A very serious joke beneath the (relatively soon to be) exploding sun
Review of Joseph Harrington's 'Of Some Sky'
Joseph Harrington’s first book of poetry, Things Come On, was both a memoir about his mother and a documentary of a time in American history. It was documentary in nature, if the document of history were subjected to aesthetic manipulations and personal refashioning. Of Some Sky, his new book, has a differently indeterminate generic structure: it asks the question of whether humor is possible in poetry whose subject is ecological collapse.
If Things Come On was obsessed with the past, then Of Some Sky is obsessed with the future. The poet addresses the future as a sort of deity of foreknowledge, one that exists beyond the limits of human concern:
Dear Future, you
know so much more
than we do & you
have forgotten it all
The future looms increasingly grim. Children are an apt symbol in such a context (think “Children of Men”), as now they inspire both hope and fear.
Children over water
fire fight (13)
Babies occupy our time
while nature does its work on us. (16)
If you eat only one bowl of rice a day
you will get all the babies you want (16)
(unborn : preborn = undead : predead) (22)
Such traditional symbols of hope, now devalued and degraded, are part of the book’s narrative weave. The book has two other elements that orient contemplation: devaluation of the human per se, both as master of the universe and in the role of poet as exemplar of the wise human; and premonitions of future ecological collapse.
Ecopoetry might take as its task the reimagining of nature — or, as Bruno Latour advocated in his 2013 Gifford lectures in Edinburgh, the relinquishment of the concept of nature altogether, so naturalized, routinized, and uncritical as it has become. (Latour favors the revivification of the concept of Gaia.) Living in the anthropocene changes everything, the poet says. In the anthropocene’s necessary “anti-”nature poetry, then, the human, too, is denaturalized: our mark on the world is composed by a trail of data, a genetic chain, and a carbon footprint, not whatever vainglorious words might come from our mouths. Writers are no longer special humans: “Plug in different data for a different writer” (19). Gone are the days of the unfettered poetic ego — such were its charms: “I feel nostalgic for myself, / my human tissue + little data set” (62). Harrington asks implicitly: will all aesthetically fashioned words — even poetry — be thought irredeemable hubris when a different sort of action is necessary on a daily basis?
If the worry over the future of the children to come were not enough to presage eco-collapse, the wasteful ways of daily life in America make the poet pause to wonder about the future:
Kid at Starbucks: “Would you like that in a bag?”
Me: “But … it’s already in a bag.”
Kid: “No, I meant did you want it in a bigger bag.” (95)
Ecological consciousness itself is at risk. The voracity and wiliness of the market make the one approved moment of eco-consciousness in American public life a specious moment of morbid irony — such as David Foster Wallace used to critique:
My Earth Day suit is as new
as the day I was born, full of FDC3
green & chlorophyll. (13)
Would you like eco-friendly or eco-regular? (16)
If Earth Day’s today what’s tomorrow? (16)
Another earth day,
another dollar. (71)
In the face of hollow gestures toward eco-consciousness, voicing (and living by) a steadfast ecological creed would seem difficult. Harrington doesn’t propose one “life” answer but four poetic or imaginative responses. One would be the recommendation for artistic self-consciousness. More specifically, it would be the recognition of the artist’s culpability in perpetuating notions of nature that are both antedated by and historically implicated in destructive worldviews and imperial habits:
I hear the landscape painters
lop another branch. I say,
What the hell are you doing? —
you’ll spoil the trees. (50)
Second, retreat into sci-fi seems at times the only effective imaginative remedy to such data-related hopelessness:
… only good
can come off-planet (47)
Third, there is the call for the discarding of previous bourgeois self-satisfactions in poetry for the mobilization of language toward political ends: “We’re all writing political poems, / for we are distraught and the hour is late” (49). Or, it should be that we are writing political poetry. Or, it is, perhaps, if we disagree upon the exact form, style, and content of politics — itself a point of considerable impact.
Fourth, Harrington proposes that humor might be one way of addressing the poet’s new responsibilities in the anthropocene:
Q: What is stopping sumac
from taking over the world.
A. Kudzu. Thank god
for sumac, Our Hope. (27)
To find humor as a potential remedy is almost entirely unique in this context. Here, the presence of humor makes clear the humorlessness of most ecopoetry, with its tendency toward pedagogy and toward a quasi-scientific surface created through borrowing words from scientific disciplines. The question, then, becomes what type of humor is possible in this context: is the political and social incisiveness of satire possible, or are we left only with gallows humor?
Lastly, there are birds — that other traditional poetic symbol of hope. In fact, there are birds on almost every other page in the book: geese, woodpeckers, robins, gulls, pigeons, starlings, crows, parakeets, mourning doves, green parrots, grackles, robins, house sparrows, gulls, macaws. The book’s thematic core is revealed in the line, “I / will perceive a future still I will” (67), a statement in which there is the hope for a good future that Harrington cannot relinquish. But we would also have to add to this mission statement the book’s last line: “The crow is the christmas bird” (104). Birds replace religious prophets. A group of crows is a murder; and, truth be told, crows are smart birds that work well in groups. (In crows, we trust.)
Of Some Sky is a compendium of styles in contemporary American experimental poetry — from the language games of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry to the techniques of sound poetry, erasure poetry, Flarf absurdism, James Tate–esque mini allegories, and Rae Armantrout–like apercu. But, oddly or not, the book reminds me most of Alexander Pope. This is true not only because Harrington is fond of the couplet, but also because of the questions about community and society that Pope’s satire raises in retrospect. Satire is not possible without a clear sense of community, and increasingly our politics at every level seem to lead to tribalism, special interest identifications, and political/ideological lobbies.
For the creative spirit faced with the absence of satire as a usable means of imaginative reaction and call to social action, what is left? Of Some Sky follows a strategy that does not give up on humor. Is the madman’s maniacal, profound soliloquy as he treads his last steps on earth the only model for humor in the face of a predicted eco-collapse? The voice of the “engaged” American writer has for too long been muffled. Today there is its rebirth. Now the task is not to “vindicate the ways of God to man,” as Pope wrote, but to justify the ways of the human to ourselves — or to our others: people poor and rich across the globe with whom we share a fate, linked by global consumerism, ecological degradation, and the all-too-real threat of conflict arising from the combination of the two.
The question for me comes down to action and community. How does poetry act, and for whom? The answer isn’t clear, though two things can be said: one, a righteous voice is a righteous voice, as long as it’s not self-righteous (we’re tired of those); and, two, humor, tenderness, and imagination will be as important as any other human qualities in finding ways to overt catastrophe. These are also the directions indicated in Of Some Sky.