this is an emergency!

Review: Helen Moore, Ecozoa (Hampshire: Permanent Publications, 2015)

O, obscene era

this is an emergency!

(‘Deep Time, Deep Tissue’)

ecozoa

There’s no mistaking the message articulated by Helen Moore in her new collection of eco-poetry.

Already in 2012’s Hedge Fund she was warning of the existential threat to our natural world at the same time as marvelling at its delights.

But three years later, with Ecozoa, there is the impression of a still sharper edge to her vision, perhaps in response to yet more sharply-cut wounds inflicted by the murderous mutilating monster known as industrial civilization.

A landscape devastated by fracking
A landscape devastated by fracking

What has changed over that period? For a start, Moore’s English homelands have been threatened by fracking, a process which is so blatantly unacceptable that it reveals itself and the mindset behind it as an assault not just on our soil, air and water but on all good sense, on any vision of a future place worth living in.

earth is not our wider, life-sustaining body

but a cache of raw matter to be stripped, mined, fracked

(‘apples are not the only gadgets’)

There are poems here reflecting her own participation in (‘This is not a dirty protest!’) and support for the anti-fracking struggle. “And may the frackers’ drills go soft, their stocks & shares evaporate!” she prays in ‘I call on the spirit of Owen’.

Moore is scathing about those who bear responsibility for the destruction of our planetary life-support system, “the kind of chaff that congregates out of sight of the general public – like arms dealers, corporate lobbyists & government ministers”. (‘The Pocket’s Circumference).

iraq-war-shock-and-awe

In ‘Kali Exorcism’, a Ginsberg-inspired piece, she unleashes her moral scorn for those leaders of our society who dare to proclaim their moral high ground from the darkest depths of a stinking corpse-filled pit of hypocrisy.

then show us the hands of our prime minister and his henchmen

in the pockets of BAE Systems, touting for business

with morbid regimes and crackpot dictators,

and their arms fairs, where they never ask what’s fair

in selling arms, just rake in the bloodied money,

as our own banks account to cluster-bomb makers.

Come, dark goddess, tear off veils of rhetoric that conceal

war-mongering deeds in cloaks of respectability: help us

hear deeper than the pre-emptive strikes, the collateral damage

ventriloquised by our complicit media,

and demand plain language to describe victims of torture,

rape and murder in the wars they report.

mountains in wales

At the same time, she sings sublime songs of praise to all that she loves, such as in the beautifully simple poem ‘glory be to Gaia’:

glory be to Gaia,

for birdsong, mountains and clear lakes;

we honour & praise you, Gaia,

giant pulsating orb of life

from which we’ve grown –

please help us feel our interdependence

with all animal and human kin

I may be doing Moore a disservice by drawing attention to the poems that most directly express a ‘political’ message – there are plenty in the collection that concern other aspects of her life.

But for me, that is where the power in her work resides – not just in her expression of a message, but in her awareness of how important it is that this message be expressed, and in her acceptance of the responsibility that she bears to help express it.

This is perhaps something that has started to grow much more strongly within her, like an idea-child, in recent years, as she hints in ‘Sweet Pain’:

So I’ve chosen to embrace

different responsibilities – to journey through

my wounds to serve The Great Turning.

Now let revolutionary love suckle

at my breast – the desire’s been growing

As she explains in her ‘Notes’ at the end of the collection, the term “The Great Turning”, popularised by Joanna Macy and David Korten, describes “the movement from an industrial-growth society to a life-sustaining one”.

The book’s title comes from Thomas Berry’s proposal of an “Ecozoic Era”, denoting a new age where we live in harmony and “with the Earth as our community”.

William_Blake
William Blake

But an even more important presence in this book is that of William Blake (1757-1827). He also partly inspired its title, with his work The Four Zoas, and figures from his own personal poetic mythology – Tharmas, Urizen, Urthona and Luvah – here feature as headings for the sections of the collection.

Blake in many ways provides a bridge from the ancient world to the new. Historian Christopher Hill has written that he detects an inspiration for Blake’s Romantic vision in “an underground heretical tradition which influenced his thought in a communitarian and chiliastic direction”, which had been passed down by the “mystical anarchists” of the millenarian sects of the Middle Ages, especially the Brethren of the Free Spirit, via the English Revolution (for more on this see The Stifled Soul of Humankind).

Inspiring - Blake's mystic vision
Inspiring – Blake’s mystic vision

Blake’s spirit – “a kind of pantheistic idealism” to use a label deployed by anarchist writer Peter Marshall – resurfaced to dramatic effect at the end of the 19th century but has been somewhat crushed by the machineries and microchips of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

By placing herself in a direct line of ideological descent from Blake, Moore is doing more than expressing admiration for him. She is proclaiming herself as a contemporary manifestation of that same “underground heretical tradition”.

Of course, like all watery things, this stream of thought is not easy to pin down or define and in Moore it takes on a new shape, appropriate to our age and influenced by contemporary environmentalism and feminism – as well as by the very experience of living in these disastrously dislocated and disintegrating times.

However, it is clear to me that Moore is very consciously invoking, summoning up, the spirit that animated Blake, his predecessors and his successors – bringing it into existence in our midst, in England, in 2015, so that it can inspire once more.

She cites Thomas Berry as saying that that the Ecozoic Era is something that “we must will into being”, and in doing so she reveals that her chosen task is to help to do just that.

For we are too deeply buried now in layers of deepest delusion, deception and despotism for our salvation to come through straightforward means. It is becoming increasingly impossible for people to even imagine a world that is not choked by the capitalist cancer, let alone begin to create one.

Something more than narrow rationality is needed to snap us out of our sleepwalk towards the cliff edge. Something powerful and magical – something poetical! – needs to surge out of our dreams, out of our collective soul, something that can break the hypnotic spell and bring humankind to its waking senses.

