CULTIVATING EXCESS from THE EIGHTH MOUNTAIN PRESS
THE EIGHTH MOUNTAIN POETRY PRIZE was established in 1988 in honor of the poets whose words envision and sustain the feminist movement, and in recognition of the major role played by women poets in creating the literature of their time. Women poets world-wide are invited to participate. One manuscript is selected biannually by a poet of national reputation. Cultivating Excess was selected by Judy Grahn to be the winner of the 1991 contest.
JUDY GRAHN: "This poetry humps through the earth on a fast caterpillar of fire. I love to have my breath taken away, to laugh or tear up at the sheer energy of physical life and to feel more than one feeling at a time. And I love a poetry that uses strong, disciplined forms to compress and then release the power of a rangy, exploratory mind willing to grapple with nearly anything."
GRETCHEN LEGLER from "Cultivating Excess." ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 1.1 (1993): 190-192.
Lori Anderson has put together a book of poems in Cultivating Excess that asks readers to challenge traditional notions of nature, of nature writing, and of human relationships with other humans and the natural world. In this collection Anderson deliberately, and excessively, works to turn the binary oppositions in language and philosophy upside down and inside out. Many would not call this collection "nature writing," and that is part of Anderson's purpose and contribution -- a challenge to the form of the genre as much as to environmental philosophy.
In [the book section entitled] "Silviculture" Anderson's subjects are as diverse as an old boot, which the poem's character oils with care. She writes, "I'd end this, bed you down in a soft bog/ if not for work and want of woods to walk./ But you are not without recourse, you hard heal." "Self Portrait Eye to Eye with Clinometer & Prism" is partly a critque of vision and the language of mathematics as a way of understanding forests she is surveying for timber sales....In this section of the book especially, Anderson's work echoes work done by Susan Griffin in Woman and Nature, where Griffin juxtaposes scientific and institutional language with the language of desire and the language of women's spirituality.
PATRICK D. MURPHY from "`The Women Are Speaking': Contemporary Literature as Theoretical Critique." Ecofeminist Literary Criticism : Theory, Interpretation, Pedagogy. Ed. Greta Claire Gaard. Chicago: U of Illinois Press, 1998.
Cultivating Excess is divided into four sections: "Excess Jesus," "Silviculture," "Civilculture," and "Excess Isis." Here, I will focus on the first three of these. But before doing so, I want to comment on the book's title, which signals the kind of word play to be found throughout the book, as when the "Excess Jesus" section ends with the poem "Exegesis and Her Song." The word cultivating foreshadows the environmental orientation of much of the book, as well as suggesting images of caring and nurturing, practices depicted in partriarchal thought as being "natural" for a woman. But Anderson ruptures such a an easy and oppressive indentification in two ways. One, she weds cultivating with the word excess, establishing an inversion of the expectations that rescue cultivating from the patriarchal domain and sets it loose on the terrain of sexual politics. Two, the understanding of the word excess itself is also gradually reversed for readers. Anderson is not referring to something that is actually 'excessive,' as in too much or more than appropriate, which is frequently a relative rather than an absolute condition and a cultural rather than a natural limit. Instead, excess can be understood as meaning 'exceeding,' as in the transgression of norms (Murphy 37-38).
FRANCES PHILLIPS from "Sassing Back." Hungry Mind Review 25 (1993): 31, 34.
Anderson's range of subjects, her sustained humor, and her musicality make texts that zing collisions and reverberations. Take, for instance, the short journey from the title to the epigraph to the first lines of the following poem:
BRUTAL SAID: MYSTICISM SAID: MERGE
NAKED SELF SAID: HA!
"I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which
the naked self merges with a non-human world and yet
somehow survives still intact, individual, separate.
Paradox and bedrock." -- Edward Abbey
Dear Dead Abbey,
Who said "Here fishy-fishy"?
Boy leash-walking dead fish:
Who said "You in need of a dog"?
Girl high on her hot rock:
Who said "HA!" to cool pool,
to small circle, to simple's song's
sweet "Please Touch"?
Is that what fish said?
... As in the echo above to "Dear Abbey," playing with names is an ongoing hobby. In "Dead-I," right after quoting Simone Weil on the perfect union between God and the earth, she riffs, "The landscape lacked nothing except Simone Wheel/(she be ideal, she be idea, she be I-dead)." She plays with her own name several times as in the close of "Exegesis and her Song," "I add another letter./ Stutter er is her and so much more moves here./ Hear it: Anderson, Andersong, And Her Song . . ."
Anderson draws her words from a wide range of sources. I particularly like a number of poems -- "Day 124," "Berm,"Reclaiming Slashburns," and others -- that deal with the language and context of forestry studies and work. One of the most interesting is the political poem "'Dominance Potential: A Useful But/ Still Crude Concept' for Insuring/ Survival of Intolerant Species." A footnote explains that the quote in the title came from a silvicultural practices class and that dominance potential "'is the relative ability for a species to pre-empt site resources in alimited system over an indefinite interval, in the presence of other plants.'" The poem concludes with the cresendo:
ONCE YOU GOT IT ALL
plugged in, intensify it
by GNP. You too small
to play w/ Big Intolerants?
Take DP to your bed,
to your dinner platter, your
little front yard or gutter.
Whenever your hands or
mouth work. You can.
Like here: how I did it
in rant. Now I got my DP.
Anderson's poetic vocabulary accomodates Latinate words like effigy, relinquishing, conflagration, and incandescence as well as ultra-contemporary terms like yuppie, droid, and nerf ball....With a rich mix of influences and interests, Lori Anderson brings to each poem an unlikely combination of contemporary poetic cultures.
