Review of Better Nature by Fenn Stewart (Book*hug, 2017)

In her book An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2014), Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz challenges the queer populism of 19th century American poet Walt Whitman by noting the ways that his poetics is grounded in American exceptionalism. If he sings a song, she suggests, that song is not only about himself, but is also “the song of manhood and the Anglo-American super race that had been steeled through empire” (117).  Dunbar-Ortiz takes Whitman’s white supremacy to task, linking his racism to an imperialistic belief that “the whole world would benefit from US expansion” (118), further arguing that “Whitman’s sentiments reflected the established US origin myth that had the frontier settlers replacing the Native peoples as historical destiny, adding his own theoretical twist of what would later be called social Darwinism” (118).

So when Fenn Stewart organizes her debut collection Better Nature around an appropriation and rearticulation of a diary of Whitman’s travels through Ontario and Québec in the summer of 1880, she works precisely at this junction of the homonationalism of Whitman’s project and the good feelings white settler avant-garde poets have about the diverse multitudes Whitman praises within himself. At the heart of Stewart’s book is an acknowledgment of the colonial continuities running from the 19th century to our present, careening the hopeful statecraft and calls for unity of Lincoln’s first inaugural address and Obama’s 21st century revision against the extractive drive to better fold (and redesign) non-human life into the junction of colonial and capitalist processes.

Stewart opens Better Nature with a short introduction that contextualizes her approach to Whitman’s text. Rather than treat him as an exceptional figure, she treats him as “ordinary.” The Whitmanian multitude admits contradictions while, if we follow Dunbar-Ortiz, Whitman also supports the violent displacement of Indigenous nations whose very existence prevent the totalizing takeover of the land by colonial and capitalist forces.  “The point,” she suggests, “is not that he failed to transcend the tenor of his time, but that contemporary Canada has likewise failed” (9). Stewart wagers that this contradiction is also at the heart of contemporary liberal politics around reconciliation that only work to “shore up the nation” (9).

Stewart drags Whitman across time and across the colonial border in a moment where settler and Indigenous poets in Canada turn to textual forms of quotation and appropriation to investigate and critique both the ongoing theft of Indigenous territory and the concomitant appropriation of Indigenous culture. Stewart’s work here clearly draws from the “misappropriative” methods of Liz Howard’s Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent. In her paper “Hiawatha/Hereafter: Re-Appropriating Longfellow’s Epic in Northern Ontario” (2013), Stewart outlines Howard’s interventions into another 19th century text – Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha. Stewart argues that Howard “unwrites” Longfellow’s text and, in the process, “unmaps” (in Sherene Razack’s sense) understandings of the colonial wilderness, pointing to “the assimilative geographies and narratives created in the process of settler colonialism” (173). Stewart arguably approaches Whitman with a similar desire to unwrite or unmap colonial understandings of geography and “nature,” but does so from a different position. While Stewart’s project has a clear resonance with Howard’s, the way she interfaces with settler representations of land also stands alongside an increasing cohort of settler poets in Canada (Cecily Nicholson, Rachel Zolf, Shane Rhodes, and others) who take up and critique their positions within settler-colonialism through formal approaches that intermix documentary, archival, and appropriative methods. Like these poets, Stewart wrestles with a worry and a risk that she is merely recentering white settler experience in her carefulness around not appropriating Indigenous voices and experiences.

Stewart’s answer to this worry involves centering white settler experience, but under a hot critical lens that lays bare the extractive logic at its heart. She works through a historical view in “If Walt Whitman were a wealthy Vancouver resident bobbing around in a life raft […],” which drags the history of colonial land development in Vancouver (via historical and archival research) through Whitman’s diary. Stewart voices a logic keyed to the redevelopment and systematization of land and its relations for leisure and profit – the production of nature for colonial and capitalist ends. Writing in a voice arguing for the slow progress of spatial reconstruction, Stewart observes the way that “progress would depend on management” (49) that would enable settlement:

my critical assessment was—I saw, or I imagined I could see
(once all the trees were gone) a race of a million farmers—
each shining, shining face run down to the water—

our town sprang up—our sure foundation-nutriment
great sawmills down the riverbank—The Dominion, The Canadian
White Pine— (49)

In this utopia-tinted moment, the elimination of “arboreal features” (or “arboreal apprehension” as she puts it in a later poem) allows for the formation of a colonial city on the hill, or, rather, on the coast. Throughout the poem, non-human actors are framed by Stewart’s high colonial voice as something to be exploited, improved, or eliminated, their lives continually framed in terms of their potential value, in the capitalist sense. Cutting through this is a sour humour that pokes at the way the vigorous masculinity of colonial stewardship combines with a shrugging indifference at the situation of anything or anyone that doesn’t fit the grand designs of Canada. Near the end of the sequence, Stewart drops lines like “I guess what I’m saying is, / we don’t worry about the wolves / we’re pretty sure the wolves went somewhere else” (61) and, in the process, chokes back a bitter disgust we might hear through her fatalistic performance. The lines are funny, though we should feel bad for laughing.

At its best, Stewart’s poetry cuts directly to the heart of the temporal short-circuit between Whitman’s desire for manifest destiny and the settler-colonial desire to consume all that’s available. In the poem “If Walt Whitman got a job writing spam […,]” she cuts Whitman’s descriptions with the promotional language of ad copy and various types of social media petitioning:

Hell, Kathleen, this is it: it’s my last chance
to reach all of Ontario. It’s summer,
I’m replete & steeping in errata,
got my tongue fluent in the motherese.
Come on down, sweetcheeks: it’s my last night in Nice!
It you get wood by midnight then you’re Welcome:
help us defend our climate, put paint on
something live, smooth out your creases. Be sudden
and amazing, Shine bright like the new day—
lighted streams, revitalize fine urban
destinations. Cell phones spread like democracy
(by parthenogenesis); our masses
are massive, our Beauty takes neither prisoners
nor shortcuts. (36)

These come-ons, slogans, and beauty tips connect the language of activism and the language of fashion, revealing a desire to “reach all of Ontario” – no territory left untouched (and unpromoted to). Later, Stewart impels us to “climb Canada’s boldest prints, enjoy green justice,” telling us that “you DESERVE this deal”(38). It’s in these sharply cynical moments that Stewart shows her hand, posing the settler-driven discourses of reconciliation and sustainability as fashion draped across material injustice in order to merely draw attention to it (as if awareness were a solution). Sunny ways.

Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. An Indigenous People’s History of the United States. Beacon, 2014.
Stewart, Fenn. Better Nature. Book*hug, 2017.
—. “Hiawatha/Hereafter: Re-Appropriating Longfellow’s Epic in Northern Ontario.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, vol. 44, no. 4, 2013, pp. 159-80.