“We are inside a crisis of planetary scale and so too is our grieving, or our anger, and our response…”
—Tanya Holtland, preface to Requisite
It is September, and a hot summer has turned into a burning fall. This week, the news filled with the West Coast’s orange-and-ash sky. In Colorado today, it is snowing. In North Carolina, where I write, the cicadas are screaming, and last night I watched a roach scale and fall, scale and fall from the living room wall, little icon of the slippage of days.
Our crises—not the problem of months or years, but the founding problems of America—are nesting dolls that grow larger rather than smaller as we open them: a lack of universal healthcare, police brutality, environmental disregard, racial inequality. In the isolated social environment created by the American government’s (lack of) response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is far too easy to feel alone and unlovable, separated from our usual routines, reduced to service without presence, or worse, unemployment.
Books like Catherine Pierce’s Danger Days and Tanya Holtland’s debut Requisite show us that we are not alone in our environmental worry, in our social loves and longings, in our days of getting by. Though formally different, these two collections are complementary, in that they each fit the curve of the other in terms of asking questions about what is owed to our planet, to ourselves, and to others—what is required (which shares the same Latin root we hear in requisite: requisītus sought after, from requīrere to seek for). Both poets demonstrate it is not enough to be passive witnesses of the Anthropocene era: our attention must be engaged and analytic, as attentive to what is there around us as it is to what is missing. The speaker in Pierce’s Danger Days observes her own attention at an active remove: “I notice / my noticing,” and in Requisite, Holtland reflects: “Maybe the consistency of our humanness is largely the sharing / of what we cannot see.”
Danger Days by Catherine Pierce. Saturnalia Books, 2020. 103 pages. $16.
Danger Days, Catherine Pierce’s fourth full-length collection, opens with “Anthropocene Pastoral” and the end-stopped line: “In the beginning, the ending was beautiful.” With the pastel, blossoming touch of a spring pastoral, Pierce describes unseasonable weather and the environment as yet another product—“The sky so blue it looked / manufactured.” The poem’s tense shows how narrating conditions of climate almost immediately becomes a history told, the environment becoming past along with the grammar:
One New Year’s Day we woke
to daffodils, wisteria, onion grass wafting
through the open windows. Near the end,
we were eyeletted. We were cottoned.
We were sundressed and barefoot. At least
it’s starting gentle, we said.
Danger Days opens with beauty and with the recognition that humans self-center themselves when it comes to perceptions of the environment, accepting micro-changes as “good weather,” or balmy temperatures and blooms in January. Even the language of “Anthropocene” reflects such a centering. When the pandemic lockdown began mid-March in North Carolina, I reminded my sister that anything can become routine for humans, and that is the terrible truth: we can grow accustomed to anything, and must actively push against an inertia of spirit to make change happen rather than accepting what feels inevitable. Pierce’s speaker in “Anthropocene Pastoral” reminds her reader: “But we were built like that. / Built to say at least.” What are we giving up? the poem asks. What are we losing? What are we saying “at least” to? Pierce’s poem echoes for me Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” where the speaker confesses to a list of losing, and before reaching the crescendo of losing (“even losing you”), acknowledges: “I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster, / some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent. / I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.” What are the slippages that build and build, forcing us to let go, from our hands and our sight, what we love? Danger Days offers a ledger of these.
The predominance of columned and coupleted poems adds to the ledger-like quality of Danger Days, the poems partaking in the art of transcription and dailyness. In “High Dangerous,” the speaker explains,
is what my sons call the flowers—
purple, white, electric blue—
pom-pomming bushes all along
the beach town streets.
The poem opens the door into the speaker’s life—here, a beach stroll with her children—and holds the door open for everyday danger, the bees flying in the hydrangeas. The speaker observes: “I want their fear-box full of bees.” In the following poem, “In Praise of the Horror Movie,” the speaker will invoke the genre of horror and the vicarious experience of “someone else’s world” where “[e]veryone… / is in terrible Danger. That is, everyone else,” but here, in “High Dangerous,” the presence of bees connects the speaker to daily harms experienced by others now, dangers of which horror and disaster films are only a shadow:
This morning the radio
said tender age shelters.
This morning the glaciers
are retreating. How long now
until the space-print backpack
becomes district-policy clear?
Acknowledging danger and horror is less about anxiety and more about being awake, to living in a country where the government enacts brutal policies against immigrants and refugees on a daily basis while ignoring the damage being done to the environment and resisting even the most basic gun laws. The clear, child’s backpack is heavy, filled with real grief. In poetry classes, we are taught to call the backpack a symbol, an element of figurative language that suggests more than its literal meaning—yet any real object in our lives can double as a symbol: a cage, a flag, the smoke-and-ash filled air.
