JUNE 24, 2018
KAIA SAND’S “Tiny Arctic Ice” is a wasteful poem: one line of poetry appears on each of the first 18 pages of her 2016 collection, A Tale of Magicians Who Puffed Up Money That Lost Its Puff. The poem’s paper-inefficiency makes its depiction of ecological crisis all the more unsettling. The poem begins:
7.4 billion people breathing
Some of us in captivity
Our crops far-flung
Prison is a place where children sometimes visit
Jetted from Japan, edamame is eaten in England
Airplane air is hard to share
I breathe in what you breathe out, stranger
Breathing, an intimacy between strangers, guides an investigation of incarceration, agriculture and food transportation, and overpopulation on a plane or the planet. “Tiny Arctic Ice” diagnoses a planetary condition. It draws connections between the environmental, economic, and political systems. It makes the structural mundane, and the mundane structural. It blurs the line between human beings’ complicity with environmental destruction and their absorption of its consequences. “Tiny Arctic Ice” exemplifies a contemporary ecopoetics that articulates the sensorial and affective life of planetary disaster.
Angela Hume and Gillian Osborne, the editors of Ecopoetics: Essays in the Field (2018), theorize ecopoetics as both a critical practice and the poetic archive to which it attends. Ecopoetics, the corpus of poetry, can be grasped as an offshoot of midcentury US avant-garde movements (objectivism, Black Mountain poetry, New American poetry) that promote techniques like free verse, experiential aesthetics, and mixed-media pursuits. Although its trajectory periodically merges with that of ecological literary criticism or ecocriticism, ecopoetics, the critical practice, specifically resists a Romantic focus on pastoral and wildness in poetry criticism. This resistance intensifies in the last two decades of the 20th century, as ecopoetics evolves into an intersectional paradigm for evaluating the unevenly distributed effects of environmental degradation. Both creative and critical branches of ecopoetics depart from nature writing. Ecopoetics trades an Emersonian or Thoreauvian attention to sublime, untouched nature for sites of extraction, chemical spills, and other manifestations of ecosystemic violence.
In Recomposing Ecopoetics: North American Poetry of the Self-Conscious Anthropocene (2018), Lynn Keller locates ecopoetics in a period where human beings are aware of their impact on the nonhuman world. The Anthropocene, a geological era in which human activity has left an indelible planetary trace, may have begun centuries ago. By contrast, Keller argues that the “self-conscious Anthropocene” corresponds to a shorter period in which human beings have actively recognized the consequences of their actions on the Earth’s life-supporting infrastructure. The accession of a climate change denier to the US presidency and the defunding of the Environmental Protection Agency raise the question: How is the notion of the self-conscious Anthropocene altered when human beings refuse to recognize the planetary consequences of their actions? Keller’s periodization demands that we either see climate change deniers as self-conscious Anthropocene dwellers acting in bad faith, or count only some people’s — and really, poets’ — consciousness of human-caused climate change.
Keller’s initiative is in essence curatorial. Recomposing Ecopoetics might best be consumed as a series of attentive readings shedding light on the challenges of writing the Anthropocene. Juliana Spahr, Forrest Gander, and Ed Roberson, for example, show up in an illuminating essay on the problem of writing across experiential and phenomenal scales. Keller identifies two approaches to this problem. An aspirational approach jumps between molecular and planetary scales in a bid to think through intricate phenomena whose present-day manifestations recapitulate and reroute multimillion-year processes. For example, the project of visualization set up in the title of Roberson’s To See the Earth Before the End of the World (2010) relies on human beings’ existing ability to adapt to new scales of perception. Our current mental images of the Earth are the products of adjustments to technological innovations that include plane travel and space exploration. In awe of human beings’ perceptual flexibility, the speaker of Roberson’s “Topoi” asks,
what point did we become so familiar with
such long perspective we could look down
and recognize the pile of Denver by the drop off
and crumble of the plate up into the Rockies,
or say That’s Detroit! by the link of lakes by
Lake St. Clair some thirty-thousand feet
above Lake Eerie…?
