Gift Exchange in Willa Cather's 'My Antonia'

A noun matters, it signifies implicit meanings, enabling those who understand what the noun is signifying, to utilize it for axiological, praxeological and ontological assessment, which furthermore, can have material socio-economic and cultural repercussions, as I hope to illustrate.

    Somebody asks if we like the taste of something, a mushroom, for example. The word mushroom evokes experiential sense data, which we have assessed axiologically. We have tasted mushrooms, smelled them cooking, we may know a little about foraging them, or their biological peculiarities. Without having the thing-to-hand, we can make an accurate judgement if told that a particular mushroom is delicious.

   If two people do not speak the same language, the signifying essence of the noun, essential to identification is in jeopardy. Chris Tilley explains “It is only through the use of words that we can claim, assert, investigate and understand why things matter and why a study of them is important, why it makes a difference to an understanding of persons and their social worlds.”[1] This opportunity is missed during an exchange between Mrs. Shimerda and Mrs. Burden in Willa Cather’s My Antonia.

    Mrs. Burden after hearing the Shimerda’s hardships from her husband takes a “hamper basket”[2] to alleviate the pressure. In exchange, Mrs. Shimerda gives them some “little brown chips that looked like the shavings of some root.”[3] Neither Jim, nor his grandmother trust the unidentified things; Mrs. Burden stating, “I’m afraid of ‘em.”[4] Fear of the unknown is caused by the thing not being unidentified. At the close of the chapter Jim, narrating from the future, explains, “I never forgot the strange taste; though it was many years before I knew that those little brown shavings, which the Shimerdas had brought so far and treasured so jealously, were dried mushrooms.”[5]

    Antonia and her mother’s desperately physical articulation of their value, is cause for Jim’s use of the word treasured, “She clasped her hands as if she could not express how good—‘it make very much when you cook, like what mama say. Cook with rabbit, cook with chicken, in the gravy—oh, so good!’”[6]

    Determining the axiological and ontological ramifications of the unidentified thing, why it is “treasured”, it is necessary to identify it. From the description of “a salty, earthy smell, very pungent”[7] thing, which makes stews taste better, I would identify them as Boletus edulis. Roger Philips in his comprehensive book Mushrooms describes Boletus edulis as having a “taste and smell” which is “pleasant”[8] adding, “Note this is perhaps the most important edible mushroom because of its excellent flavor, large weight and size, and the way it keeps its flavor when dried.”[9]  To further this identification, that Mrs. Shimerda has a “flour sack and half as wide”[10] filled with dried mushrooms, suggests a large quantity, which means the mushroom must be common.

From Marek’s reaction, that he “began to smack his lips”[11], this is an exchange of equal values, despite the quantity of one being more than the other. What the Burden’s gift, despite having being worked for, is easily given, but the Shimerda’s gift the only thing they have, a small amount, but nonetheless their most treasured victual. Theirs is a sacrifice.

    Despite Antonia and her mother’s efforts to imbibe the mushrooms with value, they are discarded by Mrs. Burden, which I read as metaphorical of the conservative argument in Americans’ contemplation of foreigners during the Americanisation debate, which I will go into later in the essay. First I want to look into the praxeology of gift exchange.  

    The reciprocation of gifts is important in praxeology as it provides an act through which peoples and cultures come together. Marcel Mauss’s work on the forms and functions of gift giving can, if the context of his ideas is extended beyond primitive and archaic cultures, provide us with a paradigm with which to talk about gift giving in any society. Karen Sykes makes this extension, clarifying that “Marcel Mauss began to think about gift exchange as a totally human social act.”[12]  Sykes, extending this context to the ‘human’, suggests we may expand Mauss’s theory beyond the parameters of the primitive and archaic, to human social acts in general. She goes on to say:

Mauss also poses a central question in what it means to be human by asking why a person should feel obligated to give back what he or she had received from another. The problem of ‘the gift’ comprises two kinds of questions: how people keep their social life at the centre of consciousness, and why it should seem meaningful for them to do so.[13]

    We find this obligation in Mrs. Shimerda giving the only thing of pleasure her family possesses: reciprocation is a meaningful social act, bringing potentially beneficial returns. If she were to give them nothing, it would be charity and charity is undignified. Her hysteria is owing to her being taken out of her culture, where she had equal status to the Burdens; we learn from Antonia that “My mamenka have nice bed, with pillows from our own geese in Bohemie. See, Jim?”[14] Antonia is trying to persuade, through objects brought from Bohemia that they are on an equal social footing. Objects mark status. A social group, without the accuracy of language to tell their history and their autobiography, is left to rely on things. Unfortunately, in their current context (a dark cave), the objects aren’t persuasive without autobiographical authority. That Antonia speaks only broken English, illustrates the ontological tension of language and thing to provide sufficient evidence of an equal social standing.

    All Antonia’s efforts are thwarted by Mrs. Burden failing to follow her instructions. If she had, the mushroom may have proved revelatory, as the sensory satisfaction would have indicated to her that these were cultivated people. This is the capacity of the immaterial to be discovered through material, for properties of cultural knowledge to be learned through the understanding and enjoyment of an object.

