Etymology, Ecology, and Ecopoetics

As an expression of local, state, and regional inequities, environmental racism is a feedback loop of enhanced health risks, restricted job opportunities, diminished educational success, and negative social relations for certain populations due to zoning policies, industrial interests, and business/governmental collaborations that calibrate profits and revenue streams in relation to potential legal and political complications. The concept of ecological racism measures these same effects within the contexts of national and transnational economic policies and strategies. Examples of the former are the building of garbage incinerators in or near poor urban communities or situating nuclear power plants near impoverished rural populations. An example of the latter is the use of Somalia’s territorial waters in the Indian Ocean as dumping sites for waste from trawlers and freighters owned by companies operating in India, China, Japan, the United States, and Russia. This illegal dumping affected the livelihoods of not only Somalis but those of Kenyans and Tanzanians as well. Resistance to this activity was the seed of the infamous Somali pirates who received international media attention in the first years of the twenty-first century. In other words, “environmental racism” refers to what we often imagine as self-contained, if systemic, practices and policies, while “ecological racism” suggests that the concept of self-containment is largely an illusion, since those practices and policies, writ large, sustain global capitalism at the disproportionate expense of the underclasses, wherever their geographical locations. The word “disproportionate” means that all people on the planet are negatively affected at some level by these practices and policies even as many also benefit from them. The phrase “environmental racism,” however useful in support of resistance movements, too often cordons off the larger national and global forces precipitating events that appear only of local or regional “interest.”

If we think of ecological racism as more encompassing than environmental racism—which implies delimited geographical contexts buttressed by legal, economic, cultural, social, and, above all, political enforcements—then the very concept of ecological racism becomes explicitly plural, homologous to, for example, the institutionalization of they as a pronoun of a singular subject. The queered pronoun they does not displace the binarism of he or she; it is an additional marker of sexual orientation and gender identity. So too ecological racism is not a refusal of the concept of environmental racism. Unlike local and regional systems that support environmental racism, national and transnational systems support ecological racism. These modes of racism are thus moments on x/y axes (policies/practices), not discrete phenomena. 

Ecological racism’s homology with the non-binary they is not only due to the fact that both terms can enter the public sphere only as certified concepts by way of institutions1 but also due to the connection between heteronormativity and the biological essentialism underlying the concept of race.2 In other words, this homology is not gratuitous. At the most elementary biological level, ecology and racism are oppositional terms in relation to the survival of the human species. The desire for purity implicit in racism is at odds with maximizing the survival of our species that still relies on sexual reproduction. Moreover, as teachers and students have heard and read repeatedly, race is a social construct of Western anthropology and philosophy and, as such, must be distinguished from older expressions of ethnocentrism that precede the concepts of sexual orientation and race.3 Of course, as a metaphysical concept, ethnocentrism has proven to be durable and adaptable despite the widespread propagation of secular Enlightenment and humanist values. The fusion of ethnocentrism with the relatively novel concept of race during the Western Enlightenment gave birth to what later generations would come to call white supremacy and, concomitantly, heteronormativity. The dissemination of these values across the globe, the exportation of Christianity and expropriation of natural and human resources by colonial powers in Portugal, Spain, Belgium, England, and France, proceeded under the sails of the “new” human and physical sciences. The competitive struggles for resources and land on other continents would eventually exhaust the global powers of these national empires even as the rise of industrial capitalism and eugenics in the mid-nineteenth century facilitated the congealing of national interests into rabid nationalisms. 

Today the majority of the world’s population lives under the miasma of entrenched nationalism besieged by globalization. On the one hand, the development of open markets in, for example, post-U.S.S.R. Russia, post-Mao China, and postcolonial India has increased those nations’ annual growth rates. On the other hand, the increased use of fossil fuels for industrial infrastructures has accelerated the emission of pollutants into the atmosphere and the dumping of waste materials into the oceans. Thus, the dialectical relationship between nationalism and globalism parallels the dialectical relationship between environmental racism and ecological racism. In the broadest sense, then, the essentializing of blood has always precipitated racism, ethnocentrism, and, by extension, nationalism. Globalism, often posited as the transcendence of blood under the triumph of late capitalism, actually intensifies the nationalistic/ethnocentric struggle for resources diminished by both anti-ecological practices and policies that, more and more, attempt to satisfy the appetite of ravenous capital.

