Eco-Relations: On David St. John’s “The Way It Is” and Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s “Dub: Finding Ceremony”

By Susan McCabeMarch 25, 2022

Eco-Relations: On David St. John’s “The Way It Is” and Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s “Dub: Finding Ceremony”

The Last Troubadour by David St. John
Dub: Finding Ceremony by Alexis Pauline Gumbs

IN THE LAST DECADE, poets have increasingly addressed human-induced injury to the world. Historically, poets have always consorted with nature, relying upon its rhythms as deeply related to the imagination. Climate change consciousness has made a myriad of eco-disasters visible: our air, waters, forests, mountains, urban spaces, and other species, all under threat. A whole new way of living — and writing — is called for. This biannual column will review two or three new poetry volumes that expand poetic inquiry into our eco-relations, our abuses, and the very sources of our breath and inspiration.


Though it ends David St. John’s The Last Troubadour: New and Selected Poems, The Way It Is is its own book, and bends toward the ocean’s elements. An ecological love song, it offers “a way,” tremblingly alive toward acceptance, and a profound letting go. Both impersonal and tender in tone, these poems reflect upon the follies and joys of being human through a balladeer’s confidential style, agile lyricism, the kind to liberate the ego, an avenue of acute necessity now. Each of these 50-plus poems use couplets (with some staggered strategic one-liners); the first lines extending with nine to 12 stresses, while the second line of the couplet draws back to three, at most five stresses, mimicking the emotional wave crashing and then withdrawing, the sound of breath or sea foam trailing off — yet these couplets connect, mostly forming perfect grammatical sentences, inflected by the ballads of John Jacob Niles, a folk pioneer who introduced the ballad to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, among other 1960s songsters. Niles’s breathy falsetto still hypnotizes in songs such as “Go ’Way From My Window.” He tracked and transcribed Appalachian folk ballads, with his handmade mandolin, conveying recurrent yet unique human tragedies, with the ring of the inevitable. St. John first learned these songs from his grandmother’s gift of a record and songbook.

The communal trail of humans within nature, nature within the human, drives St. John’s culling of folk stories made out of the weather. “The Way It Is” writes from the rocks, haunted by the possible, writing with signature ampersand, with no periods, and lots of space. An ending never begs for closure, staying vulnerable. The alternating measures of long and short lines — and the space between line endings as well as between the couplets provide overtures to silence, giving permission to contemplation. Apertures let measured light in, while readers hang fire, and the poet, with a threadless needle, stitches the poems with breath.

The subject matter, along with trying for song’s persistence, faces our communal mortality, erosion, eco-bereavement, political repression, lovers and friends coming and going, place names proliferating, and many “tales.” In several poems, the Russian Revolution of 1917 spurs poetic and political resistance, the one taking heat from the other. In “Alexandr Blok,” for instance, the speaker recalls dining with “Moscow scholars a married couple,” and after “reaching back into the dark century & at last,” retrieving his “black cashmere // Overcoat” — bought from a thrift store, he disappears into the snowy night, “in upstate New York // Not Moscow or St. Petersburg.” He imagines others see him walk as “the most lyrical shadow alive.” In other words — unseen. In another poem, he puts it uncompromisingly: “Reverie is a state beyond all forms allowed by the state.”

Shadows, shades, slanted-ness slip-slide throughout. A new Romantic, a new Symbolist, St. John also embodies the 21st-century survivor, after the wars, revolutions, atrocities, exiles — not expecting gauzy immortality, or a vatic post, instead inclining toward a way, a path to the “it is,” inclining toward the anonymous home-made, the making of homes as poems; in this way, he exemplifies what H.D. called “spiritual realism.” Besides, “thin careful arms awaiting Icarus,” convinces that Icarus had to fall; these poems grip us with their wide, yet wry acceptance of what “Generation” tags as “those lyrics / of pure human spittle you know // That song I mean the one about all of us — fiercely / irrelevant & yet so briefly alive.” We the “irrelevant,” tipping toward world disaster, the very impetus for feeling “yet so briefly alive.” This is the way it is. The spittle, and the transmission of it.

