Decolonizing Ecopoetics: Reading Susy Delgado and Simone John
In his essay “Why Ecopoetry?,” critic John Shoptaw defines ecopoetry as a poem that is both “environmental and...environmentalist.” He defines “environmental” as pertaining to the “nonhuman natural world.” His definition of “environmentalist” relies on content and rhetoric. For him, an environmentalist poem references humans as a threat to nature and “is urgent, it aims to unsettle.” The rather unsettling aspect of this and similar definitions of ecopoetry are their firm roots in colonial, anthropocentric definitions of nature. This essay proposes an alternate, decolonized understanding of ecopoetry by examining the use of language as a tool for reclamation, remembrance, and resistance in the poetry of Susy Delgado and Simone John.
The first hint that Shoptaw’s definition of ecopoetry is problematic is in his reliance on the term “environment.” “Environment” is a hegemonic term for the natural world and its widespread cultural acceptance obscures its anthropocentric, colonial underpinnings. “Environment” posits humans and nature as separate; an “environmental” framework is one in which humans are on a stage provided by the rest of the non-human world. As such, a distinct division between culture and nature is perpetuated. Indigenous scholar Jessica Horton writes about “a tendency in mainstream American environmentalism since the 1960s to treat the earth as a singular object or a closed, self-regulating system subject to human reparation, management, or both” (53). This “environmental” conceptualization of the earth promotes a false division between nature and culture while also encouraging false unity by equating the actions and culpability of all human communities, glossing over the stark and pervasive division between the oppressed and the oppressors. In doing so, it overlooks all the cultures, many indigenous, that have a non-anthropocentric, integrated view of the cultural and the natural. The false unity and false divisions proposed by the term “environment” lead to technocratic, global “solutions” to ecological issues while underlying sociopolitical problems are ignored.
It might be worth pausing to ask if it’s really worthwhile to haggle over the meaning and implications of this well-intentioned term. It is not only worthwhile, but crucial. Language does not just reflect our world; it shapes it. This is why colonizers imposed or encouraged the dominance of their language onto the colonized, forbidding them to speak their mother tongues. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a Gikuyu writer from Kenya, began a successful career writing in English before turning to work entirely in his native language. He asserts that language and culture are inseparable, and that therefore the loss of the former results in the loss of the latter: “Language carries culture, and culture carries...the entire body of values by which we perceive ourselves and our place in the world...Language is thus inseparable from ourselves as a community of human beings with a specific form and character, a specific history, a specific relationship to the world” (15-16). Brazilian educator and activist Paulo Freire echoes this sentiment, writing, “There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world” (87). It is more than mere semantics to ask questions about the implications of the term “environment.” Using this term unquestioningly is one small but important piece upholding the sociopolitical framework at the root of our ecological crisis.
Scholar T.J. Demos is one among many contemporary scholars who understands contemporary environmentalism outside of the traditional “environmental” framework. Demos focuses on political ecology, which understands planetary and political struggles as inseparable, insisting on ecological issues as “inextricable from social, political, and economic forces” (7). Nature and culture are one, bringing into focus the reality that ecological degradation can be both “a driver and a consequence of injustice and inequality” (7). For example, political ecology asserts, “climate change is primarily a political crisis, not one that poses insurmountable technological problems or natural barriers” (Demos, 12). What is needed is political will, not techno-utopian fixes that are part and parcel of the neocolonial violence that caused climate change to begin with. Using this political-ecological framework as a starting point, Demos advocates for the decolonization of our understanding of nature and emphasizes the crucial role of art in initiating the kinds of “creative perceptional and philosophical shifts” necessary to re-imagine ourselves and our world (19). Using language as a symbolic tool, the work of Susy Delgado and Simone John invites just such a re-imagination.
Susy Delgado is a Paraguayan poet who writes in Guaraní and Spanish and has been awarded many notable literary honors in her country. Paraguay is the only country in the Americas where the majority of the population speaks a single indigenous language—Guaraní. It is used in two-thirds of Paraguayan households and almost all rural households but has long been suppressed by the Paraguayan government. In 1992, the country’s constitution officially put Guaraní on equal footing with Spanish—a hugely important step toward decolonization and cultural healing.
In light of this history, Delgado’s Guaraní poetry is a celebratory act of decolonization and an assertion of kinship between her language and understanding of the natural world. Her work is remarkable for the visceral impact of its minimalist form and its overt struggle with the tool of language itself. In this excerpt from her extended poem Ayvu Membyre (Offspring of the Distant Word), she grapples with the fraught act of speaking in her mother tongue, so long repressed:
I twist my tongue,
I pull it out, I tangle it,
I grab it,
I slip it
down toward the bottom of my throat,
and then I let it out
I let it loose, I smooth it out.
She goes on to describe the joyous reawakening of her language, a process that is ushered into being by imitating the sounds of the natural world:
I'm going along imitating
that little shower,
that gentle wind,
that docile arroyo,
the cries of animals,
and thunder from the sky,
that in my dark night
A lost song,
breath from the song,
that makes itself heard.