Keeping in mind that the term ecological racism is plural even as it points to a singular subject, we can see how it implies the racialization of those heretofore marginalized by class, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. The “blacks” of England, a reference to Pakistani immigrants, do not correspond to the “blacks” of the United States, yet both populations are marginalized as a whole even as individual “exceptions” enter the dominant public spheres of both countries. The racialization of populations once classified as ethnic groups cannot be separated from the advent and consolidation of natural and human resources under global capitalism.4

As these permutations of “blacks” demonstrates, globalization also means the distribution and consumption of linguistic tropes across natural and national borders. Facilitated by social media—yet another instrument in the toolbox of capital—new lexicons, colloquial phrases, and discrete terms enter the public spheres of developed and developing countries every day. Given the current debasement of the human and physical sciences and the cynical manipulation of public language in the United States, a field like etymology—or, more accurately, the values implicit in etymology (source-hunting, the interest in linguistic accuracy and “origins”)—can be a tempting source of valorization for those who see themselves as part of a global resistance to resurgent populisms and ecological collapse brought on by, in part, laissez-faire market forces.5 The implications of the words and phrases we use and do not use, the ease or unease with which we adopt technological and commercial terminologies, absorb or repel “foreign” imports, while central to all poetics and poetry, appear to take on especial urgency for ecopoetics practices, which focus on ecological systems rather than discrete phenomena associated with environmental or “nature” poetics.

Here’s a minor example. Although the phrase ecological racism does not yet exist according to the world’s most widely used search engines, each separate and individual term brings up hundreds of “hits” when searched alone. “Ecological” and “racism” have a long linguistic history, though “ecology” is much “older,” etymologically, than “race.”6 Nonetheless, if I were to use the phrase ecological racism in an essay, I might have to explain it in the body of the text or in a footnote, but I would not have to underline or italicize it throughout the text, since the individual words of the phrase are part of my native language, English. Still, unlike the French compound word I used above—laissez-faire—my phrase, though written in English, is apparently “invisible” in the public sphere. That a foreign-language phrase may have more currency than an English one only underlines the linguistic commonplace that a neologism, compound word, or phrase comprised of native-language morphemes can be more counterintuitive and opaque than a foreign-language word or phrase that has become “naturalized” by decades of usage. 


Still, whether one should or should not italicize a word or phrase is dependent on both style guides and on social institutions and cultural contexts that are never simple and straightforward. In the written English language, one signals the presence of a foreign element, a word or phrase still considered “alien,” with the italic font. But because italic itself is usually written in non-italic fonts, it functions as a customs officer, stamping others as “other” with itself, a former other. Yet, as the third word in the second sentence of this paragraph reminds us, italics also serve as a grapheme of stress, emphasis (sans the sardonic implication of its cousins, the scare-quotes). The difference between alien and stress is here, as elsewhere, a matter of citizenship, what word has yet to be, perhaps will never be, naturalized. 

Ecology may be understood then as first and foremost a question of citizenship in a specific environ, who and what belong and do not. While linguistic citizenship is usually determined by both population and usage, and is thus a matter of historical dates, assimilation, acculturation, and so forth, ecological citizenship is a function of evolutionary adaptations at the cellular/genetic levels to environmental change. A common phrase like “invasive species” captures not only this assumption that the native and alien belong to different environs but also bears the presumption that an ecosystem’s organic, interdependent populations are, and should be, stable and, for the most part, unchanging. In short, “invasive species” reveals the way we tend to think of ecology in synchronic frameworks, bracketing its historical dimension.

In other words, ecology, like etymology, is both synchronic and diachronic, comparative and evolutionary. Intertwining as two strands of the multiple helixes comprising human history, ecology and etymology trace mutations and adaptations of extant and extinct environmental systems and discrete words.7 However, while ecology often presupposes mapping changes in environmental networks from the past to the present in order to hypothesize about future developments, etymology shuttles back and forth between present and past word usages and meanings. While we may be interested in trying to predict, for example, how changes to inorganic matter in a particular ecosystem might affect the prospects for the survival of its native organisms, we typically aren’t concerned about what new terms and lexicons might arise from repurposing or recombining the semantic, syntactic, or grammatical values of current or anachronistic words. And though linguists often talk about “living” and “dead” languages, our reflex is to recognize this kind of discourse as purely metaphorical. After all, languages aren’t “alive” or “dead” in the way that a stalk of corn or red fox may be dead or alive. We may like or dislike the changes in the way words are used or combined as our languages evolve, but we don’t usually believe we need them in the way we need food, water, clothing, and shelter. 

