University of Alberta Press | 2018 | 136 Page | $19.95 | Purchase online
Reviewed by Jenny Haysom
Reviewing the Shortlist is a weekly series in which poets shortlisted for our 2019 Book Awards review books written by their peers. Join us for this series until the award winners are announced on June 8, 2019!
In this week’s installment, Jenny Haysom, author of Dividing the Wayside (Palimpsest Press) – shortlisted for the 2019 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award – reviews Welcome to the Anthropocene written by Alice Major (University of Alberta Press) – shortlisted for the 2019 Raymond Souster Award.
Ecopoetics and Heroic Couplets: Alice Major’s Welcome to the Anthropocene
Welcome to the Anthropocene. Imagine our greeter: some sinister clown at the amusement park gate, all of us with tickets in hand, about to climb aboard some terrorizing ride from which we’ll never return. Or maybe we’re in a car crossing the border into an irrevocably changed world––a disaster zone––and the local tourist commission has emblazoned a sign with cheery, giant letters.
Alice Major’s hefty new collection of poetry does indeed begin with a kind of greeting––though the extended metaphor she chooses is neither one of carnivals nor border-crossings, but the familiar trope of theatre, and the setting is the planet (as in “all the world’s a stage”) in some middle act. The actors she addresses in her prologue, “in medias res,” are the next generation, those children of bad fortune “born today” in a world where “small rainbow coloured frogs [are] hopping into oblivion.” Rather than offering advice, like some kind of pedantic Polonius-figure, Major simply says good luck, and concedes that the wisdom she has to offer is unhelpful; “sorry to be useless,” she says. “Just play your part.”
What follows is the titular work, an extraordinary long poem that spans twenty-one pages and is written in rhyming heroic couplets, a piece that emulates––in its design––Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man. Not many poets writing today herald the likes of Pope––and who would want to? What reader would “get it”? These are reasonable objections, to be sure, but as we live at a time in human history that is ripe for satire and social criticism, when as poets and artists we might feel a great urgency to protest what is happening in the world, perhaps we ought to look back to the Age of Reason, a period when poetry and politics converged.
Major’s poem begins with a quote from Pope that underscores their mutual critique of humankind, that “in reas’ning pride, our error lies;” that we are––in other words––an arrogant and self-centred species. The problem of anthropocentrism is in fact the larger concern of Major’s book, and this long poem is front and centre in the collection, cataloguing the many ways we’ve irrevocably changed the planet as a result of our dominance and egotism. She begins with a section (there are ten in total) on genetically modified animals, like “Black-6 Mouse” whose “myriad descendants/ scrabbling in labs” were “bred for their resemblance… to us.” I love the stanza on black-6 mouse, which is packed with both scientific fact––and poetry. These mice––the most widely used in laboratories, according to Major––are experimented on in lieu of humans, their chromosomes altered so that they share our qualities:
to age-related hearing loss; efficiency
in breeding but erratic parenting;
willingness to drink booze; inheriting
a sensitivity to pain and prone
Major not only details the ways in which the mice are faulty, like us, she goes on to explain how they’ve been bred to be homogenous test subjects, “so uniform [they] flow indistinguishable as plastic beads.” What an apt metaphor.
The poem continues in this vein, providing countless examples of an altered natural world, evidence of our arrogance and failure as a species, each section examining a different aspect of our global dominance. As a reader who shares Major’s interest in science and ecology, I was captivated and willing to be instructed as well as entertained. However, I will admit to feeling a little less than enthusiastic at the end, and I’m not certain if that had to do with an attention-span problem (on my part), or a weakening in style and novelty as things progressed, or a failure of didactic verse as an art form. Is it possible that the poem is too factual or too long––or simply missing something that makes it poetry, rather than essay? Whatever my final feelings are, I must acknowledge that this complex work is a rare accomplishment––and a feat of verbal ingenuity.
Now, to say a little more about the collection as a whole, and that title, Welcome to the Anthropocene. What exactly is the anthropocene?––you might reasonably ask. According to Wikipedia, “the anthropocene” is a term used to describe our current time period, “a proposed epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, anthropogenic climate change.” Perhaps you’ve seen the documentary, or visited the complimentary exhibit at the AGO or National Gallery, the one that featured the photography of Edward Burtynsky, his beautiful but horrifying manmade landscapes, images that document the effect of human industry on the planet. At first glance, I thought that the cover art for Major’s book was one of these photos, an altered landscape––perhaps a crater caused by weapons testing, or a mining operation viewed at a great distance, from above. However, it is not an aerial perspective of earth, but rather a close-up, a picture of the human eye––an iris––and it seems to me to be the perfect image to sum up the book’s overarching concern: our anthropocentrism.
