POETICA
Critiques of Poetry and Poetics

Joel Weishaus

 

 

"A Life That Has Always Been."
The Poetry of Susan Rowland

1.

It was her books of Jungian literary theory, essays and book reviews, with which I was familiar. The poems came as a surprise, and a revelation, because unlike most poets oriented to the natural world, Rowland doesn't stand apart when writing about non-human nature. Instead, it seems as if this poet sends down roots that draw words up from the moist chthronic depths.

The poet-as-witness owes its stance to science, which, beginning in the 19th Century sprouted the seeds planted by English philosopher and Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon (c. 1214–1294), taking the gnostic out of knowledge to create an illusion of distance between observer and observed. The so-called "scientific method" has worked well, at least for humans, giving us everything from antibiotics to the latest I-Phone. However, these benefits are packaged with nuclear weapons and missile-launching drones. Balanced between life-giving and death-taking, the list of technology's accomplishments is enormous. But the scientific method also created a cascade effect. With one breakthrough opening paths to many others, discoveries began being made faster than philosophers, or government agencies, could place them into the complexities of reality's picture, until what we got was an entanglement of substances and dreams.

On the first day of the year
I sat under dark trees
That went up forever and became
The sky’s dim vault.
(1)

Susan Rowland was born in London. She graduated, with honors, from Oxford University; received an MA, with distinction, from London University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Newcastle. After teaching for 15 years at The University of Greenwich, she resigned her position as Professor of English and Jungian Studies and immigrated to Southern California, where she is presently Core Faculty in Pacifica Graduate Institute's Depth Psychology and Engaged Humanities with an Emphasis on Creativity programs.

Now the trees are green halls for the gods,
And I am a woodland creature.
(1)

In her seventh book, The Ecocritical Psyche, discussing the "dream of a ghostly child," who appears in Emily Bronte's novel, Wuthering Heights, Rowland writes that the apparition "can be read...as a deforming act of the imagination." She goes on to say:

She' becomes 'other'. This is the patriarchal perspective. Yet additionally, to perceive these ghosts is also to make visible what has been invisible."(2)

From laboratory microscope to space-based telescope, making "visible what has been invisible" is perhaps technology's greatest triumph; especially because it is achieved without figuring in that annoying "ghost in the machine," which is left to ponder by bench-warming intellectuals. And although Rowland has written extensively from a feminist perspective, she makes clear that niches such as "Earth Mother" and "Sky Father" are not gender-specific:

"Both women and men need sky father consciousness based upon separation, and earth mother consciousness based upon somatically erotic connections. Additionally, sky father and earth mother are models of transcendence and immanence respectively....It is important to remember that earth mother is feminine but not female. 'She' is prior to the separation into genders, prior to the separation into those two interpretations." (2)

This mode of discernment serves as the seedbed of Rowland's eco-erotic poems—

I come for divination,
Because here
My body has tides
Where the planet swims,
Blood is patterned by the stars,
And the earth’s breath is warming.
(1)

If Rowland weren't a literary scholar, her achievement would be less remarkable, as to live the life of both professor and poet has always been challenging. Some renounce the academic life completely. Others become professors late in their writing career. Still others teach as visiting professors. For Rowland, teaching is as much a calling as her need to write, a substance of her very life-blood. It is in is in her poems that body and mind, woman and scholar, are unified. Perhaps it is insights such as, "My body has tides / Where the planet swims, / Blood is patterned by the stars, And the earth’s breath is warming,"(1) that have enabled her to move freely amongst the strictures of syllabi and "that which is untamed and chaotic."(4)

Many of Rowland's poems, that until recently have been sequestered in journals, take place in London parks: "Here earth’s wooden breath / Has muscles and a throat / That roars through stone"(5); the 5000 acres of Portland Oregon's Forest Park: "Trees sing in every wind; we hear the breath / Beneath the beat, and dream only tree-flesh, / Waking to a mouth full of leaves"(6); and the shores and mountains of California's coast: "These mountains shred bones / Into clouds: are the bruises / In the sky’s silence; Their rooks grind out the dark."(7)

2.

There are publications that ask literary critics to declare what their relationship is to the writer under review. I think it was an appropriate concern, especially in the days when there were major poetry movements. An example of this is the Beat Poets, who wrote so much about, and praised so much, each other. Jack Kerouac made a career of mythologizing his friends, just as Allan Ginsberg lionized Kerouac; while Lawrence Felinghetti published many of them. This sort of exchange is the way movements build their reputations. However, in a 1973 interview, Gary Snyder said, "I met a lot of poets in the fifties, and we nourished each other in a grand way. We needed each other and we became a small, quote, "culture," warm and moist and nourishing—and we grew out of that..."(8) More important, I suggest, is to recognize that from where the poetry comes remains a mystery, even to poet. In fact, one of Susan Rowland's central approaches to C.G. Jung's theory of the unconscious is:

"He believed that the unconscious part of the psyche was intrinsically creative, and at least in part could never be known by the rational faculty of the mind. In this way the psyche could be compared to a wilderness with its own indigenous wild creatures."(2)

At base of spine
The dark flowers black
In pools of sky,
Leaving a husk, ash and leaf-mold.
The wind hurts and crows carve
Inhuman music from the air.
Spent petals quiver
Until kicked away by bees.
(9)

We are embodied and our body is the earth. There is darkness and depression, illness and death. Crows circle, singing their riotous caw caw song. Flowers, their colors faded from winter's frost, quiver when brushed by the tiny legs of bees.

