Since the Industrial Revolution, we have found ourselves in the Anthropocene, or geological period of major human impact on the environment. From factory production to modern warfare, human change has endangered the land. This damage has not only influenced the ways our society encounters nature but also the way poets write about the subject: areas that were once home to idyllic scenes worthy of the pastoral are polluted, strip-mined, or radioactive. Such damage has long-term effects (that are often invisible), effects which writer Rob Nixon calls “slow violence.”
Since humans are intrinsically connected to the land, this damage effects us too. Poet Lissa Kiernan reflects on this connection, using poetry to explore the lasting dangers of nuclear power plants. Her poem “Eclogue on Decommissioning” (first published at Terrain.org and edited slightly in her collection Two Faint Lines in the Violet) studies the moment between a nuclear power plant’s container cracking and its future demolition.
In recent years, nuclear energy has posed an invisible threat beyond the spectacle highlighted by media such as The Simpsons. Meltdown events such as Chernobyl and Fukushima are dramatic at the time of the violence, but the initial spectacle masks the ongoing, invisible destruction they continue to wreak: the “end” of a meltdown is the beginning of the ongoing threat. We’re still seeing the effects of these meltdowns, though the news cycle no longer focuses on them. This is where poetry—in all its forms—comes in.
An “eclogue” is a short poem on a pastoral subject. “Eclogue on Decommissioning” describes a rural landscape that initially appears to be a place of beauty. “Fog scrims the Deerfield River Valley,” the poem begins, “Leaves bleed / through, bent south.” By naming a location in the first line and then describing this place through the rest of the opening stanza, Kiernan situates the poem within the pastoral tradition. We know the scene takes place in autumn; there is a sense of natural death and decay. Our attention is then drawn to the duality of the word “plant” which is used to describe a human-made power factory though its roots are in the natural world: “Our plant is no exception. It, too, has begun to dismantle.” Here, at the juncture between stanzas 1 and 2, we learn that a nuclear power plant is shutting down because it has already begun to break down. Kiernan compares its breakage to that of the natural world: “leaves bleed / through, bent south. Gourds bloat, rupture on vines.” Natural or man-made, destruction is inevitable.
Poems of witness like Kiernan’s can describe how radioactive waste will outlive humans. In the penultimate stanza, the burial of nuclear waste is akin to laying a beloved to rest, yet it is also secretive and silent: “Go on. Bury it. As quickly and quietly as you can.” This line acknowledges that concealing radioactive material is not a long-term solution future damage. In fact, the image highlights the latent danger: the radioactivity isn’t going anywhere. It will be just below the surface for thousands of years, posing an invisible threat.
In the final stanza, Kiernan pulls together the natural landscape, violence of the power plant, and human experience: “Dump it in dark trenches in towns with jowled porches / and slow-swaying stoplights. Mottling a river— / with no will left to say no.” Here, danger is tied closely to landscape and the domestic sphere: homes, streets, and the river are all intertwined with the trenches containing radioactive waste. Humans are both implicit in and impacted by the damage.
Deceptively quiet on the page, Kiernan’s poem successfully renders an emotionally-charged eco-justice message to the reader through imagery and poetic inventiveness. It shares in the effort to dismantle the link between environmental damage and the image of a cataclysmic event, an effort which demands an examination and removal of several customary binaries, moving beyond the spectacle of nuclear disaster to highlight slow violence. Eco-poems like Kiernan’s bring to light the paradox of the pastoral: it urges us readers to consider how our society both actively destroys nature while expecting it to be a place we can turn to for healing.
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/