Wildness in Contemporary Poetry (vs. Poetry about Wildness) (on Jeanne Heuving’s Mood Indigo and Robyn Schiff’s A Woman of Property)

I keep fighting off awareness that my imaginative life has been stuck in a rut for a long time. When one dismisses specific contemporary volumes of poetry, one can blame the authors. When one persistently rejects such poetry, one has to consider blaming the reader. But there is a considerable gulf between blaming the reader and changing the reader’s imaginative orientations. 

My audience has now become aware that this is a confessional work, at least in its staging, so I had better just come out with my version of the problem. “Stuck in Modernism and how Modernism taught me to appreciate much of the classical canon” might be a better title. But I want to dwell on efforts to break out of this shell rather than just lamenting it so as to celebrate the sensitivity enabling the trap. Hence my efforts to align with the only wildness my academic nature can abide—a wildness enabled by artifice. 



First the diagnosis. What can be said to be the major biases fidelity to Modernist values might produce? Whatever soul modernism leaves for searching reveals one major bias, with several corollaries. The central bias is taking very seriously the ideal of autonomy. This means the work has to be a law coming out of itself for itself so that the shaping sensibility (not a psyche) has to be itself the primary object as it provides this law for itself. Such law can derive from manifest structural features affording a sense of strange unity to the whole. Or it can derive from a surrealist disorder that depends equally as much on a specific will to order in the absence of controlling concepts. In honoring either kind of created law, the artist or poet can realize something existentially important beyond the ken of the personal. 

Had I more time I would begin with my favorite non-representational painting—Malevich’s Eight Red Rectangles. The rectangles perform a dance to music invented by the painter and composed visually by a system of delicate balances that contains and complicates the exuberant feeling. But now we need literary examples. For a literary example, consider how William Carlos Williams’s “Spring and All” emphasizes structural cohesion that must be produced in terms of distinctive particularity rather than any kind of generic fidelity. And, more important, the poem refuses to submit to the logic of perspectivism that makes an individual consciousness the arbiter of significance for the work. The work must achieve objectivity as form and produce a sense of density that embodies a high degree of engagement in reality for those who know how to process the work’s difficulties. 

For me, the corollaries of a high Modernist commitment to autonomy are 1) freedom from the traps of perspectivism with its subject caught up in inevitable Althusserian interpellation; 2) cleanliness of both constructive and perceptive intelligence enabling stylistic choices to define routes of significance linking poem to world; 3) trust in that constructive intelligence to make present a process of realization that needs no help from borrowed interpretive contexts or philosophical pretensions; 4) a kind of closure so as to give the impression that any more language would do more harm than good—it suffices to begin with flat passivity and arrive at a gripping down that is also an awakening.



In many ways my essay seems simply an academic expansion of Nathaniel Mackey’s brilliant comment on the book jacket of the text by Jeanne Heuving to which I shall soon turn:

 “The blue particles accrete.” . . . This quietly lyrical, hypnotic new work begins with ink and paper, quickly rays out into heterogeneous play with a kind of sideways messaging, hauntingly broods on the life of indigo in animal, plant, and human affairs. It symphonically lays ply upon ply, fold upon fold, writing upon reading, a patiently, seemingly sober, murmurous lack to which an antithetic perspicacity accrues. 

Mackey’s comment leads us to the logic of the rhizome elaborated by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, most clearly in Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues (Columbia University Press, 1987). (See for paths of reading versions of wildness in Modern American poetry, Srikanth Reddy, Changing Subjects: Digression in Modern American Poetry, published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2012.) Here I make no claim about the truth of Deleuze’s assertion. I care only about its capacity to illuminate what concerns some superb contemporary writers. I turn to Deleuze because his concept of assemblage based on rhizomatic activity offers in my view a richer valuing of what poetry can shape than more traditional ideas of structures for experience. These traditional ideals tend to rely on tree structures that offer clear outlines and hierarchical modes of order. Think of Chomsky’s linguistic trees (great for logic but insensitive to tone) or the dream of an ordered government structured hierarchically. The rhizomatic structure constituting the root systems of bulbs and tubers like blackberries is very different. Deleuze invokes William Burroughs’s “cut up method: the folding of one text into another, which constitutes multiple and even adventitious roots.” The ideal of unity becomes very complex, because any state is unified only by its process of distributing effects, always already overdetermined by these proliferating folds. 

