In Ruins

By Jonathan FarmerSeptember 21, 2015

Scavenger Loop by David Baker

ADAMIC AND INHUMAN, scientific language can feel strangely ambivalent. At least aspirationally (and often actually), it’s the language of objectivity, things as they are, an emblem of knowledge that is more than human, discovered and described by methods and tools that use our human faculties and ingenuity to reach beyond the limitations of our bodies and minds. At the same time, it’s also a sign of human intervention, a reminder that anything we can think of has been humanized by that thinking. Scientific language carries in it a record of our aspirations, our desire to be more or other than human (a particularly human tendency), our hunger and history and subjectivity audible in the language’s attempt to go out into the world unmarked by history, sterile, disinterested in everything it beholds. 

That conflict plays a fundamental role in David Baker’s 10th collection of poems, Scavenger Loop. The book is itself strikingly ambivalent about science, cherishing the insights it offers into the nonhuman world at the same time that it manifests outrage at our superhuman ambitions, which are leading to both global environmental devastation and, as Baker sees it, a lack of humility in the face of earlier human achievements.

But before I say anything else about Scavenger Loop, I need to make a confession: Inasmuch as any writing on literature can make a claim to objectivity, this review can’t. I started emailing with Baker last year when he submitted the book’s title poem to At Length. Since then, he’s installed himself in my life as a generous advocate and mentor for my own writing. I’m not alone in that — the breadth of Baker’s service to writers also says something about his relationship to language in Scavenger Loop, which is notable in part for its attempts to accommodate, overlap, analyze, and even, in places, correct the writing of others. 

But more on that in a bit. For now, I want to look at the way Baker uses the language of scientific objectivity. Here, for example, is a brief run from the long poem he sent me. In this passage, he is writing about his mother, for whom parts of the poem are an elegy:

Removal of IV   pulse 16   pull —


Use the Poisson equation to describe
the probability distribution
of random mutations in a cell that
affect (“hit”) a particular gene (“target”):


Touch the eyelid closed with a damp finger —

In the second section above, Baker records his grief for his mother in the language’s indifference to it. It’s a familiar approach — letting the resistance to a given feeling register that feeling’s force, largely through our unfulfilled desire to hear it — but there’s an extra valence here. Earlier in the same poem, Baker offers a long quotation from Bernd Heinrich, one of many borrowings there:

We deny that we are animals and part of the wheel of life, part of the food chain. We deny that we are part of the feast and seek to remove ourselves from it, even though we kill and consume animals by the billions and permanently remove the life resources for many more. But not one animal is allowed to consume us, even after we are dead. Not even the worms

The refusal of Baker’s grief, as I read it, cuts two ways. While the scientific language of mutations introduces a kind of arrogant, or protective, remoteness from human feeling, it also reminds us how much human feeling lies to us about our own nature — our being in and of nature, as in Heinrich’s description of our denial. That same refusal to treat this singular human’s suffering as unique, and the apparent arrogance of that, also argues for a more humble recognition of our similarity to any other phenomenon scientific inquiry might describe. 

Teeming with voices — quotations from poets, essayists, even from corporations, even etymologies — “Scavenger Loop” is relentless, shifting, weighing, judging, scavenging, as if it could harmonize all the dross and beauty that has landed near Baker as he tries to harmonize the even more disparate facts of his mother’s death and environmental catastrophe. As if he could make it into a system as harmonious as nature itself, with its far more efficient (if far less feeling) scavenging of everything that dies. That it does come together aesthetically, gorgeously, doesn’t mean it ever gets past that “as if,” and so the impossibility of that ends up expressing the need behind the poem just as powerfully as the “Poisson equation” expressed his grief.

Meanwhile, the poem goes on, still relentless. One page contains only three lines: “Untie the knots / of your knuckles / forgetting —” Another samples four lines from Hopkins. One quotation reminds that our creation of yards from forests makes us more vulnerable to disease (leaving unsaid but present the possibility that his mother’s disease was caused by environmental degradation), and then, pages later, Baker describes his own oversimplified, overly cluttered yard:

— broken shutters, musty box
springs, two ancient-at-eight-years-

            old laser printers
            and all manner of lawnmowers, power-tools, hand-

tools, shredded planters, to name only a bit

of the stuff crammed
           in my barn: as for me,
           fewer loves, yet more 

amassed … and there,
out behind the barn, the pile of water-logged lumber
           where the new fawns this
           spring were born, and farther yet, between

oak-leaf hydrangea and scrub trees
I’ve thinned out
           for cosmetic sake, for fewer leaves to rake,
           for more sun, thick grass

