Critiques of Poetry and Poetics

Joel Weishaus


Michael McKimm, Fossil Sunshine.
Worple Press: Tonbridge, UK, 2013


On the day I read Michael McKimm's poem "Pipeline," 35,000+ gallons of crude oil burst from the 12-inch pipe that crosses Montana's Yellowstone River, the second such spill in four years into the longest undammed river in the continental US. This lends substance to a poem that doesn't mention the catastrophic spills, whether from pipes, trains or trucks, as its purpose is to plot a route from Canada to the Pakota Terminal in Illinois, where this pipeline hooks up with a network that pumps crude around the country. Crude is the state of an economy advanced in extraction technologies while retarded in alternatives.

McKimm's "Pipeline" describes a corporate pipe dream come true. It begins in Western Canada, "four feet up,

through conifers, flexing and thinking, the tiniest tilt,
leaving the landscape of of smokestacks and bitumen,
Alberta highlands clutched in pack ice..."

It is as difficult to leave the rhythm of these lines as it is to stop the pipeline from leaving Alberta and making a "slow left turn" into Saskatchewan's "fields flaring yellow / or plowed into tweeds...," crossing the border without a passport into "the lowlands and prairies of warm North Dakota, / taking vast empty stretches, hay fields, dry wheat, / a glint in the eye for the Spirit Lake Sioux..." then flowing"over the top of the Ogallala Aquifer," that supplies water to over 25% of American's irrigated land "for a good thousand miles..."

While reading "Pipeline," I thought of Allan Ginsberg's monumental "Wichita Vortex Sutra":

Red sun setting flat plains west streaked
                       with gauzy veils, chimney mist spread
               around christmas-tree bulbed refineries — aluminum
                        white tanks squat beneath
               winking signal towers’ bright plane-lights
                                      orange gas flares
               beneath pillows of smoke, flames in machinery —
                                        transparent towers at dusk.

Born in Newark, NJ, in 1926, Ginsberg was central to the surge of creative energy that fueled American Poetry after World War II. McKimm was born in 1983, in Belfast, Ireland, while The Troubles were still thumbling the Emerald Isle. He graduated from the University of Warwick's Writing Programme, was a Writing Fellow at the University of Iowa, and presently works in the library of the Geological Society of London. Fossil Sunshine, "Coal, oil, gas — let's call these ancient, / rather than contemporary, sunshine,"(2) represents a year of fieldwork and study with geologists, wielding pen instead of pick.

In most of the 17 poems of this slim volume McKimm seems a storyteller, an observer with notebook in hand, or delving through maps and books. But in "The Saw Pit Road," his "gum boots sinking into Bagshot mud, / the forest cool in corrugated light," with "the odd black smudge of pest or airborne threat / locked in like memory in each back brain," the poet inhales and exhales the "furtive smell" of the earth.

Literature's canon is an echo chamber of ghostly voices. Thus, the work of a gifted poet contains those faint reverberations "that provide narrative turning points and construct a 'deep structure' that wells up from human consciousness and people's eternal struggle to make sense of its spectrum within given social circumstances."(3) For example, in McKimm's soddy poems I hear intonations of his fellow Irishman, the distinguished Seamus Heaney:

Quagmire, swampland, morass:
the slime kingdoms,
domains of the cold-blooded,
of mud pads and dirtied eggs.

There is one poem in Fossil Sunshine that veers from the strictures of traditional verse, and is more like the "radical landscape poetry" of a former Poetica critique: (5)

worked ground
worked ground     engineered excavation
worked ground     engineered excavation     canal cutting
worked ground     engineered excavation     artificial pond / lake
worked ground     engineered excavation     rail cutting
worked ground     engineered excavation     road cutting
worked ground     mineral extraction

I don't mean "traditional work" in a pejorative sense. Within poetry's tradition (In McKimm's case, one line dates back to Celtic bards such as Amergin the Singer, who lived around 500 BCE; in addition, as with all Western poets, another line of descent begins with Sappho (c. 630-c. 570 BCE), presocratic poet/philosophers such as Empedokles (c. 490- c.430 BCE), and the enigmatic, undated, Homer.) there are of course many radicalizations that transgress both the conservation of form and the extension of content. I point this out because in this poem McKimm seems to be reaching for a place in himself more sober scholar than the way poesis loves to celebrate Dionysian flights of the human spirit.


