I couldn't help myself. I had to take a class.
I discovered a local writer's community called The Muse, took their class on ecopoetry, taught by Dr. Luisa Iglora, and couldn't help but notice that January 2016's issue from Poetry Magazine was devoted to the subgenre of language art.
Here's what I learned in a month.
Ecopoetry seeks to dislodge control from humans, at least from poetry’s perspective. The poem cannot assume the human perspective of control over the Earth. Instead, nature’s in control but suffering in our hands, in our pollution, as we mine the minerals of her soul. Ecopoetry too can celebrate conservation, probably the form’s only optimistic message.
Commonly explored by ecopoetry is the idea of nature vs. man; (and not the tired theme of man vs. nature, mind you). Nature can speak in ecopoetry and often does as humankind's teacher.
Forrest Gander was one of the first on ecopoetry and is recommended for further reading.
Now, to the January issue of Poetry Magazine.
Commonly, ecopoetry is about loss. “Wampum” by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers explores the loss and exploitation of culture in a unique style of lists.
Ecopoetry is about “The Outstretched Earth,” (poem by Jane Mead) which we continually take from. And taking keeps taking keeps, well, you know.
“Epithalamia” by Joan Kane explores our automaticity as guilty of polluting the environment with “rote hands.” Such behavior is trans-genealogical, as the following selection from “understory” suggests; Craig Santos Perez worries that nature won’t be left for his children.
“Saguaros” by Javiaer Zamora explores illegal entry to the USA and getting locked up by consequence, symbols of fruit bats and spiders hunting a meal introducing the poem.
Further symbolism in nature is found in “An eater, or swallowhole, is a reach of stream” by Jan Beatty. In the “streambed,” the speaker is captured by the tumult of life as a single mother won’t tell her child who the father is, only to be devoured by nature herself.
Even so, “Dance, Dance, While the Hive Collapses” by Tiffany Higgins suggests we enjoy the short time we have on the planet before we destroy it.
Another apocalyptic vision is presented by Angelica Freitas in “microwave,” lowercase intentional; here, animal thought is flipped as the speaker asks if we can “explain civil unions / to an iguana,” satirizing our control over the environment.
Dystopian visions continue in Kathy Engel’s “Now I Pray” as the seemingly gentrified, modernist voice stumbles upon a man and boy hungry for “a church on this street / that serves free food.” With no answer, the speaker ends by saying, “I will tell you I am praying,” with obvious implications for atheism and little hope for hunger ever leaving the hungry.
Evie Shockley’s work in “senzo” is rather demented. Seeds of weeds are not valuable, which too may be demented in our own line of thought.
“Satao” by Stephen Derwent Partington eulogizes a poached elephant, the speaker with an outstretched “arm . . . like a trunk” to the carcass, to empathize with an elephant in mourning, as elephants are known the mourn their dead.
World renowned poet Yusef Komunyakaa has two poems in the issue. “Crossing a City Highway” takes the reader into a Coyote’s life, trying to find a place to survive in area under construction, furthering ecopoetry’s inquiry into the nature vs. man theme-flip. “Sperm Oil” is historical, plunging the reader into the side of a whale with a spear gun, so the precious oil might be harvested for lamplight, perhaps one of their earliest of our exploits of nature.
Tim Seibles, my favorite poet, personifies ants in “Magnifying Glass.” You can tell where this is going, along the wheel of suffering and torturing of animal intelligences and bodies.
The perspective of animals is sustained by Naomi Shihab Nye in “300 Goats.” Some tricky work is handled by a simple pronoun: “they.” The reader can’t quite make sense of who “they” are. I believe we’re meant to interpret “they” as complacent or active environmental takers; when a speaker in the poem asks if we should be “worried about them,” another answers, “‘Not really, / they know what to do. They’re goats,” the our own agency to affect climate change is evoked, along with the instincts of nature, which will persist beyond human experience.
Further lifting up the animal perspective is “Peril Sonnet” by David Baker. Endangered bees have the wisdom over humans, if we only could only listen, which we don’t.
And to the place one might find God, Laren McClung witnesses the “Birth of the White Bison.” The scene is surreal as “this cow . . . stands to open for the calf / that makes its way with a message,” as if spoken by a white angel. “I am coming,” as if it’s Christ himself. So is nature to be seen.
“Urban Warming” by Truth Thomas drives the reader into the middle of the city, among visions of soul food and the junky manifestations of urban culture and the health of living in “the cage,” as the final line puts it.
Elise Paschen keeps us in the city in “The Tree of Agreement.” It’s almost political, a grumpy republican wants to cut a tree down; the tree hugger refuses. It’s a good poem, but contrived in this way.
Another us vs. them manifesto is delivered by Brenda Hillman. “Describing Tattoos to a Cop” isn’t easy, especially in a police station after a protest roundup. Hillman plays with multimodal composing unlike any contributor to this issue.
Danez Smith flies out of the city in the excerpt from “summer, somewhere.” Only, its violence against African-American boys that sends them to heaven.
But ecopoetry doesn’t completely cast the city into the pollution of dystopia. “When the sun returns” by Sarah Browning is a simple union of God and nature, even if in the city.
Before leaving locales completely, we have “Lullaby in Fracktown” by Lilace Mellin Guignard, a cirque de cynical lullaby in the villanelle form, elucidating the grin side of capitalism, again, nature vs. man.
“Blackbody Curve” by Samiya Bashir is a reinvention of poetic form: the final word in each line is the first word in the following line. “Always: a lie; an argument. / Argument: two buck hunters circle a meadow’s edge. / Edge . . .” The speaker is sympathetic to the hunted animals; something else is going on in the poem though. An unnamed “lie” is repeated, perhaps our very existence is under scrutiny here.
Ailish Hopper is a protege of Allen Ginsberg in “Did it Ever Occur to You That Maybe You’re Falling in Love?” In Ginsberg fashion, Hopper reminds us of the ranting, repetitious, lucid, and stoned lines “I’m with you in Rockland!” Hopper’s work too is trying to dig up this unnamed problem.
“Ars Poetica” is an ambitious title for a contemporary poem. Loosely translated as “The Art of Poetry,” and originally written by Horace, Eleanore Wilner writes some sort of historical fantasy. I’m sorry. I didn’t connect.
Some optimism emerges from Leconte Dill’s “We Who Weave,” as the nomadic life of a migrant worker alludes to a coming fabric in which mainstream and migrant culture are woven together, even if how it’s an ecopoem is a bit unclear.
Jamaal May gives us a lovely perspective on his diaphragm and body as he “softly . . . steps” about his locale, perhaps Miami, where a “Water Devil” shows up, presumably a hurricane.
Another lovely string of imagery is woven by Mary Morris in “Yellowtail,” even if clear meaning doesn’t emerge.
Fady Joudah explores the nature of sex in “The Floor is Yours” but perhaps my favorite poem from the issue is “Umpaowastewin” by Margaret Noodin. It’s bilingual and runs the gamut from anthropology to cuisine, coming of age with sex wide open and strawberries. This poem shouldn’t be missed.