There’s a grace to these lines that keeps them from bogging down either in the clutter they describe or the deeper sense of harm. But the poem does get grim. A prophetic streak runs through it — “Something is coming more than we know how” — a sense of crisis and complicity that lets neither Baker nor his audience off the hook. He focuses his ire, in particular, on Monsanto, the supervillain of modern agriculture, often damning it with its own language, which comes in the form of implausible idylls (“Row on row of rich green stalks,” “offers corn farmers the ability // to control weeds and pests with a single / seed”). Baker’s not wrong; we’re far into a crisis that we remain unwilling to imagine, and our corporate erasures of individual responsibility continue to make things worse. But he is, in some of these moments, drawn to binaries that are themselves implausibly neat:

The genetic modifications are
to enhance growth and durability.
The genetic modifications are
to enhance growth in corporate profits.
Here is your examination: Choose one.

To which I can’t help wondering, why can’t it be both? Yes, the latter distorts the former, sometimes grotesquely, but in any massive organization, with its thousands of employees, numerous impulses coexist, much as they do within any one of those individuals.

Early on in “Scavenger Loop” he writes:

An hour ago on Facebook one newly
friended friend posted: Repeal Monsanto
Protection Act, as it “deregulates
the GMO industry from any
court oversight.” This status update was
“shared” from a status update which picked it
from someone else’s status, and so on.
Seventy-seven people “like” this post —
a record for me, my new friend comments
in the comment box of her own update,
a complex and mobile intimacy …

There’s a severity to these lines that feels off to me, maybe in part because he’s using the same tools that will damn Monsanto — simply leaving the language out there to fail — to damn his “newly / friended friend,” a phrase that carries its own note of condemnation for the too-freshly manufactured language we use to describe our lives in social media. Yes, we can often seem remarkably shallow on Facebook, but I’m not convinced that we were much different before social media began broadcasting us in all our imperfection, and I’m not convinced that the “friend” is guilty of anything more than being unwary in her self-presentation. To fire at her the same ammunition that he uses on a multinational corporation, one with a well-documented history of political manipulation and harm to the communities that use their seeds, seems excessive. And though the beautiful concluding line could be read as an attempt to see our online lives more generously, it feels more like an alternative to her comment, which further highlights her inelegance. 

Baker, to his credit, isn’t exempting himself from the empty loop of likes and shares, but he is drawing a line between the substantial and the sterile, and too often the substantial aligns with the past, which he configures as humble, natural, ennobled by hardship, honest, while sterility belongs to future-driven, future-blind technology, “progress,” laziness, and growth. (“A / difficult thing’s easier // to dismiss these / days than / face,” he writes in “On Arrogance.”) These moments seem too neat, too unforgiving of our flawed and persistent human complexities — our human nature, as it were — even when those flaws are writ small.

Far more appealing, and far more common, are the moments when Baker tries to capture the crowded complexity of the not-altogether-“natural” world he aches to participate in and preserve. He often writes in a rushed and tumbling style that foregrounds profusion. Here, at the outset of the book’s astonishing final poem, “Metastasis,” literal and figurative keep impinging on each other, altering the materials at hand and the mode of understanding while the words bounce off each other in a headlong sonic clatter:

Then the breakers turning back to brightness, if the light’s
   opaque ocean-blue sameness in the sky can be said to break,
the way the waves themselves, blue in back of blue
   like a color in the eye, fall back to the wall — sea wrack,
driftwood, or the inner optic shelf behind the lens.

In that overlap of sound and sense, it’s easy to get disoriented but hard to slow down and hard (at least for me) to resist the sense of abundance, of generation, the feeling that anything we might see is crowded with sense. Later in the same poem, Baker will refer to seeds “strewn in rows / like water along the ancient seabed floor of the farm.” The metaphor circles back on itself — the farm being figured in terms its own prior identity, the conditions that altered this land, then, in ways that make it possible for this soil, now, to nourish these seeds. Importantly, though, nothing is erased by all this turning. Nothing is made indistinct by its involvement in another element. Immediately after the Facebook passage from “Scavenger Loop,” Baker goes on in a very different mode. Turning away from the screen, he describes the fate of a fallen tree in a voice that keeps shifting registers, shifting even, at times, out of his voice altogether, quoting as much as a sentence and as little as two words, seemingly registering the complexity of a natural system in the quickened coexistence of, for instance, “powdery / sawdust” and “tinder polypore”: 

as in old woods, as         when a single tree
dies, and starts to rot,       yet it may remain
for decades. “More than   a third of the bird
species depend on         standing dead trees,
both for their food and     for nesting places.”
The body decays and       the larvae of some
“specialist beetles”       process the wood for
tiny tastes of nu-         tritious starch inside —
their burrows, maybe       only “one to three
millimeters wide,”         spill a powdery
sawdust as they chew:     powderpost, deathwatch,
tinder polypore,           sulfur shelf, sapsucker —.
The wood returns to       the soil as humus.

