The Poetry Project

From “Rock into Bread”: A Taxonomy of Today’s Ecopoetry

nicodemus nicoludis

For nearly two years I have had two Google alerts for the phrases “global warming” and “climate change.” Each early afternoon I receive the news of a dying world, a world on fire and drowning at the same time. Australia erupted in late 2019, burning some 11 million hectares and killing 33 people. California’s now perennial burn grew larger by the day; San Francisco was hazed over by an orange glow. I’ve read about the potential calving of the Doomsday Glacier, the deaths of hundreds of migrating bird species, the decrease in insect biomass, hurricanes and cyclones destroying homes and lives of peoples across the world, the declining quality of soils, plastic contamination in drinking water. And yet, I read poetry nearly every day too.

There are obvious overlaps between ecology and poetry, and poets have for centuries written about nature, its beauty, its wonders, etc. But in those centuries, as beautiful as the portraits of nature were, they often attempted, in the West at least, to denature humanity through the creation of the category of nature as such. That is, nature as its own category of object which would live a double life in the mind and eye of the poet or artist. Neil Smith in Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, And The Production Of Space (Verso Books, 2010) calls this “conceptual dualism.” Capitalists needed this denaturing distance to justify the extraction necessary to fuel the fires of their factories while 19th century nature writers (Emerson, Thoreau, etc.) needed to objectify wildness towards their own early American, imperial projects of Western expansion. Smith continues, “Where the dominant social symbols of the Old World drew their strength and legitimacy from history, New World symbols were more likely to invest in nature.” So, nature became a thing of beauty and exploitation. Landscape was a metaphor of a tamable land, a mysterious expanse to be conquered. Always just outside the ontological being of the human viewer, nature became its own being, uniquely separated from our humanness yet subjected to our every material whim.

We do not have this luxury of distance anymore, this theoretical space between us and the deserts and forests. Every day, across the world, the consequences of extractive capitalism are felt by people who have had no say or hand in the forces which have wrought the current collapse. We can now, as well, say firmly that Bill McKibben was wrong when he proclaimed the end of nature over 30 years ago; nature has never played a more important role in the lives of people across the globe. What his tedious yet simplistic assertion missed is that human activity (remember, the wealthiest one percent account for more than double the carbon emissions of 3.1 billion of the world’s poorest people1) didn’t end nature by touching and altering it. Human activity—specifically the activity of multinational corporations—liberalizing and deregulating governments and militaries, have activated natural forces more alive in death than they can control.

So, what do we make of poetry in a time of collapse? Of course, every poet has their own answer to this question, and those various answers or reframings of the question itself are growing the field of ecopoetry in the Anthropocene—a word that obscures the reality of the situation and its actors; the excellent critical collection edited by Jason W. Moore, Anthropocene or Capitalocene?: Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism (PM Press, 2016), takes on this question with great depth and insight. Ecopoetics has widened and sprouted into a discipline of diverse approaches and writers. Whether these poets are writing to forge connections between our humanness and nature, or writing to expose the exploitation and destructive forces at the driver’s seat of climate change, ecopoetry is a field expanding to synthesize and stretch the frames through which we understand our own nature and the future of our biosphere. But more than that, ecopoetry is as much a lens as it is a catalyst for an active, engaged poetic and political practice.

Kelly Schirman’s The New World (Black Ocean, 2020) begins with a perennial question: “How do you write poems in a country like this?” At its center lies the admission of poetry’s inability to actively halt the mechanisms which perpetuate and fuel a country, or system, like this. It understands the futility of poetry, that “no poem has persuaded our president to end a war.” But this cultural position is one to be embraced and guarded. Poetry and nature exist in close proximity to each other for this very reason: the nature of their shared obscurity in both the cultural and political imagination gives them the power to speak, not just to each other, but to us, the readers, in a language of growth and fidelity. If you write a poem and don’t share it, did it really get written?

But what are we to discover in the relationship between poetry and climate collapse? In many ways, to borrow from Shelley as Timothy Morton does in his forward to the weird folds: everyday poems from the anthropocene (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2020), we are living in the “futurity” of fossil capitalism and ecopoetry serves as a mirror to reflect the resulting destruction and a medium through which to understand the intersectional ripples of climate change. Morton, as well, views ecopoems as “shards of the Anthropocene” in which we connect, not to the past, but the unknown future. The poems in the anthology take on climate collapse through the lens of the everyday and in the introduction, by Maria Sledmere and Rhian Williams, it is argued that the everyday “is the plane on which our experience of climate change manifests.” Moreover, the poems are trying to reconnect our current selves with the futurity we see reflected in hurricanes and famines.

