Flamur Vehapi

But Is it Ecopoetry? David Jalajel’s Snapshots from the Ark

David Jalajel’s Snapshots from the Ark is currently being serialised in Otoliths.

The poetry sequence represents a bestiary, where various animals are presented, with each animal given a short poem consisting of six terse couplets. The poems are divided into groups using a peculiar taxonomy including “Dead Ducks”, “Dead Dinos” and “Survivors”.

The poems describe bizarre relationships between people and the animals and are at least partially inspired by the depiction of animals in video games and the game mechanics associated with those animals. Clearly among these games is the popular survival game Ark: Survival Evolved. The relationships the people have with the animals are generally exploitative, often abusive and always focused on the people’s needs and concerns. Otherwise, each poem stands on its own and there is no discernible overarching narrative or progression between them.

A clue to what is going on in these poems is an epigraph that appears at the top of each serialised instalment. It quotes the poet and critic John Shoptaw from his article “Why Ecopoetry? There’s no Planet B” that appears in the January 2016 issue of Poetry, where he says: “Human interests cannot be the be-all and end-all of an ecopoem.”

Shoptaw takes pains in the article to define ecopoetry and distinguish it from other kinds of nature poems. He declares: “an ecopoem needs to be environmental and it needs to be environmentalist.” The first criterion means two things, that it must genuinely be about the nonhuman world (making it a subset of nature poetry), and it must be ecocentric, not anthropocentric. It is here that he says: “Human interests cannot be the be-all and end-all of an ecopoem.” The poem cannot, therefore, use nature as a foil to focus on our needs and perspectives. It must be about the nature that is “out there”.

His second criterion, that the poem must be environmentalist, requires the poem to carry out two essential functions. First, it must show how nature is negatively impacted by human behaviour. Second, it must be unsettling, instilling a sense of urgency about the problem (preferably without too much overt moralising). It must, as Shoptaw explains, “usher us into a new environmental imagination” and change “the ways we think, feel about, and live and act in the world.”

This brings us back to “Snapshots”, whose instalments begin by reminding us that an ecopoem cannot focus exclusively on human interests. The problem is, this is exactly what these poems do. Each poem takes an animal, and then has a speaker do nothing but propound on their self-interests, feelings and needs in relating to that animal. Consider this example, which appears in the sequence “Dead Dinos”:

Hey, it’s Stego’s grouchy
baby brother! (Don’t try

to cuddle.) For sure,
it’ll make a fine addition

to our family, but I doubt
it’s gonna be an easy ride.

And taming it is just like
having a baby. It’s painful.

It’s hell of annoying, hell
of time consuming, and it’s

way more expensive than
it damn right ought to be.
A kentrosaurus is a stegosaur with elongated and extra spines. It is a highly derived stegosaur, and as expected, it features in the game Ark: Survival Evolved.

It is introduced as stegosaurus’ “baby brother”. This introduces the motif of family relationships which will play out in a tug-of-war fashion throughout the poem.

This hint at the “happy family” idea is immediately subverted when the lyric subject tells us “Don’t try / to cuddle.” But then just as quickly the motif returns full-force, when we assured that it will “make a fine addition // to our family.”

But again, this is immediately undermined by the fact that the process is not “gonna be an easy ride.” This makes us doubt that the family relationship is a genuine one. Though the “easy ride” is idiomatic for the difficulty in introducing this new family member, we are nonetheless dealing with a domesticating process (more like taming than adopting), and the “ride” then can very well be taken literally. The animal is being tamed for use as a means of transportation. It is more the family car than a family member.

Any doubt is removed when “taming” is then explicitly stated in the beginning of verse 7, revealing the true relationship and power dynamic. But then the family motif is reintroduced through the simile of “having a baby”. This final family image is then developed throughout the second half of the poem.

Since taming a kentrosaurus is compared having a baby, this returns us to the idea of a new family member, the “baby brother” image that opens the poem. But this comparison plays out in entirely negative terms. The focus is on what the process entails of pain and inconvenience, and ultimately financial cost, to the people involved. It is just a rant. Everything focuses on the people’s needs and their difficulties in making the animal serve their ends. The animal’s interests and welfare are not given a thought. The true power relationship is established and the idea of a family identification for the animal is shown to be false.

The poem shares with the others in “Snapshots” the self-indulgent, immature voice of its lyric subject. Multiple voices can be discerned in the various poems, but they all share these qualities. Each poem zeroes in on a different vice, a different way humans act as if their interests are the “be-all and end-all” of what matters in the world. The animals, standing in for the natural world, provide different opportunities to present these unflattering, often painful, up-close portraits of our worst anthropocentric tendencies.

