Kristin George Bagdanov’s debut collection ponders questions of ecology and the body, or what she calls the “world as it uncreates / itself: creature / of its own making.” Ontological quandaries of being, consuming, and having all appear alongside trash gyres, fossil fuels, and food chains; a contrapuntal poem and an internal acrostic accompany lyric poems about birth and toxic chemicals. Taken as a whole, Fossils in the Making speaks to our current ecological disaster and human life therein. The poems shift from examining the minutiae of natural environments—“bleat of a wet lamb,” “sand and the small skeletal bodies of mice and other creatures”—to contemplating the earth’s body in relation to the divine—“God himself has tried / to swallow back earth / and sky, the billions who / tumbled from his lips.”
In closeups and wide angles, the collection and its title reveal a preoccupation with living processes. Definitionally, a fossil in the making is . . . what? A skeleton buried in mud or sediment? The carcass of something small and many-legged? A living, breathing person? This collection entertains each possibility in turn, emphasizing the act of becoming in lines such as
I must stack the fragments
into whole. The test of being is a field
of bones, a bone-white field I walk
across in one line with all the creatures
that ever were flanking all the fields
that ever were.
These lines and others legitimize process over product, “making” over “made.”
Fossils in the Making often experiments with language to represent these living processes. George Bagdanov’s use of anthimeria (“peat” and “carcass,” among others, as verbs) and portmanteaus (“notyetdark” and “notyetlight,” “shellheart” and “dirtear”) signals that regular language is insufficient to discuss these problems of climate and of body. In “Wound,” the lyric I is rendered as “<i>” and “</i>,” allowing it not only to narrate injury but also to mimic its own visual outline. Caesuras create unusual pauses and hesitations, disrupting the ordinary cadences of speech. “Proof of Extension” and “Proof of Harm” appropriate mathematical language to describe the natural world: “the calculus of glucose that roots for our survival” and “This one measures tidal flux against plastic gyre / . . . . This one measures the speed of sound against the body.” This approach allows George Bagdanov to attempt describing the indescribable and quantifying the unquantifiable.
Slashes perform an analogous descriptive function. For instance, many of the poem titles offer a single (and sometimes antithetical) pair of words: “Loon / Commodity,” “Soul / Vestigial,” “Persephone / Pulse,” and “Creature / Decreation,” among others. These pairings inevitably suggest questions: Is the essence of the poem “Lamb / Butcher,” in which the lyric I “might bleed into being,” a lamb, a butcher, or both? What does it mean for violence and vulnerability to exist in the same body? Using very little space, the slashes manage to imply complexity and contradiction.
To similar effect, George Bagdanov employs a device I would call vertical slashes: one word positioned above and one below a white space that breaks a longer line in the middle. Both words in the vertical pair function syntactically in the blank itself, offering multiple answers to the fill-in-the-blank question that the middle lines pose. For example, the poem “Earth” offers two blanks and several interpretations:
This is the that ends in inches
that regards the and cringes.
The ambiguity of these and other slashes in Fossils in the Making lead the reader to more questions, ones that are not just either/or: Are we enjoying the conveniences of the modern age, or are we despoiling our environment, or both? Are humans precipitating the causes or bearing the effects of climate change, or both?
Often, the collection’s innovations work. At their most successful, George Bagdanov’s poems offer an engaging approach to the environment and the body. Her wordplay frequently feels fresh and inventive, and her repurposing of language and form allow the collection to resist easy answers to the questions posed by climate change. The best poems allow the reader to devour and be devoured by language as the speaker is in “Icicle / Poiesis”: “I hold / in my mouth this poem. / I let it / consume me.”
Sometimes, though, the clever experimentation makes the poems feel too polished and empty, too singsong. Such lines and phrases as “not noun not now but always,” “Our shells / of selves propped / on shelves,” “stratigraphic strategy,” and “sea / sea / island / see” privilege sound over sense. A few poems, including the titular one, are so opaque they become nonsensical: “The would/ should/ if / a luxury, excess of remorse a trace in air.” What George Bagdanov writes in “Proof of Infinity” about injury and the distortion of being—“no meeting or meaning to come of it all after all”—could apply to several of her more inscrutable pieces. Because her subject matter is so weighty, and because she so often handles it deftly, I wanted a more ruthless editing out of those poems that did not do the collection justice.
Overall, Fossils in the Making works best in the moments when it reimagines the everyday rhetoric of environmental writing. As a culture, we need ever more innovative ways to speak convincingly about an environment that is being intentionally and systematically destroyed by government policies and corporate greed. Kristin George Bagdanov’s poems portray our murky relationships with nature and spirituality as something at once graspable and complex, urgent and yet not reductive. They help us, in the poet’s own words, to “approach apocalypse without arriving.”
Fossils in the Making. By Kristin George Bagdanov. Forthcoming from Black Ocean (Boston) in April 2019. $14.95.