These commonsensical beliefs and assumptions do not necessarily square with current and emerging developments in the human and physical sciences. For example, both linguists and neuroscientists have suggested that it is not clear that homo sapiens and its predecessors could have survived various ecological challenges over millennia without the development of languages. Moreover, modern developments in neuroscience, nanotechnologies, psychoanalytic theory, subatomic physics, cosmology, sociology, and linguistics trouble the differences between sentience and non-sentience, however much Enlightenment values and assumptions determine the knowledges produced by these sciences.8 

Although the study of word origins and developments would seem to be independent of, if not irrelevant to, the study of the various “kingdoms” of earth (animal, plant, bacteria, etc.), etymology and ecology dovetail as the hidden “theory” that motivates the practice of what is today called ecopoetics. Ecopoetics is obviously not the only field in which the relationship between etymology and ecology may be observed; as I noted above, each term orients the other in any number of the physical and human sciences. The lexicons and glossaries of language systems used to analyze and transcribe ecological systems—local, regional, or global—determine the values ascribed to premises and conclusions that are irreducible to, even if arising from, scientific, cultural, historical, and social data.9 At the same time ecological systems frame the presumptions, values, and developments of linguistic practices. As a specific iteration of this etymological/ecological dynamic, ecopoetics is accorded a certain privilege insofar as its varied practices—from narrative/lyric to paratactic, nonlinear, and experimental forms—are thought to correspond to the “roots” or origins, the biochemical interactions and observable macroscopic phenomena, comprising ecological systems. In arguing that etymological as well as ecological concerns orient ecopoetics from “behind” as it were, I am also insisting that the Romantic concept of “correspondences” between the visible and invisible worlds, between subject and object, motivates both representational “nature” poetry as well as experimental ecopoetry. 

Although this latent organicism is rarely articulated as such, it underpins the very premise of an aesthetic practice that attaches itself to, or annexes as an index of progressive activism, an oikos. Since the practice in question is here a poetics, ecopoetics is literally the making of a house or, more colloquially, keeping house, taking care of a house.10 The bioethics of stewardship is implicit in the most representational “environmental” writing, which tends to limit the scope of its concerns to discrete phenomena, as well as in the most experimental “ecological” writing, which emphasizes systems analysis. For example, the late Mary Oliver was renowned for her traditional lyric poems about the natural world. The contemporary poet Brenda Iijima has long been involved in the ecopoetics movement, focusing in particular on ecological destruction and the poisoning of the natural environment, a subject that rarely, if ever, appears in Oliver’s poetry. Yet, in one of her poems, Mary Oliver’s celebration of the goldenrod and critique of human sentience—“And what has consciousness come to anyway, so far, // that is better than these light-filled bodies?”—seems not that different from this couplet in a Brenda Iijima poem: “Power looms textiles predict cities of sand / where presently stands of trees flourish.” For both the traditional lyric poet and the innovative ecopoet, human consciousness and the built world compare unfavorably to the given world of nature.


Ecopoetics may be understood, then, in the parlance of American real estate, as an “addition.”11 Although an explicit concern with terminology concerns only a small percentage of ecopoetics (and an even smaller percentage concerns etymological/ecological dynamics), the question of which word best describes a specific praxis is a question of selecting from a thesaurus, choosing and using, avoiding and discarding terms, impossible without the field of etymology.12 Both etymology and ecology may be oriented by precognitive values and ethical concerns that neither term explicitly endorses: one’s interest in etymology may be driven by an ur-phoneme or -morpheme fetish refracted through concern for, say, accurate word usage; one’s interest in ecology may presuppose the desirability of stable, if changing, environs. Insofar as these affective motives are “additions” to the objective study of word origins and systems of organic/inorganic interdependence, ecopoetics exploits the boundary between objective analyses and affective interest. 

