Book Review

Poetry in a Time of Climate Change

When Joni Mitchell laughingly sang “They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot” in “Big Yellow Taxi” (1970), she joined the chorus of mid-twentieth-century U.S. poets, who, when writing about Nature, aimed not only to praise it, but to preserve it. Gary Snyder surveying forests from Sourdough Mountain Lookout tower, Wendell Berry practicing sustainable agriculture, Lorine Niedecker enduring floods in her tiny house on Wisconsin’s Blackhawk Island, all modeled ways of living in harmony with Nature, while poets such as W. S. Merwin, mixing elegy with accusation, mourned environmental destruction in poems of stark and bitter warning. Now, well into the twenty-first century, rather than stake an ecological claim, protest against sprawl and pollution, or like Merwin, sound the alarm over climate change, poets grapple with its pervasiveness: the more it accelerates as a global crisis, the more it defines ordinary experience, becoming paradoxically normal. In the books under review, the reality of climate change—and the knowledge that we are responsible for it—therefore isn’t “a theme,” but an abiding awareness, sometimes made explicit in the poems, other times tugging like an undertow: a current that sways Bruce Bond’s elegies, dg nanouk okpik’s meditations on cancer, Orlando Ricardo Menes’ riffs on Catholicism and its colonialist legacy in the Caribbean, and Mira Rosenthal’s mapping of violence against women.
In the opening lines of “Eco,” the first poem of Invention of the Wilderness,[1] Bruce Bond urges us to rethink our relationship with Nature:


The other member of this conversation
is the forest we are in, the one that is here
and not quite here, not the woods we knew
when we were young and lost and elsewhere.


What will it take for “eco” not to mean “echo”: for us to see the forest as it is, not as a reflection of ourselves (or as the terrifying woods of childhood nightmares)? More immediately, the forests of today differ from those of our youth because they are ecologically threatened. The conversation, Bond argues, must therefore include the natural world, despite our urge to anthropomorphize it:


Even the best convictions dream the damaged
world that says, I know, I too am worried.
The other voice among us is a certain change
in the wind. And once, when I was young,
I heard it speak. And in its speaking, listen.


If listening is a form of speech—and crucial to conversation—then we need to begin listening to Nature, rather than to speak for it. But, can we ever perceive it as it is without projecting ourselves upon it? Who, in these lines, is listening to whom?
As the book’s title suggests, human beings, at least in the Western Tradition, have presumed to “invent” the wilderness, envisioning Nature as something “wild,” other than ourselves. This illusion enables us to admire Nature’s beauty (and distance ourselves enough to write poems about it) or see it as a narcissistic reflection, yet also fuels our belief that we can control the natural world, or dare to name it. But these assumptions arise from hubris, a lethal combination of arrogance and denial that we are indeed connected to Nature. Our poisoning of the planet, the acceleration of climate change, and the decline of ecosystems we had thought were stable may herald not only the death of Nature (or, at least, Nature as we know it), but also of humanity. Awareness of this catastrophe fuels Bond’s elegiac ruminations, especially as he explores the question—or, really, the morality—of how to speak as a lyric poet, when the Romantic tradition of lyric subjectivity stems from the poet’s consciousness of separation between the adult self and the natural world. Many of the book’s poems contemplate ageing and mortality; two long, serial poems, “Arrow” and “Invention of the Wilderness,” chart the decline and death of the speaker’s mother and his concurrent struggle to accept his own mortality. While these are primal themes of poetry, Bond structures his lyrics so that the personal losses are balanced against—and sometimes wholly eclipsed by—environmental crises: wildfires, drought, Arctic ice melt, species extinctions. Bond makes the ongoing death of Nature not an analogy for human deaths that the poems fear and mourn, but instead the signal loss against which our own obliteration pales.
And thus, rather than make the death of Nature a metaphor for human mortality, Bond sometimes reverses the analogy, making the pathos of human decline a means to imagine the degradation of an ecosystem, as in “Islands of the Arctic,” where the melting of ancient ice mirrors the dissolutions of dementia. Yet, if humans are responsible for bringing about such changes globally, or at least accelerating them, then our “conversation” with Nature and our need to listen grow urgent. Bond strives to break with Romantic paradigms that interfere with such listening, yet he also can’t help but evoke them. In “Wilderness,” an elegy for William Stafford in dialogue with Stafford’s much anthologized “Travelling Through the Dark,” Bond begins, “To you, if you are listening, // I am no one / and so hear the things that no one hears.” Only without selfhood—or only if one were dead—can one truly listen to Nature. But the act of declaring “I am no one” is enough to shatter the pose, as Stafford understands at the end of his poem when, contemplating a dead, pregnant doe by the roadside, he confesses “around our group I could hear the wilderness listen. // I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—, / then pushed her over the edge into the river.” Thinking about whether or not to push the deer over (and kill her unborn fawn) clinches the speaker’s distance from Nature, even as he unsentimentally ditches the body. Likewise, in the elegy, Bond—addressing the deceased poet—can’t sustain the fiction of dissolving the self, though he is less successful than Stafford at being unsentimental:


