- Language Ecosystem
85 Pages; Print, $17.00
"It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank…"—so asserts Charles Darwin in his conclusion to Origin of the Species, and so begins James Sherry's 2016 book, Entangled Bank—a conceptual memoir of language ecosystems.
What a canny gift the poet gives us: an invitation to contemplate each poem as a community of living language bits, co-evolving and interdependent, shaped by the environment—an environment in which the reader participates. As a memoir, Sherry acknowledges that each page recalls a language ecosystem as it was, now fixed on the page as a portrait. But when a reader takes up the invitation to contemplate how these pages are entangled ecosystems, the reader revivifies the poems with new sense, perception, and culture. We are vulnerable to, participating in, and culpable for this entangled bank.
Calling it a conceptual work directs attention to the way systems work rather than the charismatic critters (e.g., poets) within those systems. Yet it is irresistible to read the book as a memoir of the poet himself. The works contemplate what it is to be a poet among poets, interdependent and in community, co-adapting the practice of language within a violent and destructive culture. Sherry suggests that change and adaptation in language ecosystems are ways to survive—yet the poet also places himself, mortal and vulnerable, as a critter among critters.
Entangled. When the oar of your boat is tangled in a kelp forest, your physical presence becomes environment to sea urchins, otters, kelp, wolf eels, and myriad other creatures that provide food, shelter, competition, and more to one another. And in turn, as you free your oar, the kelp forest changes you. Your adrenaline sends inter-kingdom signals to the millions of critters in your personal microbiome, profoundly changing their environment. You are not simply ensnared by the forest, you are intricately interlaced with it. You set particles in motion. They in turn affect the position, spin, and momentum of other particles—even at a distance. That's the working of an ecosystem. And those are the relationships that Sherry encourages the reader to contemplate, as one style of writing tangles with another, each in turn affecting the way the other appears, read, and is written.
The first nine pieces in the book include six "Beautiful Poems for My Friends" separated by poems with beautifully divergent language ecosystems. In the first two poems it is hard not to hear Joseph Kaplan's Kill List (2013) as part of the environment of the poems, as Rae Armantrout noted in her comment on the book (even though Sherry has said that the first of the "Beautiful Poems" were written in 2002). Like Kaplan's list, the poems categorize and sort poet-friends into a taxonomy. It's not passive; the taxonomy is charmingly conscious of the taxonomist.
For Kim RosenfeldYou are beautifulI caught you lookingPitiless and forgivingFor thinking you beautiful
These contemporary poets are part of the living ecosystem of the author. Their names, captured on the page, also become part of a taxonomical language ecosystem.
Where Kaplan categorized by a concept of socioeconomic class, Sherry sorts by types of beauty. Present in the environment of these poems is the current culture: Beauty has been shirked by poets like Sherry for a generation. Yet these poems revive the value of the concept of beauty in nature and beauty in death—and even the critique of beauty—all concepts that postmodernism buried.
And what of beauty in contemporary culture? By the third and fourth versions of "Beautiful Poems for My Friends," the phylum of friend extends beauty beyond romantic dominant culture expectations to include public figures (Barack Obama), civic figures (My Boss Frank), and corporate persons (Toyota Motors). A community of poets—immersed in contemporary culture—is classified by a poet dwelling in the same culture, according to a taxonomy reviving a romantic concept that, when read against Kaplan's poem, could be an antithesis to a socioeconomic concept. Entangled, indeed.
How do these discrete poems tangle with other poems...