    Mauss talks about “the spirit of the thing given”[15], which, borrowing Maori a term, he calls the hau (spirit). Mauss explains:

Suppose you have some particular object, taonga, and you give it to me; you give it me without a price. We do not bargain over it. Now I give this thing to a third person who after a time decides to give me something in repayment for it (utu), and he makes me a present of something (taonga). Now this taonga I received from him is the spirit of the taonga I received from you and which I passed on to him.[16]

    In my example, the mushroom is the taonga, but it is the taste, which must be tasted, which is hau. It would not be a material thing that is passed along, as the Burdens are gifted too few mushrooms, but rather, information. Word of mouth in the prairie is paramount. An anecdote from the Burdens to another family as to the rare value of the mushrooms, would return the hau of the taste back to the Shimerdas in the form of compliments (utu), which may turn to a further exchange of mushroom for commodities (also utu); there is the potential for a cyclical return of the material, passing through the immaterial (word-of-mouth) returning again to material form. Imbibed with hau, the thing (taonga) is memorable, and the giver remembered until the spirit of the thing returns. The taonga in our example, has the capacity to develop changes that are socio-economically beneficent and diversifying for the prairie community. Jaco Kruger further clarifies the reciprocity inherent in gift giving:

To speak of the interest involved in the giving and receiving of a gift is to speak of some kind of interaction. The interpretation of the logic of the gift under consideration is therefore adamant that gift implies the invitation to gift exchange, whereby relation is precisely maintained. This is in line with Marcel Mauss’ original observations that the giving of a gift, which is at the same time the receiving of a gift, brings with it some kind of obligation to give in turn, or in return. [17]

    Sykes explains that “How people give and receive is a matter of what kind of relationships they imagine they make and keep with each other; immediately immaterial or ideal concerns become a part of the issue.”[18] Gift giving is obligatory if there is to be conservation of pride. Pride of character is not itself a material thing, it is only through a thing in exchange, and that thing having significance to the person giving, that the immaterial can be discovered through the material. Both rely on each other. Mrs. Shimerda gifts in hope that the compensation of material for material will bridge misunderstanding (the absence of language’s specificity) and create a concrete understanding of the immaterial: that her family is domestically knowledgeable. Status matters to them, because they have none.

    What takes place between the two families is, in addition to a gift, a form of transaction; a promise to help each other. Theirs is a barter economy of sorts, self-regulated according to necessity and moreover, annexed to a growing albeit, peripheral consumerist culture. The economy of those living on the prairie is an admixture of economic forms. The Shimerdas must, even by sacrificing their paucity of victuals, endeavor to engage in this economy. As Rebecca Colesworthy explains regarding Mauss, through quotations from David Graeber:

If there is a keynote of Mauss’s essay that my authors also register, albeit in varying styles and contexts and to differing ends, it is mixture: a shared sense, sometimes welcome and sometimes resisted, that seemingly antithetical impulses and social phenomena—generosity and interest, freedom and obligation, persons and things—in fact intermingle: “Everything holds together, everything is mixed up together” (G 46). The mingling of persons, things, gestures, symbols, and lives—“This is precisely what contract and exchange are” in archaic societies, according to Mauss (G 20). Yet this is also what contract and exchange are increasingly becoming in modern capitalist societies at the time of The Gift’s publication in 1925—a mixture.[19]

    As a Modernist text, My Antonia falls into this ‘mixture’, a mixture not only of economic forms, compensating for regular access to goods, and being at the clemency of the elements (as the exchange between the Shimerdas and Burdens illustrates); but furthermore we can extrapolate from this ‘mixture’ the polemic of Americanisation, a debate which flared between conservative and liberal camps, who were nonetheless united by how to integrate a rising immigrant population, with their own unique culture: the melting pot of America. The intersubjective polemic, pivoted on whether their inclusion would be a boon to America’s rendered axiology, or whether it would dissolve the identity rendered up to that point. In the historical period of the novel, America’s identity remains, arguably, nascent, but the period in which Cather is writing My Antonia, America is a player in global politics and Cather is suggesting American identity centers around not misunderstanding the role exchange played in the formation of America, even simple misunderstandings caused by stray nouns.

    Cather said in a 1924 interview that “This passion for Americanizing everything and everybody is a deadly disease with us.”[20] Guy Reynolds outlines the two sides of this polemic. In the conservative corner was Royal Dixon who “In Americanization (1916) discussed ‘hyphenates’, the term he used for recent immigrant into the United States.”[21] Dixon’s prescription was “the teaching of English”[22] from which “the immigrant would be acculturated and lose his or her foreignness.”[23]

    In the above scenario, we can see Dixon’s point, however, Cather’s view is not so simplistic as to express the failings of language, but that the reciprocal failings of the native Burdens to embrace the offering is a case in point of the Americanisation debate. The boletus edulis are a cultural oblation for a kindness, bridging the social imbalance the Shimerdas suffer due to not being in their country of origin. The liberal position in the Americanisation debate was that “the new world could only be created with due appreciation of the European heritage.”[24] It is “through similarities with the world that was left behind”[25] the immigrant and the American will benefit and come to understanding. It is through pride in culinary proficiency and work ethic that the Burdens and Shimerdas can find common ground. Cather pointedly illustrates the break down of trust, which is made easier with the familiarity of language. She creates a position liminal between the liberal and the conservative. Tacit in the actions of the Burdens is a criticism of distrust and the necessity of the native to listen, even if the clarity of the message doesn’t meet with the immediate sensory impulse toward a thing; they can try. The ingenuity of Cather’s choice deserves mention.

    Regardless whether Cather knew much about mushrooms, they are a suitable metaphor. Philips explains “woodland areas would fail”[26], if the “intimate relationship of fungi with the roots of trees and plants, the mycorrhizal relationships,”[27] didn’t make their “important contribution.”[28] This, for me, works as a metaphor for the liberal Americansation argument. In this microcosm of that debate, the boletus is utilized to try and form social “mycorrhizal relationships” through taste.Taste is visceral, my point in revealing the identity of the mushroom as boletus edulis, I hope exposes that it was a minor leap of faith for the Burdens to connect the impoverished Shimerdas to their own proficiencies. Language aside, what Cather has us consider is how close we are to each other if we countervail our intuitions, and open ourselves to the cultures of others. The potential results are, metaphorically, a good stew. The Burdens’ missed opportunity of a good stew becomes a metaphor of the utopian potential of an America that embraces itself as a melting pot. America discovers its strengths are the differences that define it.

