- Poetry and the Paleolithic, or, The Artful Forager
I remember well the March 1984 cover of National Geographic because it seemed that I could look right into it at an iridescent eagle perched on a floating branch within a third dimension that, of course, vanished if the volume was not held just so. The holography that I see today is put to more practical uses (which that Geographic issue no doubt discussed), as an element of credit cards and software authentication certificates. Reading Jed Rasula calls that eagle to mind for the simple, if idiosyncratic, reason that he applauds and practices what he calls a holographic or hologrammatic approach to writing, in which the “argument is . . . not hypotactic—that is, not hierarchically disposed, but radically egalitarian. Its parts are its wholes and vice versa” (This Compost 8). As Rasula explains elsewhere, the “ultimate implication of the holographic method is that the whole book may be derived from a single proposition” (“Brutalities” 772), an effect with considerable appeal given the media environment in which the book must compete and to which it must adapt, largely through cultivating “redundancy in the information-theoretic sense: it is coded to survive the noise of inattention and distraction” (771).
I have been dwelling recently on this method because Rasula has just given us a compelling book, This Compost: Ecological Imperatives in American Poetry, in which this “radically egalitarian” hologrammatic style is supplemented by the practice of dissociative collage (8–9). Whatever Rasula has accomplished with this book (over twenty years in the making1) is ultimately inseparable from these practices, which, taken together, constitute what Rasula calls wreading. As Rasula explains, “‘Wreading’ is my neologism for the collaborative momentum initiated by certain texts, like The Maximus Poems, in which the reader is enlisted as an agent of the writing. Reciprocally, the writer discloses his or her own readerly orientation . . .” (11–12n). The result is a frequently recursive structure organized by headings rather than chapters and supporting a dense tissue of allusion and analogy peppered with utterances—call them holographemes—which are at root identical. At its best, Rasula’s wreading produces memorable assertions that achieve the “pungency” of the dialectical aphorisms that Adorno calls for in Minima Moralia:
Dialectical thinking . . . means that an argument should take on the pungency of a thesis and a thesis contain within itself the fullness of its reasoning. All bridging concepts, all links and logical auxiliary operations that are not a part of the matter itself, all secondary developments not saturated with the experience of the object, should be discarded. In a philosophical text all the propositions ought to be equally close to the center.(71)
The center in Rasula’s case turns out to be nothing less than a new atavism, a revival of the Olsonian muthologos. One of the virtues of This Compost is precisely its return to Olsonian posthumanism2, but its excavations in the open field yield claims entranced, and compromised, by grave archaisms exerting a strong centripetal pull on an otherwise excentric project.
Holography simplifies the task of elucidating this thesis, for if the part contains—in good holographic fashion—the whole, then it should be possible to peer under a single heading of This Compost in the right light to see the whole eagle of Rasula’s argument spread its finely crafted wings. I will choose as that section “The Starry Horizon,” wherein the book’s central liability is as apparent as anywhere, but not before a brief introduction to Rasula’s aims, which he targets in the first place because “certain challenges persist: the need of long-term views, the need to reckon our own wild nature into any consideration of ‘nature’ as such” (10).
Rasula’s radical atavism is immediately apparent from the book’s epigraphs (their collective avant-garde rhetoric and typography inflected with sociobiology), while his deliberately unconventional citation practices necessitate his Preface, much of which is devoted to orienting readers to the book’s unusual structure. This Compost, Rasula tells us straightaway, is first of all “an anthology of...