This ecological/etymological dynamic suggests that ecopoetics is, finally, a domestication of the domestic writ large, a doubling down on the house (earth) as a home (world). As an annex of ecology, ecopoetics replicates its cognitive values (objective analyses) while building an affective add-on.13 In doing so, ecopoetics marks the site where the apex of dialectics is decapitated and the antagonistic struggle between thesis and antithesis (e.g., nature and culture) cannot be synthesized into a “peaceful” resolution.14 Thus, ecopoetics distinguishes itself from traditional environmental or “nature” poetry by its anti-pastoralism, a stance which remains antagonistic to the extent it arrests the “third” turn toward sublation. Certain ecopoets and ecocritics accept this inevitable dilemma and simply index the struggle itself. For example, both Joshua Corey and Rob Halpern have argued that the mineral kingdom in general, and the pebble or stone in particular, served as the example par excellence of absolute alterity in the proto-ecopoetry of Muriel Rukeyser, Francis Ponge, and George Oppen.15 Other ecopoets, like Brenda Iijima and Jennifer Scappettone, attempt to circumvent dialectical thinking by dissolving subjects and objects into an affective imaginary where rage, pleasure, hope, regret, and frustration mark the limits of cognition in the midst of collapsing ecosystems. Nonetheless, circumventing traditional dialectics when thinking the human-human or human-nonhuman encounter is, as a practice, more difficult than one might imagine. In order to demonstrate some of these difficulties I will be focusing on a special issue of Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment as well as recent books by Jennifer Scappettone and Brenda Iijima.

Examples of both kinds of encounters can be seen in what Angela Hume and Samia Rahimtoola call the “queering of ecopoetics,” the title of a “cluster” of essays they assembled for a special issue of Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment (ISLE) (Winter 2018). Contributors include critic Sarah Ensor, who in “The Ecopoetics of Contact” suggests that the poet William Wordsworth and essayist/fiction writer Samuel Delany model a queer ecopoetics ethos in the ways they confront the problem of physical encounters with the “other.” In their introduction to the section, Hume and Rahimtoola situate Ensor’s recovery of an ecopoetics predecessor like Wordsworth in opposition to the more radical positions of queer critics Lee Edelman and Jack Halberstam, who desire to “dispense[s] with the future altogether” by refusing what they regard as the heteronormative cult of the child. Hume and Rahimtoola reject these positions: 

Critiquing the Child as the basic organizing principle behind current political discourse, Lee Edelman vaunts queerness as “the side of those not ‘fighting for the children’ ” . . . Edelman draws on Sigmund Freud’s concept of the death drive to embrace the queer as a figure of negativity—anti-productive and epistemically unintelligible—who radically rejects “every realization of futurity”. . . Similarly, Jack Halberstam has suggested that “queer time” disregards conventional life goals such as stability and longevity to enact velocities of living that unfurl without concern for whatever might come next. 

As Hume and Rahimtoola note in their critiques of Halberstam and Edelman, the narrow focus on an acceleration of pleasures insulated by the present winds up endorsing a consumerist ethos, that all-too-familiar “live-for-today attitude that defines our social and environmental relations.” A failure to understand the relation of the consumer16 and commodity culture to both early and late capitalism can be seen in Ensor’s readings of Wordsworth and Delany, while Halpern’s reading of Oppen explicitly confronts the relationship between an ecopoetics sensibility and mid-twentieth-century capitalism. 

Ensor is interested in the ethical problem of “contact,” in what happens when a human has a physical encounter with the nonhuman, an event which ideally offers another mode of reducing, if not entirely erasing, the subject/object antagonisms that predate capital. Dissatisfied with “ecosexuals” such as the queer performance artists Elizabeth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle, who unapologetically “make love with the earth . . . shamelessly hug trees, massage the earth with [their] feet, and talk erotically to plants,” Ensor finds potential models for ethical contact elsewhere, in the examples of Wordsworth’s 1798 poem “Nutting” and Delany’s 1999 nonfiction work Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. Ensor, interested in what she calls “an ecopoetics of contact,” in what it means to almost touch, to almost be touched, sees in these works by writers separated from each other by two centuries, sexual orientation, geography, ethnicity, and race a transcendental model for human-nonhuman and human-human haptic encounters that are neither utilitarian or solipsistic. Thus, these encounters between subjects and objects must be serendipitous. Moreover, the subject must linger before its object of interest in a pose of disinterest. (Ensor discusses Delany’s casual cruising for the mere pleasure of looking, of gleaning without pausing, much less stopping to pick up someone.) Ensor’s valorization of one suspended between rest and contact seems to indefinitely defer haptic encounters. But what is presupposed in this pre-haptic dance between menace and flirtation is leisure, having the time to encounter or engage the nonhuman and human “outside” of labor, “outside” of purpose. In her reading of Delany, Ensor passes over the relationship between leisure and work: “However, if Times Square Red, Times Square Blue teaches us anything, it may be that contact itself is neither good nor bad, neither healthy nor pathological; for Delany, contact is an ethos regardless of its outcome. What his book insists, we might say, is not that contact is good (although sometimes its consequences are) but rather that contact is; his account urges us to acknowledge the ways in which contact shapes the dimensions of our everyday life even (or especially) when it does not resolve itself into a legible end.” Consequently, her reading of “Nutting” only illustrates how leisure is the “hidden theory” of her haptic ecopoetics.17