[1] Chris Tilley, “Metaphor, Materiality and Interpretation”: The Material Culture Reader, ed by Victor Buchli (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2002), pp. 23-26 (p. 23)

[2] Willa Cather, My Antonia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) p44

[3] Cather, My Antonia, p. 48

[4] Ibid., p. 48

[5] Ibid., p. 48

[6] Ibid., p. 47

[7] Ibid., p. 47

[8] Philips, Mushrooms, p. 276

[9] Philips, Mushrooms, p. 276

[10] Ibid., p. 47

[11] Ibid., p. 47

[12] Karen Sykes, Arguing with Anthropology: An Introduction to Critical Theories of the Gift, (London: Routledge, 2004) p. 2

[13] Sykes, Arguing with Anthropology, p. 4

[14] Cather, My Antonia, p. 46

[15] Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, 5th Ed (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980), p. 8

[16] Mauss, The Gift, p. 9

[17] Jaco Kruger, ‘Human Dignity and the Logic of the Gift’, South African Journal of Philosophy, Vol 36 Issue 4 (2017), 516-524, p. 520 (I think it cogent to add as an aside my interest in Kruger’s focus on dignity, which does play a minor role in my argument, namely, Mrs. Shimerda’s purpose in sacrificing a cup full of mushrooms is an act to rescue her dignity).

[18] Sykes, Arguing with Anthropology, p. 59

[19] Rebecca Colesworthy, Returning the Gift: Modernism and the Thought of Exchange, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), Oxford Scholarship Online

[20] Guy Reynolds, Willa Cather in Context: Progress, Race, Empire, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1996) Springer Link, p. 73

[21] Reynolds, Willa Cather in Context, p. 74

[22] Ibid., p. 74

[23] Ibid., p.74

[24] Ibid., p. 77

[25] Ibid., p. 77

[26] Philips, Mushrooms, p. 6

[27] Ibid., p. 6

[28] Ibid., p. 6

Machine Learning

A machine enters the forest.
The trees, the endorphined air as well as the birds’ circumspection
play dead.
Until they start intuiting the machine’s curiosity, its
authentic verisimilitude, its making note,
they will not dare resume as usual. 
Resigned to it being, in their midst.
They reorient, relate-to the significant
cause, toward the artificial, a made enormity
—a magnet in the eye, beholding
: the birds gravitate to it like migration.
The machine, discovers a memorial
to someone’s relative, arranged at the foot of a pine tree, is
attracted to it, finding itself in it somewhere
: battery operated lanterns with PIR sensors that pick
up the footsteps of the dead trudging the night, discovering
their memorial, the bits of coloured ribbon, a drinking cup
with a butterfly decorating the lip, ceramic figurines &
a perimeter of smooth white stones with a circumference of white fence
: hallowed ground made out of love, satisfied with longevity.
The relatives should never come here.
The machine will return each night
attracted by the 3W ampoule of electricity, vestige
of day—pulled energy like pulled teeth.
It will learn its own becoming. 

Ecology of Kyne

I am currently reading Frank Herbert’s Dune. I am not an inveterate science fiction reader, despite always feeling pulled to sci-fi themes. I have been particularly affected by the death of the Imperial Majesty’s Planetolgist, & planetary ecologist of Arrakis, Liet-Kyne. The Baron Harkonnen realizing Kyne’s betrayal forces him adrift into the unforgiving density of Arrakis’s terrain, without a stillsuit, (a specialized suit designed by the native Fremen of Arrakis, which traps the body’s moisture, making it drinkable), an essential tool for survival in the waterless landscape. Exposed to the unforgiving environment, his fate is to be killed by the planet he has made it his life’s work to turn into a verdant utopia. Remind you of anyone.

In his death throes, deluded, Kyne is visited by a mental projection of his father, a memory transfigured into a tangible form, on the periphery of his life, nagging him with quotations from his childhood, on the knowledge needed to begin Arrakis’ transformation into a biosphere gravid with life; his father’s presence as figuratively obvious as his dying.

The mélange (or spice) Arrakis is rich in, means it has become the principal political-battleground of elite families vying for control of the mining rights. Why it is in the interest of this economical model of production for Arrakis to remain a desert, I am not certain. It is likely that the Harkonnen’s who had been in control & seek to control mining rights again, simply found no cause (owing to their nefarious nature) to ameliorate the native population. Before Duke Leto Atreides is betrayed & bumped-off, he makes it clear that he wishes to veer from this course & cure Arrakis.  

Seeing the potential for Arrakis reveals how fortunate it is to live in an ecologically balanced environment, where natural elements buoy life, allowing it to flourish, & how chaotic life is without them. Something may survive in such insensitive environments, but there is no quality to such an existence.

