“Geologic Time from Now On!”: Lorine Niedecker’s “Lake Superior”

LAKE SUPERIOR, a 2013 collection of Lorine Niedecker’s writings from Wave Books, is unlike most posthumous volumes. The compilation opens with the title poem, “Lake Superior,” and then charts a journey through archival materials by Niedecker and the historical texts that inspired her piece. As polyvocal as the poem that launches it, Lake Superior orchestrates voices that have portrayed the Great Lakes since white missionaries arrived in the 16th century. Niedecker (1903-1970) was a Wisconsin native who began writing poetry while studying at Beloit College in the 1920s. Aside from a short period in the mid-1930s when she lived in New York City among Objectivist poets, she made Wisconsin her home. As a permanent resident, she remained a vigorous traveler through the state and its environs. In addition to publishing four collections of poetry, most in the last years of her life, she produced a guide to the state for the Federal Writers’ Project (an excerpt appears in this collection). Niedecker’s place-triggered poem is situated among artifacts that trace her movements through the Upper Midwest: the journal she kept on a road trip through lake country with her husband Al Millen in 1966, the 1941 Work Projects Administration (WPA) guide to the state, letters to fellow poet Cid Corman that muse on her travels, and facsimiles of handwritten and typed notes on local history and geology. 

The collection deftly positions Niedecker as a guiding spirit without diminishing the status of the other pieces that depict encounters with place. (Appropriately, the Wave editors leave the poet’s name off of the book’s minimalist cover.) As we read a travelogue by 17th-century Japanese poet Bashō, or conservationist Aldo Leopold’s lament for an extinct species, or an explorer’s account of navigating to the source of the Mississippi River, we become the curious tourist-scholar and respectful adventurer that Niedecker models for us in her writings. Weaving together genres, histories, and landscapes, the book doesn’t frame ethnographies, letters, or travel guides as mere supplements to the poetry. The primacy and history of place makes the lyric “I” no more important than the everyday traveler’s eye. Both are dependent on and symbiotic with place. One of the pleasures of reading Lake Superior is realizing that the juxtaposition of materials reflects Niedecker’s place-based poetics, which has become even more poignant in our environmentally imperiled times. Along with the poet, the collection makes the case that each step or drive we take out into the world initiates encounters with the sediments of time, history, and language, all of which combine to make a place:

Greek named
kicked up in America’s
you have been in my mind
between my toes

With such lines, the poem and the collection as a whole develop a linguistically and historically attuned environmental consciousness that remains in touch with the stuff of the earth. 

Starting with “Lake Superior” and ending with the reproduction of Niedecker’s studious notes on the geologic eras, the Wave volume encourages intellectual wandering that mimics the poet’s own. We might begin with the first poem and move to scholar Douglas Crase’s interpretation of it, or hop to Leopold’s essay “On a Monument to a Pigeon” (1947) to discover how this essay might be related to the poem. Or we might immerse ourselves in Niedecker’s journal, an intimate, surprisingly lyrical record of her research trail. Niedecker informs us: “a rock is made of minerals constantly on the move and changing from heat, cold, and pressure.” The poet might very well have lifted this line from a textbook, but she transforms the didactic into metaphysical — and then ecological thoughts — with the journal’s next line: “The journey of the rock is never ended. In every tiny part of any living thing are materials that once were rock that turned to soil. […] Your teeth and bones were once coral.” The writer inserts the reader into her thesis that inorganic and organic things all have their source in the same planetary matter, and that everything on earth therefore shares an evolutionary course. Promoting this idea, Lake Superior positions Niedecker as the forebear of contemporary ecopoets — C. S. Giscombe, Brenda Hillman, and Juliana Spahr, among others — and environmental artists of all stripes who continue to develop this thesis with increasing urgency. 

