Schematic of the microscopic structure of nacre layers (from Wikipedia, altered with imaengine)

Beginning an analysis of J.H. Prynne’s “Duets Infer Duty” (2020)

Duets Infer Duty by J.H. Prynne. ‘12 pages. Lithograph printed on acid-free paper. Wire stitched into sparkly purple wrappers. Hammered cream endpapers. Edition of 250. 10 poems.’ [Publisher’s promotional email, dated 27/12/2020]

‘Axe on his shoulder, Choppin’ up de wood.’ Traditional song, from Perrow, E. C. Songs and Rhymes from the South, The Journal of American Folklore, 1915

‘Make your thoughts gladsome, stretch them out (as on the loom); make a ship, to ferry them across!’ Rig Veda, X.101.2

‘Tell me why thus I rave, about these groves!’ Hyperion, John Keats

Duets Infer Duty presents episodes and anecdotes about the early European, and especially English, colonisation of North America, the establishment and decline of the London Company of Virginia which was set up for that purpose, the initial union of the American states, their declaration of independence, the secession of the South, civil war and reunion, an example of governance in early modern times of a national forest in California, contemporary US political events and perennial issues, and the California wildfires of 2020.

This is all done against the background of an overarching metaphor in which the source domain is forestry and the target is the English (and Indo European) poetic project. Prynne situates his poem in the tradition of Chaucer, Golding and Spenser, and their earlier models, by echoing their detailed naming of the trees in a grove, item by item, and by means of instantiating these forerunners with American equivalents he continues his dialogue with the modern poetic practices of American poets such as Marianne Moore and Charles Olson. Throughout, Prynne’s poetic techniques draw on the most ancient of practices to produce the most modern of results, like the Cumaean sibyl who wrote her prophecies on oak leaves, only to have them blown around by the wind, never to be reassembled into an easily readable form, making it all the more urgent that we try to read them in the present moment, while they are most able to make a difference.

(In the following, words and phrases in bold are from Duets Infer Duty, and numbers in round or square brackets indicate the relevant section of the sequence.)

The ten sections of the sequence, each on a single page, are titled DECK and numbered 1 to 10. The Oxford English Dictionary (‘OED’) gives the earliest meaning of the noun deck in English as a covering or roof, for example of cloth, which later evolved to mean a platform serving as a floor, for example on a ship.

The sense of a deck as covering is derived from the same Old Teutonic root as the verb deck, or adorn. The line Prynne excerpts in his epigraph from William Collins’ poem Ode on the Death of Mr Thomson (1749) continues with an example of the word deck in this usage: ‘The year’s best sweets shall duteous rise,/ To deck its poet’s sylvan grave!’ As such, the ten decks of Prynne’s collection might be considered as memorial adornments.

OED gives a figurative usage of the verb deck which is apt in the context of Prynne’s own repeated use of the term as section titles in this sequence: ‘Curling with metaphors a plain intention, Decking the sense,’ from a duet of poems from George Herbert’s collection The Temple, titled Jordan I and II (1633), about poetic invention and conceit, which speak directly (albeit counter) to Prynne’s own poetic practices. The Temple is also a precursor to Prynne’s design of this sequence as a progression through the parts of a building from entrance and corridor (both 1) eventually to roof (10).

One of the most striking unifying features on first reading of Duets Infer Duty is the repeated use of the punctuation marks known to typographers as the ‘dog’s bollocks’:- a colon followed by a hyphen, found at the end of each couplet throughout, without exception. This distinctive combination is still to be found on many documents of enactment, especially in the British Commonwealth, and it was also used in the section of the American Declaration of Independence where various grievances against the British crown were listed to justify the declaration. On both of which subjects, we can expect to read more later.

Another immediately noticeable feature is the abundance of direct references to nature, and in particular trees.

The first line of Collins’ poem in the epigraph is ‘In yonder grove a druid lies.’ (Early printed collections use the variant grove twice (10, where this phrase is itself used twice) instead of grave in the first line: Francis Fawkes’ Poetical Calendar (1763) and G. Pearch’s Collection of Poems (1775)).

The word druid is derived from the Indo-European root *dru-, which is also the source of the word tree. In How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics (1995), Calvert Watkins relates how in the Indo-European tradition the locus of the highest ethical notion of Active Truth, its ‘space’ or free room, as found and mediated by the highest professional of the word, the poet-priest-seer (vatic (3), delphic (4)), is precisely the formulaic noun phrase ‘TREE (*dru-) and ROCK (*per)’.

Duets Infer Duty belongs to Prynne’s ongoing exploration of these terms, here especially the first, tree, using carpentry and forestry as a source for truth-telling about the craft and propagation of poetry. The second term of the noun phrase, rock, is represented by words such as flint, anchorite (the mineral diorite) (4); stony, mount (6); cliff (7); talus (in the sense of rock at the base of a cliff), crevice (especially in rock) (8); mountain, porphyry (9); pike (in the sense of a pointed rocky hill, 10)).

