Burning Worlds is Amy Brady’s monthly column dedicated to examining trends in climate fiction, or “cli-fi,” in partnership with Yale Climate Connections. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter to get “Burning Worlds” and other writing about art and climate change delivered straight to your inbox.
There’s something like a perverse poetry to climate change. In its all-encompassing largeness it defies straightforward description, inspires awe and terror, and demands rumination on the past. Perhaps it will come as no surprise, then, that poets have begun to experiment with the subject, creating deeply affecting art out of questions over how and when to grieve, cope with loss, and create new paths forward.
Two outstanding poetry collections about climate change hit shelves this month. The first is Losing Miami, an artful third collection by Chicago-based poet Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué. His formally inventive poems read like a requiem for the city he grew up in. Though Miami is still standing, experts agree that it’ll be one of the first cities in the United States to succumb to sea-level rise as a result of climate change. The poems are therefore tinged with sadness for what is almost certain to be lost: the city’s people, food, smells, sounds.
At times it’s hard to discern whether the poems describe the city as it exists today or will be soon, a fitting quality given the unpredictable nature of climate change. They collapse time, throwing into question whether, for example, the thousands of people described in “The Thousands”—“reflected or drowning, thousands are moving along a barbed line”—are those who are already missing in Florida due to recent hurricanes or the thousands more that will be lost in the destruction to come.
Elsewhere, it’s clear that the poems represent the Miami that still looms large in the poet’s childhood memories. In the opening explainer entitled “A Note on Language,” he writes that “[this] book is written in the language ecosystem I grew up in: school in English, home in Spanish, the rest of the world Spanglish. This life was folded, doubled, bent over, over-dubbed.” This is not a total picture of the language spoken in Miami; rather, it’s a picture of how Ojeda-Sagué experienced it himself, a personal “hallucination” of Miami’s “world of sounds.”
The poems are a mix of English and Spanish, which left this non-bilingual speaker feeling a bit unmoored. But that’s the point. I am a tourist of the Miami that Ojeda-Sagué knows and loves so well; I am not her native daughter. The poet did, however, include English translations in the Appendix. But “do not assume,” he writes, that these translations are “free of booby traps. I’m a lover of a bear trap hidden in claptrap.” Earlier he writes that the collection “is written with fake blood and trick knives.” Such chicanery feels thematically appropriate. This is, after all, a book about a phenomenon that lurks almost invisibly before striking hard in the form of extreme weather events and deadly heat spikes. When the planet itself attacks with what feels like battle magic, it follows that our poets would respond as our most militant tricksters.
Another standout collection this month is Casting Deep Shade by the late C.D. Wright. Born in Mountain Home, Arkansas, the prolific poet, who died in 2016, eked lyrical beauty out of the natural world. Here, she focuses on the beech tree, an arboreal giant that can be found across the United States. But, as Ben Lerner writes in the forward, this is also a book about climate, because how “could it not be”?
As the world has changed so has our understanding of and appreciation for the beech. Once a Northern tree it can now be found in Southern parts of the U.S. Through poems that verge into prose or otherwise defy formal categorization, Wright traces the trees’ locations from the Ozarks up through Cairo, Illinois and into Rhode Island, where she lived until her death. Her poems zoom in closely, remarking upon the beeches’ tiniest parts (“The hanger-on-until-spring leaf is marcescent”) before panning back out to review their grandest roles in American history (“Beech trees on the Trail of Tears are marked by Cherokee in presyllabaric code”). Intertwined are poems steeped in personal memory (“My folks were not yard people”).
Throughout this beautifully bound book are photographs by Denny Moers, a neighbor of Wright’s and a photographer whose work appeared on several of the poet’s previous covers. The juxtaposition of the two art forms undergirds the lyricism of the photos while highlighting the rooted-in-truth quality of the poems.
Fiction and nonfiction blend in other exciting ways. In “Root Hairs,” the collection’s final entry, Wright lists the Latin names of many beech trees (a “partial” list for the list does not “promise to top off in the near future, providing the beech tree continues to reside among us”). The names are followed by brief descriptions of each species, and in its entirety, the list-poem presents an almost overwhelming picture of what we could lose in the face of climate change.
By Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué
Civil Coping Mechanisms
Published February 15, 2019
Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué is the Chicago-based author of three poetry books and several chapbooks.
Casting Deep Shade: An Amble
By C.D. Wright
Copper Canyon Press
Published February 12, 2019
C.D. Wright was the author of over a dozen books and was the recipient of a National Book Critics Circle Award. Her 2011 One With Others won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was nominated for a National Book Award.
Amy Brady is the Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books and Deputy Publisher of Guernica Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Oprah, The Village Voice, Pacific Standard, The New Republic, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.