Four Poems by James Grabill

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Civilized Story

Civilization overshoots its capacity. The more people, the hungrier everyone is.

Celsius spikes, hundred-year storms flood, and so on.

Rock and sun collide in the presence of water. The first single cells grow animals, some survive, transcontinental asphalt heads off to intervene with zoological displays, centers of population, CO2-sequestrating plants, and so on.

Fossil aquifers are tapped. Dust and modern crop yields promote production of all the more people.

Half the world attends the banquet. Half gathers matter for bone soup. Grasshoppers descend on the Dust Bowl forever swallowing. Polar ice melts under assumptions lingering from earlier centuries. The story looks for its exceptionalism reaching amino acids the faster time moves, and so on.

The more people afloat, the rockier sea level lifts.

Beautiful and strange dark-scarlet veins of the large grasshoppers disappear. Brazilian rainforest canopies drag out their disappearance in front of razor-lit melts of hell-yes and heavens-no.




Predicting Future History

The future history of recent events may well transpose underlings and substitute conditions with intention in the face of known extractions. It turns out only one species is writing it.

Noticed will be extraordinary individual wealth with accumulations of impoverishment related to the transactions and consolidations that seem determined, perhaps bound, to pursue business as usual underground in lodgings as meet class requirements of comfort and attendance of serving people.

The latter will be the stones staying in studio apartments, surviving on meager rations, as the great future history of recent past survival of identity, believed to independently exist without need of dissection tables or names for fabled microbes, goes on.

If the anti-Jeffersonian liberal education crowd has its way, identity will win social recognition, whether or not undertakers will have abandoned the old practice of attempting to placate any of the closer individually bereaved or shocked.

Why spend the final valuable moments of time decorating the next corpse with its own resemblance, in the future world experiencing the effects of possession of the means and ends by those long ago sequestered in comforts of their own underground?




The Pacific Trash Vortex

Swerving out of a blank spot of the back story far from shipping routes, soured and ingrown as seawaters go acidic, the vortex swells into a gaping wound where throw-outs collect trapped by current as cities spill more than anyone sees ending in the planetary swirl expanding north and east of Hawaii.

As Greenpeace folks gill-net some of it out, most pitched hollow polymer parts remain, most produce sacks in a briny stew through which jellyfish must parachute, through what’s packing bellies of seabirds until they can’t swallow, what’s making elegant harbor seals clogged with lacerated wrappings and locking caps from tour-ship malls where waves float yellow wrenches through handbag rips sordid and barnacled.

Pitched bottles float, leaking quaternary ammonium biocides into parts of trawler-net comb-throughs catching many sea-swimmers stuffed with syndiotactic polypropylene to be eaten by others dying there with single net-snagged dolphins unable to breathe.

The vortex revolves in current swirling as if over a drain, but nothing goes down that doesn’t ride on depths, cartwheeling with lost handles of blue toys and grocery aisle debris torn into death jellies stuck with roiling thick tons in the throat of the ocean.




Small Chant in the Heat

Torch-lit emptiness leaves a wake
of photochemical torque between
species with falling rain and hurrying
in light living larger than needs,

the anomalous heart-beat hunger
of humanity for all you can eat,
the wheat-field renewal of destiny,
the deep-sea stretches of opening profit,

the benefits of symbolic brethren purposes
blanketing zero imprint, razing their own
hillside burns, loosening impermanence
where the black-blue bowl’s made open

to pours of the compass, worthiness, guilt
echoing in degrees, in the hour of depth,
the vacant orange-yellow earliness
with a chance to live out vulnerability,

the red-hot flats at the bottom of scarlet dark,
the rake of luminous Rothko red-violet reds,
the winter fits of tortoise-crawl scrafing
off in the shadow of unequal distribution.




James Grabill’s poems have appeared in numerous periodicals such as The Oxonian Review, Stand, Magma, Toronto Quarterly, Harvard Review, Seneca Review, Urthona, kayak, Plumwood Mountain, Caliban, Spittoon, Weber: The Contemporary West, The Common Review, and Buddhist Poetry Review. His books include Poem Rising Out of the Earth (1994) and An Indigo Scent after the Rain (2003). Wordcraft of Oregon will publish his new project of environmental prose poems, Sea-Level Nerve: Book I, this summer, Book II next summer. He teaches “systems thinking” relative to sustainability and is available for readings and workshops.