The poem’s close suggests a return to questioning and naming the world as children do:
We’re almost to the beach,
and High dangerous! my sons
yell again, their joy in having
spotted something beautiful,
and called it what it is.
Children, motherhood, and the natural world run throughout Pierce’s poems, and in “Inheritance” the speaker imagines a bequeathing of memory and solastalgia to her children: “We had so many flowers. We had so many / polar bears. Our ice shelves were beautifully / intact.” Yet, as Danger Days enacts, the river and the earth are not the only elements of nature’s Heraclitian fire—humans, too, are subject to every change imaginable. In “How Becoming a Mother Is Like Space Travel,” the speaker recounts the experiences of an astronaut:
When the astronaut returned
to earth, more tests were run.
Scientists discovered that
seven percent of his genes
had changed in space.
He left the planet
as himself. He came back
as himself, rearranged.
The astronaut’s body becomes an analogy for the mother’s body, altered in space and time, ribs shifted, organs moved. How we all change, how our earth changes, how daily the change is, Pierce’s poetry wonders. In “Here in the Future We Are Always Watching Ourselves,” the speaker considers how humans posture before the camera’s eye: “How powerful we are now. How careful. // The construction of a world requires / diligence.” Yet the series of questions that follow, seemingly about the construction of a world inside a camera’s aperture, become larger, existential and environmental in scope: “Is that moon the best moon?” and, “What about / the sky behind us, is it red enough for revelation, // are the streaks coming through?” a question that finds a new and terrible resonance after seeing photographs of the bright-orange and red skies of the West Coast fires, and the subsequent 400-500 Air Quality Index (AQI) that many inhabitants are living with. “Is that mountain significant enough?,” the speaker wonders. What will our cameras capture, and what will we give our attention to constitute the most ethical questions we can ask ourselves, and reside at the heart of Danger Days.
“We did not invent love. We did not / invent regret,” the speaker reminds her reader in “What We Invented,” a poem that catalogs “Hybrid orchids. Hydrofoils. Zodiac signs” alongside Friday, June, All Hallows Eve. “We invented // entire hams wreathed in pineapple rings, / and we invented the idea of carrying them / on heavy platters to the grieving.” Grounded and human are descriptors one can use about Pierce’s poetry—humble adjectives that mean the whole world. I felt my entire body sigh with pleasure when I started reading the collection, because the sheer presence of the speaker is so tangible; the poems feel like a long and wonderful conversation you are having with another person. When Danger Days closes on the line “I’m trying to come down light today. / I’m trying to see this place even as I’m walking through it,” you believe the speaker—what she carries, and what she sets down; how she models movement and confession when it comes to daily life in the Anthropocene. As she says in “Strategies for Mothers in the Age of This Age: “We know the setting down is so we can pick up and carry.”
Requisite by Tanya Holtland. Platypus Press, 2020. 112 pages. $18.
“Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are?” Geoffrey Hill once asked his interviewer, Carl Phillips. The cover of Requisite, Tanya Holtland’s debut collection of poetry from Platypus Press, asks as much. Featuring Ice 7, one of a series of ink and acrylic collages by the artist Lorna Simpson, the lapis lazuli and the white-grey image of ice arrests the viewer before a page has been turned. It is only by looking longer at the cover that one begins to see the sky as a wash of ink, and that, layered with the image of a glacier, are words cut from Associated Press articles on ice and glaciers. What is initially a striking, natural image becomes messier and more layered, more streaked with language, the longer one dwells with it. Ice 7 introduces the reader to the high and human stakes of Requisite: Holtland’s collection is as bound to the state of the earth and climate as it is to language.
Composed of four sweeping sequences, Requisite opens with a preface by the author, in which Holtland outlines the libretto-birth of the collection’s first sequence, Fated (comprising movements; interludes; transitions; coda: “the moon”) and her own relationship to nature. Holtland names the “ever-increasing record of tremors, symptoms of our dis-symbiosis with the environment: depletion of natural resources, severe loss of species and habitat, pollution, illness,” and recommends: “If we feel small in the mystery of things, then looking is our most significant step.” And yet, Holtland acknowledges that looking is not enough, and notes that “Seeing what is happening is only part of the process.” One of the generosities of Holtland’s preface is that it names the violence we are committing in nature as violence: “…fracking, plastic in soil, oceans, and the bellies of animals, child encampments, and all manner of human rights abuses and atrocities that accumulate even as I write this.” When is the naming of violence refreshing? When we live with daily obfuscations—particularly in the language of our government and its carceral institutions and imagination. In the opening words of “Fated”: “It’s not impossible / to break with illusion.”