This reconnection with nature—looking at nature with a shattered vision of the future—is one trend finding fertile ground in ecopoetry today, and there are many collections which deal with our connectedness to the Earth and its largeness. Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge’s most recent collection, A Treatise on Stars (New Directions, 2020) treats our living in the universe as a long starfield held together by the dark matter of feeling and experience. Her long lyrics, almost the length of time or the Earth itself, stretch the ability to touch the stars and know their weight. Spanning the universal kinship of our quantum and emotive bodies, Berssenbrugge’s poems ask, “...what is the structure of this connectedness?” “All objects,” for her, “connect...through meaning in hyperspace” and the book itself is an attempt (a successful one I think) at what David Ferrier, in the introduction to his 2019 book Anthropocene Poetics, argues is the usefulness of ecopoetry in the epoch of the Anthropocene:

Poetry can compress vast acreages of meaning into a small compass or perform the kind of bold linkages that it would take reams of academic argument to plot; it can widen the aperture of our gaze or deposit us on the brink of transformation.

Peter Gizzi, in his latest collection Now It’s Dark (Wesleyan University Press, 2020) compresses that gaze in an effort to get us to see the world again. In the opening poem, “Speech Acts for a Dying World,” long and spiraling, he looks inside and underneath the world surrounding the lyric moment Gizzi is always approaching. But, like a horizon, it is constantly just over the next stanza or enjambment. “[M]eaning rises and sets” inside his universe, a universe uniquely Gizzi in its verbal games. Anaphor drives so many of the poems in the opening section of the book. They swell forward toward the unknown, chugging through “the high-toned / shitty world” and the “corporate sky”; opening up further into “to wonder / the night’s watch, / the optical dawn.”

The petals of his lyrical sensibility, a sensibility which exudes a deep sadness, unfold in the titular poem “Now It’s Dark.” He admits “There isn’t a place I can walk out from / under this chemical sky. / So I thought I would write a poem.” And here we find the molten center of this book, a desperate call to stop and look, to feel and acknowledge that

There is
a density 
to sight.
To see is
an organic

To see is one thing, but at some point, we have to get “on our knees on the earth” and acknowledge “I am an animal & other animals are animals” as S*an D. Henry-Smith writes in the poem “in organic affirmation” from their book Wild Peach (Futurepoem, 2020). Earthiness seeps between their language, poking through cracks of each poem, creating a “caterpillar commune.” There is a tension between the body and a biosphere which “knows us as irreducible.” But more than just their words, their approach is interdisciplinary; they use photography between poems to illuminate sites of quietude and intervention. Like a hand holding a group of leaves (“as you follow us; cascading maidenhair” 2017) or the dripping of spit on small, wooden branches (“ticket” 2016), we see overlaps with our existence and the wildness of outside, mapping a kind of “stellar despondency.”

In practice, this sort of connection-making goes only so far. It can only do so much to underscore and expose the multidimensional reality of the current condition of the global biome. In order for ecopoetry to bring us to the brink of transformation, these poems must point to the locations and processes of climate change, not by lamenting into known consequences, but by diving into root causes: the extirpation of resources, the history of slavery, colonization, fossil capitalism, waste, over-production, pesticides, monoculture farming, war, and so on. In a sense, this kind of ecopoetry is writing toward the long chains of history deposited both in the soil and in the atmosphere; the ghosts of our past and the phantoms of our future. It isn’t simply that humans and plants are made of the same kinds of matter, it is knowing that “Plants have social impacts in areas such as tourism & the military” as Hannah Rego writes in their poem “Notes on Natural Enemies” (from Smoke & Mold Issue #3), a sharp and generous poem intersecting family history, natural history, and the colonial history of Hawai’i.

In that same vein, Craig Santos Perez’s latest collection Habitat Threshold (Omnidawn, 2020) continues his important work of writing on the local and global ecological effects of Capital-caused climate change. Perez, native Pacific Islander and preeminent ecopoet, creates an ecopoetry both poignant and tender, humorous and deeply worried for the future of ecosystems and his daughter. In the book’s opening poem, “Age of Plastic,” he intertwines the birth of his daughter and the consequences of the ubiquity of plastic:

... Plastic is the perfect
creation because it never dies.
Our daughter
sucks on a
plastic pacifier. Whales,
plankton, shrimp, and birds confuse
for food.
The plastic pump whirrs;
breastmilk drips into a
plastic bottle.
Plastic keeps food, water, and medicine fresh—

Perez’s approach is multidimensional, always searching for new avenues of inquiry and intervention on the system currently strangling and warming the planet. He “recycles” poems, taking from the annals of the American canon to refurbish poems long crystallized in the amber of cultural history. He riffs on Allen Ginsberg's “America” (“America you’ve stolen everything and now I have nothing. / America $1.3 trillion in student loan debt, 2016”) and William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say.” But the best of which, and the one he wields his conceptual sensibilities best in, is his reworking of Stevens’ “13 Ways of Looking at Blackbird” into “13 Ways of Looking at a Glacier,” which ends:

It was summer all winter.
It was melting
and it was going to melt.
The last glacier fits
in our warm hands.