In science's present paradigm, in which theories such as superstrings, and an untold number of curled-up universes, mathematical models that are presently, and may always be, unprovable in this world. Thus, critiques are taking place in books, journals and interviews as to whether such "post-empirical physics" is authentic science.(7) One would think that geology, grounded in mundane earth, wouldn't be facing such a dilemma. However, as philosopher Carl Mitcham points out,

The Earth does not matter because under the gaze of Apollo astronauts, integrated geoinformation systems, and computer modeling it has ceased to exist as the ground on which we stand. The Earth does not matter, because from agribusiness investment and biochemical design to climatological management, the Earth has been transformed into a meta-Earth. In such circumstances it may be precisely that the very rhetoric of the Earth is itself an impediment to our attempt to think the Earth.(8)

Tt seems to me that geology, too, needs down-to-earth poets to supplement what has become another science of equations, computer modeling, and uninspired rhetoric. Most geologists, having not had the benefit of a humanities education, need colleagues who practice the art of poetry as an empirically based language writ metaphorically. Although Michael McKimm is not a trained scientist, conferring with geologists, and with geological materials in the library where he works, in Fossil Sunshine he takes up the poet's trade by mining geology's flinty heart.

What poetry supplies to science is not just language but "In what is surely one of the most revolutionary implications, the science of unfeeling minerals and rocks leads to reverence, wonder and awe—and, in the end, to compassion."(9) Poetry salts science's fissures with the soul of human experience. Thus, "When the earth began to move, cracks daggering / the chalk cliff path, they thought nothing of it,

went home to their beds, the landlord's Christmas
whisky still hot on their breath, bellies happy
with sweetmeats and pickle..."

Self-consciousness gave our species a creative edge, "a dramatic change in the complexity of the visual symbols that could be produced.”(10) But it balanced us with a conservative bent, a charge to be accepted by our tribe and our culture. We want the runes of our childhood to be the commandments of our maturity. Change is the disaster that haunts the omens of our dreams, the disaster that "takes care of everything."(11) We fall asleep to

                                         "the horse buckling
in the limestone quarry and heavy hods cutting
their shoulders, then the darker dreams of sulphur
and sinkholes, dank pools of bitumen, rivers
of leachate, pipelines, convoys, midnight tankers..."

whose lights I watched crawling across the black horizon from a perch in a driftwood cabin, skin itching from a poisonous trail of red lesions...

"and the sea roaring, agitated, an intolerable
stench that woke them, their tenements rending
and sinking, the moon in the window entirely ajar,
fissures gaping, they'd say, like the mouth of hell."


Six thousand miles west of Michael McKimm's "blessed isle," where water flowed a few weeks ago a cairn has been raised amongst ancient rocks in a dry riverbed, marking a path invisible but for the circling cross-hatched bootprints of its creator. Here the sun peeks over a ridge behind which oil pumps bob canary yellow heads, "working with a rhythm / you would never think so peaceful or so clean."(13) In the depths of such illusions, we are all at home together.


References and Notes:

1- In, Planet News. San Francisco, CA.
2- Lewis-Williams, D..and Pierce, D., Inside the Neolithic Mind. London, 2005.
3- From, "Abstract from a Conference 1."
4- From, "Kinship." In, North. London, 1996.
5- H. Tarlo, Editor, The Ground Aslant: An Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry. http://www.cddc.vt.edu/host/weishaus/Poetica/blog-14.htm
6- From, "Abstract from a Conference 4."
7- "For example: https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/03/26/what-is-science-and-why-should-we-care-part-i/; http://backreaction.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/post-empirical-science-is-oxymoron.html; http://www.nature.com/news/scientific-method-defend-the-integrity-of-physics-1.16535
8- Mitcham, C. (2000) "Earth Religions, Earth Sciences, Earth Philosophies." In, R. Frodeman, Editor, Earth Matters: The Earth Sciences, Philosophy, and the Claims of Community. Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2000.
9- McLean, M.S., Moores, E.M., Robertson, D.A., "Nature and Culture." In, Earth Matters.
10-Mithen, S. (1996) "On Early Palaeolithic ‘Concept-Mediated Marks, Mental Modularity, and the Origins of Art.'” Current Anthropology 37.
11- Blanchot, M. (1986) The Writing of the Disaster. Lincoln, NB
12- From, "The Bindon Landslide."
13- From, "Oil Field."