Joe Hall reviews Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology edited by Melissa Tuckey
University of Georgia Press | 2018 | ISBN: 9-780-8203-5315-9 | 480 pages
Carl Anthony’s 2006 “African-Americans and Environmental History: A Manifesto” calls out the exclusion of black writers from the body of environmental literature. In Positive Pollutions and Cultural Toxins (2012) John Blair Gamber suggests that ecocriticism has become a form of academic white flight, a way for white critics to avoid having to deal with race in their analysis of literature. If anthologizing is a form of critical activity, then we can ask whether recent eco-poetry anthologists have followed suite. Camille Dungy’s 2009 Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry does crucial work to address the absence of black writers from ecopoetry. The 2013 Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street 600+ page The Ecopoetry Anthology is a trickier case. It is diverse while still being pretty white. At the end of the day, the Gary Snyders and Robert Frosts get the lion’s share of pages. And many poems don’t do enough to complicate a white, Romantic epistemology that recapitulates nature-culture binaries and strives toward transcendence.
Such poetries tend to clear people and cultures, past and present, from landscapes in order to manufacture nature suitable for poetic reverie. Communing with nature, in these frameworks, is a tacit acceptance and even, in the danker past of what has been called environmental lit, celebration of these violences. I’m looking at you, Thoreau’s “Walking.” Anthologies of environmental literature can do better.
Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology edited by Melissa Tuckey announces it seeks to replace sim-card sized considerations of nature and fakey pastorals from white writers with a more plural selection of writers considering ecology and culture in a planetary moment of uneven environmental catastrophe. This anthology’s turn to environmental justice most often foregrounds relationships between environments, race, and imperialism given that it is communities of color and the Global South that most often deal with the consequences of environmental malfeasance. Accordingly, Tuckey centers poets of color.
By rough count, this anthology consists of at least half writers of color. While past editors and critics have tended to focus on American Indian and African American writers, Tuckey also includes a considerable selection of Latinx, Asian and Asian-American, and Arab and Arab-American voices. Across its more than 400 pages, the anthology takes us out of the woods of the American Northeast and sublime vistas of the West into a more whole and variegated sense of America’s ecologies (with a global addendum) through multiple—sometimes overlapping, sometimes diverging—cultural lenses.
Patrick Rosal’s narrative “Typhoon Poem” dramatizes a nun lashing her students to trees, saving and traumatizing them as they watch their neighbors swept away in the flood; Naomi Shihab Nye writes with a light touch on goat ranching; Martín Espada tells the story of Federico, a migrant fruit-picker whose ghost haunts a planter’s tomato fields. The anthology also recognizes ecological currents running through the works of canonical figures like Lucille Clifton, whose poem “generations” opposes the pride of violent men with a list of humble, nonhuman creatures and things:
the generations of rice
by their invisibility
Ghost Fishing is composed of eight themed sections such as “La Frontera/Sin Fronteras: Land, Culture, Possession, and Dispossession,” “Little Farm, Big Farm: Food, Culture, and Capital,” and “Unquiet Air: Resource Extraction.” These sections help remind the reader of the multiple facets of the struggle for environmental justice, providing crucial context for poems some readers may not see as about justice, particularly those about food and animals.
These sections also allow the poems to resonate with each other. “Plead for Me: Beyond America” develops a compelling internationalist vision. Together, the poems tell a story of U.S. and transnational corporate imperialism with devastating costs. In Tala Abu Rahme’s “Pomegranates,” war ravages a family and strangely recodes its fruit tree. Taha Muhammad Ali’s witty, grim “Thrombosis in the Veins of Petroleum” figures oil fields as the only bodies the United States and war-dependent transnational oil companies care for:
They butchered me
on the doorstep
like a lamb for the feast—
in the veins of petroleum
This leaves him an obdurate fragment in this oil-body:
I won’t die! I will not die!
I’ll linger on—a piece of shrapnel
the size of a penknife
lodged in the neck;
a blood stain
the size of a cloud
on the shirt of this world!
A few pages away, the figure of the oil stain reemerges. Tolu Ogunlesi on the oil boom in the Niger Delta: “Unseen hands daily smear oil / across the ominous face of the clock, / the gently relentless art of many talented painters” becomes “Blood, / staining the atlas in hues deeper / than the ink that staunchly marks place.”
In “What Should We Do?” Hiromi Mishou records receiving letters from doctors in Baghdad and Basra asking him how to treat children suffering from radiation exposure caused by U.S. soldiers firing depleted uranium munitions. Mishou is stunned by the letters which open 2014 to the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, which Mishou survived and was a victim of. The poem opens the reader to both the painful memories of one man and the duration of U.S. empire and how U.S. weapons of mass death create ecologies of what Rob Nixon calls “slow violence”—ravaging individuals for lifetimes and communities and ecologies for possibly centuries. The scale of this chronic violence is hedged against the revelation of an emerging transnational network of, if not resistance, then at least witness formed by a doctor in Baghdad reaching out to a doctor in Japan. In this section, the aperture widens without losing focus, reminding us how the local and global, ecologies and capital, families and states, are embedded in each other.