The third deck of Prynne’s sequence has the phrase here lies(3): this sequence itself is intended to be a grove, or else (also) a funeral pyre stacked with the wood from trees felled for the purpose, and decked with wreaths from its trees and shrubs, as suggested by words such as: in flame, ashen (2); flare, candescent, furnace, ignite/ smoke (3); flint [..] struck (4); lit (5); scorch (6); coruscate (8); sparking (9); inflamed (10). But whose pyre is it?

In Collins’ poem, from the vantage point of a pleasure-craft (8) on the Thames, the author regards from a small distance a grove near Richmond wherein lies the grave of his friend, the poet, James Thomson (1700-1748), author of the lyrics of Rule Britannia! Some irony is surely intended, since it is England’s imperial ambitions overseas at that time, and the ensuing vicissitudes, which are among the subjects to emerge from Prynne’s sequence. If Prynne’s pyre is not for Thomson himself, perhaps it is for these imperial ambitions Thomson shared with many, even up to the present day.

In Chapter 1 of Indo-European Poetry and Myth (2007), M.L. West gives an emic description of the Indo-European poet and poetic project using the language of the poets themselves, who employ several source domains to metaphorically describe themselves and their purpose, among them carpentry and woodworking. West explains: “The Latin for ‘weave’ [woven thread (6)] or ‘plait’ [braided (6)] is texere, and this is applied to poetic and other literary composition at least as early as Plautus [3rd to early 2nd century BCE]. Hence the word ‘text’, which has won its place in many modern languages. But texere is also employed of building ships or other wooden structures, and this is certainly an old use, as its cognates in other Indo-European languages are associated above all with carpentry.” (p.38)

In this common analogy used by the Indo-Europeans, the poet is a worker in wood: “Greek and Latin use ‘timber’ words for the subject matter of literary compositions. In Irish […] types of internal rhyme were called uaitne ‘pillar’ [newel (5), the central supporting pillar of a staircase] and salchubaidwillow-rhyme [6], post-rhyme [kingpost (8)].’” (p.39) Prynne’s own internal rhymes in this sequence are legion and multifarious, and they hold the poem together “in the way that nails [or a rivet (4) in modern ship building] hold a ship together that a craftsman makes and that otherwise goes in loose order, timber from timber: so too this figure holds the form together in versification by means of those staves [staff (3)]” (Óláfr Þórðarson, thirteenth century Icelandic skald and scholar, quoted by West, p.40. We know Prynne has studied the Icelandic skalds closely, in their original language.)

To mention a few of the choicest such rhymes here, employing beginning, medial and ending sound rhymes, alliteration, and also ‘eye rhymes’ with minimal sound rhyme: back [..] buck, praline in-line, gander tender, chatter in charter, deal in dealt, medial to medal (1); large to charge, rotor proton (2); orange foraged, care bear, wattage want what wish wills, elder in folder (3); rivet [..] riven, legal into plagal, perverse pervasive (4); mildew due, elm elemental, merge [..] spurge, ditch [..] pitch (5); mown down, averse avarice, bear [..] bare (6); stir [..] stirrup, abstruse moose loosestrife, glad add, line linen (7); groom [..] legroom, sour source, talus tell us tallow we know, elemental enamel (8); claim clement [..] calamine, pawl spool spillage, rental [..] oriental [..] ventral [..] austral, even event ventral (9); confluent confederate, crocus orchestral, avid avian, broad implored (10). There is also a lot of simple repetition in the sequence, scattered more widely often across different sections, presumably designed to draw our attention to individual words, but also with the same cohering effect overall, for example: buck thorn/ buckthorn (1 and 3); not yet (1, twice); tint (1 and 5); dealt (1 and 6); cycad (2 and 3); industrious (2 and 3); pitch (2 and 5); bank (2 and 7); intermit (3 and 4); benefit (3, 8 and 10); toil (3 and 10); spruce (3 and 4); elemental (4, 5 and 8); plagal (4 and 5); jaunt (8 and 9); switch (10, twice); grove twice (10, twice); depute/d carbine (10, twice); and more than forty other examples. There are also recurring syllabic features such as word endings which have a similar binding effect, for example the endings -al, -el and -le are used extensively in some decks: plausible, actual, conical, medial, medal, deal, hazel, comestible, trifle, maple, notable (1); rental, oriental, ventral, infantile, austral, brindle, enamel, instinctual, swivel, dell, gravel (9). Elsewhere in the sequence, other letter combinations are used as a binding feature (e.g. the -ed ending in Deck 4, and the -ant- and -ent- combinations throughout, both of which we will return to later). All of these hold the verses together in a way Þórðarson would recognise.

