by Maggie Trapp | Contributing Writer
It’s hard not to feel paralyzed by despair these days. The United States seems permanently locked within its horrific racist history. The world has been hit hard by a pandemic, a catastrophic event that has laid bare the numerous systemic failings in our country. Millions are unemployed. Scientists tell us that an ice-free Arctic is probable within a few years. It really does feel like we are living in end times. With so many reasons for desolation and grief all around us, what good is poetry?
Ellery Akers’s third and newest collection, Swerve: Environmentalism, Feminism, and Resistance, implicitly asks and answers just this question. In a world gone mad, Akers offers her characteristic incisiveness, vigilance, and generosity. These poems mourn and celebrate at once. They invite us to recognize and grieve for all that we’ve lost while they remind us that things don’t have to be this way—we can still change; the turn of events, even now, can swerve.
In Swerve, Akers, a Northern Californian writer and artist, has written urgent poems that distill, honor, and lament our world, poems that grab us by the shoulders and wake us up to the reality of human injustice, poems that show us how we can’t ignore the depredations that are right in front of us if we’re only willing to open our eyes. And woven through these lines of anger and grief is the powerful, still small voice of hope.
In “Our Grief for the Earth Is Hidden,” we read,
Most of the time I don’t want to know about it
But whatever we can’t understand is falling as rain into moraines and vernal pools
hissing onto the soaked canopies of alders with their leaf scars
so the branches are shaking
and the seas are rising
When I was born I thought I’d be taken from the earth
I didn’t think the earth would be taken from me
Even as we don’t want to know, even as the magnitude of our impact on the earth is such that it’s nearly impossible to understand and feel it urgently, it is happening. We might be in denial, but this is just the first stage of grief. There is still work to be done.
Akers shows us how even the leaves are more caring and careful than we are. In “After the Inauguration,” she writes,
I go out and apologize to the leaves.
I’m sorry, I say. I love the way you shake in the wind.
The way you uncrinkle in the spring
so that each of you
gets a chance at the light.
Akers takes the seemingly ephemeral and holds it up to us so that we stop and re-see, re-hear what the world and our actions upon it mean. We can apologize, we can mourn, we can learn from nature—but we also need to act. And to act we need to take our well-founded grief and do something with it. And this requires hope, even if just a glimmer.
While her poems serve as a memento mori for our world, Akers also offers light. Things can change—we can change. In a poem written in response to the bleak news that former EPA Chief Scott Pruitt called for our withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, Akers writes, “I keep reminding myself I don’t know how it’s going to end. Attila scorched and divided, but the grass from those burnt blades grew over him.”
The world is broken and our losses overwhelming, but somehow, in the face of all this, Akers’s poems show us what unblinking, informed hope and conviction look like. As she writes in “At Any Moment, There Could Be a Swerve in a Different Direction,” “There was a moment when shooting egrets for feathers became wrong. / There was a moment when the Wilderness Act / changed the lives of billions of blades of grass.”
In Akers’s verse we see vividly all that we’ve wrought and how our past actions (and inactions) have had devastating consequences. Yet all is not lost, even in these heart-breaking times. These lines celebrate as they mourn, fight as they despair. The world lets us know in ways large and small, as Akers does in the poem “Not Too Late,” that we still have (some) time:
the cardinals are fluttering,
the egrets are strutting toward us in their elegant way:
they are bringing us platters of time
and laying them down in front of us,
the hawks carrying hours in their talons
and letting them fall,
the ocean, with its clumps of foam,
delivering the weeks and months,
and even the snakes curling around the strength of the time that is left.
Maggie Trapp is a Seattle writer currently living in New Zealand, where she teaches English.