The Appositional Project: Travis Macdonald’s “Concrete Jungle” and the Ethical Possibilities of Conceptual Poetry

Ryan Clark, Series Contributor

Ryan Clark’s series “The Appositional Project” examines poetry that makes use of appropriative writing methods (such as cut-up, erasure, and homophonic translation) to investigate intersections of place and domination/loss.

Over the last few years, there have been many who have protested against the self-declared “a-ethical” work of Conceptual poets like Kenneth Goldsmith, who in particular seems to relish stirring up controversy with his belief that no text is too sacred to manipulate for the purpose of creating art. Such poets tend to claim that poetry should not be held to any moral standard, that poets should focus solely on creating art rather than become bogged down by concerns over ethics. Without giving this perspective too much credence, however, I want to focus on a work of highly conceptual poetry which does not hesitate to engage questions of morality, and whose author displays consideration for how readers might be moved to be more mindful of their interaction with the various ecosystems they encounter.

Travis Macdonald’s “Concrete Jungle” is a series of concrete poems which take the shape of various American states, creating a sort of map in which instead of one of the standard colors shading bordered areas (pink, orange, light green, etc.) the land mass is filled in with the names of invasive plant species currently found in the state. Rather than standing as an a-ethical art piece encouraging us to think about the meanings and connections behind the poem and its composition, “Concrete Jungle” asks us to think as moral beings about how ecologies of place have become dangerously disrupted. These poems not only push for us to recognize, but to be considerate of our interactions with our ecological surroundings. This alternate mapping asks us to consider our relationship with the environment, particularly relating to the concept of borders and how we move through them.

Speaking about his project in a September 13, 2013 issue of the online literary magazine The Clearing, Macdonald writes:

As a nation of immigrants whose collective identity (our very American-ness) has often defined itself in opposition to a shifting other (most recently those of Hispanic heritage) we Americans tend to be inordinately preoccupied with ideas of border and origin. The fact of the matter is, these plant species did not arrive here by accident. They were brought here, in many cases very deliberately, by our colonist/immigrant ancestors. We label them invasive in order to establish their otherness, their opposition to our idea of a “pure” or “natural” ecosystem. And yet, by doing so, we also seem to be disavowing our own agency in the process, our own invasive nature. We seem to say: “Look, we are working hard to keep these evil invaders in check.” In this way we conveniently gloss over the fact that we ourselves are the invaders responsible for their presence in the first place.

Here is where “Concrete Jungle” highlights the ethical strength of Conceptual Poetry: such work pushes us to think about the world around us and to consider how we might adopt more ethical and responsible ways of being. In this case, we are confronted with a mapping of the ecological threat of invasive plant species, often brought to new ecosystems through human carelessness. Further, this project questions the ideas at work behind native/invasive, man-made borders, and our nation’s status as one founded by immigrants. How many generations must pass before human immigrants become native? How many generations of Russian knapweed? If Ohwi kudzu spreads freely across demarcated lines on a map, then what is a border?

This is a work that is highly conscious of and dependent upon borders. The white space is empty: NOT-Texas, NOT-Iowa; as if there is no possibility of extension, no crossing of lines. We lift this state (or county, or nation) out of the earth as a separate entity from the land that it holds (and that is held away from it). And yet what invasive species so frequently remind us is that lines on a map fail to contain the life which moves as it will (or as we bring it) across continuous stretches of land. Macdonald’s arrangement of the names of invasive species into neatly bordered regions reminds us that only in language can we seek to establish limits on the natural world.

When we replace topography with language (though topographical markings or shading on a map is another kind of language) we encounter space differently. The names of these invasive plant species reflect human interaction, human stories. The example of “itch-grass” in Texas connects the plant to bodily sensation, for instance, while Iowa’s “Queen Anne’s Lace” reflects the flowering plant’s immigration from Europe and particularly the role of the British monarchy in the colonization of what was to become the United States. The idea that a map displays geographic location also becomes disrupted. As it turns out, I have lived in (or will soon have lived in) each state represented in the excerpt from “Concrete Jungle” that was published in The Clearing. If we approximate locations in these poetic mappings, I have lived (in chronological order) in Brazilian peppertree, bindweed, spotted knapweed, Leafy Spurge, and velvetleaf. My grandmother is buried in bull thistle, while my grandfather lives in orange hawkweed.

“Concrete Jungle” is a selective mapping, but then again so is the mapping of human settlements, highways, and even national parks. To what are we paying attention? Here, our attention is being asked of us. Consider our invasiveness, and our complicity with invasiveness. See the arbitrariness with which we choose what or whom is native or invasive. This is a deeply moral question, one which constantly determines how much we are willing to damage our various ecosystems and communities. Particularly when so much language surrounding us has lately become saturated with messages of divisiveness, it is also deeply important.

Ryan Clark

Ryan Clark has dedicated years of his life to homophonic translation and is particularly interested in the reparative potential of appropriative writing, including how poetry responds to violence and subjugation, symbolic and otherwise. His poetry has appeared in Smoking Glue Gun, Tenderloin, Seven Corners, and Fact-Simile, and he also has an essay about teaching homophonic translation forthcoming from Something on Paper. He currently teaches composition at Savannah State University.