Simply Where We Live

by Alex Madison | Contributing Writer

This essay is part of a series in which Poetry Northwest partners with Seattle Arts & Lectures to present reflections on visiting writers from the SAL Poetry Series. At 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 25, Francisco Aragón and Kimiko Hahn will read to celebrate the release of Here: Poems for the Planet at Broadway Performance Hall—Seattle Central College. 

A confession: In the service of my own curiosity, I have wasted the time of environmental scientists.

I’ve sent emails requesting informational interviews, as research for my novel and essays, and been surprised when generous professors and Ph.D. students have written back. Over the phone, over coffee, and over cluttered desks with glimmering Lake Union views, they have eloquently described their fields and patiently fielded my probing about our world’s impending doom.

Because my projects remain unfinished, these discussions remain unshared—inflected with a personal quality in my memory, like old conversations with friends. One woman spoke about traveling with teenagers to plant grasses along riverbanks. The hope: for grasses to shade the waters, cool the salmon habitat, and create conditions for spawning and survival. A young man spent his summer on Mount Rainier, planting identical gardens up and down the volcano’s microclimates. He fenced out nibbling deer, then returned ritualistically to see how well each elevation nurtured each species. His voice quickened as he described a then-fledgling effort to track tourists’ geo-tagged photos of wildflower blooms. When the snow melts, meadows blossom. People come. Snapshots swell into year-over-year climate data.

Grasses. Gardens. Wildflowers. These were moves like poems, I thought. Concrete gestures toward beauty, fragile investments in progress. Literal seeds sown.

Reading the new anthology from Copper Canyon Press, Here: Poems for the Planet, I was reminded of those tourists tagging their photos and those kids planting their grass. This book, too, offers its small, hopeful gifts to the world.

Edited by poet and activist Elizabeth J. Coleman, the anthology was conceived as a “lovesong to a planet in crisis.” The scope of the collaboration is impressive. It was supported by a crowdfunding effort of 461 backers and collects “more than 125 poems”: the words of kids, Poet Laureates, Pulitzer-winners, and celebrated poets writing all over the world. The book opens with a one-page forward by Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, and ends with a 37-page “Guide to Activism by the Union of Concerned Scientists.” Yes: in these pages, scientists write to poets—and to all of us who love poems. We are sharing common language, looking at the same marvelous, embattled world together and wanting it to stay.

The poems in the anthology are divided into five sections:

  1. Where You’d Want to Come From: Poems for Our Planet
  2. The Gentle Light That Vanishes: Our Endangered World
  3. As If They’d Never Been: Poems for the Animals
  4. The Ocean within Them: Voices of Young People
  5. Like You Are New to the World: Poems of Inspiration

The arc is a journey: a joyful festival in honor of Earth’s beauty, a transition into a bald examination of our ravaged world, an invitation to mourn, a galvanizing reminder that this world belongs to kids, and finally, a call to action.

These nature poems don’t remove humans from “nature” or wax melancholic for someplace “unspoiled.” The Dalai Lama writes in his forward that our natural world is “not necessarily somewhere sacred or holy, but simply where we live.” In Here, humans aren’t just worshipful observers of the natural world nor just instruments of its death. We are part of the fragile beauty being poisoned. The things of our lives are precious things of the world. We are nature, we are the planet. We live in these poems.

We live in Richard Jackson’s “plastic cup with the broken handle” and David Huerta’s “protest in the streets.” We live in Wendell Berry’s search for “the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.” We live in Joy Harjo’s acknowledgment that, in Los Angeles, we can’t see the Milky Way or “taste the minerals of planets in hamburgers.”

The cycling lilt of Kimiko Hahn’s, “The Fever,” considers bleached coral reefs alongside an “aunt’s persistent use of hairspray” and a mother’s “vivid jewelry”—human adornments wrapped up with dying underwater worlds. Francisco Aragón’s “Far Away,” captures a Nicaraguan ranch and says to an ox: “You evoke tender dawn, the milking hour.” Human livelihood is hitched to lumbering animal and stitched to the sunrise. (Both Hahn and Aragón will read in Seattle to celebrate the launch of this book on April 25, just a few days after Earth Day.)

In “Snapchat Summer,” eighteen-year-old Maia Rosenfeld writes, “Your summer hides in an app on your phone, and a million views won’t make it real enough,” casting my mind forward to a time when Snapchat will be a thing grandmothers will have used in their youth. What will summers feel like by then?

Another confession: as I daily seek reasons to be hopeful about our trajectory, I seldom find them. The horror of it is too big to let inside me, so I’ve allowed numbness to settle instead. But reading this anthology, the poems’ mounting din startled me into one of those momentary, electric jolts of awareness. Late at night, I read Annie Boutelle’s “rapture of bees” and imagined the swift vacancy of the pollinators “as if they’d never been.” I felt it: This is really happening to our planet, now. The horrors are already upon us, even if people like me, sitting safely with a book of poetry in Seattle, can still pour a glass of white wine on a warm day.

Of course, we all see the hurricanes, and on West Coast we are accumulating our flimsy smoke masks. We know it’s happening. But to continue getting our errands done and sending our emails, we have to forget. We share Catherine Pierce’s shame: “that most days I forget this planet. That most days I think about dentist appointments and plagiarists.” We can’t feel it all the time. But this book makes us feel it, for a time.

No section of Here: Poems for the Planet offers hollow promises that we small individuals can reverse the effects of climate change by shopping organic or rinsing plastic bottles before recycling them. I appreciate Elizabeth J. Coleman’s acknowledgement in her preface that poetry is “a form of secular prayer.” She writes that we can “celebrate the earth as we grieve what we’ve done to our splendid planet and its creatures.”

But even in grief, she argues, we should try to do something to stall the horrible path we’re on. The anthology invites us to, “Take in a new breath and then take action.”

Upon finishing the last poem, the reader encounters the Guide to Activism, offering a “ladder” of unintimidating steps toward influencing leaders and corporations. While it’s true that public pressure on our politicians matters a lot—that it’s maybe our only hope of changing our trajectory—the appearance of the guide did little to quiet my own thrum of dread. (I’m willing to concede this may be a personal problem.) The editors aren’t subtle in their ambition, and the crowdfunding page for this book said, “We envision distributing the book to every member of Congress.” I do love the thought of Mitch McConnell sitting down to read Kyle Dargan and Natalie Díaz, but I think this is mostly a work for people who love art.

Rather than instructions for activism, the anthology’s greater gift is the permission it offers to mourn. Here takes a refreshingly frank look at our dire situation—but mostly fixes its gaze on beauty. We’re in a precarious moment, the book concedes, but we don’t have to let go of our love for this world. We can still plant grasses for salmon. We can still pay attention to flowers. We can keep our eyes open and embrace secular prayers, such as Natasha Trethaway’s reminder that “everywhere you go will be somewhere you’ve never been.”

Alex Madison holds an M.F.A. in Fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Teaching-Writing Fellow. Her work has appeared in journals such as the Harvard Review, the Indiana Review, Witness, and elsewhere. She teaches at the Hugo House and is a Writer-in-Residence with Writers in the Schools.