“Lake Superior” invites an experience of interconnectedness by excavating a specific place, but it begins with the general thesis Niedecker arrives at in her journal:

In every part of every living thing
is stuff that once was rock 

In blood the minerals
of the rock

Iron the common element of earth 

Without an “I,” the perspective is removed and this creates a greater intimacy between the reader and the earth. Before the speaker announces herself in the 12th of the poem’s 13 sections, we enter an ecosystem composed not only of “every living thing” but also of the earth’s elements. In lieu of summoning a fraternity of animals and plants (a conventional approach to depicting place) Niedecker’s sharp eye and deep wonder grant her access to geological time. The poem and her journal rediscover early 19th-century geologists’ awareness that the earth is ancient and dynamic. This insight is exhilarating. A letter to Cid Corman that Niedecker sent from her 1966 travels gets at the geologic genesis of “Lake Superior.” She exclaims (and puns) that she has accrued a “millennium [sic] of notes for my magma opus!” and has gone on “a kind of retreat so far as time (going to be geologic time from now on!) is concerned.” Out of this thrilling retreat comes a poem that promotes a new kinship with the matter of the earth. In the opening lines of “Lake Superior,” Niedecker proves herself a master of what environmental scholar Timothy Morton terms “the ecological thought.” She recalls and revises two centuries of US environmentalism that has strived to cultivate affinities between the human and the more-than-human. But Niedecker is more than an ecological thinker; she is what Clive Hamilton recently called an Earth System thinker, one who zooms out from local environments to take in the whole planet. In the attention she pays to the components of the rock, and not just its visible surface, she transforms and animates the inanimate.

Recovering history as well as geology is essential to this animating process. Iron was central to the Europeanization of the Upper Midwest, and the mention of iron also calls up the Iron Age in which written history was born. Beginning with this mineral, the poem aligns geological transformation, global history, and writing itself. The element, we are to understand, constitutes the material of Western imperialism. The next lines further open the channel to the region’s legacies of exploration, industry, and exploitation: 

Iron the common element of earth
in rocks and freighters

Sault Sainte Marie — big boats
coal-black and iron-ore-red
topped with what white castlework

Niedecker’s poem and journal document some of this history, but we also read primary accounts. American geographer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (1793-1864) plays a supporting role in Niedecker’s works and then gets center stage as the author of the collection’s last chapter. The chapter chronicles an 1832 expedition to the source of the Mississippi River, Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota. It builds up to this climax: “On a turning of a thicket, into a small weedy opening, the cheering sight of a transparent body of water burst upon our view.” The text of Lake Superior lands finally at this lake, which Schoolcraft had anticipated but hadn’t yet verified. With this landing point, the last chapter echoes the final stanza of the book’s first poem, which leaves open the question of whether the speaker did or did not arrive at another body of water:

I’m sorry to have missed
   Sand Lake
My dear one tells me
   we did not
We watched a gopher there

Schoolcraft’s “cheering” discovery is a step in a centuries-long tradition of expeditions that opened the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes to international trade. The chapter that precedes Schoolcraft’s contains writings by the fur trader Pierre Esprit Radisson (1636-1710), who offers a glimpse of white settlement in the region. Radisson and his brother-in-law, Médard des Groseilliers, were instrumental in the formation of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and this extract records the entanglements of the traders and the many Native tribes whose lives European colonialism irrevocably transformed. As an adolescent, Radisson was captured by Mohawks and integrated into their community until he attempted an escape and was punished for it (an event Niedecker describes in “Lake Superior”: “Long hair, long gun // Fingernails pulled out / by Mohawks.”) Radisson’s narratives show him again in the company of Native peoples — two Hurons or “our wildmen” in his terms — but now as their leader who is to defend against the “enemy” Iroquois. The encounter between the Radisson-Groseilliers crew and the Iroquois ends when a storm “that the devil himself made” facilitates the enemy’s escape and the slaughter of the prisoners Radisson has captured. 

Radisson’s and Schoolcraft’s travelogues provide a deeper history for Niedecker’s social commentary on the plight of Native populations in present-day Wisconsin. In the WPA state guide, she challenges local residents’ racist assessment that “these Indians [are] ‘shiftless bow-and-arrows’” by calling out systemic injustices. These injustices reach back to the age of exploration, when Europeans like Radisson traversed the continent as, in his words, “Cesars, nobody to contradict us.” And these injustices are codified in the treaties from Schoolcraft’s days that created the reservation system still in place when Niedecker travels through the region.

