On Rebecca Dunham’s Cold Pastoral

Corey Van Landingham

Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2017. 70 pages. $16.00.

Documentary poetry, from Muriel Rukeyser to Tyehimba Jess, from Mark Nowak to Philip Metres, Charles Reznikoff to Nicole Cooley, continues to be one of the most innovative branches of American literature. But it is also, one must note, one of the branches in which such innovation converges—dramatically, almost anxiously—with those lineages, traditions, and influences that precede it. Rebecca Dunham’s latest collection, Cold Pastoral—with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill as its central focus—certainly follows this pattern of invention and deference. Using the found language of roadside signs, splicing text from interviews, and incorporating the inert language of statistical analyses (“Report: more than 60% of oysters / in one Louisiana bay are dead as a result / of the release of freshwater”), Dunham often finds ancestral footing in form. The speaker, too, is a recognizable one, a guide of sorts one might retrace back to Homer and Dante, but more clearly to Rukeyser, who lends the book its epigraph:

Carry abroad the urgent need, the scene,
to photograph and to extend the voice,
to speak this meaning.

Voices to speak to us directly.

This invocation of “The Book of the Dead” and the insistence on photography provide an apt compass for the poems it precedes. Indeed, our speaker, like Rukeyser’s, is wielding a camera, zooming in on a photograph of a pre-spill oyster haul or, later, on the fisherman himself, Wilbert Collins, whose livelihood has been threatened. “‘I offered / to show them all my dead oysters,’” Collins tells our guide. “‘They don’t want to see it.’” The poem ends with the speaker considering his statement:

I know. It’s not in our nature.
I owe him more than this
utterance unheard—
must learn, at last, to look.

Here, Dunham keenly navigates the responsibility of the poet. This tension—between the photograph and the poem, the statistical fact and the lyric, oracular utterance—is the tension of all great works of witness, and is surely at least part of what Rukeyser meant by extending the voice. How far can poetry take us? What are its boundaries, its thresholds? And what—here, with Sontag looming behind us—are the limits of photography? These poems, thankfully, hold no easy answers. Instead, they expose the process of an earnest attempt to witness disaster, alongside all the difficulty and enervation in doing so.

Dunham is drawn to the ekphrastic impulse, to the frisson of, for instance, an image from the New York Times of the Deepwater rig’s collapse into the sea. This image (a “viral elegy”) prompts the poet to turn away: “I cannot look. No, // I am the poet of the eye / filled with dirt.” This I/eye isn’t necessarily a dichotomy, but it does probe some of the issues the lyric poem has when it’s facing a public ken: how an outsider can speak to acute, local strife; the stake and scale of the speaker, and poet, when facing the deaths of others; the risk of aestheticizing disaster. This, though, seems throughout the poems to be a necessary risk. While photography—and the perhaps impersonal language of statistics—may render an incident as objectively as possible (something, much documentary poetry has taught us, of which to be quite suspicious), it is the ability of the lyric, in its leaps of imagination, its sonic persistence, and its fusion of—and recession from—time, to pour back into reality its emotional pitch and pull, to elongate its mystery and stave off, while admiring the power of, its tragedy.

All of this is crystallized (as well as intellectualized and questioned) in the third section of “Elegy for the Eleven,” which is titled “Panel: The Poetry of Disaster.” We get a chorus of panel-poets making sweeping claims about the subject at hand. “Metaphor is power,” one voice asserts. Another proclaims that “it is the job of poetry to feed / empathy.” Then it is the speaker’s turn to assess the role of metaphor. “You misunderstand the nature / of likenesses,” one voice insists, and it’s unclear, at this point in the poem, if this is another panel member, the poet-speaker speaking to the audience, or the poet-speaker addressing herself. This loosening of attribution complicates, appealingly, an already complex idea; we slide in and out of voices and judgments and proclamations in a way inimical to the panel structure, which invites one to purport, to make concrete the seemingly opaque world of poetry. I’m glad to return again and again to the section—as it asks a reader to do—to attempt to unravel its logic. This is its aim, surely; the poem seems to both include and poke fun at the “academic’s argument” presented.

While Cold Pastoral’s more familiar forms and subjects—the catalogue poem, the prosopopoeia, the series of elegies—track a firm knowledge of, and care for, its predecessors, the utilization of the oft-unwieldy notes page displays Dunham’s ingenuity. The book, in fact, elides the traditional notes, instead sweeping up what might be featured there—quotations and fragments, meditations and field notes, explanations and information, reportage and attribution—into its own, last poem, titled “A Hive of Boxes.” We’re able, in this collagist endeavor, to see Dunham pull back the curtain of process:

I spend hours scrolling through news articles about the Macondo blowout. Images of wildlife coasted in oil. Phrases: British Petroleum. Eleven dead. Largest accidental oil spill. But reading isn’t enough; I’ve lived decades in books and know how soon the articles will drop off the front page, then disappear completely.

There’s something shockingly intimate about moments like this, as there is with the inclusion of new poems, both featured in fragments and in their entirety. While “Hive of Boxes” is clearly crafted and full of intent, it gives the illusion of exposing readers to new drafts; it is as if we’re able to look into the poet’s Word document, her trove of information and resources, her hive. Not only is there an intimacy to this approach, but there’s also a generosity to it, one not meant to boast the wide-trolling mind and the depth of research behind the poems, but meant, it seems, to invite the reader into the book’s naissance. It gestures, too, to an ongoingness, an infinite amount of work to be done, material to include, poems to write. Here the anxiety of the documentary poet is evident; to finish the book is to allow, in essence, the articles to drop off the front page. The personal obsession with and investment in disaster adds a bold humanity, reminiscent of Nicole Cooley’s work in The Afflicted Girls but utterly original, all Dunham’s own. And in this originality lies the mark of a book to which many others will be turning for a long time to come.

Read a poem by Rebecca Dunham from the Winter 2013 issue of KROnline.

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