For Deleuze, unity in relation to events inheres in what he calls an “assemblage.” An assemblage occurs when the “coordinates” of a scene to be mapped “are determined not by theoretical analyses implying universals but by a pragmatics composing multiplicities or aggregates of intensities.” These aggregates take form shaped by “lines of flight” where the subject sees itself as both working and being worked upon in the sense of freedom established within the assemblage. Such working and being worked upon consists of distributing two subjects—of enunciation and of self-reference—that become bound within a process of “deterritorialization forever driving them together and driving them apart.” Deleuze’s most compelling example of that process is the activity of co-authoring a book with Felix Guattari: “What was important for us was less our working together than this strange fact of working between the two of us.” The interactions there made distinct subjective contributions hard to determine, largely because each subject and the relations between them constantly shift within “what the assemblage seems to demand.”



In order to discuss the poetry I want to consider as definitively making a philosophical break from Modernist values, we have to consider various strategies for providing alternatives to arboreal structure: “And” replaces “Is” becomes the fundamental concern of writing, per Deleuze and Parnet, resulting in the need for structures capable of organizing what “And” produces. Consequently, it becomes necessary to treat the work of subjectification as manifest in modes of flight and investments in what flight affords as volatile states of self-consciousness. Consider as my first example Jeanne Heuving’s Mood Indigo (selva oscura press, 2019), a text based on jazz improvisation. The book consists of twenty-one sections, each of which contains three parts. The first two parts present seven lines of prose treated as poetry, with an enjambment tying it to the next section, which can vary in length from four to seven lines each. And each starts with the infinitive phrase “to begin,” presumably as an echo of academic ways of directing an audience’s attention. But the phrase also establishes a claim to spontaneity and so to freedom that is belied by how much apparent beginnings take place in the middle of sequences that are not in the control of the speaker. Beginning over and over calls out for a philosophical model capable of interpreting these objectifying forces.

We will see how Heuving’s handling of structure crossing poetry’s lines with the flexibility of prose is one major source of delight in this work. Form becomes the effect of how improvisation and exposition weave together in what Heuving’s closing sections call a process of “syncresis,” where “the elements are not synthesized but altered in their make-up into a new thing.” Even more important is her handling of texture, because that dramatizes the ways subject and object maintain complex dialogue, ultimately subsumed into a richer understanding of the powers objects can establish for controlling our attention within particular scenes. The subjective comes and goes, but always as a solicited aspect of an intricate assemblage. And the assemblage turns out to include in almost every section lines of flight provided by echoes of other texts or tunes which are noted at the back of the book.

The best I can do under my time constraints is isolate passages that I hope give some sense of the subtle range of shifts in focus that comprise this intricate assemblage. In my first example, notice how subjectivity grows out of an extended and lovely meditation on the author’s effort to “shore my writing within the literal.” The remainder of the first three sections erases this “I” in order to concentrate on descriptive passages that are in no way metaphoric, yet overlay fact with intricate sensitivity to perceptual qualities, the play of proximity and distance, and constructed vowel music. Then there emerges this section, insisting on a complex assemblage of detail and feeling with the lines of flight delicately subdued, and made all the more present because of that:

To begin with the literal. I wish to shore my writing within the littoral. The littoral is the shore between low and high tide or the bog of a river or lake. Rushes abound in the littoral, characterized by their stiff, pithy or hollow stalks. They have joints in the stem and grow in woody places. Because of the constant erosion of tides, trees are felled in the newly forming littoral. . . . The tides with their salty residue blacken the bracken and a host of stumps. A pine tree ablaze, its needles a pool of glistening, is razored by the buzz saw. . . .What did she know of the hill and the hollow, the sea road. For fineprinting, it is needful to shear the nap of the cloth instead of singeing it. I am burned to the quick, but trace rivulets in the shape of little hearts with my finger tips.*

We might say that the littoral is where the literal opens into imaginative possibilities.