All of this — the geological matter that constitutes our bodies, the historical events that constitute our political, economic, and social present — suffuses the language of a place. As we read through Lake Superior, reflections on language draw out the traffic across time and space and between inanimate and animate matter. Niedecker’s journal explains:

The North is one vast, massive, glorious corruption of rock and language — granite is underlaid with limestone or sandstone, gneiss is made-over granite, shale, or sandstone and so forth […]. And look what’s been done to language! — People of all nationalities and color have changed the language like weather and pressure have changed the rocks.

The earth morphs, words morph, and changing words change our understanding of the earth. Granite turns to gneiss just as the “Sault” of “Sault Sainte Marie” turns to “Soo” in locals’ mouths. (And “Soo” evokes “Sioux,” a tribe that Radisson encountered in 1660 but that Lake Superior only evokes through this homonymy.) In a letter to Corman, Niedecker “wonder[s] if Bosho is still used in speech for Bon Jour! Indian, French, British —.” Niedecker celebrates linguistic corruption in the same way that she celebrates natural corruption: “Beauty: impurities in the rock.” As the writer develops a poetics of interconnectedness, she invites mutations, even those hybrids of the so-called natural and unnatural like “agate […] shipped in from Mexico and Uruguay […] artificially dyed in the bargain.”

There is one work of criticism in the Wave collection, a reading of the “evolutional sublime” in “Lake Superior” by poet Douglas Crase (1944-). He praises Niedecker as a poet of the commonwealth who eschews hyperbole in favor of a lapidary style that’s “cognate for the evolutional attitude.” Her concise style, he argues, is all the more impressive for capturing not only the beauties of the lakes region but also the violence done to it and its Native peoples in Europeans’ pursuit of resource wealth. So, while the poet is a descendent of the trader-explorers of the northern lakes and rivers, according to Crase, she can “see America as history” (a phrase lifted from Aldo Leopold). This history is often ugly. But just as we must be aware of the “glorious corruption of rock and language” but not feel contempt for it, we must not turn away from the besmirched past.

That past haunts our everyday speech. Words, especially the proper names of places that are ubiquitous in Lake Superior, forge a sense of the region across time. In her journal, Niedecker notes that “forts had been built successively in two or three different places in that area [of Michigan], each one known as Fort Mackinac.” Different moments in history, points on a map, and populations converge in “Mackinac,” an anglicization of the Chippewa word Michilimackinac. Language is open to the vagaries of history and changes along with shifts in power. It also colors one’s interactions with the material world. The names for rocks and geological epochs may be fixed by expert consensus, but creative minds can repurpose them and multiply their meanings. In her journal, Niedecker describes an otherworldly form of obsidian she sees in a gift shop: Apache Tears. This name implies a historical lament, and the rock can’t be casually admired once its name is known. Is the lake called Anishnaabe Gichgamiing in Ojibwe experienced in the same way as the lake called Superior (or, before that, Supérieur)? Is the shade of red called Manistique seen the same way as the color called vermillion?

Niedecker’s excavations of language set her apart from the other explorers with whom Crase aligns her. In addition to technical accuracy and detail, the poet also delights in imprecision and ambiguity. She relays statistics and geological jargon — five tons, eight voyageurs, 130 canoes, 100,000 square miles; azoic rock, hornblende granite, carnelian — then immediately questions these terms and accepts uncertainty. “Shale? A kind of slate?” she asks in her journal. She identifies “wild sweet peas” before qualifying it with “(something, at least, in the vetch family).” The historical and geological lexicons that appear in Niedecker’s writings lend specificity to her depictions of place, but she doesn’t settle for fixed definitions. She’s interested in the acts of intellectual and physical wandering that bring mind, world, and words into communion. Her devotion to exploration is evident in her poetic form, as well. The title poem, “Lake Superior,” appears on the page as a series of fragments that lack periods, that definitive form of punctuation. She leaves gaps rather than staking claims as an expedition leader or colonizer might.

Lake Superior is successful in respecting the fragmentary, interrogative nature of Niedecker’s writing while also helping readers recognize the poet’s investment in identifying affinities between kinds of matter and moments in time. The historical and archival sources throughout the book emphasize that the kind of immersion in place that Niedecker practices is not provincializing or parochial. Rather than shut her off from global, historical, environmental, and social phenomena, her sense of place opens out onto them, broadening her perspective. Perhaps most importantly, engagements with place generate a peculiar sense of time, which the Wave editors respect and replicate. The book takes a cue from its title poem and carefully marbles geologic time, historical time, and experiential time by leaping between texts from the 20th, 17th, and 19th centuries before reaching Niedecker’s own notes charting the geologic time scale, beginning with the formation of the earth “3000 to 5000 million yrs. ago.”

