Environmental Metamorphoses

Reviewed by Kait Pinder

Martin, Major, and Lebowitz illuminate the tension between stillness and change that underpins our relationship to the environment. Their collections meditate on metaphor, the poetic device of transference and transformation, to work through the threat of apocalyptic stillness that may conclude the environmental change characteristic of the Anthropocene. Refusing the hubristic analogy between the poet and God, they also position the poet not as a proud creator, but as a humble witness.

Tar Swan is an examination of the Alberta tar sands that imagines a poetic retribution born from the sands’ transformations. Each poem in Martin’s formally ambitious collection is spoken by one of four distinct voices, identifiable by the form of the poem and its placement on the page. Drawing on the history of the tar sands’ development, the poems tell the disorienting story of Robert C. Fitzsimmons, the “[f]irst man to unveil a commercial oil sands separation plant,” Frank Badua, accused by Fitzsimmons of sabotage, and Dr. Brian K. Wolsky, an archeologist studying the Fitzsimmons camp. At the centre of the human drama, the eponymous tar swan is “[i]gnored by others,” even as it inhabits them and orchestrates their violent metamorphoses. Arising from the “elephant drool” of the sands, the swan is that thing “[we] have unearthed” that, Fitzsimmons warns, “cannot be veiled again.” In his epigraph, Martin cites Ovid’s account of Cycnus’ metamorphosis into a swan—“underneath the armor there’s no body; / for Cycnus had acquired a new form”—alongside the historical Fitzsimmons’ recorded belief that “the cause of the trouble was by design.” Martin takes poetic inspiration from the “new form” of the oil and interestingly uses a fixed form, the Shakespearean sonnet, to express the swan’s powers of metamorphosis. Martin’s complex collection criticizes the hubristic development of the tar sands and unearths fixed forms to reckon with environmental change.

Major’s collection similarly criticizes the hubristic postures of human society in the Anthropocene. Drawing on Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man” in the epigraph to the long title poem, Major catalogues the “post-natural creation” that evinces the “reas’ning pride” in which Pope claims “our error lies.” Major positions the poet as “just / another figure in the chorus,” highlighting creativity as nature’s domain: “we forget we live / on a planet that is more inventive / than ourselves.” This wide-ranging and beautiful collection combines scientific knowledge of evolution, DNA, and mathematical formulas with a caring attention to the wondrous connections between human and non-human life. Major returns to images of chains—the double helix of DNA, the catenary curve, and the misplaced faith in the binds of necessity are just some examples—to transform “The Great Chain of Being” from “a ladder to the angels” to “a horizontal loop that rearranges / life repeatedly,” a “net in which we claim / a place.” As the collection discovers webs of relation in unexpected places, it shifts its criticisms of hubris into a poetics of humility that advises the reader to “Hope humbly” from within an earthly chorus where “everything is common and everything is rare.”

Lebowitz’s fascinating lyric essays meditate on the environmental crises that have punctuated the last two centuries, especially the title’s “year of no summer” caused by
the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815, the rain that flooded Flanders a century later, and the ever-present threat of similar disasters today. Like Major, Lebowitz rejects an explanatory or creative authority; instead she “question[s] wisdom” and claims, “I am not wise.” Lebowitz, like Martin, also foregrounds environmental changes through comparisons to Ovid’s Metamorphoses; allusions to several of the myths are interspersed throughout the book. While “[in] Greek myths, the transformation stays,” however, the author notes that in nature, “transformation never holds,” a fact that is both hopeful and ominous, as when the poet’s son poignantly asks, “Why is the earth always changing?” Invoking the avian metamorphoses in Ovid’s poem alongside the catalogue of recently extinct birds, Lebowitz explores the apparent finality of some transformations. In the last essay, as she studies the stuffed bodies of extinct birds on display at the Royal Ontario Museum, she places the unwise but feeling poet in the position of describing something that is “both here and gone.” In these surprising, melancholic, and perceptive essays, Lebowitz finds a new form to witness, if not explain, the “still body—the still-fierce beating heart” of life on earth.

This review “Environmental Metamorphoses” originally appeared in House, Home, Hospitality Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 237 (2019): 163-164.

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