Now consider how different the presentation is when the text turns in section ten to indigo. Here observation swiftly modulates to a series of imperatives as measures of a distinctive form of first-person care carried in the sense of detail:

To begin with indigo. I blue my fingers, hands and face with indigo. I place my fingers over my eyes in a blue weft of seeing. For dyeing cloth two things are required of the dye. It has to be absorbed by the material in question, and it has to be absolutely fast. To collect the seeds of the wild blue indigo, wait until the seed pods turn black and begin to open on their own, or at least rattle when shaken. . . . The sea has inspired artists for years finding in its blue-black depths an interchanging of life and death, and in its crystalline surface an enhanced seeing that manifests and stills. For a deep and sad blue, as in floating brown kelp beds, mingle indigo and pink. . . .

This passage is the first occasion when the opening section of a unit begins with a person acting. That investment immediately generates imperatives focused on something close to an interior dialogue involved in guiding the action. The first imperative focuses on activating the agency of the dye. Then the stage quickly shifts to the need to satisfy desires elicited by a sense of what the indigo can accomplish. Human agency is there but woven into the nature of the material and the tasks asked of it. This established, instructions to artists for producing feelings become a significant extension of the scene. 

The final passage of this section offers a rare moment where the first person focuses on private concerns, as if the scene had to be accompanied by the psyche’s memories. But the private is immediately stylized by its affinities with the blues that complicate and distribute the lines of flight afforded by this assemblage:

All my life through, I’ve been so black and blue. They laugh at you, and scorn you too. What did I do to be so black and blue? Cold empty bed springs hard as lead. Feel like old Ned. Wish I was dead. Even the mouse ran from my house.

That threat of the blues taking over because of moods sponsored by indigo then reveals the core of an underlying plot. Now the sections all begin with abstract elements, apparently intended to provide a larger framework where even the blues can be seen as a kind of pleasure, because they can lead us to think in ways where “syncresis” replaces “synthesis.” And then what cannot be synthesized effectively becomes not a lack in being so much as a step into alternative ways of engaging experience and dealing with its consequences. Syncresis makes possible seeing and hearing in terms of how material features of experience get combined. And the “syncretic” does the same kind of work by turning from the level of ideas and traditions.

In order to trace the core of this plot, I have to move quickly through some of the closing sections. This is the beginning of section 17:

To begin with mood indigo. My impulse is to convey a mood and not to impart specific grievances causing that mood. A mood can consume the populace as dye penetrates a cloth, altering dispositions that before had seemed to go along with things. Standing on a crust of sand above the inks, a vestige of green could be seen in the dark waters. . . . For a deep and sad Greene, as in the inmost leaves of trees, mingle indigo and pink.

The movement here is striking—from a statement of the topic, to personal “impulse,” to a generalization about mood eliciting a lovely similarity, to an impersonal positioning of the spectator on “a crust of sand,” to a shift composing an artist’s perspective on a means of provoking even deeper sadness, but as creation, not as submission to pathos. And here simile reverses its usual function by not expanding the field of reference but intensifying the role of material elements.

This is syncretism in action. But the principle of syncretism can only be developed sufficiently after continuing to deal with the metaphorics and jazz implementations of blue. Images proliferate in section 18. Then those images seem to inspire the need to face the power and problematic nature of “synthesis,” which is our first thought of a procedure for putting images within a structured order. Here in relation to synthesis the writing must mime an analytic prose that is estranged from the ways the text has handled the force of mood and floating observation:

To begin with synthesis. I stand among syntheses as a tree in a muddy swamp. The making of objects distinct belongs to synthesis, the making of concepts belongs to analysis.