...Song, old song,
song, rough song,
...Song, old song
you're waking up again
here, in the earth,
to light it up again,
Delgado’s poems make clear the intimate and visceral connection between the health of one’s language and the health of a political-ecological system. Her work also points to a decolonized understanding of ecopoetry in which human struggles and the struggle of other-than-human persons is inextricable; her reclamation of Guaraní is as bodily and natural an act as it is cultural.
Simone John’s Testify is an unapologetic record of America’s race-based violence and its codification in our language. As in Delgado’s work, John reclaims language from cultural exile and mockery. But rather than writing in an indigenous language that has been forcibly restrained by a colonial state, she is writing in versions of the English language that late-capitalism has tortured into existence: the legalese of court testimony, the bureaucratic commands of a militarized police force, and the alternately subversive and resigned patois of Black women. John’s citational technique makes clear the ways language is used to enforce relations of power.
Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” is on full display in her direct quoting of Officer Encinia, the Texas police officer who pulled Sandra Bland over for failing to signal, an offense that eventually cost her her life. In “Lawful Orders: Aftermath,” Encinia says:
You started creating problems.
Come over here. Stop now!
If you would stop resisting.
Get on the ground.
You are yanking around.
When you pull away from me,
you’re resisting arrest.
I want you to wait right here.
For a warning, you’re going to jail.
Bland’s enraged responses are documented in “Unanswered Questions,” which honors her resistance:
When’re you going to let me go?
I’m in my car, why do I have to put out my cigarette?
Why am I—
...You’re doing all this for a failure to signal?
You feelin good about yourself?
There is no mistaking Bland’s unwillingness to submit and the power inherent in John’s decision to give the reader direct access to her voice. John’s decision to end-stop all the lines also creates a chaotic form that mirrors the chaos of the situation. In “Elegy for Dead Black Women #1,” John makes the reason for using Bland’s language even clearer:
The first death comes by
bullet. The second, when they’ve
forgotten your name.
Delgado refused to submit to the colonial violence enacted upon her language. Bland refused to submit to the neocolonial violence enacted upon her body. John is urging us not to forget Sandra Bland’s name by asserting the value of her words as a way of asserting the value of her life.
An ecopoetic reading of John’s work is not obvious but it is relevant. The political, social, and economic links between racism, sexism, and ecological destruction are well known. The basic model underlying our culture’s ecocidal behavior is neoliberalism, an extreme form of capitalism that Naomi Klein sums up as “market fundamentalism” or, more expressively, “lovelessness as policy” (99). Under a neoliberal framework, trickle-down economics is the gospel, which means that the public sphere becomes private, global trade is deregulated in the interest of corporations, taxes are lowered on corporations and the wealthy, and all of this is paid for with cuts to public spending. The only way for such unpopular neoliberal policies to be enacted is to give populations scapegoats for their economic misery. In the U.S., that scapegoat has always been people of color (POC). Think of Reagan’s “welfare queens” or Trump’s “bad hombres.” The problem is always the “other,” not the socioeconomic policies that benefit the few at the expense of the many. Neoliberal policies in the U.S. since the late 1970s have resulted in a vast socioeconomic divide between the haves and the have-nots, exacerbating our horrific legacy of institutionalized racism and causing severe ecological degradation. There is in neoliberalism an unmistakable understanding of marginalized human communities and other-than-human communities as collateral damage best ignored in order to maximize profit. The environmental justice movement seeks to address this link, and operates according to a decolonized philosophical framework. John’s testimonial to the suffering of POCs gives voice to the victims of institutionalized racial violence. Given the intersectional violence of neoliberalism, this voice can be understood as parallel to and enmeshed with the work of ecopoets who give voice to the suffering other-than-human world.
By honoring and giving voice to the languages of the oppressed, the poetry of Delgado and John offers a view of an intersectional, decolonized understanding of ecopoetry that rests in a political-ecological framework. The literature professor Nicholas Powers has written about the need to “create a cultural ‘wilding’” as part of the process of reimagining ourselves and our world. Delgado and John offer a provocative, deeply necessary response to this challenge.
Delgado, Susy and Susan Smith Nash, trans. Ayvu Membyre; Hijo de aquel verbo; Offspring of the Distant Word. http://www.thing.net/~grist/ld/ssn/delgado.htm
Demos, T. J. Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology. Sternberg Press, 2016.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Bloomsbury, 2000.
Horton, Jessica L. “Indigenous Artists Against the Anthropocene.” Art Journal, vol. 76, no. 2, Summer 2017, pp. 48 - 69.
John, Simone. Testify. Octopus Press, 2017.
Klein, Naomi. No is Not Enough: Resisting Trump's Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need. Haymarket Books, 2017.
Mooney, Chris and Steven Mufson. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/white-house-seeks-72-percent-cut-to-clean-energy-research-underscoring-administrations-preference-for-fossil-fuelsv/2018/01/31/c2c69350-05f3-11e8-b48c-b07fea957bd5_story.html?utm_term=.29ffae5e56fc
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Heinemann, 1981.
Shoptaw, John. Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/70299/why-ecopoetry