POETRY IS THE ART OF PLAYING with words. Words artfully used invoke feelings, both sensation and emotion. They turn common sense upside down and recharge solidarities. They show us how to grieve and they make us laugh, even in the most desperate of times. They allow us to use those feelings to think more deeply, and sometimes against ill-advised common sense. How can we do without poetry in this time of trouble?
This sentiment motivated the curators to weave poetry into the collaborative digital project Feral Atlas: the More-than-Human Anthropocene (www.feralatlas.org). The atlas is a portrait of the Anthropocene in all its up-close and dirty variety: not just global warming, but toxins, plagues, extinctions, and much more. The atlas is both an analysis of the Anthropocene and a critical description. It shows the Anthropocene as “patchy,” that is, as composed of discontinuous and overlapping social and ecological patches, through which the environmental catastrophes of our time are made. Seventy-nine field reports by natural and social scientists, historians, Indigenous elders, and artists—each based on direct observation and research—tell the stories of these patches. Meanwhile, the atlas shows users how to read with and across these patches: in histories created through continent-crossing ruptures; in system-shifting disturbances created by human infrastructure; and through the extraordinary new agilities of nonhumans living in human-designed worlds. The atlas is a journey through the patchy Anthropocene.
Poetry is a part of it. Two of the field reports that form the meat of the atlas are poems. Juliana Spahr’s “Gentle now, don’t add to heartache” mourns for the lost creatures of a polluted Ohio stream, each listed by its proper name. Evelyn Reilly’s “Hence mystical cosmetic over sunset landfill” considers the indestructibility of Styrofoam. Where once waste rotted, feeding new life, now waste leaks toxins practically forever. One of explanatory essays that form the atlas’ analytic skeleton is a poem: Ruth Padel’s Time to Fly, which draws readers into continuities between humans and other beings. These are important poems, each a marker, indeed, for the poetry of the Anthropocene. Each shows how poets don’t just illustrate and pontificate: together with scientists and other observers, they offer the key work of critical description. Yet three poems is not enough poetry to feel and unsettle—and thus understand—the Anthropocene. To address this problem, the curators have embedded poems, and pieces of poems, throughout the atlas.
From the first, the embedded poems were intended as surprising treasures, rewards for looking closely into the atlas. The curators hoped that users would stumble on the magic of a poem. There also would be an index that allowed poetry lovers to find all the poetry in the atlas. But then the software designers left out the poetry index. The poems became truly hidden—almost impossible to find. This article makes a small dent in this omission. Readers unacquainted with Feral Atlas might take this moment to explore it. Readers already familiar with the atlas might look again, ready for more exploration.
Sometimes a scientific explanation is not enough to provoke the senses. Marine scientists Bettina Fach, Baris Salihoglu, and Temel Oğuz report on the transition from a fish-based ecology to one composed almost entirely of gelatinous jelly organisms in the Black Sea in the late 1980s—caused by a combination of overfishing, eutrophication, climate variability, and the introduction of exotic marine species, including the voracious comb jelly Mnemiopsis leidyi.1 It’s an incredible story; but even with a close-up photograph, it’s hard for readers to experience the world of jellies. Now read Marianne Moore’s poem, “A Jelly-Fish,” and the gelatinous world of jellies infuses your being.
A fluctuating charm,
An amber-colored amethyst
Inhabits it; your arm
It opens and
You have meant
To catch it,
And it shrivels;
It opens, and it
Closes and you
Reach for it—
Grows cloudy, and
It floats away
Try touching the jelly: there is nothing you can catch. It’s there and not there. It surrounds us and fades away from us. This is the world the Black Sea became in the Anthropocene. We are caught in jellies. (Find this poem when you click the green Feral Qualities line to the left of this text.)
The provocation of the senses by gelatinous life is also evoked in Seamus Heaney’s “Death of a Naturalist,” which tells the story of a boy’s horror at the greedy slime of frogs. The boy is seeking “the warm thick slobber /Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water…,” but one day the “obscene threats” of the frogs’ slime were just too much:
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
If Moore is made anxious by not catching, Heaney fears being caught; either way, slime feels dangerous because it defies clear borders. The Feral Atlas curators placed Heaney’s poem in a report on introduced American bullfrogs’ abilities to overcome every obstacle to spread across the landscape, consuming and sickening other frogs.2 “Introduced populations of bullfrogs are challenging to control because of their high mobility, generalized eating habits, and high reproductive capacity,” write scientists Nathan Snow and Gary Witmer. It’s not necessary to engage the senses to understand the horror of this spreading diaspora, which has aided the extinction of many other species. Yet thinking with slime is a vivid way to experience the frog’s uncontainability. (Find Heaney’s poem by clicking the green Feral Qualities line below the main text.)