Rob Halpern’s reading in “ ‘The Idiot Stone’: George Oppen’s Geological Imagination; Or, Objectivist Realism as Ecopoetics” of Oppen’s “geological imagination” (published in a volume of essays co-edited by Angela Hume) illustrates the promise and limits of ecopoetics.18 Along with Louis Zukofsky and Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen was a practitioner of objectivist poetics which attempted to focus on the “things” of the world. Like the poet Muriel Rukeyser, George Oppen was interested in the built world of industrialism and criticized the effects of industrialism on the natural world. And like the French poet Francis Ponge, Oppen was interested in ordinary discrete objects—pencils, stones, etc.—that populated both the human and natural worlds. What separated Oppen from Rukeyser and Ponge was his commitment to Marxism. However, Oppen was also haunted by what he saw as the gap between geological and human time, how the seeming infinitude of the former might imply that all human projects, including Marxism, were ultimately futile moments on the vast scale of geological time. Rob Halpern sees in Oppen’s objectivist poetics, Rukeyser’s social realism, and Francis Ponge’s “ordinary objects” poetry a kindred recognition of the limits of human temporality when measured against geological temporality. For all three poets, clarity of language is an ethical imperative since it recognizes the limits of human linguistic practices and, by implication, human consciousness vis-à-vis the natural world.19 However, as Halpern notes, the positive value attributed to clarity reinscribes the familiar dialectics of humanism responsible for the various crises (political, ecological, etc.) all three poets confronted. For Halpern, Oppen’s objectivist poetics exemplify this dilemma. On the one hand, Halpern notes that Oppen’s “objectivist realism . . . offers a prophylactic against the metaphysics of speculative realism in our own present tense.” That is, unlike objecthood philosophies that valorize the nonhuman (e.g., geological temporality) over the human, Oppen keeps his eye on the world humans have built and, just as important, have not built.20 On the other hand, Oppen’s “elaboration of ‘clear’ and ‘obscured’ maps readily onto a more familiar dialectic . . . ‘concrete’ and ‘abstract’ ” and thus draws “his poetics into the orbit of a commodity logic whereby a thing’s most concrete materiality harbors the most abstract social relations.” As we have already seen in other ecopoets who come up against the limits of apprehending the natural order, Oppen’s objectivist realism must acknowledge that “words bear the burden of impossibly coinciding with phenomena one can never immediately apprehend.” And so, “a poem is not a stone and never will be.” In the volume’s introduction, Angela Hume draws this conclusion from those ontological limits: “While poetry composed in a field is not organic material or life itself, it gets as close to the organic as possible without actually becoming it.” The distance between nature and culture orients the poetics of a modernist like Oppen, a deep-image nature poet such as Mary Oliver and an ecopoet such as Brenda Iijima. And all three derive this nature/culture dialectic from English Romanticism.21 Organicism, the desire for closing the distance between humans and humans, humans and nonhumans, orients almost all the permutations of ecopoetics, and, as with the Romantics, it is a corollary of anti-humanist, anti-industrialist, and, often, anti-capitalist stances. In other words, ecopoetics embraces anti-progress positions that, in the best cases, avoid the trappings of “back to nature” utopianism.


One recent example of a critical, unsentimental ecopoetics was the special collective exhibition Digital Trash, held from September to December 2018 at Rutgers University. Along with an array of videos and photographs reporting on the physical waste generated by digitization, the exhibit featured a “mine field,” as it were, of cellphones below a monitor explaining the tons of waste seeping into the atmosphere due to Google, Microsoft, and so on. As Jennifer Scappettone points out in a text accompanying her part of the exhibit, Lament: How the Mine Opened Up, the resources required for, and waste products from, digital infrastructures and devices are much more environmentally destructive than the oft-maligned use of paper products, a pejorative only because of the refusal to reforest logging sites and encourage “green” paper manufactures. More to the point, the question of human overpopulation, though once thought to be the number-one source of ecological destruction, rarely appears now as a concern among eco-activists or ecopoetics practitioners.22

Scappettone and Iijima are unapologetically polemical and dogmatic in their respective denunciations of ecological destruction, corporate malfeasance, and capitalist exploitation. At the same time, they do not spare themselves from their indictments, and in that sense, we read in their works epic and dramatic demonstrations of both the power of institutional domination of the environments in which we live and the resistance to those aligned forces.