There is a libretto-quality to all of Requisite—the impression that the parts form a textual-musical whole, but also that you can move backwards and forwards through the pages and find they sustain a harmony together. Not so much against linearity, as towards circularity (for Aquinas, the form of a circle best figures God). “I remember that in order to change I must move circularly, open to the season of everything,” Holtland writes in the preface.
Circularity—the ability to return-to rather than forget or pass by—seems a special virtue of poetry in a time where the socio-ecological horrors are fresh each day. Separateness is a comforting myth—rather, we are bound, as the boy in Elizabeth Bishop’s “Casabianca,” to the burning deck. In the first sequence, “Fated,” Holtland writes:
Think about polar ice
the ways we are spilling
all the secrets of which we are still
in desperate need.
As the lines spill across the page, so spills our oil into the ocean, our manufactured heat into the atmosphere, the melting glaciers into the sea. The sections in “Fated” melt across the page’s open field, drip down the margins, float, mime the shifting of land and ice mass: “It is easier to believe it’s mostly volcanic, the way change comes,” the speaker confides in section four, then observes the incremental shifts around the earth:
You don’t notice the edge of a continent
moving half a centimeter a year
or the tree line thinning.
In the coda of “Fated,” under a typographic full moon, the lines crescendo: “Midway across the sky / we, cathedral / knowing we were never not in transition.” In the long sections that follow: “Inner River,” “Other Names for the Future,” and “The Story,” the epiphanies become larger, and (even) more linguistically musical. “Inner River” opens with the suggestion: “hold that erosion is easier than building,” and then pares the word “place” down to its forms as “place (n.),” “place (v.) and “place[less] (adj.).” Academic critics love to use the term “unpack,” but that is not what Holtland is doing—rather, she works by layering, as a painter works: by addition rather than by separating and parsing (“Inner River” also considers the layers of the word “separate”).
The sequences in Requisite circle like a hawk the act of caring, the noun of care. In “Other Names for the Future,” the speaker composes a list of examples for care:
Care as best you can, as close to the sun as possible,
for the things that won’t always be living:
an orchid, a decision,
the fern in the kitchen with its silent little droop,
a preschooler, a depression
in the foliage reminds us of the need for the universal—
an interior to manage the lines that break and run endless within you.
There is no act fit to escape moral attention, or, in the language of Requisite: our care. Not the fern in the kitchen, the preschooler, a depression (what a line break!). Binary thinking along the lines of the wheat and the chaff, or the sheep and the goats, allows us to create categories in our minds: we sort people and tasks alike by false values of importance and who/what matters. The language of care does away with such categories, being more interested in need and attention. Writes Holtland:
I’m aware a person is a leaf
is a tree is a
lake is a person,
and loss taught me
at least half of this
and only up close did it focus.
Is there an answer? The micro-couplet “Hold / with me” suggests part of the answer, the verb “hold” appearing five times in Requisite—we hold space, we hold a child, we hold some form of power, in our own small ways. The idea of “ways”—forms of life, habitual paths—is another important concept in Requisite. Consider lines that hearken to Hopkins’ phrase “immortal diamond”:
The ways we fear
are what keep us
our plastic cocoon.
A central question raised by the sequences of Requisite is: how do we make others care? Particularly in a life where each day welcomes numbness to violence and disaster, simply as a coping mechanism; it is a spiritual challenge not to embrace apathy. Yet care is the opposite of force or making people do anything, and an ethics of care turns us towards each other via attention, via listening. Like good journalism, poetry is important in daily life precisely because it can turn readers’ attention towards stories they should care about. To pay attention to others is to hear a confirmation of lines from Requisite’s “The Story”:
I see friends go dark,
quiet with the loss they feel coming.
I tell them presence carries
the weight of this
but really it’s troubled
for a future we once thought we saw,
now only feel leaving.
In lines confessing to observing solastalgia in others, Holtland demonstrates how turning ourselves inward can, relationally, turn us towards each other, allowing us to hold ourselves as we hold each other, as we hold the earth in our minds and our daily practices. For thinking about how our spiritual state connects us to the life of the environment and to the health of the world’s climate, there are few better places to start than with Tanya Holtland’s Requisite. As Holtland writes in her preface: “…spirit is not just a part of the ecological conversation, it is the conversation.”