What does a volcano communicate?: A Review of Laura Moriarty’s ‘Personal Volcano’

Reading Laura Moriarty’s Personal Volcano (Nightboat Books), readers will quickly come to understand personal expansively. While Moriarty does weave autobiography into the semantic net which she draws around volcanoes, I understand personal in this work to mean individual, particular. Over the course of the poems, readers discover that Moriarty lives in a particular time (our era, in which the Anthropocene has succeeded the Holocene), a particular place (the East Bay in California, eastern edge of the Pacific Rim) from which she travels to other particular places. And certainly the path she charts of volcanoes as literary subject, symbol, or trope is marked by personal tastes (Jules Verne, for one).

Moriarty stops short of fulfilling the contemporary literary tendency to center the self in to order do something rarely attempted: revive the didactic poem—meaning that in certain respects Personal Volcano has more in common with Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura (The Nature of Things, composed circa 50 BCE) than with other books coming out in 2019. Like poetry of the Presocratic philosophers of ancient Greece, or even the scientific poetry of the early modern era, Moriarty blurs productively the scientific and the humanistic, suspending them in a crystalline matrix of FORM, exemplifying a Blakean belief in the inextricability of verse and image, by which I mean here not only shaped poetry (conical or columnar: see figures 1 and 2) but also verbal images.

Figure 1
Figure 2

Moriarty’s central principle is the volcano: “EARTH can be thought / of as a single VOLCANO scaled up.” But what is a volcano? Considering the poem “Analogic Geology: Lists & Definitions” will help clarify the ideas Moriarty mediates through the volcano:

The question of definition in this collection generates a complex range of responses. Through Personal Volcano, Moriarty circles the volcano, as “FORM, edifice,/environment, process, event,/genre, or situation,” from many different ontological perspectives. She guides readers to what, after momentary consideration, seems like the obvious and profound truth of volcanoes: that they are a landform defined by activity rather than stability, such that they might be better understood as a process or an event—or perhaps even better understood as both. As a form which is also an event (or at least, the history or potentiality of one), the volcano causes category trouble.

Since the word ecology entered the English lexicon in the late nineteenth century, the interconnectedness of the earth has led us to think of it (or think of it again) as a system, perhaps even as a single complex organism. Succeeding thinkers have developed this premise, finding even in the world’s geological features ever-increasing degrees of animacy and vitality, such that it now feels reasonable to ask: are volcanoes alive? Can phenomena like eruption be construed as a kind of communication?

Carrying the idea of volcanic eruption as a kind of communication forward, readers might reasonably ask: what does a volcano communicate? What do WE mean in light of the existence of volcanoes? In the above poem, Moriarty more than hints at an answer, juxtaposing volcanic locations scattered throughout our solar system with locations of refineries along California’s oil coast, both of which spew the same noxious roux. Like the sickly sweet smell of gasoline and the rainbow shimmer of oil slick, Moriarty finds in the technical vocabulary of both the volcanic and Anthropocene a beauty—or interest—which she mobilizes in service of both poetry in itself and as environmental and social critique.

Who, today, at the end of the world, is worried about volcanoes? Between the global increases in fascist demagoguery and temperature (due to carbon emissions), there is something almost quaint about the idea of such an exclusively natural disaster. But perhaps we think of volcanic eruption as a more purely natural phenomenon because, as Moriarty suggests, of a failure of our imagination:

And can we, as we thought NOT, cause a VOLCANIC ERUPTION if through the effects of global/warming the pressure on the earth’s mantle is changed? Will anthropo-seismic events occur?/have occurred? Humans certainly cause earthquakes, as shown by those that swarm through/FRACKED Texas and elsewhere.

As I write this, Hawaiians are protesting the construction of a telescope on the dormant volcano Mauna Kea, and protests in Puerto Rico have resulted in the resignation of its governor—a result of both natural and unnatural forces: climate change worsens hurricanes causing destruction worsened by colonialism and political corruption.

Traditionally included under a sign of the natural, volcanoes may be active or inactive, in fact, but are rather less active in the popular imagination than they used to be. Throughout Personal Volcano, Moriarty actively participates in the ongoing destabilization of the already-crumbling border between natural and artificial. She takes the volcano as a sign and reawakens it from a semiotic dormancy that perhaps had to do with its association with earlier periods in the history of science, when geology was as au courant as quantum physics and genetics are now, and in which the debates between the plutonists and the neptunists had not yet been settled.

