Populism and Experimental Ecopoetics: Ed Roberson’s City Eclogue

/ /

“So high a reach of vision set on so short a perspective”—Ed Roberson

Contemporary eco-poetry tends to be expansive in its conception of nature and innovative in design. In Recomposing Ecopoetics: North American Poetry of the Self-Conscious Anthropocene (2018), Lynn Keller considers thirteen American eco-poets, “all of whom push the bounds of literary convention as they seek forms and language adequate to complex environmental problems” (3). The poets she studies, including Ed Roberson, see nature as a “far more inclusive and culturally imbricated category than conventional nature poetry does” (3). I would add that Roberson, in particular, possesses a decidedly unconventional populist bent, one that strives to create a much wider awareness of the size and ruthlessness of environmental exploitation of the planet. But to what extent are populism and ambitious technical innovations in art—and poetry in specific—compatible? In what follows, I will apply insights by political scientists to Roberson’s City Eclogue, arguing that a cross-disciplinary study—eco-poetics and political science—helps elucidate how his experimental poetics, and inclusive vision of human beings and nature, lend themselves to an eco-populist perspective. Ultimately, Roberson and other recent eco-poets help us consider the extent to which poetry doesn’t need to be popular to be populist. They largely appeal to academics and other intellectuals, and not necessarily to the people for whom they advocate. Nonetheless, their poetry pushes their audiences’ ecological assumptions and contributes to the blossoming field of environmental studies.

Populists—whether politicians, religious figures, television personalities, or writers—employ a wide array of strategies, including nonverbal ones, to unite and motivate their audiences. The political scientist Cas Mudde succinctly summarizes populism as a triad between “ideology, the people, [and] the elite” (29).1 Mudde explains that within the context of populism, “ideology” signifies a system of beliefs a speaker desires to advance as a moral imperative. The populist speaker addresses a group of people, “who do not really exist and are a mere construction of the populist”; they are “an imagined community” whom the speaker rallies as “the people,” a constituency opposed to the “special interests” of the elite class (30-32). A persuasive populist may transform an “imagined community” into an actual constituency that adopts the speaker’s agenda in whole or in part. The speaker’s agenda may have positive or negative social consequences, assessments that often depend on one’s political convictions.

Two poets whom Roberson cites as influences, Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound, long have been considered among the United States’ most influential populist poets,2 yet both are rhetorically different and influenced subsequent poets in sundry ways. Whitman’s expanding and contracting lines of free verse inspired various twentieth-century poets—including Vachel Lindsay, Carl Sandberg, Langston Hughes, and Allen Ginsberg—to employ approaches that encouraged readers to assume “what I assume.” These writers imagined and created communities whose participants extended beyond people affected by the particular issues the writers addressed. Hughes, for instance, tended to write of the plight of working-class Black Americans, but his poetry also influenced young, college educated whites who identified with his characters, and became the “white negroes” described in Norman Mailer’s 1957 essay and in Kevin Young’s The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness (2012).3 On the other hand, Pound regarded Whitman’s poetry with suspicion and declared an uneasy “truce” with him. He combined dense allusions and idiosyncratic stylistic experiments that served as a touchstone for more “difficult” poets—including T.S. Eliot, Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson, and Charles Wright—whose works express a wide range of political convictions. While both Whitman and Pound engaged natural settings, neither is regarded as a nature poet in the manner of, say, William Cullen Bryant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Greenleaf Whittier, Robert Frost, Sara Teasdale, Theodore Roethke, Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, Mary Oliver, or Alice Oswald.

While Whitman’s and Pound’s poetics and populist emphases influenced Roberson, his worldview is rooted in science rather than transcendental philosophy or economic theories of social credit. Although previous critics haven’t made a direct link between populism and Roberson, I will argue that his emphasis on science—what I’ll call, drawing on Evie Shockley, a “cosmological view”4—reflects and extends widely accepted assumptions associated with nature poetry and populism. Here it’s helpful to distinguish between writers who are activists and those more accurately characterized as populists. Whereas activism—the realm of Berry and Snyder—involves aggressive campaigning for social or political change, populism takes a more antagonistic anti-establishment stance, typically pitting, as Mudde points out, “the people” against “the elites,” a phenomenon that can involve figures on the political right and left. Simply put, activists like Berry and Snyder advocate for change—for instance, reliance on local seasonal foods or reductions of carbon emissions—within the existing system; but populists like Sandberg and Ginsberg stress the need to overhaul—say, topple capitalism and dismantle the mainstream media—an irredeemably corrupt system dominated by self-interested elites. Like many relatively recent eco-poets, Roberson addresses an imagined community consisting of those who wish to protect the environment against corporations, governments, and other entities that harm the environment. This is an assumption that the vast majority of eco-poetry’s readers also share. Lawrence Buell feels these developments reflect a “mature environmental aesthetics,” a concept that encompasses what Terry Gifford calls the “post-pastoral,” a “discourse that can both celebrate and take responsibility for nature without false consciousness” (479).5

