Trinity University Press: San Antonio Texas. 2013. 672 pages.

Trinity University Press: San Antonio Texas. 2013. 672 pages.

Reading a recent review by Ange Mlinko’s for The Nation, I was made aware of the fact that the term anthology at root refers to a collection of flowers. Nowhere does this etymology seem more embodied than in the The Ecopoetry Anthology (Eds. Fisher-Wirth and Gray-Street). Spanning over 400 pages of contemporary ecopoetry and including a historical section of over 100 pages of canonical American poetic antecedents to ecopoetry, this is an impressive collection of blooms.

In the contemporary section there is a vast breadth of work. On one page Kwame Dawes writes in “Genocide Again”

If a man were to wake in Sun City,

he would smell the truth of prophecy.

Those close by will die of machete blow,

those far away will die of plague,

and those who are spared

will know the famine of orphaned days–

and on the next, Alison Hawthorne Deming in “Specimens Collected at the Clear Cut”:

1. Wild currant twig flowering with cluster of rosy microgoblets.

2.Wild iris, its three landing platforms, purple bleeding to white then yellow in the honey hollows, purple veins showing the direction to the sweet spot

The scope the editors have taken in selecting work reflects the central tension surrounding ecopoetry: exactly what can be said to constitute an ecopoem? In this vein, it is perhaps not the poetry pressed into the pages, but the editors’ introductions, and the long essay by Robert Hass included, which contributes the most to our understanding of ecopoetry. In their introduction Fisher-Wirth and Gray-Street define ecopoetry as

poetry that is some way shaped by and responds specifically to that [environmental] crisis . . . . addresses contemporary problems and issues in ways that are ecocentric and that respect the integrity of the other-than-human world . . . [,] challenges the belief that we are meant to have dominion over nature and is skeptical of a hyperrationality that would separate mind from body and people from earth. (xxvii)

This definition is a broad starting point; they then outline a taxonomy of ecopoetics:

1.     Nature poetry: which “considers nature as subject matter and inspiration” (xxviii)
2.     Environmental poetry: “propelled by and directly engaged with active and politicized environmentalism” (xxix)
3.     Ecological poetry: which is elusive and “engages with questions of form most directly, not only poetic form but also a form historically taken for granted-that of the singular, coherent self” (xxix)

Articulating these differences among particular ecopoetics is in keeping with an ecological view of poetry, one which seeks to view a poem holistically in terms of wider contexts–much like trying to place a particular flower species into a broader ecosystem.  Embracing the broadest possible definition of ecopoetry, The Ecopoetry Anthology challenges us as readers to link previously divisive perspectives of ecopoetry (the experimental/ecological vs. the natural/representative) together and to be rewarded with the links we find. For example on page 219 we encounter the ecological in Julia Connor’s poem “Canto for the Birds”:

& you cannot talk about poetry

              without talking about

                                               the land)



                                                     in the chapel

                                                     where we meet to


                                                     our imperfect


                     7 mourning doves

        perched like

                                  the shadows

                                                  of ideas

                     whose movement between


                     we are

                                 the animate

                powers of

Then on page 331 we see a direct echo of this idea that nature embodies a poetry that cannot quite be linguistically articulated in H.L. Hix’s sonnet “The Last Crows Whose Cries Are Audible Here,” a poem decidedly closer to nature poetry:

They are the questions one knows not to ask,

The answers one does not know how to take.

They console bare limbs for lost leaves. Their flights

Are lines in verse translations of the snow

Into a tongue, inscrutable by light,

That no diurnal mind will ever know.

These surprising connections can be traced not just through the contemporary poetry section, but also back to the historical section. One of the joys of The Ecopoetry Anthology is how it repositions canonical work we would not normally associate with ecopoetry (for example Emily Dickinson, Hart Crane and Ezra Pound) as antecedents. The historicism of American ecopoetry is thoroughly enunciated in Robert Hass’s almost 30-page essay “American Ecopoetry: An Introduction,” which in very clear terms seeks to examine the conditions and contexts which make American ecopoetry possible. Beginning with 1609 and Galileo and the year the first colonial Americans arrived, Hass traces the history of America alongside the history of science and the history of poetry. Interdisciplinarity is emphasized in ecopoetry, and Hass shows us what this might look like. It’s a reframing of the canon of American poetry in terms of scientific innovation and environmental change. One of the major benefits of this historical section is that it allows us to reinterpret these poets from within the framework of ecocriticism; as Hass notes, The Wasteland reads very differently when examined for its foliage content.

One downside is that the historical section highlights potential flaws in the contemporary section. Against the refined body of canonical work, the breadth of the contemporary section in certain lights appears flabby. The historical focus of the introduction and the chronological arrangement of the historical section by birth order of the poet, also jars with the arbitrary alphabetical arrangement in the contemporary section. It would be interesting to see what trends would appear if the contemporary were also arranged in a chronology. I also questioned the limitation of the anthology to solely American poets, for ecopoetry seems to oppose the human imposition of national boundaries and asks us to consider global environmental issues.

But these are small quibbles in light of the important and necessary work this anthology is doing in deepening our questioning of how poetry can interact with the changing world. As Fisher-Wirth says in her introduction, each of these poems has “the power to move the world–to break through our dulled disregard, our carelessness, our despair, reawakening our sense of the vitality and beauty of nature. With that awareness, let us pledge to take actions that will preserve it” (X).

Caitlin Maling