I’ve surveyed some themes in this anthology. But how should we consider the poems aesthetically? Some are remarkable. Martín Espada’s “Frederico’s Ghost” represents one of the best examples that fits within Tuckey’s preference for lyric-narrative poems that eschew abstraction. The poem narrates the standoff between a presumably white pilot and Frederico, a migrant fruit picker. It climaxes with the crop duster spraying Frederico with pesticide a second time while Frederico stands his ground giving the pilot the finger. If the poem ended here, with short, blunt lines that isolate and make indelible its subjects: drunk pilot, Frederico, net of pesticide—it would be a memorable tableaux of environmental racism, one that takes up Rachel Carson’s motifs of the applications of pesticides as a militaristic war on life itself while emphasizing what Carson does not, that it is migrant workers who suffer most acutely from its application. Yet the poem goes on, refusing to end on the dead body of a person of color:
After Frederico died,
rumors at the labor camp
told of tomatoes picked and smashed at night,
growers muttering of vandal children
or communists in camp,
first threatening to call Immigration,
then promising every Sunday off
if only the smashing of tomatoes would stop.
Espada illustrates the power of oppressive employers in the U.S. agricultural caste system with bosses threatening noncompliant workers with deportation. Yet this is in the context of the power of workers to slow down work in protest and of the old women of the camp to create the myth of Frederico to celebrate defiance and create a cover under which to participate in it.
The poem might also challenge its reader in celebrating Frederico’s uncivil acts and the destruction of plant life. The smashed tomatoes of the poem—the flash of red—suggests short-term ecological sacrifice may help achieve more just long-term eco-social relations.
We might also turn to Danez Smith’s “summer, somewhere,” where murdered black boys do not die but live on in a topography that recuperates loss into new kinds of kin. It’s a starry-eyed vision in liquid couplets:
the mountain reveal itself a boy.
watch Mountain & Forest playing
in the rain, watch the rain melt everything
into a boy with brown eyes & wet naps—
the lake turns into a boy in the rain
the swamp—a boy in the rain
the fields of lavender—brothers
dancing between the storm
The poem effects transformation after transformation in lines that tumble with an accomplished effortlessness. There’s real vision here in how acts of language and naming might couple memory with the resurgent forces of nature to oppose the obliteration of memory and fragmentation and hierarchies of relations the violence of white supremacy hopes to achieve. Like any great utopic vision, Smith’s poem both risks absurdity and powerfully rebukes the current order of things.
We might also turn to Brenda Hillman’s “The Seeds Talk Back to Monsato.” It’s the rare case of a poem that seeks to educate its readers on a complex injustice—Monsato rewiring seeds to insert a cash straw into poor farmers—with a wry, shuffling sense of humor. After a coda in which Hillman instructs her reader to send wild seeds to CEOs of gene-hacking companies, the poem ends: “The CEOs will not bother contacting the CIA; you’re just a poet. The word-seeds will outlast you, you know that—”. These are poems where the anthology exceeds its promises.
Others poems in Ghost Fishing are at cross purposes with its stated goals. Tuckey’s introduction critiques Romantic pastoral poems and their descendants for too easily mythologizing rural life, dividing nature from culture and, in doing so, erasing cultural, political, and historical relations in seeking out and celebrating that highly artificial product: wilderness.
If we accept this then what is Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things” doing in this anthology, no less in its “Resistance, Resilience, and Resurgence” section? Lines like “I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds,” place us firmly in a gentle romanticized nature—depopulated, dematerialized into a visual image—that consoles the speaker. The poem glides to this conclusion: “For a time / I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.” Sounds good. But isn’t this also the kind of narrow portrait this anthology represents an alternative to? There are more poems like this. One from Dorianne Laux that relates the great rhythms of nature with the people-killing, ongoing disaster that is global warming. These disasters happen in passive voice—“the land is disappearing beneath / the sea, islands swallowed,” the implication being that these disasters of capitalism are, instead, part of the natural order of things. The poem’s world then dissolves in moonlight and stars. One might accuse Laux of gilding her melancholy with someone else’s problems. Either way, we are back in Wordsworth’s daffodil valley asking where is C.A. Conrad? This reviewer would have appreciated more poems that don’t equate personal reflection and connection with nature with struggles for justice that are often community-based, because in doing so, they often fall back into the aesthetic categories they seek to complicate. I also wondered what the anthology would look like if Tuckey’s assertion of links between linguistic and cultural diversity and biodiversity were translated into linguistic diversity on the page, whether this means poly-lingual poems or pairing the original poems with those in translation.
This said, the anthology represents a step forward in redefining environmental literature to fit more people’s environmental realities. If literature can do anything, we need anthologies like this and the ones that follow in a moment in which the U.S. government denies global warming exists; peels back regulations on water pollution, pesticides, and toxic minerals like asbestos; and opens more lands—many of them belonging to indigenous groups—to dirty energy extraction. If literature can do anything, we need this anthology and the ones that will follow as the United States’s regime strives toward its fascist horizon and intensifies the total pollution of the environment through warfare and increased dirty industrialization, both of which will disproportionately impact already marginalized communities.
Header photo by Skitterphoto, courtesy Pexels.