In the last chapter of his 2011 book The Matter of Capital: Poetry and Crisis in the American Century, the poet and critic Chris Nealon describes a problem for writers working around the turn of the twenty-first century: “How to name the experience of an extreme, felt ‘lateness’ in capitalism,” how to write about a present that seems “both very ‘late’ but also undescribable by way of figures of lateness.” The difficulty—for poets as well as journalists, historians, economists—is “how to imagine the unimaginable,” an end to capitalism without violent revolution. Trying to change the system from inside the system, a system that in some ways benefits us, we feel trapped, inept, inert; we lack the language to suggest how we might get ourselves outside it. “The only option,” Nealon writes, “seems to be to continue doing exactly what caused the crisis in the first place.”
Poets (as well as novelists, essayists, and critics) writing now are stuck with a similar, related problem—the all-consuming crisis of climate change. How can we write about it, yet how can we not write about it? “Nearly everything we understand about global warming was understood in 1979,” Nathaniel Rich notes in his recent book Losing Earth. That’s my entire lifetime. But only in the past several years, as we approach or cross a theoretical point of no return, has the end of the world as we know it, the lateness of the world, come to seem like the only available subject. It’s not that you can’t still write a poem about sex or the rain at your mother’s funeral. It’s that sex poems and funeral poems are about climate change too. The poem is always aware of the lateness. There is weather, rain or drought, in the background, whether or not you acknowledge it.
Many poets, Nealon among them, have decided to face the problem directly by writing what can only be called climate poetry, a poetry full of fire and flooding and refugees. (I say decided, though a feature of climate lateness is that human actions feel less and less voluntary.) The Shore, Nealon’s fourth collection, consists of five long poems, the first of which, “The Victorious Ones,” begins with this section:
Then came fire
We drove out past the flooding
to watch the birds
Long-lashed boys in hoodies
looked up from the sidewalk
to absorb the sky
Ancient women left the bedsides
of their long-ago boys
And in the great transition no one
could tell if we were doomed
This is a voice speaking about the future in the past tense: a voice from the deep future speaking of the middle future, or from the middle future speaking of the near future, or from the near future speaking of the present. (As I was writing this, there was “a fire in Australia the size of Manhattan,” according to a CNN headline.) Climate poetry tends to assume this position, as though written at a point when climate change has already happened. In climate poetry, our offspring are living with the consequences of our actions and inaction: “Like every other poet with a child I have dreamed of mine along some empty road in camouflage and tatters,” Nealon writes. Or take Brenda Shaughnessy’s latest collection of poems, The Octopus Museum (2019), which is set on a planet overtaken by powerful cephalopods, a planet where her daughter, “hungry” and “tired of traveling,” “still thinks we can choose between ice cream flavors.”
Dystopian science fiction is supposed to sound a warning, to show us, like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, the bleak possibilities that lie ahead if we don’t change our ways. But climate poetry rarely feels urgent. Instead it often reads as the voice of someone who has already given up. The prevailing tone is resignation; the prevailing mode is elegy. In The Matter of Capital, Nealon describes Claudia Rankine’s struggle, in her book Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004), to represent violence “in a context where historical hope seems passé.” He could have been writing about his, and our, future, the present moment.
Though the subjects are much darker here, Nealon’s style is familiar from his earlier books, including Heteronomy (2014) and Plummet (2009). There’s a talky intimacy—poems begin with phrases like “So yeah”—an Ashberian high-low mix of slang and snippets of critical theory. “Oh man praying to the wrong gods again,” one section of “The Victorious Ones” begins. A later line: “We were sold kenosis as a way to overcome discrepancies in scale.” (I had to look up kenosis: “The ‘self-emptying’ of Jesus’s own will.”) Nealon can’t help but be jokey even about the apocalypse: “It gives me a rest from that squirrelly huddling near the outlets feeling/That well if a catastrophe hits at least my phone will be charged idea,” he writes. “I know we’re never far from terror—/But here’s the thing: even saying that sounds right-wing.”