Slime pushes beyond our comfort zone as humans. Inger Christensen’s book-length poem Alphabet is a list of things that exist—including things caught up in the Anthropocene destruction of the everyday. Feral Atlas’ curators thought of it when reading Nathalia Brichet’s report on toxic ship paints, which flake off at harbors, causing reproductive dysfunction in snails.3 Christensen’s poem seemed to evoke just this kind of problem, and our unease, through slime.
|even slugs with their slime-trails
are porous as mirrors
whose human reflections are lost
just the stalk of a nettle explains leaflessly
that in our despair we have made a flowerless earth
sexless as chlorine
Hormone disruptors in ship paints stop snails from mating, creating that “flowerless earth/sexless as chlorine.” The reverberations are even clearer—even for non-Danish speakers—in the original Danish, in which the words for slugs (and snails) and slime slide over readers’ tongues: “selv de slimede snegle/er porøse som spejle.” Feral Atlas includes the Danish to allow the words to evoke the slime world defiled by toxic paints. (Find these excerpts by clicking the green Feral Qualities line to the left of Brichet’s text.)
Dismantling common sense
Poems may be infused with the senses, but they can also—often subtly—carry big ideas. Take this item of ordinary common sense: Humans are entirely different from all other beings. It is hard to convince adherents otherwise through argument alone. But consider the work of Ruth Padel’s “Time to Fly,” which begins as follows:
|You go because you heard a cuckoo call. You go because
you’ve met someone, you made a vow, there are no more
grasshoppers. You go because the cold is coming, spring
is coming, soldiers are coming: plague, flood, an ice age,
a new religion, a new idea. You go because the world rotates,
because the world is changing and you’ve lost the key.
You go because you have the kingdom of heaven in your heart.
Or the kingdom of hell has taken over someone else’s heart.
“There are no more/grasshoppers”? Much of the rest of the list can be imagined as describing humans, but probably not the line about grasshoppers. This is a story of what motivates movement for humans and nonhumans alike. Throughout the poem, Padel mixes up the list, crossing species boundaries: “You go because travel is holy, because your body/ is wired to go, you’d have a quite different body and different brain/ if you were the sort of bird that stayed.” The “time to fly” of the poem touches both humans and birds. In this story, the difference between humans and birds has dissolved. A big and toxic idea (human exceptionalism) has silently collapsed.
Sometimes poems shock—and disturb common sense that way. Shaun Tan has written a short story collection, Tales from the Inner City, that reads like poetry. Here is “Rhinoceros.” (Find this poem by clicking the violet Feral Qualities line at the bottom of this text, which tells of other extinctions.)
|The rhino was on the freeway again.
We blew our horns in outrage!
Men came, shot it dead, pushed it to one side.
We blew our horns in gratitude!
But that was yesterday.
Today we all feel terrible.
Nobody knew it was the last rhino.
How could we have known it was the last one?
From outrage to gratitude to terrible regret in five short lines that implicate us all: Tan is amazing. Perhaps no further comment is necessary.
Another way to shock is by re-presenting familiar words of law and power, as Ryan Walsh does in his poem “Expert Testimony.” The poem is created by whiting out most of the text of a legal transcript to bring attention to the terrifying effects of industrial toxins on human health—here in a legal case against the DuPont corporation. Through this selective reading, the banalities of “business as usual” fade, as its atrocities are jerked to the foreground. (Find this poem by clicking the green Feral qualities line at the bottom of this text, which tells of other toxicities.)
Living in the Anthropocene
While the Anthropocene may indeed be planetary, it is experienced by both humans and nonhumans in relation to the specificities of the social and ecological patches they inhabit. Poems are good at expressing this. Experience is always engaged through a social position, a place, a moment in history. It is not just a matter of local weather (Will the Anthropocene be flood or fire?) but also of property, class, violence, and discrimination, as Imtiaz Dharker’s poem “X” shows for the problem of obtaining water in dry times.
|Hand shaking on the stop-cock, she looks
at the X, the warning cross,the water-tap unlocked, its padlock cracked.
Breath hacks in the throat, Check your back.Turn it on and an anxious mutter swells
to thunder in the plastic bucket. Don’t spill it.Fill it to the top. Lift to the hip, stop,
balance the weight for the dangerous walkhome. Home.
Don’t lose a drop.From the police chowki across the track
a whistle, a shout. Run. Don’t stop. Don’t slip.A drag at the hip. Hot, hot underfoot. Water slops
up and out in every direction, over the lip,over her legs, a shock of cool, a spark of light.