Throughout Perez’s book there is a tension between the present and the future. Or rather, an impending collapse between the space in which we make history and the potential histories our children will tell of the now in the future. We see this in the use of his daughter in many of the poems. There is always a balance between the reality he knows and the reality he wishes he could hide. In “Last Safe Habitat” he admits that he doesn’t want his “daughter to know / that Hawai’i is the bird extinction capital / of the world” and continues, in a strain of hope, “...I want to convince her / that extinction is not the end.”

And here, we encounter an essential character of ecopoetry today, time. More specifically, Susan Barba takes up deep time through the study of geology in her book, geode (Black Sparrow, 2020). One essential recognition about nature and humanity is that time, as measured in geological records, is not inert: “Have you spent enough time in the hammered gold / to know the stillness of rocks is a ruse?” It is a catalogue of change, of evolution, of impacts both short and long term. Barba’s work intervenes on this knowledge and puts into practice the theoretical approach Kathryn Yusoff takes up in her book A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (University of Minnesota Press, 2018).

For Yusoff, geology isn’t simply a scientific practice, but a language through which we can understand the history of extraction of both resources and peoples. She is examining the “afterlives of geology,” the wrinkles of time marked in rock layers, and “the role earth archives as material deposits…maintain a colonial relation through the extractive and waste industries, particularly through the conjoined violence of extraction practices and their ongoing toxicity.” Barba explores “our influence / on rock” and asks, among many other questions, “aren’t we colonizing time?” in her poem “Ore.” The poem itself, several pages of short, lyrical pieces, takes up this very process of converting the earth into history and money, or rather:

inert matter

turning rock
into bread

And this acknowledgement is crucial to the poetics of her book and of ecopoetry more generally. “Ore” is a study of, as Barba notes in the poem, Claude Levi-Strauss’s proposition of a field of study called “entropology,” or “our hurry // to disintegrate.” But what is it exactly we are trying to disintegrate? For ecopoets like Barba, it is the flattening of time into a human scale, “blithely / breaking down all structure,” creating a geology to help us to “read / the rock column of time” because in that narrative we can find our past selves which incited the current collapse of the “gnomic earth.”

I wonder sometimes if the logical conclusion of ecopoetry is to create a massive biomass power plant from all the unread books in the world. Of course, that wouldn’t resolve any of the underlying systems which brought me to the point of even thinking that. It wouldn’t end speculative oil drilling or skim all the plastic out of the oceans, lakes, and rivers. It wouldn’t refreeze Greenland or Antarctica and it wouldn’t make factory farms obsolete. In short, it wouldn’t unravel the systems of property ownership, that is, the accumulation of value through the sublimation of money into capital driving the Earth’s ecosystems to the brink. In that thought however is embedded a question of the pragmatic uses of ecopoetry outside of the kind of exposure and seeing central to the practice today. To that point, I reflect on Brenda Hillman’s essayistic poem “Ecopoetics Minifesto: A Draft for Angie,” where she writes in the last section:

F— & though powerless to halt the destruction of bioregions, the poem can be brought away from the computer. The poet can familiarize herself with her bioregion, to engage in activisms in addition to writing, because what cannot be accomplished through art can be addressed in acts of resistance so the planet won’t die of the human.

Hillman is as much an activist as a poet. At a reading at the Poetry Project in October 2019 for her book Extra Hidden Life, Among the Days, she talked about taking students into the woods to read and write poems. Her work isn’t just words, it’s movement, it’s action. In a word, it’s practice. It is this act of stepping away from the page that becomes vital to create a totalizing ecopoetics, an ecopoetics which centers the work of creating not just poems as such, but poems in service of shaping a more equitable and viridescent world.

These poems and poets are the heart pumping the body to action. They are reforging connections lost or abstracted, recalibrating our ability to see ourselves and our landscapes again. Or, they are pointing to systems and histories which propel the catastrophe ever further. In the material of our future, ecopoetry today is surveying the field of what comes next and how it came to be that way. To use Edouard Glissant’s famous words, we need ecopoetry to “build [our] language with rocks.”

#264 — Spring 2021