Roberson takes the discussion a step further, transforming activist goals into populist poetry with the hope, presumably, of transforming the community he imagines into a real one. He presents an encompassing conception of nature that includes and extends beyond the human and other types of organic matter, positioning his paradigm beyond that of left leaning “green” voters or the Sierra Club. By including the city—taxicabs, garbage trucks, sidewalks, toilets, and buildings—as natural phenomena, he hopes to change conceptions of nature and mobilize a broad swath of people, including poor, middle class, and bourgeois urban dwellers. Hence, his vision of nature involves a larger understanding of what constitutes class divisions. To Roberson, “elites” are people, corporations, or any other entity linked to environmental and racial injustices. In fact, for Roberson racial injustices are environmental wrongs because people are a part of nature. Police brutality, gentrification, and air pollution are all crimes against nature. “The people,” his imagined community, includes the planet and consists of anyone or anything victimized by the elites’ practices.

Roberson’s expanded sense of the populist community also speaks to his stylistic practices. City Eclogue employs avant-garde formal techniques that highlight social inequalities and identify self-interested corrupt elites who commit crimes against nature. As I’ll discuss, Roberson zooms out beyond a linear conception of space and time, zooms in on environmental calamities, and displays a capacious awareness of eco-social processes. His poetry assumes that elites must take responsibility for the harm done to the oppressed, including the denizens of low-income urban areas and cityscapes. His myriad philosophical-ecological lenses guide readers, as do Buell and Gifford, towards a “mature” understanding of nature, while avoiding a “false consciousness” that harms nature by idealizing it. But his political agenda moves beyond these critics’ premises: he balances scientific abstractions, including theorems and mathematical equations, with the reality of environmental travesties by calling attention to pernicious phenomena, including exploitive practices of fiscal elites, systemic structures of police injustice, abusive treatment of protesters, and the history of racism in the United States. In this way, Roberson positions himself and his readers against corporate elites and targets structural issues that continually damage the natural environment. He aims to shift readers’ conception of their relationship to nature and galvanize their fight against inequality.

Roberson engages a wide range of canonical poetry as part of this endeavor. City Eclogue alludes to Virgil’s Eclogues, a work in which the Latin poet presents rural herdsmen debating a tumultuous period in ancient Rome through call-and-response choruses of song.6 Roberson recontextualizes Virgil’s work by situating it in New York, Pittsburg and Newark, and by conceiving of space and time in a manner that moves beyond Song of Myself. He uses and references traditional forms—including the epic, pastoral, and sonnet—and pictures space, human, and nonhuman materials as interrelated, resulting in a poetics that addresses political, economic, and racial issues as cyclical parts of history. Like the poetry of Pound and many high-modernists, Roberson’s verse is dense, heavily allusive, and formally experimental. His poems balance the introduction of intellectual, often scientific concepts with a Whitman-like populist rhetoric that serves to level forms of privileged authority. Roberson’s approach raises questions as to what extent a poet can dip his or her or their brush into the obscure, metaphorical, and formally ambitious—actions that curtail readerly accessibility—and convey a populist message. While Roberson’s poetry isn’t as packed with allusions as Pound’s or the early Eliot’s, it brims with scientific and mathematical language and reconfigures literary tropes. Like The Cantos, City Eclogue requires multiple readings to unpack the poetry, and seems aimed at a well-educated audience. At the same time, Roberson refutes elitism, lambasts gentrification and many other aspects of bourgeois capitalism, and intertwines his abstract, intellectual formulations with crude vernacular language through an interplay between various voices.

“Eclogue,” the final poem in the book, contains what Roberson claims is “every voice I have to offer.” He uses these voices—his version of a Virgilian Chorus—to engage ecological issues, broadly conceived, and like many other ecologically conscious writers, he pictures the nonhuman and human as an interrelated whole, and implies a moral obligation to stand against forces that destroy poorer communities. However, Roberson also pointedly portrays destructive tendencies, including racism, as part of the natural dynamic—determined natural processes that occur throughout the world and throughout the ages—in a manner often not encountered in post-pastoral eco-critical writing, which typically is situated within white American and rural contexts, despite its nods towards diversity. The inclusion of the urban as “natural” places issues of race and poverty into larger debates about equality. As I’ll discuss, the panoply of voices he creates shape the form and content of his verse, and suggest how his populist poetry helps expand our understanding of his vision and of post-pastoral urban verse.

