On Pastoral Poetry and the Language of Wilderness
Oscar Oswald Considers Theocritus, Layli Long Soldier, and the Search for a Wild Poetry
The Mojave is a long horizon flush with broken roads and open for access at all points. As you drive it, you see your destination glittering miles up ahead along the ribbon of vanishing pavement. All landmarks are easy to identify, the grand sweep of the Mojave easy to take in. Time to reflect and see: the creosote, a stocky knotty shrub, waving in the wind; the desert trumpets, stems springing from inflated bulbs below; and plates of earth that lift the desert to an upward slant, causing vertigo. The affiliation of meditation with the desert perhaps is that the arid sightlines shrink the world despite their sprawling scope. In something like the Basin and Range area, a stretch of valleys and peaks with little vegetation, the reason for going on, for taking the next step, is not to unravel the mystery of where that next footstep leads; between points A and B there is no interruption.
I sought to bring this sense of breadth into Irredenta, my forthcoming book of poems. The book is from the Mojave and written in the environments around it. More than the vacancy and Joshua trees with which some define this desert, it was my walking, and how that walking felt, that had me thinking. It is a different desert than the one I grew up with in New Mexico. There, the earth is soft; there are junipers and piñon, lava fields, and there are reminders that these things belong to someone—a tribe, a national lab, an agency, a Texan. I’ve since moved to the Idaho Palouse, a stretch of soft hills blanketed with crops, and I still feel jealous for the harshness and prohibitions of Mojave landscapes.
I wrote Irredenta in Las Vegas. The book reflects a shimmering bright city in the desert. I was living two miles from the escalator where Donald Trump began his presidential campaign. I heard the sirens from my patio the night of the Route 91 shooting. Las Vegas was drying out, expanding out, inviting in, its bathtub ring around Lake Mead. Its surrounding desert is an awful terrain, one that’s been blown up by our Americans in arms, and one that, for many, attracts little attention. Its myths are not romantic. They highlight conspiracies and crime: Area 51, Bugsy Siegel, Elvis, Harry Reid. It is not the wilderness of the John Muir type. Nor is the Mojave today the quiet genius of the west eulogized in Land of Little Rain. It is a gnarly variant of desert that rides along the back of the Sierras, is mostly the property of federal agents, is something akin to Ammon Bundy and Guy Frieri, a beautiful place where people go to be alone in their communities.
The pastoral thrives in places where the poet should not go, places where the cultivation of the poet is most useless. Pastoral poets simplify the world into trite characters and phrases. It is a simplistic genre and an ethical one. And it looks to its history to go ahead. In writing the pastoral poem, the poet builds the genre over; all again, the poet reimagines the pastoral shepherd, and remakes the poem which has been made of other poems going back to Babylon. This is the central feature of Milton’s pastoral tour de force “Lycidas,” and it is also the hallmark of the first pastoral poem ever, by the classic Greek Theocritus, “Thrysis’ Lament for Daphnis.” The pastoral poet disrupts a lineage, writing into and from that lineage itself. In Theocritus’ poem, which initiates the genre, there is mourning for a dying poet, and there is a song sung by another poet prodded by his friend. It is a community of poets and their poetry being shared. There is no poetry without the gullible and true belief in other poets.
My version of the pastoral begins at the divide between a dominant culture and what is excluded from it or threatens it. From Virgil’s first Eclogue—two shepherds disenfranchised, their land given away—to the social critique of Thoreau’s “Walking,” to the reclamations of Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas, one can trace a relationship between pastoral and power that measures the lives and common lands of the community against the force of empire. In Irredenta, I applied this pastoral framework to an American identity and the American wilderness, particularly the notion of untouched and untamable frontiers within our borders. My book celebrates the conceits of the pastoral, including songs from shepherds and poems in dialogue, and it presses them into the landscapes that I know. The title refers to political geography, the term “irredenta” defining a territory related to one group of people but under the control of another.
These ideas began in childhood, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I grew up in this capital city where the lineage of cultural ownership goes back forever, leaving moments of assimilation and conflict in place, in specific places, such as the large white cross for the defeat of pueblo revolters in 1680, or the recently destroyed obelisk honoring Civil War “heroes” who fought “savage Indians” which stood at the center of our commercialized historic plaza. I grew up in a city designed to attract outsiders with its diverse cultural web, though this was a particular version of that web, a curated one, the battles for the status quo apparently long settled. In Irredenta, I brought these perspectives into my language, to writing an expression that is unsettled, tenuous, a bricolage.
In Theocritus’ poem “Thyrsis Lament for Daphnis,” generally taken as the first of the pastoral genre, we have the story of a poet dying and passing his poetic gift. The poem is wild. The poet, Daphnis, is attended by different gods as he dies and damns the world. It is an ecological wake-up call, a point-by-point censure of how things operate. The gods see this sour mood and ask Daphnis what is wrong. He does not respond in kind:
All [the gods] were gathered together and said, ‘Oh tell what ails thee?’
