Ed Roberson’s Asked What Has Changed bears witness to the vertiginous effects of the climate crisis from a prime yet precarious perspective: that of a “black / ecopoet / observ[ing] / the changing / world from / a high-rise / window.” These lines appear on the back cover and serve as a terse but telling mission statement for the work. At the same time, the summary belies the intricacies and intimacies of the poems within, which, at their best, punch through the fabric of language to reveal where the quotidian collides with the catastrophic.
As a critical term, ecopoetics broadly refers to a species of poetry that primarily investigates the affective, sensory, and historical contours of the environment. Its entry in The Oxford Book of Nature Writing is downright capacious: “a history of our views about ourselves.” Increasingly, ecopoetics centers on specific experiences of the environment under climate collapse and late capitalism. Self-identified Black ecopoets such as Roberson, Camille Dungy, Marilyn Nelson, and Major Jackson refuse and reinvent romantic ideals of the natural world, tinting such utopian lenses with critical Black accounts of “an environment steeped in a legacy of violence, forced labor, torture, and death,” as Dungy puts it in her anthology Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Writing. Roberson has been exploring environmental themes since well before the anthology was published and well before the term “ecopoet” began to circulate widely in the late nineties and early aughts. MPH and Other Road Poems, a selection of Roberson’s rediscovered early work that was also published in 2021, offers one roadmap to his progression. Starting with Atmosphere Conditions (1999) and moving through the collections City Eclogue (2006) and To See the Earth Before the End of the World (2010), this compendium demonstrates how his work has been progressively more preoccupied with the clash between natural and human-made environments, between laws of nature and contradictions of capital—even as these poems expand on the experiments in serial and concrete form for which he first became known. Both his eco-credentials and his poetic ones are on full display in the “About the Author” page of this new collection, which, after an impressive list of literary accolades, offers an equally impressive list of personal accomplishments, noting that he has worked as a limnologist conducting research on Alaskan and Bermudan freshwater systems and as a diver for the Pittsburgh Aquazoo (not to mention his international mountain climbing, cross-continental motorcycling, and membership in the Explorers Club of Pittsburgh).
Asked What Has Changed is a worthy piece of writing for such a varied life. It looks equally hard at the personal, political, and material reverberations of planetary disaster, staring down constructed borders and false binaries until they begin to crumble and blur. “Our idea of ourselves as apart from everything else / has eaten us out of house and home, / is eating away at me inside,” one poem laments, pointedly dancing between the plural and singular first-person pronouns. As the most powerful moments of the collection make clear, the experience of climate change can be both inherently collective and insidiously differential—all are affected, yet not all are affected equally by the fact of near-constant hurricanes, floods, and forest fires. The politics of Black ecopoetics enters Roberson’s work as his speakers move fluidly from elegizing the common fate of life under global warming to exposing the structures of racial capitalism that might protect, however partially or temporarily, the privileged few from the fate of the many. Such a fate is “a fire we who have not had to run from as long don’t know / — some dream of a garden awakening / awake in flame.” The poems, which make strategically disorienting use of spaces, enjambments, and indentations, are highly attuned to the lure of such false paradises. As Roberson darkly points out in one of several poems to use motifs of wine, drunkenness, and derangement, “The soil of the fire / grows the best grapes.”
Throughout the collection, Roberson uses the symbolically elevated setting of his Chicago high-rise to play with and undermine the poet’s supposed seer-like capacities to perceive the future. As humanity unevenly wakes to the reality of global climate catastrophe, poets, too, occupy the place of “the animal / at the grounded mercy of what it can’t hear / but is coming underneath the audible.” This is because climate change “planes / away the known,” rendering strange our habituated strategies of perceiving and understanding. Often, Roberson’s poems expose their own discerning strategies as inadequate, even destructive. “Where / is that view taken from,” one demands, inquiring into both the social construction of how we come to know what we know and, in the context of the collection, the uneven distribution of resources that urban life brings to light. For instance, Roberson’s apartment building—“75 year old national register early international style”—not only regularly disrupts the migratory patterns of birds that traverse the city, it physically “takes the view” away from the masses below.
