115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Lissa Wolsak and the Poetics of Speciation

Joseph Giardini, Johns Hopkins University

In her book The Garcia Family Co-Mercy, the Vancouver based poet Lissa Wolsak shifts between different accounts of history: religious, anthropological, and evolutionary. I argue that this pluralist approach to understanding the past enables a critique of ego-driven and capitalist motivated conceptions of the self, in favor of a materialist connection between world, word, and action.


Lissa Wolsak's poetry has been repeatedly read (by Norman Finkelstein, Peter O'Leary, and Hank Lazer, among others) as an instantiation of a modern hermetic tradition in contemporary poetics. This criticism has emphasized the abstract nature of her language, her engagements with multiple religious traditions, and her approach to the recombinability of syllables and syntax to enable variable readings. While this criticism is compelling in its approach to the so-called ‘limits of language’, it neglects the more materialist aspects of Wolsak’s work—both in her relation to other poets (such as the Marxist influenced Kootenay School of Writing, based in Vancouver) and in her poetic understanding of the processes of historical and biological change. In my paper, I argue that Wolsak’s work enables a capacious anti-capitalism, founded on the ability of human actors to intervene in forces of history which they are themselves subject to. In her book, The Garcia Family Co-Mercy she articulates an ethos of “transhumance”, finding in pastoralism and nomadic movement a collective subject structured by but not fully subject too its agrarian roots. Marxist historical work on agrarian struggle, by Robert Brenner, and on evolutionary biology, by Richard Lewontin & Richard Levins, help clarify Wolsak’s dialectical approach to language and to history, which encourages associative reading and etymological analysis. The Garcia Family Co-Mercy is preoccupied with the ways not only in which history is open to contestation, but also in the ways that a dialectical interaction between species and environment is the driving force of speciation—and, further, in how this evolutionary process which humanity is both a product of and a part of enables a conception of humanity changing the world for the better. “attract your / insect partner / simian pipe-off” (11), “someone hadn’t claimed / their animal” (13), and “you can bond with this dog / riverine in-able / our houses unceil” (24) all speak towards the interconnections of species. Though Wolsak tropes on descent and the passage of time—“the / new thing is to skip / generations” (13), “descendental human voice” (16), “‘toward my grave I have traveled by two hours’” (47), to cite only several instances —the sorts of lateral readings she engenders work against teleological orderings in favor of fostering connections and patterns across the work and across diverse historical moments and spaces. I see in Wolsak’s practice an emphasis on speciation, cultural development and differentiation, evolution at the micro- and macro- levels, processes of historical change which resist teleological or deterministic explanation. The conjunction of imagistic or gnomic syntactic particles, joined spatially rather than grammatically, encourages a process of variable reading and active comparison and consolidation of differing interpretations—what the KSW affiliated poet Kevin Davies might call lateral argumentation. This reading enables a new approach to much ecologically and mystically invested contemporary poetry, highlighting the ways in which material and economic considerations are not separable from considerations of nature or of hermeticism.

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