In as much as it’s an argument for anything, Scavenger Loop is an argument for complexity as a means for continuation — the complexity of “the trillions of phenomenal details, as constituents of a single natural thing, a living evolving breathing thing, a universe that is a single life form,” he writes in a recent issue of the Kenyon Review, where he has long served as poetry editor. For Baker, that extends to the complexity of language, too, language that is both a product of and a medium for encountering an evolving and vibrantly systematic variety.

We speak in ruins, I tell my students. The language we speak is an archaeological site, a layered history of people taking the available sounds and meanings and reforming them in order to better share with each other some of what they have come to know, imagine, and feel. Like all archaeological sites, it contains a record of conquests and cooperations, and much of it will remain inscrutable. Meanwhile, we add to it. It is both an archaeological site and a living city. Much of Baker’s frustration, I suspect, comes from a sense that we speak those words, much as we exploit the earth, with too little humility — that we live in that city as if it were made for us alone. 

“Five Odes on Absence” starts out in the moral binary of past and present — in this case, the past and present of our poetic language. He contrasts ad-speak and erasure poems (“Sappho: without time’s injury,” he says of the latter) with the letters John Clare wrote from the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, omitting all vowels, as well as the letter “y”—possibly, as Baker observes in an end-note, “to protect his privacy in case someone was going through his notebooks.” Alternately, he notes, quoting the scholar Jonathan Bate, “the disappearance of the vowels may have been a step on the road to the later mental degeneration that led him to speak of how his head had been cut off.” Either way, however well we may be able to read the letters now, making educated guesses about the missing vowels, they also carry with them something irrecoverable, a reminder of the original loss (and, before that, the original presence) behind what feels lost to us as readers, some not-altogether-definable hunger we might hear in ppl tll m hv gt n hm n ths wrld, which Baker plausibly guesses to be “People tell me I have got no home in this world.” 

Baker isn’t sentimentalizing loss or hardship. He’s asking us to honor their incarnations — their complexity. “Five Odes on Absence” encompasses the aftermath of his marriage, the father and son next door who are in mourning for the loss of their wife and mother, Clare’s letters, contemporary poetic practice, and, most persistently, the horror of submitting the past to time’s scavenging, of metabolizing loss. “On a better day,” he notes:

Clare writes, the starnels darken down the sky.
But that’s the price of time’s erasure, too,
sad memories of a happier life.
Ppl mk sch mstks. It isn’t code …
whr r … Then what he doesn’t write is you. 

As in so many of the book’s poems, Baker brings disparate experiences (erasure poems, Clare’s letters, his divorce, his neighbors’ grief) together under a shared term — in this case, absence. At the same time, he resists anything that would actually blur the lines between this loss and that loss, this life and that one. If he sometimes seems ambivalent about humanity on the whole, he also works masterfully with and within the human resistance to being summarized — and the degree to which we need, in some instances, to summarize even that resistance, as I’ve done ended up doing here. The circles are unsatisfying and exquisite. 

One poem is titled, simply, “Simile” — a literary maneuver that depends on difference just as much as similarity, likeness forever carrying its opposite into the world. He writes of a suicide bomber who “took herself into / the arms of flame.” “But there is no likeness beyond her body / in flames,” he continues, “for its moment, no matter its moment.” Among those unlike her (and therefore like her, too), the poem suggests, are the five people she killed. The mind of the poem keeps going, and its linking of likenesses returns Baker to the yard from which he thinks of all this. In a moment of perceived beauty, “The world once more / fills with fire, and the body, like ash, is ash.” It’s stunning: How those last words fall, in their repetition, from “like” to “is”; how “is ash,” coming after the brief pause in a simple sentence, gives aesthetic pleasure in the form of an unwelcome description — another radiant unlikeness. How it reaches back in time for a biblical grandeur based on human meagerness — “ashes to ashes” — and how it picks up on the conclusion of the poem’s first section, suggesting that our compulsion to make more might be best redeemed by marrying it to our insufficiency: 

Weeks now my words on paper have burned.
Burned and flown, like a soul on fire, with
nothing to show but ash, and the ash flies too.

