By Sea Mouths Speaking: Collected poems 1973–2018 and related prose by Denys Trussell (Brick Row, 2019), 784pp, $75
It is hard to remember the time when human entanglement with the environment was not at the forefront of our minds. Yet only forty years ago, Denys Trussell’s ecological sequence of poems ‘Dance of the Origin’ was ‘outside the dominant view’ of New Zealand contemporary dance, for which it was written. The performance of Trussell’s poetic sequence explored ‘the body as nature; the body as ecological entity within larger ecological processes’, says Origins Dance Theatre founder Alison East, in an essay in this collection – ideas which in 1980 contrasted with ‘the dominant view of human beings as separate from and superior to all aspects of nature’ (532).
Ecological poetry – or ecopoetry as it has been known since around 1990 – does not uphold a view of human beings as superior to nature, but it does often suggest a nature/culture binary. The term has its genesis in polemical poetry calling for people to protect nature, and while more broadly defined now, it still upholds the notion of duality. British critic Jonathan Bate in The Song of the Earth (2000), for instance, describes ecopoety as ‘ecology of mind’ (252), thereby adopting the Romantic idea that connection with the nonhuman world has a positive effect on human mental wellbeing. American critic J. Scott Bryson, in Ecopoetry: A critical introduction (2002), defines ecopoetry as recognising ‘interdependence’ between people and nature leading to ‘devotion to specific places’ (6), terms which also suggests nature on the one hand and people on the other.
Such a notion of duality is expressed in New Zealand ecopoetry in a number of ways. Ian Wedde’s seminal ‘Pathway to the Sea’ (1975) calls on people to become better guardians of nature as it protests against a proposed aluminium smelter at Aramoana. Brian Turner’s portrayals of Central Otago’s remote rivers and ranges as places of escape from modernity and Dinah Hawken’s evocations of nature as a model of composure for people in a technological age follow the Romantic notion of nature as a source of solace. A greater sense of entanglement between people and nature is represented in ecopoetry which reflects on the relationship between Māori and nature, and between nature and settler-colonial nation building. Robert Sullivan’s poetry portrays Polynesian culture embedded in nature as it considers the legacies of cultural and ecological violence, and Airini Beautrais’s collection Flow (2017) reflects on post-colonial ecologies that are constituted by human agency.
The ecopoetry of Denys Trussell takes a different approach from all of the above. In a collection spanning his life’s work to date, Trussell (b. 1946) portrays people as organically and physically integrated with nature. He writes of species loss, human-caused environmental damage, and the toxic effects of modernity as symptons of an ‘illusion’ (537) that people are not part of nature. Rather, in his essay about ‘Dance of the Origin’ he argues for ‘recognition of ourselves as natural beings with a spiritual reach into the world of which we are a part’ (544). His richly metaphoric poetry unites people with the natural world and the natural world with the human body and mind.
Metaphors compare the body with plants, animals, and natural elements – land, sea, stone – as in the following extract from ‘Dance of the Origin’ (1980):
All is spun
into your bone.
Sap bough and limb
of blood reach
from their origin
of impassive stone.
And metaphors compare the mind and nature, as in the following from ‘Coast by Kaikoura’ (1986):
am I expressed
as the native grain of rock or field,
sown as the mind
with crops of light.
In additon, Trussell writes the human into nature. The following lines from ‘Four Stanzas on a Falling Mountain’ (1991) imagine rock as mind and mind as rock:
That dark rock
is the thought of matter.
That mind is
latent in stone.
Such comparisons suggest the work of Walt Whitman, whose conjuring of physical integration with nature in ‘Song of Myself’ from Leaves of Grass (1855) – ‘My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air’ – and the evocation of a passionate desire for such connection – ‘I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked, / I am mad for it to be in contact with me’ – is echoed by Trussell. In his ‘Meeting in the Shape of a Day’ (1991), the verbs ‘clashing’, ‘flooding’ and ‘dredging’ evoke the sense of a high-spirited nature and the poet speaker’s urgent desire to unite with it:
Through cold dunes
I came, through
of flax, dawn flooding
me to drown sleep’s tide,
its flotsam, its dream
And day was
alive and filling me
with existences / each
rock and plant changing
to my hand’s sense, my
Indeed, the urban world, rendered by Trussell as anti-nature – corrupt and toxic to people and the natural world – is portrayed in ‘The Naming and Lament of America’ (1991) as the site of the loss of Whitman’s ‘truth’:
Prairie-hoofed the bison sea
that thundered in your lustrous space
until the glazed cliffs,
the phoenix towers,
the motor gods
that raised them stilled
the animate drift and buried
the voice that Whitman left like truth
to track the swing of stars.
