A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #9

ClimateCultures welcomes poet Nick Drake, who offers his contribution to our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. Coinciding with the publication of his new collection Out of Range — which itself brilliantly explores the strange interconnections and confronting emergencies of our new planetary age — Nick has chosen three of these powerful poems to share with us. His personal selection brings us: objects that have illuminated our world-shifting ways even as their own time faded; one-use objects that will outlast us; nightmare objects that take shape beneath our feet, beneath our streets, beneath our notice, until…

approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes 


Here are three poems from my new poetry collection about objects which speak to me of the Anthropocene.

Out of Range, by Nick Drake
Cover: Bloodaxe Books

Incandescent lightbulbs are inefficient, and have been phased out around the world. Ubiquitous, cheap, reliable, disposable, their illumination gradually conquered the dark, and lit much of the world for more than a century. This poem is a way to say hail and farewell to them…. and to remember the powers of the dark.

The Livermore Centennial light bulb
The Livermore Centennial Lightbulb (‘the longest lasting lightbulb in the world’)
Image: Wikipedia / Creative Commons

Chronicle of the Incandescent Lightbulb

You had nothing but the moon,
the guttering candle, and the dish of oil
to thread the eye of a needle, read,
or cast shadows on the walls, until
you created us, the first light
that was constant in the dark –

From a heart-beat twist of tungsten
and a single breath of gas to hold
our whole lives long, you sowed
one idea in our glass skulls;
to shine at your command.

We shed no tears of wax; reliable,
disposable, we lived where you lived,
lit your parties and wars; one by one
we brightened the hill-shanties
and towers of your mega-cities;
when you were lost, we were home
waiting, just a click away
to save you from the small hours’ fears;
when your lives hung by a thread
we stayed as long as necessary;
we shone when you were gone.

And when with a quiet tick
the luminous spell of our filament broke
you cast us off; and now you wish
a light perpetual and free,
your highways and cities radiant
archipelagoes against the dark –

But if the lights go out from time to time,
lie back on the black grass, gaze up
at the banished constellations, take
ancient starlight in, and listen
for the dark song of our source summoning,
on summer nights and winter afternoons,
the antiquated powers of the moon. 

© Nick Drake 2018

 


Along with chicken bones and radioactivity, plastic bottles are what will survive of us (as Philip Larkin said of love) in the geological record. Nearly 36 million are born every day in this country alone. Less than half make it to recycling. Here’s the story from their point of view.

Plastic water bottles
Plastic water bottles
Image: Public Domain Pictures

Still life: Plastic water bottle (used)

Why did you
Make us in
your image?

Replicants
of the prototype, not
goddesses of strange fertility,
not glass, bone, wood or stone, but
generated from dark matter in a split
second to join the silent masses,
monks, soldiers, clones, waiting
in the moonlight of the fridge
for you to drink down our short
stories of ancient waters and bright
sugars until our emptiness
is complete – but there
we part; cast-off, we colonise
every dominion from the highest peak
to the deepest fathom of the abyss
and though the timeline of the waves
degrades us to nanoparticles, yet
we will survive all the brief histories
of your unsuccessful flesh to abide
in every mortal heart undying…
Now only you can save us from
the doldrums of this everlastingness
if you conceive a new skin of beautiful
mortality that grants us too the strange
sea-change of release 
into the mercy of everything
and nothing 

© Nick Drake 2018

 


The Whitechapel fatberg is the largest ever recorded in London, but it has siblings in every major city. It holds a mirror up to consumption and what we throw or flush away. The Museum of London curator, Vyki Sparkes, noted how samples — viewable online via the fatcam live-feed — fascinated the public; “It’s grand, magnificent, fascinating and disgusting. The perfect museum object.” 