The book, like the titular poem, is also divided into thematic parts. Each section contains smaller poems on a wide variety of topics––like local ecology, office life, mathematics, community, the domestic sphere, time, cognitive illusions, and more. Though varied in subject, so many of these poems bring us back to the problem of being human; that is, we place ourselves at the centre and see the world around us through a distorted lens. To twist the words of Wallace Stevens, ours is the perspective of the vital, dominant, fatal, arrogant I.
One poem in which Major directly addresses this problem of perception is “Pathetic Fallacy,” a small piece that illustrates the misconception that the world reflects our moods and feelings. It’s a notion connected to the Romantic movement and its celebration of a lyric “I” in an aestheticized landscape. In Major’s poem, the natural setting is familiar and less than sublime. She writes, “this late spring snow dump longs to melt” as if it is in sympathy with its winter-weary speaker. Next, the sun is described with “strengthening arms” and then “streamlets seem/ to follow us with newsy chatter/ about the sky’s high happenings.” Innocent enough, you might say––this personification of the inanimate world. “As if,” the poet wittily replies. It’s not just foolish to assign motive to weather, she says, or “speak of springtime as if it will express/ attentiveness to our pathetic/ need for company,” it might also be dangerous. Isn’t this the kind of self-absorbed thinking that lies behind climate change? The environment is not here to reflect or serve us. In fact, it might be better off without us.
“Hope humbly then,” the poet writes in the final section of her long poem, “at times it might be pleasant / to think of earth without ourselves.” But hope is what she has, in the end, even if her reasoning, scientific self struggles to envision a future. In her notes, Major defines “Cledonism”––the title of her final poem––as “an ancient method of divination in which the petitioner listened for the god’s answer to her question among the chance words of pedestrians.” In this epilogue to the collection, the poet battles her rational disposition: “What will be? I ask the god,/ her breath restless in the branches.” But instead of listening, Major covers her ears and heedlessly busies herself in the “human marketplace.” She can’t seem to tune in, so to speak, because the response she initially seeks is logical and closed, “the single word that makes all clear”:
A word like fame or comfort.
A word like cure, secure, release.
A word like capital or teeth.
But in this end-stopped list––with its nouns that are certain and finite––the speaker is already starting to make strange connections, the stuff of poetry. Next comes a series of mysterious and beautiful phrases, and those hard, discrete words transform into loosely connected ideas that are “tangential” and “daisy-chained.” The poet is finally listening to the world around her––and “the god” is likewise answering. She “murmurs change …
chant and vagabondage. Astringent journeys … change
contingent on pigeons … enjambed
poundage of engines … the endangered.
Age, she whispers. Pasturage and larch …
Languages … chickadee jargon …
the scutcheon’s agent margin … chance
coinages engendered … genome …
… angels … branching channel …
Once tuned-in, the poet-speaker finally gets her single, discreet noun; it is “Change.” But conversely, it is a word that offers no certainty, and that’s all she gets to pin her hopes on. What I admire about this final poem is that it offers an about-face to the essayist’s voice of reason––the one that welcomed us to the anthropocene. Here is a mind that gives over to poetic thought, which is, perhaps, the only kind of thinking that can approach divination––and the answers found are necessarily uncertain ones. “I dwell in Possibility,” Emily Dickinson famously wrote, siding with poetry, “a fairer House than Prose.”
Welcome to the Anthropocene is Alice Major’s 11th collection of poetry, and continues her long engagement with science and mathematics. In the collection she tackles the urgent questions raised by human activity on the planet: how do we get along in this complicated period when it can hard to figure out how to do much about the big stuff in our small way. She has also published the essay collection, Intersecting Sets: A Poet Looks at Science. Her many awards include the Pat Lowther Award and a National Magazine Award Gold Medal. As well as reading her work across Canada and in the U.S. and Britain, she has been an invited speaker at science and math gatherings. Alice founded the Edmonton Poetry Festival while serving as Edmonton’s first poet laureate. She received the 2017 Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Distinguished Artist Award.
Jenny Haysom was born in England and raised in Nova Scotia. She completed a Master’s degree in English Literature at the University of Ottawa in the 90s, and has since worked for independent booksellers and the Ottawa Public Library. Dividing the Wayside, her debut collection of poems, was published by Palimpsest Press in September 2018. Her work has appeared in various literary journals as well as in chapbook form (Blinding Afternoons, Anstruther Press, 2017). Jenny was on the board of directors for Arc Poetry Magazine for several years, guest-edited a special issue of children’s poetry (2012) and was prose editor from 2014-16. She lives with her family in Ottawa.