W. W. Norton & Company
112 Pages; Print, $16.95
In A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination (2006), Angus Fletcher argues that American poetry since Whitman is uniquely suited to address concerns we have about the environment because it expresses “close personal involvements.” For Fletcher, poetry is germane to understanding environmental problems because we can’t extract ourselves from context. Sure, scientific discourse is important, but we can’t deny that it’s personal when we’re standing in a landscape that suppresses our link with nature for the sake of corporate profits.
Scavenger Loop by David Baker seems to illustrate Fletcher’s claim. Baker’s tenth collection of poems is comprised of four sections, one of which is the masterful title poem “Scavenger Loop.” A sequence in part composed out of other writers’s work, “Scavenger Loop” elegizes the speaker’s mother, often using metonymy to show combination and contexture. Lists such as “her mysteries her bells her soaps her coats” suggest the ease of breaking something off “from the main body;” and yet, Baker’s poems ask, what if “the main body” is always composite, always part one thing and part something else:
as in old woods, as when a single treedies, and starts to rot, yet it may remainfor decades. “More than a third of the birdspecies depend on standing dead trees,both for their food and for nesting places.
The repurposing of standing dead trees suggests that their value is actually a matter of perspective. What we see as worthless in nature is often indicative of our inability to relax our control for the sake of other species:
[Hamartia]Poisonsthe soilto killthe wormthat eatsthe cornthat growsin soil
But the same technological precision that allows us to grow crops more efficiently allows us to “describe / the probability distribution / of random mutations in a cell that / affect (‘hit’) a particular gene (‘target’).” This tension between isolating “the good” and weeding out “the bad” runs throughout the collection. But if we’re reminded that the usefulness of a weed or gene depends on our “close personal involvements,” then the answer is not so clear-cut:
The genetic modifications areto enhance growth and durability.The genetic modifications areto enhance corporate profits.Here is your examination: Choose one.
The choice guided by perspective also seems to be related to poetry. Is this collection of poems political or isn’t it? I’d say no. A critic might want to call Scavenger Loop ecopoetry, but I would caution that this is a poetry resistant to easy labeling. Ammons’s poetry is resistant to labels, too, and not just because it’s so fabulously complex (as were Emerson and Whitman, Ammons’s and Baker’s literary influences). Like Ammons’s Garbage (1993), Baker’s poetry is self-conscious about how it participates in the same feedback loop as the pests “controlled” with pesticide, an act that, despite intentions, ironically has uncontrollable results. But what Baker’s poetry does do is draw attention to its own artifice; language is the rubble that the scavenger-poet picks his poems from, and the poet is like “a seasoned picker…his CRV backed up / right to the rubble and / hatchback popped open, half-full, at 9 a.m.”
In drawing attention to artifice, Baker asks us to consider what is “natural,” especially considering that his vocabulary is replete with naturalistic terms. His two most favorite words include “ash” and “dust,” words that (just think “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”) insist on looping, returning or doubling back. This insistence on the earth in a horizontal sense is also observable in the multiple usages of the words themselves. In “What is a Weed?” Baker asks the reader to consider not just the answer to that question but the denotations of “ash,” as well as the associations we bring to the word, depending on our own personal biases:
Emerald, as in the leaf of the ash,though nothing’s burned, not yet, as...