The Whitechapel Fatberg
The Whitechapel fatberg
Image: Flickr / Creative Commons

Stranger Thing

(The Whitechapel fatberg, c/o the Museum of London)

Chip fat, cold shits, dead paints, hate mail, grease,
used wet-wipes, condoms, nappies, cotton buds,
paracetamol, toenail-crescents, needles, hair –

the dregs, swill, scum, muck, slop we flush away
are harvest festival for the moony monster
who rules the empire of the upside down

beneath the illusion of floorboards, parks and streets;
stranger thing, behemoth, lonely ogre, shy
Caliban created by our multitudes,

dreaming where the sewers slowly flow
through whispering galleries and gargoyle crypts,
bringing offerings to the awful sanctuary. 

We sent our heroes down in hazmat suits
to besiege it; now these abominable lumps
festering in sealed and chilled vitrines

on live-feed for the curiosity of the world
are all that’s left. The glass holds our reflections,
the beautiful ones who love to scare ourselves,

taking selfies with the alien bogey-beast,
our nightmare mirror image even now
regenerating in the dark beneath our feet. 

© Nick Drake 2018

 


Find out more

Out of Range is Nick Drake’s fourth collection, and is published by Bloodaxe Books (2018). In these poems, he explores the signs, wonders and alarms of the shock and impact of ‘Generation Anthropocene’ on Earth’s climate and ecology. As well as the three poems above, the book includes portraits of ice-core samples, of those living on the margins of the city streets, and of Voyager 1 crossing the threshold of the solar system. Nick’s previous collections include The Farewell Glacier (Bloodaxe 2012), which grew out of a voyage around the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard to study climate change. Chronicle of the Incandescent Lightbulb first appeared in the book Energetic: Exploring the past, present and future of energy, produced by the Stories of Change project. I reviewed Energetic for ClimateCultures in August 2018.

For more of Nick’s poetry, fiction and other work, see his ClimateCultures Directory entry and www.nickfdrake.com

For more on the Whitechapel fatberg, see this piece by Vyki Sparkes, the Museum of London’s curator, and this one by Lanes Group plc, the company who worked on behalf of Thames Water to remove the monster from its sewer home… Part of the fatberg is now in the museum’s permanent collection, and footage from the fatcam livefeed Nick mentions is available with this article

 

Bringing Our Monsters Back Home

Returning to a theme of 'Wicked Cultures' for 'Wicked Problems', I give my personal review of John Gardner's Grendel, a 1971 novel that speaks to us about 'Othering' the natural world, and how our monsters insist on coming back in.

“The dragon tipped up his great tusked head, stretched his neck, sighed fire. ‘Ah, Grendel!’ he said. He seemed at that instant almost to rise to pity. ‘You improve them, my boy! Can’t you see that yourself? You stimulate them! You make them think and scheme. You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for a long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves.’ … I was sure he was lying. Or anyway half-sure.” – John Gardner, Grendel

John Gardner’s 1971 novel, Grendel, reimagines the monster of the Old English epic poem Beowulf. Grendel lives in a cave beneath the mere, beyond the settlement of warrior king, Hrothgar. He visits terror and death on Hrothgar’s people: “I burst in when they were all asleep, snatched seven from their beds, and slit them open and devoured them on the spot”.

Border dweller, walker of the world’s weird wall

This beast is an “I”, not an “It,” and his discovery of self, humanity and the world that mankind is making blurs the boundaries between human and monster. Boundaries are important. In Old English, Grendel is mearc-stapa, ‘border dweller’. In the novel he’s the same: “shadow-shooter, earth-rim-roamer, walker of the world’s weird wall”.

The story takes Grendel from his late childhood, knowing only the cave he shares with his speechless, unfathomable mother and the questions he can’t answer about what and why he is, and out into the world of nature and humans. He observes the growing society of warriors as they settle and transform the world he comes to know, and watches their wars, art and religion. Terrible to confront, he’s rejected by humans and rejects them in return, but is unable to deny his fascination with their determination to make meaning of their own existence. And he encounters the know-it-all dragon, who sees all space and time and the apocalypse at the end of the universe, and subjects Grendel to its nihilistic cynicism. Struggling with the animal, human and dragon-like aspects of his own nature, Grendel ravages Hrothgar’s meadhall time and again and eventually meets his own, inevitable death at the hand of Beowulf. The dragon has seen that too, of course, and so have we; we know the story, but nobody told Grendel.