In an interview with Kathleen Crown, Roberson discusses narrative elements that contribute to his grander conceptions of nature in City Eclogue. He claims that Lucille Clifton’s response to 9/11 events served as an “inspiration” to him:

Lucille Clifton said one of the really beautiful things. She said, ‘Look children, it isn’t as though this hasn’t happened before.’ Then she went and laid out all the possible places that we could think of in comparison to that. She just brought such a huge scope to the event, and such a humane scope… she brought this openness, this wideness, this historical perspective that was balanced, and did not in any way diminish what had happened….it was very deeply felt… That, for me, was an inspiration. That is where we should come from. (750-751)

Like Clifton’s speech, City Eclogue (sections were written after 9/11) possesses a “Huge scope…humane scope…this openness, this wideness, this historical perspective that was balanced, and did not in any way diminish what had happened.” Roberson’s narrative takes things from an urban environment—garbage trucks, protesters, individuals, birds—and places them in a broad historical or cosmic lens. His poetry suggests that things contained within the city are part of natural historical processes that have happened before. Although Roberson’s experimental forms likely discourage a wider audience, his style is largely shaped by the complex demands of synthesizing nature broadly and narrowly, from a holistic space/time continuum to a specific historical moment.  He uses the telescope and the microscope to discuss our relationship to nature. The poem, “Sit in What City We’re In,” a possible reference to the Greensboro sit-ins, raises questions pertaining to civil rights. Likewise, in “Beauty Standing,” he evokes the 1960’s slogan “Black is Beautiful”7 to affirm the beauty of people and architecture, while considering politics destructive to that beauty.  Similarly, “The Open” ironically turns the idea of “open” Black opportunity—urban renewal projects for low-income communities—on its head to describe gentrification:

Their buildings razed.  They ghost
……..Their color that haze of plaster dust
their blocks of bulldozed air opened to light
……..Take your breath as much
by this kind of blinding choke as by the loss felt
…… the openness….
of a highway through to someone else’s
……..possibility.  (63-64)

As the poem continues, Roberson conflates large natural phenomena—glaciers, lightning, tornados—with protestors to indicate the violence, the difficulty, and the natural process of trying to change a socio-political landscape. The protestors, “each one the iconic light-ning,” move “for the capitols…through the storm / to speak up   though we knew / we could end up as that / body on the run-off tongue / of the glacier” (67). Here Roberson uses language that’s simultaneously figurative and literal: human’s protests against racism are likened to turbulent natural phenomenon and volatile natural phenomena are protests against global warming. Moreover, Roberson situates violent events and gentrification within a context of cyclical, repetitive history that indicates that inhumane cruelty is, indeed, natural. In essence, the poem is a call for action catalyzed by an enlarged perspective. Roberson invokes an “imagined community” attuned to a cosmological vision that he desires to transform into a readership who will embrace his populist perspective and act on it, like the protesters in the poem.

The encompassing perspectives Roberson evokes are reflected in the ways City Eclogue mixes simple human observations with overarching, self-reflecting meta-perspectives. “Eclogue” describes a cityscape that contains “huge and metaphorical” resonances within scenes of garbage and “shit infection” (134). The tension between philosophical meditations and crude language reflects the range of voices embedded in his narrative. The poetry moves from the “simple thoughts” of an “I” narrator, who makes observations about what he sees, before segueing outwards to a “We” that places observations within a cosmological perspective. In this manner, the poetry extends beyond the traditional pastoral into a post-pastoral of urban and ethnic inclusivity. The movement from “I” to “We” highlights imagined urban communities that embrace a holistic vision of nature and see themselves as rightfully equal within it. Roberson’s rhetorical position is central to his populist poetics. Similar to Virgil’s shepherds, the voices that inhabit Roberson’s poem fuse high art with lower class urban subjects that are symbols for social realism. His verse strives to raise the awareness of mainly middle and upper class intellectuals. Doing so, Roberson belongs to an avant-garde movement, highlighted in Keller’s Recomposing Ecopoetics, that heightens the points of view of a relatively novel “imagined community”: literary specialists who possess an encompassing perspective of nature and are at war against corporate elites. Roberson and his brethren further Buell’s “mature environmental aesthetics” and strive to influence the direction of future environmental studies by linking a fuller awareness of nature to social reform. His poetry combines a distinct conception of nature with an innovative rhetorical style, and importantly, presents issues concerning the environment and social justice as inextricably linked. His cosmological view provides an intellectual lens that uses ecology to galvanize his readers towards a populist poetics that includes social justice.