The work Moriarty accomplishes would be much harder to achieve outside of the genre of poetry. Lucretius’s own choice to communicate his epicurean materialism in verse was unusual in his time, given that he wrote long after the age of Homer and Hesiod when the associations of genre and subject matter were much blurrier. In his introduction to A.E. Stallings’s verse translation of De Rerum Natura, Richard Jenkyns writes, “Lucretius’ argument in itself aims to show us that the teachings of Epicurus are true; the manner in which he puts that argument aims to show that they are also beautiful and lovable.” And if we no longer necessarily imagine lovability and beauty as poetry’s goals, Jenkyns’s point is well-taken. Poetry is still associated with the utmost of care and scrupulousness for language as both a communicative medium and as matter itself.

What kind of poetry is this? As I indicated above, Moriarty’s poetry, like a volcanic eruption, is an EVENT with a relationship to COMMUNICATION. Her poetry also drops language that works on a sonic and textural level as well as a communicative one. Part of the sheer pleasure of this collection is Moriarty’s use of terminology of the sciences and place names with canny awareness of their musical qualities. As with my favorite poetry, I was moved to read much of this book aloud. Moriarty is also highly attuned to the syntax of the literatures she moves between, and like watching a talented impressionist, it was a joy to experience her play with the language, as well as the ideas, of figures like Verne and Newton, after whom she wrote the section of her book titled “To the Diamonds,” which disports in his alchemical language. However, Moriarty is not an antiquarian, solely committed to the language of the distant past. Affinities with member’s of Moriarty’s (non)school of poetry, A Tonalism, as explicated in her blog A Tonalist Notes and her book A Tonalist, ring through this work.

And just as Moriarty’s development of A Tonalism was inspired by the Tonalist painters, Personal Volcano also bears the stamp of other media: like Bruce Connor’s visual art and the 1959 film adaptation of Journey to the Center of the Earth, which she puts in conversation with the original novel. Moriarty’s poetry is often shaped in this collection in a way that seems to echo the shapes of volcanoes. Moriarty also deploys exuberant shouty caps in a way that will evoke for contemporary readers CAConrad (to whom the section “Lemurian Objects” is dedicated) or the early Internet. Her capitalization takes on a significant indexical quality over the course of Personal Volcano, culminating in the poem “GRAVESNAME,” which appears in the book’s last section, “Finally the Eye.”

These columns of capitalized language are standing stones, composite linguistic material, the literal limits of the world of the poem, whose inner lyrics nonetheless surge forward.

Earlier, I accused Moriarty of being a didactic poet, but she is also an elegist: not merely personally (as in for the poet’s late first husband, Jerry Estrin, who appears early in the book) but also anticipatory elegy for our the fate of our oikos, our dwelling place which is the earth. Elegiac, but also utopian. Wittgenstein, patron saint of many postmodern authors, wrote, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world,” and the tone in which writers imagine him to have written this is a kind of litmus test. Moriarty restlessly pushes these limits, as she writes, with love, and a desire for, “a future and it is OURS not/HOURS.”

I have little doubt that Personal Volcano will be widely read among aficionados of ecologically-motivated poetry—that of writers like Juliana Spahr and Inger Christensen—but I nurture a fantasy that readers of science fiction—a genre with a distinct investment in imagining the future otherwise—also pick it up, due to Moriarty’s affinity with ecologically-minded California SFF writers (among whom she belongs in fact and spirit, due to this and other work like Ultravioleta) such as Kim Stanley Robinson, Ursula Le Guin, and Octavia Butler. For these readers, it would be helpful to recall Le Guin’s Always Coming Home, which in addition to ‘traditional’ narrative, contains chant and song.

Whatever the genre, we urgently need more literature that engages as directly and compellingly with the intricated social and ecological crises of our time. Moriarty provides a model for this not only without sacrificing aesthetics, but by actively pushing language forward.

All images of Personal Volcano have been used courtesy of Nightboat Books.


Zoe Tuck

Zoe Tuck was born in Texas, became a person in California, and now lives in Massachusetts, where she is building the Threshold Academy, which consists of a future bookstore and alternative educational space in Western Massachusetts and online in collaboration with the Operating System. She co-curates the But Also house reading series. Zoe is the author of Soft Investigations (Daisy Mayhem Books 2019), Terror Matrix (Timeless, Infinite Light 2014), and is currently writing the book of bella and blogging about books. Sign up for her newsletter here: https://mailchi.mp/3297966e2be4/zoetuck.

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