With her stolen piece of sky, she has taken flight.Behind her, the shouters give up. She puts down
the bucket. The water stills.She looks into it, looks up to where the blue
is scarred with aimless tracks.Jet-trails cross each other off
before they die out, a careless X.
“Careless” jet trails remind us that the air itself has turned against the poor. The curators of Feral Atlas use Dharker’s poem to add to the message of a report on the victims of “feral” (that is, anthropogenic) carbon dioxide by artist Anne-Sophie Milon and geologist Jan Zalasiewicz.4 Their report discusses uneven ecologies of global warming; the poem complements their message by pointing to human social inequalities, as these are reshaped and exacerbated by climate change. (Find this poem by clicking the green Feral Qualities line at the left side of this text.) Climate change has aggravated problems of obtaining water for people all over the world. But some have the protection of property and police; others must get their water where they can, at great personal risk.
Feral Atlas works hard to show the situated nature of Anthropocene effects—as well as the kinds of knowledge through which we describe the Anthropocene. The atlas’ discussion of Dutch elm disease, caused by a fungal pathogen that has killed elms en masse across the northern hemisphere, includes a field report written by a forest pathologist.5 It also includes a personal narrative written by a professor of education, who happened to grow up with elms—and who lost them in her childhood. 6 This is a place and time specific experience, like all Anthropocene experience. The curators complement this report with an extremely different experience, as related in Valencia Robin’s amazing poem “Dutch Elm Disease.” (Find this poem by clicking the orange-red Feral Qualities line at the end of this text.) Perhaps because it calls up my own interracial childhood in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the 1960s, I cannot read this poem without tears filling my eyes.
|When Danny Johnson’s big brother was killed in Vietnam,
Danny ran around the block five times. I counted. Ran
as if when he stopped his brother would be back in their driveway
washing his car. But nobody knew anything about time travel
back then, Star Trek hadn’t even come out, Lieutenant Uhura
still on Broadway doing Blues for Mr. Charlie. And even if Danny
did understand the space-time continuum, his parents
weren’t having it, his mother on the porch yelling
his name, his father tackling him on the front lawn, all us kids,
the whole block standing there on pause. Which didn’t exist either.
No fast forward, no reverse. We weren’t even Black yet.
Was Milwaukee even Milwaukee? Is the Lincoln Park Bridge
still there, do boys like Danny still climb over the rail,
hug their bony knees to their narrow chests and plop into the river
as if there’s no way his parents could lose two children?
Which is all I know about Vietnam, that and the way the sun hung
in the faded sky as Danny ran around and around
and held the air hostage, that and the way the thick August air
ignored the leaves of all our doomed elm trees
and let itself be held hostage. The streets were like ghosts
when they cut down those trees.
The poem says almost nothing about trees and diseases. And yet, at least for me, it brings the scene of loss—of people, of shade, of life itself—into such clear focus that I find it as moving a document about the Anthropocene as any I have read. Perhaps the focus is clearer because it’s a memory, self-consciously stuck in a time we can barely imagine, without the referents of the present. And yet every experience is like that, not universal or timeless, but engaged through its place and time.
The opposite strategy can be equally powerful: by focusing completely on a plant and its life, it is possible to call up place, people, and culture. Beth Ann Fennelly’s series of poems about the big-leafed vine kudzu does this for the more-than-human Mississippi countryside. (Find these poems by clicking on the green Feral Qualities line at the bottom of this page.) Kudzu in Mississippi has responded to Anthropocene conditions. First planted in eroded former cotton plantations, it has taken over human-disturbed places, such as the sides of roads, aggressively overwhelming local vegetation there. Feral Atlas includes a scientific report and a series of haunting photographs of kudzu’s takeover in the US South.7 Meanwhile, Fennelly’s poems use the play of words to call up both the liveliness of the plant and the specificity of the more-than-human world it joins. Here are two from the series of poems.
Kudzu sallies into the gully
I asked a neighbor, early on,
if there was a way
to get rid of it—
Well, he said,
over the kudzu fence,
if you sprayed it
the Baptists would eat it—
and walked back inside his house.
Hope and mourning
The Anthropocene is a time of loss—and a time of social anger. Expressing grief and anger is important work for poetry. Scientist Michael Hadfield, who wrote for Feral Atlas about the extinction of Hawai’ian tree snails due to settler collection and imported predators,8 asked the curators to include a section of a poem by Indigenous poet Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, from her poem “Of Islands and Elders.” Here is the section he asked to be included (click violet Feral Qualities line to the left of this text):
|And how do we mourn elders
who were islands
lush with knowledge and story?