The problem of vision is a constant in Roberson’s collection. Our senses, the poems emphasize, don’t just fail us but go haywire at the magnitude of climate destruction and its denial. In his 2019 book The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming, journalist David Wallace-Wells calls this jamming of our sensory apparatus “climate’s kaleidoscope.” We “can be mesmerized by the threat directly in front of us,” he argues, “without ever perceiving it clearly.” The visionary problem of imagining a world defined by unprecedented natural spectacles permeates Roberson’s recent work, as in the mournful title of To See the Earth before the End of the World. For Roberson, the kaleidoscopic tendencies that climate change induces are an extension of neoliberalism’s paradoxical agendas:
it seems to have been our nature
to avoid defining ourselves as
a running out even though we have death
as our exemplar
Roberson’s poems explore with expansiveness and empathy what humanity in 2021 faces: “not the normal individual / mortality,” but destruction on an epoch-defining scale: “news big as all history.”
Roberson’s critique of climate change’s prolonged denial phase provides one of his collection’s most consistently explored answers to “what has changed,” and what global capitalism has exposed, about humanity’s relationship with the natural world: “A world that runs out on runs out of itself dies.” It’s not just that the world’s economic empires are actively running through the globe’s material and emotional resources, but that they are actively running out on those who need these resources most. In Roberson’s poetry, empathy is energy, and to abandon one is to abandon all. In this sense, these poems echo a version of the “deep ecology” that Zen master and poet Thích Nhất Hạnh calls “interbeing.” “There are,” Nhất Hạnh writes, “no solitary beings. The whole planet is one giant, living, breathing cell, with all its working parts linked in symbiosis. . . . We do not exist independently. We inter-are.” Unlike Nhất Hạnh, however, Roberson questions our senses’ ability to make us feel at home in such a world: “I don’t know what it is / I’m seeing . . . what reception is triggered // by this signal I don’t know what I am yet / making of what is called troubling.”
Throughout the collection, climate’s kaleidoscope consistently enhances Roberson’s ability to create startling images. Asked What Has Changed is flooded with visions of paradox and disaster to set readers’ logic askew and knees atremble: parched West Coast scenes where “[f]ire lays its own coast . . . its surf a cloud of smoke and dust”; Great Lake locales where we might choose “to skate / the surface to the opposite bank already afire”; and, throughout, “waves such as turn / heart muscle into liquid / drum.” But the collection also features more delicate, often cosmic images, whose abstractions don’t obscure the reality of disaster so much as they place that reality in a larger, universal context: “The umbilicate ear / -shaped galaxy listening to one / drop / of sudden afternoon”; “the larger networks / of answers’ ripple.” Roberson’s ability to hold his gaze on matters both overtly calamitous and oddly comforting is part of the collection’s implicit argument for the power of poetry in a precarious world.
That argument seems to go something like this: now that global warming is all but self-evident to anyone even remotely willing to believe in it, poets must find a way to accept unfolding disasters without giving way to out-and-out climate despair. Or, as the poet Brenda Hillman has put it in her collection Practical Water, “We must do something but what.” Asked What Has Changed approaches a similar question in one of its many poems about innocence, complicity, and inherited consequences:
we/ the audience
are ignored by the events the happenings by the stage
on stage now
Contrary to fantasies that the environment is an inexhaustible background resource for humanity’s exploits, today’s global ecosystems play the curious roles of both protagonist and setting, figure and ground, of humanity’s destruction. All the world’s a stage, but we are only props on it—and highly flammable ones at that.
