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(Eco)consciousness and the Work of Poetry: A Review of Poetics for the More-than-Human World: An Anthology of Poetry and Commentary

By Aaron M. Moe

 

In this age of the Anthropocene, we are bombarded, every day, by new knowledge pointing toward the persistent strangling of the planet. With so much at stake, why would an individual, a book club, or a classroom—especially one hesitant of all things “eco”—spend a few months lingering in an anthology of ecopoetry and essays?

Each poem (and even essay) in Poetics for the More-than-Human World (a finalist for the 2020 Big Other Book Award for Poetry) exhibits its own form—forms that are experimental, daring, restive—and the dizzying ruptures from traditional expectations may seem to threaten the relationship between reason and language. The aim here, though, is not simply the dissemination of knowledge, but rather offering a way-of-being in language that can lead to insight and maybe even wisdom concerning what it means to be a living being living on a shared and imperiled planet.

Given today’s stakes, a starting question is not “What do the poems and essays mean?”—but rather, “What do they do?”

And: “What do they do—together?”

As “anthology” comes from the Latin anthos and logia meaning “a gathering of flowers,” Poetics for the More-Than-Human World creates an ecosystem of language where each individual poem or essay (each flower) connects through their root-like tendrils to another as if the editors (Mary Newell, Sarah Nolan, and Bernard Quetchenbach) took a bag of wildflower seeds and scattered them within the reader’s consciousness. I say “scatter” as there are no thematic groupings of poems; instead, the editors arranged the poems according to the “precise randomness” of alphabetical order. It is up to the reader to make connections and leaps across poems separated by two hundred pages—and yet to also appreciate the sudden joy of two poems working together, side-by-side, creating resonances that would otherwise not exist without that serendipitous proximity.

Either way, the seeds take root and begin their work.

As such, the anthology can help individuals and communities find some sort of progressive movement within and through these disturbed times. The editors see their collection as “more of a pathway than a destination,” and this pathway is driven by two related forces both captured in Vivian Demuth’s phrase “rhizomatic SOS.” Here, the driving energy of lament and anguish give way to calls for help, action, and resolve. Indeed, amidst the colossal collapse of the planet and this impending sense that “the clock’s ticking” (Cindy Botha), the poets resolve to find innumerable moments of kinship. These moments are fragile; and yet, they are enduring. At the very moment when things slip away in “imminent danger,” the reader finds the gift of “immanent resilience.”

In her essay, Sharon Lattig encourages the reader “to think of a poem as the construction of an Umwelt”—a word pointing toward the “capacity of [an organism’s] sensorium to select” their lived reality. (A spider with eight eyes experiences reality differently than a hammerhead shark.) I appreciate this call for readers to see poetry as something that can expand our sensorium to better understand our current plight and to point toward possible responses. An expanded sensorium expands our ecological awareness. It’s as if the collection is akin to a gut-biome with every poem contributing its own microbes to a collective consciousness. More than this, though, the anthology shapes and directs the umwelt of its readership, each reader floating in and out of the anthology, skipping pages, roaming and wandering, not worrying about empty linearity. The result?—each reading experience becomes its own pathway waiting to be shared with another reader.

Though each reader will carve their own arc through the collection, it is virtually impossible to miss the wide range of diverse poets represented, each speaking from a wide range of experiences. It confirms what many practitioners of ecopoetry and ecopoetics have witnessed all along: the practice of ecopoiesis is the best way of grappling with the enmeshed messiness of the historical forces surrounding political economy, colonialism, and oppression that has wreaked havoc on the human and more-than-human life all living on this blue planet.

Lamenting yet resilient, the poems in Poetics for the More-than-Human World inspire empathy and, quite possibly, a changed habit. And though some may say that such work is not yet enough, Jane Hirshfield’s insight becomes a mantra: “What word, what act, / was it we thought did not matter?”

 

Aaron M. Moe (PhD in English, Washington State University) is the author of the book of poems, exhalations, and two scholarly monographs: Ecocriticism and the Poiesis of Form: Holding on to Proteus and Zoopoetics: Animals and the Making of Poetry—along with several chapters and articles on ecopoetics / zoopoetics. In 2015, he published a leaflet of aphorisms, Protean Poetics. His creative work can also be found in Counterclaims: Poets and Poetries, Talking Back, and is forthcoming in the projects The Mountain: An Anthology and The Despairimentalist Manifesto. He and his family live near the foothills of the Colorado Rockies where they hike, climb, run trails, and write.

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