The “pastoral” is another important topic in eco-poetics, referring to a long tradition of poetry about idealized rural life (similar forms include idylls, eclogues and bucolics). The pastoral goes back to ancient Greece, with poets like Hesiod and Theocritus, and to Rome, with Virgil, and through the literary renaissances of Italy, Britain and America. Throughout, the romantic pastoral acted as a criticism of the squalor and poverty of urban and industrial life. The pastoral encouraged a return to nature and rural life as a space of virtue, honest work, reflection, transcendence, and—even—romance.
Of course, anyone who has actually worked on a rural farm knows that it’s not all peaceful sheep and idyllic shepherding. Thus, a tradition of the anti-pastoral also emerged, criticizing pastoral poets for romanticizing rural life, as well as for ignoring the race, class and gender problems one might find on the farm (or plantation). These problems extend to how the rural landscape is often gendered in the pastoral as well.
Since modernization has removed so many from nature, many poets have imagined and fantasized what it might be like to live back on the farm, the ranch, the homestead, off the grid, etc. In class, we discussed one of the more interesting (and problematic) 20th century pastoral poems: Allen Ginsberg’s “Wales Visitation”—a Beatnik, LSD-induced, Vietnam era pastoral—which you can listen to here.
Admittedly, my favorite kind of pastoral is the “necro-pastoral.” “Necro” comes from the Greek nekros, meaning death or corpse. Imagine a landscape filled with dead bodies, enslaved bodies, diseased bodies, mutilated bodies, worms, rats, cockroaches, rabid animals, decaying trees, polluted rivers, smog, rotting food, ruins and blazing wildfires. This, too, has a long, changing tradition. Think certain scary fairy tales, the Book of Revelation, Dante’s circles of hell, the Gothic, vampires, zombies, apocalypse stories, Halloween, Bansky’s Dismaland etc. The necro-pastoral aims to make us look at death, sin, evil, fear and destruction so that we might consider our mortality, morality and ethics. Sometimes fear wakes us up more than romance. Like the pastoral, the necro-pastoral has its own problematic relation to race, class, and gender.
In terms of eco-poetics, the death and destruction caused by climate change has brought the necro-pastoral to the forefront of our imaginations. We are now surrounded by so many images and stories of the necro-pastoral—from the Tar Sands to industrial slaughter houses, from raging wildfires in California to massive chemical explosions in China, from the mass die-offs of fish washing ashore on Pacific coasts to the mass migrations of refugees to the shores of Europe. Collapse and catastrophe flood the stream of all our media.
Speaking of floods, Hawaii has experienced quite a few these last few weeks with the onslaught of a series of hurricanes. With all the rainfall, the streets of Waikiki were recently flooded with more than 500,000 gallons of raw sewage. Waikiki, often cast as a literary site of the Pacific necro-pastoral, was shut down.
So we decided to write poems about Waikiki, sewage and shit. We watched a short documentary about Waikiki, read an article titled “You Don’t Know Shit: Tracing doodoo on the islands from ancient times to apocalyptic futures,” and a poem called “Waikiki,” by Haunani-Kay Trask, which begins:
all those 5 gallon
away tourist waste
into our waters
With all this in mind, please check out the student poems below (8 in all, about 30 minutes of reading time). Feel free to comment or to write your own shitty poems in response.
Haunani-Kay Trask, “Waikiki,” from Light in the Crevice Never Seen (Corvallis, Oregon: Calyx Books, 1994: 60-61).
by Lee Kava
Liberty Dialysis: A Sympathetic Fallacy
So you’re kidneys aren’t functioning properly.
Do you understand what this means for your body?
Well… I guess it means I gotta start dialysis…
Yes. It means your kidneys can no longer filter enough waste
Out of your blood stream, so we’ll do it artificially.
Do you know why your kidneys have failed you?
Do you have any ideas about how you got to need dialysis?
Well… I’m old, for one thing…
Sure, but do you have high blood pressure?
An influx of tourists, maybe?
Yeah yeah, I get all those things.
But I still figgah it’s most old age, eh?
Hmph. I see you’re on both Medicare and Medicaid.
Is that due to disability or retirement?
I’m 87 years old. I retired 30 years ago.
So I get Medicare, Medicaid, Foreign Investors,
Film Tax Credits, Tourism Revenue, One beautification fund…
Yeah, I get all kine “financial incentives.”