There follows a playful sense of wearing synthesis as signs of power. The section ends with sheer description of processes of dyeing and scientific discoveries about indigo.

So much for synthesis, which cannot capture the haunting overtones of what dyeing involves and the emotional registers involving shades of blue. Enter syncretism as the focus of the book’s final two sections, where knowledge becomes overtly fuel for imagination:

To begin with syncresis. I do not seek refuge in a synthesized pain laced with the small pleasure of succumbing. In syncresis the elements are not synthesized but altered in their make-up into a new thing. Since every word obtains its meaning through syncresis of disparate schema, words end up acquiring a reality of their own. 

Here the personal leaps to the fore, not even waiting until the explanation. What better way can there be of reinforcing the possible power of this enabling distinction and illustrating the ways language brings together separate schema! This leap prepares the way to complicate the assemblage so that the stress on the elements of language expands into the modern version of alchemy produced by photosynthesis. 

Initially photosynthesis is treated by simple definition elaborated by the figure of alchemy. But the closing section stresses details of syncretic processes ranging from filmic landscape to aphrodisiacs creating an amalgam of “sex, pleasure, and love.” And now the first person returns as a participant in life and in language, sharing “such felicity that no chink was left for the-penny-in-the-slot called meaning.” Instead the text turns to the full interplay of natural elements that define a level of photosynthetic energy three times more than is “used by all human civilization,” in part because this interplay does not so much escape moods as place them within constantly shifting contexts. Then qualities of involvement can replace concerns for meaning.



Where Heuving creates assemblages that are primarily shifts in mood, domains of fact, and intricate musical analogues, Robyn Schiff’s A Woman of Property (Penguin Poets, 2016) stresses layers of plot situations demanding rapid shifts of mental focus. In her work, syncretism becomes an endlessly inventive struggle to accept a sense of fatality that self-awareness can only complicate but not escape. Perhaps the best way of approaching this book is to take it as an exercise in the domestic baroque, stressing elaborate looping lines of intersecting modes of figuration grounded in practical experience. Deleuze can be our guide again, because in his book on Leibniz and the Baroque he develops the logic of subjectification elaborated by the concept of lines of flight into the figure of overlapping folds comprising and emphasizing the presence of a single surface. Folds integrate subject and object without affording a single model for interpreting a unifying structure. We have to follow the folds and allow the overlaps to engage our imaginations. For example, think of Carracci’s Lamentation of Christ or Poussin’s Rape of the Sabine Women. Art becomes a means of escaping the division of the world into subject and object so that the various interactions of subject and object can be experienced on a single surface. 

Had I time, I would work with “The Houselights,” a lengthy concluding poem that presents constantly mobile involvement in what theatricality stages, and what it evades by such staging. But the opening poem, “Gate,” is almost as good, and much shorter. In both poems the drama consists in human need to make the world more than fact, even though that imaginative surplus is constructed at the cost of constantly risking blindness to the ironies of fate that keep appearing in unexpected ways. “Gate” is distinctive for its ability to tell the oldest story in the world about sexual desire and curiosity creating tragic consequences for those not intimidated by apparently closed gates. The focus is on animal analogues for human life, with the aim of extending the perspective of Greek tragedy to ordinary living. And the means is the rhizomatic interweaving of narrative elements evoking several stories, all inescapably leading to the same end.

The range of implication produced by Schiff’s title for her opening poem is a telling invocation of the mysteries to come. The primary function of this title is to provide an entrance to the volume. But because this title refuses to contextualize the gate, we are immediately torn between two conditions—the presence of unexpected possibilities for a better life and the ironic blocking of possibilities because every opening seems to collapse into closing those possibilities and blocking hopes for escape.

The poem begins with echoes of the Beatrix Potter stories of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny. This is perhaps a partially tongue-in-cheek commentary on a felt contemporary need to include ordinary life, even if one aspires to a tragic vision. But the fear and terror of the rabbits in Potter’s tales are no laughing matter. And for Schiff there seems no way that the rabbits can escape by crawling under a gate:

Everyone has a cousin Benjamin Bunny.

