decomp by Stephen Collis and Jordan Scott (Coach House Books, 2013)
Jillian Harkness’s interview with Stephen Collis and Jordan Scott (on their latest collaboration, Decomp) will appear in The Puritan, Issue 24: Winter 2014.
For the wanderer doesn’t bring back from the mountainside
to the valley a handful of earth, unsayable to everyone, but
rather a word gained, a pure word, the yellow and blue
Rilke, in his “Ninth Elegy,” ruminates on the possibility of expressing the natural, or more-than-human, world, likening the idea of the “pure word” to the image of a flower, a natural expression. But giving voice to the earth is not an uncomplicated task, and Rilke, only a few lines later in the same poem, confounds us by invoking the earth’s ultimate unsayability: the earth’s wish “to arise/ in us invisible.”
In Jordan Scott and Stephen Collis’s recent collaboration, Decomp, the poets approach the dilemma of writing about nature by re-framing it as a “writing in nature.” By leaving copies of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species in the wilds of British Columbia for a year, the poets let mother nature critique Darwin’s theories of “hybridism, variation, selection, and monstrosity”—resulting in soiled, rotting texts rife with “natural” revisions. In their upcoming Puritan interview, Scott and Collis write of their process:
We started with the images of the decayed books. They presented a strange language of their own or, a language unique to what each ecosystem did to the book left in its midst. We had to learn this language, and begin writing with it. But, in trying to resist simple binaries of “culture” and “nature,” we didn’t want anything to be “pure”—we wanted to tamper with everything. So we included the process, our conversations about it, notes from other writers, research, etc. We realized that of course we, the people who left the books outside, are complicit in the process, behind which we can’t hide. Everything had to keep being drawn back into the process of decomposition, of falling apart.
Rilke’s “pure word” of nature as well as its “unsayability” is tampered with throughout Decomp, and the result is a book made up of fragments, images, journal entries, quotations, reflections, and poems. As a whole, the book explores many different aspects of the conceptual debate, which questions nature and the ambivalent role of humanity within it. Collis and Scott are the first to admit their possible positions as “poet-litterers, trash-subjects, and trespassers,” noting that “when you go into the wilderness, onto unceded land, and return with an art project … there’s always this level of complicity with colonization.” The poetry of Decomp addresses our sometimes hypocritical outlook on nature, which we view as a phenomenon to admire and protect, but also an environment subject to our will and desire for comfort:
My fucking escape
When I first saw the sea
when I first came upon that meadow
when I first saw the view
mechanism and energy.
And, in reality, why should we stop building and moulding the world’s clay about our own shelters?
We take infinity into our lungs.
Nature imagery is varied in the book, and you do not find here a description of the sea or meadow or view. Instead, you find the imagining of our human place in respect to these things; you find our awe, but also our need and ability to produce, and our attempts to speak to nature, or give it voice. Rilke writes, “Are we perhaps here in order to say …/ but to say them as even the things themselves/ never meant so inwardly to be.”
In Decomp, these attempts at saying are not necessarily successful attempts: “Can we be a species tracking a species?/ Can a sequence read a sequence?” The answer mutates throughout, but often lands on failure or outright denial of the task, as the book asks, “What has taken place outside?” and responds by allowing that “this is not for us to say.” Collis and Scott describe their work as “a poetry that reveals its own limitations … the form is, in some ways, one of grieving for the limitations and failure of cultural production, the limitations and failures of meaning, and unmeaning.”
Kate Rigby, in her criticism of ecopoetics, argues that it is these failures of a text, the text’s acknowledgment of itself as a crafted object, that might give voice to the unsayability of earth. By sharing their process, and their failures, Collis and Scott are able to create a new kind of poetics of the earth, by not only “disclosing the non-equation of word and thing, poem and place,” as Rigby requests of poets, but perhaps going even further, by cataloguing the decomposition of these relations—or, as Collis and Scott insist, by using “decomposition as a way to imagine language turned in on itself.” The literal decomposition of the text is displayed through Collis and Scott’s reproduction of selections of Darwin’s text after their year-long exposure to the elements, in sections titled “The Readable,” which often includes only fragments of sentences and words, displaying a solid break between the sign and its meaning.
The final “Readable” section in Decomp is ironically blank, suggesting nature’s slow working tendency towards the absence of the book. The absence of the book—at least according to Maurice Blanchot, the meta-commentator on writing and death who makes his own appearances in Decomp—relates to “the game of dissidence (a book) plays with reference to the space in which it is inscribed; the act of writing at the edge of the book, outside the book.” Where there is writing, there is also the unwritten. In our human act of naming, we create the unnamed other, and nature’s response in Decomp is silence, or erasure, which is an erasure of this distance, the decomposition of our difference.
But we name because we can’t comment on our ‘oneness’ with the world; in trying to express the inexpressible, we move ourselves further away from the very thing we wish to specify. Collis and Scott, when faced with this dilemma, choose “the will-to-fail, and fail again”:
Something about the images and language and ecological specificity kept drawing us back, making us want to have an object we could hold in our hands again, after letting those other books go into the soil. So we decided, as a sort of reminder, to begin each section with some sort of human image—the invading body in the ecosystem, searching or reaching for its book.
Searching and reaching is what the poet does, seeking out his or her own human voice and human place within the polyphony of nature. In Decomp, we find that “words are things we do together. Botany. Hiking. Actions and collections. Places where existence gathers.” The Decomp project seems to be supporting Rigby’s assertion that “it is not so much that things need us so that they can be named; rather it is we who need to name things so that we can share understandings about what we perceive and value, what we fear and desire, how we should live and how we should die.”
In the final coda of Decomp, Collis and Scott ask “Do we enter the book to enter the ecosystem?/ … Does the ecosystem enter us through language?” There isn’t a straightforward answer, just this image in response:
and animals too.
Yet love fills
a heart away
from libraries talcum moss.
Images from the Decomp archive can be found here.
Blanchot, Maurice, “The Absence of the Book” The Station Hill Blanchot Reader, Trans. by Lydia Davis, Paul Auster and Robert Lamberton, Edited by George Quasha, (Station Hill Press Inc./Barrytown Ltd: 1999).
Collis, Stephen and Jordan Scott. Decomp (Coach House Books: 2013).
Rigby, Kate, “Earth, World, Text: On the (Im)possibility of Ecopoiesis”, New Literary History, Vol. 35, No. 3, Critical Inquiries, Explorations, and Explanations (Summer, 2004).
Rilke, Rainer Maria, “The Ninth Elegy”, The Essential Rilke, edited and translated by Galway Kinnel and Hannah Liebman, (The Ecco Press: 1999).
Jillian Harkness lives and works in Toronto.