But can poems be any more durable than we are? Margaret Ronda, another prominent theorist of ecopoetics, argues for an understanding of poetry as a kind of “remainder.” The kind of poems that interest her are less aesthetic artifacts than affective echoes, offering “a means of considering the relations between ecology, history, and form as they become newly visible in the devalued remnants of capital’s circuits of production, circulation, and consumption.” To take one example, Ronda juxtaposes the gradual decomposition of a beer can in a poem by the cult Modernist poet Lorine Niedecker against the more overt and urgently attuned critiques of contemporary poets such as Juliana Spahr and Kaia Sand. While Niedecker’s poem “registers a murmur of ecological disturbance unfolding at an incremental pace” the contemporary works inhabit “an interconnected world where nature appears as commodity good and disappears as wild externality.” Roberson similarly explores the uncapturable yet commodifiable contours of poetic form in works like “The Insect Ephemera.” Similar to the contents of the time capsule this poem describes, poetry for Roberson offers a fantasy of preservation in the face of a conspicuously uncertain posterity:
information able to reformulate itself
in a receiver set to get it —
the shellac roll the wax the vinyl
disc the tape the film the light numbers
and the box — will there be a box under the tree
who will unpack it set it up do they know
what listening is
For Roberson, as for Ronda, poems operate as a kind of black box, preserving particular forms of address and reception in the face of disaster. Such forms might continue to exert an influence even after their material technologies are extinct, gone the way of the dodo and Discman: “We feel an emotion wring us out of a song / or story the recorder its kind long gone.”
While Ronda focuses on how poetic figures of address like apostrophe and prosopopoeia can give voice to climate change’s contradictions, Roberson seems to argue that simile and metaphor—the power to link unlike as like—comprise ecopoetics’ most powerful technology: “The homologous menageries we first see in clouds / are the starter toys of creativity: / To see a like, to make a match, to mind.” Roberson explores the power of homology to beautiful effect in “Defer to Like,” one of the most emotionally impactful poems in the collection. Here, Roberson uses the word “like”—ubiquitous in similes, social media platforms, and millennial speech patterns—to investigate the digital bubbles through which a privileged populace develops preferences and discerns truth. “Wired to prefer ourselves like ourselves,” the poem observes, we strain to empathize with the struggles of those with unlike, unrelatable experiences: “only the few problems solutions we act / out of every day and of those / only our local circumstance.” “Defer to Like” goes on to juxtapose the comfortable, “air / conditioned — / problems” of the so-called first world with the kinds of material lack that have no readymade solution:
on another’s thirst who has no well
from which to fill the jar of being emptied
from his home —
in the way that it gives me his thirst
deepens say — what thirst is to be filled.
Roberson’s enjambments search and stutter for an adequate response to the inequalities the speaker witnesses. The space between the final clause (“what thirst is to be filled”) alternately poses the question of whose problems will be given priority in a time of precarity (whose thirst is it that will be filled), and gestures to the affective experience of material scarcity (to thirst is to yearn to be fulfilled, nourished). Again, Roberson’s implicit appeal to the language of interbeing seems to expand the concept of suffering from an individual concern to a collective struggle. In a world where the global caste system perpetuates itself in its treatment of the environment, where half of all carbon emissions are produced by the world’s wealthiest 10 percent, poetry’s capacity to bridge difference though metaphor and simile poses a powerful opportunity. Roberson writes:
The extension of tongue into a likeness
gives life that slakes death
the non-iterate word between same.
This same capacity creates a collective obligation to use language wisely:
But when life prefers only like its own
a different hunger infects everything.
to prefer its own like rather than defer
to the like in all.
For Roberson, as for other essential ecopoetic voices, to defer to the “like in all” comprises a commitment to feeding our common humanity—which is also our interlinked mortality in the face of collective disaster.
For all its rightfully alarmed meditations on climate, capital, and complicity, Asked What Has Changed is not a work of “climate nihilism,” to use Amtiav Ghosh’s phrase, but something closer to an embrace of climate realism. As the title poem puts it, “The eye is not filled with seeing, with only / seeing, but with understanding the sight.” Reading the signs of the time, recognizing the familiar in the unfamiliar—in other words, writing the poems that are worth packing up and carrying into an uncertain future—takes an uncommon ability to look at, rather than past, difference and despair. “Some days are closer / to the in the beginning than others,” Roberson offers late in the collection. We must do something, but what? The answer, these poems suggest, might be both smaller and vaster than we can see from here.
Asked What Has Changed. By Ed Roberson. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2021. 80 pp. $15.95.