Book cover for Grendel by John Gardner
Artist: Michael Leonard © 1973
http://michaelleonardartist.com

The novel provokes the question: who is it that is speaking? Grendel is the ‘I’, John Gardner his author. Gardner uses the creature he found in Beowulf, a text handed down from unknown Anglo-Saxons writing in a Christianising England before the 10th century; who took their sources from oral traditions we can’t know fully; which told of another country, another time, another (pagan) worldview. Many versions have come between Beowulf and Grendel (including a 1957 prose translation by David Wright – I’m fortunate to have an edition with cover illustration by Michael Leonard, who also illustrated my copy of Grendel), and more since, including films, books, cartoons, songs; each one pouring other texts into their own work, as Gardner did with his novel.

Creating realities

Of course fiction is creative – but in the reading as well as the writing. Reading is not so much about uncovering what lies beneath: the author’s intent. We cannot go beneath the text in the way Grendel dives under the mere to reach his hidden cave. But we bring to this text the others we’ve read, heard about or imagined, and make something out of our particular constellation of them all. Our reading cannot fail to include and use all we’ve read, seen and heard before; and so, creatively, we understand each ‘new’ text through past experiences, and our anticipation of more to come. This is the sort of sense-making that mystifies and torments Grendel.

Reality, however, is always in ‘excess’ of our perceptions, texts and sense-making. Our senses are limited in what they can detect, and they filter out what we do not ‘need’ to know. They can’t bring everything inside; if they could, reality would overwhelm us, crippling our ability to do anything about it. As biology, we reduce our environment to things we can discriminate, then rebuild it into something we can use: something always incomplete. The dragon sees this:

“Counters, measurers, theory-makers … They only think they think. No total vision … They’d map out roads through Hell with their crackpot theories … They sense that, of course, from time to time; have uneasy feelings that all they live by is nonsense … That’s where the Shaper saves them. Provides an illusion of reality – puts together all their facts with a gluey whine of connectedness. Mere tripe, believe me … He knows no more of total reality than they do – less, if anything.”

Gardner saw his novel as a defence of human values – of life, love, art, home, knowledge, self-sacrifice, loyalty, hope, friendship, and faith – against the ironic alternatives represented, not by Grendel but by the dragon who lectures him on the bleak universe.

When Grendel first emerges from his dark, womb-like cave, he encounters humans as they also first discover the land they will settle. Shocked by their violent rejection, disillusioned in his repeated attempts to learn meaning from them, he becomes alien, the ‘Other’. A self-reflexive Other:

“I observe myself observing what I observe. It startles me. ‘Then I am not that which observes.’ … No thread, no frailest hair between me and the universal clutter.”

He witnesses the humans’ systematic destruction of their environment. Unlike the dragon, Grendel is not so much supernatural as a force of nature attempting to understand humanity even as it seeks to control, expel or destroy him.

Book cover for Beowulf, a prose translation by David Wright
Artist: Michael Leonard © 1970
http://michaelleonardartist.com

(B)ordering the world

This monstrous protagonist-narrator foregrounds questions of how we order the world, border it, make sense of it. How does this (b)ordering privilege some ‘things’ and marginalise or exclude others? How do the marginal and excluded parts of the world respond? What becomes of us in the process of creating our world this way?

Grendel lives on our borders. Hrothgar’s meadhall is ours, created to keep out the cold and dark wilderness and contain the telling of tales by the fire. The meadhall is the new centre of a human world that’s set on expanding forever. Hrothgar subjects and absorbs other tribes, demands tribute, pushes back the world around him. Nature is to be managed, defended against. And, where its threats are too great to be directly comprehended, they’re ‘contained’ in the words of Hrothgar’s poet, Shaper, or the religion of his priest, Ork. ‘Others’ managed as stories: darkest fears hidden in plain sight. But the monster keeps reappearing, whatever words Shaper conjures up. As humans centre the world on themselves, Grendel is increasingly decentred in his, forced onto the margins, but always ready to slip back in.

