Shaking us loose from our tired habits of perception: Liam Ferney launches ‘Land Art’ by Stuart Cooke

Land Art by Stuart Cooke Calanthe Press 2022. was launched by Liam Ferney at Under the Greenwood Tree Bookshop and Art Gallery, Tamborine Mountain SE Qld, on 19 March 2022. The following is an edited version of that launch speech

 I’m not necessarily the most qualified poet to launch Land Art. I had to look up the definition of ecopoetry in my Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Its always sounded like nature poetry to me and it still does, albeit with a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the social, political and economic forces structuring our understanding of nature. And while I can’t say that as a person it is any sort of credo, but poetically I’ve always had an affinity for Frank O’Hara’s emergency meditation that he ‘can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy’.

These comparisons are facile though. Whatever label I slap on Land Art obscures the shared investment I have with Stuart in questions about the potential of language to say the unsayable, to bridge the gap in transmission that prevents a thing being experienced by one person be appropriately transmitted to another. Indeed, we often lack the language to transmit the thing to ourselves. This is the old challenge of the Romantic sublime as it appears in Wordsworth’s ‘The Sublime and the Beautiful’ as ‘something towards which [the mind] can make approaches but which it is incapable of attaining’. Cooke wrestles directly with the challenge in ‘Edge, Hold’, writing:

how to come to terms with it?
how to really see it? to not slide across its surface
nor live, unknowing, on its edge

A few lines later the poem pleads: ‘(if there were a single word)’. Further on it offers ‘cradle’. Perhaps because that is what we are born into. It is security. It is being held. A first moment. Of course, it can be many things, but its multiplicity emphasises the fact there is no single word. Instead, Cooke mounts an energising attempt to connect the reader with the sensations of being in the world at moments he deems worthy of sharing. He does this by trying to test the limits of language, playing with different ways of glitching the system, deploying techniques to torque it, to trick it into generating affects, connections, resonances and emotions. To do more than what it is fundamentally capable of doing.

This isn’t just a book of language games. As I was brushing up on the sublime – the Howard Government was in its first term when I did second-year Romantic Lit – I kept getting dragged towards the work of Gilles Deleuze which seemed significant because Stu has spoken to me about the importance of Deleuze to his thought. I came across this sentence at the beginning of an entry in the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy: ‘For Deleuze the task of art is to produce “signs” that will push us out of our habits of perception into the conditions of creation.’ It is this definition of the potential of art, as an earthquake shuddering through the bedrock of language and understanding, that underpins Land Art.            

Cooke wants us to shake us loose from our tired habits of perception, I think, because this is a crucial step towards responding to the challenges of our climate crisis. We have to rethink, and ultimately dissolve, the Man-Nature dichotomy and the implicit sublimation of Nature that shapes every aspect of our interaction with it. And we have to rethink this relationship that is at the very centre of our understanding of being if we are to fashion any kind of meaningful response, or risk losing every speck of brilliance, of imagination, of love and care and growth that has been part of the human experience. That’s not to say these poems are dark and dour, rather they compel urgency by depicting the stakes. They move through various sites of natural beauty, surf camps in the Philippines, temperate and tropical mountains, Tin Can Bay, the banks of the Shoalhaven, Santiago, bringing these locations to life with finesse. Take ‘Bridge’, a self-aware critique of the ethics and economies of the tourist view. It begins:

This happened today
as I was driven through Eastern Samar
en route to a few days at a surf camp,
passing through all the fullness that a phrase like ‘lush,
tropical vegetation’ denotes—dripping,
buttery chunks of sunlight falling between trees
and palms and crazed vines,
the ground a profusion of irrepressible growth and glinting
……………………….thickets

This passage illustrates Cooke’s ability with what we could call a traditional lyric or Romantic approach to the sublime. Consider: ‘dripping,/buttery chunks of sunlight falling between trees/and palms and crazed vines’. The lines are rich, surprising, the toasty metaphor succeeds. But the passage also includes an example of Cooke trying to glitch the language system in his ironised deployment of the stock phrase: ‘lush, tropical vegetation’. This is advertising language, real estate or travel website speak. It is designed to invoke a shared sense of something but placing it in quotation marks ironises it, alerts us to its status as cliché. In that moment we are alert to the way language has been commodified and co-opted by capital, designed to extract a monetisable sentiment.

