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  • Towards an Ecopoetics of Food: Plants, Agricultural Politics, and Colonized Landscapes in Lorine Niedecker’s Condensery
  • Michelle Niemann (bio)

When the late modernist, working class poet Lorine Niedecker called her poetic occupation “this condensery,” she figured poetry-writing as agro-industrial labor: condenseries make condensed milk, and Niedecker was surrounded by them in her native Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.1 Though this metaphor appears in her 1962 poem “Poet’s work,” it aptly characterizes the poetics of Niedecker’s “New Goose” period, from about 1936 to 1945.2 This poetic condensery brings together Niedecker’s concerns in an especially telling way. The term invokes not only Ezra Pound’s emphasis on compression and Louis Zukofsky’s dictum that “condensation is more than half of composition,” but also food politics and modern agriculture as a key part of Niedecker’s local context.3 Niedecker’s “condensery” embodies in one word her vexed relationship—as a woman, a member of the rural working class, and a poet—with metropolitan modernism on one hand and with those whom she called the “folk” on the other. Sampling the voices of rural speakers in her radically condensed New Goose poems, Niedecker constructs deceptively simple Mother Goose puns that play on the specific capacities of plants to critique the twin ironies of modern food production: industrial-scale farming and rural hunger.

In these poems, Niedecker pushes back against both the urban condescension of her leftist readers in New York and the ideologies of regional political movements centered on food and agriculture. To the metropolitan coterie audience for modernist [End Page 135] poetry that constituted Niedecker’s primary readership in the 1930s and 1940s, the New Goose poems insist on the political importance of farmers and the poetic potency of rural “folk” speech. In the context of Depression-era farmers’ movements that not only dominated Wisconsin politics, but also shaped national politics and New Deal policies, Niedecker’s poems critique the masculinism, racism, and devotion to private property that compromised farmers’ insistence that they be paid at least the cost of production for the food they provided to the nation.

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Fig. 1.

Barrels of powdered milk in a milk condensing plant, Antigo, Wisconsin, 1941, photo, by John Vachon. Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

I argue that Niedecker, in the condensery of her New Goose poems, develops a politically nuanced ecopoetics of food that pays critical attention to the intertwined natural and cultural specificities—or what Donna Haraway calls the “emergent nature-cultures”—of modern food production.4 My argument builds on a broad scholarly turn associated with the environmental humanities, which have shown not only how reality fails to obey the abstract divide between “nature” and “culture,” but also how this conceptual binary distorts our understanding of the world.5 I rely as well on food studies approaches that bridge the usual split between production and consumption in humanistic scholarship on food, and on recent work in critical plant studies, which foregrounds plants’ materiality and agency.6 With the term “ecopoetics of food,” I emphasize how material agencies shape both literary poiesis and the practical arts of farming, processing, preserving, preparing, and cooking food.7

Niedecker’s New Goose poems enact an analysis that is materialist in both the classic Marxist and new materialist senses, with all the tensions that conjunction implies: these [End Page 136] poems pun on the material capacities of specific plants, from asparagus to quack-grass, in order to critique agriculture under capitalism. In her poetic “condensery,” Niedecker makes the seeming sureties of folk speech reveal material paradoxes—that is, paradoxes that are both economic and environmental. Niedecker’s linguistic and conceptual puns point up the lived oxymorons of a capitalist economy, where abundance creates poverty and the government pays farmers not to grow food. These New Goose poems often turn on one or several concealed puns and thus undo their own apparent closure, leaving the reader with more questions than answers.8 Form, here, is incommensurate with content—there is something delightfully preposterous about using Mother Goose to explore the ironies of capitalism—but this apparent mismatch gives the poems...