Yes, “this is an emergency” – and an emergency to which Helen Moore for one is clearly prepared to respond.

Helen Moore

(Information on readings and other launch events can be found here)

Poisoned by “Original Sin”

There could hardly be a more poisonous concept with which to pollute the human soul than that of Original Sin.

The story of the Garden of Eden was used by the Christian Church to create the doctrine that each and every one of is essentially bad.

According to this belief, it is only through the salvation offered by Christ, and thus by servile obedience to the powerful multinational organisation which represents His interests here on Earth, that we can hope to escape eternal damnation.

Today, with the influence of the Church generally on the wane, most of us no longer consider ourselves to be miserable sinners.

In many ways, though, the toxicity of Original Sin has lingered on in new contemporary forms.

The reactionary political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes has merged with right-wing neo-Darwinist ideas, with a bit of Freud thrown in, to produce a view of humanity every bit as bleak as that of the Church.

This was lent further currency by William Golding’s appalling Lord of the Flies, in which the (fictional) horrific cruelty of a bunch of unsupervised children is meant to reveal the horrific cruelty at the heart of uncontrolled human nature.

According to this outlook, we are all intrinsically bad. The answer to this, as Hobbes spelled out explicitly, is that our lives must be tightly controlled and governed by Authority. Otherwise, who knows what we would all descend into…

This is, of course, a fundamentally right-wing position to take. And yet to some extent it is also accepted by much of what is termed the “Left”, including anarchists, particularly in the view that education is necessary to teach us how to live with others in a respectful and sharing way.

Some of the confusion perhaps arises from the difference between children and adults, and the process of growing up.

Golding skilfully exploited this confusion to pernicious effect with his malignantly influential novel, playing on our memories of playground nastiness to paint the soul of humankind in the darkest of shades.

But children are not the finished product. Neither, for that matter, are 23 year olds, or 51 year olds. We go through stage after stage of psychological development throughout our lifetimes – or at least, we should do, if we are to fully become ourselves.

The potential to grow in this way, to become what we can be, is there inside us all along, though initially empty of actual content – as with Noam Chomsky’s idea of the innate ability to learn language.

The question of whether or not we are able to fulfil that potential, or what part of it we can fulfil, is determined by our environment. Likewise, the actual language or languages that we pick up, using our innate ability, depends on what languages we hear around us at a formative age.

Today we tend to think of the learning environment that is necessary for our mental stimulation and development in terms of “education”.

Over the last 150 years or so, anarchists have been at the forefront of radical changes in how we perceive that term and it has moved away from the rigid disciplines of learning-by-rote that were once imposed on youngsters.

But it is important to remember that the root meaning of the word “educate” is to “lead out”. It is not so much about pouring content into the mind (except in terms of specific facts), as in allowing or prompting innate abilities and possibilities to emerge from within. Our concept of education remains, therefore, a little narrow.

In his excellent book Nature and Madness, Paul Shepard explains how the development of an individual – their ontogeny – is meant to be closely linked to the natural world and the stages of life through which we have evolved to pass.

He argues that present in all of us is the “seed of normal ontogeny” which, if allowed to grow properly, would see us develop “in a genetic calendar by stages, with time-critical constraints and needs, so that instinct and experience act in concert”.

Compared to these age-old rites of passage, deeply intertwined with the cyclical rhythms of nature, the sort of “education” we experience today is sorely limited by the constant impact of the modern world around us.

A person growing up in our industrial civilization is like a plant trying to grow on a sparse and unhealthy patch of earth, in a polluted atmosphere, where the sunlight is permanently blocked by concrete walls.

Just because the plant does not grow to its full glory, does not mean that the potential to do so was not contained within it.
And neither does it mean that the species is doomed forever to produce wilted and miserable specimens.

Once the pollution has cleared, once the concrete has crumbled and gone, then the plant will be free to drink in the sunshine, to soak up life-giving nutrients from the earth, to grow to its full potential and to burst into flower.

This is what the anarchist belief in the innately positive nature of humankind is all about. It is not a “naïve” belief that there could ever be a human society where everyone was nice to each other all the time, where nobody ever lost their temper, hurt someone or broke their heart.

Instead, it is a deep-seated conviction that we are all essentially, potentially, good; that life itself – nature, the universe, being – is essentially good.

“Good” is not something separate from us, something distant and superior that we need to worship, that we need to beg to rescue us from the domain of the Lord of the Flies to which we are innately condemned. It is our essence, our core, our sense of value and self-empowerment.

In opposition to this innate “goodness” is the whole environment which blocks its development, the flowering of its potential. This environment is not just the physical one of industrial society, which stunts and poisons us, but the mental environment of the ideas that surround us.

If somebody thinks that we are all born innately bad and that only subservience to organised religion can save us from hell, they have fallen prey to the lie of Original Sin.

If somebody thinks that without a strong state to keep them in line, human beings will degenerate into warring chaos, they have been contaminated by the negative ideology of Hobbes.

If somebody thinks that true human nature is essentially dark and that allowing it to manifest itself is dangerous, then they are also a victim of that mindset. (Ironically, although for the Left this feared inner darkness often takes the political form of the threat of fascism, it is a concept very much embraced by fascists, for whom this demonic force can be harnessed by their cause in its bid to gain power and thereafter can ultimately only be controlled and absorbed by their war-fixated totalitarian state).

If somebody thinks that through education the good qualities of humanity are introduced intoour minds, rather than teased out of them, then they have also been affected by that way of thinking, although obviously in a more subtle fashion.

There is still a certain reluctance there to turn Original Sin completely on its head, to trust nature, to trust our own beating hearts and flowing blood, to accept William Blake’s assurances that “Innate Ideas are in Every Man, Born with him; they are truly Himself”.