The scale of complexity necessary to transform Arrakis reveals certain flaws, which lead to the breakdown of ecosystems. The planetary ecologist must foresee these flaws. Kyne has “a thought spread across his mind – clear, distinct: The real wealth of a planet is in its landscape, how we take part in that basic source of civilization – agriculture.” Our own circumstance is analogous: agriculture was an important developmental factor in the history of our planet. Agriculture is an essential civilizing factor. We don’t civilize it through cultivation, we are rather civilized by it in the same way that people in the Dune universe are manipulated by the spice; it establishes a source of currency & a subsistence on which culture can be built. If were to lose our minds & pollute all our sources of food, we would soon see how civilizing an influence crops have on us. Agriculture’s properties make it too attractive a prospect for human beings to ignore. What is farmed survives by making itself attractive, like the petals & scent of a flower attract butterflies or bees. Wheat made itself attractive by growing abundantly, being cultivated easily & providing a reciprocal crop on which to plan for the future. Agriculture brings ubiquitous sustenance, on which a large coagulation of people can flourish. Spice is harvested & the leader who controls this is most powerful. In ancient times grain was hoarded by kings & queens as a source of income & power, just like spice is. Spice is rare in the universe but abundant on Arrakis; it is a crop that makes itself attractive through its properties. The relationship is reciprocal. Something gives & in return is propagated & in its propagation a process can begin, in this case, a culture.

Arrakis is a blank slate as far as establishing an environment goes. “‘To the working planetologist, his most important tools are human beings, his father said. ‘You must cultivate ecological literacy among the people. That’s why I’ve created this entirely new form of ecological notation.’” He goes on to explain “‘We must do a thing on Arrakis never before attempted for an entire planet…We must use man as a constructive ecological force – inserting adapted terraform life: a planet here, an animal there, a man in that place – to transform the water cycle, to build a new kind of landscape.’” We can begin to see the scale of complexity emerge. There is a foundation, the ‘ecological notation’, an information conditioned into the native generations to come.

It seems an obvious point, but the individual (either being or thing) as an assemblage is essential to the creation & maintaining of an environment. Each individual item to its place, in the process to becoming part of ‘a planet’s life…a vast, tightly interwoven fabric.’  Moreover, a population that understands ecology through a short hand “notation” is less likely to fail in the upkeep of a planet. Arrakis has only pockets of hardy, scattered bands of people who know only survival. They cannot be utilized to their full potential if scattered; they are everything to a planet’s potential, which the ecologist with such bold designs must utilize. Those that misunderstand Arrakis’ natives, do not see that they all share a common goal: the flourishing of their planet.

This ‘ecological notation’ is information. Information is key to everything any conscious being does, as we are beginning to realize (as James Gleick’s The Information eruditely expounds). I take this notation Kyne’s father speaks of, to be a measuring device, allowing the planetologist & the population to undercut complexities & short cut to the snowballing of life into ever more simple, functioning & thus functional units, every member of the populace can use to their & the planet’s advantage.  

Part of the conditioning must be a fusing of ‘Religion and law among our masses’ so that ‘an act of disobedience must be a sin and require religious penalties.’ which ‘will have the benefit of bringing both greater disobedience and greater bravery. We must not depend so much on the bravery of individuals, you see, as upon the bravery of a whole population.’ This is to be fused into the conditioning of the populace through the ‘ecological notation.’ In the way that church propaganda installed fear & obedience by telling people ‘God is watching, so you better behave’, keeping people attached to the church, so a tactic of Arrakis’ religion & law, will be to attach people through these same principles. There is no mention of government in this system, only religion & law, but nothing of a literature or code of ethics. This is noteworthy as I think it is evidence that the ecological notation is to be a learned trait through ancestral, mythic consciousness; an oral tradition.  The sin spoken of, will, given the conditioning, not occur. Should it do so, the trigger mechanism of religion & law fused together, will step in to remedy the error.

However, Kyne’s father, it seems to me, wishes to establish a society without religion or law as phenomena in themselves, as nouns an individual or group of natives can point at, talk about & ultimately dichotomize enough to disagree upon; they cannot become anything other than what is. What feeds into & stabilizes this, is the impossibility of individuality, & out of this there will be no room for the populace to separate themselves from natural phenomena & nature as space & time. Not being able to point at nature without pointing at themselves, in that is stable kinship with the environment, which cannot lead to taking-it-for-granted. As a consequence, the slow dearth of the planet from reckless over-consumption is avoided. As Kyne’s father says, “‘Men and their works have been a disease on the surface of their planets before now,’ his father said. ‘Nature tends to compensate for diseases, to remove or encapsulate them, to incorporate them into the system in her own way.’ He continues, stating: “ ‘The historical system of mutual pillage and extortion stops here on Arrakis…You cannot go on forever stealing what you need without regard to those who come after. The physical qualities of a planet are written into its economic and political record. We have the record in front of us and our course is obvious.’”

Interestingly, Kynes father wants to, in his manipulation of Arrakis, ‘achieve the stature of a natural phenomenon’. Tacit in this, is that man is not part of nature. This is worth considering, as the indigenous Fremen of Arrakis have already evolved to survive the planet’s harsh environment. Creating a bounteous, vegetative environment, we might logically deduce, is unnatural, or rather counter-intuitive.  It begs the question, if such a bare subsistence livelihood is natural, how come a more fruitful, easier standard of living, can be realized despite the scarcity of resources available? This is because of information & the will for human beings to progress from disorder into greater forms of order, to make life easier regardless of past & current hardships. We are nature’s consciousness witnessing itself. A disease is natural even if it destroys its habitat. The irony of making Arrakis bountiful, is that it will increase the population, thus requiring reflexes in the consciousness of the people, to countervail abuses of the planet.  It begs the question whether a cancer is natural or unnatural? Everything that lives want its environment to work more efficiently for them.

