Nature’s Nurture: On Pattiann Rogers’s “The Determinations of the Scene”

A stylized photo of poet Pattiann Rogers delivering a lecture on Walt Whitman.

I take it as a general principle that every person has their own internal atlas of the mind, and a map in the hands of a mind that sees higher than others is a thing that is a statement of belief.”

-Dan Schneider, The Edge of the Shone

I’ve never been deeply interested in discovering some knock-down argument for the question of determinism, hard or soft or what have you. It seems a given that we are thrown into existence equipped with certain capacities, which are, to a degree, non-negotiable; and our choices, going forward, will always be curtailed both by the limits of those capacities as well as the inevitability of outside interference, whether it be from environments or other actors—who are, of course, similarly limited by their own subjectivities.

While this seems to me to be almost boringly obvious, it’s at the same time difficult for me to square away the reality of human freedom. Yes, we’re pre-equipped with a particular physiology, rising out of protein codes and the processes of gestation, and on top of that are blown hither and yon by the previously mentioned exteriors; but it’s also boringly obvious that an essential element of our existence involves the ability to “mind” oneself, to abstract real decisions distinct from biology’s sundry impulsions and the effect of circumstance. While it may (or may not?) be technically possible to draw out a fully elaborated causal chain starting with the origins of the universe all the way down to my choice of sausage or pepperoni for last night’s pizza order, this still tells me nothing whatsoever about the role intentionality plays in this otherwise brute sequence of events.

Matter’s explosion into reality, the orbits and cataclysms of celestial (and terrestrial) bodies, life squirming out of the steaming prehistoric murk, and then the appearance of eukaryotic development and then flora and fauna and then mankind—then culture and civilization, history (involving the strange ability to look back and draw out a fully elaborated causal chain, in the first place)…all resulting in one baffled and overweight knob-headed hominid waffling on his couch over what he’ll get from Dominos this week. But, for all that—and here comes the dreaded rejoinder—why? And what for?

The very fact that we are able to ask this question just might contain its own answer. (It’s sausage with pineapple, in case you were wondering.) Anyway, I’m no philosopher, and have all the interest in science of a curious outsider. Continuing down this path will in all likelihood result in faulty logics and mixed terminologies, so I’ll spare the reader any potential face-smacking. Yet, it’s undeniable that our in/ability to choose, and the impact of the world on our worldview, has provided a seemingly infinite source of inspiration for not just the philosophers and scientists, but for artists, who endlessly devise fictions so that entirely fake people can also dumbly wonder at the dearth of solutions to life’s problems. Or simply philosophize, themselves, poised at the gap between our quest and the elusive goal, armed with their own declamations:

The Determinations of the Scene

by Pattiann Rogers

Consider one born in the desert,
How he must see his sorrow rise
In the semblance of the yucca spreading
Its thorn-covered leaves in every directions,
Pricking clear to the ends
Of his fingers. He recognizes it
And deals with it thus. He learns to ponder
Like the reptile, in a posed quiet
Of the mind, to move on the barest
Essentials, to solve problems
Like the twisted mesquite sustaining itself.
He puts edges to the nouns of his statements,
Copying the distinct lines of the canyon in shadow
And established cool niches out of the sun
In every part of his dogma. He understands
His ecstasy in terms of fluidity, high spring water
In motion through the arroyo.

That one born in the forest, growing up
With canopies, must seek to secure coverings
For all of his theories. He blesses trees
And boulders, the solid and barely altered.
He is biased in terms of stable growth vertically.
And doesn’t he picture his thoughts springing
From moss and decay, from the white sponge
Of fungus and porous toadstools blending?
He is shaped by the fecund and the damp,
His fertile identifications with humus
And the aroma of rain on the deepening
Forest floor. Seeing the sky only in pieces
Of light, his widest definition must be modeled
After the clearing hemmed in by trees.

And consider the child raised near the sea, impinged
Upon constantly by the surf rising in swells,
Breaking itself to permanent particles of mist
Over the cliffs. Did you really think
The constant commotion of all that fury
Would mean nothing in the formation of vocabulary
Which he chooses to assign to God?
The surge, the explosion must constitute
The underlying dominion unacknowledged
In his approach to the cosmos.

And we mustn’t forget to inquire:
Against what kinds of threats must the psyche
Of the Arctic child protect itself in sleep?