In that gap between excess reality and incomplete perceptions is space for ambiguity: room for manoeuvre, for creativity – or denial. When we use culture and politics to continue the job of biology, filtering out aspects of the world that we deem unimportant, inconvenient or fearful, we’re pretending something doesn’t exist even though we know it does. We grant it power: the agency to intervene, Grendel-like. Excluding what would overcomplicate our lives, we find it overflowing our frame, pouring back into what we wanted to simplify and manage. Our lives recomplicate, our meadhall doors thrown down again.

Monster culture

In Monster Culture: Seven Theses, English and Medieval Studies scholar Jeffrey Jerome Cohen says that “We live in a time of monsters”: from global terror to global warming, WMD proliferation to technological acceleration, and ecological collapse to industrial pollution. (Or, as the future-seeing, nihilistic dragon says to Grendel: “Pick an apocalypse, any apocalypse. A sea of black oil and dead things”). That this has led to a state of generalised anxiety is revealed in

“a cultural fascination with monsters – a fixation that is born of the twin desires to name that which is difficult to apprehend and to domesticate (and therefore disempower) that which threatens.” – Jeffery Jerome Cohen

Cohen proposes seven ways to read cultures through the monsters they engender:

  • Thesis I: The monster’s body is a cultural body

As construct and projection of fears, “the monster exists only to be read: the monstrum is etymologically ‘that which reveals,’ ‘that which warns’ … Like a letter on the page, the monster signifies something other than itself”.

  • Thesis II: The monster always escapes

Whether ‘defeated’ or not in any telling, the monster escapes classification and slips back beyond our re-secured borders, ready to return in another guise: “its threat is its propensity to shift”.

  • Thesis III: The monster is the harbinger of category crisis

Monsters refuse to participate in the order we seek to impose, reappearing at “times of crisis as a kind of third term that problematises the clash of extremes”, of binaries. Grendel: “All order, I’ve come to understand, is theoretical, unreal – a harmless, sensible, smiling mask men slide between the two great, dark realities, the self and the world – two snakepits.”

  • Thesis IV: The monster dwells at the gates of difference

As “difference made flesh, come to live among us” the monstrously embodied ‘Other’ “justifies its displacement or extermination by rendering the act as heroic”. Differences multiply and “slide together like the imbricated circles of a Venn diagram, abjecting from the centre that which becomes the monster”.

  • Thesis V: The monster polices the borders of the possible

Once we’ve created our multiplying and shifting Others, this uncategorisable assemblage takes a “position at the limits of knowing, the monster stands as a warning against exploration of its uncertain demesnes … borders that cannot – must not – be crossed”.

  • Thesis VI: Fear of the monster is really a kind of desire

What is forbidden is also appealing and the fact that it is beyond control only enhances this attraction. “We distrust and loathe the monster at the same time as we envy its freedom, and perhaps its sublime despair”.

  • Thesis VII: The monster stands at the threshold of becoming

Although we push them back, they always return. “And when they come back, they bring not just a fuller knowledge of our place in history and the history of knowing our place, but they bear self-knowledge, human knowledge”.

Fiction offers safer encounters with our monsters, but an encounter nonetheless. Grendel invites you to explore your boundaries and beyond. And when you come back, a returnee to what you regard as a human-centred world, you maybe find your self-knowledge a little changed. Perhaps you ask yourself ‘How am I human? How am I monster?’

Look your monsters in the eye
Photographer: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

Find out more

The British Museum – Beowulf. You can view their digitised copy of the manuscript in their collection, and Electronic Beowulf, a collaboration between the British Museum and the University of Kentucky

Jeffery Jerome Cohen – Monster culture (seven theses), in Cohen J (ed), Monster Theory: Reading Culture, 1996, University of Minnesota Press

John Gardner –  Grendel, 1971, Gollancz

David Wright –  Beowulf (a prose translation), 1957, out of print