What Kyne’s father must avoid at all cost is a populace that could one day propose a pastoral literature out of its religion, law & ecology. To write pastoral literature, as Terry Gifford outlines in Pastoral, is to propose (whether romantically or practically) a return-to, or retreat-to, a golden age —an Arcadia or Eden. If a culture is not thriving under its present circumstances, it must look backward, or take pains toward a better future. The worst of these is to admit defeat & cherish a mythic past through artifice—it has taken 2 millennia for literature to surmount this. It is suggested then, in the artifice of the pastoral, that the utopias of natural golden ages, when the world groaned with abundance, have been lost to history & memory. However the pastoral is artificial, it cannot be historical. Kyne’s & his father must surmount this hurdle before it can ever take root. It must be stamped out by conditioning, by a source of conditioned notation (or information) which incorrigibly leaves out any diversification of subject matter for a populace to consider. Can there be anything to learn for such a society? Gifford, summarizing Gary Snyder’s thinking, explains “that culture is nature, that our art is our natural way of thinking ourselves back into the natural world from which much of our previous culture has alienated us.” Kyne’s father must best hindsight, & can do so by learning from the failures of other civilizations; other civilizations we can suspect have made mistakes akin to those we ourselves are making. Synder outlines the necessary paradigm as follows: ‘Consciousness, mind, imagination and language are fundamentally wild. “Wild” as in wild ecosystems – richly interconnected, interdependent, and incredibly complex. Diverse, ancient, and full of information.’ This could have come from Kyne’s father himself. What we have is not separate disciplines in tension but ecological artifice as the existential meaning of a people’s conscience, without them having anything else, nor needing any other paradigm for being.

To establish a utopia is to contextualize repression in a way similar to religion: the people must exist within the principles of the paradigm. If the planet is the religion & law, the culture & the nature, then the consequence is harmonized living.  

Everything is information, & it may be argued that it is clarifying information & finding loopholes in redundancy that not only produce greater complexity, but also greater stability. Think of rudimentary stone tools found in the Gona River of the Awash Valley, carbon dated to 2.5 million years, one of the Oldowan people using a stone crafted (if crudely) to break open bone to suck out the marrow. Here is an example of something very simple, requiring insight, to utilize an abundant material to obtain another, better source of nourishment, encouraging more complex environmental interaction & inevitably, a more complex agent within the environment. Information snowballs into greater complexity. The tool’s usefulness is in the effectiveness, which is discovered through more detailed knowledge on how to manipulate the properties of available materials. Complexity breeds simplicity & thus utility for the handler, leading to trajectories of progress.   

Kyne’s father understands this, thus an additional meaning of his ‘ecological notation’. Kyne’s father needed to create an economic shorthand to propound his plans into a set of precepts that will have lasting consequences. I consider this as his effort to skip over some evolutionary points, necessary to establish a planet; such as those we see in the evolution of stone tool making. In this way Kyne’s father will create a population that limits the errors that other planets’ populations have made. We don’t need to learn to make a stone tool in order to be able to make a modern tool. There is a form of notational shorthand that is part & parcel of receiving knowledge down the assembly line of history. Kyne’s father seems to want to jump ahead of this, & he can: his people don’t need to evolve their abilities to survive or make tools, they only need to be indoctrinated into a habitual realization that being & nature are indistinguishable.

There is a criticism Kyne’s father may be overlooking: it may be essential to evolution that mistakes are made if only to be learned from. Perhaps this is the origin of God’s testing of man, & therefore the planetologist’s reason for allowing religion in society.

The climate crisis moves slowly in relation to human time spans. In geological time it is a blip.  There is time, owing to the foreshadowing of certain events within the elapsing crisis, to make alterations to avert catastrophe. While it is not a given that the realizations will be noted & action taken, nor even that after action is taken & crisis averted, the population won’t simply return to old habits. Nevertheless, mistakes have unfolded, & this offers something smooth-sailing through utopian constructs, cannot offer. Of course, this is only problematic in the inception of the utopia, otherwise, should the mechanism to avoid the need for mistakes work, it will become perfunctory.  

Later in the book, Jessica & Paul are shown a pool filled by wind-traps that are just one of a handful of large water reserves dotted across Arrakis. This devotion is the populace putting Kyne’s father’s work into action. Jessica soliloquizes ‘They’re in league with the future…They have their mountain to climb. This is the scientist’s dream…and these simple people, these peasants, are filled with it.’ She realizes that Paul must follow the hand of the ecologist that guided the people to this goal. The future is essential to Kyne’s father’s plan. Without a response to the necessities of future generations, the struggle to establish a populace indistinguishable from their environment, becomes increasingly difficult.

What arises from this chapter, for me, are the foundational principles for revitalizing a desert planet (or a planet becoming aware of its fragility), & the scale of complexity from a principle notation to a shared ecological consciousness & stable attitude that cannot be reckless with resources,. From the context of our planet, on the crossroads of ecological breakdown, or radical change, there is something key to be learned: an implanted information, which brings being, nature, law, science, biome, religion, literature & art under one noun, is essential. What that noun is, is immaterial. For everything to be as important as anything else, for all the things aforementioned to be experientially what is, is all that matters. One phenomena integrated into the mindset of the populace. I suppose now is as good a time as any.

The cannibalism of the matter

An object oriented poem with a little savoury biology.

