categories: Cocktail Hour
Remember that line from Cracker’s “Teen Angst”? Sure you do and you can belt it out with me: “What the world needs now is another folk singer like I need a hole in my head.”
Insert “nature poet” for “folk singer,” and you have my attitude on bad days. But, truth to tell, I’m a nature poet too, and in reading some recent criticism on “the pastoral” I was reminded that nature poets have been complaining about urbanization for a long time, like, since antiquity. The pastoral took off (if we can say that of Theocritus and Virgil) when the ancients really started to sprawl, plopping their temples onto vineyards and olive orchards.
It’s an old story, but one we need to keep telling…this story of loss. But, also, and this is important these days, loss met with an eye toward beauty and some kind of persistence.
I’ve also been reading Ray Kurzweil and Donna Haraway on the Singularity and cyborgs…in fact, I was re-reading Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” last month on the Logan River, in northern Utah, where I used to live. And, as though I were in a Timeless National Geographic Moment, four minks came chattering down river, their little black heads sleek and just above water. The first made a bee-line toward my pale leg, and I thought, “I will not be bitten by a beautiful mink,” lifted my leg, sending the water-slick slinky to a quick course correction that its minions followed. They were racing from whatever threat they were racing from and into a bundle of branches latticed over the river bank. They disappeared among branches and roots of paper birches. I eventually went back to reading, smiling all the while.
Kurzweil would have us leave our bodies, which is not surprising, since he takes 250 pills a day, and his tummy has to hurt. Haraway is a bit more flexible, interested in hybridity, in confluence, one might say.
Would I be interested in being a mink/human cyborg? Maybe.
But in that moment of seeing the minks while reading of the future I felt a swirl of the prior decade. A time in which I lived in northern Utah and, while working on a book about meteorites and meteorite hunters, I also I wrote poems about that landscape. No mink in them (last month was my first sighting of them), but moose, white-faced ibis and dolomite. Those beauties, and time, that’s the kind of persistence I want. So I guess on my good days I’m happy to read and write nature poetry.
At the same time, yes, there are complications, and one of the poems in my new collection, Held as Earth, tries to tackle some of them. The ancient pastoral poets didn’t have to worry too much about air quality. Along the Wasatch—both in Salt Lake Valley and Cache Valley, where I lived—the winter air is often the worst in the country. Worse than L.A., even. Cache Valley, a postcard-y valley of cows, Mormons and college students. But cows fart, and everyone drives, so the winter features inversions of frigid air that fills with “fine particles” called “PM 2.5.”
According to one state environmental agency, “The term fine particles, or particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5), refers to tiny particles or droplets in the air that are two and one half microns or less in width. Like inches, meters and miles, a micron is a unit of measurement for distance. There are about 25,000 microns in an inch. The widths of the larger particles in the PM2.5 size range would be about thirty times smaller than that of a human hair. The smaller particles are so small that several thousand of them could fit on the period at the end of this sentence.” Most of Utah’s “fine particles” come from car exhaust. Cache Valley, which has only about 100,000 people, is a narrow mountain valley beset with this pollution and with local political inertia that may soon get a Federal kick-in-the-ass. Things aren’t much better in Salt Lake City, where the following poem is set.
My poem “Commutation” tries to capture a complexity of responses to beauty and pollution.
These are the things of the morning:
liquid pterodactyl, the sunshine toxic, our throats
made hazy with convenience. Inversions
dull the Wasatch like a slow throb
while coyotes edge about the burdock and woad.
Sausage by semi, coffee by Boeing, roofs newly
shingled glint fractures in a kestrel’s eyes.
Indicative of transmission–bars and icons,
tones that interrupt, a glance and swerve.
The filaments attenuate, and starlings perch
in strange legations on a derrick’s lattice.
We’ve misplaced the seasons like car keys.
It is another warm November,
and though something like autumn crusts the hills red as scabs
and though resignation is its own unsurprise, I want
to think the air lives cleaner in the hollow
bones of birds, timely marrow.
Faceted spurs rise higher than signs,
and in the cheat-grass median, steam seeps
from hot springs, I-15’s little Yellowstone.
When Stansbury woke one Sunday morning in 1849,
he wrote that the lake with its peaks ranges & islands…
lay before us…in great & peculiar beauty.
He knew, I suppose, that it is in our nature
to often sully what we love, so
do we know this better now?
Green is not the sere that belongs here,
and dolomite peaks will jag the sky, unreasonably
dramatic, for just how long? Below, in canyon waters,
a dipper plunges in the dark.
Water streams around her head, a cirque
as silver as a glacier hung above Lake Bonneville.
There are other speeds,
and home is more than what we choose,
though it is that too, our decisions
mobbed for us to breathe
or to let go and let the air be scrubbed with stars.
Beauty as a motive force in our psyches (birds…stars…not trivial).
The book ends with “A Toast,” inspired by James Bertolino’s poem:
May you always have words
to right your days and the night’s
good blanket sewn with stars.
May the sound of a river
or the wind always guide you home
and if, on the way, you carry
difficulties, let them matter only
if they should. May you be
as solid as Bighorn Mountain
as lithe as a lover’s arms
with nothing bleak
with nothing bleak
with sticks for the fire
and cool sand against your back.
Despite my love of that line of Cracker’s, I should admit more and more folk singers end up on my Pandora account weekly. Maybe a few holes in the head might let some fresh air in at the same time our cyborg cables get attached.
Christopher Cokinos reads a lot of science fiction and lives in Tucson, much of whose water is powered down the Central Arizona Project from the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station. His essay collection Bodies, of the Holocene, is also forthcoming. He has a crush on Canadian folk singer Sarah Harmer.
Held as Earth is available for pre-order at Finishing Line Press: