on Habitat Threshold by Craig Santos Perez

Habitat Threshold, the new collection of poetry by Craig Santos Perez, opens with his daughter’s birth. Surprisingly, however, this family milestone is decentered by another presence:

The doctor presses the plastic probe
against my pregnant wife’s belly.
Plastic leaches estrogenic and toxic chemicals.
Ultrasound waves pulse between plastic,
tissue, fluid, and bone until the embryo
echoes. Plastic makes this possible. . . . 

In “Age of Plastic,” a celebratory moment is punctured by the anxiety of pollution, which not only infiltrates the occasion of the daughter’s birth but also to some extent facilitates it, as “breastmilk drips into a plastic bottle.” Plastic’s ubiquity is played out on a formal level as well. Not only does the word assert its presence on the page through the slightly darker font, bobbing irrepressibly on the poem’s surface, we also hear it ghosting through repetitions of sound—plastic, pregnant, placenta—as though plastic were inescapable as both signifier and signified:

                                                  My wife 
labors at home in an inflatable plastic tub.

Plastic disrupts hormonal and endocrine systems.
After delivery, she stores her placenta
in a plastic freezer bag. Plastic is the perfect
creation because it never dies.

A creation that never dies is also a monster. Yet for Perez, this is cause for empathy, not disgust, as he imagines how plastic “must feel / when it finally arrives to the paradise / of the Pacific gyre.” There’s humor here, of course, but there’s also movement away from the human drama that he opened with. I cite this poem not for its subject but for a key characteristic of Habitat Threshold: Perez, by refusing to see the domestic sphere as a respite from ecological breakdown and the horrors of late-stage capitalism, cultivates a philosophy of care, connection, and empathy that extends well beyond the human. It’s hard to think of a more vital message for our cultural moment. As pandemic sweeps the globe, the Anthropocene continues to cast its shadow across the future and ethnonationalism breeds behind the rhetoric of enclosure, Perez resists that rhetoric by challenging and expanding what counts as a community.

While the play with the poem’s surface may echo the experimental forms of Perez’s from Unincorporated Territory (2008–2017)—a quartet of books that explored the enduring effects of European and American colonial rule and continued assault on the Chamorro culture in his native Guam—“Age of Plastic” may come closest to deploying some of Perez’s older approaches. In fact, much of Habitat Threshold marks a departure from his previous work. If the quartet’s title, with its prepositional phrase, highlighted the poem as a site of historical contingencies and relationships, Habitat Threshold announces itself as seemingly self-contained, showcasing more conventional delineations and somewhat smoother delivery. Without Guam as its focal point, Habitat Threshold feels like something of a panoramic exposé of global catastrophe, ranging from extinct birds, refugees at sea, pipelines, protests, borders, wars, and wildfires (just to name a few). Some structures recur across the book, just as they did in the previous works. One frequently appearing device is the “recycling” of canonical authors, in which a formal or rhetorical device is taken up, toyed with, and fitted to Perez’s purpose. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Glacier,” for instance, an obvious nod to Wallace Stevens, meditates on a melting glacier until it “fits / in our warm hands.” Furthermore, the citations of theorists and other ecologically attuned writers (Roland Barthes, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Tamiko Beyer among them) help develop a backdrop of voices articulating violence and power. These examples notwithstanding, a shift has taken place, with Perez focused more on the future’s inhabitability. 

Not that looking to the future should preclude the act of mourning. To the contrary, Habitat Threshold is largely a study of extinction, even as it refuses to forfeit hope. What is the role of the parent, Perez seems to ask, with the future thrown into uncertainty, and at what point does the instinct to protect a child against uncertainty become a barrier to growth? 

These questions are addressed primarily through a number of poems occupying the space of the zoo or the exhibit, where a somatic experience is shadowed by death’s imminence. More importantly, these poems place Perez in the dual role of exposing his daughter to and shielding her from the destructiveness of her own species. In “A Sonnet at the Edge of the Reef,” set at the Waikīkī Aquarium on Honolulu, for example:

We dip our hands into the outdoor reef exhibit
and touch sea cucumber and red urchin
as butterflyfish swim by. A docent explains:
once a year, after the full moon, when tides swell
to a certain height, and saltwater reaches the perfect
temperature, only then will the ocean cue coral
polyps to spawn, in synchrony, a galaxy of gametes,
which dances to the surface, fertilizes, opens,
forms larvae, roots to seafloor, and grows, generation
upon generation.

It’s a fitting word to end the sentence on, since “generation” is the very process that may soon be lost—over 50 percent of the Great Barrier Reef has been bleached to death by climate change since 2016. The intimacy of reaching into the water to touch the sea cucumbers becomes uncanny, charged with an awareness that the coral they are close to has already begun the transition into extinction. In some sense, the setting feels less like an exhibit and more like a museum of relics. That fact is withheld from his daughter, as he and his wife “don’t mention / corals bleaching, reared in labs, or frozen.” Perez then directs a question to his readers: “And isn’t our silence, too, a kind of shelter?” Meant as a gesture of protection, the last line can also be heard as the recognition of a wrong. After all, if silence is a failure to inform, then it may make one complicit, if only slightly. “Shelter,” too, is double-edged, both a refuge from the world and a hindrance to understanding it. Hence the warped nature of parenting within the Anthropocene, which blurs the line between protection and overprotection.