Photo credit: Mural at Spaceship Earth, Sam Howzit via photopin cc.

  1. The Pacific Trash Vortex is truly such an eco-disaster worthy of Grabill’s treating it as matter stuck in a throat, choking the ocean. It could only be worse after the 2011 tsunami that struck Japan, and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident that dumped waste into the ocean. It is difficult to find any saving grace in such a mess–but it’s true that sea creatures thrive on some trash. Algae coats debris wherever there is sunlight. Deeper down, corals, sponges, tunicates, and creatures we likely haven’t even named treat it as a matrix to adhere to and grow upon. One of the treats of scuba diving is to see the octopi help out–they collect bottles and pile matter neatly around their hiding holes. We should hope that some of these creatures will evolve on a fast track to be able to digest the most visible of plastic debris, discarded water bottle that are now contraband on certain Caribbean islands.

  2. Thanks for the comments. I wanted to say that anyone who’d like a copy of a new book of prose poems I’ve just had published, please send me your mailing address: to [email protected]. The prose poems have turned into an extensive project, with Wordcraft of Oregon publishing Book I this summer and Book II next summer. Editors asked for a “brief description” of the work, so I gave it an attempt (from an objective/editor’s point of view): “A Brief Description of Sea-Level Nerve: In this era with seven quickly becoming eight billion of us hoping to survive on Earth, as scientific research and development, community resilience, and social justice progress, so do they retool awareness and rewrite working paradigms—on this terrain, the prose poems in Sea-Level Nerve speak symphonically and resonate ecologically as they explore what we collectively find through biological, cultural, and personal perspectives, with an eye toward the emerging future.”

    Actually, more from the writing point of view, I’d modify the above to say “…in Sea-Level Nerve try to speak symphonically…” because how do I know if they’re actually shaping potential sound into meaning, that is, if they’re speaking? All I know is that they’re trying to and seem as if they might be. I can say that the prose poem format has proven to me it’s quite flexible, capable of carrying (or “holding” as a vessel) both lyric expression and scientifically based description, both personal and cultural narrative, along with logical argument. I’ve tried to pack Sea-Level Nerve with all of this in an interwoven/integrative way.

    By the way, I just came across a Lorin Hollander quote that speaks about the shape of both music and the genome–he was a child prodigy on the keyboard, able to perform highly complex concertos at an unbelievably young age. Something he said about his transition from prodigy to adult musician has always stayed with me. Apparently he felt the need to virtually “retire” from public performance, to sit with the piano, with music, with sound, to commune with depths of chords and passages (by the way, this is an inadequate paraphrase). Only after he had reached the heart of what for him is music, or the essence of sound (and I’m sure more), did he want to return to his role. He has described sitting with the sound, letting it penetrate the fiber of mind and body, feeling it resonate, seeing its colors, I believe it was (& I wonder what illuminated abstract expressionist paintings he found). Anyway, here is what Lorin Hollander has said as an adult (I apologize for the abridgement): “The universe is shaped the way it would sound [. . . .] vibrations cause and are the reason for the Fibonacci ratios – shapes we find in parts of our bodies, in seashells, galaxies, crystals, sunflowers, orbits, eggs, buds, pines cones and in the unfolding of embryonic life [. . . .] the blueprints for planetary revival – the vibratory patterns underlying the process of transformation itself, can be understood through an exploration of music. Music touches the fundamental and universal aspects of our souls and therefore has an unmatched power to nurture and guide the creative inspiration we need to assure our survival as planetary beings.”

    When I picture the art of poetry, the power and clarity it can have, the complexity and plasticity it’s capable of, I want to say it’s music in words, that there are as many kinds of poetry as there are kinds of music (Irish folk, jazz, classical, rock, hillbilly chic, avant garde, on and on, with every possible mix). When someone says “I love poetry” or “I can’t stand poetry” or “poets are legislators of the world,” I try to imagine it being said about music. Maybe there are people who’d say, “I can’t stand music,” but most people tend to be more definite, which is how we’d want to treat the art of poetry, seems to me, with a sense of the large number of ways people around the world have let language resonate not only with meaning, not only with implication, but sound and rhythm and elemental energies of being.

    Again, for a free copy of Sea-Level Nerve (Book I), drop me your mailing address (at [email protected]).

    good energy to you, JG

    Here are a few other prose poems from the SLN project now online:

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