How do we move forward
without their guidance and wisdom
when we feel barren amputated?
For Hadfield, snails are a kind of elder, and their extinction is a loss of the “knowledge and story” we depend on learning from them. A similar sentiment is expressed by Chamaro poet Craig Santos Perez, writing of his native Guam (words with brackets are in original; click the violet Feral Qualities line to the left of this text):
|when an island loses
its native birds, [we]
feel ghost limb pain
where [our] wings once
In this poem, “island of no birdsong,” Perez is writing about Micronesian kingfishers, which were attacked and eaten by the brown tree snakes that accompanied the US military occupation of Guam. As the poet explained in an interview, “To me, the loss of our native birds is emblematic of the loss and endangerment of our culture, language, freedom, and environment by colonialism and militarism.”9
In the face of such losses, what kinds of mourning are appropriate? One answer has been ceremony, which can solidify commitments against forgetting the dead. Juliana Spahr’s poem “Gentle now, don’t add to heartache” offers one such ceremony through words. Her words are names chanted in a list—a list of beings in the streams with which she grew up, now endangered by or lost to pollution. Here is an excerpt:
|To sing in lament for whoever lost her elephant ear lost her mountain madtom
and whoever lost her butterfly lost her harelip sucker
and whoever lost her white catspaw lost her rabbitsfoot
and whoever lost her monkeyface lost her speckled chub
and whoever lost her wartyback lost her ebonyshell
and whoever lost her pirate perch lost her ohio pigtoe lost her clubshell.
Some of those beings, including, for example, “ohio pigtoe,” are freshwater mussels, a form of life many people never notice, and yet extraordinary and significant. Some freshwater mussels attract fish through minnow-like flags; when the fish come to investigate, the mussels release their young, which attach on to the gills of fish to travel elsewhere in the river, giving the mussel population a chance to develop elsewhere. Many mussels are keyed to particular fish to spread their young. It is thus completely true that losing the fish loses the mussel. Meanwhile, mussels do important work in stream ecology by filtering the water. Lose the mussels, and you lose all the organisms that depend on clean water.
Spahr considers how the human residents of the watershed stopped noticing. The multispecies stream seemed easy to replace with synthetic “streams.”
I replaced what I knew of the stream with Lifestream Total Cholesterol Test Packets, with Snuggle Emerald Stream Fabric Softener Dryer Sheets, with Tisserand Aromatherapy Aroma-Stream Cartridges, with Filter Stream Dust Tamer, and Streamzap PC Remote Control, Acid Stream Launcher, and Viral Data Stream.
I didn’t even say goodbye elephant ear, mountain madtom, butterfly, harelip sucker, white catspaw, rabbitsfoot, monkeyface, speckled chub, wartyback, ebonyshell, pirate perch, ohio pigtoe, clubshell.
Those who do not even remember to mourn, Spahr suggests, have lost all awareness. She ends the poem with the tragic wail of Cassandra, who knows what’s ahead but cannot stop it: “otototoi.”
Jane Hirshfield also uses a ceremonial chant to mourn, and her poem “Let them not say” is also full of self-recriminations. (Click green Feral Qualities line to the left of this text.) As does Spahr’s poem, Hirshfield’s identifies with those who have allowed the destruction of the livable world. Here anger makes an even stronger appearance inside grief: as we burn the world, shall we just enjoy it? The poem is harsh in its condemnation, and its ceremony is not cleansing. This is ceremony for teeth-clenching determination, not redemption.
|Let them not say: we did not see it.
We saw.Let them not say: we did not hear it.
We heard.Let them not say: they did not taste it.
We ate, we trembled.Let them not say: it was not spoken, not written.
we witnessed with voices and hands.Let them not say: they did nothing.
We did not-enough.Let them say, as they must say something:A kerosene beauty.
It burned.Let them say we warmed ourselves by it,
read by its light, praised,
and it burned.
In the face of catastrophe and loss, the kind of unreflexive hope so often promoted in US popular culture—and a good deal of scholarship—seems downright embarrassing, if not further cause for anger. US Americans are encouraged to “trust the future,” that is, to assume that new technologies, or politicians’ promises, or grassroots creativity and perseverance will somehow make things work out for the better. This is a set of beliefs grounded in imperial power; the better future has always been based on the continuing exploitation of others. Instead, Feral Atlas offers a project of witnessing and what science studies scholar Donna Haraway has called “staying with the trouble.” In the curators’ essay, “Using Feral Atlas as a verb: beyond hope and terror,” we argue for the importance of granular particularism, that is, paying attention to the details of place and history, as we move to action. That essay ends with a poem, which offers an alternative to imagining a necessarily better future. Instead, the poem argues, let’s stay inside the story.
