Poet as Bat: On Echolocation

A couple of years ago, I read Jed Rasula’s discussion of how poets use language as a kind of echolocation. He draws on Calvin Martin’s idea that “words and artifice . . . constitute humanity’s primary instruments of self-location, the computation of where, in the deepest sense, one is in the biosphere.”[1] The ecopoem, then, becomes the site where dwelling in language enhances our sense of dwelling on the earth.

This can happen, of course, through other mediums, such as photography. We could call it eco-photography or echo-photography, and I have in mind those photographs that usher one so deep into the mundane that it becomes spectacular.

Case in point: the backyard of where we are renting. A couple of dusks ago, I went out to play with the low light. I spent roughly an hour with our DSLR set on manual, adjusting the f-stop, the shutter speed, the iso, and so forth. When I sifted through the 100+ photos, deleting most of them, I was struck by the handful that suggest something spectacular exists immediately to the left of the back door:

The photographs are decent, I believe (but a little blurry in the wrong places). However, the real work took place in the act of taking them. And I think this is what Rasula tends towards. Sure enough, we can cultivate a profound sense of place through reading the poems of others, but there is something profound in the actual making of a poem or in the process of really trying to make something out of a camera. I lingered in the slow transition of dusk. I could smell the flowers. The damp ground seeped into my clothes. I could smell the mud. I followed several lady beetles (lady bugs) for a good half hour, marveling at the dynamism of their exoskeleton/wings. They too, to echo Whitman, are the “journey-work of the stars.”

Now, when I head to the backyard, memories rush to the surface. That patch of ground has become much more sacrosanct and important through my engagement with it. It is like I have sent out waves of sound—through the technology of a camera—in order to see anew the textures of that space.

I recognize that this “nature” is an urban-nature—and that the hyacinth and the lavender are imposed plants. But I also recognize that the lady beetles could go elsewhere, and that for whatever reason, they exist amongst and among humans with their own autonomy. The act of photography weaves the lady beetles, the flowers, and the blades of grass into my sense of dwelling where I dwell.

I hope this post illuminates how poems/photography are acts of echolocation, cultivating a sense of place. There are plenty of poems that exemplify the art of echolocation—as well as many other photographs—but perhaps the ones most needed are those yet to exist.

And that is part of the real work.


[1] Quoted in Jed Rasula, This Compost: Ecological Imperatives in American Poetry (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 2002), 8.

 

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