Yes. Well. To make things easier, a vascular surgeon
Has fused a major vein with a major artery in your arm.
It broke, but we want to strengthen the fistula and use it ASAP.
This will be hard, but forming coalitions will help.
To help your kidneys through dialysis,
We highly suggest that you follow a renal diet:
On a renal diet you’ll have to avoid salt.
A young tourist cries into his shave ice,
Because the beach is closed and he doesn’t understand
Why it had to happen on his Hawaiian vacation.
On a renal diet you’ll have to avoid rich foods.
A young family suffers because they cannot afford
Any of these affordable new developments,
And the streets are literally turning to shit.
On a renal diet you can’t eat too many nuts.
A young woman wanders around looking sun-dazed,
Stops every so often to dig in the sand and plant a seed.
Shoppers walking by shake their head at another crazy local.
On a renal diet you can’t drink too much water.
Beware of days with heavy rain:
The Ala Wai is going septic too,
And there’s no telling how much more it can take.
Later, my Papa would tell me it was really all his fault:
Yeah, I knew about the diabetes. Too much sugar…
But I never really watched what I ate.
For a while, though, everything was so sweet.
Fertilizing an Island
Standing at the base of the Koʻolau
one gets a rare kind of view
A watershed opens up
offering a glimpse of the seaward journey
of rain drops mauka to makai
Anciently heavy skies would wash
the strength of million year old mountains
into abundant kaukau
fortifying gentle spirits
But over time fertile fields swelled with
the foul filth of foreign minds
that refused to mālama ʻāina
These men insatiably sewed selfishness
into soils rich with lokomaikaʻi
where the seeds firmly rooted and prospered
Mirrored buildings grew tall and ripe
on land that had been
primed by the Great Māhele
And each new fruit and blossom borne
forced one field of kānaka maoli
wisdom to lie fallow
In the place of civilization,
the industrial waste containers
overflowing with ʻōpala from cradle to grave
reflect back all that was lost
in the vast kai
And in this graveyard
for fields of tradition
the kaʻekaʻe now flows freely
The mana of kingdoms
once passed through rich soil
to power of aloha in the hearts of a nation
But like chief Halaʻea, poisoned by greed
this regenerative force
now chokes the life out of its creators
In the distance the peaks still whisper of times
when pono prevailed
they gaze up at
through the black tea
of the ala wai
indifferent to their
I feel the same, wondering
what part of our spirit
had to be dredged
to accept this
Or maybe I
just can’t tell
they are really thriving
tourists afforded the privilege
of swimming these
inundating the streets and streams
a display of abundance
if you hold your nose
After a Sewage Spill in Waikiki
Henry Wei Leung
The subject is the sea.
Like any sentence,
like any human,
it desires to be whole.
The subject is the sea
At its base,
tanning, while towels
We are all bodies of waste.
Rhapsodies of filth.
The subject is a crust which also rises,
a crown and a survival,
an old eruption
now growing green.
Just valleys of rain.
Some of us spill our remains
where we know we do not belong.
Silent evacuations. A carving
on the surface of the sea.
The subject rises
and is plural
but this plurality is an illusion
of the English language
by taking from other languages.
How to Profit from Your Native Land
Come ashore and notice the sustainably irrigated earth
The sustainably irrigated people
The vibrant fishponds and lush taro and tall, tall palms
Bring disease with you as you disembark
You’ll want to give that to the locals
Trade it for their land
Then round them up for not having said land
Put them to work, put them in jail, put them in missions
Rope God into what you’re doing
Erect resorts where marshlands were
Remark on the quaintness of the place
Make some sugar
Get your home country involved
Make railroads for said sugar
Demand better roads
Always take more than you give
Gather your friends and infiltrate the government
(Write laws that hand out disadvantage
Like your country does you currency)
Today Hawai‘i, tomorrow the world
Waikiki Backlog Blues
beach water backwash
land regurgitates the jetsam flotsam of urban life
the earthʻs ocean boils causing boils
contract for hire
to unearth the earthed
there was a log kept once
with tick marks and initials
a “flow” to communication
shit stops here
the buck stopped way way way over there….
Too Much Mana
Are we moving
forward, or back?
Why take the land, so-
il, dirt, livelihood?
Why take our man-
a-infused earth? Do
you even know
what’s buried do-
wn there, he-
If you knew, you’d
know it’s shit—to-
tal crap. Bullshit per-
Our lands go-
ne just for car-
e to not be
Guess where your