But know the river is a road

we walk together. We must.
It crackles with a good star
that burns the name we give it.
If I come upon your body
in my path, know I will not, cannot,
leave. Although I travel on.


Although the poem realistically argues that Nature resists being named and concludes that Stafford will endure in memory, the metaphors lapse into cliché: the road of life (leading to death), the guiding star, the need to travel on. Despite the mix of terror and tenderness that Bond strikes in the book’s best poems, especially the title poem, his argument is familiar enough to seem generic: music, language, and imagining—if not “inventing”—the wilderness serve as consolations, however temporary, against death. And throughout the book, Nature, as in Wallace Stevens’ late work, feels like a mental construct, conjured for the sake of a poem, rather than a real place, experientially traversed. “Lakes of the Southern Plains” could be any lakes, the “Seasonal fires” of “A Tower in the Woods” could be raging through any forest, and the “Islands of the Arctic” consist of nothing but melting ice. Such sameness—like the couplet form Bond iterates in every poem—offers not a new conversation, but the fatal persistence of the old.
In contrast, the Arctic of Blood Snow,[2] by dg nanouk okpik, though imperiled by global warming, blazes with intense, visceral details. The poems are told from the perspective of a speaker whose self is permeable, merging throughout the book with the damaged landscape and with local wildlife: polar bears, whales, wolves, crows, owls (snowy and brown), albatross, a left-eyed flounder—even bloodthirsty female mosquitoes. Although the porousness between self and Nature reflects the spiritual beliefs and shamanistic practices of okpik’s Inuit heritage, she also employs experimental verse forms to create a self that flickers in and out of view, sometimes subsumed by Nature, sometimes over­taken by animal avatars, sometimes achingly present and experiencing intense human emotions and bodily sensations, and sometimes divided between Inuit and Western perspectives. In an early poem, “Horizon at Duck Camp,” okpik orients readers through analogies for cold that rapidly move between the speaker and references to local species like sheefish (an Arctic freshwater whitefish), seal shark, and polar bear:


Like a frozen sheefish the feeling of cold,
aluminum foil to a filled molar
it twinges metallic.
Pulsing my toes the inua spirit,
you asked me what does it feel like @ 60 below?
I did not answer.
I don’t know.
An elusive seal shark patrolling the freshwater sea.
Like a polar ice bear grinding his teeth
into a seal’s skull. First an old
genetic memory burnishes
in the smell, blood of snow.
In the ice fields,
a nightmare of travel
beating me raw in red cloud-storms.


