Mudlark Flash No. 90 (2014)

Editor’s Note: Greg Wrenn’s essay, “The 23rd-Century Nature Poem,” originally appeared in American Poetry Review, May/June 2014, and has been republished in Poetry Daily online. Christopher Cokinos’ essay, The 21st-Century Nature Poem, a/k/a Mudlark Flash No. 90 (2014), was written in response to Greg Wrenn. When it appeared in Mudlark I invited Wrenn to respond to Cokinos. You can read his response, “One Whale Shark Eye,” here in Mudlark too. Finally, to round out their exchange, I invited Cokinos to respond, once again, to Wrenn, which he has done in Haute Ecology.  WS

One Whale Shark Eye: My Response to Christopher Cokinos
by Greg Wrenn


                         our ships will still go,
                                                       after the ritual killing to make the wind listen,
                                   out to sea as if they were going to a new place
                              
                                   — Jorie Graham, “Nearing Dawn” (from Sea Change)


“We live in a dying world of immeasurable beauty”: with this urgency, I find myself experiencing life and writing, straining to imagine the landscapes, hear the poems of 2079 and 2215 AD.

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The phrase “dying world,” though, isn’t meant to suggest that the earth is about to become a barren rock. No matter what we do, life in some form will most likely continue for hundreds of millions more years; insects, rats, jellyfish, and bacteria are resilient. Instead “dying world” points to the fact that we’ve lost half of our wildlife in the past 40 years. One month in 2012 saw over 200 elephants killed by poachers with semi-automatic weapons in Cameroon’s Bouba N’Djida National Park. Each elephant used to walk with its family but is now dead. Their tusks were hacked off some of their faces while they were still breathing. Today many of the Key Largo reefs of my childhood are mostly brown and algae-covered, the coral coverage there having dropped to 8% from the 50% when I was born—and I’m 34. I can’t return to snorkel; I think I would get physically ill. By 2050, Stanford biologist Steven Palumbi and others predict, the acidifying, polluted, overfished oceans will no longer have fish in them.

From our communities, travels, and reading, each of us has dark testimony to add to this list.

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In response to my essay’s opening sentence, Christopher Cokinos writes that “we are all bound to die in a living world—and that beauty is something assigned to it by human consciousness.” Those truths are undeniable; the tension between impermanence and conservation is an uncomfortable one that I too feel.

But when I spent a morning two summers ago with three whale sharks, I couldn’t have looked into one of their surprisingly sensitive eyes and philosophized like that to myself. Equally true and even more relevant, my whole being tells me, is our moral obligation to take care of this planet—“to recover the Holocene,” as Cokinos puts it—using a combination of drastic lifestyle changes, enforceable science-based policies, and cutting-edge technology. The beauty of a whale shark—its charcoal skin splattered with white splotches like bark lichen, like hazy globular clusters in the night sky, and the side-to-side swish of its huge dual-lobed caudal fin—cannot be allowed to perish. The moth flying in my bathroom must be caught and released into the night. Even though such thinking at times hooks me, the persistence of earthly life and the natural regularity of past extinctions do not absolve us from the incalculably heinous crime of biocide. Yes, we are animals who are part of nature. Yet the volcanoes and sulfate-reducing bacteria of the Permian Extinction didn’t have a conscience; the meteorite that killed off the dinosaurs—but not small mammals—didn’t have mirror neurons, did not have a heart.

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What does this dire situation have to do with poetry? Sometimes I’m not sure, and I hear Adrienne Rich murmuring in my brain, “Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy. Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard.” I often feel paralyzed as a nature poet, and so I am increasingly turning to prose. In its fractured, provisional way, “The 23rd-Century Nature Poem” attempts to continue the long conversation about poetry and politics, art and nature, but not as a prescriptive manifesto—in the piece I am a concerned poet and global citizen thinking and feeling aloud. I am wondering what kind of nature poetry is ethically permissible to write now that we’re at 400 parts per million (and rising) of atmospheric CO2.

Accordingly, I think I should reiterate that my original essay is not—absolutely not—a condemnation of nature poets who shy away from taking the climate crisis somehow into account. Taking pains to avoid binary, polemical thinking, I am careful to use phrases like “increasingly turning away from,” “tend to think,” and “might be.” Indeed I have an unpublished manuscript whose nature poems don’t fully match the vision spelled out in my essay. And, I might add, a well-worn copy of Mary Oliver’s Selected Poems is on my bookshelf. She is a committed artist whose nature poetry, which especially spoke to me when I was younger, may have led others to become environmental activists. I don’t know. It seems that in future poems, I cannot write about nature—say about wild geese—and tell myself something like “let the soft animal of your body love what it loves”: it is the very meeting of human needs and wants in a carbon economy that has put us on a path to our undoing.

And unhypocritically, I think, one can turn away from writing idealized nature poems and still spontaneously recite fragments of “The Windhover” while watching a manta ray underwater. One can read Wordsworth’s Prelude (“I would stand, / Beneath some rock, listening to sounds that are / The ghostly language of the ancient earth”) for pleasure and still hunger to write a non-didactic yet activist ecopoetry of one’s own, even if one feels inadequate to the task. That is what I meant when I wrote, “I don't mean remotely to suggest that the nature poetry of previous centuries is an imaginative failure or a distraction; but given our current situation, for poets writing today it cannot be business as usual.” Perhaps someday I will write apolitical nature poetry, but I cannot today. In the meantime, contemporary nature poets like Alice Oswald, Robert Hass, Camille Dungy, Jorie Graham, and Brenda Hillman—as well as writers like Emerson, Wordsworth, Dickinson, Hopkins, and Milton—continue to inspire.

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Maybe I’m feeling optimistic this afternoon because of the extra hour of sleep that Daylight Savings has given us, but it seems that we might not need a monolith to fast forward our evolution, that the consciousness shift I wrote about in the essay is actually underway. Boeing says that it is close to developing a viable nuclear fusion reactor, which would be a emissions-reducing godsend if it truly materializes. Over the next five years, a variety of investors—including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which made much of its money from oil—have pledged to divest a total of $50 billion from fossil fuel holdings. The People Climate March, in the tradition of Dr. King’s March on Washington, was an unprecedented gathering in September 2014 of over 300,000 diverse voices demanding change from the fossil fuel industry and from the world governments that it bribes. That Christopher Cokinos and I are openly discussing these issues is also a sign of progress.

In mysterious and untrackable ways, our culture is metabolizing nature writing and the latest scientific findings, perhaps—perhaps—bringing us closer to civilizational sea change. As environmentalist Lester B. Brown writes, “We are in a race between tipping points in nature and our political systems.” Whether or not our transformation occurs quickly enough remains to be seen.

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We live, for now, in an immeasurably beautiful world. It is dying.


Greg Wrenn’s first book, Centaur, was awarded the 2013 Brittingham Prize. He is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow whose essays and poems have appeared in New England Review, Kenyon Review, The New Republic, AGNI, The American Poetry Review, The Best American Poetry 2014, and elsewhere. Currently at work on a series of linked essays about coral reefs, impermanence, and human destiny, he is a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University. His website: www.gregwrenn.com.

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