Brenda Iijima’s Early Linoleum frames lyric and narrative poems with “hyper essays” teeming with quotations, paraphrases, and citations as far-flung as pop songwriter Jimmy Webb (“MacArthur Park”) and philosopher Jacques Derrida, all in the service of “rehabilitating dubious historical accounts that have been buried subcutaneously—to rally around rebellious claims for the gendered, administered bodies that we are, and the textual artifice where we arrange edifices of our embodied experiences.” For Iijima, citation is less a matter of case-law authority than it is an argument from tort law, the presumption, here, of wrongdoing. The legal terminology here does not indicate the subsumption of ethics; rather, it indexes Iijima’s recognition that “we pick it, hunt it, gather it, and catalog it: telemetry and telescope tracking, chips and ankle bracelets.” Thus, the hyper essays engage but also parody rationalism. They enjoin an assembly of like-minded artists, critics, and philosophers, so that, in many ways, this text performs a battle royal of choirs. This method, long employed by Iijima, preempts the charge of apocalyptic proselytizing to the extent it proposes history as a tug of war between well-armed armies, even if the fiery denunciations of those on her side cannot match the firepower of those on the other side.

Early Linoleum investigates the problems around archeology, geology, property, vegetarianism, misogyny, racism, and more. The glacial burial of metals and minerals and erection of mountains (“Calcium carbonate sediment makes marble / Ice sheets congeal compression colossal / Buckling folding buckling folding” and “the rocks are alive / Geologically the rock slabs stacked like the islands of Japan / Convert limestone and dolostones to marble and metadolostones”) might tempt one to “translate” the history of the earth’s geological developments into a kind of “intelligent design” once mining, for example, opens up the Pandora’s box of silver, iron, and other elements toxic to flora and fauna. Despite our taste for categorizing discrete objects according to lines of descent, these exchanges of elements across the mineral and animal kingdoms reflect our concepts of the vertical limits of private property. Our legal, commercial, and militaristic invocations of mining and fishing rights on the one hand, and the bracketing of air space on the other, lead Iijima to wonder, “is it private property to the molten core?” In her more lyrical, subjective moments, Iijima “explains” her personality in relation to the physical environment: “Acid rain made me irritable / all of the song birds disappeared.” The collapsing of past and future into a present is of course a typical strategy of the prophet whose fleshy weakness is simultaneously spiritual strength—and vice versa: “My little white body fell off a makeshift bridge / Into the frigid water I fell / I gripped a rock.” As in early Susan Howe, antinomianism assumes all kinds of “antisocial” behavior: “I knew the meatballs were hacked meat, sure, no illusion. . . . I begged my mother for avocados and nuts. . . . It was inappropriate to talk to souls.” In terms, however, of the development of the United States our folly is summed up in two lines: “Cotton with its thorns, railroad ties, Napa Valley crops // Then water came.” As historian Mike Davis has pointed out in his studies of the development of the West in general and Los Angeles in particular, the transformation of the desert into green land has had, and will have, devastating consequences for residents, not only the increasingly large and frequent wildfires but also the draining of water resources never designed to sustain large sedentary human populations. 

Jennifer Scappettone’s The Republic of Exit 43 covers much of the same geographical territory as not only Iijima’s Early Linoleum (Massachusetts and New York State) but also as Rodrigo Toscano’s Explosion Rocks Springfield.23 As in Early Linoleum, The Republic is saturated with rage, but while Iijima’s book deploys citationality to conjure a community of like-minded individuals (even if some might excuse themselves from the group), Scappettone’s book is an over-the-top literary mash-up. The book’s subtitle—Outtakes & Scores from an Archaeology and Pop-Up Opera of the Corporate Dump—accurately summarizes, without exhausting, its contents. While the black-and-white photographs in Early Linoleum largely serve to mark off sections of the book, the predominantly color photographs and overexposed pictures of paper ribbons of text that dominate The Republic read like a libretto shredded by Edward Scissorhands. These strips of paper are not just metaphors for the unearthing of metals and minerals long buried under geological strata. They also correspond to the soundbytes, the snippets of information and disinformation, that pass by, over, and through our bodies every day of our digital lives. These multicolored Burroughsesque cut-ups washed in chemical browns, greens, and overexposed blues deconstruct the contact ecopoetics of Ensor. For in this context, contact with a poisoned environment is the last thing anyone would want to have. And as the Digital Trash exhibition makes clear, we are already too much in “contact” with the miasmas of overproduction. 