At its most devastating, the poetry reveals its ambition, authorizing its use of language that feels almost ancient solely by the skill with which Baker uses it. It abdicates nothing. It adds to the world, though part of what it adds is ambivalence. One of my favorite poems in the book is called “Our Ivy.” Throughout it, our crowded language’s own ambivalence, its tendency to insinuate and accommodate at once, becomes nearly (no pun intended) immediate. Even the title feels loaded — those two words: “Our” suggests both community and isolation, referring to the terrain he shares with his neighbor at the same time as it alludes to the parceled dominion humans claim over the natural world. And “ivy”: “ivy,” it turns out, means too much for comfort, so strikingly resembling his neighbor’s cancer that ordinary talk turns treacherous:

We need to get that thing ripped out. He means
                 the whole green mass. He rolls down his
                 telling me as he slows into his drive.
But now he sees I’ve seen his face — I’m fine,
                more tests … hairline where a doctor
                                    shaved him
                and four or five gauze bandage-spots dotting
his cheek and jaw.

After a rapturous description of the ivy that will, like the word “mass” above, keep the uncomfortable interplay in view, the neighbor lets the darker, less social, reality fully emerge: 

                I hate it. He means
     the waiting now, the dark disease,
     in his gene swirl (from melas + -oma)
like a time bomb triggered by more sun.

By the end of the poem, Baker must turn away from the neighbor in order to go on. He starts two sentences in a row with “I read,” as if looking for a safer place to stand, clear of the personal implications, but then the neighbor pulls him back to the scene at hand one more time: 

               Go get your saw, he says. I’ll get my gloves.
About our ivy — I won’t tell him — “new
               plants grow prolific from cuttings.
                              They spread
               merely from stems making contact with earth.” 

With that aside (“I won’t tell him”), Baker makes explicit, cutting, the fact that he isn’t talking to the neighbor anymore. It’s an awkward kindness: he won’t tell him, but he’ll tell. Brutal and beautiful, this is the will to go on manifested in practical speech. But at the same time, the word “merely” registers a human presence inside the objective terms, an evaluation that slips past the borders of fact, a mix of marvel and dismay, and as a result that last word, “earth,” swells beyond the factual as well, looming as a bounty that we are bound, in some measure, to resist. 

Scavenger Loop includes quotations from a remarkable number of poets — in the endnotes, he cites more than 20. And he surely draws from even more writers, corporations and individuals alike, outside of poetry. He even pulls from the non-verbal corners of language, using the symbol for “as to” in an analogy (“::”), to let comparable terms and statements stand together in something short of equivalency, as in the line “Kernel :: cell :: syllable I am her son.” This inclusiveness is, at its most basic, another kind of scavenging — a metaphor for the ecosystems that we are interrupting with our increasingly powerful interventions into the natural (or “natural”) world. But here, once again, to see the ways that things are connected is also to see the varied forms that allow for alteration. 

Even as it mirrors the abundance of life on earth (the magnolias that “bloom in a cup of pink fire, each one, lit by an old oil”; “the black / checkmark bodies of the birds as they skitter / like water toward a drain”; “the lost leaves,” in a quotation from Franz Wright, “waiting to come back / as leaves —”), the profusion of voices throughout Scavenger Loop marks our particularly human hunger to encounter that abundance, to increase and obtain it for ourselves. Our seeing and saying of the world depends on our hunger, as well as our awareness of all that our hunger distorts. Baker honors that. It is, I think, part of what drives his generosity to other writers — this same sense of what our words hold in store. He is committed to the belief that we can, must, bring our human and aching ambivalence into language. In so doing, we may grow kind, which is its own kind of likeness. He does: “I am looking   at trees they may be one / of the things   I will miss   most from the earth,” he writes midway through “Scavenger Loop,” quoting W.S. Merwin. Then when you turn the page, just one line, reaching toward possession before asking for action instead: “she is my :: cover her   when she sleeps.”


Jonathan Farmer is the Editor in Chief and Poetry Editor of At Length and the poetry critic for the Slate Book Review.

LARB Contributor

Jonathan Farmer is the author of That Peculiar Affirmative: On the Social Life of Poems and the poetry editor and editor in chief of At Length. He teaches middle and high school English, and he lives in Durham, North Carolina.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!