Rewilding: Regional, Teachable

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Rewilding: Poems For The Environment,
ed. Crystal S. Gibbins
Flexible Press, 2020 $16.00, 244pp.

Future readers may little note nor long remember how the small-press publishing world in the U.S. chugged doggedly on during the 2020 public health crisis, but the resilience of the low-dollar sector of American publishing has been gratifying to see. One of many cases in point: in July of 2020, as the first wave of the U.S. outbreak was building, Flexible Press of Minneapolis brought out a Covid-constrained edition of a poetry anthology that has extraordinary value. Rewilding: Poems for the Environment is edited by Crystal S. Gibbins. Gibbins, from Minnesota’s Northwest Angle (Look it up; it’s cool.), edits Split Rock Review, a journal of environmental writing, is an engaging and accomplished poet in her own right, and has done us a great service in making this anthology. Rewilding collates poems by a starry roll-call of prominent writers (Louise Gluck, Joy Harjo, Camille Dungy, Ted Kooser, Sharon Olds, Ada Limon) with work by environmental poets of regional reputation or smaller; it offers vital poems about interesting places, many of them endangered.

American environmental poetry of the past fifty years has been articulated in voices that range from avant-garde experimental to normcore-confessional. It has obligations, generally speaking, to one of the two main rhetorical traditions in American writing about the outdoors: the excursion and the jeremiad. Typically, it sticks pretty closely to W.C. Williams’ program of “no ideas but in things,” though sometimes this poetry produces ideas untethered and free-floating. And just as environmentalism, both as practice in the world and as discourse, has been going through a reset since the advent of the environmental justice movement early this century, poetry about the environment is performing a turn toward an eco-justice poetics characterized by an activist engagement with sites of social and environmental exploitation. A marker of this turn was Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology edited by Melissa Tuckey (2018).   Rewilding, as significant in its way as the Tuckey anthology, offers a vivid cross-section of this range. I want to illustrate here two particular reasons to celebrate Rewilding: its elevation of a diverse and vital group of poets at work in their various ways in the Great Lakes states and provinces, and its offering scores of poems with great classroom utility, poems to light up discussion in environmental humanities courses.

Rewilding can be read as a table of contents for the environmental issues and disasters, heroes and villains—local, regional, global—with which I want to make sure my students are acquainted. Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s “Mr. Cass and the Crustaceans,” a memory poem about childhood science class and the open spaces lost to Phoenix’s suburban sprawl, is also a poem about the crisis of ocean debris and its threat to marine wildlife. Thomas R. Smith’s “Oklahoma 2017,” a poem about grassland wildfires that is also a poem about greed, includes a call-out of Scott Pruitt, the late and unlamented Administrator of the EPA. Kimberly Priest has a poem here from which a group of smart undergraduates could be helped to infer most of the particulars of Monarch butterfly migration, and some of the threats to its continuing.

“Oligotrophic,” by James Armstrong, a beautifully plain-spoken poet, the laureate of Winona, Minnesota, takes its title from the Trophic State Index, a tool ecologists and limnologists use to describe the level of nutrient saturation in ponds and lakes. Eutrophic or nutrient-dense water and the vast algae blooms it supports are a crisis globally; its ugliest North American manifestations are in the Gulf of Mexico and in some of the Great Lakes. Lake Superior’s water, the subject of Armstrong’s poem, is still oligotrophic—so cold and clear (this is the poem’s lovely conceit) that you can see straight through to Superior’s history:

carbon from the Cloquet fire,
iron ore in the bowels of the Edmund Fitzgerald,
the smell of Norwegian pancakes
from a cabin on the shore of Isle Royale in 1927…

Lots of the poems in Rewilding suggest pairings with readings that, usually because of other well-designed anthologies, are standard stopping places in environmental humanities courses.  In order to walk students through the funhouse of “Humans and the Environment: Dualism or Dialectic?”, colleagues where I teach assign, variously, the “I contemplate a tree” passage from Martin Buber’s I and Thou, Emily Dickinson’s “What mystery pervades a well!” or William Cronon’s essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness.” I’m adding to the list Louis Gluck’s “Daisies,” reprinted in Rewilding from the poet’s 1995 collection Wild Iris, a short and sweet poem whose speaker is simultaneously the consciousness of a sojourner in a meadow of daisies, and the consciousness, collective and botanical, of Leucanthemum vulgare itself:

As for what you’re actually
hearing this morning: think twice
before you tell anyone what was said in this field
and by whom.

