Sunday, December 7, 2014

Holes Held Together

I have been wrestling with the poem Mesh by Maureen N. McLane.  That I have also been trying to identify a microfossil from the Cretaceous has given the poem particular salience.  The poem and poet are admonishing me directly it seems, warning me against the very act of learning the name of the foraminifera species whose shell I have.  Naming is divisive, serving to separate into pieces that which is fundamentally one.

Mesh appeared in August 12 & 19, 2013, issue of The New Yorker and can be found, in its entirety, here.  McLane also reads the poem and provides some commentary in the latter half of a New Yorker poetry podcast.

In a recent review of This Blue, a new collection of McLane’s poems, New York Times reporter Jeff Gordinier writes that, although the natural world figures prominently in many of her poems, “Calling her a nature poet would be inaccurate, and unfairly limiting, . . . .”  He writes that she is bringing a focus on nature at the moment when “nature itself appears to be going haywire,” and she responds unromantically, offering sharp thrusts that puncture our complacency and give rise to a tone of “elegant unease.”  Apologies to Gordinier, but I feel that McLane is, indeed, a nature poet, though of an unconventional stripe.

I first came upon Mesh some time ago as I carelessly skimmed through a copy of the New Yorker in pursuit of the cartoons.  Wait, I thought (the page arched in mid-flip), is that poem about taxonomy?  It opens:
Everything in the world
has a name
if you know it.
You know that.
I have used this verse as an epigraph to a blog post, but I now think I used it inappropriately.  I am coming to understand that, though this naming of things is inherently human, it is, to the poet, also an action hostile to nature.  This changes the way I hear – “You know that.”  More sarcastic, more dismissive.

McLane then models the naming process:
The fungus
secreting itself
from the bark
is Colt’s Hoof.
In that single verse rests much of her argument as I understand it.  Scientifically, fungi are classified in their own kingdom, certainly separate from the plants.  Yet, she writes, that the fungus and the tree bark are one, the former “secreting itself” from the latter.  There is a unity in this natural relationship that the naming process would have us push aside.  Perhaps deliberately, McLane offers a common name (Colt’s Hoof) that, as far as I can tell, no fungus actually bears.  Is this misnaming evidence of how irresponsible applying names can be?

According to the poet, the taxonomist is being displaced (and proven wrong?) by the molecular biologist and geneticist who are using another tool to identify taxa and relationships among them – DNA.
The dignity
of cataloguers
bows before code.
Does the code signal how connected we all are or is it used to separate and segregate?  In fact, the poet writes, all of this may run counter to the reality of nature:
The thing
about elements –
they don’t want
to be split.
McLane then proffers several dualities that, upon reflection, dissolve (“I saw the world/ dissolve in waves”) into one entity:  the poet and her readers; trees and their shadows and their reflections (I would add the duality of wave and particle that is light);  the sharp sounds of the inanimate subway as it brakes being heard by its riders (becoming one with the machine); and hummingbirds and deer (bound in an endless diurnal cycle).

This poem about relationships and separations begins with naming, and ends with a call for us to join together (and with) what has been torn apart:
It turns out
the world was made for us
to mesh.
In the poetry podcast interview with Paul Muldoon, New Yorker poetry editor, McLane observes that the poem was influenced by her reading of ecological philosopher Timothy Morton.  She states that he, along with others, argue against the notion of species (which has served some horrific causes).  Indeed, the second of the epigraphs McLane placed in This Blue reads “Species means guilt,” title and first line of a piece by poet Bruce Andrews (second line of which references a slave ship, last line reads “Squirrels are happy without our help.” – the rest of Andrew’s piece?  beyond me).  McLane observes that these writers also, and more fundamentally, espouse the ultimate unity of the animate and inanimate.  We are seriously wrong, they warn, when we divide the universe into discrete parts.

During the poetry podcast, Muldoon asks McLane about how she decides what to leave out of a poem, a question he explains by citing the definition of a net which he attributes to Samuel Johnson:
a number of holes held together by string.
Wonderful.  Negative space – speaking of dualities that are irrevocably united.  Can one say that a net is composed of what it is and what it is not? Or is where it is not, part of where it is?  The mind reels.  Such a thought provoking definition, potentially changing how we look at many things.

Parenthetically, I have to note that I don’t think it was Johnson who defined a net as Muldoon would have it, though Johnson came close in A Dictionary of the English Language (volume II, sixth edition, 1785).  His second definition of net is:  “Any thing made with interstitial vacuities.”  An article titled A Strange Dictionary in the January 31, 1880, edition of The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science, and Art attributed to “another lexicographer, whose name has not been preserved,” a definition nearly identical to the one put forward by Muldoon.

A net, defined this way by some unknown wag, is much like the fossil shells of foraminifera, those single-celled organisms dating back to the early Cambrian.  Their fossil shells are typically composed of calcium carbonate and include the empty chambers within which the organism once lived.  I offer this definition of a fossil foraminifera shell:
a series of holes often held together by calcium carbonate. 
And, back to the taxonomic endeavor which began this piece.  Below are views of two sides (spiral and umbilical) of the shell that I worked on for a couple of days before I could comfortably identify it as coming from Planulina texana, a foram originally named by preeminent paleontologist Joseph Cushman in 1938.  This specimen, found in material from the Atco Formation, is nearly 90 million years old.  (The spiral side view, on the left, shows the foram while wet in order to highlight the chambers.)

I have come to believe, contrary to where I think the poet would have me come down on naming, that her basic premise about the unity of all things is not undermined by the taxonomic enterprise.  The naming of species doesn’t separate us from that which we name.  Rather, it’s a part of the process by which we develop our own sense of interconnectedness with all objects, well, at least with the animate.  This act is a mark of engagement with the natural world of which we are a part, not one of estrangement.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Nature Blog Network