St. John, expert at suture, leaps between couplets, as he does near the opening of “Generation,” while considering the emptiness in “‘authenticity’” when, in fact, “[g]rowing so precisely redacted,” he admits: 

So I can’t help it & maybe I’m doing all right? — 
   Someone else has to tell me 

I spend all my time in meetings & almost none 
   With the few people I love

“The Last Troubadour,” brings in the dazzling Joshua, another maker — “spitting arc-welder // Over armatures of rebar shaping a dozen abstract / guitars or mandolins” — as though he could recover “those times as lost as song.” Other characters, shaping and shaped by the environment, wander throughout this West Coast anthem — Jolene, flamenco dancer with her “peeled off” shirt, and PTSD Elijah, disturbed by her “riveting gunshot rhythms” (“Hot Night in Akron”), set against a landscape of “hungry boys” and “hungry girls” (“The Way It Is”). See also “Evangeline & Her Sisters,” “Backstreets,” and the delicious “Lucky,” with its “abandoned house” “now a place where / kids come to drink & fuck”: “the grass” and “the glassless window” zooming in on “a hen her head broken” and “her belly eaten open,” the backdrop for Lucky’s own tale of being “thrown out of everywhere.” This loss and dislocation vaporizes as we follow myriad trails.

Alongside portraits of invisible lives that are obscure without the poet’s eye, “My Life As Sandoz Mescaline” sets more ballad material into motion, a hallucinated fairy tale, “the very finest arctic dog team ever known” and “in one somatic heartbeat I’d harnessed my spoon-sized sled // To their oracular dancing bodies & in an instant like night fog / I was gone.” In almost every poem, St. John evanesces; the ego, unseen, slips out; he identifies with Claude Rains in the film adaptation of H. G. Wells’s The Invisible Man. Being “gone” wages the question of where one is going and “the way it is.” But “gone” also leaves an opening for what Bhanu Kapil calls “soft craziness.” “An Ecclesiastical Sketchbook” is beyond desire and fear (mostly), the altar a place of offerings, sacred rituals — so faltering is a reminder of human vanity. The last poem in this collection, “Script for the Lost Reflection,” provides the erasing inherent in writing: 

& I’m exactly who I say I am tonight just an image  

Of a last reflection fading slowly as summer light before your eyes 

Growing up in Fresno, St. John is a poet of California, particularly its Northern incarnation, the wild Big Sur Coast, its bridges built by the WPA in the 1930s, offering hair-pin curves, disallowing “development,” though climate change and the Silicon Valley wages its eco-attacks. In one poem, while he sits at Big Sur’s Henry Miller Library and Gallery, he reads Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, a fierce objection to America’s overwork sterility and consumerist superficiality. Also central to this book’s emanating power, it highlights the iconic Big Sur of Edward Weston (1886–1958), whose early photographs in the late ’20s of the coast haunt with their three layers, the gelatin one composed of light-sensitive silver compounds that turn into the image after it has been exposed. Survival. “Little Sur” sights “elephant seals” with their yelps echoing off “canyon walls.” This “early tide” as “porous knuckles of rock // Shoulder their way above the foam.” Tied to this topography and its lore, St. John absorbs ecological distress: “You see this landscape is the landscape of / my valley the one I remember // Out of the plunder that is the swollen glow” (“Vineyard”).