We eat, mashing the meat of the matter
with calcium evolved enough to cope with it.
Flesh of its flesh become flesh of our flesh.
Nothing, not even death can be inert.
The meat of it never thought, despite
the organisms nattering via calendar
& root, sparked by chemical, the vital, secret push.
One process sustaining the lung’s mood.
Who would have guessed ideas need
the nourishment that comes from edibles?
There isn’t just an it behind
the thing imbibed with taste, nor its minor aroma.
It is an active stuff: an agent in a poem.
Stuff: carrot: soil: microbe: weather: farm
: town: trade: money: sight: touch: smell…
We see, touch, smell & meet each other become.
You rip a thing limb from its limb;
their metempsychosis: to be one crowd;
a left alone leitmotif, lip reading sound.
To host & to be hosted by a crumb
of thing, in short supply & long demand
as they eat away at one another in a glue
of time I cannot stop; it sticks with you.
When we finally part, there’ll be no time. 

A little bit about Yoon Yong

It has taken me longer to get this done than I promised. I started writing it just before I was due to move to Exeter. I am beginning to settle in here. But Jeju & Korea are never far from my thoughts.


Yoon Yong as both hero & poem germinated together. I had read Trevor Joyce’s The Immediate Future published online at Smithereens Press & though it has nothing much in common with Yoon Yong it burrowed the nascent idea to write a narrative poem.

The poem was to be unbroken originally, heavily abstracted & more suggestive of a clear plot than acute enough to actually have one. I recoiled from this. Yoon Yong was persuasive, she wanted to be rendered.

My initial conception had begun from a lack of intrepidity. I was & remained & still am concerned that this could all be misconstrued by the current climate of criticism toward the stale pale male. But writing is about a certain willingness to challenge yourself. In tandem with this, I had direct experience of not only Jeju, but also of Korean women married to English men: I was in such a marriage & it was going badly.

Yoon Yong is not my wife & I am not the belittled husband. The characters are completely fictional. But the loss of identity that Yoon Yong is struggling to get a handle on, is not. It was something I felt as someone who was speaking less English. My wife & I did not know each other’s language to a refined enough standard that there was absolute understanding between us. This created tension. So the germination of Yoon Yong’s identity crisis was a fictional realization of my own & my wife’s communicative struggle taken further. There are plenty of Westerners in relationships with Koreans who speak hardly a word of Korean & make a poor effort to familiarize themselves, or make a gestured attempt at understanding their partner’s culture. Too many Westerners in such relationships are prone to assume the superiority of their culture because of its standing in the world. Cultures are different & familiarization breeds understanding & understanding breeds acceptance. It isn’t always easy, but it is simply arrogant to assume superiority. Regardless of efforts to familiarize yourselves with each other, cultural barriers do assert their effects on the relationship. There need be extra vigilance & acceptance, & a certain amount of letting things slide, if such a relationship is to succeed.

Yoon Yong is complex, in large part because of her Westernization. Through the prism of her identity crisis, we find her using westernized habits of behavior, but using them to criticize the west, which is an irony caused by the replacement (or temporary exchange) of one cultural characteristic for another, more recently conditioned characteristic: she complains, which is not what I’d consider a Korean attitude; Koreans tend to keep shtum about anything worth complaining about, rather opting to do something productive. In the opening poem, Yoon Yong exemplifies this critical attitude:

Nor fall in line with the cultural stereotype like
young couples taking in-flight selfies | nuzzled

in the crease of one another’s elbows | dressed
in couple-clothes & silly hats—they look inter-bred |

arms numb with romance.

My ex-wife would not see any point in criticizing people for something this shallow. But by thinking this way, Yoon Yong becomes an individual, her isolation from both cultures comes into focus.

Why I didn’t use my own marriage, was owing to it not being challenging enough, moreover it felt impossible to make it interesting. By weaving the fictional with the experiential, I could materialize a much more coherent & cogent world.

Fictional poems using the individual poem to develop a narrative have always grabbed my attention. John Berryman’s Dream Songs are ever present, & ever pressing on me as an influence, an anxiety-of. But I am under no illusion where I am as a poet, career-wise.

In addition to Berryman, Roethke’s Meditations of an Old Woman is something of a precursor, if loosely. 

Who is Yoon Yong?

The name Yoon Yong is simply one of my favourite Korean names. I have only met one woman with this name. Each character when written is almost a mirror of the other (윤용) but the mirroring is thrown by the ㄴ swapped for ㅇ. This is symbolic of her relationship with her husband & her culture(s)—she is so near to being balanced but that slight hitch is enough to discombobulate the balance: it has aural similitude to yin yang. In Marriage is crap Yoon Yong explains:

He still can't say my name correctly | (is that it?)
pronounces it | ironically as Yin Yang—how does he

 continually mistake the ‘i’ with ‘oo’ | which makes
 a deep ‘you’ sound—the ‘a’ with diphthong ‘eo’.
 He is an idiot of the rarest sort.
 It is panic at being confronted with alien
 forces beyond his control. I gave up on him getting
 it right | he calls me by my English (slave | lol) name
 Rose | which sounds ridiculous…
 I know the way out of a rose…

Her explanation of how to pronounce her name reveals a deep rooted, subconscious issue with “you”, an incongruity in not just his being taken out his cultural comfort-zone, but with her blind reluctance to sympathize with him; she knows well enough the difficulty of adjusting to new environments as we discover in Homesickness in Birmingham where the husband’s action of making her a pot noodle is both a foreshadowing of their strained relationship & also comfort to her. So the problem is established as each other: “you”. This is hyperbolically analogized as a slave name, which even Yoon Yong in her ire, realizes is “lol”.

The final line adds to the irony if the rose is a metonym for Englishness. She thinks she knows the way out, but her conflict suggests otherwise. The line is taken from Roethke’s Her Becoming, part of Meditations of an Old Woman. Where the rose is obviously seen as a labyrinth out of the subterranean depths of consciousness.

