“The Great Chain of Being”: Alice Major’s “Welcome to the Anthropocene”

November 27, 2018   •   By Hannah Rogers

Welcome to the Anthropocene

Alice Major

IN CANADIAN POET Alice Major’s Welcome to the Anthropocene, readers are introduced to a poetry ready to probe the ethics and political dilemmas of climate change, genetic shifts, and problems wrought by human choices through technology. The volume is somewhat lengthy for a recent book of poetry, but readers soon find out why this ambitious collection spans 136 paperback pages. Not only does the poet dissect the ethics of current science, she also refuses to see this as a contemporary problem, insisting that we understand our climate predicament in a long humanist tradition of verse, religion, and human choices.

The first poet laureate of Edmonton, Canada, Major opens her book with the poem “In medias res,” into the midst of the action, a lament for children born into a world they did not create:

Alas poor child, you’re born
in medias res — the stage is set
with swirling depictions of a globe
in panic, small rainbow-colored frogs
hopping into oblivion,
a scene of smoggy atmosphere

With this opening, Major then turns to a 10-part response to Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man (1734), a second bite into the apple of rationalizing the ways of God to man (after John Milton’s Paradise Lost [1667]). By invoking this work, which tries to understand how human beings fall into the structure of the universe, Major imbues her poem with Milton’s ethical concerns about humans accepting their position in the “Great Chain of Being.” Major’s poem raises questions about humanity’s position relative to God, or at least nature, given our ability (and inability) to create and manipulate the world around us.

In her title poem, Major moves between voicing a popular form of biological determinism (“Unaware, we live our lives according / to scripture written in our genes. Recording / angels of our DNA”) and a beautiful tempered reflection of the real complications of life on earth (“Equivalent / in worth and intricacy to the ferment / of a galaxy’s vast, spouting spirallings, / or a small, green, leaf-shaped frog. Things / do not get simpler just because of size”).

These poetic incantations are sometimes reminiscent of Wendell Berry’s Life Is a Miracle (2000), the welcome rejoinder to E. O. Wilson’s Consilience (1998), a problematic attempt at the unification of knowledge replete with assumptions about the nature of scientific inquiry. However, there are moments when Wilson’s prose puts off the fragrance of poetry just as Major’s poetry can veer toward prose before sliding back into tantalizing assonance and rhyme:

                                    We are time’s derivative.
And for a little while, we are each a lens
in its compound eye. We might not unite
behind Pope’s verse Whatever is, is right.
Still, whatever is, matters, in a wholeness where
everything is common and everything is rare.

The book that opens out of this meditation is a bicycle-paced tour of the animals in our lives, the gendered existence we live in offices, an interpretation of the philosophy of mathematics, and lines on the resonances of time and health. Major does not miss a chance to show us the science we already think with and the implications of this science on our ethics. The reappearance of scientific language to express personal experience elevates the book’s themes: “Then think how everything / does touch. Our universe comes blossoming / out of a vacuum that is not void.”

But touch takes on new meaning in “Old Anna,” an homage to the feminist folk wisdom that babies require touch, an idea “discovered” by modern medicine through a children’s clinic cleaning worker, Anna:

Old Anna’s theory. A newborn’s soul is light,
lighter than swansdown. Now sewn with buttons
or weighted with watches. When you cut the birth cord,
it will drift away — unless you stitch it tight

This way of juxtaposing folk knowledge and scientific knowledge sets the power of science on its ear. Readers readily understand that the power of science does not always come from knowledge production, as in the case of the children’s clinic, where the “discovery” of the value of touch is in fact the ratification of folk wisdom. Major’s practical philosophy of science avoids a pie-eyed love of science and technology while refusing simple dismissal or disgust.