Featuring a cast of characters from Greek, Roman, and Italian myth (Virgil, Orfeu, Sirens, and Io), Lewis Carroll (Alice), and a chorus of chemical compounds, industrial tools and machines and corporate CEOs, The Republic reads like a lunatic version of American history—that is, exactly like the consequences of American history: “Is it possible to mobilize the disgust provoked by encounter with what has been cast off, to transform a wasteland from an abject repository of undifferentiated filth into an archive?” This sentence is from “Garbage Arcadia” and it serves as one of the questions central to this project. The other, and perhaps more pressing issue, is how an ecopoetics might make sense of the complex of layerings, the yoking together of ancient ruins and modern structures, that define the city- and land-scapes of our lives. Referring to the problem of an ecopoetics praxis, Scappettone asks, “Can one render its contents, negated and amalgamated as ambiguous matter, coherent only in being excluded from the polis as stuff and as discourse, legible to the senses?” The immediacy of the pop-up, akin to the Happening, abuts the operatic melodrama of our overscored lives. Thus, the poems in the book function as linguistic analogues of the paper strips—bits and pieces of miscellany, billboard ads, advertisement jingles, clichés, device descriptions, etc.: “Future-proofed enclave test / Of Arithmetic—Ambition, Distraction, Uglification / Slung in the air / Two-way voice. In-only voice / Bent to wantonness / Of wire husbandry.” 

In bringing together the gendered notion of household and farm management with technology—that “wire husbandry”—Scappettone reminds us that the queered pronoun they perfectly captures the non-binary post-humanist world. As the old binarisms of Enlightenment humanism (man/woman, nature/culture, West/East, etc.) flare up like dying embers, and populism, fundamentalism, and fascism retake the world stage, ecopoetics, the nexus of etymology and ecology, offers us glimpses into our singular dark future. Because we still live on a single planet, they will have always been the first pronoun of our nonbinary past, present, and future.


*An essay-review of

Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment 25.1 (Winter 2018). New York: Oxford University Press. 216 pp. $37.00.

The Republic of Exit 43: Outtakes & Scores from an Archaeology and Pop-Up Opera of the Corporate Dump. By Jennifer Scappettone. Berkeley, CA: Atelos, 2016. 200 pp. $17.50, paper.

Early Linoleum. By Brenda Iijima. Denver, CO: Counterpath Press, 2015. 147 pp. $24.00, paper.


1. For example, the stamp of approval of a dictionary or the publication and ensuing popularity of a book like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010) facilitate changes in grammar and connections between past and present legal and paralegal practices.

2. A twenty-first-century term like same-sex, a twentieth-century term like heteronormativity, and a nineteenth-century term like homosexuality reflect new value-laden nomenclatures and paradigms for old practices.

3. Ethnocentrism attempts to stabilize group identity amid the amorphous fluidity of human migration and, more broadly, human evolution. It manages bloodlines by sight and hearing, by visible and audible signs of similarity. Outbreaks of violence against the external “stranger” and internal “defector” are symptoms of futility as blood, evolution, the play of recessive and dominant genes, and geological place mock its attempts to contain and expel the alien.

4. The 2018 book Perfume Area connects ecology and etymology in “Helvetica the Perfume,” where the “Swiss typeface” is understood to be “far from neutral,” the latter assertion a rejoinder to the inventors of the typeface who claimed that it, like the Swiss during the World Wars, was neutral. Thus this piece begins, “Helvetica the Perfume consists only of water. This is, apparently, the scent of nothing.” The “scent of nothing” evokes an ecology of global capital as a network of natural nonsites. Thus, as one example, Helvetica refers, etymologically, to the tribes that populated the geographical area of present-day Switzerland. They came into contact with, and were absorbed by, the Romans. This ordinary story of human migration, encounter and assimilation (or conquest) is, writ large, the essence of perfume, which may be subtle but can no more be “neutral” than confined to an “area.”

