Back in May 2016 a group of Saint Mary’s College of California MFA students were led by Brenda Hillman on a micro protest to go read poetry to the local oil refineries in the Bay Area, refineries that run some of the worst crude in the world (and surprise, it’s California heavy crude). I was there and I’m working on a documentary short that discusses Brenda’s thinking about micro protests as well as how I, as a person who worked in the industry, ended up at Saint Mary’s and at that protest and others with my fellow students. The longer piece is in process. This video of my poem is from that action as is Kelly Egan’s dance that opens and closes the video.
In preparation for this action future mon amour Sara Burant and I, as the two key organizers, went on the weekend before to suss out potential places to do such a thing in Benicia and Martinez. One of the places we found was this space overlooking the Carquinez Strait where the I680’s two bridges cross between Martinez and Benecia. To get to the space you drive on a road that pretty well runs through the Valero refinery. I wrote a poem when I got back to where I was living in Lafayette and read it on the day of the protest at the site the poem describes. It was very fresh so perhaps a bit chancy to read.
Chancy also because it was read in front of my fellow students who I wanted poetic respect from but also because it was in front of my professor Brenda and Brenda’s husband Bob Hass. It was a little different from what I had been writing. Shorter, almost purely descriptive. Bob said to me after I read it that he thought it was Wordsworthian, somewhat like Tintern Abbey. That obviously stuck with me. In preparation for this video I took a hard look again at the Wordsworth poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798” which is commonly referred to as “Tintern Abbey”.
One similarity is Wordsworth was so struck by the place he was in that he immediately started writing the poem in his head but didn’t actually put pen to paper until he returned to town. I would say I had perhaps a similar experience and that sense of immediacy, of being in that place is there in my poem as well. The Wordsworth poem opens with a a very descriptive stanza and also has some commentary on the human world mixed with the natural and is also famous for talking about what is right in front of him at that point and ignoring the more industrialized views and poverty he would have passed to get to that place. Perhaps some similarity then to mine in what I was doing and as well I didn’t talk about the ugly 21st Century big box stores we passed going through Walnut Creek either.
But of course Tintern Abbey is an amazing poem and goes far beyond that as much of the poem explores Wordsworth meditation on nature and how he himself has changed with time and talks about the effect of having his sister also view this. So my poem has none of that, like not at all. But the aspect of writing about what is in front of you, that I had and I imagine that is what Bob meant.
I, and many of the other students there that day, had taken an eco writing course with Brenda back in January and had been introduced to other concepts that seem to apply to my poem in an essay by Jonathan Skinner called “Thoughts on things : poetics of the third landscape” from the book )((ECO(LANG) (UAGE(READER))edited by Brenda Iijima. In this essay Skinner explains and extends concepts other writers have created.
Like the idea of entropology, coined in 1955 by Claude Lévi-Strauss as blend of entropy + anthropology, which suggests that human actions will lead to disintegration and disorder of highly evolved social systems.
The artist Robert Smithson suggested this idea should be extended further by artists and critics to disintegrating frameworks of a highly developed condition. The example Smithson uses in the passage from “Art through the Camera’s Eye” quoted by Skinner is buried cities of the Yucatan with the wilderness and the city structures intermingling.
Skinner also extends Charles Olsen’s “objectivism” to say “to attend to objects in a field of objects is to attend…to entropology”
I like to think this poem is illustrating this with its attention to objects and its weaving description of the industrial landscape with the natural landscape including the almost century old rusting railway bridge and the refineries which must go out of business to solve climate change. Smithson says “the relationship between film making and pollution strikes me as a worthwhile area of investigation”. The poem and video takes up that challenge.
Another concept Skinner explores is the idea of the Third Landscape, which originated with a work by Gilles Clément, “Manifeste du tiers paysage”. The first landscape being the wilderness and the second landscape being the human made as I understand it, then the third is those abandoned places where nature can still find some freedom, like grass growing through the cracks of a sidewalk or a vacant lot full of weeds (Skinner has much to say about words like “weeds”). The essay is much deeper and complex than what I have given and worth finding the book.
The video presents a third landscape event. In the middle of refineries, rusting railway bridges expressways, bridges and warships (seen in the background of the dance sequence) juxtaposed with the Strait and Mount Diablo, a dancer dancing and poets gathering to read out loud. We were the grass in the cracks of Benicia Refinery concrete that day.
Hope you appreciate the video. Here’s where you can see thebook that has the poem.
And this video gallery is being developed with funding from: