- Science and Poetry in Deep Time
The ice core sample that marks the beginning of the geological epoch known as the Holocene is archived in a freezer at the University of [End Page 291] Copenhagen.1 Drilled in 2003 from the central Greenland ice sheet, the sample provided enough evidence for the International Union of Geological Sciences to endorse the proposal that the Pleistocene–Holocene boundary occurred 11,700 calendar years ago.2 In scientific terms, the 2-kilometre-long ice core exhibits 'an abrupt shift in deuterium excess values, accompanied by more gradual changes in δ18O, dust concentration, a range of chemical species, and annual layer thickness', marking the distinction between two geological ages. To the layperson, the climactic event is better recognised as the end of the Ice Age, and the beginning of the current warm period in which we live.3 Or, in which we believed we lived. On 29 August 2016, the International Geological Congress's Working Group on the Anthropocene (WGA) announced the culmination of seven years' research into the subdivision of recent geological time: humanity's impact on the Earth–encompassing its various and interconnected ecological, biological, and geological systems–is now recognised as so momentous that the relatively young Holocene has been superseded.4 The Anthropocene has arrived.
Sam Solnick's Poetry and the Anthropocene was published just a couple of weeks before the WGA's announcement; slightly ironic timing, perhaps, but the book does not suffer for the omission. What Solnick achieves in this really quite remarkable study of contemporary poetry and its various eco-contexts is a sustained and illuminating analysis of how poets understand the complex relationship between organisms and their environment, in an age when human activity is modifying the very constitution of the Earth. The book 'asks what it means to read and write poetry now that humanity and its technologies have the capacity to disrupt (but not control) biological and ecological processes across multiple scales' (p. 4). In asking, and in offering some answers to this question, Poetry and the Anthropocene projects what the future of ecocritical studies in literature might need to look like, both alongside and as part of readings of three major contemporary poets: Ted Hughes, Derek Mahon, and J. H. Prynne. As Hugh Haughton notes in a brief review cited in the book's front matter, these are poets 'no-one else would have dreamed of bracketing together', and yet Solnick's selection is entirely appropriate for the cause. In choosing three substantially [End Page 292] different poets whose writing seems nevertheless always and already engaged with the monumental questions the 'age of man' brings with it, his study succeeds in engendering new debate about how, in the Anthropocene, 'poetry is forced to find new ways of rendering, recalibrating and mutating the complex relationships between human organisms and the environments that their behaviours and technologies have shaped' (p. 15).
For the WGA's 2016 Anthropocene recommendation to be formally accepted, scientists will have to demonstrate that humans' impact on the Earth is visible in the geological record. They are likely to be spoilt for choice: atmospheric CO2 concentrations are trapped in ice cores, synthetic micro-plastics are found in sediment around the world, and traces of nuclear explosions are evidenced not only in land and sea deposits, but in the layers formed by decomposing fast-growing plants.5 Understanding the Anthropocene's social complexities in the light of its environmental markers, Solnick argues, requires careful navigation of the lines drawn between intractable irony and species narcissism (pp. 6–7). He does not disregard the irony that the designation of a 'human' geological age is perhaps the pinnacle of an anthropocentric perspective. '"Anthropocene" is a powerfully suggestive term', he notes, 'which, while strikingly effective in communicating the impact of humanity on planetary systems, also risks becoming totalising and also encouraging of a renewed anthropocentrism' (p. 6). It is this infinitely reflecting mirror that presents the greatest difficulty to how...