The poem is Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska’s “A Story Begun.” The translation in Feral Atlas is by Jan Zalasiewicz, a geologist and leading member of the international Anthropocene Working Group, the body that is helping decide the official definition and status of this geological epoch. In Feral Atlas, we include the poem in its original Polish as well as Zalasiewicz’s English translation. Szymborska, as in much of her poetry, is down to earth, practical, and cosmopolitan. She tours us through world history, with its frightening uncertainties and interruptions. Where it leads us is—to the middle of things, again, without the gift of the future. The story is begun, and we must follow it through. So too for the Anthropocene.
|The world’s never ready
For the birth of a child.Our ships are still not back from Windland.
Ahead of us lies the Saint Gothard pass.
We must outwit the guards on the desert of Thor,
Fight through the sewers to Warsaw’s centre,
Win an audience with King Harald,
And wait for the fall of Minister Fouche.
Only in Acapulco
Can we begin again.Our supplies are exhausted,
Of matches, engine spares, reasons, and water.
We have neither trucks, nor the blessing of the Mings.
With this thin horse we’ll never bribe the sheriff.
There’s no news of the Tartars’ captives.
We’ve no warm cave for winter,
Or anyone who speaks Harari.We don’t know who to trust in Nineveh,
What the Cardinal will demand,
Or whose names lie in Beria’s files.
They say Charles the Hammer will strike at dawn.
So we must appease Cheops,
Volunteer – of our own free will,
Change our faith,
Pretend we’re friends of the Doge
And that nothing links us with the Kwabe tribe.It’s time to light the fire,
Send a message to grandma in Zabierzow.
And take down the tents.May the birth be easy,
And the child grow strong.
Let him take what happiness he can,
Leap the abysses,
Have strength to endure,
And think far ahead.But not so far,
As to see the future.
From that one gift,
O heavenly powers,
1 Fach, B., Salihoglu, B., and T. Oğuz, 2021. “Alien species can cause severe disturbance,”
In A. Tsing, J. Deger, A. Keleman Saxena, and F. Zhou, eds. Feral Atlas, Stanford University Press,
2 Snow, N. and G. Witmer, 2021. “Introduced American bullfrogs are invasive,” In A. Tsing, J. Deger,
A. Keleman Saxena, and F. Zhou, eds. Feral Atlas, Stanford University Press,
3 Brichet, N., 2021. “Cruise ships deliver chemical cocktails to Caribbean marine life,” In A. Tsing, J. Deger,
A. Keleman Saxena, and F. Zhou, eds. Feral Atlas, Stanford University Press,
4 Milon, A.S., and J. Zalasiewicz, 2021. “The victims of carbon dioxide are starting to appear,” In A. Tsing, J. Deger,
A. Keleman Saxena, and F. Zhou, eds. Feral Atlas, Stanford University Press,
5 Brasier, C., 2021. “Introduced pathogens can evolve rapidly, increasing their virulence,” In A. Tsing, J. Deger,
A. Keleman Saxena, and F. Zhou, eds. Feral Atlas, Stanford University Press,
6 Wright, S., 2021. “I’ve lost the smell of elm dust,” In Tsing, J. Deger, A. Keleman Saxena, and F. Zhou,
eds. Feral Atlas, Stanford University Press, https://feralatlas.supdigital.org/poster/ive-lost-the-smell-of-elm-dust
7 Forseth, I. and A. Innis, 2021. “Kudzu can be a major ecosystem threat,” In Tsing, J. Deger, A. Keleman Saxena,
and F. Zhou, eds. Feral Atlas, Stanford University Press,
-make-a-major-ecosystem-threat: Schmitz, H. “For a hot and humid summer, I traveled through Georgia,
Alabama and South Carolina,” In Tsing, J. Deger, A. Keleman Saxena, and F. Zhou, eds. Feral Atlas, Stanford
8 Hadfield, M., 2021. “Snails that eat snails,” In Tsing, J. Deger, A. Keleman Saxena, and F. Zhou, eds. Feral Atlas,
Stanford University Press, https://feralatlas.supdigital.org/poster/snails-that-eat-snails
9 Nelson, C. Interview with Craig Santos Perez on from unincorporated territory [lukao] — November 25, 2017.
Under a Warm Green Linden https://www.greenlindenpress.com/craig-santos-perez (2017).