[Daphnis:] ‘I shall never see the dawn again? So be it! Yet harken, thou.
E’en in the underworld shall Daphnis be love’s undoing
Daphnis is rude of love, and while this love is unspecified, it extends into all life and lives around him. The love of one affects the love of all. Daphnis, in dying, expects the world to change and all things to do something new now he is gone:
On you, O acanthus and bramble, may violets blossom now…
All things madly be mingled, for Daphnis lieth now,
Hounds be baited by harts, and pears on the pine tree grow…
Daphnis’ death is a catastrophe for nature, consensus, and the status quo. In this poem, we can no longer live with the ways of the past and stay alive in the present.
This first poem in the tradition establishes that the pastoral is an echo or denouement of somebody’s voice. But that is just the story of Daphnis; the poem itself is sung by Thyrsis, on the occasion of his friend’s request. The poem begins friendly enough, with Thyrsis noting his friend’s music:
Sweet is the music of yon whispering pine
Beside the springs; and sweetly pipest thou,
The goatherd then asks Thyrsis to sing a poem that he has sung before:
[Thou] art skilled the Daphnis-dirge to sing,
And well hast learned the country Muse’s lore.
[Thou] sing today as once thou sang’st
In strife with Libyan Chromis…
When Thyrsis begins to sing, he, like Daphnis, admonishes the gods, foreshadowing the rage of the dying poet; Thyrsis asks, “Where were ye, Nymphs, ah, where, when Daphnis pined away? Not where Anapus flows, or the waters of Acis are springing…” This critique is in the genre’s element: be it a critique of nature or of gods, the pastoral includes the human need to blame and find control in times of crisis. There is no pastoral without this question of the evildoer, or the villain, as well as doubt about the status of the things that we believe in, even a rebuke of their slack power in the face of true calamity. So, as Theocritus opens the genre, we have its core: the ceremonies of friendship, the unavoidability of death, human catastrophes, and the community that springs from these. We also have the landscape as a site or signal of pastoral change.
The pastoral offered me a way to reach within the American southwest for the poetry I always wanted to write. For me, it is particularly interesting to consider the pastoral in literatures that ask about the land and its inheritance. The book that springs to mind is Whereas by Layli Long Soldier. Across a variety of poetic forms, Soldier forces a question, asked again and again in reference to the American occupation of native lands: what are my rights? If these are my rights why don’t you honor them? Whereas the poets of other pastoral literatures may take an ambiguous political stance, here the poet’s response is not equivocal. Soldier insists that “One word can be a poem believe it, one word can destroy a poem dare I.” Whereas is rooted in motherhood, poetics, and a dual citizenship, and her critique is launched upon and validated by the land itself:
you understand the grasses
hear me too always
present the grasses
confident grasses polite
command the shhhhh
For me, there is a pastoral force afoot, in that these poems attend to the natural world, even in its desiccation and its occupation, to critique imperial power.
Now I live in Idaho, among the farmland of the Palouse as it rolls in waves of gold. Its gentle hills make a scenic destination, a readymade desktop background. I moved here for a job at the University of Idaho in Moscow, on the homelands of the Nimiipu (Nez Perce). Here, the land is so radically different than what it must have been I hesitate to speak of it as wilderness per se. The native grass is mostly gone; the farming sites are managed with the maximum care. Is this a catastrophe? It is encompassing. I live within an agricultural blanket on a plot of city land. This reduces the distinctions that make pastoral thrive. The pastoral would suggest there is a culture that goes out afoot, like in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, as Duke Senior and his court relocate to the Forest of Arden. But in the Palouse, the cultivated is hemmed in by grander cultivations. The farmers are not aesthetic. The sheep are real. So are the moose. It is an aesthetic put in practice, the scenery manmade, a Manhattan made of soil. It can feel like a closure of the world.
What I loved about the desert was its wilderness and its availability. Here, in the Palouse, I have something entirely new. Is there a wilderness in this extravagant restraint of nature? A reconsideration of wilderness perhaps: not as something “out there” to be visited and vested with meaning, to be harvested as a Wordsworthian resource for recollection, his “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Rather, wilderness is a language that builds upon itself instead of building out and grazing all the world.
Do we still need the frontier? I know I want a wild poetry, and that the pastoral seems an ethical way to go. Whereas Americans are fond of taking away their wilderness for mining, damming, shipping, and writing, the pastoral takes from itself. That is why its history is relevant to me: it is its own fertile ground, a common language among us that need not look elsewhere for its sources. It is an immediate genre. It is a work of words that go into the common tongue.
Oscar Oswald’s Irredenta is available now via Nightboat Books.