Roberson, who was a chemistry major and performed science related work for many years, depicts nature scientifically rather than spiritually.8 He emphasizes the limitations of individual subjectivity and argues for more encompassing, interrelated subjective positions.9 Space and time are pictured as borderless, and the narrative oscillates between carnal-selves, building-selves, and cosmological-selves. He suggests how humans and manmade materials are similar—both consist of matter and exist in space and time—but stresses how we exist in a condition of social inequality.10 In essence, Roberson fuses human beings and the rest of nature by creating an eco-conscious prism that links the corrupt elite’s non-human treatment of nature to their social treatment of human beings. By re-conceptualizing what constitutes nature—especially introducing racial and economic inequalities as environmental issues—Roberson points the way for new political coalitions to transform poetry into social action. Faced with cosmological equality and social inequality, the reader must consider how a holistic point of view extends beyond the individual and has the potential to make society more just.

Roberson’s reconfigurations of nature and the pastoral are expressed through reconfigurations of poetic forms. For instance, the opening strophe in “Eclogue” is a fourteen line meditation on metaphysical issues that plays off the traditional sonnet. Irregular un-accentual syllabics replace iambic pentameter. Modern, scientific language conveys a post-pastoral perspective that highlights the need to move beyond subjectivity and towards a more objective, holistic vision of our socio-natural environment. The sonnet form shadows Roberson’s poem as he draws an analogy between shadows and the dead, who may be present at the site of 9/11 but are not visible.11 Roberson begins with a simple observation akin to that in a pastoral poem; in this case a person telling time by his shadow: “I wonder if anyone ever thought / to tell time with them   know where their shadow / tipped on 3 o’clock” (131). As the poem continues, the narrator speculates on the sun hovering directly above a person in an angle that hides his shadow. The narrator begins to examine the nothingness—the “no metered footprint”—of humanity, “an either / side of a space the zero it pulls into, / its long reserve wheel of nothing there,” suggesting Ground Zero and the absence of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers (131). The narrator wonders whether the dead’s shadow “pulls into” the “zero” of space. The narrator’s acknowledgment of the “nothing there,” an intermediary space between life and death, is emphasized by the word “here,” the “footprint” at Ground Zero:

Yet here in gnomon of absence bears its shadow
placement on some dial of brevity and cold
about life      about the footprint we may leave
empty of light     empty of even point to it.

Roberson converts historical time into cosmological time and expresses a pessimistic message through hybrid imagery. A “gnomon” is both the point of shadow on a sundial and a plane figure created by removing a similar parallelogram from a corner of a larger one. The image suggests an “absence” that, like human life, potentially casts its shadow on time briefly before its mark vanishes. Like the parallelogram, one human life is replaced by another life, human or nonhuman. Yet, despite the bleak message, Roberson’s alliterations, assonances, and rhymes affirm the human will to make an impact, to engage in meaningful action in the face of death. Although the word “empty” is repeated in the last line to suggest that “life,” “light,” and human events lack a “point,” the sonic pattern of “t” sounds suggest humans’ persistent desire to etch themselves into history. The verse links “life” to “light” through alliteration and spacing that separate them from the rest of their lines.  The repetition of “t” sounds in the final two lines—“footprint,” “empty,” “light,” “point,” “to,” “it”—are an attempt to resist meaninglessness by inscribing human actions in space and time, and altering the seemingly inevitable by adopting a perspective that conveys how everything—time, poverty, terrorism, racism, pollution, corporate capitalism—is connected. By positing the reality of human existence in mathematical and scientific terms, Roberson indicates that all human beings are equal. From a physical standpoint people tend to behave similarly—we eat, sleep, breathe, feel, and will die. Nonetheless, we inscribe meaning on planet Earth. Roberson suggests that meaning ought to align with the equality we can intuit from math and science. Again, while his message is decidedly populist, his “imagined community” of readers—people who will recognize the ways in which he plays with and inverts traditional forms—decidedly is not. He appeals to literary types who are enticed by his allusions, while also speaking to environmental academics who are in his camp anyway. His neo-humanist rhetoric emphasizes the moral equivalence of all human beings even as his poetic practices divides them. In doing so, he creates scintillating poetry that’s rich with allusion, depth, and a hybridized scientific-philosophical position that highlights the wrongdoings of the elite class towards the poor. Blending “high” and “low” culture to address racial and economic injustice is at the crux of Roberson’s choice to include innumerable perspectives in his verse, yet his creative practice performs for a sophisticated implied reader.