There’s a tinge of reluctance to this gallows humor, as if the poems kept snapping back to reality. They are self-aware and a little guilty, wanting to believe we still get to have poetry after death camps and hate crimes (“I do think beauty halfway staves off terror”) yet not quite believing it (“But there’s a gossamer, a hollow way of symbols, isn’t there”; “Guilty as charged!/I do have something to peddle”). Homophobia, Nealon writes, is “not a fear of buttfucking, please,” but “the punishment of male insouciance, male lightness.” For a queer poet, making beauty, making room for beauty, could be called a form of resistance. These poems halfway assert that idea but are also suspicious of how easy the idea seems. They are wary (and weary) of resistance if resistance feels good: “Most days these days I’ve got nothing but my tepid intellectual watchfulness.”
It’s hard to write about climate poetry without sounding tetchy, not because I don’t approve of it, but because it’s a reminder of our helplessness. Awareness that we’re more or less doomed—but how doomed exactly?—is a source of constant cycling anxiety, frustration, despair, and finally boredom. If global warming is the only subject, looming as it always does in the background or just above us or all around us, we are doomed to be bored by our own doom. Global warming extends in all directions, back into the past (all nature poetry ever written is climate poetry now, since we can read it only now) and unfathomably into the future. Global warming works on a time delay—if we could somehow stop all carbon emissions entirely, at this moment, today, the earth would continue to get warmer for at least another forty years. As a thought experiment, though, this is absurd, since carbon emissions are getting worse, not better. Poetry too seems to work on a delay. Poets serve as a particular kind of reporter, or maybe recorder, absorbing data and mood from the atmosphere, then emitting it like black-body radiation. But poetry often has a cooling effect. A poem is yesterday’s or last year’s mood in a still frame, or perhaps a looping gif. We read it with the cool gaze of contemplation.
Does climate poetry have activist aims, or is it simply a record, a way of preserving the world of the present for an ill-fated posterity? Is it just an insistence that yes, we had polar bears, fireflies, and bananas? Or a “mental recapitulation of the sensuous world,” as Nealon writes in “The Victorious Ones,” “like I had an ice-hand that could freeze the tip of every branch—” freeze it in “some meter”? On the next page, he’s looking back from the future again: “We sat on a bank and read from the always-only deuterocanonical books we loved/We made a dossier of terrifying descriptions of the sky and bound the sheafs together with red thread.”
I’m oversimplifying when I say that the contemporary poet’s only subject is climate change. Contemporary poetry is drawing on a deep well of political and moral disasters—the rise of fascism, the carceral state, severe inequality, not to mention everyday oppression, what you might call micro-oppressions. The Shore is also about race and gender and sexuality, about whiteness and privilege. When we read white poets, academic poets, whiteness and privilege are always in the background, like weather and rising sea levels. Again, Nealon confronts these problems directly. In “You Surround Me,” he writes, “You can have sex only with men, but it’s not like homotopia is patriarchy-free.” The poem “White Meadows” is a kind of reckoning with comfort, with the privilege of relative equanimity:
“Every time North Americans feel ‘unsafe,’ others get killed abroad. If there is something that North American critical agents need to learn, it is to feel ‘unsafe’”
I see that I am frequently unsafe
Unsafe to others—
But when I feel unsafe
Which is kind of
It’s not because I worry that a
brown person’s gonna steal
It’s because the violence I grew up
seeing, seeing and repressing—
The violence done to
black people, to brown
people, to poor people,
I never saw a guarantee that
I would be spared the same
Of course you could say that
every day of my life has been
Like who are you
kidding white boy
I’m not sure how I feel about this passage, which is oddly prosaic, maybe even passive-aggressive. There’s a feeling of capitulation, of concession that white writers must acknowledge their own whiteness and how they benefit from it—a feeling, perhaps, that this concession is both morally necessary and worthless, a worthless apology for whiteness in general. Poems do make things happen, but not enough. It’s possible they even cause harm. “I don’t want to make it worse,” he writes—which speaks to the uselessness of good intentions when we don’t really understand the impact of our choices, if they are indeed choices.
