Compound Press published Fiddlehead, a long poem by Steven Toussaint, late in the Southern Hemisphere Summer of 2014 (April-ish). It has now gone out of print, but a really wonderful recording has been made of Steven reading the work in its entirety. This is great news for experiencing this poem, because one of the most compelling features that made the manuscript stand out to us was the presence of a refrain, repeated like semi-regular clockwork throughout:
Photo credit: Robert Cross
Appearances of this unabashedly archaic and pointed device would seem to be few and far between in (Anglo-US) contemporary poetry more intent on the nebulous. But Steven is working with Dante, calling back to pre-modern and medieval forms. He is also working with timescales both geological and mythical, as the formation of Auckland’s volcanic field is mapped onto Dante’s mountain island of Purgatory—the “montagna bruna / per la distanza” Ulysses describes to Dante, which he saw from his ship before the sea swallowed him and his doomed companions (Inferno XXVI).
Geological epochs are long (the previous Pleistocene clocked in around 2.5 million years), and tend to be defined by a novel driving force that is different from previous ages (the Holocene enters with the thawing of a glaciation/ice age). In the (speculative) Anthropocene, when human (anthropic) activity elevates itself towards justifying a new geological epoch under its stage direction, time starts to do some strange things.
We are forced to realise that irrevocable human scuplting of the planet didn’t simply start up in the 20th Century when we realised climate change might be getting bad. It didn’t even begin with the Industrial Revolution in the 19th Century, but quite possibly originates with the advent of agriculture 10-12 thousand years ago. What’s more, the Anthropocene actually might not even look very much like a geological epoch at all (just another strangeness) . . . It has to be short (relatively speaking), because it is defined by its creators crafting conditions in which they can no longer survive to continue crafting those (or any other) conditions.
So we live in end times; we always do (“Every generation thinks it’s the end of the world”). But contemporary culture seems to think the 20th Century and the threat of nuclear annihilation is the very first time apocalypse has approached reality. The key to the Anthropocene is its testimonial that we have been living in end times for thousands of years longer than is generally considered. By placing itself on the geological timescale, it also reminds us that even the so-called “end” will happen immensely gradually. McKenzie Wark: “Who could have guessed that when the flood came it would come in slow motion, over forty decades rather than forty nights?” By which he surely means it will take even longer. Hell, it might even feel natural, like the onset and adoption of new technology that at first feels strange and invasive.
The time-bound strangeness I am trying to get at is that the Anthropocene (an idea I am obviously invested in) is at the same time surprisingly short, yet longer than we could ever have thought, and we likely don’t even notice.
One of the main artistic reactions to the ever-end of this epoch that I am interested in is Joyelle McSweeney’s so-called “Necropastoral”. Among its many facets lurks a maxim that might simply go: BE ANACHRONISTIC. Flex, bend, and wrap/warp time. There is no going back, but what does it mean to perpetually go forward in a world that is perpetually ending? Why can’t we remember the future?
This is a very very roundabout way of working back around (via my own current aesthetic/political interests/biases) to the device of Steven’s refrain. Formal poetic devices have long been recognised as a way of marking the passage of time. Paraphrasing Glyn Maxwell to some degree: Meter is the sound of the world turning, the grass growing. To use a mechanism of traditional time in a stylistically anachronistic manner seems to me particularly well in tune with the weird-era aesthetic ultimatums of the Anthropocene. This, punctuating language that sifts through the crisp brittleness of all kinds of clay and dirt (earth) with the force of tectonic subduction.
Of course it also recalls oral traditions of semi-mnemonic markers stringing along performance, and this is why it is magnificent to hear that Steven has been recorded reading Fiddlehead in its entirety for the Six Pack Sound series over at the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre (NZEPC).
It clocks in around 17 minutes and is warped time perfectly spent. This recording adds something really valuable to our understanding of this impressive work in particular, but also to this poet and his practice.