A Frances Johnson is a prize-winning poet, author and artist, and is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne where she teaches Poetry and Poetics, and Contemporary Eco-fictions. Rendition for Harp & Kalashnikov is her third book of poetry (Puncher and Wattman 2017). The Wind-up Birdman of Moorabool Street (Puncher and Wattmann) won the 2012 Michel Wesley Wright Prize. In 2015, she won the Griffith University Josephine Ulrick Poetry Prize and, in 2017, received an Australia Council residency (BR Whiting Studio) in Rome. A postcolonial novel, Eugene’s Falls (Arcadia 2007), retraces the Victorian journeys of colonial painter Eugene von Guerard and two associated solo exhibitions interrogate the construction of knowledge discourse around colonial landscape, agriculture and botany (Geelong Gallery 2010, 2015). 

What rubbish

Ecologies of vibrant matter in contemporary poetry

This essay explores how ordinary objects and substances are given agency to become, in Jane Bennett’s words, ‘agential actants’. I review the importance of Bennett’s work in vital materialism where she rethinks the value of inanimate objects and our relationship to them. Then, drawing on the work of selected poets including Simon Armitage, Kathleen Jamie, Luke Kennard, Judith Wright, John Kinsella and Oodgeroo Noonuccal, I explore how these poets deploy humble, inanimate objects and substances (plastic; dust, industrial, chemical and green waste) as ‘vibrant matter’ to intensify, subvert and foreground the ecological meaning and being of objects in their poems.

I show that while certain poetic explorations of rubbish and waste predate the rise of vital materialist theory, such theory provides new ecological ethical frameworks for re-thinking inanimate forms in poetry. I finally suggest that vital materialist ideas facilitate urgent creative and critical re-evaluations of poetic ‘objecthood’ within poetries of the ‘so-called’ natural world. To that end, poems from Kinsella, Reilly, Armitage, Kennard and Jamie arise as provocations to idealised and romantic portrayals of nature in which figures of waste and rubbish have mostly been elided. This essay therefore participates in current posthuman thinking which casts remaindered objects and substances as ecologies of lively matter alongside the human.