Burning Worlds is Amy Brady’s monthly column dedicated to examining how contemporary literature interrogates issues of climate change, 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.
This month I had the pleasure of speaking with Susan Barba, a poet and senior editor at New York Review Books. Her latest collection, geode, is a gorgeous meditation on humanity’s relation to the earth in a time of climate change. In our interview, we discuss what inspired the collection, her thoughts on what poetry can teach us about “deep time,” and what draws her to the subject of climate change in her work.
Let’s start with the title of your collection: geode. For those unfamiliar, a geode is a spherical rock with a hollow center lined with crystals. How do these geological objects characterize your collection?
I think of a geode as a sculpture made by the earth. It’s so unlikely and so beautiful. The idea for the title came to me early on in the book’s conception, nearly three years ago, late summer. I was walking around the reservoir in the city I live in and thinking about the poems I’d written that were coalescing into a new collection, and the word just came to mind: geode. It fit. It had that sense of rightness that you strive for with every word in every poem. It worked metaphorically, visually, aurally, and it contained within it another facet beyond its definition, another layer of meaning.
A geode is a geological object shaped by the earth over time and resembling the earth in its spherical shape and hidden wonders but the word also houses within it “ode,” which is a praise poem. It’s not etymologically related, rather it exists as wordplay, as a pun. Like the crystals inside the rock, in this geological term is a hidden poetic term. It was important to me that this sense of the book as an ode to the earth, with all the “exaltation” an ode implies, come through.
Your collection brims with thoughtful meditations on the natural world and all that’s at risk because of climate change. What drew you to the subject of climate change, and why do you explore it in your poetry?
Going back to the book as an ode to the earth, that impulse to praise is at the root of the poems and at the heart of any anguish over climate change. It’s like that wonderful quote by Baba Dioum, “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” And let me just add that I think our own senses can teach us this understanding, but we need to keep learning, keep paying attention, to guard against exploitative tendencies. So I didn’t set out to write about climate change per se.
One of the reasons I write poetry is because the language I use daily is so inadequate and I feel the need to respond more thoroughly, to express as best I can what the world communicates to me. It’s the repayment of a gift. At the same time, I also need to address the anguish that the climate crisis brings to any awareness of the world, the sense of endangerment, of encroaching peril, so what would otherwise be an ode is also sometimes an elegy, and sometimes a protest poem. The poems aren’t aesthetic responses alone, they’re also calls to action.
Many of the poems in geode evoke a sense of deep time, of how the earth has changed over eons. What do you think poetry can reveal about this sense of time that perhaps other kinds of writing can’t?
What a good question. I’m not sure poetry holds the key to understanding deep time; it’s such a difficult subject really, but I think poetry’s reliance on the individual word rather than a summarizable “message” is part of it. As John McPhee in his remarkable study of North American geography, Annals of the Former World, recognized, geologists speak a kind of poetry already, in the sense that geological terms are so remarkably resonant. Yet they can be abstruse too.
A poem depends on precision, so any specialized language is useful to poetry, but it also depends on making that word come alive for the reader. So the poet must go through the work of re-embodying those terms, not employing them as markers of specialized knowledge but as blazes, as symbols of the experiential, sensorial knowledge of the geologist, of all the time in the field those scientists have spent in order to understand the earth. Maybe it’s a kind of re-wilding that occurs in the space of the poem, when the scientific and poetic converge.
I’d like to ask you about your poem “Dispersal” specifically, because I found it very moving. To avoid over-analyzing it (or giving too much away), I’ll just say that I identified with the feelings of worry and isolation that it seems to explore. What inspired this poem?
“Dispersal” is one of the more personal poems in this book, despite the third-person point of view. It was inspired by the UN’s major climate report of 2018, by personal conflict, and by trying to find a way out of an emotional impasse. In writing the poem I was trying to figure out how to live with unresolvable questions, with anger, judgment, guilt, fear. The poem doesn’t solve these problems, but it resolves them in the sense of holding them momentarily in suspension, in a shape and relation in which they can be seen more clearly rather than felt inchoately. It strikes me now, in hindsight, that “Dispersal” is like Pandora’s box, all of these terrible realities coming out of the present moment, and only hope remaining.
“River” is another poems that resonated with me. I love how it illustrates overlap in the language of science, poetry, and law. What kinds of writing do you enjoy or study beyond poetry? And how does it help you to think about the climate crisis?
In writing “River” I read broadly and learned a great deal, especially about how climate goals might be approached not only through policy and legislation but through shifts in thought effected by the language of the courts. As “River” touches on, the health and rights of natural objects are inextricable from the health and rights of all people, which is why it’s crucial that the environmental movement has evolved into the environmental-justice movement.
In terms of my reading, the history of science fascinates me, books like Martin Rudwick’s Earth’s Deep History, or books that approach the climate crisis through the intersection of cultural studies and science, like Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble. I was also influenced while writing geode by particular books of American history like Jonathan Raban’s Bad Land: An American Romance and Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee; books that have been my touchstones for years, like John McPhee’s and Annie Dillard’s, entered the writing, as well as more recent books that have been added to that list of touchstones, like Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. I was also influenced by the writing of visual artists, especially Robert Smithson and Agnes Martin, by the work of the land artists of the 1970s, including Walter de Maria and Nancy Holt, and by resources such as the Center for Land Use Interpretation and its remarkable archive of photographs, all available online.
What’s next for you?
Well, for the moment I’ve put the rocks aside and taken up flowers! I’m interested in native plants and wildflowers, and I’m working on an anthology of literature about them. I’d welcome suggestions from readers of their favorite poems or prose excerpts about these at-once hardy and threatened species. You can reach me through the contact form on my website. Thank you!
By Susan Barba
Black Sparrow Press
Published April 7, 2020
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.