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
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