Michelle Niemann, “Towards an Ecopoetics of Food”

A condensery in Antigo, Wisconsin, 1941. Photo by John
Vachon. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

Writer: me

Citation: Michelle Niemann, “Towards an Ecopoetics of Food: Plants, Agricultural Politics, and Colonized Landscapes in Lorine Niedecker’s Condensery,” Modernism/modernity, vol. 25, no. 1 (2018): 135-60. https://doi.org/10.1353/mod.2018.0006. Download from Project Muse or Academia.edu.

Abstract: In this article, I argue that Lorine Niedecker’s folk poems of the 1930s and early 1940s develop an ecopoetics of food that puns on cultural and natural specificities to critique modern systems of food production. In the midst of contentious food politics, including farmers’ strikes in the early 1930s, New Deal agricultural policies, and Wisconsin’s long history of agrarian reform movements, Niedecker’s “New Goose” poems play not only on what Louis Zukofsky called “historic and contemporary particulars,” but also on the capacities of specific plants.

Approaches drawn from critical plant studies, food studies, and the environmental humanities show how Niedecker constructs multilayered linguistic and conceptual puns that depend on detailed knowledge of plants from asparagus to quack-grass and of agro-industrial practices from planting apple orchards to condensing milk. Niedecker’s “New Goose” poems speak in folk voices not only to highlight the irony of rural hunger but also to criticize the “folk” themselves for failing to develop a coherent rural anti-capitalism. In poems looking back to Wisconsin’s nineteenth-century history, Niedecker traces that failure to U.S. colonization and the dispossession of Native Americans, which radically transformed the landscape. Niedecker’s poems not only suggest a practical food politics, but also develop a poetics in which literary forms emerge from both the self-discipline of the poet in her “condensery” and collaboration with nonhuman agencies. The resulting ecopoetics of food provides a model for environmental ethics and aesthetics.