Making Poetry with the “Production Language” of Petrochemical Industry

June 7, 2021

Max Karpinski

"Sludge River." Photo by Ivan Bandura on Unsplash.

In August 2019, the RCMP arrested Canadian poet, scholar, and activist Rita Wong for participating in a protest against the Trans Mountain pipeline project in Burnaby, BC. In her public sentencing statement, Wong makes it clear that her actions—singing, praying, and sitting in ceremony with other land and water defenders—were a response to the climate crisis that must be seen in relation to the history and present-day manifestations of settler colonialism. She identifies the links between Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and the roving “man camps” along pipeline construction sites; the environmental cast-off of resource extraction and the increased pollution and incidences of disease overwhelmingly borne by Indigenous, racialized, and poor communities; and, crucially, the expansion of extractive projects such as Trans Mountain and the Athabasca oil sands and the settler-colonial drive to dispossess and appropriate land.

Wong’s statement brings together a series of concerns that are central for an emerging strand of ecopoetry in Canada. This mode of ecopoetry critically explores the concept of “appropriation,” drawing connections between the violent territorial acquisitions that define both settler colonialism and the operations of extractivist industry. Several contemporary Canadian ecopoets engage with “appropriation” not just in their choice of subject matter, but in the very form of their poetry. Rather than writing in a traditional lyric voice, they incorporate, reproduce, or manipulate source texts in their poetry. One recent example is Lesley Battler’s poetry collection Endangered Hydrocarbons (2015), which extracts and recombines language and text from documents produced by multinational oil companies, alongside a wide variety of found material. In the way that it steals and reframes the language of the petrochemical industry—“production language”—to critique extractive expansion and land expropriation, Endangered Hydrocarbons models a politicized and resistant ecopoetics for our Anthropocene present.

Battler wrote the poems while working as a project information manager for Shell Oil. In the conclusion of her book, she reveals that “All of the poems in this project are derived from texts generated in a multinational oil company” and describes how she “spliced items such as wellbooks, mudlogs, geological prognoses, and meeting notes with . . . basically anything that crossed [her] path” (173). Battler’s poetic method of production transforms language through textual techniques that are designed to mimic the extractive processes of oil capitalism. In those moments when the text is “refined,” she asks us to pay attention to the excess, cast-off, or the “externalities” of the production of meaning. In other words, Battler’s poetic method teaches her readers to identify industry sleight of hand, asking us to think critically about the absences, gaps, or subtle linguistic shifts in the ways that the oil industry narrates extraction.

One of the poetic sequences in Endangered Hydrocarbons that makes readily apparent Battler’s technique of spliced language is “Radiant Diacel.” “Diacel” is precisely the kind of vacant corporate speech that Battler plays with throughout Endangered Hydrocarbons. It is a simulacrum of language, a lexical confection that registers as something like a word, or that might mean something. There are a few hits for the term on Google. “Diacel” seems to refer to a series of filter products produced by a German company called CFF GmbH & Co. KG: they are “bio-degradable and offer high sustainability and outstanding environmental compatibility,” according to the company website. “Radiant Diacel” combines this kind of corporate, petrochemical speech with various source materials relating to Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer. We might understand the intent behind this strange pairing as an implicit claim about the excesses of oil capitalism; at the same time, perhaps Battler wants to alert her readers to the possibility of “reform,” not only in the sense of cultural and social transformation, but in the very manipulation of the appropriated language in the space of the page.

“Diacel” is precisely the kind of vacant corporate speech that Battler plays with throughout Endangered Hydrocarbons. It is a simulacrum of language, a lexical confection that registers as something like a word, or that might mean something.

The poem is written in two voices: a more objective, narratorial voice, and the spliced first-person writings of Luther himself. A section subtitled “Marburg” opens with these four stanzas:

           

           Luther edits his viscosity

            deposits the excess slurry

            of his vocabulary

 

            deviates from vertical wells

            drilled by the Colloquy

           

            dares test Ethyl Lead

            declares it Unready

 

            insists on the physical

            wettability of the Holy Spirit (69)

This passage exemplifies Battler’s treatment of language as unrefined petroleum by collapsing the two into one another: both are “viscous” and capable of being “slurred.” Throughout Endangered Hydrocarbons, Battler builds her poems through a careful attention to the repetition of sounds. In this passage we have “viscosity,” “deposits,” “slurry,” “vocabulary,” “Colloquy,” “wettability,” and “Unready.” The effect, to my ear, is one of thickening—the language of the petrochemical industry is heavy in the mouth. The passage, however, also juxtaposes petrochemical terms alongside historical events involving Luther. The Marburg Colloquy is no longer concerned with the interpretation of the Eucharist, but with drilling “vertical wells” and “wettability,” the tendency of fluid to adhere to a solid presence, a key matter in bitumen extraction. The passage performs its own transubstantiation of the Holy Spirit: from immaterial presence to liquid oil. 

Elsewhere in the poem Battler’s substitutions multiply meaning across the petrochemical and reformist registers. For example, Luther’s infamous burning of the papal bull is rendered thus: “Luther burns the bull allowing nuncios / to sell Unleaded at Stations of the Cross” (68).

The papal bull of 1520, which excommunicated Luther from the church, listed forty-one of Luther’s statements that were considered deviations from church doctrine. One of these was his opposition to the “sale of Indulgences”—essentially, a purchased pardon for specific sins. Battler injects “Unleaded” into the equation: the “Stations of the Cross,” sites of prayer and reflection on Jesus’s sacrifice, become gas stations. In my reading, Battler’s surprising addition calls to mind Edward Burtynsky’s infamous “Breezewood” photograph from his 2009 series Oil. “Breezewood” is a low angle photograph of Pennsylvania’s “Gas Vegas,” a clotted stretch of road between I-70 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, overstuffed with gas stations and fast-food restaurants. The space of the photograph features no less than six separate Exxon Mobil logos, at various depths, with one towering over the image, almost as a crucifix. And the Exxon logo itself, that trademarked “interlocking X”: is it possible to read into it an echo or trace of the cross itself, as it is traditionally represented in the Stations of the Cross, carried at an angle across Jesus’s back?

There is a depth to the linguistic and textual experimentation of Endangered Hydrocarbons that exceeds any notion of mischievousness for the sake of mischievousness. We “Indulge” in “Unleaded” daily; our oil and gas consumption is an indulgence. In the Lutheran sense, the purchase of “Indulgences” is absolution; we absolve ourselves of our intimate relation to the climate crisis every time we fill our gas tanks, or write about the climate crisis on our MacBooks. For all its playfulness, Battler’s poetry refuses this sense of absolution, never shying away from a recognition of complicity. Endangered Hydrocarbons has no pretensions to purity or separation from the petrocultural discourse that it appropriates and “refines.” The poet, poems, speakers, and readers are all compromised, together in the muck of production language; and it is the poetic that cracks that corporate speech open to the possibility of an otherwise.

Max Karpinski is a Killam Postdoctoral Fellow in the University of Alberta's Department of English and Film Studies, where he researches experimental poetry that addresses the entanglements of settler colonialism and ecological degradation. His critical writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Canadian Literature, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, and Studies in Canadian Literature.

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