Her poems harken back to William Wordsworth’s experiments with language and the mind, signposts in the lineage of romanticism which appear in the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, and W. H. Auden. Major unfolds her ideas by projecting images of biotechnology, mutant rats, and drifting universes on the back walls of our minds. Rather than in Coleridge’s moors, we are awash in the rising tides of information flowing from rodent laboratories and starry universes seen through telescopes.

Major is one of a host of contemporary poets engaging questions of science. In Boston Review’s “What Nature” issue (March 2018), edited by Timothy Donnelly, B. K. Fischer, and Stefania Heim, collected poems for the “predawn of the Sixth Extinction Event,” one considers how the threats posed by nature are now understood to be the result of human actions. Newly occurring disasters may result in an exposure of human limitations, but they are preceded by the effect of human actions at a global scale. Any respite the poems offer from this fact is tinged with the speaker’s fear of discovering plastic bottle in the waves or the possibility that butterflies will not unwind themselves from chrysalis attached to aluminum fencing.

On the other end of these concerns are the well-curated poems in the environmental magazine Orion, which voice hope as often as climate-change doom, as in Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s “The Pepper Kingdom”:

Let that small fire on our tongues combust

just enough that we never forget pepper
first came not from a land of flame and blaze,

but from a quiet shoreline of green.

Strains of this inseparable link between art and science (think land art, eco-art, bio-art, and art for the Anthropocene) have appeared in galleries, like Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution (Exit Art, 2000), Sensing Change (Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum, 2013), and Placing the Golden Spike: Landscapes of the Anthropocene (INOVA, 2015).

Thus, Major’s Welcome to the Anthropocene finds a ready readership prepared to consider conservation and climate change but also genetic interventions and cosmology. At times, her poems invite comparison to James Applewhite’s Cosmos: A Poem (2014) and Time Beginnings (2017), which express both scientific concerns about the nature of the universe and humanistic philosophical inquiry.

Major has worked at the intersection of art and science before in her creative nonfiction work Intersecting Sets: A Poet Looks at Science (2011) — a book that is more celebratory of science than her latest work, which is tempered by the social complexities of climate change. In Welcome to the Anthropocene, Major sets up the natural world as dominant over our knowledge of it. She avoids suggesting that science can save us from our current predicament by satirizing those who are interested in an easy fix: “We can fix / anything, we are smarter than bacteria. There isn’t any reason for hysteria. / We’ll plant some trees.” This sentiment provides tension in a book that finds truth and beauty in science, but which also has critiques of some of its processes and outcomes. Major is especially concerned with how improved scientific understanding and new technologies may cause us to mistake our position in the “Great Chain of Being.”

In Welcome to the Anthropocene, Major is not offering a guide to action so much as a guide to broadening the problem beyond the sometimes pat suggestions of political and environmental activists.

While her poems point out that we have all arrived in medias res, she does not allow this to stand as an excuse for stage paralysis. Yet her direct addresses avoid blame, guilt, or their attendant emotion: self-loathing. Rather than rhetorically invoking future children who will arrive in the wake of environmental disasters, Major speaks directly to the children of today:

Dear child of fortune, born today
into the middle of things,
break a leg. Don’t look for gods
descending in a basket,
or prompters in the wings.
Declaim one memorable soliloquy.
Turn a spotlight. Or pick up
pelting litter from the stage.
There is no ending, happy
or otherwise. Just play your part.

What Major adds here is the duality of the Anthropocene: our despair in the face of it and the fact that whether we avoid, protest, reform, or embrace this new world, we are still in it.


Hannah Star Rogers is a poet, curator, and scholar of art and Science & Technology Studies. She received her MFA in poetry from Columbia University and PhD at Cornell University on the intersection of art and science. She has taught writing at Columbia University and the University of Virginia. She has received the Akademie Schloss Solitude Fellowship in Stuttgart, Germany, Djerassi Artist Residency in Woodside, California, the Jermone Foundation–funded Tofte Lake Center Emerging Artist Fellowship, and National Park Service residencies in Acadia, Maine and the Everglades, Florida.