Language is a key element to understanding Yoon Yong. It is both her success in utilizing it & her failure to use it for the purposes she would prefer to use it for, which hint at her dissatisfaction. Yoon Yong’s precursor is Kim Seung-hee, a poet who writes about being a domesticated woman in patriarchal Korea. She writes poems on domestic boredom, children, pregnancy, films, dream, body, & all in a muscular, idiosyncratic style. Only Kim Seung-hee could be Yoon Yong’s precursor. It is her struggle & accepted failure to be a translator of Seung-hee that destabilizes her intentions & her confidence. There would be meaning to her existence if she were able to do this, so we must not be fooled by her examination of poet & translator in the poem There’s no need to be a poet (time is forgotten):

  It’s probably for the best I never became a poet
 or translator: a poet has the anxiety to write
 something new |to transmute so much mundanity
 into a coagulation of symbols that raises bpm
 —else they must make a life busy with happenings |
 dilemmas & so much heart ache & madness.
 The translator must be at the beck n’ call
 of this poet of happenings this force of nature
 prone to the altercations of time & the motions
 of weather with such acuity it makes my cells itch.
 & isn’t the outcome of the translator |jealousy?
 No permit by the public to be reckless & intense.
 The poet gets to be the eyes of God.
 The lodestone of the universe.
 The precious birth of atoms damming space & time.
 There’s no need for me to be a poet.
 I need to be plain & pleased
 with the me that I am. If I’m not what then…?

At the point where “time is forgotten” Yoon Yong makes an effort to forget her anxiety of influence. In the following poem More insight we find Yoon Yong in a laconic mood, where “There is so little effort needed to be alive | it’s mostly automated”.  Her insights on the poet & translator, encourage her to a state of “plain & pleased”, which turns out to be too direct, leading to dull, repetitious, just-being-sterility. But in almost the same lung of air, she hastens back into her critical habit: “Most people are still animals. Aren’t we beyond that? / “Man is not a beast” (thanks Kim Chi-ha). / Why does low intelligence equate to lower entropy?” Quoting Kim Chi-ha, she quotes a poet who was imprisoned for speaking out against the government of Park Chung-hee, Park Geun-hye’s father (note that Yoon Yong marched against Park Geun-hye in the December marches & was successful where Kim Chi-ha was imprisoned, perhaps she has taken for granted her power to alter fate).
Narrative Structure
I wince, but Yoon Yong is, at a structural level, a travel poem. The decision for this narrative structure was a simple one, if you understand who visits the island, & for how long. Koreans rarely spend more than a couple of days touring Jeju, as it is less than an hour’s flight from Seoul Gimpo Airport, & ticket prices aren’t exorbitant. Out of season, hire cars are relatively cheap, as is accommodation. The place became a vehicle for the passage of time, thus the narrative structure.
Using the sub-title enabled me to dissolve the time as Yoon Yong became more detached from her Seoul-life. Thus the passage of time moves from precision, to inexact, to not even thought about.
I have written many poems in Jeju about Jeju & my will to show the island through poetry would still not dissolve when it came to writing Yoon Yong. It is crammed with atmosphere. It really is an ideal place for a contemporary fiction on the dark night of the soul.
The poem is an invitation to a place. A place fraught with tension between an indigenous populace (of sorts) & an El-Dorado for mainlanders to get rich & most importantly, escape Seoul. For tourists Jeju is freedom from city landscapes. It is an unfamiliar landscape, with its foundation of scoria, its temperate & almost tropical climate in the summer & its white sand beaches & turquoise ocean, offer a taste of paradise—a paradise seen on digital billboards in the subterranean depths of the Seoul Metro.
I would often see women travelling alone in Jeju. Some were very young, perhaps testing the waters of independence, seeing how they’d get along with only themselves for company. It was a no brainer to have Yoon Yong alone, in an environment that symbolized freedom. The poem became a single soliloquy. But what is interesting about Jeju is that it is Korea, so Yoon Yong becomes a tourist in her own country (essentially) & so we have another contextual device alluding to her identity crisis.  
Why Yoon Yong will not be resurrected
Yoon Yong is a series & I do not see it as essential, nor am I curious to take her further than where I have gone. Yoon Yong had to break out of the loop she was caught in. She has. The weather of her psyche materialized actually & helped her make the decision she needed to make. You can assume Yoon Yong made the right decision. Leave it at that. The loss of her ring is the clearly symbolic sign she needed, which in collusion with her 2 days of dreaming & seeing, is not something to ignore. I leave to the reader to envisage Yoon Yong’s future.
Though Yoon Yong is done for me, the narrative poem isn’t. I wrote Yoon Yong without access to books. I had little for intellectual stimulus other than what I could forage from my reaction to my own imagination coupled & massaged by my experiences. With access to a larger pond of ideas, I am certain I can construct a not necessarily more complex, but certainly a different & potentially better informed characterization.
I am currently working into notes another Korean character, this time a young man, early twenties, who is very sensitive. He is not very good at making money. He is estranged from the particularities of the orthodox Korean manner. A photographer who is trying to evade his military service. His name is Pureum, which has an interesting meaning. Pureum, is the feeling you have when you are looking at a turquoise ocean, or a blue sky, or even an emerald. It isn’t the colour but the feeling toward the colour. Pureum is based on a young lad who worked for me in Korea. He is a friend of mine & I think his story, fictionalized, will provide me with ample material to write another series.
Despite a non-fiction foundation, the poem about Pureum will be a fiction. To write a fiction is not to lie. Terry Eagleton in How to Read a Poem explains that “to fictionalize, then, is to detach a piece of writing from its immediate, empirical context and put it to wider uses.” Bearing this in mind, if I write the truth it is biography, which would make it difficult to put signifiers to symbolic use, which provides the poet with opportunities to make the poem ambivalent, ambiguous, more literary, in short; the poem chews off more than it can bite. “Fiction instructs us in what we are to do with texts, not in how true or false they are.” Just because I fictionalize a person I know, does not mean the poem is full of lies. The poem will still  get something done, it may even, were the real Pureum to read it, reflect his character in a truthful way he recognizes, & if not, it may be that it provides a spur for him to reassess, or simply assess, the characteristics of the fictionalized Pureum in relation to what he understands about himself. As Shenandoah Fish considers in Delmore Schwartz’s story America! America! we cannot know ourselves accurately unless we add to this how everyone we know perceives us.
Due to the volume of interesting people I became acquainted with in Korea, it isn’t out of the question for me to write a number of these narrative poems. Here’s to hoping.

