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Eco-Surrealism: A Reading List from Julie Howd

2020 was a Tower moment for the world. It brought to light the broken systems and ways of being that have been more or less obvious for centuries, but which many of us consciously or unconsciously chose to ignore until it was impossible to do so any longer. Those who consciously chose to ignore these broken systems did so because they benefited from them. Those who unconsciously ignored them did so out of survival instinct. 

Our limited consciousnesses are not equipped to process global trauma, especially when we are every day moving through our own personal traumas. But with the rise of the Internet and worldwide colonization, we have no choice but to See. To absorb. To empathize. And to act.

More importantly, we have to do these things together (little flag waving). Our individual brains don’t have the computing power to solve existential crises while trying to maintain our basic physical needs (and if we’re lucky, our emotional needs as well). It’s no one person’s fault that we’re here. It’s a collective action as a species that brought us to this point, and it will take a collective action to reverse direction.

This is a very surreal time. We are facing a large-scale existential crisis similar to what the original surrealists faced in the aftermath of WWI, with its unthinkable scale of death and collapse of logic systems. As Dadaist Hugo Ball said,

“A thousand-year-old culture disintegrates. There are no columns and no supports, no foundations anymore—they have all been blown up…The meaning of the world has disappeared.”

The current climate feels artistically primed for a New Surrealism, one that speaks to the ecological crisis at hand and invents novel modes of thinking about and understanding this crisis to help us imagine a solution.

I’ve been reading many such “eco-surrealist” books of poetry lately, as well as essays and critical theory that examine both how we got here and how we can chart a course out. I hope you find something in this reading list that makes you question, in some way, the inherited language and systems of thought that keep us trapped in this self-destructive cycle. Discomfort is a necessary part of change, so although you might be tempted to turn away from that discomfort, I invite you to welcome it, to move toward it, and to be compassionate to yourself and others while we navigate these changes.

I have defined Eco-Surrealism as: writing that uses the modes of surrealism while drawing on the “natural” world for its image systems.

It does not ignore the human element and indeed often focuses on the human-nature interaction to paint a complete picture of the natural world as we know it, of which very little remains without the human stamp on it. Eco-surrealism holds nature in reverence, but not at a distance (as opposed to mainstream “nature poetry”—if such a thing still exists—that behaves more like a landscape painting, viewing nature as something over there, pristine, untouched by human life). Rather, eco-surrealism embraces nature as self, as lover, as power—both a force outside ourselves over which we have no control (mysterious, occult) and a force within us that moves us and changes us (forgotten, suppressed). In the traditional surrealist mode, eco-surrealist poetry employs juxtaposition to unite spiritual and sexual energies, high and low tonal registers, the ugly and the beautiful, and—of course—life and death.  

 

Eco-Surrealist Poetry

The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa

Death is among the holly leaves. Crawling quietly in the attic.

            Gnawing at my finger. Anxiously. And then at midnight—it falls

            at the storefront of the glass shop, exposing its stark white back.

                                    —from “It is snowing”

  

Sea Summit by Yi Lu

 

even voices are like jade pieces

only flowers can’t be dyed

all of them like tiny saucers    little bowls      little cups

filled to the brim with their own colors

                                    —from “Valley’s Green”

 

Whale in the Woods by Blueberry Elizabeth Morningsnow

An elephant is born with slippery spiderweb wings.

At the same time, a spider is born

with only two

large, gloomy eyes.

One day in mid-December

clouds made of people’s skin gather over the earth.

Human eyes begin to rain down like snow.

                                    —from “How a Lake Came to Write Poems”

 

Whale and Vapor by Kim Kyung Ju

 

in Venice

a dead crane

flowing by

 

like underwear

someone secretly took off

                                    —from “My (Underwear)”

 

Eco-Surrealist Essays and Other Nonfiction

Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism and Black Veganism from Two Sisters by Aph Ko and Syl Ko

 

Aphro-ism examines the entanglements of what mainstream society views as disparate oppressions, and the power structures that keep us fighting each other rather than rising up together. Aph and Syl Ko challenge the inherited language and paradigms we use to navigate social justice and animal rights movements, and offer us a new conceptual map for creating the world we want to live in. This brilliant book is a must-read for every anti-racist, feminist, environmentalist, and animal rights advocate.

 

Beasts of Burden by Sunaura Taylor 

 

Sunaura Taylor looks at animal liberation through the lens of disability, what she calls “cripping animal ethics.” “Disabling animals is not incidental to animal industries,” she writes. “It is essential for the work they do and the profit they create.” Taylor calls out the ableist, white, middle-class model of many animal rights movements, and discusses the importance of incorporating disability and animal justice in other liberation movements in order to de-center established patriarchal systems of thought.

 

Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals by Joy Williams

 

In this collection of essays, Joy Williams explores all the ways humans plunder the natural world for their personal pleasure, from hunting to safaris to animal agriculture. Keenly observant and incisive, with Williams’s signature cynical wit, Ill Nature exposes the ugliness behind human exceptionalism and dominion.

 

Bonus Reads

These books are on my “to-read” list, so I can’t speak authoritatively on them quite yet, but I felt that it was necessary to include them here.

 

How to Survive a Pandemic by Dr. Michael Greger

It is believed that every infectious virus known to humans—including coronavirus, HIV, bird flu, and tuberculosis—comes from our interaction with (read: exploitation of) animals. This book details how all major pandemics have been caused by so-called “zoonotic” diseases, and how we can survive the next one.

You can also check out Dr. Greger’s talk Pandemics: History & Prevention, given more than a decade ago, which essentially predicted the COVID-19 pandemic. CW: Graphic human and animal footage

 

On Time and Water by Andri Snær Magnason

 

“Based on interviews and advice from leading glacial, ocean, climate, and geographical scientists, and interwoven with personal, historical, and mythological stories, [On Time and Water] is a rich and compelling work of narrative nonfiction that illustrates the reality of climate change—and offers hope in the face of an uncertain future.” —Open Letter Books 

 

A Life on Our Planet by David Attenborough

 

In this illustrated companion book to the Netflix film of the same name, beloved naturalist David Attenborough bears witness to the decline of the natural world over his lifetime and proposes a vision for the future.

 

Sources:

Auster, Paul, editor. The Random House Book of Twentieth-Century French Poetry. Random House/Vintage, 1984.

Open Letter Books. “On Time and Water.” https://www.openletterbooks.org/products/on-time-and-water

 

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