So are these ecopoems? They do not fulfil Shoptaw’s first set of criteria. They are not about nature. They are highly-focused portraits of human behaviour. Nature is conspicuously absent from the poems, only obliquely referenced through the proxy of video-game animals. Nature “out there” does not feature at all. Each poem depicts anthropocentrism at its worst. One could say that the poems are about anthropocentrism. It is as if the poet took Shoptaw’s maxim and did the exact opposite, choosing to focus exclusively on want it means to make human interests in nature “the be-all and end-all” of a poem’s subject matter, even absenting nature itself from being the humans’ unfortunate object by having a video game stand in for it.

But what about Shoptaw’s second criterion? Ecopoetry has an ecological function to fulfil. It must raise our awareness about the consequences of our actions in the natural world. It must unsettle us, make us uncomfortable, change the way we think, and hopefully inspire us to change the way we behave. Shoptaw recognises the challenge this presents to the ecopoet. He warns: “The more immediate hazard for ecopoetry, then, is didacticism. If a contemporary nature poem risks being immoral, an ecopoem, whatever its effects, risks being moralistic. How can an ecopoem usher us into a new environmental imagination without teaching us a tiresome lesson?”

And it is here where Snapshots meets the challenge. By holding up a mirror way too close to our own noses, the poems make us uncomfortable. They show us the ugliness of acting with absolute self-interest in the world. While rarely describing the effects of our actions on nature, they remind us that those effects are out there and that they are as ugly as our deeds. The following poem, from the “Survivors” sequence, is a rare exception to this by directly mentioning global warming:

Reefs are an obstacle to progress. You
can’t build on them, nor mine them.

You can’t even obliterate them. We
need a way to kill off a coral reef.

They had wanted to build a bridge
to span the bay, so I drafted blueprints.

4 days out from shore, I’m dropping
another pillar. And then we hit it.

We can’t place pillars on the reef nor
blast it to gain access to the sea floor.

Disaster. The half-built bridge is useless.
And global warming isn’t doing the trick.
Here, the speaker passes judgement on global warming by what it means for them in their immediate task. The judgement is unfavourable. Global warming should be killing the problematic reef, but it is not working fast enough. Impatience, short-sightedness, and brutal self-indulgence are all on display.

Yet, this poem is in no danger of being preachy. It does not take the moral high ground. There is no criticism, no display of consequences, no negative judgements. It is just a portrait of self-centeredness. Like all the poems in “Snapshots”, it entertains by presenting unfamiliar scenes and events. Many of the poems are zany, and might I dare say, fun. A good example is “Ankylosaurus”, where people clear-cut a forest by employing a giant crab that whacks at trees with the club-tails of ankylosaurs clasped within its claws. This deforestation technique is described as “(h)arness(ing) nature’s perfect synergy.” However, the fun does not make these poems comfortable places to be. The reader never feels approvingly towards the poems’ speakers, their attitudes, or their actions.

Snapshots from the Ark fulfils ecopoetry’s function. Its poems make us uncomfortable by showing us what it means to act with crass self-interest in the world, indifferent to the creatures and environments with whom we share that world. In doing so, they call us to rethink the way we act and what we should tolerate from the actions of others. They achieve this, not despite pointedly avoiding nature, but by avoiding it as pointedly as possible. They make human interests their “be-all and end-all” and show us why this is such a bad thing. In this way, they raise our awareness of the natural world that is so precariously “out there” and that its concerns must be prioritised. There’s no Planet B.

Flamur Vehapi is a researcher, poet, chronologist, literary translator, academic and a success coach. He received his A.A. and B.S. in Counseling Psychology with a minor in History, and in 2013, he received his M.A. in Conflict Resolution from Portland State University. In 2009, Vehapi received the Imagine Award for Community Peacemaking. Currently, he is an Education and Leadership PhD student at Pacific University. Vehapi taught social sciences at Rogue Community College and Southern Oregon University, and more recently he taught at various institutions in the Middle East. His publications include Verses of the Heart and A Cup with Rumi, both collections of spiritual poems, and his most recent books are Peace and Conflict Resolution in Islam, The Book of Albanian Sayings, The Book of Great Quotes, Ertugrul Ghazi, Kosovo: A Brief Chronology, and two translations of Sami Frashëri’s books. He has worked as a contributing writer for the PSU Chronicles. Vehapi and his family currently live in Oregon.

(Note. The already published Snapshots from the Ark can be found in the following issues of Otoliths:
Issue sixty-four: https://the-otolith.blogspot.com/2021/11/david-jalajel.html
Issue sixty-five: https://the-otolith.blogspot.com/2022/04/david-jalajel.html
Issue sixty-six: https://the-otolith.blogspot.com/2022/07/david-jalajel.html
Issue sixty-seven: https://the-otolith.blogspot.com/2022/10/david-jalajel.html
Issue sixty-eight: https://the-otolith.blogspot.com/2023/01/david-jalajel.html)
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