Like the opening poem in “Eclogue,” Roberson weaves a shadow conceit into the next fourteen line poem. The poem is a meditation on the relationship between time, life, and death. Composed in seven separate paired lines, its form—relative to the first poem, which does not separate its lines—implies dispersal. As in the opening poem and other poems throughout the book, the narrative voices follow a process in which they peer in at the local before entering into a more expansive meditation (other poems reverse this process). The second poem begins with an image of the sun shining on a well during a noon solstice. It shines so precisely that there’s a “light without shadow,” recalling the sunlight directly atop the narrator in the first poem. The poetry accumulates a grander significance by placing particular events in the context of a larger scale of space and historical time. Like Roberson’s reference to a “gnomon” in the first poem, here the poet reconceives Psalm 23 to broaden the larger scale of space and historical time.12 Again, Roberson employs mathematical, scientific language to describe life’s spatial and temporal relationship to death. The narrator observes the light “with an in-line position with regard / to the sun” before meditating on its scientific and mathematic significance, “any cast line of shadow // would indicate a curve;  the distance between / one and not,     an arc of circumference” (133). Roberson’s contemplation then extends to the metaphysical. Three-dimensional imagery of “death’s shadow” that’s “as deep as that valley which is our grave” and has “its length” that’s “the same cast everywhere    as deep” is indicative of Roberson’s encompassing cosmological view (emphasis Roberson’s). By describing death in such terms, Roberson objectifies life on earth:

death surrounds us     is our uncurbed circumference.
We map our way with only the bearing
of surrounding life       itself borderless
uncontrolled by the surface of our self. (133)

The many voices reflect Roberson’s premise that human beings are all equal because everyone dies.  This truism becomes a scientific vision of equality in which each voice has equal purpose. All lives have shadows with a strange “uncurbed circumference”—no definite limit—that suggests the expansion of shadows across the entire world. This cosmological equality leads to questions concerning why we do not treat one another as equals economically and politically.

Roberson’s third and final fourteen line poem in “Eclogue” uses pastoral conventions to convert the historical event of 9/11 into a natural process and spur a new populist poetics that brings people together in our shared inhabiting of the earth. The shadow conceit is used to continue envisioning the world from the perspectives of humanity at large, of individuals, and of buildings. The fourteen lines are composed of four three-line strophes and a couplet—an order that again plays off the sonnet to suggest the variety of reconfigurations and perceptions that could constitute a populist vision. The most straightforward reading of these variations is that they suggest the instability of any fixed center point from which to convey an absolute perspective. Roberson expands or condenses lines according to the widening or shortening of space and time that he considers. These expansions and contractions are conveyed through Roberson’s “method of shadow”—his continued use of a shadow metaphor to contemplate a sense of space and time in which all forms of life are objects. The “method of shadow” in this third fourteen line poem extends the previous two meditations to indicate the unhinging of a fixed center point.

Paradoxically, Roberson employs a post-anthropocentric sensibility to refocus the reader’s understanding of anthropocentric social issues concerning gentrification, racial inequality, and the greedy elite. However, the strophe sequence begins by altering the reader’s assumptions about nature. In the first two ten-syllable lines—the only consecutive syllabic lines in the poem—the narrator contemplates “The bridge towers of the Verrazano” and the distance between them (“are so far apart they tilt away from / each other”) (133).  Each ten-syllable line suggests the “center” and vertical stability of each bridge tower. Bridges are often associated with connection, geometry, symmetry, and stability, but again, Roberson’s narrative emphasizes difference by pointing out that the bridge towers, which inevitably invoke Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and Crane’s “The Bridge” in their speculations, and are “so far apart” that “they tilt away from /each other.”  Moreover, this physical distance is magnified by a twelve-syllable line and the spatial separation of the last two words in the line, “they tilt away from / each other on the curve of the earth     factored in” (133). Roberson repeats the first three words of the opening poem (“I wonder if”) as he poses a rhetorical question: to what extent can his shadow conceit encompass metaphorical truths about the dispersal of a center point?

I wonder if from the distance apart
of the The Towers you could figure that reach
‘round of the world with this method of shadow? (134)

Building from on the previous strophe (two ten-syllable lines and one twelve-syllable line), the second strophe consists of one ten-syllable line and two lines of eleven-syllables.  In the third line of the second strophe, the replacement of the “a” in “around” with an apostrophe is a deliberate attempt not to repeat the final twelve-syllable line in the first strophe of this third shadow sonnet.  Instead, Roberson opts for variation, instability, and a shift from the center point in order to stress the value of perceiving the natural and manmade world beyond an individualistic point of view.

