Essay / 5 July 2021

Poetry in an Age of Ecological Crisis

Authors of the Week: United Kingdom

Italian poet Tiziano Fratus writes in “[Notes on Siberian Macroeconomics]”:

muscovite anthropologists disinter mammoth tusks

using old army vehicles

that survived the wars in afghanistan and the soviet empire …

objects that will end up in the luxury homes of the nouveaux riches

With its intellectual precision and astute observations of contemporary society, Fratus’ work represents some of the most important aspects of ecopoetics. Natural environments have never been so widely threatened, nor have they been evoked to fulfil as wide a range of political, social, and cultural ends. Out of this context, ecopoetics takes a critical—in both senses of the word—approach to the relationship between humans and our planet. In contrast to the likes of William Wordsworth, who saw nature—still, constant, maternal—as an escape from the ills of industrialisation and urbanisation, ecopoetics seeks to observe and represent nature on its own terms. It gives voice to nature’s capacity to destroy and be destroyed, to give birth and to be (re)born.

Photo by Marjeta Marinčič

Unlike the nature poetry of the Romantics, ecopoetry does not attempt to hide or deny the existence of the poet—or, for that matter, of the reader. We may not be able to understand nature itself, but poetry, at least, invites us to more critically examine our relationship with nature and to explore perspectives beyond the human. If ecopoetry has taught us to appreciate the harm we have inflicted on our environment, it has done so by highlighting the complexity and the diversity of the natural world through close attention to ecology and environmental science. In doing so, ecopoetics places the human into context invites us to think and live more humbly in relation to the natural world. As American poet Hannah Larrabee captures in “6th Extinction”, published in Bomb Cyclone: A Journal of Ecopoetics:

A human is a worthless thing,

except for wonder;

or, its opposite in extreme:

living a thankless day

and not understanding why.

Ironically, Larrabee suggests, it is our erosion of the environment, in the form of the sixth mass extinction, that has awoken us to its brilliance. It follows that ecopoetics is partly an exercise in salvage, an alarm against unprecedented anthropogenic dangers. Ecopoetry reminds us of our own smallness but, more importantly, it suggests that our capacity for destruction can—or must—be countered by our capacity for ingenuity and creativity. If we can understand the Earth as a being, as a reflection of ourselves, then we can ask ourselves more honestly about our responsibilities towards it. Doing this has the potential to unleash even greater wonders, as American poet Camille Dungy illustrates in “Trophic Cascade”:

After the reintroduction of gray wolves

to Yellowstone and, as anticipated, their culling

of deer, trees grew beyond the deer stunt

of the midcentury. In their up reach

songbirds nested, who scattered

seed for underbrush, and in that cover

warrened snowshoe hare. […]

The poem’s cascading rhythm mirrors the ecological cascade in the title. The litany of regeneration goes on, impossible to mistake for coincidence:

[…] Don’t

you tell me this is not the same as my story. All this

life born from one hungry animal, this whole,

new landscape, the course of the river changed,

I know this. I reintroduced myself to myself, this time

a mother. After which, nothing was ever the same.

Ecopoetics thus captures not only the complexity, diversity, and interconnectedness of nature itself but also the natural world’s place in human identities. Learning to understand the ecological is a form of self-discovery. For writers like Dungy, whose poetry and scholarship explores the intersection of nature and Black identity, it is also a form of legitimisation and validation. The natural world does not—or at least should not—discriminate. This is not least because historically marginalised groups have sacrificed the most to bring the natural world into our bodies, minds, and daily lives.

We see here that nature can not only regenerate itself, but also regenerate us and heal the wounds we have inflicted on each other. In this sense, ecopoetics recognises the omniscience and omnipresence of the natural world in a form far beyond what humans, with their prejudices and antagonisms, could ever achieve. While some of us are trying to escape the planet we have despoiled, others of us realise—indeed, we are humbled by—both our smallness and our capacity to create change for the better. Yet, ecopoetry also urges us not to dismiss the gravity of our task. As American poet Joanna Klink writes in “Terrebonne Bay”, published in her collection, Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy, we have been too eager to forget that the moment of crisis is now. Klink’s direct yet poised style suggests the shortness of memory and the flightiness of human attentions:

[…] Someone

wants to hide the body of oil and cannot.

Someone wants to hide their hands from shame.

Shark, dolphin, manatee, fish,

each slick skin an undreamt tine threading its red

flute-dusk through fumes.

Sound of the flood-dark pulse.

Then the second when the water makes no sound.

Ecopoetry is an attempt at reconciliation, both among people and between humanity and the Earth, but it is also an acknowledgement that seeing, understanding, and representing the natural world will never be enough to keep it alive in the face of unconstrained human ambition. The effectiveness of ecopoetics as a discipline hinges on its sense of urgency. The race to mitigate climate change is not just a race against an abstract notion of time. It is a race against ourselves and our worst instincts. We have been too eager to subjugate the natural world and to rewrite its history. We have thought ourselves capable of mastering the Earth, but we are beginning to discover that we are far less capable than we think—or, perhaps, too capable for our own good. In “Microbial Museum”, for example, British poet Maya Chowdhury imagines the potential consequences of resurrecting extinct species:

Prehistoric pestilence thaws, allows ancient genes to mix with

modern ones. Skiing genotype slaloms through DNA markers,

mutating the ocean, creeping into the unsuspecting cells

of species climbing the ladder to life.

The future is thawed, dispatched into a white out.

Chowdhury’s alliterative, dexterous language recalls the surreptitious “thawing” of the future at the hands of humankind. The sense of urgency her work conveys is at the heart of ecopoetics. We can write about extinction or de-extinction, pollution or preservation, but the point is not the phenomena themselves. It is the fear of the after—the knowledge that we are living a history that is tragically contingent, the result of blindness of unimaginable scale. In this sense, ecopoetics resituates within the grand narratives not only of human history but also of the natural world. It pushes us to open our senses to what words can’t convey. It deposits us in the wilderness of ourselves and bids us forge our own path forward.