Perhaps the most dazzling poem in this collection is “Emanations,” haunted, teased out from one of St. John’s geo-anchors, “Jeffers Country,” centered on the stone home the poet Jeffers built, or rather did so after laborious tree planting, lifting improbably giant boulders and rocks, creating a memorial to the ragged coast as well as to himself as part of the land, with sea as interlocutor: “it takes great / strength to believe truly // In solitude trusting its sinews & silence holding yourself against / waves of your own darkness.” In this long-segmented poem, we remeet Evangeline (from “Evangeline & Her Sisters” — the sisters being her “skinny twin silver / .38s,”); here, she is in rehab near Point Pinos Lighthouse. The poem then eases us into Tor House, where the mouth simply drops seeing — “Thirty feet beyond his window those huge looming eggs of stone / the granite boulders Jeffers // Hauled & rolled from the shore every afternoon.” Hawk Tower, where Jeffers wrote, faces off the “harsh” land, “even harsher than a skeptical man / who walks mornings not speaking / The world’s raw sea edge awaiting him — he who made / stone love stone” — (this last phrasing my wife’s favorite). St. John revisits Cypress Cove, and “those lethal rocks // smashed by purposeful waves & those skyrocket cathedrals of spray.” We learn that the troubadour poet had “[f]or years” “kept a notebook of obscure trails between Point Lobos / & Gorda all those glories.” (I want this notebook!)

From Tor House, we move into the house built from Cliff May’s blueprints by the poet’s mother, another maker, in this poem of nested homes (his aunt’s painting cottage crops up as well). This deserves quotation more fully; note the second line has more stresses, words setting stone by stone in a plotted layout:

I grew up in a house of redwood glass & stone […] 

A lesson in organic mid-century modern aspiration huge exposed 
                 beams of solid redwood its ceiling planks too

The fireplace a mosaic of flagstones & multicolored volcanic rocks 
                 & living room walls pale Australian gum 

All these natural materials communicated from the mouth of “Jeffers County”; the home was a “testament to possibility” (in Fresno), an ecopoetic image of living with the land and not exclusively on it — so bound to its elemental nature. The poem culminates in a solitary visit to Tor House, “in silence / by the bed by the sea-window” — “a good death-bed,” with the proximity of “the pulse of waves licking raw the shore stones as pines & cypress / chimed in the sea wind.”

There are elegies in this book, one for Larry Levis (“The One Who Should Write My Elegy Is Dead”) that starkly calls to us, “so briefly alive,” idiosyncratic lives, akin to diverse driftwood, washed up at Andrew Melera State Park in Big Sur, there, as elsewhere in this ecopoetic love song, its characters are arrested by salt, twisting like Monterey pines. In this manner, St. John calls upon a cliff’s majestic sweep, correcting human arrogance, a crucial claim made by Jeffers himself in the early 20th century:

We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

These lines from “Carmel Point” transition to Alexis Pauline Gumbs, who embodies this kind of “we” that was made from water, rock, plus mammal cartilage, seaweed, burr, “feelers” everywhere. Gumbs’s Dub: Finding Ceremony is indebted to many ghost voices, those calling for freedom from sedimented cultural binaries of black and white, male and female, humans and creatures. Both a gathering and a recovery, this last pivotal volume in a trilogy, commits to a new poetics. Using a broad canvas, Gumbs generously offers instructions for ritual healing, sometimes cryptic, sometimes deadly lucid: “the rising you could be any of us,” followed by an injunction to “save the top of your head for the water. don’t let nonsense burn it / out. cleanse with salt and coolness. thousands of years ago it was a / spout. place your head in places worthy. place your hands over your / heart. bless yourself with generations. that’s a start.” This start prepares for the poet’s map for survival and resplendence, charted necessarily across a long hypnotic text, its 15 sections, gradually, letting its medicine work.

The book prompts the reader to enact self-instructions discovered through listening, and breathing into rhythmic, ancestral memory, here with the wild Atlantic and Caribbean coasts. Not an easy occupation, she warns — “how do we breathe across generations. ask yourself. this is / not the power of positive thinking. this is no birthday wish in smoke. / this is existence or absence. no joke.” Reading like a guided meditation, Gumbs sets forth a way of welcoming ancestors:

put yourself in the center and draw them in, stand where you stand-
which is not under and not over. you. not gonna get over it. and
where you stand is not always standing either, is it? sometimes quick-
sand sometimes bended knee, very often that cross-legged thing you
do, sitting on the floor or hugging your own legs like they were peo-
ple. be where you are and draw them to you. you might need to move
your hands, one of those legs or a book from blocking your heart,
that would be a good start. put your arms out like if you were float-
ing water. daughter. they know where to find you.

