Better Nature by Fenn Stewart - Review by Adam Fales
BookThug, 2017, $18
Guilt is hardly endearing. Maybe that’s why Walt Whitman, an endearing poet if ever there was one, expresses so little of it. In the first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the poet uses the word “guilty” only once, when he negates that guilt:
"Who need be afraid of the merge?
Undrape . . . . you are not guilty to me, nor stale nor discarded,
I see through the broadcloth and gingham whether or no,
And am around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless . . . . and can never be shaken away."
The poem’s enthusiastic speaker becomes a judge, deeming that “you are not guilty.” To Whitman, this obviation of guilt expedites the “merge” that brings these two figures together. As he describes this “merge,” Whitman sprinkles his lines with the conjunctions “and” and “or” to speed up the poem’s syntax until he illustrates this merge with a catalog of descriptions of his connection to “you”: “around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless.” Rather than a mere connection between two figures, they mix together and become one, in a way that they will never shake away. To Whitman, this is presumably not a problem, until one considers that “you” might not be amenable to this Whitmanian connection and instead might want to shake him away.
In stark contrast to Whitman’s poetry, Fenn Stewart’s Better Nature is hardly endearing in that it takes guilt and separation as its preoccupations. In her preface, Stewart identifies that the linguistic qualities that make Whitman’s “poetry so striking” are the same ones that make him “a typical late-19th-century ‘white settler.’” Writing in the wake of Canada’s colonial past and alongside current efforts toward decolonization, Stewart, in turn, attempts to use language in a way that tries to expose the prejudices inherent in Whitman’s “merge.” What would it mean to write poetry that is not only striking and decolonial, but perhaps striking because of its decolonial emphasis?
The book’s title – Better Nature – raises questions as to whom that nature benefits. To what extent does our praise of something like nature reflect our own desire for it, rather than anything about that thing in and of itself? Uncovering supposedly neutral language’s biases becomes fraught in the wake of colonialism. Better Nature does not just ask whom that nature is better for, but also throws into relief such supposedly neutral terms such as natural resources, wildlife, and the naming and borders of places like Vancouver that bolster an interpretation of nature that privilege white, settler-colonial goals over Indigenous populations.
Rather than explore a singular, all-consuming Walt Whitman, Stewart’s book adopts Whitman’s language, but refracts his identity through multiple possible Whitmans, who lend their substance to her poems’ titles, such as: “If Walt Whitman got a job writing spam for ‘fast fashion’ retailers and environmental NGOs, & while at work took full advantage of the Oxford English Dictionary Word of the Day emails and also Shakespeare’s sonnets.” The various and overly specific versions of the American poet populate Stewart’s “List of Whitmans (Table of Contents)” before she proceeds to explore each individual identity. By presenting this “List” rather than a straightforward Table of Contents, Stewart challenges the spectacular singularity of “The” Walt Whitman that has figured largely in literary history. She instead imagines him in the shoes of ordinary people, caught up in intricate systems of language, environments, and politics. Once we begin to understand Whitman’s language as that of a typical late-19th century (or early 21st century) ‘white settler,’ his language becomes something we can dismantle and repurpose.
Stewart uncovers and repurposes these biases throughout her collection. For example, in one poem, she imagines “If Walt Whitman were a wealthy Vancouver resident bobbing about in a life raft in the suddenly much deeper Burrard Inlet; & if the occasion of this bobbing led to reminiscences about the creation of the city, via Major Matthews’ Early Vancouver archives (re: the ‘purchasing’ of land in the late 19th century) & Jean Barman’s historical research (on the desctruction of the Kitsilano Reserve in the early 20th).” Whereas the title clearly (and thoroughly) lays out the various forces that intersect in Vancouver’s present situation, her speaker more delicately reveals how the taming of Vancouver benefits specific people:
"& soon, you know, these white-browed railway fellows—
I mean, the public—soon they were able to enjoy the forest safely,
& gracefully meander through its systematic groves
as they do now"
The speaker’s hesitant diction, inserting phrases like “you know” and “I mean,” rephrases and reconfigures implicitly positive phrases like “enjoy the forest safely” to expose the kind of “systematic” bureaucracy that made this specific enjoyment of the natural forest possible. The “public” becomes a neutral word to stand in for the white settlers. Stewart reveals how a bureaucracy that only sought to develop the forest so it could be enjoyed “safely” actually entailed a much more systematic and insidious plan that benefited one group of people at the expense of others. She reveals this foresight later in the same poem: “we always knew our progress would depend on management.”
Part of the power of Stewart’s book comes from her ability to link these individual acts of colonization, bureaucracy, and destruction to a larger narrative that reveals poetry’s complicity in this project. In her cited sources, she not only includes Whitman, Locke, and Shakespeare but also Parks and Recreation reports, accounts of urban zoning struggles, and colonizer’s accounts of their first encounters with North America. The combination of these disparate sources illustrates their shared use of language as a tool in the colonial project.
These sentiments become imbued with conflicting desires in the poem “If Walt Whitman indulged in some exquisite shame as he stretched out on the lawn of his friends’ stately home in Southern Ontario; & if his sense of complicity added a frisson to an already lovely summer evening (robin song, scented flowers, long tree shadows, et al.); if Walt Whitman were more or less his traditional self.” Stewart presents Whitman here not only at his most shameful but also as his most recognizable “traditional self.” As she imitates the cadence of the most popular parts of poems like “Song of Myself,” Stewart inverts Whitman’s typical message: “flung out upon this ample, charming lawn / I indulge myself in a thousand, lingering, twilight shames— / rose-coloured shames.” As she sets out to explicitly shame Whitman, it’s as though his language takes control and transforms his “shames” into something in which he can “indulge.” Whitmanian adjectives overwhelm the actual word “shame,” as Stewart evokes an atmosphere of non-shameful indulgence. Stewart drives the sense in which Whitman’s language completely transforms shame in the poem’s last stanza: “shame’s early, gently closing / the faintly given half / an infant satisfaction.” Stewart lightly puns, suggesting that Whitman might “ha[ve] an infant satisfaction” or perhaps that satisfaction might last “half an in[s]tant.” In both meanings, Whitmanian sentiment and description manage to wholly transform shame into a sense of “satisfaction.”
This anxiety looms behind Stewart’s collection. There’s a pervasive worry that all this guilt and shame might merely result in satisfaction for the person expressing it, as they receive recognition for their expressions of guilt and shame but are still exempt from the actual repercussions of our colonial past. In this way, Better Nature gestures towards its own limits as a collection of poetry. Even for a collection with brilliant inquiries into the nature and limits of language, Stewart’s poetry inevitably rejects the overwrought claim that poetry might change the world. All of Stewart’s Whitmans, and all of her guilt and shame cannot repair the generations of loss and damage that have been caused by colonialism and its aftermath.
Not only can poetry not change the world, but poetry can’t even change poetry, in Stewart’s book. Just as Whitman’s shame eventually become indulgent, often Stewart’s multitude of Whitmans become more, not less, Whitmanian as she explores their language. Her project sought to uncouple Whitman’s striking poetry from his colonial attitudes, but that can never be Whitman’s project. In Stewart’s experimentation with Whitmanian exaggeration and catalogs, his poetry only becomes more entrenched in the history of colonialism and violence. Perhaps that’s the actual benefit of Better Nature. Uncovering the guilt that Whitman refuses to mention, Stewart refuses to let us forget our poetry’s and our own complicity in that same history.