On Failure, Recent

Failure as Negative Space

by Christopher Kondrich

This essay is part of the series On Failure.

Amidst a creative flurry of painting dots of all sizes and colors, Vashti, the reluctant young artist of Peter Reynolds’ The Dot, makes “a dot by not painting a dot.” She has tied her paintbrush to the end of a long stick and is putting the finishing touches near the top on a canvas three times her height—blues and greens creating a dot with negative space.  

As I read this brief and insightful story to my daughter for either the third or fourth time one night, it occurred to me that painting “a dot by not painting a dot” was what I had been doing with the book-length poetic sequence I started writing in early 2019. The sequence grapples with anthropocentric dominance and human supremacy, how these emerge in language and the imagination. It explores the narratives and attitudes that drive environmental destruction and that have spurred our changing climate. In a word, what I have been writing about is failure.

But it isn’t just the failure of federal environmental policy and regulation, of a political economy dominated by the money and power wielded by a disproportionate few, of an economic system that fetishizes unrelenting growth, of a Republican party gleefully executing an anti-ethos of cynicism, opportunism, exploitation, and profit-mongering, or even a failure of “epochal consciousness,” the Karl Jaspers phrase which Dipesh Chakrabarty describes, in his Tanner Lectures, as “humans’ perceived capacity to project themselves into the world as collective, sovereign agents,” though it is every one of these failures and countless more.

The failure I have been writing about feels personal. It brings to mind an encounter that the biologist Roger Payne describes having with a dead dolphin on a Massachusetts beach in 1966. Its tail was severed. Initials were carved into its body. A cigar butt was wedged into its blowhole. The sense of failure I feel is as though I am the person who has wedged a cigar butt into that dolphin and also the person who, upon encountering it, is aghast at the cruelty of his species.

If this contradictory feeling doesn’t quite make sense to you, you aren’t alone. I couldn’t make sense of it myself in the last few weeks of 2018 when I was working on a poem titled “Ownership of Myself.” It was the fourth in a series of “Ownership” poems I was writing. The other three in the series—which had envisioned our words, our sight, and our time as commodities no longer our own—were finished and were either published or slated for publication, but “Ownership of Myself” felt distant. Nothing I would write pulled it closer. How would I go about taking ownership of myself? What would this entail? Simply taking responsibility for my actions?

This last question wasn’t one I could answer because human actions are far more than what we commit directly. Our actions ripple out into the unforeseen and unintended. They ripple back as forces seemingly beyond our control, or they return disguised as the actions of others. I couldn’t answer the question of how taking ownership of myself related to taking responsibility for my actions because I was defining my actions as only those I could readily perceive. To put it another way, I was standing so close to the dolphin that I only saw the cigar butt sticking out of its blowhole, and not the dynamics of a world that had guided it there and of which I am a part.

I abandoned “Ownership of Myself.” Then, after the turn of the year, I began work on the book-length sequence. I knew I needed a much larger canvas because I wanted to stay with my actions and watch them ripple out. I also wanted to stay with my inactions and watch them ripple out even farther. So I started writing about clearcutting, deforestation, nanoparticles of plastic in the oceans and rivers, industrialized agriculture, and mountaintop removal, and I continue to write about these practices.

However, the full impact of our degradation and exploitation of the natural world will never be known. We’ll never be able to measure the entire scope and depth of the suffering humanity has caused. It isn’t quite discernible. It doesn’t have a definitive shape.

Rob Nixon articulates a similar idea in Slow Violence & the Environmentalism of the Poor. “Climate change, the thawing cryosphere, toxic drifts, biomagnification, deforestation, the radioactive aftermaths of wars, acidifying oceans,” he writes, all constitute what he calls “slow violence” because they occur “gradually and out of sight” and are “incremental and accretive.” And so: “To confront slow violence requires, then, that we plot and give figurative shape to formless threats whose fatal repercussions are dispersed across space and time.”

There could not be words that feel truer to me or that better capture what it means to write about climate change—a problem that is all problems combined, that is pernicious, delayed, and ubiquitous. If we close our eyes, we can’t conjure an image of climate change itself. We have to picture its manifestations and iterations, its impacts and traumas, its insidiousness disorienting ecosystems, natural processes, and communities in various ways, all of which exist around climate change insofar as they give us ways of wrapping our minds around it.

I’m writing this book-length sequence in a similar vein. I’m using a paintbrush tied to a long stick and am applying paint the color of lost species, broken mountains, of what every child has already inherited, around what has been done and what we still can do, shaping it with negative space. This last notion—what we still can do—is, perhaps, the key to taking ownership of yourself in this world. Maybe taking ownership of yourself only works when you give shape to what is at stake if you do not.  

Ownership of Myself

Must be taken but from whom, from what?
Someone or something else having possession of it
is a belief I nurture.
But never back to health.
I keep it a little sick so that it cannot leave
me to consider what taking ownership might mean.
Will there be blame to place?
Can there be any safekeeping?
I can take myself in my own hands does this not count.
I have many questions but they only serve
to delay, which is what I want.
I want to delay my retrieval
in case I look more like how others see me
and less like how I see myself.
Beneath my robes are more robes, layer upon layer of unembodied fabric.
There isn’t evidence of myself except for everything
I have grown accustomed to seeing firsthand.
Then the leaves being masticated to ochre.
Around me I put my palm against the mirror
to touch the reflection I think is mine.
Because I’m in it, the world seems describable.

Christopher Kondrich is the author of Valuing (University of Georgia Press, 2019), selected by Jericho Brown as a winner of the National Poetry Series and by Library Journal as a Best Poetry Book of 2019, and Contrapuntal (Free Verse Editions, 2013). Valuing was also named a finalist for The Believer Book Award. Recent poems appear or are forthcoming in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day, The Believer, Bennington Review, Crazyhorse, and The Kenyon Review. An Associate Editor for 32 Poems, he lives and teaches in Maryland.

Cover image: “Whalers,” Joseph Mallord William Turner, Met Open Access