The remainder of the fourteen line poem consists of even greater syllabic variation as the narrator uses the “method of shadow” to speculate on the impact of 9/11 from a myriad of perspectives that includes humanity at large, the individual, and buildings:

The shadow of flesh casts how deep and far            (10 syllables)
a landscape of perspective?      how round              (9 syllables)
a circumference enough to fit the living                  (12 syllables )

world    does a single life turning to its labor spin?  (13 syllables)
Take each story of a building as the radius              (13 syllables)
of expansion       we make of the earth,                  (9 syllables)

concentric spheres      on Turtle Island,                  (9 syllables)
the hundred ten circumferences go nova                 (12 syllables)

Roberson uses syllabic variety and shifting vantage points to create a relational poetics that encourages readers to think beyond themselves and galvanize against the corrupt elite. Moving from the “shadow of flesh” cast by humanity to the “single life turning” in the face of 9/11 to the “story of a building,” the narrative then extends beyond NYC to include a larger perspective and that indicates the global impact of 9/11. The formal variations and different perspectives are difficult to unpack, and speak to his “imagined community” of environmentally and socially engaged literati. The verse swirls as if in a maelstrom; there is no center point, or there are too many, and they connect, but don’t, and in their confounded oblivion, “go nova,” spiraling into a post-pastoral perspective that includes all forms of matter. The poetry is socially conscious and formally ambitious, closer to Pound’s high modernist aesthetic than to the romantic populism of Whitman or Sandberg, or the traditional nature poetry of Berry, Snyder, or Oliver. Roberson addresses cultural elites and paves a path for a post-anthropic-humanist vision that sees human beings and nature as equal. It isn’t a politics that mobilizes “the people,” but a poetry that mobilizes high modernist and avant-garde techniques to forge relations with an “imagined community,” many of whose members will be educating future generations of college students.

Two other sections of “Eclogue” contain other “narrative voices”: an “I” narrative that portrays the intersubjectivity of a cityscape from local vantage points, and another voice that is critical of the political system and perceives human nature as corruptly driven by “the jealous Need,” rather than morals. First, I will discuss the former in relation to the shadow conceit that objectifies human beings and puts them on the same physical plane as all other objects on earth. Between the first and second fourteen line poems, Roberson continues to mix a pastoral perspective within an urban context that combines observations of aesthetic beauty with death and human corruption of nature. The notion of a shadow as something everything possesses becomes a metaphor for objectifying human beings and putting them on the same physical plane as all other natural things.  By emphasizing experimental poetics and the supposition that human beings and the objects they create are equal and natural, Roberson continues to employ a paradigm that appeals to intellectually and aesthetically oriented readers, highbrows who sympathize with his populist politics and are enthused to spread a message of social and environmental equality.

Again, it’s worth emphasizing that Roberson reconfigures Mudde’s triad of ideology, the people, and the elite. Roberson defines elites as anyone or anything that damages nature, which includes all forms of social injustice. “The people,” his imagined community, consists of anyone or anything victimized by or opposing the elites’ practices. The section from the “I” narrator’s perspective explores various vantage points from different cities to emphasize intersubjectivity between human beings and the rest of nature. The narrator’s observations drive the reader’s perceptions up, down, left, right, and mix organic objects with the human made. The multiple shifts in point of view help Roberson vary scales that illuminate his concerns regarding humanity’s position within the cosmos. For example, the third strophe in “Eclogue” observes a “white heron” and “cormorants” on a morning train ride before meditating on their significance: “When they’re there in the evening, we safely / assume the world hasn’t gone anywhere” (132). The next strophe moves to the “Jersey side” in which the narrator and his silent companion peer unto nature from different elevations: “from the vantage of the plain,” and the next line, “from the vantage of the / dirt-stiffened, unyielding, tarmac of marsh / grass” (132). Unlike the third strophe in which the contemplative phrase is explicit, in the fourth strophe images that mix non-human objects and manmade objects suggests an embedded intersubjectivity that’s inferred by images rather than stated: “grass    gray like steel grayed a vegetable steel / from blur and the exhausts of the turnpike” (132).   In the fifth strophe, Roberson cloaks his point of view—from the NYC subway—through a vague contrast of the subway tunnel to the inside of a mountain: “Position with regard to surrounding objects / here is unlike in the mountains which give / a bearing even from deep within them” (132).  Only in the next strophe is the narrator’s point of view revealed in relation to where he was before: “Climbing to the high plateau of the street / from the subway, we check the peaks downtown / or midtown    skyscrapers for direction” (132). This strophe also projects forward to a new perception as the narrator’s street view of New York City changes scale, now guided by “skyscrapers for direction,” playing off pastoral themes of stars as guides. This stream of seven vantage points on one page ends with a meditation on the unreality of all that is seen. The narrator strolls “up the block” and notes how his “postcard” view of New York City quickly is “eclipsed” by a “parallax” of another point of view. The negation of a point of view that’s “eclipsed” calls into question the accuracy and value of individual perception and affirms the voice of “the people” that includes the non-human, even as Roberson-the-poet creates a highly individualistic, lyrical, lens to convey his message. Roberson asserts the limitation of individual perceptions to emphasize the importance of a cosmological view when considering how we treat each other. By changing points of view and scales, Roberson aims to alter the sensibilities of his readers—drawing them towards a post-pastoral urbanity that ultimately stresses a need for social equality that is perhaps unachievable.