West quotes Sir Ifor Williams’ Lectures on Early Welsh Poetry (1944): ‘The Welsh bards called themselves the carpenters of song […] and claimed as their own all the tools and technical terms of the craftsman in wood, e.g. the axe, knife, and square. When a rival imitated their themes or methods they told him bluntly to take his axe (6) to the forest and cut his own timber.’ (p.39)

Prynne has covered the ‘Carpentry = Poetry’ analogy elsewhere, for example in Blue Slides At Rest (2003) (e.g. brace, dove (joint), dowel (cf. also Piers Plowman), tongue and groove). In Duets Infer Duty, Prynne extends the conceit to the activity of forestry which yields the wood that in turn provides the material of the poet/carpenter’s work, and also the literal means of propagation of the printed poem in my hand: paper.

The words in the sequence which relate to the tools and techniques of silviculture (woodland cultivation) and arboriculture (tree cultivation) become analogous in this extended metaphor to Prynne’s poetic craft as part of a continuing tradition, his stewardship of poetic materials and techniques, and his own role in turn as an exemplar and trailblazer for future poets: actual forestry, corridor, pinetum, espalier, cut back, preen (variant of prune) (1); woodland, fringe (a zone of scattered trees and shrubs that once linked forests with open mountaintops) (2); spruce (in the sense of making neat (3 and 4)); coppice, hedgework (4); axe (6); crampon (7); stake, graft, prune, groom (in the sense of preen) (8); grove (10).

As we shall see later, Prynne has drawn extensively from an early modern document concerned with actual forestry (1): ‘Management plans: with special reference to the national forests. United States Department of Agriculture, Miscellaneous Publication №11, February 1928.

Read the following extract from the introduction to this document with the analogy ‘Forest Manager = Poet’ in mind: ‘Timber is a long-time crop. To grow a stand of timber to merchantable size from seed takes a century or more and requires the work of a long succession of forest managers. It would be futile for a short-lived man to attempt to grow a crop that outlives him by so many decades if the progress of the project were left to the expediency of the moment or to the whims of the successive individuals in authority. While individual managers, each as his turn comes, must accept full responsibility for the details of application, and while there must be given to each man great leeway for the exercise of judgment, initiative, and skill, the project can not be a success in the end unless all hold in common the same vision and carry forward through the successive stewardships the same purposes and policies.’

So speaks the forest manager/poet toiling, in the context of a long-established tradition, for their own and their collective project to be a success. The following table shows how Prynne has situated Duets Infer Duty in the direct line of earlier poets by giving his own version of the canonical groves detailed by Chaucer in the Knight’s Tale, Arthur Golding in his translation of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, and Spenser in the Faerie Queen.

The poetic groves of Chaucer, Golding and Spenser as propagated by Prynne

Tracing tree names through different cultures and times is a tricky business — note, for example, how much the signified plant has shifted in the case of sycamore, listed here against its earliest known usage as fig tree, and thought by some to be the Edenic tree of knowledge of good and evil (‘that sycomore/ Whose leaves first sheltred man from drought & dew’, from George Herbert’s The World; see Allen, D.C., George Herbert’s Sycomore, Modern Language Notes, 1944). Similar sliding of signifier and signified over time is routine in the case of many if not most tree names, and is further exacerbated when our horizon extends more widely across time, place and language.

George Sandys’ Ovid of 1632 (written in Virginia) is broadly consistent with Golding’s (except for ‘straight service trees’ instead of ‘ashes wyld’ in Golding, both in the same genus sorbus), as is the Ovid of 1717 edited by Sir Samuel Garth, including Dryden’s translation. The grove felled for a pyre in Virgil’s Book VI of the Aeneid, as translated by Dryden (1697), is less diverse than those in the table, and all its trees are included in the above list.

Robert Graves wrote extensively on what he presented as the Greek-Celtic tradition of tree lore in The White Goddess (1948), a tradition in which the elemental (4, 5 and 8) stuff of poetry itself, the sounds and letters of the alphabet, each had their equivalent trees. Graves’ listing in Chapter 10 (‘The Tree Alphabet’) includes many of those listed above, though we must add: luis/ rowan (syrfe in Old English, surf (8), though Graves also allows substitution of mountain ash (9)); uath/ hawthorn (4) (also known as the may tree (7)); tinne/ holly (anciently known as holm (5)); pethboc/ dwarf elder (3) or whitten (whiten (7)); ruis/ elder (3); onn/ furze (Old Irish onn is ash (see table)); ur/ heather (Latin genus calluna, meaning sweep clean (swept up (10)), though also Graves allows the substitution of linden (see table)).

I believe the table and further examples account for sufficient linkage between the trees listed by Prynne, and those listed by Chaucer, Golding, Spenser and others, and confirm Prynne’s intention of situating his own poem in the same tradition.

As is often the case with Prynne’s allusions, words from the text immediately surrounding a primary passage being alluded to are also harvested in fragmentary form, and dispersed through Prynne’s text, with the same words usually having a dual use in other contexts and allusions.