The weather keeps her

This is the final Yoon Yong poem. I am in the process of writing a proper analysis/epilogue about the poem, as requested by a couple of loyal readers. I hope to have it done by next week.

Thank you for reading these poems. If anyone who would like these poems sent to them as a whole, email me at & I’ll sort this out for you.

 The weather keeps her 
…As the clouds tear open like a nail ripping open a vinyl-house
the rain in sheets colour the landscape grey
—graphite thatching in the sketches Sarang makes.
Quickly the fields flood | biblical waters spewing onto the road
—from nowhere a mudslide crashes through a wall
colliding with her flank flipping the car into a farm’s culvert.
She recovers herself | wipes blood from her lip
& manages to wriggle free of her seat belt
stumbling into the knee deep mud | the reservoir of debris
that was the road—her hands cushioning her body's collision
with the mud which without her knowing | steals her wedding ring |
she is stranded
                          — why do I feel so free?...

Considering a line by Kim Seung-hee

It is worth remarking that “mense” is a shortening of menstruation, which I have heard Korean women, my ex-wife especially, say; however, I cannot further elucidate the reason, but can only speculate, if this is because menstruation is a difficult word, or if the shortening has become shorthand Konglish, thus the source becoming lost the molasses of cross-cultural slang. My ex-wife would refer to the dog being “on her mense.”

Kim Seung-hee is one of the finest poets ever & everyone should rummage her poetry from somewhere & read it.

 Considering a line by Kim Seung-hee
…“The world of propriety properly exists”
except for me & Seung-hee.
I’d put a blowtorch to nature.
“You can’t spell immense without ‘men’.” Fuck off.
You can’t spell it without mense too.  
But how best to translate “dangyeon” in this context
: propriety | naturalness | rightness | common sense | a matter of course?
It is more felt than describable—utterly personal.
“On the final night I saw a firefly exit the darkness”
is all I will say | the rest will be kept secret |
especially the… syncopated
squeak from somewhere in the dark vegetation |
the coarse whine of a puppy tied to a wall 
& the wind fidgeting in tightly zipped spaces
—then late sunlight like a genuflect hyphen | hurried clouds | blue | terrific
& the dreams that kept me awake…

Napping on a sea wall after midnight

Yoon Yong dreams.

Napping on a sea wall after midnight
…She steals a trampoline from a trim backyard
—carries it on her back | over
the spinal cord of the Taebaek mountain range
to the edge of the world (all signposted)
—looks out on a sea of shadows
teasing her vulnerabilities into fear
the like of which no one has ever known.
She wants to report it to the world | there is a “suggestions” box |
she brought herself to the brink
of what she can endure
—to tease fear out of life & life out of fear
in her own tense…

Drinking to forget again (nearly home time)

Yoon Yong is drunk again.

Drinking to forget again (nearly home time)
…3 bottles of Soju later & staggering thoughtfully
through tight gullies | her stomach
packed full of pig | mouth reeking of garlic
noxious enough to stun a jindo—the stars like pheasant tracks
—if you count all the stars is that how old the universe is?
like counting tree rings to know the age of a tree.
What bollocks I think up sometimes!
The old houses shake under the wind’s saline weight |
a commotion of thin voices she can hear inside
as well as the clatter of dishes
—the noise of domesticity
reminding her to give her daughter a call.
There is no answer—she is probably sleeping.
She wants to punch the air
but realizes how juvenile & cliché it is |
she wants to box the moon | debate
with wind | dress in shadow drunken
on gloom to stir the poetic | rather
than parrot a language I hate.
“Rest | tomorrow is a big | new day…”


A poem from Yoon Yong. I had a debate in the pub the other week about onanism. I have a theory that the violence of men, may have its root in onanism: in one onanistic act, a man lays waste on a rag, to an entire population. Dylan Thomas was concerned with this. So is Yoon Yong.

…Reclined | tensing in the shallow relief of the sofa
his unimpressive prick in his left hand |
tugging it like a monk feeding prayer beads through
his pious fingers | the girl on girl porn panting
out of the Apple Mac—it tickled her
how he tucked it away quickly & closed the laptop lid
getting up to greet her with a peck on the cheek
& mumbling something quickly
“…about going out for dinner in Itaewon—pasta?”
I wonder if he just likes the one kind of porn |
is it habit & if he looks for women like me?
Mom called me when she found “sex magazines”
in her brother’s room.
Panicky as only our mother is she called | not sure what her
“duty to the situation” was— should she tell
the father | or have a private talk with her son
about the immorality of “touching yourself” | even
though she knows nothing about it
—this is what happens when no-one talks &
the “unspoken rule of thumb” is the solution
to taboos in polite society: no one
has the foggiest idea what to do…