Similarly, the final passage in “Eclogue” contains a “narrative voice” from an “I” perspective but describes humanity from a cosmological view that scales down human nature to its basest desires. The narrator ironically states, “So high a reach of vision set on so short / a perspective    the world on the turtle’s back” to explain that his attempts at abstract thought gesture towards the whole cosmos, but inevitably fall back on planet Earth (134). Nonetheless, the metaphor of the world built on a turtle’s back gives the narrative agency to scale down humanity.13 Above the world, “the wake of star formation” on its surface, “the animal // god.    the jealous Need.   a stomach / of feet    trying to stand through this” (134). The narrative perspective from this “high reach of vision” places humans in an ironic scale in which their “god” is in lower case and humanity’s primal “Need” is capitalized. The baseness of these desires leaves humans victimized, “trying to stand through” their oppressions. The fusion of human beings with nature provides an ironic turn to the pastoral.  In the end, we are human beings with “monkey rulers” waiting for the mother turtle14 to “throw” us “off / into space” (135). Human beings’ ultimate significance is due to their needful habits and will “endow” the Earth with a “landfill      on which” evolution can create new life. And yet, “We are the stuff of the stars, Sagan says” (135). Roberson’s conclusion is an ironic shift that questions humans’ relationship to nature and extends the pastoral perspective. Instead of humans reaching a type of transcendent home in nature, they are unwanted guests in nature’s house; people dirty the world with their plastic landfills the size of Texas and are ultimately exiled into oblivion. The passages contain an ironic reinvention of Indigenous folk lore naming the Earth “Turtle Island.” Roberson’s juxtaposition of the Indigenous creation myth with the “jealous Need” of the greedy elite draws attention to the destructive results of social inequality. Human greed and human cruelty are linked.  Instead of the connectivity Indigenous populations perceived, people are disliked by Earth. Earth rises in populist revolt against humans. Roberson’s conclusion emphasizes a discord between a naturalistic society and the equality of the cosmos. The Earth’s rejection of humankind is his own. Roberson stands with the disadvantaged and rejects the elitist “monkey rulers” who in a vast universe cannot see beyond themselves. His poetry strives to mobilize an intellectual, literary avant-garde, who will embrace and spread his vision, and close the chasm between contemporary eco-poets, eco-critics, and the people and planet on whose behalf they hope to speak.



1In Cas Mudde’s essay, “Populism: An Ideational Approach” (2017) outlines the manifold definitions of populism before ultimately settling on his own:“[populism is] an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people” (29).
2 For more see: Frank, Jason. “Aesthetic democracy: Walt Whitman and the Poetry of the People.” The Review of Politics (2007): 402-430. And: Redman, Tim. “Ezra Pound and American Populism the Enduring Influence of Hailey, Idaho.” Paideuma 34.2/3 (2005): 13-36. And: Ferkiss, Victor C. “Populist Influences on American Fascism.” Western Political Quarterly 10.2 (1957): 350-373.
3 See Norman Mailer, “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster,” Dissent, fall, 1957: 276-293 and Kevin Young, The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness, Graywolf Press, 2012. Young alludes to Mailer’s essay, and claims that the “postwar fascination with the ‘White Negro’” reflects a “dissatisfaction with America expressed through black culture” (55).
4 See Shockley, “On the Nature of Ed Roberson’s Poetics.” Callaloo, vol. 33, no. 3, 2010, pp. 728–747. JSTOR, Shockley doesn’t explicitly define the term “cosmological perspective,” but describes an encompassing perspective of cosmological space and time scale.  I will use the term to represent one of Roberson’s sundry narrative perspectives, one presented from the point of view of the cosmos.

5  Gifford asserts that the “post-pastoral” moves beyond Theocritus’s 3rd century B.C. idea of the pastoral as a “rural retreat delivered for an urban return” to include verse that also comments on human nature’s destructive qualities.  He identifies six lines of inquiry that a “post-pastoral” literary work addresses in one form or another:

  1. Can awe lead to a humility that constrains our species’ hubris?
  2. What are the implications of recognizing a creative-destructive universe of which we are a part?
  3. How can we learn to understand our inner nature by feeling its continuum with the outer?
  4. If we all live in one ecosystem of diverse cultures, what does it mean to say that nature is culture and our culture is nature?
  5. Can consciousness be an ecological tool for responsibility?
  6. How can we best address the insight of ecofeminism that exploitation of the planet is linked to exploitation of people? (90)

Gifford’s stipulations are encountered either directly or implicitly in Roberson’s poetry.  His poetry highlights the limitations of individual perceptions; recognizes the elite as a “destructive” force in the universe; expresses a relational understanding of our inner nature and the outer universe; perceives human beings as full participants in nature; draws ecological awareness to social cultural responsibilities for action; and views the exploitation of the planet and people to be linked.  Notably, Roberson differs from Gifford in that his poetry targets the cultural elite, not all humans, as the destroyers of nature.  This difference suggests Roberson’s populist bent, and reflects the triad between “ideology, the people, [and] the elite” that Mudde cites as fundamental to populism (29).

