Just months before his death late in 2009, this video of Dennis Brutus reading "Longing" was posted to YouTube. Seated before brilliant orange flowers , Brutus opens his book, A Simple Lust—first published in 1963—to “Longing,” and reads the poem built of four tercets. He is reading on a patio, and midway through his reading, rain falls briefly, eerily rhyming with the closing phrase of the poem, “rains of poison.”
“Longing” is not a new poem. Rather, he explains in the video, he was recasting a poem from 1960. Had he not framed it otherwise, I might have read “Longing” as addressing anti-apartheid struggles, as some of Brutus’s other poems did during that period. But in this video, Brutus describes how the initial subject of the poem was lost love, and now, he wishes us to read it through the context of unmitigated climate disruption.
In my commentary “Recasting Poetry” I wondered how a poet might take an active role in recasting work, so that a poem might bend, alter, accrue in new contexts. Brutus’s decision to recast “Longing” is a fine example of a poet doing just that.
"I wrote it at the end of a sad love affair, a long time ago," he said, explaining that like this experience of lost love, climate change "seems simple but is actually very complex."
Maybe the poets could come up with a better term than ‘whistle-blower?’ That’s what I recall Daniel Ellsberg asking.
It was the spring of 2005 in Walla Walla, Washington, when I had the luxury of a day’s conversations with Daniel Ellsberg, famed for releasing the Pentagon Papers in an effort to end the Vietnam War by revealing how high-level officials were misleading the public. Ellsberg was visiting Jules’s class and giving a lecture at Whitman College, where Jules was employed, and because Jules was employed, he was busy, and I was not so busy, and, thus… I discussed poetry with Ellsberg over green tea. He was an early publisher of Frank O’Hara’s at the Harvard Advocate, he recited lines of poetry from memory, and he urged me to read Robinson Jeffers.
The caption to Subhankar Banerjee’s photograph of migrating snow geese reads: “Nearly 300,000 snow-geese arrive from their nesting ground in the Canadian high Arctic to the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in early autumn. They feed sixteen hours a day on a type of cotton grass to build fat before they start their long migration south to places like New Mexico (my home), California, Texas, and Mexico. During spring and summer months nearly ninety species migrate to the coastal plain from all six continents to nest and rear their young, to molt, to stage, and to feed. In my mind through migrations of these birds, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge gets connected to every land and oceans of the planet. For several decades, the United States Government has been pushing hard to open up this coastal plain to oil and gas development.”
Banerjee’s Arctic images (which have become ubiquitous in media about climate change) are balanced with attention to the life ways, opportunities and challenges of the peoples most closely tied to the Arctic ecosystems (Gwich’in, Inupiat). His own personal politics as an artist who has forsworn the financial speculation of the gallery system, extending his “art” into a range of political engagements, also adds to the meaning of his images. Above all, this image speaks to the fact that every person, and every species, on this planet is connected to the fate of the Arctic ecosystems, in part through the epic migrations of species like the Snow Goose.