With the backdrop of the English colonizing Jamaica in 1655, with its already enslaved Africans, Gumbs cleaves away using the “master’s tools” (to re-cite Audre Lorde’s famous proviso that you can’t build afresh with tools shaped by an oppressor logic). Here the poet unveils other tools, akin to the tactics of whales navigating beneath the sea, hearing and mothering each other. Gumbs uniquely traces the transformation from cultural conditioning to discover kin for “at some point we all had to learn how to see the invisible. the unborn. the unremembered, the discounted, ourselves.” As medium-poet, she can even hear “what the coral said”: and their call to “dream until you birth yourself in water singing with bones of all your lost […] breathe not from your mouth, / not from your nose but through your hair and through your skin.” Skin embodies porous empathy. Humanity, indeed, must uncenter itself to have a chance of survival; she calls for inevitable prompts for stillness, dance, screaming. Noting the “problem with owning,” and creating “a self-justifying story,” that “unlike blood it only binds you to one life,” ecosystems possess for this poet an uncanny awareness:

the trees knew, the trees and the ferns and the moss and the lichen
knew. The rocks knew […] the bacteria in your eyes, between your teeth,
roaming the smooth expanse of your stomach knew and acted

With the enormity of what we face, our climate crisis, that “the smallest plankton had to / get ready after centuries of making life out of sun.” Taking the perspective of an ecosystem herself, she records “the mountainous islands of trash. the unearned permanence of plastic.”

Gumbs uniquely taps with phrases, from the opus of critical race theorist Sylvia Wynter, who wrote through the 1970s and the 1990s, insistently rethinking of what exactly we mean by “human.” (The title “Human Being as Noun? Or Being Human as Praxis? Towards the Auto-poetic Turn/Overturn,” an unpublished manifesto, gives a clue.) Gumbs chooses emphatic moments, or pressure points, for each footnoted prose poem (the predominant form with lots of space between them). The phrases create a force field — in order to return to the “flow” of eco-rhythms, prayers, and invocations. Wynter’s 1976 “Ethno or Sociopoetics,” defines “socio-poesis,” as a true revolution in poetry based on context, as opposed to “Ethno-poetics,” which in its historical “self-making” created “a self, a we that exists only through the negation of an Other.” In other words, Dub honors Wynter’s ideas, which include the latter’s reflection upon colonized “LANDS [….] SERVED AS THE CATALYST FOR THAT TOTAL ‘commercialization of land and labour,’” the “central dynamic of capitalism.” “TOTAL” stands naked here, propelling Gumbs’s own “socio-poetics,” dependent on “context,” and upon collaborative lyricism, a collective “we.”

One of Wynter’s potent phrases, “The Ceremony Must Be Found,” (Boundary 12.3 1984), haunts the collection; it directs us to read Dub as alternative space, with humans less powerful than the aquatic deeps. Dub reminds that more than six centuries of systemic persecution leaves us searching for another model for being in the world. In our time, books, like this one, allow for visceral epistemology-in-action, using inner expansive space to escape commodification, or to move beyond being bound, or dubbed. This involves intuited memory of the hold of a slave ship, while also holding her readers in the process.

Gumbs reverbs “dub poetry,” originally a form of performance art, emerging out of Kingston, Jamaica, in the 1970s, essentially spoken word backed by reggae rhythms, and characterized by political commentary. Noting in her introduction that “dub” also refers to “the doubling journey of a queer Caribbean diasporic Black feminist writer” (herself) with “Wynter, a world historical Caribbean theorist,” almost Gumbs’s grandmother’s age. Not surprising, Gumbs’s Caribbean ancestors are powerful interlocuters in this work, but she also contacts “Irish ancestors who shipwrecked into the Caribbean and stayed,” alongside those who “survived the Middle Passage.” The section “Blood Chorus” lives through thrown-over captives — “us? we let the whales name us. deep with their moaning, we put our ears underwater.”

