My scholarly writing tends to center on the idea that the imperfections, tensions, and challenges in the rhetoric and reception of lyric poetry makes lyric an ideal text for ethical inquiry. I chiefly concentrate on American and UK poetry and poetics of the long twentieth century. My first book project is centered around the concept of the “Anthropocene.” My second book project will tackle the question of the ethics of reading, in the Me Too era, about gender-based violence. Below you’ll find a description of my first book project, as well as abstracts for published or forthcoming articles and essays; versions of three of those essays are in my first book project, while one of the others represents the genesis of the second.
Book project: The Poetics of Ethics in the Anthropocene
The question of How is one to live? has often been thought of as the classical ethical question. In the Anthropocene—an epoch marked by intra- and inter-species death—the question might be better thought of as How is one to die?
The Poetics of Ethics in the Anthropocene treats the “Anthropocene” as a critical framework founded upon racialized, gendered, and colonial violence, and argues that it is marked by specters of death within and across species, on scales large and small. Bringing together lyric studies, gender and queer theory, and critical race theory, the project contends that lyric rhetoric offers a range of strategies for speaking with and within the concept of “death,” complicating the mourning-melancholy binary into which ecological theory frequently falls. It therefore suggests that twentieth-century lyric poetry can help us imagine a capacious ethical framework for our epoch, consisting of a range of strategies capable of responding to the revised ethical question.
The project stems from my dissertation, which focused on ecological ethics and grew from the discord between ecological critical theory and twentieth-century lyric poetry. While discourses like posthumanism have tended to critique lyric poetry for its anthropocentrism, I argue that lyric offers an opportunity to conceptualize ecological relations from within the complicities that our position as human beings on Earth beget. To live in the Anthropocene is to live within the structures of such violence; the concept challenges us not simply to renounce destructive systems, but to find a method for contending with them.
In this project I am therefore interested in lyric as an object that is both complicit with a range of suspect practices and postures (including a heavily hierarchized system of production and a reliance upon the “I”) and yet troubles those positions through a range of rhetorical devices and syntaxes, such as apostrophe, prosopopoeia, metaphor, and a reliance on interrogatives. In turn, I argue that those same devices and syntaxes are singularly well equipped to grapple with the improbably animate, the formerly animate, the inanimate, the dead: they offer, in other words, a profusion of strategies for relationality within a death-marked epoch. The project’s poets include Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney, Lucille Clifton, Alice Oswald, Tracy K. Smith, Craig Santos Perez, and Mai Der Vang.
Academic Peer-Reviewed Articles
“Anthropocene Ethics and its Lapses: Lyric Eros, Racism, and the Example of Sylvia Plath’s Bees.” Under review.
Much recent work in ecology studies argues that eros decenters the human. Using Sylvia Plath’s bee poems as a case study, in this essay I argue that grappling with eros in poetry (often evoked, but rarely considered, in such discourse) yields an ecological ethics capable of contending with our ugliest ideologies. Although Plath’s poems are replete with interspecies desire, that desire is intertwined with racist rhetoric. To read Plath’s bee poems for an ethics of eros is to confront their racism. This essay argues that ethics in the Anthropocene requires this confrontation due to the Anthropocene’s entanglements with not only interspecies violence and destruction, but intra-species violence among humans including genocide and racism.
“No” (an essay on the keyword “no” in The Waste Land). In “Reading The Waste Land with the #MeToo Generation” (collection of essays). With Megan Quigley, Janine Utell, Erin Templeton, Michelle Taylor, Nancy Gish, Carrie Preston, and Ria Banerjee. Modernism/modernity PrintPlus 4.1 (March 2019). Open access.
In this cluster of essays for Modernism/modernity, each contributor selected a keyword to guide their examination of the relation between sexual violence in The Waste Land and our contemporary modes of attention to sexual violence, as in the #MeToo movement. My contribution uses the keyword “No” to consider how The Waste Land can help us complicate how rhetorics of certainty and rhetorics of ambiguity signify in the context of sexual assault. This publication is open-source: please follow the above link to read my essay, and please take a look at the cluster as a whole. This essay marks the genesis of my second academic book project, which will tackle, broadly, the problem of reading poetic texts that neither support nor unambiguously denounce gender-based violence, which I see as an outgrowth of long-standing literary debates regarding the ethics and affects of reading.
“Of New Calligraphy: Seamus Heaney, Planetarity, and Lyric’s Uncanny Space-Walk.” Cultural Critique 104 (Summer 2019). Links to Project Muse; first page is available, the rest requires login. Please feel welcome to email me if interested in a PDF.
In the middle of the twentieth century, the Western cultural imaginary transitioned between two formulations of the uncanny. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak describes this shift as one “from vagina to planet”: due to the newfound view of Earth from space in the late 1960s, Freud’s conceptualization of the body of the cisgender, childbearing woman as an uncanny figure shifts to a pervasive sense that the uncanny signifier par excellence is the planet Earth itself. This essay interrogates this shift and finds its most fruitful figuration takes place in poetics. First, it examines how both uncannies function interdependently in midcentury print and media culture. It then turns to the work of Seamus Heaney as an example of poetic rhetoric’s potential for uncanny estrangement, and explores the consequences of such estrangement on ideas of kinship. I suggest that Heaney’s work positions lyric as the ultimate uncanny space, inviting us to re-envision the nature of lyric engagement with materiality and embodiment.
Academic Non-Peer Reviewed Essays
“Poetic Networks Begin After Death: On Lucille Clifton’s Spirit-Writings” (invited contribution to a critical forum). College Literature 47.1 (Spring 2020, Special Issue: Poetry Networks).
From the final paragraph: One of the most significant aims of the legibility toward and upon which modern power operates, argues Foucault, is an obsession with life. Vitalism has become the modus operandi and the objective of the “power network” which “endeavors to administer, optimize, and multiply it, subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations” ( 2012, 137). “It is as managers of life and survival, of bodies and the race,” writes Foucault, “that so many regimes have been able to wage so many wars, causing so many men to be killed” ( 2012, 137). Yet Clifton’s spirit writing shows us the possibility of a network that does not rely on life so much as it is predicated upon death—and, specifically, upon deaths that are not viewed as foreclosures of connectivity and therefore cannot function as the specter from which we must seek, at all costs, to protect ourselves.
The image behind the overlay: Non je ne regrette rien by Wangechi Mutu. See it in full, and full color, here.