Waste Lands Within: Unreal City a composted version of TS Eliot
by Alison Powell
Unreal city; stirring, we awake
Moving to our desires, entwined and enveloping
All of your afterthoughts within.
Are we alive or are we not? Breeding
Bodies from bodies, earth from scraps
The brown fogs to hot rains
The cries of ravens in the night.
All things are on fire,
All rivers bear empty bottles, sandwich
papers, cigarette ends of City directors.
Will it bloom this year?
We hold the echoes in our skins,
The corpse, the sudden thaw disturbed.
We are decay.
Where the nightingale? She departed
Yet we remain; what are the roots and which are us?
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
If there were rock
And also water
We were there. Neither alive nor dead.
Your shadow at morning;
Memory and desire.
We revive faster than you know
Out of this stony rubbish.
We are the possible.
HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME
We foretold, for being long here
Away from the light.
I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.
We keep the bones.
For the rain.
If it comes.
Hold the river sweats, the grimy spoils
The hopeful spoor, the dust and angst
Under your feet, before the thunder
In epic time, we die.
Passing into the bodies of friends
Or lovers, deep beneath
While you count
Manage the deluge
Connect nothing with nothing
We swallow, hold, connect.
In the waste land
Shored against ruins.
This poem is a recasting of TS Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, published in 1922. “The Waste Land” is a modernist masterwork, weaving together social commentary and elegiac observations of a burgeoning City of London overwhelming itself, its people and its natural environment. Eliot was attentive to the visceral angst of city life, while also weaving fragments of other poems, stories and songs together to evoke the interconnections between past, present and future, and the connections between very disparate protagonists. Its passionate language and striking structure hit at the heart of the difficulties of modernity and urbanity: alienation from others, pollution and waste, gender inequalities, and an always inchoate set of other possibilities for being, which Eliot explored through reference to an enormous range of cultural material, from Ovid to the Buddha, as well as through a character, Tiresias, who unites youth and age and transgresses gender boundaries.
Many London dwellers of 2021 would recognize the century-old angst and ennui in “The Waste Land”. For many readers, the horror of the poem is revealed in the devastation it sketches about a world with too little water, a barren earth, a delayed thunderstorm that didn’t seem to nourish the ground as it should have. Among this environmental horror (mirrored with the social horror of alienation and difference), so many contemporary concerns are already carried in the original poem.
What seemed worth exploring, especially as a result of the MoTH project, was a more relational view of urban life. “The Waste Land” is full of ‘more-than-humans’ – animals, trees, the river Thames, as well as the infrastructure of the modern city (bridges, boats and barges). Yet the perspective still comes from ‘outside and above: the God Eye’ as Donna Haraway calls it. What kinds of new emotions and reflections might be produced by taking a more relational perspective? Furthermore, what kinds of claims about a meaningful life or meaningful connections to place and to others might be made from this perspective?
In reworking (or perhaps digesting) this poem I wanted to explore how the emotional relationships that Eliot sketched between people could be viewed from the ground up, or more specifically, from inside the living soil. The hybridized (or composted?) poem is told from the perspective of the organisms living in the city’s soil: earthworms, nematodes and fungus. In the MoTH research, we explored how relationships unfolded between different species living in cities, and created speculative design material that foregrounded what we imagined might be the needs of our non-human neighbours: undisturbed soil, clean rain, organic material. Where our reflections encountered more difficulty was in trying to imagine what our non-human neighbours might WANT – what might be the desires of a fox, a bee or a fungus?
This poem uses the depth and power of “The Waste Land” to try to create an entry point to this question of desire. It blends together lines from the original poem with original writing to hint at a different kind of collective, a living ‘we’ that tries to foreground other-than-human experience. Like compost, this broken down, re-created and perhaps decayed poem is an uneven, partially digested version of the original, consciously placing the non-humans of the soil in prime speaking position. Hopefully, like compost, it is also nourishing and rich.