In light of the tenacity Greta Thunberg has shown during her travels to and through the US, I’ve been thinking about climate change, power, and poetry. Who has the power to enact change? Does poetry ever exercise any power?
Maybe it’s just the small corner of the world I occupy, but it almost feels like more poets than ever are writing about environmental issues than ever before. When I think of poems of climate change, I think of the word “breakage”—the world is experiencing such destruction and we’re as attached to our history of writing the natural world as we are separated from it because of the sense of destruction or urgency or even failure.
Baby oysters in the Pacific Northwest are unable to build shells because of ocean acidification. The Amazon is burning. Coral reefs are dying. Icebergs are melting. Generally speaking, it’s becoming clear to me that human influence on the environment is not only awful because of its destructive effects but because it fosters a breakage between us and our world, as if we’re distinct from it; not implicated in the effects.
To fully interact with this idea of wholeness/breakage, it almost seems contemporary poets must move away from traditional form (and the comforts it brings) to speak into / for these difficult moments. Shifting point-of-view, persona, and voice are tools that can help articulate the overwhelming sense we often feel of sheer destruction.
I’m thinking especially of Camille Dungy’s “A Massive Dying Off” (published in Smith Blue), a poem that showcases that fracture. “When the fish began their dying you didn’t worry,” her poem begins, “You bought new shoes.” Here we’re shown the wide gap between a person and the world around her; the macro level of destruction and how insignificant it can be on the micro level of going about one’s day.
In the next section, our speaker draws attention to the fact that the interaction between a person and “the five-fingered sea stars” takes place via the radio while “driving to Costco.” Even then, it’s so simple to say, “enough talking” and choose a song to play instead.
As a reader, I’m drawn to the italicized text in this poem and its division into sections. There’s a pastiche at work here; text is coming together in an unusual way…perhaps as an attempt to bridge the divide between human and environment? This poem is also curiously written in second person—“you” are doing all the things. I read this as an attempt to implicate us all. We’re doing what we’ll do—making grocery lists, sending our emails for class—while the environment collapses around us. It’s not a given that we are aware; awareness takes work. That work may begin with recognizing breakage and wanted to find (rehabilitate?) that sense of wholeness.
Hila Ratzabi’s poem “Diary of Sila the Sky God,” (first published in Tinderbox) however, gives me some hope. This poem is mythic and fabulist and, dare I say, kind of fun? It’s dated “February 5, 2014.” I had to look this up…seems like winter storms were threatening much of the US on this date. Sure enough, the first line informs us: “Chance of snow storm in northeastern United States: definite.” This whole poem operates as a list; it is in the form of a diary entry. I love that play, and the levity it offers, especially regarding the anxiety of its topic.
In general, I’m drawn to elements of magic in poetry. I feel like a little fabulism or mythopoesis can help approach difficult topics in a gentler way. As soon as we are removed from realism, even slightly, suddenly anything can go; we’re no longer in the realm of non-fiction and it makes everything less frightening…even if the poem goes on to give specific facts: “CO2 levels worldwide: 397.80 ppm / Number of chemical weapons worldwide: hard to tell.”
There’s so much we don’t know; much of that is damage/damaging. And yet, Sila goes on: “Earth’s heart rate: 267 beats per minute.” She’s exactly, and she has agency: “Current emotions: where to put this cyclone.” The world here has power, and we shouldn’t forget it.
I love that both of these poems remind us that there is a way to reconcile new and old beliefs: mythology, religion, and science. Two (or more) things can be true; we can still find ourselves moving myopically through the world and yet practice awareness of the bigger picture.
Stacey Balkun is the author of Eppur Si Muove, Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak & Lost City Museum. Winner of the 2017 Women's National Book Association Poetry Prize, her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Crab Orchard Review, The Rumpus, and other anthologies & journals. Chapbook Series Editor for Sundress Publications, Stacey holds an MFA from Fresno State and teaches poetry online at The Poetry Barn & The Loft. Find her online at http://www.staceybalkun.com/