Peter said a walk would do him good.

The edge of the wood. Peter did not

enjoy himself any more. He never would

again. The brooding lettuces 

in their falcon hoods. The coppice gate


wound shut by weeds, the jaws of life 

trying to keep it closed tight

but anyone can climb it.

As a child I played on a gate

in a neighborhood park

that swung of itself


and sounded like the distress

call of a rabbit. I stood on the bottom slat

and backed in and out of 

the air. I’ll never get out of here.

The gate was pure folly, 

without fencing on either side

For the rabbits the results are tragic: rabbits are charming to observe, but as the observed their fate seems to be primarily to provide food for more powerful beings. It may be true that anyone can climb the gate that traps Peter and Benjamin (in Schiff’s version) so long as one can have association lead to another story, in this case based on personal memories related to the fate of rabbits. But the result for the young child is only the repetition of Peter’s surrender to fate. Her memory of freedom to play with a gate turns out to blend with the distress call of a rabbit, so she too wants out of the entire situation. Now the gate of memory springs another trap, because it can offer only an idea of freedom without testing how that idea can be realized in actual behavior.

At this point the link between the gate and the distress calls of animal being is lightly drawn. So the poem’s transition to Greek tragedy seems deliberately excessive, perhaps just a figure for the young girl’s imagination straining to recognize how imagination might make glorious sense of these feelings of entrapment. But instead of elaborating this transition, the poem immediately moves from the possibly sublime to the definitely ridiculous by mobilizing a scene of childhood tears, warranted not by tragedy but by cutting onions, again in homage to Potter. Modern domesticity still seems a long way from Greek tragedy, but tears open the “doorway” for possible imaginative reconfigurations.

Greek tragedy

staged around a doorway

the imagination strains to enter.

I was raised in an aisle seat, 

with an eye line of an actor

about to come through


from beyond it. Melodramatic 

onions grew wild.

I cried and cried until someone said

its ok to cry,

it means the onions 

are fresh. Every dream begins


with a threshold. 

At first her memory is simply of engaging an actor’s line of sight. But then it is as if she refuses any memory of the staged tragedy, switching instead to another instance of tears tied to simple processes of growing up. The onions are further echoes of Potter. But they also fuse fiction with an ironic sense of how the domestic is laden with figures of fatality, as are the rabbit stories. And the scene takes on dramatic force because the child world of fairy tale adventure has eventually to accommodate crying. Growing up, passing the gates of adolescence, inevitably entails suffering from what one cannot understand or control. For the girl at least, there is consolation for the tears so long as one is concerned only with the physical condition of the onions. Yet here the verse itself tempers any positive resistance to fate because the constant enjambments come to seem gates in themselves, opening into a deeper sense of unpredictable valences. 

The next section of the poem begins with a simple scene of meat in the driveway, an otherness which turns out to sponsor associations with desires for satisfaction inescapably subject to elaborately banal encounters with destiny. The rabbit comes back, now extending the figure of “meat in the driveway” and subject to the power of the hunters’ call:

with a threshold.

Meat in the driveway

where dogs tipped the garbage.

Where’s your mouth? There is a whistle

you can buy that makes the sound 

of a rabbit screaming


hunters used to call

whatever they want

out of the thicket

because everything they want

wants rabbit for dinner.

Move your hand


along the shaft to change

the call from jack to cotton-

tail and back again. 

Once you see them nose

out of the interior at your bidding,

what stops you from sounding


every single day? All day? The shrill

imagined rabbit’s

canned terror. You can do it

with a reed of grass. Cup your hands.

Everything alive 

is listening. I knew a hunter


who could do a spot-on fawn

whose suffering

would bring a doe

into the open every time.

He didn’t want a doe, though.

He wanted a buck.