I first heard of Pattiann Rogers through an essay by (you guessed it) Dan Schneider, and although the piece was meant as a critique of the poet, my biggest takeaway was the marvel that is “The Importance of the Whale in the Field of Iris,” from her 1989 book Splitting and Binding, which Schneider places in the upper echelon of poems that manage to be both artistically supernal and socially important. The intuitive leap(s) she makes, there, could so easily be silly in the hands of a poetaster, but are so clearly not, and instead seem to touch the sublime.

It’s a fantastic work of art, and a far better, more daring one than “The Determinations of the Scene”—which is to be expected, though, as the latter’s publishing preceded the former by eight years. Still, “Determinations” is a good poem, and one that has more truck with the oeuvres of Kenneth Rexroth or Robinson Jeffers than, say, a Mary Oliver. All involve the witness of nature, but the power in “The Determinations of the Scene” is more akin to Jeffers’s stentorian voice, or the technical precision of Rexroth, dwarfing Oliver’s small, sappy insights.

Could it be pruned? Sure, and depending on the extent of the pruning, it’d lose very little in its philosophical thrust. We have three illustrations of a specific nature’s nurture of a mind (each shortening, in turn), with a fourth and final mind consisting of a single question only. The language is terminologically precise (a staple of Rogers’s) and yet manages a kind of dry lyricism, almost; emotion is quite tangible, too, despite the objective pose, with odd touches like “sorrow rise / in the semblance of the yucca spreading”; “His fertile identifications with humus / and the aroma of rain”; the sea-child’s link of watery furor to the divine.

It is wise for Pattiann Rogers to suffuse these images with not only a sense of human limit, but an opening up of possibilities. While the mind’s environs ineluctably shape its contours and wants, shutting off to an extent other avenues of engagement, they are what help form that mind’s utter uniqueness. Contrary to the connotations of determinism dully reducing the human experience to a merely automaton-like process, here it is lush and diverse, as the mind takes on the rich qualities of the natural world. For Rogers, the mind’s subjection to nature does not rob it of its subjective mystery. Instead, such subjection unites the mind to a state of being no less mysterious but far grander in scope. And so, ending the poem on an inquiry (the final stanza’s bareness in keeping, perhaps, with the bareness of the Arctic tundra?) leaves it appropriately open-ended, adding in a touch of unexpected dread, even, what with its unnamed threats.

Pattiann Rogers’s poem succeeds, in part, because despite its clear philosophical bias towards one end of the debate (I mean, look at the title) its narrative approach in creating these small character portraits—general enough to encompass a wide variety of psyches—complexifies the proceedings so that the philosophy does not override the artistry. And the technique (turn-of-phrase, enjambment) is just serviceable/good, its lack of great leaps of nigh-illogic somewhat covered by the poem’s detached, scientific pose.

But, in any case, the “debate” is one I’m in no rush to see settled. Everyone has their own way of addressing profound quandaries, and it is in the resultant mesh of conflicting perspectives that anything like a sufficient synthesis might manifest. There’s something prickly, anyway, about those who hurry forth definitive answers from either camp. Not to say that those arguments aren’t strong, or beneficially supplemental to the collective understanding. It’s just one of those mysteries that ought to be deepened, not explained—I forget whoever canned that first, but it strikes me as wise. And in my worldview, it’s this sort of wisdom, tempered by humility, that brings one closer to grasping, if one desires to, any potential “underlying dominion unacknowledged” guiding all minds in their observations of each other, the cosmos, and themselves.

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If you enjoyed Ezekiel Yu’s analysis of Pattiann Rogers’s “The Determinations of the Scene”, consider supporting us and get patron-only content on our Patreon page. This will help the growth of this site, the automachination YouTube channel, and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include an analysis of the 1972 classic, “The Limits To Growth”, with climate activist Arnold Schroder, an in-depth look at Friedrich Nietzsche’s “The Gay Science” with Irish poet Laura Woods, and a discussion with Ivan Katchanovski on Maidan and Ukrainian history in light of the Russia-Ukraine War

More from Ezekiel Yu: In Memoriam: Carcinogens and the Common Isopod, Shoot ’em Dead: Review of Orson Welles’s “The Other Side of the Wind” (2018)Transforming Claude Monet: On Jessica Schneider’s “Theme de Camille” (EKPHRASM, 2022)

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