Truths of outrage and truths of possibility

by Evelyn Reilly

Doctor MAGA, ©2020 Sue Coe Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York
‘Doctor MAGA,’ ©2020 Sue Coe Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York

In this election season my desk is littered with post-it notes, images, and quotes:

          You are not just you anyway[1]

          The killing fields of extreme weather[2]

          forest crime

          the linguistically undocumented[3]

          Climate Week Sep. 21–27

          Renewable Rikers

          the tree’s superiority ... the tree, which is rootedness and deepening, over mankind / who is
          agitation and malfeasance[4]

          Footholds of agency exist at every level[5]

I also have reproductions of two blistering prints by the artist Sue Coe propped up against a stack of books. One is of Senator Joe Biden overseeing the 1991 inquisition of Anita Hill; the other is Coe’s Doctor MAGA. Next to them is The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters by Goya, one of Coe’s inspirations, whose spirit hangs all too appropriately over our times.

But in spite of the mood reflected in these materials, I’ve actually been enjoying what remains of the summer’s Zoom poetry season. After hesitating to sign on to such activities in the early COVID months, I discovered that I value the geographical remixing of poets, the disruption of overly codified social formations, and the experience of a new kind of present tense, in which poets I rarely or never see scratch their noses and shift in their seats.

And there have been some surprises. Large participation in an ecopoetics reading series, for example, which drew some interesting poets from around the globe (tolerantly logging in at times of day and night hegemonically determined by US time zones), as well as some unexpected practitioners from poetic regions not normally considered eco.

Ed Roberson, who joined a few of these discussions, wrote in his 2009 prose piece We Must Be Careful that The nature poem occurs when an individual’s sense of the larger Earth enters into the world of human knowledge. The main understanding that results from this encounter is the Ecopoetic: that the world’s desires do not run the Earth, but the Earth does run the world.”[6]

I continue to find this definition of the Ecopoetic astute and helpful, referring as it does not to a poetics or a school, or even to a thematics, but to the impact upon one’s writing and thinking of a necessary, ineluctable encounter.

So in a time when the Earth’s running of the world is running us up against realities such as bats living in radically reduced habitats becoming vectors of viral transmission, with the results raging through societies marked by extreme inequality, maybe it’s not so surprising that poets might join a zoom series titled Poetics for the More-Than-Human World.

When fires, floods, and droughts made more extreme by global warming continue to accelerate the flow of climate refugees and enlarge the ranks of the climate homeless, poets are perhaps rightly asking themselves if they need to be writing differently.

When the real crisis of crime in this election season is the looting of our environment, the pillaging of people’s health, and the plundering of democracy, it probably makes sense for the unacknowledged legislators of the world to ask themselves, how is it going?

In the same pages in which Muriel Rukeyser said, “We are a people tending toward democracy at a level of hope,” she also spoke of poems that offer “truths of outrage and truths of possibility.”[7]

In “We Must be Careful” Roberson wrote that “restoring this larger Earth to urban poetry, embedding city life within a living Nature focuses on an interrelation that should keep us sensitized to exploitative relationships which could cut us off, cut us out of life”[8] — a truth of possibility his own poetry exemplifies.

This has me thinking of the current language of the streets. Black Lives Matter. No Climate Justice Without Racial Justice. The latter was powerfully articulated recently in the article How Racism is Killing the Planet by Hop Hopkins of the Sierra Club: “You can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones, and you can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people, and you cant have disposable people without racism.” A truth of outrage.

Some of the conversations following this summers ecopoetics reading series led to the usual dispiriting questions about what can poetry do? It seems to me that poets have long been haunted by the Auden line that poetry makes nothing happen, although we dont acknowledge enough that a few lines later he says that its a way of happening, by which I think he meant that poetry matters in the important but indirect manner and with the unpredictable temporality that art does. A truth of possibility.

Some poets like to contrast this with Robert Duncan’s statement that he “can have no recourse to taste” in poetry, but instead only to “immediate concerns in living.”[9] Viewed through the lens of our current compound extremities, these concerns in living are immediate and extreme. A truth of outrage.

My own way of finding a position from which to write and act in this election season is to believe that we need to be both working on our poems and also out in the streets, at least digitally and metaphorically. There are so many truths of outrage and truths of possibility to foment.

The need is urgent and the timeframe daunting. As I write, there are fifty-nine days left to elect political leadership that offers a shred of hope of addressing our current crises. To prevent even worse impacts of climate change (and they will be much worse) than we are already experiencing, we must achieve a 50 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050.[10]

Adding post-its to my desk:

[the] experimental attitude and its attempt to return to the mood of personal moral responsibility for democracy[11]


Evelyn Reilly is the author of three books of poetry that attempt to manifest a poetics of the Anthropocene, all published by Roof Books. She is also a member of the Steering Committee of the climate activist group 350NYC.

1. Richard Powers, The Overstory (W. W. Norton & Company, 2019).

2. Andreas Malm, The Progress of This Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World (Verso, 2019).

3. Heller Levinson, from his reading for the anthology Poetics for the More-Than-Human World, ed. Mary Newell, Bernard Quetchenbach, and Sarah Nolan. Readings were hosted by Cole Swensen, Mary Newell, and Linda Russo.

4. Aimé Césaire, Poetry and Knowledge, 1944–45.

5. The Drawdown Review: Climate Solutions for a New Decade (A Project Drawdown Publication, 2020).

6. Ed Roberson, We Must Be Careful, in Black Nature, ed. Camille T. Dungy (University of Georgia Press, 2009).

7. Muriel Ruykeser, The Life of Poetry (Paris Press, 1996).

8. Roberson, We Must Be Careful.

9. Robert Duncan, Ideas of the Meaning of Form (1961).

10. A roadmap to reducing greenhouse gas emissions 50 percent by 2030, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, September 20, 2019.

11. Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act (1964).