Thinking across scales constitutes for Roberson an ability that must be cultivated and extended. The second approach to the problem of scale that Keller identifies is more skeptical. We cannot meet environmental challenges, the approach goes, simply by thinking at once about their small- and large-scale implications. Spahr’s “Unnamed Dragonfly Species,” from the collection Well Then There Now (2011), juxtaposes two complex environmental issues, global warming and species extinction:
Unnamed Dragonfly Species They were anxious and they were paralyzed by the largeness and the connectedness of systems, a largeness of relation that they liked to think about and often celebrated but now seemed unbearably tragic. Upland Sandpiper The connected relationship between water and land seemed deeply damaged, perhaps beyond repair in numerous places.
The poem goes back and forth between endangered species (in bold) and a quest for knowledge about climate change attributed to an obsessive “they.” Thinking across scales represents in Spahr’s poetry a locus of dissonance and alienation in the face of insurmountable environmental challenges.
Keller recruits poets such as Adam Dickinson, Jody Gladding, Jorie Graham, Jena Osman, Evelyn Reilly, and Angela Rawlings to tackle the long temporality of plastic degradation, interactions between human and nonhuman beings, apocalyptic discourse and its discontents, and the transformed sense of place of the self-conscious Anthropocene. One of the pleasures of reading Recomposing Ecopoetics comes from periodically revisiting poets, like Gander, Reilly, and Spahr, who recur throughout the chapters. Keller’s willingness to return to familiar figures suggests that neither their poetry nor its ecological significance is exhausted by her readings. Keller constructs, rather than extracts, a corpus.
A narrower definition of ecopoetics appears near the conclusion of Margaret Ronda’s Remainders: American Poetry at Nature’s End (2018). For Ronda, the term designates a poetic sensibility that emerges in North American poetry in the early 2000s. This sensibility mobilizes figures of address, like apostrophe or prosopopeia, to configure human beings’ obligations to the nonhuman world — the paradoxical senses of intimacy and estrangement that characterize “differential responsibility” in the face of environmental destruction. A major item in Ronda’s microhistory of ecopoetics is the journal ecopoetics (2001–2009). The editor, Jonathan Skinner, imagined the publication as an antidote to avant-garde poetry’s “overall silence” on environmental issues. Whereas Language poetry had presumed that readers demonstrated agency by interpreting resistant or opaque texts, the journal ecopoetics asked how agency was compromised amid ecological turmoil.
The term “ecopoetics” designates only the most recent cluster of texts in a larger archive that Ronda frames as the poetry of the Great Acceleration. The Great Acceleration begins in 1945 with rapid, deleterious planetary changes, including a spike in CO2 emissions, biodiversity loss, and ocean acidification. Though many environmental shifts associated with the Great Acceleration precede 1945, the year marks the start of scaled-up capitalist extraction and expansion. Ronda further divides the Great Acceleration into three moments, investigated in the chronologically ordered chapters. The 1950s’ “Golden Age of Capitalism” occasions new kinds and scales of post-consumer waste as well as uneven urban and rural development. The 1960s and 1970s witness economic destabilization and the rise of a revolutionary politics that comprises an ecological agenda. And in the 2000s discourses of the Anthropocene prevail.
Paralleling Keller’s interest in an ecopoetics that considers nature writing now unsustainable, Ronda tracks adaptations to the obsolescence of an external concept of nature — nature that’s out there, beyond our reach. The end of nature doesn’t imply its wholesale disappearance. Nature is converted into traces or, in Ronda’s idiom, remainders. Adapted from Benjamin and Adorno, the concept of the remainder traffics between ecology, history, and form to capture remnants of capitalist circuits of production, circulation, and consumption. The remainder designates phenomena that range from the expected (emissions, toxic waste, and melting glaciers) to the more surprising (life in segregated neighborhoods, poetry itself).
Ronda’s expansive rubric of the remainder has the advantage of accentuating the ecological resonance of poems by figures not traditionally situated within ecological circles. Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry, for instance, Ronda argues, “details how black lives in the postwar period were dictated by […] the ‘involuntary plan’ — urban restructuring and geographical circumscription of black neighborhoods, along with their accompanying environmental effects.” Yet Ronda absorbs all dynamics of inequality and oppression under economics. Brooks’s “poems, with their folk forms, detail an emergent history of racism and impoverishment as environmental conditions, a key dimension of the Great Acceleration,” she writes, subordinating anti-racism and environmentalism to a critique of capitalism. Ronda’s framing attenuates the intersectional potential of the environmental justice paradigm. Intersectionality reveals the concurrent operation of oppressive dynamics without claiming any given one as more significant, or worthier of our attention, than the others.
Though Remainders is more clearly driven by a literary-historical argument than Recomposing Ecopoetics, Ronda’s precise interpretations, above all else, dazzle. A member of Keller’s troupe, Juliana Spahr, also plays a principal role in Remainders. As Ronda puts it, Spahr’s 2004 poem “Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache,” in which the word “nature” doesn’t once appear, unfolds as a meditation on the impossibility and unthinkability of nature in the 21st century. The speaker of the elegy embodies a tension between authorial agency and a negativity that lets everything in — nourishing resources as well as debris. The elegy derives its force from this unresolvable tension, from the “assertion of wishful and impossible reciprocity, expressed in the language of ineffable ‘heartache.’” Ronda doesn’t stop there: the author traces the evolution of Spahr’s mourning of nature since the 2000s. Spahr’s 2015 book That Winter the Wolf Came calls for a new poetics in response to the forms of communal intimacy that emerge, voluntarily or not, in the context of oil spills or state-sponsored violence. And “#Misanthropocene: 24 Theses,” a 2014 collaboration with Joshua Clover, is an exercise in self-critique. “#Misanthropocene” rebukes the “west melancholy” that anchors “Gentle Now.” It exposes the limited political reach of feeling bad about environmental destruction.
Ronda posits nature as a remaindered category of poetic thinking. A non-dominant cultural form, poetry might best represent what capitalism has spoiled. The analogy between poetic and natural remainders that determines Ronda’s choice of texts is original. Less convincing are the allusions to narrative’s representational inadequacy that show up in the book’s introduction. The author indicates, for instance, that the book’s objective is to attend “more fully to the forms and figures of ecological calamity […] than to narratives of sustainability and hope.” This claim fashions narrative into a straw man for teleology and affective homogeneity. It implies that atmosphere, ambience, and ambivalence are most fully realized in poetry and poetics — a provocation that more than a few experimental narratives of ecological calamity would complicate: Karen Tei Yamashita’s Through the Arc of the Rain Forest (1990), a magical-realist soap opera on the devastation of an Amazonian community; Richard Powers’s Gain (1998), a story of ovarian cancer in the shadow of the expansion of the soap corporation that might have caused the illness; and Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (2014), a kaleidoscopic look at an unexplained ecological cataclysm. The list could go on.
One of Ronda’s crucial interventions is to recalibrate the political stakes of ecocriticism. “‘Green’ readings” have tended to stress environmental awareness and ethical actions. The poems Ronda considers, on the other hand, show the obstacles that environmental degradation poses to individual perception and ethical response. Take Barry Commoner’s invocations of air pollution in The Closing Circle (1971). As Ronda argues, they afford an index for the uncertainties involved in comprehending the exact causes and reach of environmental crisis. Keller also qualifies the political valence of the poems assembled in Recomposing Ecopoetics. “None of these writers imagine that poetry will save the world,” Keller specifies, “but their writing suggests a belief that poets have significant responsibility and a meaningful role to play in both considering and determining ‘what kind of world we will shape.’”
The writers who populate Keller’s and Ronda’s monographs don’t presume their authority or power in the project of reshaping the world. Keller and Ronda nonetheless teach us that an environmentally or ecologically attuned poetic practice, one that refuses to externalize nature, constitutes an expertise that this project can’t ignore. For decades, poets have tested out strategies for giving shape to the experience of mutated and mutilated ecologies and reflected on the stakes of doing so. As the path toward an ecologically sustainable future gets bumpier, poetic rhythm might at least afford environmental justice advocates some thrust.
Jean-Thomas Tremblay holds a PhD from the University of Chicago. In the fall of 2018, they will serve as assistant professor of 20th- and 21st-century American fiction and film at New Mexico State University. Their writing has appeared in Criticism, Post-45 Peer-Reviewed, New Review of Film and Television Studies, Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, Critical Inquiry, Public Books, Arcade, and Review 31.