okpik’s compressed syntax fuses human experience with Nature to show the cold as brutal, yet also animating. In this and other poems, okpik introduces Inuit words, immediately defines them—“inua” is the vital spirit or life force inhabiting people, animals, and the natural world—and then counts on readers to understand the terms when she repeats them in subsequent poems, a technique that helps establish the Inuit traditions, and the seriousness, that energize the book. She also frequently deals in synesthesia, as in the first two lines, where the silvery sheen of the fish connects via color and taste with aluminum and the amalgam filling, and the metallic twinge simultaneously evokes the sharpness of tooth pain and the jerkiness of a hooked fish. As the poem progresses, the line continues to blur between the speaker and Nature. The “nightmare of travel” morphs from an analogy for the cold into a frigid journey—as a human hunter rides a “snow machine” along “an elder caribou trail,” haunted by the specter of a wolverine, “his nails curled taut like a rusted root. / Wire wrapped around his neck.” Ending the poem with a gory glimpse of a suicide—“a bloated head tied to a limb / of an alder tree”—okpik equates the death of the wolverine, whether from entrapment by hunters or accidental entanglement in the wire, with human self-slaughter, a metaphor for how our interference in the environment leads not only to the deaths of animals, but likely to our own extinction as well.
The book’s stakes are high. Although many poems register the sublime beauty of the landscape, more often okpik attests to environmental pollution and the effects of accelerating climate change: ice melt, methane bubbles, blister rust, thawing permafrost, starving polar bears. And, as Blood Snow unfolds, evidence accumulates that the speaker, like the landscape, is ill: suffering from advanced breast cancer and the ravages of chemo and radiation. I say “evidence accumulates” because the book is by no means a cancer narrative. In the same way that climate change may at first be difficult to detect, then impossible to ignore or stop, the book’s early references to cancer may at first seem only metaphors for the poisoned environment: “A 78 mile per hour windchill shatters any / water into icebergs, as I drown in my own element. / Rustling waves rolling me back to this massive / breakup outside and in. It glides past me blue-green, / blue-turquoise, collisions of pinnacles and pressure / points, which pinch. Volcano ash, radiation and / chemo ruin the physical. Old frozen cliffs, hoarfrost / lungs, clefts of monastic bergs adrift” (“A Glacial Oil World”). Such equipoise between “outside and in” could be attributed to the speaker’s being “an ego-syntonic woman” (“Confluence”), a person with a high degree of emotional responsiveness to the environment, or, as okpik announces in “NIL Ink & Paper,” “I examine boundless expanse of nature. / I am nomadic in my mind-sense.” Yet, mirroring the increasing visibility of damage to the ecosystem, the cancer poems intensify in the second half of the book. In “Twilight Pain,” “Physical Thaw,” “Dear Mommie, (I’m sick),” and “Atigiluk Armor,” okpik continues, without a shred of self-pity, to cross-reference the trauma of cancer with the climate-driven crisis afflicting the Arctic, even when the focus shifts to the speaker’s experience, though with an objective slant, as if she were a naturalist of her own pain. Her interweaving of body and landscape implicitly rebukes the Western convention of associating land with the female body as something to be conquered. For okpik, the body and Nature are linked in spirit. Thus some of the late poems in the book are visionary, celebrating a simultaneously earthly and transcendental female element. In “Her New Moon Enigma,” “She/I Tumble with Old Squaw Duck,” and several earlier poems in Blood Snow, okpik doubles pronouns, a technique through which she strikes a balance between outside and inside points of view, the kind of egolessness recommended by the fertile mosquito spirit-sister in “Song of Blood Mosquito Dance”: “Listen by hearing with your inua, / for I want you to hear with no ego.” In poems of startling beauty and strangeness, swinging between self and other, an Inuit worldview and modern perspectives, visionary lyricism and harsh depictions of environmental damage, okpik, by the book’s conclusion, celebrates the cycle of life and death, even as she mourns the accelerating, human-wrought wreckage of climate change.