In Chaucer, we find find several words re-used in Prynne’s sequence: asshen (ashen (2)); sheeld (shield (3)); fathom (4); milk (5, 9); riden (ridden (9)).

In the case of the Faerie Queen, we are specifically referred to the introductory proem (proemial (3)), where we find more words used in Prynne’s sequence in the ‘letter of the authors’: light (2, 3), plausible (1), fitte (fitted (2)), groome (groom (8)); and in the introductory invocation to the first book, before Canto I: trumpets (trumpet (8)), blazon (8), tong, hart (harts-tongue (9)). In Canto I, in the opening verses immediately surrounding the description of the grove, we find: shield, yield (6); faire (fair (2)); ‘of ancient Kinges and Queenes, that had of yore/ Their scepters stretcht from East (4) to Westerne (western (10)) shore’ (see also below), ‘a shadie grove [10] not farr away they spied’, star (stars (6), star’s (10)), sky (9), smoke (3), ‘a hollow cave [6]/ amid the thickest woods’, ‘this is the wandring wood, this Errours den [3]’, wend (wended (6)).

In Virgil, the immediately surrounding passage yields other connections to Prynne’s work: the body to be interred on the pyre is ‘with purple covered o’er’, like the ‘purple wrappers’ of Duets Infer Duty, a trumpet (8) is placed on Misenus’ tomb, and very shortly after the interment Aeneas comes across a cave (6) and a lake (10) in the underworld.

Prynne’s poem also includes words from other of West’s source domains for Indo-European poetics, including construction, weaving, the ship of song, the chariot of song, and the song itself ‘taking off’:

  • architectural features: entrance, corridor (1); atrium (2); tower (3); corridor (4); newel, doorway, aumbry (5); stairwell, column (6); chantry (7); archway (8); corridor (9), divan (a council chamber), roof (10).
  • fabrics and related processes: sycamore traditionally used in block printing on calico by means of a mordant (1); russet (a coarse cloth (3)); canvas, felt, stitch (‘Another Irish term for alliteration was uaim ‘stitching.’ West, p.39), resist [dying], woven thread, unwind (6); crocus (a coarse cloth made in Virginia (Earle, A.M., Home Life in Colonial Days, 1898), tenterhooks (10).
  • roofing, especially with stretched fabric coverings: deck (poem titles), coverage (1); pitch (2); crossbeam (5); canvas, yurt (6); coverage, shade, cover (7); rafter, kingpost (8); overshadow (9); roof, lid, tenterhooks (10) — my opening quotation from the Rig Veda about poetry as fabric stretched on a loom is one of West’s examples.
  • the ship of song/ travel by sea: deck of a ship (title of each section); pleasure-craft (8); ocean, boat, skiff, aboard (9) — also in the Rig Veda passage quoted from West.
  • the chariot of song/ travel by land:, meander, travel (2); overland trailing (3); free to roam, trip (4); out-of-doors, wended (6); jaunt (8); jaunt, trek (9).
  • ‘the song takes off’/ travel by air: wind-blown (1); aerial, rotor (2); flight manifest (4); samara (7); wing (7, 9); cone (pine cones open and release their embedded seeds on dry and windy days for long-distance dispersal), avian (10).

In the last three cases, Prynne builds up a multi-layered analogy between these ancient metaphors of the art and transmission of poetry using travel by water, land and air as a source, alongside the spread of tree seeds by similar means, as well as the more literal spread of colonisers and other invasive species across the Americas. Other terms relating to the physical transmission of the word and image, and the means used — now of course, mostly printing on paper made from trees— include calico printing (see above), stipple (6) on inuit (1) scrimshaw (1), and parchment (9) made from fleece (6) (which forms a natural glue (8) on drying to keep its form, and was frequently applied with powder (1)).

Other flora and fauna in Prynne’s biotic babel (10) are present for other reasons, for example:

  • Common use in funeral and burial rites: cycad (2, 3), butcher’s broom (8), in keeping with the theme of the decking of the burial pyre. (Tarlow, S., The Archaeology of Death in Post-medieval Europe, 2015)
  • Invasive and intrusive (2) European species in the Americas: the top three invasive plants are purple loosestrife (7), Norway maple (1), and English ivy (5), all present in Duets Infer Duty, and the most invasive animals include the feral pig (bacon (4)), and stoat (9), or short-tailed weasel (7), all consistent with the theme of colonisation and its vicissitudes.
  • The acacia (5) and ant (8) are an example of ant-plant mutualism, where the plant provides shelter in return for the ant’s protection from herbivores and pathogens; also the hairstreak (3) butterfly larva and ant (8), where the larva supplies food in return for protection from parasites; and cyclamen (2) and ant (8), in which the ant carries the seed with its edible coating into its subterranean nest, simultaneously protecting the seed from predation and planting it at a distance from the parent. All of these serve as examples of successful mutual entanglement of species, in line with the theme of our own (probably flawed) aspirations towards stewardship of forests and the planet more generally.
  • The harvester (10) ant (9) gathers seeds to store in its granaries for consumption, losing and dispersing some of them along the way, and allowing some to germinate near their nests. (The ant (9) is also found in 23 other words in the poem, for example tantamount penchant (4)).)
  • Many other fauna mentioned in the poem, both birds (siskins (5), bramblings (5)) and land animals (brown bear (6), moose (7)), are important agents of seed transmission by ingestion and defecation: a somewhat mischievous extension of the conceit of poetic transmission.
  • Toadflax (9) has an unusual method of seed dispersal: cymbalaria muralis has pedicels which move about to plant its seeds in crevices.