"A set of ancient instructions says that the first temple was, like a hive, constructed of bees' wax and birds' feathers: 'Bring feathers, ye birds, and wax, ye bees.' The temple attendants were priestesses called melissae, or 'bee maidens.'"(10)

The queen bee is Aphrodite herself, accompanied by transgendered priests called essenes, drones, and the high priestess, the Hymen, who presided over marriages and the Honey Moon. But humanity's will to power has overpowered its imagination. The Old Ways have become dysfunctional and reactionary.
Like Dante, "We took our wounds / Into this forest, / Where leaves drip sweat / And the ground hisses / With coiling pipes, Spraying the grass / To cheat the eye that burns."
(11) So,

The Green Man tramps the city
On bleeding feet; with each breath
He exhales a seed.
(9)

With no hedge between city and wilderness, the Green Man strides from lush forest across the city's sere pavement on naked bleeding feet. His blood paints symbols of "a different masculinity...more for Dionysus's emotional attunement to his natural surroundings and to the women near him,"(12) breathing Eros into urbanity's gray matter.

You and I, my love, hold hands
In every oak, beech, holly and silver birch,
From our entangled bodies,
New trees grow.
(9)

3.

Some parse the world and create technologies; others imagine a world and create poems. As every technology has its shadow, every work of art has its ghost.

In her groundbreaking book, Jung as a Writer, the first to examine the Swiss psychologist's work as creative writing, Rowland addresses the perplexing philosophical issue of being and non-being: "To deconstruction it is the idea of ghosts, or more properly their representation as beings that defy the binary logic of being present or absent, alive or properly dead, that disturbs the rational and dialectical systems of modernity."(13)

I am reminded of the Zen story of the master and his student at a funeral. The master taps the coffin and asks, "Dead or alive?" The student has no answer. So the master replies, "Neither dead nor alive." Then there is Schrödinger's Cat, in which the physicist conducts a thought experiment that has a cat in a sealed box. The cat may be dead or alive, depending on a previous random event. The Copenhagen School of quantum mechanics would have the cat both dead and alive at the same time. The question I would like to pose is more spectral: Is a ghost neither dead nor alive, or both dead and alive?

Rowland opines that Jung "disputes the binary alternatives false/true when applied to the existence of spirits. Ghost stories may be a means to a truth

that is not what they purport to describe. Jung asserts that such tales cannot prove anything about survival after death. So they are neither 'true' in the sense of being actually proven emissaries of the dead, nor 'false' in the sense of having no 'reality' at all."(13)

Living one's life as a composite of stories may solve some sticky philosophical, if not spiritual, conundrums, as stories are at once real to the psyche and imaginary when projected onto the physical world. And if this is how reality is, or at least how we may experience it, curious and enthusiastic again, we
can continue the journey our ancestors began when they dared to become human—

A footprint, a heartprint,
Turning the planet on silent hinges,
A life that has always been:
We creatures of stardust;
Entangled, warm, breathing, sleeping, one new bud
Curled between earth and sea.
(14)

 

 

References and Notes: 

1- Rowland, S. From, "Openings."
2- Rowland, S. (2012) The Ecocritical Psyche: Literature, Evolutionary Complexity and Jung. Hove, UK: Routledge.
3- Olson, C. From, "I Believe in You..."
4- Atchity, K. & Barber, E.J.W. (1987) "Greek Princes and Aegean Princesses: The Role of Women in the Homeric Poems." In K. Atchity, et al., Editor, Critical Essays on Homer. Boston: G.K. Hall. They are addressing Poseidon, God of the Seas.
5- Rowland, S. From, "Winter Wood, England."
6- Rowland, S. From, "Love in the Rain."
7- Rowland, S. From, "Santa Ynez,"
8- Snyder, G. (1973). "Craft Interview. In, The Real Work: Interviews & Talks 1964-1979. New York: New Directions Books, 1980.
9- Rowland, S. From, "May Trees Are Heavy and Hot."
10- Hall, N. (1980) The Moon & The Virgin: Reflections on the Archetypal Feminine. New York: Harper & Row.
11- Rowland, S. From, "Entering a Dark Wood."
12- Noel, D.C. (2002) "Who is the Green Man? An Ancient Pagan Icon Offers Visions of a Time We Cannot Remember." In, In A Wayward Mood: Selected Writing 1969-2002. New York: iUniverse, 2004.
13- Rowland, S. (2005) Jung as a Writer. Hove, UK: Routledge.
14- Rowland, S. From, "Leaving."

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