How is it possible to write the end of the world?
But even this question already reveals an anthropocentric bias. The world, after all, isn’t ending; no matter how we ruin it, it will survive us. Better to ask, then: how is it possible to write the end of the world that one lives in, the world that one loves? This question animates Refugia, Kyce Bello’s debut poetry collection, winner of the inaugural Interim Test Site Poetry Series.
One answer: through an enactment of the natural world’s fragile, sensual, dying beauty. The changing landscape of the American southwest, particularly in and around Bello’s home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is a fully realized character in her poems. She renders in clear, palpable language her grief at the massive pine and juniper die-offs climate change is causing. “Crossing Elwood Pass” begins by describing “every conifer between Platoro / and South Fork shaggy-limbed and gray, snags / mapping the mountain’s black lung.” The poem ends, however, with a moment of unexpected beauty, as Bello’s family “crouch[es] beneath dead trees to snip / arnica blooms, the yellow sprawl of petals caught / in long shafts of unhampered, unblocked light.” Yes, the trees are dying, and it is only right to grieve. But Bello’s vision is expansive enough to show us, alongside her mourning, the “unhampered” radiance the die-off unveils. Bello’s ability to face these contradictory truths—the grief and the beauty, the death and the new light—reads as an act of courage. She writes the full complexity of her grief and her exultation, without forcing these experiences into a single narrative or pithy takeaway.
Because the truth is that there is no single narrative. As the conifer trees die, Bello’s genealogical family tree grows; the world for which she grieves is the world her daughters will inherit. Motherhood is a powerful thread running through Refugia, and it provides another answer: Bello’s attunement to the future, which is concretized in her children, enables her to write the ruin of the world she knows. Consider “Dear Future Child,” the second poem in the collection. It opens with images of global destruction before, as in many of Bello’s poems, it pivots towards beauty:
The winter the oil
dipped in the barrels and the desert was gridded
for drills and all the new wars began
was like every other except we learned
to sing harmonies as the children slept….
Nothing is exceptional about this era of environmental ruin, these stanzas suggest, except that it forces those of us living through it to find new modes of harmonizing, alternative inheritances that we might pass on.
Who is the “future child” of this poem’s title? Certainly it refers to Bello’s unborn children’s children, whom she mentions elsewhere in this collection. But it is also the future self in each of us, reader and writer alike, who is afraid to come into being and grow at a time of such apocalyptic devastation. Bello does not deny the fear nor the devastation, but we can still sing harmonies; we can still make beauty in a burning world. To do so is a profound act of faith. So is having children, which is a kind of carnal, embodied harmonizing. It takes genuine faith to live through, and to record, the destruction that is happening right now, and in Bello’s hands this fact offers a third answer: it is possible to write this crisis by finding, through the writing, a direct confrontation with God. In “The Ashram at Leigh Mill Road,” she writes, “Every day I wake up and wonder / if I should trouble myself with belief, // and if so, in what.” As Edmond Jabès wrote, “questioning God is God.” So too, this poem’s speaker’s daily wondering about belief is, itself, belief. (Note as well the skillful enjambment in the quote above, after the word “wonder.” It raises, before moving past, the possibility that wonder alone might be enough.)
Refugia sets forth a theology in which religious belief is not passive or external, but is rather a deeply personal, creative act. For Bello, faith in God, faith in the future and in the generative beauty of nature are all similar gestures, as in “The Speaker Reconciles with Spring”:
I imagine the day my daughter will declare
she knows there is no God.
God, I could tell her, is your knowing,
not the thing you know.
Take the elms the week they unfurl
their glamour of seeds….
Belief in God is not the insistence that a proposition is true but is instead a natural activity, like procreation and inquiry, and we can learn to practice it by studying “the elms” around us.
This theology finds a moving, personal expression in “The Origin of the Apple,” Refugia’s penultimate poem:
I am sometimes religious,
but I do not know if it is God I believe in, or apples
or if there is any difference.
I look at this forest, even in its falling,
and am brought to my knees.
Analytical discussions of theology are not the point here. Perhaps God is the apple; perhaps God is the interbeing in which the apple participates. So what? What matters is the act of faith, the supplicant’s gesture. To kneel before the possibility of God is itself a way of knowing. To be felled by a falling forest is to be in harmony with that forest, and to be in harmony is to believe in a better world.
Refugia’s poetry creates its own harmonies, even as it vividly describes the Anthropocene’s destructive effects on a beloved landscape. And as the contradictions of our human existence on earth grow more extreme, the gift of Bello’s writing becomes more necessary. She shows us with a gorgeous clarity that we bring children whom we love onto a planet that we are, in significant ways, destroying; that we are ruining the landscapes we hold dear, landscapes that are still unspeakably beautiful; that God is absent from our degraded world, though perhaps nothing could be more present than God. The earth is dying, Bello’s poems say; long live the earth.