The mythos of “nature,” an objectification of the nonhuman world that was fetishized by romantic poets, remains saturated on the modern mind to no benefit, especially not in art; in fact, it separates the artist (and by proxy, humans) from responsibility for and membership in the very environment that they are objectifying. Footprints: an anthology of new ecopoetry, edited by Charlie Baylis and Aaron Kent and published by Broken Sleep Books of Wales, is a collage of works that, Baylis says, were selected for their engagement with “the current reality of our planet.”
Baylis adds that “in many ways these poems are a record of where we are, a document that will hopefully reveal something to future generations.” Document is an apt word for this collection as it ranges from free verse to erasure to mixed-media typography. One might consider it less a collection and more a time capsule from an epoch on the verge of environmental collapse. Even works that seem to glorify “nature” read ironically as they are presented alongside those like the collection’s opening poem, Afric McGlinchey’s “Magic a new realism”: “The slow, hurting body / of the planet is undulating / in sulphur yellow… Creativity is all we’ve got left.” McGlinchey cuts deep at romantic descriptions of the environment, noting that this mawkish “creativity” will be all that’s left at the planet’s end.
This anthology isn’t so much a call to action as a lament. The poems don’t directly address political issues except in their acknowledgement of the irreversible decline of the planet. Where they do delve into the political, they describe humans’ simultaneous destructive and dismissive actions toward the environment (i.e., this is what’s wrong and it’s not my fault). For example, the speaker in Alamgir Hashmi’s “Odesville” waxes on the altered landscape: “The orchards here that were— / once sheltered / lovers, losers, migrant fruit and fruit-pickers.” The refusal to wed time and place seamlessly (“here that were”) embodies a struggle to adapt the myth of a changeless, timeless “nature” to a space that contradicts it in its constant change. The title, “Odesville,” implies that the fabric of the town was designed for romantic pontificating. The desire to fit the land to the abstract concept of changeless time is one in which many characters in these poems are trapped.
Several poems feature characters (like Hashmi’s) who have internalized the story of a changeless natural world and wander aimlessly through a landscape that contradicts this very idea. Other works go a bit further than a simple reflection on human naïveté, opting for brutal meditations on the nihilistic underpinnings of that naïveté. For example, Al Crow’s “17/08/21” laments that poetry is pointless, “writing is a sort of defeat…We’re not building a world anymore, / not even pretending to. / We’re murdering it— / and this is a heavy weight to bear.” Writing no longer “builds” an environment—it describes its collapse.
Alongside blunt, emotionless accounts are eclogues reminiscent of Wendell Berry’s prose poems about the land, such as C.P. Nield’s “Compost,” which begins with a lyrical ingredient list: “Mush shivery with heat, / a dizzy waft of sweet puke, fast or slow / rotting loot, shoot and syllable distilling / black-gold mosquito-humming dirt liqueur” that reveals itself as the “Quintessence” of “rancid/fresh chemicals… all of us chemicals, crushed / in our squalors, august in our entropies. Peas.” Nield posits the cheeky suggestion “peas” as our next form, implying that we are not separate from the earth; rather, we will be recycled and turned into something useful. In this collection, however, the idea of “use” differs widely between the ecosystem and human society.
In a similar vein but taking a different approach is Katy Wimhurst’s series of prints (an amalgam of graphic design and shape poetry) that feature a fading lexicon within an indistinguishable, tattered form—except one print in which a conglomeration of sentences discussing “commodities” and “deforestation” form the outline of a woman´s head. The form is clearer than in the other prints, but it is disintegrating, nonetheless.
The collection’s overriding concern is the naïveté around the environmental crisis. This sentiment is captured astutely in Suzannah Evans’s “The Passenger Pigeon,” aptly named for a species destroyed by humans’ inattention to the abuse of a fragile ecosystem and the ignorance of our own membership within the effects of this abuse. The poem describes a group of “townspeople” sitting indoors, trying “not to think about their past actions / they’re not bad people, just hungry, / lonely, or lazy, or lacking in foresight / as dusk draws down they sit / at dinner tables, not speaking.” Fear leads to inaction, which has its roots in the fear of the inevitable, leading to a kind of learned helplessness.
The sly turn of the anthology is the way in which the poets place the blame back on humans. Claire Booker’s “Man God Oil” describes how “[i]n Chongqin city, 33 million people climb into the sky / to sleep. Babies ripen on rooftops like rare fruit… a small box, tightly sealed in cellophane, with a / Pandora vibe: alluring rattle, price tag attached… Next day on the coach, no-one admits to opening the box… as the 13 cities, 140 towns and 1,350 villages drowned / by the Three Gorges Dam.” Eventually, humans endure the consequences of environmental disruption as countless other species have been forced to do before them. There is no pause to reflect on those lives lost in the floods. In fact, individual lives are not mentioned; rather, impersonal entities (“cities,” “towns”) are described.
The collection ends, interestingly, with pastoral poems by Zoë Brigley. It’s a strange conceit to bookend a collection this way (McGlinchey’s eviscerating opening poem and Brigley’s benign bucolic reveries), but the intention is to read them in context. Where Brigley writes at the beginning in “The Pumpkin Flowers Take Pleasure Too,” “At dawn, pumpkin flowers loosen themselves / for the rain…” and then, “Now / flowers are shutting slowly, delicately: a woman / crossing her legs: lips closing after a kiss,” the hint is that the adoration of nature has never been about the environment but about human beings. Adoration of the natural world has always been adoration of humans’imagination of the nonhuman. The anthropomorphization of “flowers” into the suggestive posture of “a woman / crossing her legs,” transfers a phenomenon of the natural world onto a scene of human sexuality. The environment disappears in favor of a narrative placing the human at the forefront.
Ultimately, Footprints warns that the slow destruction of the environment doesn’t mean that humans destroy the earth; rather, it means that humans are destroying themselves. The environment will change around us and what it becomes next may not include us at all.
Nick Hilbourn’s work has recently appeared in Breath and Shadow, Rain Taxi, and Prairie Schooner, among others. His chapbook, Pacha, is available from Kattywompus Press. He writes about poetry on his blog (largethingslargerthings.tumblr.com) and can also be found on Twitter at @nhilbourn.