Plurality, Temporality, and Sound in Joanne Kyger’s Bioregional Poetics

In Joanne Kyger’s work, particularly the many Bolinas-based poems she’s written in the last two decades, the poem is on-the-page and in-the-world at once through a co-mingling of experience, thought, perception, and fact.

          The wind picks up
                a rush of leaves waving

                 wildly for your understanding
          – apple, plum, bamboo
                        rooted and flourishing
                  next to your home
               in the air awake

          without defect

          (from “Your Heart is Fine”)

Formal decisions – spacing and line breaks – highlight the materiality of language, the word placed on the page within the temporality of worldly experience “to allow the present moment its weight,” as George Hart writes of Larry Eigner’s poems (327). Understanding is as rooted as bamboo. What is (isolated) “without defect”? The spatio-syntactic removal of this clause affects a non-decision that is part of the weight of the moment. As Hart notes, a text that destabilizes referentiality, that gets in the way of representing nature, wouldn’t seem to be environmental literature. Yet he proposes, in contrast to a neoromantic strain of nature poetry, a postmodernist version, which, while it values textuality over the immaterial voice, nonetheless contributes to the “green canon” by bringing “nature and language together on the page”(315). For Hart, both the energy exchange that is evident in Eigner’s work and his use of the typewriter as a means of graphing language on the page – both ideas inherited from “Projective Verse” – qualify him as a nature poet. Such categorical distinctions are useful in broadening the canon, but what’s really at stake for Hart is Eigner’s immediate engagement with the natural world through a poetry that is also aware that it is mediating, is marks on a page.

Kyger shares Eigner’s materialist engagement with the page – the “tab” is a felt movement in her work. But unlike Eigner, Buddhist Kyger works to dispel a mind/body dualism: to be writing is to be breathing, to be temporal, to be present; for her, an Olsonian “breath line” is a unit of perception, which is a unit of thought, yet she attempts to emplace perceptions as events, outside of her physically, outside of her mentally – on the sparsely populated mesa on which she makes her home. Hart writes of emplacement when he contrasts “the impulse toward retreat and return” that characterizes “nature poetry” with the “awareness of the interpenetration of nature and culture” that is at the heart of postmodernist writing: “It is a return to our senses, so to speak, rather than a return to a pristine natural place”(320). Kyger’s “rooted and flourishing / next to your home” is such a return. Like Eigner, “find[ing] another way to write poetry’s connection to nature” (Hart, 321); that is, not writing to find meaning in nature, but to find nature in nature, and whatever else inhabits these shared spaces.

Andrew Schelling writes of having learned, from Kyger, “that the journal as a regular writing practice shifts the focus of writing from that old Occidental head trip ‘who are you’ – to ‘when’ and ‘where’ are you” (169). A Thoreauvean writing shed with a large sliding glass door sits at a distance from her modest abode surrounded by gardens and woods with their resident and itinerant “cast of characters . . ./ going through a season” (“Sunday Bay Lookout Check-Up”). The country should be dotted with such locations where people could hide out, practice meditation, and work, thought her close friend Philip Whalen: “This is something that I think is necessary in order for human beings to go on being human beings,” he wrote. For Kyger, “being a human being” is manifested in an awareness of what surrounds the self that arises from a practice of meditative sitting and observing a place infused with a sense of responsibility to maintain its balance. Writing, for Kyger, impels the process of forming a complex knowledge of place. Such biocentrism is an atwith thistempt to turn an age-old anthropocentrism on its head.


There is a dual tension at work in many of Kyger’s bioregional poems. At some moments the poem is an account of the world-as-it-is, at other moments a idiosyncratic self emerges like a sprite. Yet, the poem announces a concerted effort to write as a way to displace self from phenomenal experience. Thus Kyger strives for a poetics in which these two acts – of being, and of “letting be” – work in concert. She uses the journal as a site of poetry, time-marking and framing the place and materials surrounding the writing. With stunning clarity, the here and now surface: native animals, plants, waters, people, moon and sky interwoven with thoughts, the mind working. The poem is porous, a duration. Not a slice of life, but an instance of inhabiting what she calls “the gather dome” – thus, a site of ecological being. And in turn the surrounding ecosystem – a plurality of interconnected beings – infuses her poetic process:

          Today’s got the bright

                   cool awareness of fall and be careful
                 you don’t startle the quail on the way
               to write this from an alarming
             squeaky chair that makes the baby
                    robin respond in song

          (from “Today’s got the bright”)

Wanting to note the awareness of fall, one must gear up to write; these acts are equally within. The thought is weighted equally with the physical presence; neither is more complex than the other. The ears of this stanza point in several directions, gives witness to a studied listening. Thus writing within is full of such decisions – preserve the equanimity of the Quail or excite the young Robin?


For Kyger, the phenomenal world is rich, multilayered, a space of the multiple temporalities. Whose “our” is a poem?

          It’s a quiet night.         Then the crickets start talking
          back and forth in their particular rhythmic tone
          varying              with your thoughts.
                                        nbsp;                           Soon too frog chorus
          with several voices.                   The air fills
               with this chanting pulse talk              back and forth
                    drifting.    Vast.    Kerouac bound.
                       By merely listening, you add your sound

          (Kyger, from “Ah, Phooey”)

In the word cluster “Soon too frog chorus” you can almost hear the bellowing. But the compact agrammatical phrase is not merely mimetic of this sound, or melodic for the sake of the lyric. This poem is a sounding back to its environment. Being via benign adding.

Works Cited:

Hart, George. “Postmodernist Nature/Poetry: The Example of Larry Eigner.” Reading Under the Sign of Nature: New Essays in Ecocriticism. Ed. John Tallmadge and Henry Harrington. Salt Lake City: U of Utah Press, 2000.

Kyger, Joanne. About Now: Collected Poems. Orono, Me.: National Poetry Foundation, 2007.

Schelling, Andrew. Wild Form, Savage Grammar: Writing, Ecology, Asia. Albuquerque, NM: La Alameda Press, 2003.

From “Writing Within: Ecopoetics as Spatial Practice,” originally published in How2: