The Poetry of Environmental Disaster

Joanna Klink, the Romantic tradition, and poetry in the time of environmental disaster.

By Hannah RogersAugust 22, 2015

Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy by Joanna Klink. Penguin. 80 pages.

                                                                    … Inside the meadow is the grass,
 rich with darkness. Inside the grass is the wish to be rooted, inside the rain
the wish to dissolve. What you think you live for you may not live for.
One star goes out. One breath lifts inside a crow inside a field.

(Klink, “3 Bewildered Landscapes”)

JOANNA KLINK’S words have what certain connoisseurs would call “good mouthfeel.” A chemical reaction between the words and your mouth produces a sensation worth repeating: you may even find yourself whispering her lines over her pages. This breathless incantation places the reader in Klink’s atmosphere, keenly feeling the poet’s world, at one with the poet’s creation.

It is no accident that Klink’s interest in the sounds language can make may remind readers of the consequence of sound for Samuel Coleridge in poems like “Kubla Khan.” For Klink and Coleridge, sound does not simply serve narrative flow, but surpasses it to create sonic meanings. In many ways, Klink’s poetry takes up Romantic traditions in sociologist Howard Becker’s sense: by establishing her influences, Klink creates a history for her poetry which informs how we read it.

Klink’s poetry can be considered to belong in a Romantic tradition in two primary ways. First, her poems are experiments in observation, recording the way her mind connects ideas vis-à-vis natural objects. The second potential Romantic reading of her work relates to the concerns many Romantic poets held about the changing economic and political structures of their day, especially the loss of the pastoral environs and lifeways to the rise of manufacturing. When Klink takes on subjects like the landscapes and seascapes altered by oil spills in the multi-sectioned poem “Terrebonne Bay,” she continues the Romantic impulse to examine the destruction of the lands in terms of its results for the individual and collective mind. The pollution and human suffering wrought by capitalism during the early Industrial Revolution, appears again in Klink’s work. And once again this degradation, which can be hard to appreciate in the abstract, is aestheticized in poetic sound to bring us a bodily experience of economic and environmental change.

We can think here of Blake’s dark satanic mills or Wordsworth’s attempt to grasp onto a cityscape “bright and glittering in the smokeless air,” offering an idealized recovery from the Industrial Revolution — and compare these visions to Klink’s “sweet crude oil, orange as rust” in “Terrebonne Bay.” Industrial effects are as present for Klink as they were for the early Romantics. In both cases, the poets’ aesthetics, combining sounds, images, and the natural world, work through problems created by capitalist enterprise and social regimes.

Klink’s poetry connects the external natural world to her inner self. Like the Romantics, she is known for deriving emotions from her surroundings, and asking us to let landscapes induce emotive thought. Her three previous books, They Are Sleeping (2000), Circadian (2007), and Raptus (2010) brought us through worlds of gardens, forests, and home spaces in meditative yet arresting terms. Her poems summon us to places newly made with each line, while also establishing a sense of familiarity: the poet has clearly dwelled in these places.

In her new book, Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy, Klink is interested in both our inner and outer worlds. Many of the poems show how we relate to natural habitats and their inhabitants, how we can interfere with nature and how nature interferes with us. Klink also shows us that we impact the world just as we are affected by it, combining Romantic illumination with a warning about the dangers of 21st-century human activity on the places we go to understand ourselves. She brings with her a signature sound. Her distinct diction portrays silent scenes that ring out with the clarity of celestial bells. In deceptively simple constructions, she arranges her moons, her deer, her lakes, and her passerines to bring us new ways of constructing feeling from landscape.

“Toward what island-home am I moving” greets us with language so simple that its cadence comes to us like an a cappella hymn:

And when I shut my eyes there was no one.
Only weeds in drifts of stillness, only
stalks and gliding sky.

Come, black anchor, let us not be harmed.
The deer leafing in the dark.
The old man at the table, unable to remember.
The children whose hunger is just hunger,
and never desire.

In the final section of “3 Bewildered Landscapes,” readers find the speaker walking:

  … for hours in those forests, my legs a canvas of scratches,

trading on the old hopes — we were meant to be lost. But being lost

means not knowing what it means.

The relationship between being geographically lost and a loss of understanding plays through the logic of Klink’s inner-outer world dichotomy. 

One technique Klink uses for creating a relatable internal experience is through poems that directly address someone or something. Klink’s characters are decidedly a matter of deep thought; they spring from introspection. We hear her voicing both the parts of addresser and addressee, offering a way to understand human subjects when the poet turns to address natural objects. Klink’s world is peopled primarily by the “I-thou” relationship, which is crisp and ready and present in images evoking new thoughts about domestic surroundings. She converts our common experience into a shared understanding in poems like “Given”:

I have loved the love
you felt for those gardens
and I would grant you 

the always steadying
presence of seeds.
 I bring to that trouble

between us a bell that
might blur into air. I bring the woods
and a sense of what lives there. 

Like you, I turn to sunlight for
answers. Like you, I am
not sure where it has gone. 

Even with this beloved interlocutor, the inner life is channeled through material conduits, especially nature. The things Klink learns by watching the earth and its inhabitants mirror many Romantic concerns. She joins a lineage of Romantic poets, from William Blake and George Byron through Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop, who searched for an understanding of the mind by observing its reflection on the natural world.

Like Coleridge’s eolian harp and Wordsworth’s ruins, Klink’s poems are reflecting pools for understanding the human mind. At times, her environmental concerns are wrought by specific events, as in “Terrebonne Bay”:

The deep evening-colored rose of the sea
is closing. Sweet crude oil, orange as rust,
finds an open pathway into the marsh.

In this moment, Klink’s smooth world is ruptured by the catastrophe of BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and its unstoppable consequences. As the poem winds its way through the sea and lives of sea creatures, it resolves itself into a poetic world that Klink has made for us. Klink’s fascination with sound continues in a world now covered with an oil skim that remains alien in the scene, even as her diction tries to reconcile its presence: “deep evening” evoking “Deepwater.” This sudden turn toward the explicitly political might seem jarring, but for Klink it is a natural outgrowth of her poetics of place. Klink’s commitment to relating the inner self to its environs inevitably comes to a point where interior life is interrupted by the external force of our collective human choices. Klink works out her emotive equation between inner and outer worlds precisely in this moment of interference, so that we can see how we are simultaneously the cause and the effect:

Still, the solutions of despair are weak
if you believe you can touch an undersea reef,
the belly of a small wounded whale.
You have the power to feel it.
The breath of the animal
moving like trust into your arms.

In this fittingly individual and specific moment, Klink offers her readers intimacy with a sea creature in the face of sorrow. She makes the “weak” solution of despair impossible as long as our wonder remains. Indeed the poem’s final movement points us beyond birds bathing,

… where they can
in half-damp shadows that make possible the next free
climb into air

by admitting that even in a state of ruin, our hope can come from the very environments our choices have nearly destroyed:

And overhead the novae explored toward you
along tracks of gas and dust, and the fields of ocean
rose into you, and the crabs broke from their cancer fossils
in masses of tiny flowers and you felt inside you
the islands re-arise, flushed from the thickening
imbalance of the earth. (Is there some
refuge beyond ourselves that is vast enough?
The sea is without grief. As are the days.)

Klink’s poetry extends the Romantic sensibility of understanding the self through the natural world, while exhorting us to think of what is lost — not just for the world but for our ability to know ourselves — when we allow a false dichotomy to be drawn between our needs and the needs of the environment.


Hannah Star Rogers grew up in rural Alabama and received her PhD at Cornell University.

LARB Contributor

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.


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