Overall, the language of trees and forestry provide the central metaphor, which intersects with other analogous ideas of poetry and its development and dispersal in different ways.

But how they were felled, shall not be told by me. Nor how Spenser specifically references Virginia in his 1596 dedication of The Faerie Queene to Elizabeth I, as one of her realms, whereto and from numerous expeditions had sailed by then (iterate entrance (1)), without managing to make a permanent settlement.

Nor that the Virginia Company of London was established shortly after, under a new monarch in 1606 under James I, by charter (1) to underwrite at no financial risk to himself (nothing ventured same to win (3) a royal (5) being above the usual law of ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’) the initial costs of monopolistic exploration and exploitation (plunder (10)) of the coastal area, including its timber and vegetable dyestuffs (mordant (1), tint (1, 5)), and later granting similar rights for the sea-to-sea corridor (1, 4, 9) sideways across the continent (legal into plagal, (4) — or legal at least from the slanted (lean (3), inclined (4)) perspective of the English anyway) between the 38th and 40th parallels (6), and deputed (10) councils to govern (2) and exercise civic oversight (10), such councillors to be ordained (ordain (10)), made (10) and removed by the King, nor that they were not permitted to found a colony within 100 miles of the competing Plymouth Company (density ruling no time not yet (1)).

Nor how it was advertised at the time in English broadsides and sermons, how shares were taken up by many of the chattering (1) classes of the time, under the pretext of bringing Christianity (parable (3); praise (4); preach, sermon (5); grace (6); faith (9); ordain (10)) to the indigenous peoples of the new continent, but mostly to make money from the venture.

Nor how the first colonial settlers under the charter arrived by ocean (9) aboard (9) a boat (9) from London and laid claim to a small island off the coast of Virginia (second-hand holm (5)), and since they suffered some presumably defensive violence from existing local inhabitants they had to build and take refuge in a fort (1) which had three sides (scalene (1)), how they lacked sufficient fresh water (brine (5), salted (6)), were not sufficiently industrious (2, 3) in applying themselves (toil, (3, 10) to cultivation of the land, and eventually succumbed to starvation and fever (2).

Nor how the early settler and labourer William White (4, 5), and others, left the fortified colony of James Fort to settle with the local Quiyoughcohannock tribe, who welcomed them warmly into their community (teach welcoming newel (5)).

Nor how the settlers adopted wampum (made from clam (4) shells) as a non-metal currency (treasury rust-free (5)) for trading alongside other trifles (trifle (1)) such as glass beads with the native Americans, nor how the Europeans’ industrial production methods led to inflation (swelled whelk (5)), while sweet (3) tobacco (leaf to leaf … ignite/ smoke (3)) exports generated cash, in what became known as the slave triangle (scalene (1); acute (3)) which shipped arms (weapon, fine-bore, muzzle (7); rifle (8); carbine (10, twice)) and textiles such as calico (1) (see above) from Europe to Africa, slaves (servitude (1); bound (3); bounden, astriction (5); tether (7); collar (10) of the type slaves wore) from Africa to the Americas, and raw materials such as sugar (sweet (1, 3), sucrose (3)), timber (see above) and tobacco from the Americas to Europe.

Neither will I tell how a truce (7) resulted after a settler courted (foster love between (2)) and married (groom (8)) a local girl named Pocahontas, which reconciled the parties (endear tribe (7)) for a little while.

Nor that the charter was revoked in 1624 and the whole enterprise brought back under the direct management of the King after an enquiry into the alleged mis-management of the company (brought to book (5)).

Nor how in 1676 an uprising was fomented by Nathaniel Bacon (4) (re-entrant collop (9)), which hardened the colonialists’ approach to racial segregation and attitudes to Native Americans.

Nor how the settlers had developed sickeningly brutal bloodsports such as gander (1) pulling, the live gander hung from a bar (1) by its feet with its neck clipped (nape shorn (4)) and greased (tallow (8)), and how contestants would gallop past on horseback and attempt to pull off its head, and have buckets of water thrown on them by the audience if they failed (soaked head to foot (2)).

Nor about the initial union of states (ill-defined confluence (3)), nor how in 1776 they ultimately brought King George III himself to book, publishing their grievances (aggrieved (7)) on a foolscap (2) broadside (also known as a T-Bone (10) in the context of one vehicle crashing into the side of another), and in which the United States declared their independence (plagal retaken illegally (5), at least, illegal from the point of view of English law).