That line is navigated again, several pages later, in “Blood Ivory,” which finds Perez and his daughter observing the elephants at the Honolulu Zoo. Even as the tangibility of the encounter again conflicts with the specter of death at the hands of human beings—a conflict magnified by the juxtaposition between vivid images and grim statistics—the gap between human and non-human behavior narrows: “Armed poachers surround the herds, / who stomp, trumpet, and encircle / their calves.” One of the most refreshing aspects of the book is Perez’s unabashed identification with the non-human world. The exhibit is the space where these interspecies connections can occur, as the speaker lifts his “daughter up so she can see them / playing in shallow ponds.” And yet, as we’ve come to expect from the aquarium, the zoo functions as an ambiguous site, both a showcasing of life and a sign of its diminishment, so that a sensorial interaction with the animal is shot through with the animal’s absence. The tension of this experience is somehow conveyed by the daughter when, upon their exit, she “waves goodbye to them.” Her wave, of course, signals two goodbyes: one in the short term and another (unwittingly) in the long term. 

By the time we reach “The Last Safe Habitat,” which opens on the declaration that “I don’t want our daughter to know / that Hawai‘i is the bird extinction capital / of the world,” the wavering between exposure and protection has hardened into a resolve:

I don’t want her to see paintings
and photographs of birds she’ll never
witness in the wild. I don’t want her to
imagine their bones in dark museum
drawers. I don’t want her to hear
their voice recordings on the internet
I don’t want her to memorize and recite
the names of 77 lost species and subspecies.
I don’t want her to draw a timeline
with the years each was “first collected”
and “last sighted.” I don’t want her to learn 
about the Kaua‘i ‘Ō‘ō, who was observed
atop a flowering ‘Ohi‘a tree, calling
for a mate, day after day, season after
season, because he didn’t know he was
the last of his kind—

Here, the tension between parental protection and a denial of experience is registered in some of the line breaks, which are clipped in a way that highlights the negations. “I don’t want her to hear” and “I don’t want her to learn” stand alone as statements, drawing attention to the fact that, by wishing to convince her of a better world, Perez also risks limiting his daughter’s perceptual and intellectual experience of that world. 

The philosopher and writer Thom Van Dooren has explored the process of species extinction as a continued “haunting,” rather than an abrupt loss. According to Van Dooren, a species may “persist” in that the relationships that had made its existence possible now bear the traces of that organism, demanding more complex ways of mourning. We might sense something of Van Dooren’s Gothic treatment of the environment in these lines. When Perez states that he wants his daughter to know “that extinction is / just a migration to the last safe habitat / on earth,” there is the lingering sense that the “habitat” may not be a habitat at all, but the “dark museum drawers.” Or a painting. Or a photograph. All of which are instruments by which we “save what we’ve sacrificed.” They haunt as much as they preserve. We hear Perez’s words to his daughter as a consolation, though there’s a sting in it. Safe because behind a barricade; safe because relinquished to the space of a cultural memento.

Readers may be surprised by the pivot away from the more fractured, documentary-driven poetics that comprised much of from Unincorporated Territory. Several of the poems in Habitat Threshold follow if not formal constraints, clear rhetorical strategies, some of which can feel more restrictive than generative. But it would be a mistake to overlook this transition as an attempt to alter the reader’s relation to the poem. Much of Habitat Threshold, after all, appears to want off the page, into the air, maybe more than it demands a kind of close-reading—a process that suggests intellectual mastery rather than participation. In other words, these are songs, not artifacts. And here is part of Perez’s project: to return poetry to the voice. In this case, a human voice speaking in defiance of an existing order. “Chanting the Waters,” for instance, which is dedicated to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in their legal challenge to the Dakota Access Pipeline, involves the audience in a call-and-response chant beginning with the imperative “Say: ‘Water is !’ ” The omission seems to function as both a space for us to enter—into the chant, perhaps into the protest itself—and to imagine our own descriptor. On a textual level, the reader is required for the poem’s activation as the record of an ongoing struggle. 

This activist approach should frame our reading of Habitat Threshold, as it is precisely what the collection ends on. “Praise to Oceania,” written on the occasion of World Oceans Day, is a loosely composed poem that, like “Chanting the Waters,” foregrounds the voice by asking to be spoken aloud:

praise your capacity to bury
               our shipwrecks and ruined cities
                              praise your watery grave
                                            human reef of bones 

More than simply praise, however, the poem becomes a prayer by yielding to a larger power and registering the fragility of the human world. That power is not found in a deity, but grounded—in the ocean, in the earth. And, most importantly, in the body. Resisting a distanced spectatorship through the deployment of an activist aesthetic, Habitat Threshold immerses Perez—and us—within a collective. As a result, we’re reminded that poetry can serve as a step toward realizing that collective beyond the page.


Ben Rutherfurd received his MFA from the University of Arizona and is currently a doctoral candidate in creative writing at the University of Georgia, where he was awarded a 2018–19 Lamar Dodd School of Art Interdisciplinary Fellowship and now serves as editorial assistant at The Georgia Review. He is also a contributing editor at Green Linden.