This long poem mourns the loss of Indigenous culture and ecologies in America following European colonisation. In other poems Trussell laments similar losses in New Zealand. In ‘The Canto of English’ he evokes the dispossessing effects of English language on indigenous species and Māori:
A name crashing earthward,
kahikatea falls to the axes
and is cut into syllables of white pine.
Hot burning, the wood of puriri
has its tohunga secrets covered
with the phrase New Zealand oak.
Denys Trussell is a Pākehā poet, biographer and classical pianist who lives in Auckland. He has published seven poetry collections since 1980 and two biographries. His biography of poet A.R.D. Fairburn titled Fairburn (1984) won the 1985 PEN best first book award for non-fiction, and his poetry collection Walking into the Millenium (1998) was shortlisted for the 1999 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. A long-time ecologist, Trussell was a 1975 founding director of Friends of the Earth New Zealand. His partner Hilari Anderson, whom he lovingly describes in ‘The Poem of the Familiarities’ (2000) as ‘cloud-soft of flesh / but strong in the way / of a river’, was first cook on the Rainbow Warrior in the 1970s.
By Sea Mouths Speaking collects Trussell’s earlier and recent works. The 784-page hardcover book features an attractive wrap-around cover with a painting of the author by Dunedin artist Liam Davidson. Illustrations include the striking full-colour Blue Eel Taniwha at Piha by Piha painter Zeke Wolf, two equally striking red woman paintings by Auckland painter Dean Buchanan, Facing Eastward Ocean Study (1970) by Christchurch painter Alan Pearson (1929–2019), and ten black and white paintings by Dunedin artist Nigel Brown, inspired by Trussell’s poetry.
The poems are divided into three parts. Part one is shorter poems 1973–2018, part two is long poems 1980–2005, and the final, smaller part is recent and uncollected poems. This a useful division because it gives time to enter Trussell’s eloquent language in shorter bursts before embarking upon the long poems (up to 2000 words), which are accompanied by detailed notes and commentaries. Some poems contain sidebars which, when matters of fact, might have been better included in the accompanying notes. But this is a niggle. There is an index of first lines and openings, an index of titles, and a scholarly glossary of proper names and phrases providing further commentary to references, historical events and people named in the poems.
It is a comprehensive collection. Ecologically themed, its subject matter is wide-ranging, including poems dedicated to and about exploreres, composers, sculptors, painters, poets, friends, parents and lovers. Geographically, it spans Australasia, America and Europe. The accompanying essays and notes explain Trussell’s worldview.
While at times the ideas argued in prose enter the poems conceptually or in abstract words, an abundance of skillfully employed metaphors and crafted language provides much pleasure. Phrasing, when perceptual, is often astonishing, as in the following description of a peach tree in the final stanzas of ‘Evidences for Nature in a Sharp, Spreading City’ (1998):
the buds of
this crooked peach tree
growing in a yard
of damp brick.
wait to release
from the wiry
branches a blossom
language of delicacy.
In a later poem, ‘The Scope of a City’ (2015), Trussell returns to the image of the peach blossom as he considers the length of his own life:
As I am I watch
the lilac cones,
wisteria of the gardens
and the blossom
to set as peaches
the stones, the fruit
of this sixty-ninth spring.
Overall, the eloquence of this collection’s poetic language allows ideas to arise yet not overtake the imaginative work of poetry. Reading it is somewhat akin to Trussell’s vision of ‘the spill / of wine-coloured bougainvillea’ in ‘Site and Prayer in the Living of a City’ which:
is not capture
but a lavishing
of colour and texture, not
of yourself, yet a passing of its life
into the life that is yours
by way of mind and sense.
JANET NEWMAN has a creative writing PhD from Massey University. Her thesis ‘Imagining Ecologies: Traditions of ecopoetry in Aotearoa New Zealand’ includes an original collection of ecopoems. She is the winner of the 2017 Kathleen Grattan Prize for a Sequence of Poems, the 2015 New Zealand Poetry Society Competition, and the 2016 Journal of New Zealand Literature Prize for New Zealand Literary Studies with her essay ‘Thinking Like a Leaf: Dinah Hawken, Romantic Ecopoet.’