuts both ways, as while it shows a measure of humility on the parts of any editor not to grandstand it is also nearly always worth having an editor’s own work (if existent) on hand for clarity of comparison’s sake within the presentation of any selection. How a poet writes interestingly reflects on how a poet reads.

3. Corey pens the Introduction, attesting: “certain tendencies are discernible in the work presented here, all of it first published after 1995” and that “Postmodern pastoral offers a means of mapping the shifting terrain of that world while maintaining its ethical consciousness that the map must never be mistaken for the territory.”

4. Waldrep doesn’t add one word of his own to the book itself. But elsewhere: http://arcadiaproject.net/the-woods-the-technology/ He offers up that it was questions such as:

Why did those of us who cared, and wrote, into and about the environment in innovative forms have to keep explaining our practice to those who insisted that “nature poetry” honor its Romantic inheritances?  What indeed is “nature poetry,” or could it be, or should it be, in our collective moment?

Which factored into how the anthology came to be, and he adds:

Between 2008 and 2011 Josh and I sifted through hundreds of books—published since 1995 by North American writers, generously defined—as well as hundreds of submissions that came in over our electronic transom, looking for work that would guide us into the forest and try to show us something:  work that would leave us alone together (in or in spite of our discrete alonenesses); work that challenged us and terrified us and moved us, that spoke to or around or from within our ecological predicament as 21st-century human creatures.

The resulting anthology is not meant to be definitive, rather provocative and generative, an early draft version of an ongoing conversation between a wide array of poets and the world we live in.

5. The lack of having any such editorial presentation of the framework behind the book’s conception within the book itself feels a disservice to readers.

6. As presented, there’s little tying together of these texts. They are left as isolated cries in a wilderness of language.

7. Poems are divided into four sections: “New Transcendentalisms,” “Textual Ecologies,” “Local Powers,” and “Necro/Pastoral” without any explicit rendering of what may or may not be meant by any of these broadly inclusive and quite permeable categorizations.

8. Questions linger, such as why not include some prose? Both statements of any kind from contributors and/or fiction, non-fiction, or works of theoretical positioning.

9. There’s a band but no bandwagon. Dozens of wheels but no cart.

10. As a reader I yearn to relate these texts in some way. To locate some vein or—what one feels is heard as a bad word by many poets these days—tradition within which the work doesparticipate and indeed does seek continue. Of course doing so may prove some “Romantic inheritances” unavoidable.


“God’s art,” Dante says in De Monarchia, “which is nature.” In our own arts, striving to speak, with words, pictures, gestures, buildings, assemblings of objects in ecologies of feeling-thought, we in turn create a little nature of we are, ideas of Man.

–       Robert Duncan “San Francisco, June 1968”

12. I note obvious semblances of such “ecologies of feeling-thought” throughout this book, but aside from my own knowledge of where interest in Duncan happens to be shared within the critical work of some contributors (notably Stephen Collis and Peter O’Leary) I find little to nothing which directly mentions, let alone addresses, his work and/or influence.

13. It is similarly the case with Ronald Johnson. I especially keep wondering why nothing of his is included… The Shrubberies (Flood Editions) appeared in 2001 well after 1995. And what a splendid poem-series that is, which would easily seem suitable for inclusion under any, or all, of the section-titles.

14. On a side-note, I discovered one of the most pleasing things from reading the bio-note for Johnson’s literary executor, Peter O’Leary: mention of a forthcoming new edition of Johnson’s postmodern epic poem Ark. Why not a Collected Johnson as well? And/or his prose?

15. O’Leary’s own long poem included here, “The Phosphorescence of Thought” is itself nearly worth the purchase of the book.

16. Ronald Johnson is of course dead. Gustaf Sobin is dead too, but he’s been included.

17. Enough ranting. Have I been ranting?

18. Jack Collom’s and Lyn Heinian’s collaborative collection Situations, Sings was published a few years back by Adventures in Poetry, it’s totally great. “The Woods” appears here grouped under “Textual Ecologies.” Dig these lines:


Suspicion. Sometimes through the unperceived nights that surround all dreams
there emerge
Explanations in the form of spandrels, to read as we read a redstart,
Employment as a nurse, or rolypolies (pillbugs) in the dirt

Tracks which are closer to nature than mind but not as close as insanity,
Healthily entertained. I too have been nuts, loopy, hopeful, ungrammatical and
out of tune.
I think the woods is made of many minor keys. Mornings
Confuse the song so as to continue the lives that dreams criticize
Keeping them from entropy—then all too often being accused of
Existentialism, as if that were the same as despair. …