Compiled in this way, the book underscores the timelessness of Niedecker’s poetry and its relevance to the current moment of planetary endangerment. To my mind, these crossings of time are Lake Superior’s greatest achievement and contribution to environmental writing. Environmental art today faces the stiff task of figuring out how to carry audiences across time scales. It strives to give a sense of how a receding past has led to a precarious present, and what we might do to avert or adapt to a threatened future. This time travel is necessary if we’re to treat climate change, mass extinction, and other crises as social, cultural, and experiential challenges and not just as problems for quantitative scientists and engineers. 

Wisconsinite Aldo Leopold’s (1887-1948) lament for the extinct passenger pigeon drives home the urgent necessity for the kind of ecological thinking Niedecker puts into verse. The essay answers a question that the speaker asks in “Lake Superior”:

Wild pigeon

Did not man
   maimed by no

mash the cobalt
   and carnelian
      of that bird

More importantly, though, Leopold’s piece articulates the feelings that human-induced environmental changes generate: grief, sorrow, fear, nostalgia, and love, among them. The extinct pigeon provokes these responses for its ecological work, certainly, but above all because it was a geophysical force that could change the course of the winds and the composition of the air. “A living wind” and “a chain reaction,” the pigeon “was the lightning that played between two opposing potentials of intolerable intensity: the fat of the land and the oxygen of the air.”

Like the pigeon, with which we share a kinship as “fellow-voyagers […] in the odyssey of evolution,” humans are both biological and geophysical agents. The geophysical transformations that humans affect, however, are both greater and more dangerous than the pigeon’s. We are altering the carbon cycle, the composition of the atmosphere, and the flow of rivers. For those readers of Lake Superior steeped in current environmental discourse, Niedecker’s geological imaginary will resonate with the concept of the Anthropocene. As geological societies in the United States and the United Kingdom debate whether to add the Anthropocene to the geological time scale, the concept increasingly circulates in the press and the academy. If codified, it would mean that the Holocene is over, and we’ve created an era when human activity, especially the burning of fossil fuels, has fundamentally altered geophysical systems. The Anthropocene requires that we conceive of human actions in terms of the prehistoric past when carboniferous matter first sunk into the earth, of an ongoing history of extracting and consuming reserves of fossil fuels, and of a present and future when we must confront the consequences of burning those fuels. 

Of course, Lake Superior cannot reverse this trajectory toward the Anthropocene. But the book, along with the poem that inspires it, can model the tunneling into time that’s required for apprehending the scope of present-day environmental threats. Without being didactic or alarmist, the collection makes claims for a particular environmental consciousness, one that’s attuned to the historical and linguistic contingencies that shape the places we inhabit, travel through, and read about. It promotes Niedecker as a spokesperson for this consciousness who heralds the beauty and emotional power of the more-than-human world while acknowledging the inevitable damages that humanity inflicts on it.

Niedecker is aware that humanity doesn’t always add “to the glory of the spring” as birdsong does, but by recognizing the beauty in the birdsong, she encourages ecological explorations that, as Crase says, has pleasure at its core. Celebrating the plenitude of inorganic and organic things, her writings endorse kinship with all forms of matter and subtly but firmly indict exploitation of peoples and landscapes. In addition to her geological perspective, what may be most impressive about the cumulative effect of reading the texts in Lake Superior is that they aren’t mournful or elegiac. Rather, they leave a taste of delight. They present a cartography of the linguistic, ethnographic, and aesthetic richness of places that readers can follow in their own wandering ways. Without dictating a destination, the writings here proffer histories and perspectives that leave room for our own. By drawing out the relationship between human time and geological time, the sedimentation of language and the layerings of rock, Lake Superior invites us to recognize poetry as a tool for environmental thought. A poem can’t stand alone as a corrective to planetary threats or injustice, but it can initiate the excavations and conversations that invite us to place ourselves in a nexus of other times, species, peoples, objects, and locales.


Heather Houser writes on contemporary fiction, the environment, medicine and literature, and new media.