Poetics for the More-Than-Human World, An Anthology of Poetry and Commentary/ book review by Laurence Carr

(Please click on Download to see the cover image.)

“…healing our planet through the tools of language.”

This phrase from the back cover of the book (and one can use the word “tome” here) summarizes the essence of the eco-poetry and eco-political movement. Editors Mary Newell, Bernard Quetchenbach and Sarah Nolan have created a major, important work that brings together 140 poets and writers from around the world to address the state of our Mother Earth, and more specifically, how we’re hastening her demise and how our cruelties toward her can be curtailed and reversed. There is a wide array of poetic forms here, and to quote from the Introduction, the reader will discover “beat-inspired rebelliousness, deep image-inflected perceptual psychology, projectivist field composition, and l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e dynamics, culminating in Hinge and other genres of innovative avant-garde work.” (Hinge in poetry, at its simplest, can be connective fragments that work together to create a whole thought.)

And a brief word of Eco-poetics. Again, from the Introduction: “Ecopoetics describes creative writing that engages in the complex interrelationships within the ever-shifting, endangered ecosphere.”

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Poetics for the More-Than-Human World, An Anthology of Poetry and Commentary (a title that feels more like a subtitle and a bit on the academic side) weighs in at 520 pages. These are not negative criticisms, for once one gets past the title page, the reader will find over 100 poets and over a dozen essayists (in the “Essays and Critical Responses” section) speaking earnestly and passionately about our planet, from a variety of points of view from spiritual, and the literary to the more scholarly and political. This is what I call a “dipping book”, one to keep at one’s bedside, on the train or plane, or for the vacation read. And what can be a better book to have nearby when you’re sitting at the beach or taking the woodsy walk. Take in the reality of nature, then read what other writers have conjured up about it, both the wonderous and the challenging. If you are a friend of our planet, there will be many entries that speak deeply to you, some that challenge your thinking and some that lead you to more questions. And I think that it’s the editors’ wish that this volume will also lead us to action, to help right the wrongs that we’ve tossed out to our Earth, often blindly and without thought for our future generations.

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As I read through the book, many pieces caught my eye and ear and heart. There were too many to mention here individually, but I first read those poets whose work I’ve known for years and have published either here in Lightwood or in some of the Codhill press anthologies that I edited or co-edited.

The poem “Echolocation” by Sally Bliumus-Dunn is a short, penetrating and moving poem about the death of a whale. It is image-driven, objective yet personal with a telling line: “I stopped knowing how to measure my grief.” For me, this encapsulates the book, how do we measure our grief when we are interwoven within the ecosystem we’re both slowly and rapidly destroying.

The poem works because of its length; Bliumus-Dunn doesn’t try to create a full narrative that suddenly bends into prose. The piece hits hard because it says just what it needs to say and no more. I enjoyed many other poems but felt some were over-written; some might even speak more clearly if opened up into prose or prose-poems. I don’t want to dwell on this, as the writing and reading of poetry is an individual response. All poems have their own creation, and each reader may respond differently to them. And this book has dozens of poems to ponder and reread. It’s a book that reaches out to a reader.

Margo Taft Stever’s poem, “Three Ravens Watch”, written in seven neat quatrains is an eerie, dark parable. The piece is an ekphrastic poem, inspired by a painting: “Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Traps,” by Peter Breugel, 1565. It speaks in the voice (or voices) of three crows who watch the human comedy unfold before them. The poem shows us that nothing has changed since the 16th century.  We will still burn those we think are witches and devastate the land around them.

I connected with many other pieces, both poem and prose: I thought that John Bradley’s satiric, caustic poem: “And You Shall Know Us by Our Trash: An Ecopoetics for the Moon” added a different voice to the book, as did many others. The dark humor created yet another layer.

I thought that including translated poems opened the book up to a world view. I would have liked to have seen these poems/pieces in the original language with the English translation next to it, a minor criticism.   

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There is a strikingly beautiful look to this volume. The book design is by Bric Barron; the cover design by Allyson Pang; and the back cover collage, “Rivers of Dreams” is a work by Rosalind Schneider. Nearly two dozen images, photos and illustrations, are interspersed throughout. There are extensive notes and acknowledgements and 20 pages of author bios at the end.

A minor criticism is that many of the poets have multiple entries. The length of the book could have tightened up if the strongest submission from each poet was chosen.

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Having worked on several anthologies, I understand the commitment of time and energy that goes into creating a book like this. The editors and designers must be lauded for creating a major volume in this field of eco-literature, bringing together both a wide range of poetic forms and essay/commentaries from writers across the world. In this single work, these literary artists bring a fresh and studied view of what is happening throughout our planet with both warnings and celebrations. I look forward to dipping into the book over and over, and I think conscientious and passionate readers will do the same.  The book is a major achievement and I, as publisher of Lightwood, highly recommend it. Poetics for the More-Than-Human World, An Anthology of Poetry and Commentary is a book for our time and for our future.

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