Visionary lyricism and tension between Western and non-Western traditions also invigorate Orlando Ricardo Menes’ The Gospel of Wildflowers and Weeds.[3] Whereas okpik’s book is often stark—galvanized by climate change, cancer, and the blood logic of Arctic survival—Menes celebrates the lushness of the tropics and finds spiritual sustenance in a baroque blend of Catholic and Caribbean religious beliefs. Menes’ gospel is one of fertile excess, and his tone is often rhapsodic (apostrophe abounds), even in poems where he dons the mantle of outsider-prophet and condemns capitalist greed and over-indulgence, as in the splendid curse poem “The Magnificent Jeremiah Expounds on the Impending Doom of Miami,” where the “new diluvium” of superstorms purges the city and makes possible an oceanic paradise, where the rich, guilty of “effluent affluence,” transform into cetaceans. Menes’ take on climate change is both playful and damning, as he envisions God in the last lines looking upon the metamorphosed sinners “with his wide octopus eyes, / Happy that His seas have restored Eden’s brood to purity.” Throughout the book, Menes exudes linguistic bravado and a casual mastery of poetic forms. The Gospel of Wildflowers and Weeds includes several poems in couplets, along with tighter forms: triolet, sonnet, and a single stanza in the intricate style of Catholic Metaphysical poet Richard Crashaw. More often, Menes writes in loose blank verse in which he spools out sentences, clause after clause, that invite suspense about when they will end. “The Magnificent Jeremiah,” for example, consists of three sentences, the longest, and last, twenty-two lines. The style suits Menes’ celebration of surfeit, sensuality, and the body as paths to joy and enlightenment, in ekphrastic poems in dialogue with paintings by Cuban artists and in homage poems to writers such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Hart Crane, William Blake, Federico García Lorca, Théophile Gautier, and Magical Realist Alejo Carpentier. Menes announces in “Letter to José Lezama Lima,” twentieth-century Cuban practitioner of a knotty style: “O apostle of our tropical baroque, so lush your verse, / so snarled, crusted, curdled, mottled & spirally— / it was you who taught me that excess (the more extravagant / the holier) is our island’s sacrament & the creed / of spareness just a heresy bound to the northern mind.” Such a style can be hard to absorb, due to the proliferation of details and to the equal weight Menes confers on them. His excess, however, is not merely decorative. As in a Hopkins poem, the language is finely calibrated, surprising yet precise, and builds, through intricate twists, toward rapturous conclusions.
In its eclectic spirituality, the book draws on Catholic traditions, yet also radically undermines them. Menes’ twists spring not only from delightfully lavish descriptions, but also from sudden shifts in a poem’s argument or narrative. In the autobiographical “Ode,” the book’s opening, the Cuban mother, watching her three children play in the mud during a Miami deluge, doesn’t call them in, but instead in the last lines surprisingly yells at them “to keep frolicking, mucking, spitting out rainwater / Like dolphins through their blowholes, these creatures / Of God so blessed to have been born free of sin.” Likewise, in “First Communion,” after twenty lines detailing a priest’s stern insistence that the host will make his boys martial and manly, the young communicant, feeling “the warm wafer / as something feminine,” divines “that the body / is not sinful but the vessel of human goodness, / where God’s love pulses in every limb, organ, cell— / how pleasure is the blessed conduit of His grace.” Drawing on Catholic assumptions and iconography, Menes transgressively exalts sensuality, advocates for the poor and the outcast, and invents a winkingly warped pantheon of anti-saints, outsider icons such as “St. Apollonia, Patroness of Dentists,” “St. Lapsia, Patroness for Catholics Lapsed & Re-Lapsed,” and “St. Tatua, Patroness of Tatooists” (“I am the daughter of Queequeg & a runaway nun . . .”). As the book progresses, Menes takes the additional turn of embracing what Catholics would disparage as pagan—Afro-Caribbean religions such as Yoruba, Obeah, Taíno, and Santería—and invokes their deities, celebrating the religious and linguistic cross-pollination that invigorates island cultures. In the second half of the book, Menes’ saints and sisters are defiantly dark-skinned and attuned to island rhythms and ecology, like “Sister Yara, square-jawed, hairless Carmelite / of the Caribbean rule”:


“Priests are useless as a sixth toe on a bad foot,”
so she will baptize [infants] herself at sunset
in her chapel of quarried bones, using seawater
and gourd, canticles of conch, as the Taínos
once did on the leeward side of Turuqueria,
with its coconut coves, sweetsop copses,
and soft cacao soils where the ancestors’ faith
flourishes free of the rigors of Church and prelate.
In her island Vatican, holy empire of ceiba,
sea grape, and jagüey fig, she will catechize
their mothers—pickers, weavers, water carriers—
to the creed of Mother Earth, Father sky,
sing hosannas to the hurricane and cassava root,
red-papaya benedictions—108 black seeds—
and they will birth more sons of the earth,
twice blessed by the steaming sun, swarming rain,
and their daughters too will become sirenas
at twelve years old, sprouting gills, fins, air bladders
to dive into mercuric eddies, swim the littorals
of Mother Atabey . . .


Sister Yara has gone rogue, so much so that she adopts Taíno rituals and reveres Mother Atabey, a fertility goddess affiliated with earth and sea. While Menes’ send-up of Catholicism is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, like Yara he repurposes Catholic rites and language to stage utopian metamorphoses in this and other poems that promote equality between people and advocate for a joyful balance between humanity and Nature.
Whether charting urban landscapes or the drought-ridden terrain of California, Mira Rosenthal explores the environmental and psychological consequences of territoriality. She begins Territorial[4] not with the invention of the wilderness, but with “The Invention of an Interstate System,” a long-lined poem that traces tensions between the human need to dominate Nature—and other people—through erecting borders and barriers, and the equally strong human impulse to escape confinement. For Rosenthal, that dichotomy is gendered, as shown on the cover design: a grid with photos of a woman’s face in each square, her features sometimes blurred. Although several poems depict women being stalked or assaulted by men, Rosenthal focuses less on the violence itself than on its corrosive internal effects: how the trauma (or women’s awareness of risk) leads not only to fear and anxiety, but to women confining themselves and limiting their experience of the world. Starting in the first section, Rosenthal alternates poems between urban scenes where men prey on women, and poems set in nature where women must scan for animal predators or where young girls, innocent of danger, explore nature. Yet she occasionally implicates women in displays of dominance, as when two girls drag a boy into a bathroom and force him to undress so that they can gawk (“The First Recording of the Human Voice”). Such impulses, she suggests, are human: a vicious cycle sparked by fear, that motivates us to map—and thus think we can control—the world: “did mapmaking begin with a need for escape // did schematic ease fear, give a sense of control over what’s deemed intimate, what’s held at a distance // & the flaw between what’s image & what’s actual—when did that become an aspect of all such plotted depictions of landscape[.]” This poem, “Imago Mundi,” is so fragmented in its construction that it is difficult to quote from, yet the fragments highlight the flaws Rosenthal seeks to expose—and the dangers, especially of environmental ruin. Territorial scrutinizes patterns of dominance that leave an indelible imprint on the human psyche and, by extension, also on the earth, whether locally as roadways and housing blocks, or globally as climate change or toxic poisoning of air and water.
Motifs for pattern and connection therefore recur throughout the book—not only transportation grids, but nets, needle and thread, knots, chains, constellations. Like Muriel Rukeyser, one of the book’s guiding spirits, Rosenthal is obsessed with the positive and negative effects of human relationships and how they may lead, paradoxically, to isolation. In “The Very Idea of a Bridge,” for example, the Golden Gate is both a symbol of connection and a magnet for suicides. Starting with “The Net Mender, 1894,” Rosenthal often depicts women working with needle and thread to repair torn fabrics, a metaphor for tattered relationships and flawed societies. The analogy is especially poignant in “The Apron,” in which the speaker’s leaps of association lead from the rickrack on her mother’s apron (stored in a dank garage), to the mother’s needlepoint, to the mother’s post-mastectomy mental illness and suicide, to sewing it all together in memory through writing a poem:


And I reason I just might save her
this time, in the dank garage, saying please
don’t pull the trigger. Which reminds me
of her fingers, pinching the needle, pricking
its point through cloth. Which reminds me
of the doctor’s darning across her chest
& how I long to rescue the lost, tossed out,
omitted, sew it like a pocket into a poem.
Which reminds me of her ear, its locket
of air caught between bone & receiver
as she pressed the phone there, calling my father
& how he drove over & how he found her
slumped in the chair, her arm fallen open,
head bowed to her lap, as if reading.


Despite all the stitching, the poem centers on missed connections and keeps returning to images of confinement (the boxed apron, the needlepoint frame, the locket and pocket, the “cramped quarters” of the “small house” that the mother never leaves). Rosenthal deftly weaves the associations together, an approach she takes throughout the book, trusting that the reader will link them, whether she writes in couplets, fragmented single lines, or jagged, syntactically complex stanzas. In sorting through the book’s patterns, readers are invited to follow the lead of landscape-scanning speakers in “Vantage Point” and “Bluff,” who catalogue details of the scene—especially evidence of drought, as in the latter—and link them to broader patterns, not just climate change, but bold attempts at rescue, as in the former: “a young woman from Damascus who jumped / into the sea to pull a leaking raft full of refugees / through choppy water, dinghy sinking lower, / life preservers pushing up / the people’s chins, a stroke, another / stroke for hours.” Although Territorial maps a cause-and-effect cycle of fear, violence, and environmental crisis, Rosenthal responds not just with anger and outrage, but with a leaping into life (even knowing the risks), like the woman from Damascus, or the girls in “From the Edge of the Aquifer” who, “beyond all reasoning,” jump in. Especially in poems addressed to her daughters, Rosenthal voices a cautious, yet defiant optimism: though we can’t protect the next generation, we can still urge them to keep going, as she proposes in “Then a Wild Dedication,” in which the mother unsentimentally shows the daughter a path to a vantage point—“here’s a bluff to give scale here’s a view over sage brush in every direction”—with hope she will find a way forward toward change.


[1] INVENTION OF THE WILDERNESS, by Bruce Bond. LSU Press. $17.95p.
[2] BLOOD SNOW, by dg nanouk okpik. Wave Books. $35.00.
[3] THE GOSPEL OF WILDFLOWERS AND WEEDS, by Orlando Ricardo Menes. University of New Mexico Press. $18.95p.
[4] TERRITORIAL, by Mira Rosenthal. University of Pittsburgh Press. $18.00p.