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What is the nature of mastery?

The ecological polity to come depends upon receiving and interpreting messages coming from the environment. In turn this means having some kind of susceptibility to such messages, whether in terms of accurately attuned technological instruments, or in terms of the more inward, psychological acceptance of that susceptibility. Attending to directives. Listening as a condition for speech. That is “mastery.” And this is where my favorite quotation from Miles Davis comes in handy. Actually it is only attributed to Miles Davis, which is better in a sense, since according to the phenomenological view I adopt here, phrases and concepts are agents in their own right that wriggle around in (and outside) one’s head.1 Anyway, here is Miles Davis: “You have to play a long time to sound like yourself.” He is asserting here that ontologically before it is notes and riffs and tunes, music is a kind of listening, and improvising is a kind of reading—not just spontaneously splurting whatever. Playing is a mode of attunement. [End Page 95]


Thinking ecological awareness entails thinking ecology. But the opening subject is a special mode of attunement that I believe is now occurring to everyone—even Pat Robertson, because even Pat Robertson has to use sunscreen because he doesn’t want to get skin cancer. I’m talking about environmentality. The “-ity” part is the important part of that word. It means a quality, a certain environmental-ness. Sidling up to the bigger sorts of question, “What is an environment?” and “What is ecology?” in this way is very instructive.

Environmentality shows up in literary texts, just like race, class and gender. It shows up in texts that are not explicitly “about the environment.” You might imagine that this kind of explicit content has to do with rocks, bunny rabbits, stones. You make a long list. You realize that some things are left out. So what about pollution, race, gender? Yes let’s put all that in. Still environmentality is not just about kinds of content, but also has to do with some notion of form. Not that there is a form / content distinction, or that I am a formalist, or that there is only form. There are many ways of misreading that.

To provide an example of environmental form, consider Brenda Hillman’s poem Cascadia. It’s a poem about geological time, and it’s a poem about traveling around various seedy motels in northern California. That extreme scale juxtaposition conveys the fact that the poem is thinking explicitly about what environmental form might be. Looking somewhat superficially at it, one can easily see that it is doing what perhaps Mallarmé started: employing the space of a poem as part of the poem. The page itself, or space, or listening, what we might call the environment of the poem, which is a profoundly physical environment, is included.

Prior to 130 million years ago much of California lay beneath ocean waters. It was bordered on the east by the mainland of North America and on the west by a land mass known as Cascadia.

Robert Durrenberger, Elements of California Geography
  In the search for the search
Holiday Inn     During the experiments with wheels
    After the scripted caverns
    When what had been attached
  Lompoc     Was no longer attached
      After choosing the type of building
hydrangea     In which no one has died
      We recalled a land or condition
one of those     Whose shape was formal
  teeth bedspreads     Formality gave pleasure
      A shadow’s shadow dragged it
      Back to the sea of eyes
  most natives A poem floats inside its margins

[End Page 96]

This alone has an interesting result: the page or the air or the pixels and electromagnetic waves are not just nothing, not just blank space. We notice their physicality. It’s why in introduction to poetry classes I now like to call this aspect of a poem its ‘physical architecture’ rather than ‘spatiality.’ It’s as if the poem is written on a rubber sheet. This does strange things to the words. It is quite useful in this regard to...

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