When I feel frustrated reading these poems, it’s because I read them empathetically, I believe; I believe Nealon wants me to take part in their impotence: “You can’t think your way out of this/You can’t feel your way out/You sure can’t write your way.” It may be that the aim of The Shore is not to celebrate “release from the pressure of reality” (“Those moments when I don’t feel guilty or ashamed”) but to shift the focus to the background—to shift our meadow-loving gaze to the rising sea levels, the guilt, the shame.
In the anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (1993), Carolyn Forché collected work by
significant poets who endured conditions of historical and social extremity during the twentieth century—through exile, state censorship, political persecution, house arrest, torture, imprisonment, military occupation, warfare, and assassination,
as she wrote in the introduction. “This attempt to assemble such work in a single volume is the result of a thirteen-year effort to understand the impress of extremity upon the poetic imagination.” Her interest was personal. After working as a human rights activist in El Salvador, she found she had to write about the experience. Her second book of poems, The Country Between Us (1981), is an account of what she saw there, of war’s surreal atrocities. Perhaps the best-known poem from the book, “The Colonel,” tells a story she has said is true. The story is horrific, but the telling is matter-of-fact:
The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.
The poetry of witness serves as “trace,” as “evidence,” Forché writes, so it can be seen as an extension of activism. Wars “are fought elsewhere,” conveniently invisible; the poem makes us see the brutality of war. But is poetry, one might ask, the best way to do this? Verse as war correspondence? In fact, she has said in interviews, she tried not to write poems about El Salvador. At Auschwitz, Forché writes, “the Jews were forced to play chamber music for their executioners”—“art in such a world carries with it a dangerous complicity.” Yet she could not not write them. “I felt that I had no real choice regarding the impulse of my poems.”
It was in a sense a moral imperative. In a 1981 lecture, the poet Larry Levis compared Forché’s poetry to Goya’s Disasters of War, a series of etchings about the 1808 Dos de Mayo Uprising and its aftermath: “The viewer, the reader, are made accomplices and are similarly disgraced.” In art, Levis claimed, “the effect of being disgraced is to make the viewer or the reader more conscious, more human, more capable of bearing pain and perceiving the beauty of bearing it.” This is close to Forché’s own interpretation of the problem of writing “poetry after Auschwitz”: “Adorno did not wish to banish art…he wanted art to become conscious of the sins it had to suffer and withstand.”
In the Lateness of the World, Forché’s first collection since 2003, is again a poetry of witness. It is perhaps more accurate to call the book crisis poetry rather than climate poetry. Forché is more attuned to the suffering of the people living through climate crisis now, elsewhere on the globe, than the imagined, projected suffering of our own children and grandchildren who might live to see similar conditions right here. In his book Back to Nature: The Green and the Real in the Late Renaissance, the scholar Robert N. Watson asks whether ecocriticism—a field of literary and cultural theory that focuses on our relationship with the environment—might be
the latest resort of identity politics in the academy, a way for those excluded by the usual categories to claim victim status, either by identifying with an oppressed biosphere…or else by imagining their suffering and extinction in an anticipated ecological catastrophe.*
It wouldn’t be hard to redirect this damning critique toward climate poetry. The movement “back to nature” in European arts and literature in the late Renaissance was indicative of nostalgia for “some posited original certainty,” Watson writes, and contemporary climate poetry is nostalgic for ignorance, for a very recent era when we didn’t have to think about climate change all the time. The future felt longer back then, hence the present too felt more capacious, with more room for sex poems, for play.
Forché has never been a playful poet. This book is a stern kind of elegy—this is our fault, we let it get too late—with none of the confessional shame of The Shore. Her approach is much less personal; you have to look for her in these poems. See “The Boatman,” the second poem in the book, where she is not the speaker but the addressed:
Aleppo went up in smoke, and
Raqqa came under a rain
of leaflets warning everyone to go.