Nor about the secession (seceded (7)) of the south (austral (9)), the civil war (many references to armaments), reunion (remodelled (9)), and under the direction of Alexander Hamilton the refinancing by debenture (8) of the individual states’ debts as the United States national debt (8), or how bringing the two sides together (duets (title)) required (infer (title)) give-and-take (duty (title), in its senses both of submission and payment due) and a certain amount of compromise (fudge (9)), and how the ongoing points of contention included the slavery which the South wanted to continue and the North didn’t, and taxes which the North wanted to impose on the unwilling South.

But instead I shall come briefly to the point, and make an end of this long tale.

Map of Plumas County National Forest, 1928, marked up to show locations referred to by Prynne, such as Dogwood Pike (10)

Prynne highlights a particular example of modern forest management, which provides the (sometimes additional) motivation for the selection of several words in the sequence. At a longitude of 39.93, the town of Quincy in Plumas County, California, was within the corridor granted to the Virginia Company, which was revoked in 1624. Formerly a gold rush town, in the 1850s, these days its economy is dominated by the timber industry. It is near the Plumas National Forest, whose management plan was documented in the United States Department of Agriculture’s Miscellaneous Publication №11 in February 1928. A map (1) of the area (on p. 40) features Dogwood Pike (10), Feather River (10), Quincy Junction (apple (7)), Crescent Hill (3), Whiske Diggings (whisk (7)). Frenchman’s Hill (croissant (2)), Spanish Ranch (castanet (8)), Buck’s Ranch, River and Mouth (1 and 2), Sky High (9), Grizzly Hill and Bear Creek (6: brown bear), Marble Cone and Little Marble Cone (conical (1), cone (10)), Cleghorn, Rich, Soda and Belden Bar (1), East (east (4), eastern (10)) and West (western (9)) Branch, Spring Garden (7), Limestone Pit (coral (7)), Granite Basin (granules (1), porphyry (9)), Snake Lake (10), and Butterfly Valley (hairstreak (3)). The accompanying text references the County and National Forest of Plumus (plum (10)) where the block (4) of woodland (2) under management is situated, and in the vicinity of which is an aerial (2) tramway, and small scale dairying (butter milk (9)) is to be found. In January 1993, Quincy was snowed out (3) and lost mains power for days (wattage want (2)) in what was reported at the time as a disaster, in which the primary risk to life and property was the collapse of building rooves under the weight of fast-falling snow. Plumas California is said to be a redneck (dabchick (10)) county in a liberal state. Its electoral district for the lower house swung (10) to the Republicans in 2012, and is represented by Doug LaMalfa, an A rated and endorsed member of the National Rifle (8) Association (depute carbine, deputed carbine (10)) supporting the right of citizens to bear (3, 5) arms, and a climate change denier. The county has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1980, except 1992, and in 2016 and 2020 voted for Trump (hazardous quiff/ praline [nut] (1), orange (3), trumpet (8), pomade (9)). Sadly, on the theme of conflagration, the area experienced a deadly environmental disaster in the California forest fires which raged in August 2020. (Since this poem was published, Plumas was again involved in the ‘Dixie Fire’ which burned nearly a million acres in July 2021, the largest single source wildfire in California history.) It serves to demonstrate that however carefully we may try manage our silvicultural (and poetic) resources, in the end they are always subject to larger forces beyond our control.

As poetic technique, this use of a US Department of Agriculture document reminds us of the kind of joyful excess of detail lifted from historical documents that we find in Williams’ Paterson or Olson’s Maximus poems.

Marianne Moore collaged fragments from a National Park Service (NPS) Rules and Regulations brochure into her poem An Octopus (1924) (tentacle (4)). Prynne doesn’t overtly engage with the official discourse in the same way as Moore. She quoted entire passages, and ironically contrasted them with her own and other material. Prynne lifts individual words like seeds from his sources, and transplants them into other places far from their parent to germinate in the reader’s attention.

Another potential source is Marianne Moore’s poem Sycamore (1), which is the first word in Prynne’s poem. Moore begins by picturing an albino (shining white (4)) giraffe towering (tower (3)) against a ‘gun-metal sky’ (sky assay (10), where assaying is a process of testing an ore to determine its quality, as if Prynne is putting Moore’s metal metaphor to the test). Moore’s image is intended to evoke the white trunk of the sycamore (American plane, platanus occidentalis), whose ‘pied’ (speckled (2)) bark stands out shining in the moon (6), making it useful as a signpost to be marked to show safe routes in the ‘underground railroad’ used by escaped Southern slaves making their way North in a bid for freedom. Also to be found in the 24-line poem Sycamore: ‘Hampshire pig’ (collop, bacon (4)); ‘there’s more than just one kind of grace. [6]/ We don’t like flowers [flower (2)] that do/ not wilt [6]; they must die’; ‘in the shape of a Maltese cross’ (cruciform (8)).

