The Act of Naming

Nina Hanz, Placeholders

Bottlecap Press, 24pp, $10.00, ISBN n/a

reviewed by Frith Taylor

Nina Hanz’s Placeholders is a lucid contemplation of landscape, power and the act of naming. A sincere evocation of the natural world, Placeholders is nevertheless aware of the tensions present in eulogising landscape; Hanz’s work explores gender, property, migration and settler colonialism.

Attentive to the mythologisation of women in nature, these poems are somewhere between eco-feminism, folk horror and prayer. Hanz pays homage to a litany of female luminaries; there are astronauts and writers, while a number of female artists inspire ekphrastic poems. There are also goddesses, ghosts, and the women at the centre of myths and folktales. Hanz’s eco-feminism is a politics blessedly free of Gaia fantasies that imagine a sacred femininity grounded in gender essentialism. Her poems are intertextual and curious, reaching out into international, feminist body of work.

Hanz is one of many young nature writers for whom landscape is a site of political contestation, while at the same time being part of a Romantic tradition which figures the natural world as a tactile, thrilling conduit for sensation. I’m thinking primarily of Seàn Hewitt, whose reverential evocations of nature marry the pleasure and pain of exile as a young queer person; and Jen Hadfield, whose praise-poems present us with a grubby and lovely secular-sacred.

Hanz’s central concern in Placeholders is naming — naming as an act of domination, or as a form of reverence. Throughout the collection Hanz deliberately confuses the names of women and landscapes, the poems situated somewhere where the two meet. As with ‘Jenny Jump Mountain’ this meeting of woman and landscape is often fraught, freighted with historical, colonial, or interpersonal violence. ‘Jenny Jump Mountain’ tells the story of a young girl in New Jersey who, according to legend, saw a ghostly figure when playing near a Native American burial ground. Reading the figure as Native American, and therefore a threat, her father urged her to jump to escape, and she did not survive. Hanz suspends the poem in the moment of jumping, while including the legend that followed:

her story …
becomes tragedy based on how many times it is told:
      Jenny, jump!
and now she keeps on looking, for someone, for when
she jumps to catch her / call her bone, this tragedy so
big it named a mountain.

This collapsed temporality adds to the poem’s haunting resonances. The internet tells me Jenny’s father was anxious to protect ‘her purity’; viewing a Native American as synonymous with the threat of sexual assault, he saw death as the lesser of two evils. There are two ghosts haunting this poem, then: the ghost of colonial guilt, and the ghost of Jenny, a victim of patriarchal control.

Themes of naming and domination are also present in ‘Seven Sisters’, which elides landscape’s physical and geo-political boundaries to present the cliffs of Dover as a site of state violence.

see: it wasn’t the cliffs that broke Dover, your sharp instrument that never did
have a blunt side.

Hanz draws an equivalence between different power relations — the patriarchal authority that named these cliffs the ‘Seven Sisters’, and the state authority that created the condition for the migrant crisis:

your sisterhood has always been symbolic. because it seems men prefer to name / things / after women who do not exist

This connection between naming and violence is made explicit in ‘Some days (I wish I were Eden)’ where Hanz’s speaker asserts that

making terms into standards for maps that were already wrong. cruel dictionary,

cartography is the social study of how things multiply
in our minds when we misidentify or despise.

Hanz’s work is strongest at its slipperiest. The poem also depicts children in a classroom whose decision to name the class hamster is set up in opposition to ‘cruel’ authoritarian cartography. In their geography lesson, the children ‘learned to read across country’. It is unclear whether Hanz is positioning pedagogy as another mode of state control and indoctrination, or whether this is a liberatory experience in which the children’s imaginations evade borders and regulations. Hanz is able to hold the curiosity of the children, while subverting ‘lawfare’ and mapping, the primary tools of the settler-colonialist.

While there are clear political concerns in this collection, it also reads as a series of marvels, a delight in nature for its own sake. Landscape is ritualistically named, echoing the repetition and reverence of prayer. In the brief and intense ‘Echoes at Loreley Rock’ Hanz writes,

in the Lore of Ley, a sound swithers
from steep slate to ship-shells.
    You’d be able to hear it if once the city
   stopped for—Lorelei, your ear on a conch. this
   too is a folktale of oceans.Lorelei. an echo of
      rocks, of resonance,
   whose love is a fallen woman.

There is something rhythmic and satisfying about Hanz’s work— I like reading about these places and feeling her palpable delight in nature which is both subtly realised and anchored in the recognition that each place has many histories.

There are sensory and exciting places too, where the poems feel as though they are just tipping into folk horror. One of Hanz’s ekphrastic poems takes Ana Mendieta’s Silueta series as its starting point. Mendieta’s work is a collection of thrilling and weird photographs of female silhouettes, deliberately entangling, as Hanz does, the female body with landscape. The silhouettes are drawn in charred grass, sand and mud, some in which red pigment fills the hollow left by a woman’s body in sand, while others, like an auto-da-fé, are on fire. In Hanz’s poem, the outlines of the woman’s body could also be the boundaries on a landscape or map:

try not to let the border take you,
just the shadow. the sharp
template-essence of you

As with much of Hanz’s work, this poem is beguiled by haunted landscapes. The traces of women in landscape are at once sacrificial and reverential, and yet the poem is sharply critical of the ways in which women, and women’s bodies, are subsumed by wider culture, or whose fate is dictated by their physicality. The silhouette

stays on as a scent, meaning it lingers—
until maybe rainfall or flood. I want
to climb into the shadow so it becomes a coffin,

This is Hanz’s work at its most spooky and controlled; she sustains a sense of distance and speculation, dramatising the moment of looking, making us consider the way we look, too. There is a submission to wildness, to visceral impulses, even to death, and then Hanz reminds us the temporary silhouette will

dissolve into nothing, someday soon. fear:

it already has . . .

your shade shelters ground
until it no longer dams. what remains
is just thin and speculation.

It is Hanz’s sincerity that I find most striking; her work is informed by deeply felt utopian thinking that is not simply a valorisation of imagination in itself, but as a political necessity. She interrogates the problem of the landscape poet, how to be attentive to profound connections with nature without re-inscribing power relations. Throughout her collection Hanz gives us images in which female forms are incorporated with or subsumed by landscape. Hanz holds the tension here, reminding us all the while that ‘I’m a visitor, / un-settler’.

Frith Taylor is a writer and researcher based in London. She is currently writing a PhD on 18th-century queer domesticity at Queen Mary University of London.