5. During the 2008 economic recession, which threatened the banking industries and housing markets in the United States, several hard-core Republicans and economists insisted that these industries should be allowed to fail since they had been unable to adapt to the emerging dynamics of the free market.

6. Although ecology can be traced back to 1873 when it was first used in a scientific paper, it derives from oecology, a “branch of science dealing with the relationship of living things to their environments,” coined in German by German zoologist Ernst Haeckel as Ökologie, from Greek oikos “house, dwelling place, habitation” (from PIE root *weik- (1) “clan”) + -logia “study of” (see -logy). In use with reference to anti-pollution activities from 1960s. ( Race derives from the sixteenth-century Middle French and Italian razza (“a tribe or group of people”), while racism appears in the early twentieth century.

7. As I show below, language systems are more like ecosystems than single words. However, I’m pairing ecology with etymology in order to argue that ecopoetics shares with traditional environmental poetry a search for origins and an organicist metaphysics.

8. In keeping a language “alive” through spoken and written utterances we do not, of course, endow it with sentience, but sentience is not a requirement for all forms of life. For me, no argument for a broader conception of life is much better than the one Emily Dickinson makes in “My Life Had Stood – A Loaded Gun.”

9. “Jargon” is often, if not always, an index of this tendency toward greater and greater accuracy. The use of Greek and Latin terms in, say, botany is merely one example of a general premise. This also applies to prefixes like ec-, con-, and com-, as well as to suffixes like -ism, -ite, -ist, and so forth.

10. This common definition of poetics as “making,” “what is made,” can be found in an online etymology dictionary (

11. Just as a house with a new “addition” is thought to increase its selling value, whatever its appraisal by county officials, so too ecopoetics may be understood—with no moral judgment implied—as one of the more recent “market-enhancement” treatments of poetics.

12. Tina Darragh’s and Marcella Durand Deep Eco Pré (2009) is one exception to the rule.

13. Sometimes the cognitive and affective are evoked interchangeably, erasing the distinction between original and add-on. In Craig Dworkin’s The Pine-Woods Notebook (2019), the scientific, aesthetic, subjunctive, and mythic converge in the commodity (“Aerosols bloom above boreal forests”) and natural/spiritual (“A liquid elixir of pine pitch mixed with pitch-pine switches quickens”).

14. The brooding pessimism of a Robert Frost has its sources in the failure of cognition to “know” the natural world; the pessimism of ecopoets like Iijima is that that failure, a philosophical one, has only buttressed the exploitation of the natural world for human utility.

15. See, for example, Joshua Corey, “Three Pebbles—Or, the minimal materialisms of late modernism” ( Below, I discuss Rob Halpern’s analysis of George Oppen as an ecopoet.

16. The “early 15th c.” word consumer is defined as “one who squanders or wastes,” agent noun from consume. In economics, “one who uses up goods or articles, one who destroys the exchangeable value of a commodity by using it” (opposite of producer), from 1745.” (

17. Ensor misses transitive verbs in the poem, apparently because they signal “purpose.” And she misreads Wordsworth’s coupling of “Voluptuous” and “restraint” to preempt the charge of solipsism against the narrator.

18. In Ecopoetics: Essays in the Field, ed. Angela Hume and Gillian Osborne (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2018), 42–61.

19. As we will see below, the ethos informing Brenda Iijima’s ecopoetics is not unlike that of Ponge, Oppen, and Ruykeyser.

20. Halpern’s critique is informed by the socialist values he shares with Oppen.

21. Unsurprisingly, ecocriticism emerges in academia as largely revisionist studies of English Romanticism.

22. Not one essay in Hume and Osborne’s Ecopoetics: Essays in the Field confronts this issue.

23. All three books individually and collectively extend the so-called Rust Belt from Buffalo across the northern border of the United States to its eastern shores.

Tyrone Williams teaches literature and theory at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is the author of several chapbooks and six books of poetry: As Iz (Omnidawn, 2018), Howell (Atelos Books, 2011), Adventures of Pi (Dos Madres Press, 2011), The Hero Project of the Century (The Backwaters Press, 2009), On Spec (Omnidawn, 2008), and c.c. (Krupskaya, 2002). A limited-edition art project, Trump l’oeil, was published by Hostile Books in 2017. He and Jeanne Heuving edited the anthology Inciting Poetics (University of New Mexico Press, 2019).