Much has been written of Marianne Moore’s collage technique, growing from her interest in nature dioramas. Sharla Hutchinson’s description (The Eco-Poetics of Marianne Moore’s ‘The Sycamore’, Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (2011), drawing on an earlier analysis of Catherine Paul) reminds us of Prynne’s ‘collecting, assembling, and using various materials (quotations, objects, photographs, images, brochures, and print media) [which are all techniques that] derive, in part, from innovations in modern exhibition methods that made the observer an active agent in interpreting the connections among the items displayed.’ Such is the active agency in interpretation which Prynne similarly offers to his reader.

Another passage from the US Department of Agriculture document can be read as an early modern manifesto for American poetry in English: ‘Forest management in America is gradually acquiring a character and color of its own. For many years foresters in this country were forced, because of lack of American experience, to preach and practice methods transplanted bodily from Europe. but when a background of actual practice and a better understanding of the silvicultural and economic factors peculiar to this country had been acquired, there came about a general realization that we could not begin where Europe left off; we must, to a certain degree at least, meet American conditions with American measures.’ And so it continues, and is worth the read, with this analogy in mind.

I’m also tempted to suggest that there’s a related connection with Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble (2016), which also references ‘tentacular thinking’ (tentacle (4)) and multispecies ‘working-with’ scenarios, including the acacia (5) /ant dependency Prynne also mentions, and which resonates with the various entanglements across Prynne’s semantic categories. For as usual with Prynne, the intersections between the members of the different groups in play are rife, so that the inclusion of any word is overdetermined by its role in several different contexts, both semantic and syntactic. A word may have been selected because, for example:

  • the same signified may be found in the context of multiple thematic sets through different uses: the feral pig gave the early settlers bacon (4), became one of the most invasive species in the US, established itself as an important seed disperser, and is a characteristic herd animal and food source of the Indo-Europeans.
  • the same signifier may refer to different signifieds: the word white may refer to the colour of the sycamore’s trunk, of undyed calico, of a Caucasian, William White the early colonist who settled with the native Indians, or John White the colonist and artist of the 1585 expedition to Virginia.
  • it fits a relevant semantic category and also has a desired syntactic signature in it: the ant (9) can be a paragon of mutual dependency with plants and an important seed disperser, but is also an interesting three-letter motif to contribute to the selection of words in other thematic sets (mordant (1) in fabric dyeing, chantry (7) as a type of building, croissant (2) as a metonymy for the French). (Such a motif is like the proton (2) which is found within all the elements (elemental (4, 5 and 8).) Another prominent syntactic signature of the entire sequence is -ent- which appears 73 times, including 21 times in its extended form of -ment (see below).
  • it is a word, like trifle (1), which has immediate comedic effect for its incongruity (as a British layered dessert often featured in slapstick comedy), but also illustrates aspects of other themes, such as the trifles offered in trade by the early colonialists, the Protestant aversion at the time of Spenser to Papist trifles which the English venture was partly an attempt to stem in the Americas, and the trifling concerns and narrow world view of the colonising English which it has been suggested Spenser was parodying in the Faerie Queen. (Knapp, J., Error as a Means of Empire in the Faerie Queen, ELH, 1987)

In such cases, it is a single word or phrase’s multivalency across relevant semantic discourses, syntactic patterns and allusions which contributes to its selection.

By now, we may note that another overarching metaphor can place this emerging narrative of colonialism and independence alongside the theme of the development of poetry, and in particular the nature the relationship of poet/author as governor, to the reader as the governed.

Whereas formerly, the poet/author was recognised as the source of the meaning of a text, the role of the reader in forming meanings has come to be increasingly emphasised in poetic practices (see for example, Stonum, G.L., The Dickinson Sublime, 1990), with Prynne’s poetry standing as a paragon of a type of text which lays itself open to the reader’s involvement.

In an analogous way, in American Slavery, American Freedom (Morgan, E.S., 1975), in the context of the American separation from Great Britain, we learn: ‘As colonists of the British Empire, free Americans had accepted a limited control of their activities by governors sent from Britain under laws passed by the British Parliament. Their own governments had derived their authority from the King of England. When they dissolved the connection and rested government on the consent of the governed, they opened the doors to freedom wider than they realized at the time. They recognized the apparent contradiction between their proclamations of equality and liberty and their continuing possession of slaves, and hoped at some undesignated time in the future to resolve it.’

This paradox plays out in the domain of poetics in the story of how the author’s original intent and the reader’s interpretation, and the development of techniques for both, have grown and supported one another: Prynne mobilises more numerous and effective means of close control over primary, secondary and even further meanings than most other poets, both overtly and subliminally, while paradoxically inviting the reader to far greater involvement in interpretation than others. (There is also the interesting matter on both sides of this analogy of those who depute themselves as arbiters of legitimacy.)

