Marcella Durand’s Apocalyptic Pastoral

Marcella Durand, The Prospect (image courtesy Delete Press)

The cover of Marcella Durand’s The Prospect (Delete Press, 2020) is a strange marriage of the pastoral and the apocalyptic. The 2010 photograph shows the performer Kazu Nakamura, resplendent in white, his arms spread, in the middle of a Wordsworthian meadow. But this is no simple meadow: it is the North Mound of the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island — officially closed to new trash in 2001 and in the process of becoming a vast park. Behind Nakamura’s patch of pasture, beyond a band of dark foliage (and a billboard advertising “YOUR AD HERE”), we can see a vista of oil refinery buildings.

The book’s title locates The Prospect, a single long poem in a variety of forms, in a lineage of English-language “prospect poems” dating back to the 18th century (by authors including John Denham, Alexander Pope, James Thomson), as does its opening quotation from Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City: “[…] the view, the ordered proprietory repose, the prospect […]” Poets wrote prospect poems to celebrate particular aristocratic estates, whose grounds had been carefully and masterfully curated to present sweeping, striking vistas.

What such great 18th-century landscape architects as Lancelot “Capability” Brown and Humphry Repton sought to achieve in their “English style” landscape gardening was a simulacrum of untamed nature, in contrast to the order and rigid geometrical parterres of earlier masters like André Le Nôtre (who designed the gardens of Versailles). When the English nobleman looked out from his country house, he would see a varied but carefully composed “landscape” (a word that enters English specifically from the vocabulary of painting). But, as Durand points out, these creations are premised on a “prospect” of economic dominance: “the visual declaration of the view is mine.” Looking out from “manorial windows,” one sees “A line / of wilderness on the horizon. From which / poachers have been evicted.”

The creation of the great landscape gardens of the 18th century was made possible by the enclosure movement, whereby vast tracts once held in common were “enclosed” and incorporated into private estates. The “poacher” — one who traps or hunts animals on private property, one who scrounges for one’s living — is a product of the enclosure movement, a figure forced to the economic fringes, to the edges of legality and beyond, by encroaching development.

The great romantic poet John Clare, to whom Durand addresses several lyrics, was a victim of enclosure: “His was the first recorded case of ‘ecodepression.’” While Clare’s poem “To John Clare” dwells on the homely details of rural life, Durand’s “To Marcella Durand” finds the poet at home in Brooklyn, where her prospect includes the Brooklyn Bridge:

a musician named

Sonny Rollins practiced his saxophone on the bridge
against the sound of subway, horns, traffic and wind,
and from that made music, a little what it is like
to write poetry from the environment around me.

Making a composition from a city of others.

The English Romantics found peace and spiritual renewal in the natural environment. Yet Durand’s own urban environment is a source not of solace but of anxiety, where even the air whose pressure shapes us is shot through with invisible contaminants:

We strain against it; that amount of lead in the air;
particulates, benzene, methane, nitrogen, carbon
dioxide, carbon dioxide, carbon dioxide, did we
do something about ozone, ozone warning today.

Durand’s lines dwell repeatedly on greenhouse gasses: global warming, the great social disruptor of our own moment, is a result of the same greedy, proprietory impulse that was behind the consolidation of the commons; global warming is the enclosure movement of our day.

A “prospect” is a view seen from a single perspective. This is not the only way to behold; Durand alludes to Markus Brunetti’s FACADES—Grand Tour exhibition (2018), in which thousands of digital photos are stitched together to achieve “A flatness that allows a complete visual experience / in which one cornice does not take precedence over another … that allows / justice of perception […].” Since the Renaissance, however, we have taken to seeing in single-point perspective — “So the prospect begins with the viewer.” This subject-centered vision has political and economic consequences:

then it ended with the prospect and the viewer
the garden became the housing project
the inhabitants became the poachers
the poachers needed to eat

And with the introduction of “poachers” comes the advent of “fences” and “walls.”

The title of Durand’s book is fundamentally dual: both the “prospect” in visual terms — whether one sees sweeping meadows and a green line of trees or the Brooklyn Bridge — and the “prospect” in terms of foreseeing:

The prospect of what is about to happen
to us, as a species, what is happening now…
the prospect of who we have been all along
did we ever, have we never fit in
landscape, place
when did we come here
why this place and who we are
in it, inside it

The prospect, as the climate scientists, Greta Thunberg, and so many other activists have been telling us, is fairly grim. Durand is less interested in urging us to any particular course of action, such as green energy or veganism (that would make the poem a “propectus,” I suppose), than in trying to find some as-yet-undiscovered, even utopian, way of conceiving our place in nature:

even I look at it as a place to find a deeper I
even we frame it
our hands cupped together in L shapes
searching for an ideal perspective
a place that is not actually here, or not yet

The “prospect poem” is closely related to, perhaps even a subset of, the ancient genre of the pastoral, in which figures speak in a rural setting in order to implicitly critique the social order as exemplified in the city. The Prospect isn’t really a pastoral poem in the classic sense, for, as Durand shows us, the distinction between country and city has, over the past century, collapsed. The fires now devastating the American West, as well as those that have devastated Australia and the Amazon, are not “natural” events, but the outcome of environmental change driven by big business and the demands of consumers in large conurbations.

The Prospect, then, is perhaps a “post-pastoral” poem, addressing the human relationship to the natural world from a broad historical perspective. Now and again Durand’s mostly plainspoken verses become a bit too admonitory, as she takes on the voice of Al Gore or Bill Nye, but for the most part her meditations are admirably restrained and subtle: a single-point, subject-centered perspective has been our species’ undoing. Yet, hard-wired as we are, how are we to step outside that prospect? Like Kazu Nakamura on the book’s cover, we are dancing atop a pyramid of our own waste, before a backdrop of our fossil fuel addiction. The only livable prospect is to reclaim some part of this devastation for a new garden.

The Prospect by Marcella Durand (2020) is published by Delete Press and is available online and in bookstores.

Durand’s urban environment in The Prospect is a source not of solace but of anxiety.Read MoreBooks, Weekend, Delete Press, Marcella Durand, poetryHyperallergicRead More

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