Camille Dungy’s well-known poem “Trophic Cascade,” is an extended conceit bringing together the explosion of biodiversity in Yellowstone after the reintroduction of wolves there in 1995 with the personal renewal widely believed to result from becoming a parent:

………………………………………………………………all this
life born from one hungry animal, this whole,
new landscape, the course of the river changed,
I know this. I reintroduced myself to myself, this time
a mother. After which, nothing was ever the same (204).

I’m sure someone has already written the paper about how Dungy’s poem subverts or amplifies or otherwise interrogates the “Thinking Like a Mountain” chapter from Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, but that’s no reason why students shouldn’t take a shot at it too.

I believe I first learned the secret of the dandelion’s evolutionary success—the species’ ability to reproduce itself both sexually and asexually—in the chapter about Johnny Appleseed in Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire. It may be that Ada Limon, another of Rewilding’s big-name contributors, has read this as well. Her lovely poem “Dandelion Insomnia” (reprinted from her 2018 collection, The Carrying) builds upon the dandelion’s reproductive versatility (“bam, another me / bam, another me…”) to suggest a strategy for protecting the soul in difficult times. Taraxacum officinale, we learn, is:

made for a time that requires tenacity, a way
of remaking the toughest self while everyone
else is asleep (16).

My students construed the challenging time of which Limon’s speaker tells, variously, as the Trump years, the anthropocene, the pandemic. And everybody’s right.

Rewilding includes a generous selection of poems by Great Lakes poets who may be less well known to American readers than they should be. One of the most important of these is  D.A. Lockhart, a writer of prodigious output and versatility with a list of heavy credits and an ambitious project in both poetry and prose: stories of working-class life in Indiana, a grand reimagining of Detroit and its river, a poetic cycle based on the Lenape Big House Ceremony or Gamwig.  Still early in his career, Lockhart has made a body of work informed by the questions of identity, diaspora, and migration that pervade Lenape history. Lockhart, who lives blocks away from the southern shore of the Detroit river may be the world’s greatest poet on the ontological  magic of borders, political and geographic. For interesting reasons connected to Canada’s southernmost arts festival, Stone and Sky, Lockhart frequents and often writes about Lake Erie’s Pelee Island, site of a slow-moving heartland environmental disaster. His Rewilding poem, “Waabiishkiigo Gchgami Stills Herself in the Presence of the Pelee Islander II” finds in the moment of stillness before a ferryboat leaves the dock an emblem for the dislocation of identity that attends border crossings:

……………………………………………………. We live
our lives as if this stillness that precedes
departures is the world each of us shares.
Yet, we live in between.

An astonishing poem comes from M. Bartley Seigel, who teaches at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, scene of another slow-moving heartland environmental disaster. Seigel is the author of a collection of poems, This Is What They Say (Typecast, 2013) that explores the peculiar sadnesses of the Rustbelt-Rural. His Rewilding poem, “Land Acknowledgment, Treaty of 1842 Territory,” performs the ambivalence so widely felt about today’s proliferation of land acknowledgment statements from institutions that, until yesterday, kept silent about the provenance of their grounds.

Land acknowledgment statements may come from an impulse of goodwill and a consciousness of historical guilt, but are belated and ultimately empty. (This is the point, while we’re talking about it, of the delightful headline in Walking Eagle News some years ago: “Land Acknowledgment Malfunctions, Causing Land To Be Briefly Returned To First Nations.”) As land acknowledgment becomes a more common feature of institutional discourse in North America, it is hardening into a rhetorical convention that threatens to obscure the history it is supposed to clarify.