6 Niall Rudd’s Lines of Inquiry: Studies in Latin Poetry, Cambridge UP (1976), pp. 119-141 details the characteristics of and sources for Virgil’s Eclogues.
7 Fink, Thomas. “City Eclogue by Ed Roberson,” Galatea Resurrects, no. 2. May 16, 2006.
8 Roberson’s use of mathematics of infinity connects him with James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.  All three conceive of mathematical paradigms to express their understanding of the universe. This further enmeshes Roberson in a modernist and post-modernist dialogue.
9 When Lynn Keller and Steel Wagstaff asked Roberson if he detected a “sense of history or ancestral presence in [his] encounters with nature” he replied, “Yes, in the sense that we dissolve back into the matrix, back into chemicals. It’s not even a matter of whether we dissolve back into water or dissolve back into chemicals—we’re in it already anyhow” (429). See “An Interview with Ed Roberson.” Contemporary Literature, vol. 52, no. 3, 2011, pp. 397–429.
10 For more on the intersection of space-time scales and art see. Friedman, Susan Stanford. “Scaling Planetarity: Spacetime in the New Modernist Studies–Virginia Woolf, HD, Hilma af Klint, Alicja Kwade, Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner.” Feminist Modernist Studies 3.2 (2020): 118-147.
11 In conversation, Ellen Hinsey mentioned Roberson possible indebtedness to John Donne.  Roberson’s imagery perhaps alludes to Donne’s “A Lecture upon the Shadow.” Both poems contemplate death through a shadow’s absence as the sun hangs overhead.
12 Roberson writes, “That phrase of the psalm says death’s shadow is / as deep as that valley which is our grave” (133).
13 “In the creation myths of some East Coast tribes (such as the Iroquois and Lenape), the Great Spirit created their homeland by placing earth on the back of a giant turtle.” For more information see:
14 A likely reference to Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island (1974) and the east coast tribes referenced in the previous footnote.

Works Cited

Crown, Kathleen, and Ed Roberson. “‘We are not the Language’: An Interview with Ed

Roberson (Part 2).” Callaloo, vol. 33, no. 3, 2010, pp. 748–761. JSTOR,

Ferkiss, Victor C. “Populist Influences on American Fascism.” Western Political Quarterly 10.2 (1957): 350-373.

Fink, Thomas. “City Eclogue by Ed Roberson,” Galatea Resurrects, no. 2. May 16, 2006.

Frank, Jason. “Aesthetic Democracy: Walt Whitman and the Poetry of the People.” The Review of Politics (2007): 402-430.

Friedman, Susan Stanford. “Scaling Planetarity: Spacetime in the New Modernist Studies–

Virginia Woolf, HD, Hilma af Klint, Alicja Kwade, Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner.” Feminist Modernist Studies 3.2 (2020): 118-147.

Gifford, Terry. “Nature’s Eloquent Speech in Charles Frazier’s Nightwoods.” The Mississippi Quarterly, vol. 66, no. 4, 2013, pp. 565–582. JSTOR,

Keller, Lynn, et al. “An Interview with Ed Roberson.” Contemporary Literature, vol. 52, no. 3, 2011, pp. 397–429. JSTOR,

—. Recomposing Ecopoetics: North American Poetry of the Self-Conscious Anthropocene. University of Virginia Press, 2018.

Rudd, Niall. Lines of Inquiry: Studies in Latin Poetry, Cambridge UP (1976), pp. 119-141.

Mailer, Norman. “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster,” Dissent, fall, 1957: 276-293

Mudde, Cas. “An Ideational Approach.” Rovira Kaltwasser, CR ua (Hrsg.): Oxford Handbook on Populism. Oxford (2017): 27-47.

Redman, Tim. “Ezra Pound and American Populism the Enduring Influence of Hailey, Idaho.” Paideuma 34.2/3 (2005): 13-36.

Shockley, Evie. “On the Nature of Ed Roberson’s Poetics.” Callaloo, vol. 33, no. 3, 2010, pp. 728–747. JSTOR,

Wilson, Thomas Murray. “Post-Pastoral in John Fowles’s ‘Daniel Martin.’” Organization & Environment, vol. 18, no. 4, 2005, pp. 477–488. JSTOR,

Young, Kevin. The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness, Graywolf Press, 2012.