19. My favorite selections are the longest ones. Such as Brian Teare’s “Transcendental Grammar Crown” a ring of sonnets whose lines are widely spaced which is found grouped under (no surprise) “New Transcendentalisms.” Teare’s poetry keeps what’s precious hanging delicately perched on tips of language’s beauty but rather miraculously avoids inflecting any damage upon itself, despite its risky behavior.


to detail            starting small            with grasses


flowers then trees            we don’t know                        nor rocks


days            to recite the names            of them all


seems heaven enough                        to us            because what is


language that            “categories of thought


embodied in individual living forms”                        thread through us


& things equally            —matter            a sidereal charity


& doesn’t it bract            doesn’t it sepal & send seed splitting sheath


into soil            doesn’t our flesh            the very fossils            tremble bedrock


(from “The very air (Faith Reason)”)

20. Other notable lengthy poem-sequences, include: Jennifer Moxley’s “The Sense Record,” Peter Gizzi’s “Some values of Landscape and Weather,” Brenda Iijima’s “Panthering,” Will Alexander’s “On Scorpions & Swallows,” Juliana Spahr’s “Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache,” Amy King’s “A Geography of Pleasure,” and Stephen Collis’ “Blackberries.”

21. Again and again, I find myself wondering about the selection process. For example, Standard Shaefer’s sonnet-length “The L.A. River” is here, but none of Lewis MacAdams’ book-length poemThe River addressed to the same body of water in the same city and which is just as adventurously on point in terms of fitting in quite nicely as “Necro/pastoral,” or most certainly under “Local Powers.”

22. An obviously incomplete and quite random list of The Arcadia Project’s unrecognized predecessors, progenitors, peers, and life-mates from out my own reading (in no particular order): Lorine Niedecker, Gertrude Stein, Whitman, Dickinson, Hawthorne, Emerson, Melville, Poe, Charles Brockden Brown (talk about “Necro/Pastoral”! his Wieland introduces Charles Dickens’ spontaneous combustion of a literary character into American Lit), Faulkner, Charles Olson, WCW, Robinson Jeffers, Gary Snyder, Lew Welch, Jack Kerouac, Ed Dorn, Philip Whalen, Lisa Jarnot, Ted Berrigan, Joanne Kyger, Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer, Eileen Myles, John Cage, Elaine Equi, Jonathan Williams, Jack Spicer, Anselm Hollo, Hannah Wiener, Filip Marinovich, Susan Howe, Anselm Berrigan, Etel Adnan, Ornette Coleman, Sotére Torregian, John Wieners, Amiri Baraka, Charles Bukowski, John Coletti, Chris Martin, Gerrit Lansing, Gregory Corso, Kevin Opstedal, Brenda Coultas, Eileen Tabios, Micah Ballard, F.A. Nettelbeck, Cedar Sigo, Jack Hirschman, David Brazil, Julian Brolaski… all whose work is deeply at play in any sense of North American Pastoral. There are so many more.

23. C.S. Giscombe’s prose poems “from Inland” earthily dunk the reader in unexpected poetic turns of cultural utterance.


Trim photographs of uninflected speech hung over the prairie, sound’s origin. Eros came up out of its den in the embankment—came out tawny, came out swarthy, came out more “dusky” than “sienna.” The sky was a glass of water. White men say cock and black men say dick. One gets even in the midwest, one gets even in the midwest, one gets even in the midwest. Eros was a common barnyard pest…

(“Day Song”)


Open love. In a recurring dream about the prairie, a thin hedge—along some railroad embankment—in which there’s a gap to step through again and again, for me to step through, out onto the view itself. Not the literary ballad, articulated, but out onto the continent.


24. A sense of “Necro/Pastoral” is well summed up in Catherine Wagner’s “A Form of Verse:”


make me collage it.


Wagner’s opening puts out the call, asking to be ordered to get to work. She’s looking for the means to create from out the ruins of society’s flailing about with language, as it were. But she’s too full of verb and sass to simply trust in poetry’s lot.


“Recycle language
for a greener consciousness”
—that’s easy.
Everyone’s always done it.
We must be getting greener
by the hour.

25. Ironically (or perhaps not so much, considering his own interest in poetry from North America) British poet J.H. Prynne strikes the perfect closing note in his poem, “Star Damage at Home:”


…this fecund hint
I merely live in.


& leaving that in the air I return to my reading.