December 2013

Lightsey Darst


How Forests Think by Eduardo Kohn

The poets I know read two kinds of books: poetry, and things they hope to turn into poetry. The latter can be almost anything, from tabloids to scripture (though generally not literary fiction; this poets read half-ashamedly, for "fun"). Nonfiction is especially popular: history, philosophy, science. One friend swears by vintage Golden Guides, with their specialist vocabulary and their midcentury muscular prose: "Dendritic drainage patterns are those that show treelike branching because the bedrock has a uniform resistance to erosion and does not influence the direction of stream flow" (Geology by Frank H. T. Rhodes, 1972).

Since the 1970s, theory has exerted a powerful hold -- French theory, linguistics, anthropology, and cultural criticism of various stripes. Why? I think it's about structure. Theory is full of structural ideas, ways to see and understand the world, which are catnip to marauding poets. One does not even have to believe in a structure's reality to make good use of it. In fact, reading The L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E Book, Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein's 1984 anthology of the much-loved and -loathed poetry movement, I slog through good-student applications of theory -- "Its line of advance propels it across the axis of the law, lexis, as a praxis which at precisely that juncture of abrasive contact discovers itself to be not parallel to the law..." (Jed Rasula) -- then somersault with mercurial thinkers like Lyn Hejinian: "Marvelous are the dimensions and therefore marveling is understandable -- and often understanding."

Is this responsible of me or them? Does this make poets the Vikings of literature, pillaging, looting, leaving the church in flames? We shall see.

In the meantime, I have a new favorite book I'd like to turn into poetry: How Forests Think by Eduardo Kohn. Kohn's subtitle is Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human; his method is to elucidate incidents from his fieldwork among the Amazonian Runa with theoretical frameworks that reveal... but never mind all that overview, we're poets, remember? And to that end I may as well admit that great swaths of this book mean nothing to me. "It means due to a certain kind of absence of attention to difference," Kohn murmurs, putting me to sleep, and then two pages later a fierce and jagged underline scores a phrase that brought me awake wide-eyed.

For me, Kohn is at his best when offering educated observations about how the Runa and their world think and live. For example, Kohn describes a Runa family's efforts to predict when the winged ants -- a great delicacy -- near their home will take flight, employing methods that, to a Western mind, endow the ants with too much personality. They whistle, for instance, a call that they believe the ants recognize as the call of their mothers. This page-turning drama of ants trying to survive and others trying to survive on the ants ends in success for the Runa: "By treating ants as the intentional communicating selves they are," the Runa are able to harvest them.

Like that one? Here's another. Kohn trips several times on a path; when a Runa friend points this out to him, he realizes that he is merely approximating the path: "I could get away with this because my regular gait was an interpretive habit -- an image of the path -- that was good enough for the challenge at hand."

What if conditions change? Then how we approximate the world may matter more. In fact, Kohn hints that the richness of our approximation of the world -- call it our aliveness -- may determine our survival.

But these instances are not merely trinkets. They lead to Kohn's larger argument, which I half-understand thusly: he means to attach us again to the world we thought our thinking removed us from by showing us that the world too thinks. He is enchanting the real world or reifying the enchanted one: "If thoughts are alive and that which lives thinks, then perhaps the living world is enchanted. What I mean is that the world beyond the human is not a meaningless one made meaningful by humans."

Is Kohn simply redrawing the boundaries, redefining self, live, think? It's possible. But the imaginative possibility counts for us poets, or for anyone who uses words, or thinks in symbols, or interprets at all -- which, Kohn shows, is everyone, by which I mean everything.

More happens here. After my mind had already been blown enough for one book, I came across this, in which Kohn follows the philosopher Charles S. Pierce: "Because all experiences and all thoughts, for all selves, are semiotically mediated, introspection, human-to-human intersubjectivity, and even trans-species sympathy and communication are not categorically different. They are all sign processes."

So I am a forest and you are a forest. Kohn tells us that the Runa especially value stories, dreams, and thoughts that cross species perspectives -- perhaps because the better the Runa think as other beings, the better they hunt and survive. He goes on to suggest that thinking may be, in essence, crossing perspectives.

And this is why I do not think poets need to fear their desire to make off with the tasty bits here. This is not always true. Can we agree amongst ourselves to write no more Anthropologie poems? You know what I mean: the poems that seize a picturesque "cultural" detail against which to set a bourgeois realization. That is poet as marauder in the worst way. But to play with Kohn's thoughts is to enter the enchanted forest -- not as a conqueror but as another animal, thought, self.

I am thinking, now, of the highway I drive to work, which is always smeared with blood and littered with deer carcasses. I've never seen a road so gory. I'm also thinking of how Kohn defines a soul as an essence in relation; all who perceive others have these auras, almas, souls that others in turn perceive. The other day I saw a live deer by the road for the first time. Small, rumpled, he grazed with his rump to the traffic. He did not look up for me, but I knew he could; I was possessed briefly by that life as I flew by him at seventy miles an hour.


Come to think of it, perhaps I mean Books for Artists. I know dancers and painters who would groove to Kohn's expansion of self and thought and living, and I want to see the dances, paintings, films, buildings that come out of dreaming over this book.

Or perhaps I mean simply Books for People. Don't we all read this way -- or wouldn't we like to: dropping external demands and letting the aesthetic, like a muscle, like a tongue, run over the text before us? Or perhaps I mean Books for People because the aesthetic seeks what it needs, and everyone needs structures, needs new ways to think about what happens. This passage arrested me:

The I is in form and outside of history.... This is why nothing can happen to it. Heaven is a continuation of form. Hell is history; it is what happens to others. Heaven is a realm where people are not subject to time. They never age. They never die there. Only its can be in time. Only they can be affected, subject to dyadic cause-and-effect, out of form, subject to history -- punished.

What do you need to understand or imagine? Do it here.

How Forests Think by Eduardo Kohn
University of California Press
ISBN: 978-0520276116
288 pages