Emile Benveniste, in the Dictionary of Indo-European Concepts and Society (1969, 1973 in English), traces the Indo-European root of tree (*dru-) through concepts of truth, trust (entrust, 7) and truce (7) under the overall notion of personal loyalty — the bond between those in authority and those subject to them by personal pledge — and proposes that the lexical development was originally from an adjective meaning ‘strong, resistant, hard’ which later narrowed into senses including the ideas of tree and truth.

Benveniste also presents the Latin verb puto, prune (8) as an agricultural term, meaning to cut back (1) by incision (‘especially useless branches’), and mentions de-puto (depute, deputed (10)) alongside other suffixed forms of the same verb, but without further explanation. OED helpfully sets out the sense of the de- suffix as meaning to go down (down appears five times in this poem), completely, thoroughly and methodically. So the prefixed combination depute has the ‘ur-meaning’ of cutting back methodically, down to the bedrock.

Prynne entrusts all his interested readers to be active interpreters of his poetry, and in doing so we necessarily at least initially must cut back to arrive at a tentative interpretation, which may then prove to be firm enough to build on further, or found to be unstable by closer reading. But after all accounts have been made here, having verified item by item the tree catalogues, having followed through the conceit of ‘Forestry = Poetry’, shown examples of personal and public loyalty and disloyalty, royal command, individual rebellion, and collective action and trust, after pruning down to a level where we may have hoped to find only the bedrock of certainty, there is in fact still a great deal remaining to be accounted for, and also many more ways of accounting for what we have already reckoned.

To the Indo Europeans, poetic truth may have seemed as solid and permanent as rock was thought to be at that time. But now? There is still porphyry (9), the hardest rock known in antiquity, and mountain (9) (from Indo European root *men, also root of mental, muse and memory – a three-letter seed which occurs here 23 times, including 21 times in combination with the -ent- seed in words such as sentiment, pimento, elemental, fermented, cemented) may still be a metaphor for the immovable, but there are also powder (1), granules (1), talus (8), and gravel (9) to contend with, we know the earth moves, literally, as an object in space, its geological plates move under our feet, its rocks morph into different shapes and types through inorganic processes, and conversely hard materials can be made through natural organic processes (enamel (8) on teeth, nacre (3) of a shell) just as we ourselves may seek to make our own firm truths through nought but thorough thought.

In another meandering jaunt starting from a reference in Haraway, I read The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin (1972), a futuristic fiction of brutal colonisation which is her meditation on the contemporary US experience in Vietnam and also the early colonisation of America, and from Le Guin’s story I learn that one word (from Latin) for our world is tellus (talus tell us (8)), and soon I’m reading Ovid’s tale of Phaethon, the son (child-light (4)) of Apollo (to whom the dolphin (7) and the delphic (4) oracle are sacred) who catastrophically lost control of the chariot of the sun and scorched (scorch (6)) the earth (Tellus) with wildfires until he was struck (4) down (2, 5, 6 (twice), 9) by lightning, and then a gentler version of the story by the early American poet Samuel Bradstreet (An Almanac for the Year of Our Lord, 1657, with an epigraph from Virgil (‘aspice’ (aspic (8)), ‘behold’)) whose Apollo comes ‘sprusely [spruce (3, 4)] deckt [deck]’ to woo Tellus, while ‘low Tellurean [telluric (6)] bands/ Rejoyce’ as Apollo brings the gift of new life after winter ‘With flowers [2] deckt (for Tellus front [1] alone) […] And buds that erst were green/ Now sucklings at her milkey [milk (5, 9)] papps they been [6].’ (Shields, J.C., The American Aeneas (2001), Miller, P., (ed.), The Puritans: A Sourcebook (2014))

In the context of the overarching conceits we have proposed for the poem, is there also another layer of reference hidden here to the ancient usurpation of the Delphic oracle from Gaia (the Greek name of Roman Tellus) by Apollo, and by extension the development of Apollonian from chthonic poetry? Prynne’s poem itself resists having its meaning set in stone. It is experienced by the reader as a living thing, a world in itself, building on the worlds of others before him, and producing seeds of thoughtful language which will germinate and grow and evolve in others after him.

One significant aspect unaccounted for so far is the short second epigraph from a 14th century song of Guillaume de Machaut, Douce Dame Jolie. The text has been recognised as a masterpiece of assonance in the original early French (on the sound -ie). The song’s subject is the undying loyalty of the author to the sweet and lovely lady of the title. It is surely not too risky to conjecture that the referent of the epigraph as quoted by Prynne here, and the dedicatee of this poem which explores through different routes the elemental components, techniques and history of writing and reading Indo-European poetry, in the context of imagery loaded with references to nature and natural processes, is none other than she to whom Prynne has dedicated so much of his life, and not for the first time the principle subject matter of one of his poems, though never directly addressed: Mother Earth’s daughter, the muse Poetry herself.



Glass Bead Game designer

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store