Why We Chose (to Do) It (Again): Nature’s Nature

David Baker
May 2, 2016
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Nature’s Nature, a special section featuring thirty-one poems and an essay pondering the natural world, appears in the May/June 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review.

“Nature’s Nature” is not, of course, a single work or even several works by a single poet. It is a suite of thirty-one poems and one lyric essay gathered around the subject, location, and occasion of the “natural.” This is our second such installment with an explicit focus on nature, and I am pleased to note that this will now be an annual offering, each May/June, in the Kenyon Review. I can think of no more necessary focus for our writing and reading than to consider the environmental—and fundamental—challenges we face. Each year’s feature will present poets and writers not included in previous iterations of “Nature’s Nature,” so I hope we continue to grow in two ways at the same time, becoming an increasingly rich palette of aesthetic and cultural stances and an increasingly focused expression of creative concern.

On November 15, 2015, the day I finished ordering and arranging the poems and essay for this feature, I noticed in my local newspaper, the Columbus Dispatch, two articles printed on the same page. The first piece, from Reuters, was titled “As glacier slides into sea, fears get worse” and reported that the Zachariae Isstrom glacier in northeastern Greenland is slipping quickly into the sea on a bed of its own melting matter. The glacier contains enough ice to raise the world’s ocean levels by twenty inches which, in turn, will extend “ice losses to all corners of the vast remote island.” The article continues: “Another study has estimated that Greenland lost a net 211 billion tons of ice annually from 2000-11.”

It’s impossible not to be frightened by these facts or of the consequences of these facts for our planet, our shared nature. But directly to the side of the article appeared a more hopeful piece, “Efforts to help monarch butterflies paying off.” As we know, the habitat and life-rhythms of the iconic butterflies have been damaged by “illegal logging and pesticide use” that have destroyed, among other things, the milkweed plants they depend on for food and to lay their eggs. “As a result,” these writers continued, “monarch populations plunged almost 90 percent to a record low of about 35 million two years ago, compared with a peak of roughly 1 billion in the 1990s.” But thanks to reclamations, more controls on logging and pesticide, and concerted efforts across North and South America, “authorities expect up to a four-fold increase in the delicate-winged insects in the pine and fir forests of central Mexico.”

It’s not particularly hard to find such observations; they are not freak coincidences but rather indicate the extent to which our awareness is, at least, newsworthy now. The two articles show side by side the ongoing erosion and destruction of our environment by our own hands and also, in small ways, how our collected attention and efforts might still stem or delay the terrifying destruction we are wreaking.

What can a poem do in the face of news like this? What kind of news does a poem offer? It’s timely to recall William Carlos Williams’ famous assertion from his great poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” that

                    It is difficult
to get the news from poems
          yet men die miserably every day
                    for lack
of what is found there.

So what is found there? These nineteen writers with their thirty-one poems and one essay find many things. And you’ll find, in this work, poems awash with warning—contemporary jeremiads with a presiding tone of elegy, as Tyler Mill’s articulates explicitly: “This message is a warning about the danger. This is not a place of honor. This place is a message. . . . We once considered ourselves a powerful culture.” But you’ll also find gestures of hope and affirmation persisting, however unlikely, however such hope may be misconstrued or mistaken, as in these lines from Laura Kasischke:

And I myself have witnessed
a miracle as it was happening:

a child in the back seat
of a car in a parking lot behind a bar
waiting for his father in the middle of the night, while

the whole thing was being filmed
by a satellite from the sky
by what that child must have believed
to be a star.

The journey each piece takes here is shaped by the natural and aesthetic models the poets have studied. You’ll find prose poems, fractures, and erasures, in multiple exposures, as well as in singular narratives, intricate formal stanzas, even haiku. You’ll find documentary poems tracing the migratory patterns of bees but also of people, families, and nations. If Philip Metres is right, in fact, that “we ourselves are a climate,” then our poems are ecospheres as well as artifacts, living things that evolve through each reading and alongside each reader.

There’s much to say, much work to be done. The devastation and peril often feel so massive they are already beyond words. But in important ways poetry is always about what is beyond mere words, just past our grasp and our understanding. As our great nature poet, W. S. Merwin has written, “We are words on a journey / not the inscriptions of a settled people.”

Let me conclude these notes with one more news item, one more statistic. This is from November 25, the day I started to compose my introductory note to the print version of “Nature’s Nature.” Even though the year is a full month from closure, the World Meteorological Association has already announced that 2015 will go down in the record books as the warmest year, globally, since such records were first noted in the late 1800s.

I hope you read “Nature’s Nature” with the combination of urgency and hope that the poems themselves articulate. Mangrove, little frog, shepherd’s purse, live oak, apple maggot, honeybee, firefly, Sonoran Desert. Say the names before they are only a memory and the world, as T. R. Hummer writes, is “speechless with loneliness.”

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