Leave, yes, but go where?
We lived through the Americans
and Russians, through
again, many nights of death from
the clouds, mornings surprised
to be waking from the sleep of
death, still unburied and alive
with no safe place. Leave, yes,
we’ll obey the leaflets,
but go where?
We, the Americans, are the threat, this poem reminds us. In others she is more like an offstage narrator, an offstage god: “A storm like the future, filled with pigs, trees, cars, and something//no one should wish to see.” Her voice has an unquestionable, almost silencing wisdom, demanding a respect that borders on fear. As in the story of the colonel, restraint gives her authority—why sentimentalize atrocity? (Remarkably, she had this same authority and grave tone forty years ago, in her twenties.)
Though they’re not joy-driven, the poems aren’t joyless either. Here objects of nature have mystical power, an aura, and there is pleasure just in naming them precisely. Many poems contain these lists of objects, lists of labels that need no further explanation or embellishment, as in “Museum of Stones”:
Stone of cromlech and cairn,
schist and shale, hornblende,
agate, marble, millstones, ruins
of choirs and shipyards,
chalk, marl, mudstone from temples and tombs,
stone from the silvery grass near
And in “Travel Papers”:
Mountains before and behind,
heather and lichen, yarrow, gorse,
then a sea village of chartreuse
Spent fuel, burnt
wind, mute swans.
These spondees and slant rhymes feel good in the mouth, and seem to justify doing this work, this reportage of crisis, in verse—a way of saying that the names of things, like the names of the dead, matter. But there is, at times, in place of survivor’s guilt or self-flagellation, a touch of self-righteousness, as in “Transport”:
The newness of the car determines
our distance from the world.
Behind smoked windows, with
the air on,
it is possible to travel at great
from all that is about us.
The vehicle that keeps the dirty world on the outside feels somewhat like a metaphor for the poem’s protective casing. The poem too creates distance. (I read somewhere recently that language poetry is smug—but all poetry is smug, I thought.)
In Madness, Rack, and Honey, Mary Ruefle writes that “poetry from all periods and all cultures” has “only one theme, that of mutability”:
Love and death, innocence and experience, praise and lament, the passing of time, appearance and reality, stability and instability; all these marked themes are nothing less—or more—than mutability.
I imagine Ruefle would say that climate poetry is about mutability too, the mutability of earth, nature, us as a species and all the species we know. I have always felt that every poem is about time, but climate poems especially lament passed time, the slippage of time, the loss of the capacious present. “Even the clocks have run out of time,” Forché writes. (How late it was, how late.) In another poem: “Snow falls from here into the past and vanishes.” This calls to mind a line of Nealon’s: “There’s a river running backward through this poem to the sources of literature.” That backward river makes me sad, suggesting as it does a chain of causality, a falsely innocent before. “You take the tram to a stop/where it is no longer possible to get off,” Forché writes, in the poem “Exile.”
Twenty years ago or so, when I first encountered the poems of Charles Wright, I noticed how often they begin with a description of the sky, of clouds or the moon or what the birds are doing and in which trees—he is always observing the firmament from his porch and then having profound thoughts about time. There was still a sense, back then, that the sky was the sky—ever-changing and yet changeless. Now the sky in a poem must be “terrifying,” a symbol of impending doom. Storms—weather—come from the sky. Weather is the prototypical boring conversation topic; climate too will become boring.
I’m already getting bored by the tropes of climate poetry—the wry, too-wise perspective on the ruin we’ve wrought; the performed uncertainty (uncertainty is real, but performed uncertainty is clichéd); the elegiac apples, the elegiac birds; the rhetorical tsunamis; the feeling of lateness, of too-lateness; the feeling that the time for action has passed, that now is a time to mourn. So are we doomed or are we free? If climate change has already happened, do we not have to fear it anymore? We can’t change the past, and maybe we can’t change the future either. But we do have to watch it happen.