The poem has moved from watching to a stress on wanting—a movement that allows the rabbit at least an echo of tragic victimhood. And wanting creates a richer tragic theater, because there is a technology of calling that seems to empower the hunter. Yet that power only intensifies frustration, because while the sound of the suffering of a fawn will bring the doe into the open, the hunter wants the buck. 

Now the poem is painfully direct, with the last stanza’s enjambed lines and intricate simplicity of line stressing monosyllabic words. This is tragic recognition—Aristotle’s purification by pity and fear. As such, the poem must provide sharp visibility and intense personal response. Now we need the “I” often glimpsed in the poem to take center stage. For tragic awareness is ultimately the realization of the difference between the entertainment of theatrics and the felt demand to acknowledge whose theater this really is. (Schiff does not have to add “really” as I do, because the surprising, syncretic switch in tone in these concluding stanzas is all the realism we need.) Ironically the hunter will get that buck because the buck’s cleverness will backfire (not unlike Oedipus solving the riddle whose answer is man). The buck comes not out of sympathy for the fawn but because he knows the doe will try to comfort that fawn. He is after all a male animal. But while the buck succeeds in his trick, there are other more powerful tricksters on whom his fate depends. 

So while there is in the poem considerable amusement at clever follies, the voice uttering the poem reaches for something more capacious and less reconcilable with the kinds of entertainment produced by Potter’s stories. The voice seems forced to personal statement just because the impersonal elements driving the events seem to have driven out all other sources of hope. Here the associations basic to the gate have offered for our awareness what turns out to be a coherent fatalistic plot, beginning with frustrated people then shifting to victimized rabbits as links to other sounds that draw the buck to the doe drawn to the fawn. And this is where what begins as evoking a modern fairy tale allows a glimpse of the kinds of divine forces that populate Greek tragedy:

Here’s what I can’t stand

to acknowledge:

when bucks hear

the sound of the fawn

my friend makes with his mouth

they come, too, not in pity but in lust,


so badly they want the doe

drawn by the yearning 

of a fawn in need of her.

Everything is within range

suddenly, and who am I to judge.

He mounts her relief


and spring comes.

No. He takes

a bullet. I was caught 

up in theatrics

and forgot whose 

theater this is. 

There is no way of logically putting this shift to the personal within a hierarchically ordered structure. In one sense, the total shift to a deeply personal voice was always there beneath the narrative as its underlying drive for significance. In another sense, this moment seems to emerge from nowhere, incorporating into the assemblage the need to face the tragic consequences of what seemed mostly an amusing fairy tale. More important, the tone and the style shaping that tone take on considerable material weight as the poem changes to short enjambed lines and a preponderance of monosyllabic words emblematic of a disturbing finality. Tragic awareness here forces the speaker to recognize that illusion and wildness had much deeper affinities than the narrative had realized. Now the possibility of identifying with the stag’s pleasure has to be replaced by utter submission to the fates that is everyone’s reality.

But this knowledge of whose theater this is cannot be mollified by offering generalizations. The “I” must emerge in abject self-consciousness as illusion collapses and responsibility for pursuing fantasy must be taken. In effect realism eventually emerges, with an inescapable sense that this recognition of the tragic extends well beyond the stag’s fate. The change in tone captured by the poetry beautifully suffices to test how much reality this self-consciousness can bear. Wildness becomes half a medium for escape from the real and half the medium by which the full force of that real can emerge as something close to paralysis of what had been delightful freedom of movement.


*For practical matters of avoiding very long lines, I have chosen to render Heuving’s passages as prose. C.A.

*An essay-review of 
Mood Indigo. By Jeanne Heuving. Selva oscura press, 2020. 67 pp. $15.00.
A Woman of Property. By Robyn Schiff. New York: Penguin Random House, 2016. 96 pp. $24.00.


Charles Altieri is retired from University of California, Berkeley’s English Department, where he taught for twenty-eight years. He is the author of many books and articles, the latest of which are Literature, Education, and Society: Bridging the Gap (Routledge, 2022) and Modernist Poetry and the Limitations of Materialist Theory (University of New Mexico Press, 2021).