Seigel’s poem, which takes the shape of two unrhymed 14-line stanzas, sits at this uneasy junction between rhetoric and history. Beautifully, perhaps a little implausibly, its speaker enacts a turning away from the rhetoric of acknowledgment towards an originary green song of the Territory:

Still, we could turn East,
sing to an Earth thick bearded, burl and boll.
Our voices could kindle to gossamer
green, quick between crow’s return and chorus

It’s an extraordinary poem: ecologically informed, historically astute, confusing in productive ways, sonorous, dense, and dope. People need to read it.

The shade of Great Lakes modernist Lorine Niedecker (1903 – 1970) presides over many of the poems in Rewilding, especially those of Sheila Packa, who shares Niedecker’s gift for the evocation of place through a lapidary arrangement of concrete particulars. Packa, a Minnesotan, is the author of three collections of poetry including 2014’s Night Train Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range. One of Packa’s anthology poems, “In The Water Filled Mine Pit” is articulated by a speaker whose boat moves over a flooded iron mine (gendered female in the poem like the ore once extracted from her) that is seen and re-seen as light and perspective shift. The poem, which speaks in long-lined shallow paragraphs, is dimensional and kinetic and induces a kind of interpretive vertigo in the reader who follows Packa’s speaker through the multiple angles of vision she assumes:

The vessel falls upward. The ore could condense into the red
mist of atoms. I break the surface and sink. I break the surface and rise.

It’s a lovely poem, an example among other things of a prose poem with some tricks up its sleeve.

Rewilding includes a list of very distinguished poets from Alaska to Guam for whom there isn’t space here. I also won’t be able to name all the anthology’s terrific Great Lakes poets, but here’s a partial roll-call. Benjamin Naka-Hasebe Kingsley, a member of the Onondaga Nation of Indigenous Americans in New York, has an historical association with the Finger Lakes country south of Lake Ontario. Kingsley’s third book will come out in 2021 from Milkweed Editions, and he has two poems in Rewilding. The title of the first says it all: “Los Alamos, New Mexico: An Open Letter to Radiation Poisoning.” The title of the other, “Nantucket Sleighride” offers the reader no idea of the stunning thing she’s in for here. Alessandra Simmons, who farms flowers on Washington Island off Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula, has here an anthropocene prose-poem creation story called “What Was Created Still Exists.” Lynn Domina, who teaches at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, brings to the anthology an indelible and trippy poem called “Do Carnivorous Plants Experience Hunger?” C. Mikal Oness and Elizabeth Oness together run Sutton Hoo Press near Winona, Minnesota, where Elizabeth teaches at the State University on the bluff above the Mississippi. Her Rewilding poem “Of the Farm” is a georgic of the truck garden; his, “Inclination,” is a meditation on how very easy it would be, for some at least, to tip the way we are leaning and never come back indoors. Bart Sutter, who lives in Duluth on a hillside overlooking Lake Superior, offers a poem on tumbleweed that recasts the Wordsworth “spots of time” idea into a new idiom and onto a peculiar botanical host.

So here, in closing, is the deal. At this writing, early in the pandemic’s second wave, copies of Rewilding are getting scarce. Amazon sold out its small stock of the anthology in a heartbeat last summer. And while there are still some copies of the book available on the Split Rock Review website, it is likely they too will be gone before much longer. This is especially regrettable because the proceeds of what was originally planned to be a larger edition were supposed to go to Friends of the Boundary Waters, an advocacy group for that endangered wilderness. So, aside from writing a check to the Friends (a very good idea) what may be done?  My suggestion is to read these poets. Most of these writers are easily findable through any search engine. Some poets, it is useful to remember, do not mind sharing their work informally, and this anthology presents work that merits a place both in memory and on syllabi.