Dub provides an acoustic whooshing the reader through a ceremonial working through, where the corals, “folded along the edge of / generations. you will have a problem” — the problem being “a self to keep going.” Listening deeper, the poet is called to write “page after page so you can see / us, facing morning so we can see you, you will be surrounded and / astounded. you will be surprised and thoroughly revised. you will not / be the you you thought you knew,” footnoted with Wynter’s phrase “the correlated Otherness continuum” from the essay “Human Being as Noun?” Gumbs herself states she needed “to unlearn” herself, situating one of her selves in a “continuum”: “and if you can believe a black woman artist would most likely end up screaming in the asylum,” (another Bertha from Jane Eyre?), supplemented with self-inquiry: “think what could have made / me the way I am. think. how I made you the way you are. And what was it made both of us,” with the warning, “are / you ready?” tagged with Wynter’s “the center of the universe as its dregs.” Together, theorist and poet, bow to so-called discards, here “boda,” combined whale, human, and goddess: “boda made herself by breathing.”

For present-day sufferers of environmental dissociation, Gumbs incants: “put your forehead in the / water. she will show you. here i am.” This linguistic touch reaches through these pages. In the section “losing it all,” a ballad for self-love emerges:

quiet your mind and open your heart. Open your heart.
                 open your heart.
calm your mind down so you can open your heart.
                 i’m not going to say it again.

dance well so you can leave it all there. leave it all there.
                 leave it all there.
dance hard so you leave it all there.
                 Soft with yourself and the pain.

wash clean so you can swim in your skin. Shrug off the sin.
                 be born again
wash clean so the day can begin. i‘m not going to say it again.

Key to her practice, Gumbs “include[s] speakers who have never been considered human,” attuned to “whales, corals, barnacles, bacteria.” This poesis calls for repetition and repletion, also “the timing and rhythm of prayer,” making Dub “an artifact and tool for breath retraining and interspecies ancestral listening,” posing the delicious question: “What if you could breathe like coral from a multitude of years ago?” or “What if you could breathe like whales who sing underwater and recycle air to sing again before coming up for air?” To approach this possibility, Gumbs relies on “the incantatory power of the spoken broken word.” Syncing with other ecopoetic projects, interspecies communication appears urgent. Elsewhere, in Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals, out as well in 2020, Gumbs calls herself a “marine mammal apprentice,” trying echolocation, an undersea mammal’s way of bonding through song. “[T]he breathing of whales is as crucial to our own breathing and the carbon cycle of the planet as are the forests,” she writes, adding, “if humans retreated” to “pre-commercial whaling numbers their gigantic breathing would store as much carbon as 110,000 hectares,” the size of the entire Rocky Mountain National Park.

With interior rhyming, these prose poems choreograph an untangling of the knots of the heart, particularly the one created by the self/other blueprint set down as permanent. Dub wakes us concussively. Both wrenching and playful, it offers instructions (two sets of them), warnings, and its central bid to listen to the undrowned. Her achieved hope for interspecies communication generates possible activism. Within the cultural whiplash of the 21st century, dialectical thinking crumbles to the touch. Gumbs directs humans toward diverse ways of knowing, releasing denigrated embodiments, and thankfully resurrects Wynter’s swift disabling of Western epistemology and logic, through singing, breathing, healing, touching.


Susan McCabe is a professor of English and Creative Writing at USC, and has published H. D. & Bryher: An Untold Love Story of Modernism (2021), Elizabeth Bishop: Her Poetics of Loss (1994), and Cinematic Modernism (2005) and received as well the Agha Shahid Prize for a book of poems, Descartes’ Nightmare (2008).

LARB Contributor

Susan McCabe is a professor of English and creative writing at University of Southern California. She has published H.D. & Bryher: An Untold Love Story of Modernism (2021), Elizabeth Bishop: Her Poetics of Loss (1994), and Cinematic Modernism: Modernist Poetry and Film (2005), and received as well the Agha Shahid Ali Prize for a book of poems, Descartes’ Nightmare (2008).


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!