Another area I’d like to touch on briefly is the books interest in Paul Cezanne who appears most obviously in the title poem which is comprised of three ekphrastic sections corresponding to three of the post-Impressionist’s paintings. The interest isn’t unexpected. ‘Cezanne yearns,’ writes Elizabeth Grosz in a passage Cooke uses as the epigraph for the title poem, ‘for a future in which the solidity of objects and forces can be felt, sensed, real…’. Doesn’t this sound like an artist frustrated by the limits of their language? Certainly, the drawings in the ‘Bundanon’ sequence, which seem to share a geometry with Cezanne, speak to a frustration with the limits of language. To explain what I mean about the geometry of Cezanne’s work it is worth looking at the way a painting like Mont Sainte-Victoire, hanging in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is constructed out of roughly square and rectangular swatches of colour.

I think a similar compositional method can be detected in some of Cooke’s descriptive stanzas. Take the opening of ‘The Space Between’, a beautiful elegy for the late Filipino poet Kokoy Guevara, which begins:

What the dusk has done
is let mist settle on the valley;
dark ridges protrude, like the spines
of ancient sea creatures, from its woollen veil.

The sky’s still blue enough, but it’s burning up
along the border with the earth, most of which is obscured
by the black ridge, slumped across the foreground,
insisting that everything follow it into night
(you can’t see its details anymore,
other than the cauliflower silhouettes of a few trees along the
….saddle
and its fierce gradient, sloping
into the centre of the scene,

Note the series of ‘line’ words: ridge, spine, border, ridge, saddle (especially in this side-on scene), gradient. Together they layer and delineate the horizontal strata of the view. The lines themselves are a series of rectangles. Lines 2-7, roughly six beat phrases, delineated in the middle either by a comma or a natural pause, another six-beat phrase, and then a line break at the end. This creates a grid with a similar compositional logic to a Cezanne landscape.

 Finally, then I’d just like to touch on the fact that some of these poems seem to have been written en plein air, particularly ‘Bundanon’. This is not, as Wordsworth defined poetry, ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings … recollected in tranquillity’, but rather these powerful feelings are captured in situ. I’ll just give you one example of how Cooke creates a sense of presence:

though softened with vines and ferns, the amphitheatre

refuses, rises beyond sight –

what played here? what plays?

………………………………………..suddenly you turn and the bush
………………………………………..is cloaked in green again

……………………..but then atop the ridge
……………………..it is black-sticked, burnt dry,
……………………..
shale and boulder-eyed

There is the first object of contemplation (the amphitheatre), which triggers questions about its history and then the gaze shifts 90 degrees or so and the bush consumes it and then the eyes move to the burnt ridge. The innocuous ‘suddenly you turn’, the abrupt movement and the shifting of the eyes combine to create a sense that this is being written as it is being seen. Though that doesn’t quite capture it. And second-hand words can’t describe any book accurately, let alone a good one so I’ll just close with the last two lines of ‘Edge, Hold’ which, like much great poetry, seem to be able to, however improbably, more than the laws of language would suggest is possible:

the way there is nothing so small or finite as your body
but nothing so open to blueness, to the pull of the moon

  – Liam Ferney

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Liam Ferney’s most recent collection Hot Take (Hunter Publishing) was shortlisted for the Judith Wright Calanthe Award. His previous volumes include Content (Hunter Publishing) and Boom (Grande Parade Poets). He is a public affairs manager, poet and aspiring left-back living in Brisbane with his wife and daughter.

.

.L

Land Art is available from https://www.calanthepress.com.au/books-and-authors