ROBYN SELMAN from "The New Shape-Changers." Kenyon Review 16.2 (1994): 174-183
Cultivating Excess. Consider the project: on one level it's a strategy -- a Nike ad, the theory behind a group like ACT UP, or the solgan: We're Here, We're Queer, Get Used to It. The cultivation of excess is Lori Anderson's promise in poems that a packed with bad girl sass yet remarkably upbeat given the world they are born out of. A friend tells me that poets who remain great do so because they "break the back of the language" -- a phrase I think Anderson would like -- my friend means to apply it to Ginsberg and Rich, to pay homage to poets who turn words on their heels and take poetry into the shadowy corners of subject matter that doesn't rhyme, so to speak, with a certain straight line. But cultivating excess also breaks the back of language. Anderson cites her influences: Jane Miller, to whom she bears a tonal resemblance, Jorie Graham, to whom there is an inference of intellectual debt, Deborah Diggs and Judith Johnson. Though I reminded of the unmentioned -- Eileen Myles's tomboyish sexual innuedno in, "How I Fell In Love at the Herbert Hoover Museum"; Marilyn Hacker's fractured love poems in, "How I fell in Love . . . Waiting"; Robin Becker, in the line "Good God, Mother of Isis, I mean Isis-Mother-Of-Us-All, save me, shop for me" (103); and Anne Waldman's bedrock feminism and showmanship. Anderson shares with these more established writers a spicy, quick pace, a lusty -- though not only sexual -- language that sweeps down the page, non-stop, vertical.
So, the stranger (via seemingly fine sex) embodies X?
The one hand whose clapping sounds the whole understory's
mourning for the lone tree heart's hatchet fell comes?
Hardly an answer for any reversible mistake at our birth.
Baby, we best burn this and begin again. (54)
... A Boadicea with alliteration as her shield she asks, "Captain, oh my captin,/ is not every ship in the sky pirate?" (78). Whitman and Anderson would like them to be. She is a steady and smart new voice. Here she is, shining and sane, and singed of course arough the edges in one of the best AIDS poems I have read, "If This Quilt of Names Were Made of Fire":
If the handiwork that summons us pleases us,
we succeed in our grieving and have already
unveiled a plan for piecing ourselves whole.
The weave, waves. Our hands, oars. Navigation
charted, as always, by the shape-changers. (57)
JAN RAMJERDI from "The Poetics of Excess: Lori Anderson's Cultivating Excess" in The Little Magazine 20 (1994): 64-68.
The poetry in Cultivating Excess moves faster than your mind, faster than the rate of filling, it fans, embays, forming all the time vertical displacements, boulders transported:
Wanting to know the slow stone rattle
to usher dead girls into dance, our odds on flesh
we work stone wicker baskets to empty
mysteries left uncarved.(91)
In Cultivating Excess there is a continuous metonymic displacement of the prior to, a line to rest in particulars, place, displacement, place, displacement: word travel, leaving in its wake no possibility of a home to return to, but movement always more movement not towards, not towards some trascendent horizon, the horizon is an unidentifiable location "she keeps fractured by subtle turns"(34). A lesbian location of the female desiring I: "I, tourist, would push this button forever/ to keep the angel lit" (13).
See how they turn
& with this hat -- long, exquisite plume,
finest of waterfowl --
you could begin your quenching,
could learn your loveliness.(16)
Not a loveliness that comes to rest in a mythic female identity:
"Who is the Isis-in-you?" And my eyes
stare straight ahead, see you, light bouncing back
hitting the same nerve you always do, flipped
several times as optics demand.(90)
The multiple discourse, the multiple optics, the multiple speaking Is-Is, the iconography Anderson employs positions you as tourist/reader in a constantly shifting landscape that seduces you at the same time it overwhelms you by its too-muchness. Don't read these poems to get them to get (possess) what they mean, you'll be helplessly lost, you're head will spin. Don't do your homework. Don't try to get every reference literary and non. Don't try to follow her line to line dance because it is meaning in its cultivating excess -- in its "hot, fast, big words."
SUE RUSSELL from "Poet's Prerogative: Lori Anderson Bucks Conventional Wisdom." Lambda Book Report 3.10 (1993): 29.
Lori Anderson's first book-length collection, the 1992 winner of the Eighth Mountain Poetry Prize, suggests that excess might be a habit, which, contrary to conventional wisdom, could be worth cultivating. Anderson invites the reader of Cultivating Excess to join her on a shopping spree in the supermarket of her personal iconography, where Simone Weil rubs shoulders with a teen-aged Patty Duke and the Isis figures might be found across the aisle from the painted Santas.
Extending the metaphor, the poem "How I fell in Love ... Shopping," one of my favorites, moves swiftly from Osiris to Elvis to a flirtatious clerk peddleing ersatz antiquities. "In bartering" says the poet/speaker/shopper, "I found/ the story of who we were and what we did rendered them ours." Anderson works against expected syntax, forcing readers to attend to the meaning and resonance of words by their accentual placement in the line. The "story" has the power to "render" itself. What is rendered (rent, wrenched), as if unto Caesar, is not only a story but also the object of desire, in this case Egyptian gold coin earring dangling from the ears of the clerk. The skill of the storyteller wins her the goods."
The very abundance of these objects, the poet's willingness to let in all the messy contrasts, makes Cultivating Excess an invigorating experience but not an easy read. Although notes cite sources for epigraphs and embedded quotations, reader is left with the larger effort of making sense of it all. Because Anderson returns frequently to favorite images and ideas, the accumulated references gain coherence in time.
The book's final section, "Excess Isis," which stands in counterpart to "Excess Jesus," shows Anderson at her best. Both titles clearly play with the scholarly implications of exegesis, which practiced to excess, can renter a text weak and lifeless. It is this very lifelessness to which Anderson never falls prey.