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  • Remains of Clever Animals
  • Sarah V. Schweig (bio)
Fossils in the Making
Kristin George Bagdanov
Black Ocean
112 Pages; Print, $14.95

The most urgent story to tell in our time is the story of climate change — but no one knows the best way to tell it.

The barriers lie broadly in the problems of totality and time. It is conceptually difficult to grasp that climate change will impact every single person on Earth: that total number is beyond our grasp because it lies beyond our capacity to see, hear, and feel. That thought escapes us also because time changes it: the people who will most suffer from climate change do not yet exist. The thought of debts to nonexistent people doesn’t tend to sway most of us to give up comforts and conveniences now. The inert words “climate change” don’t help its case, and images of starving polar bears can actually make people believe the problem is only a remote and distant one. Even when people experience extreme weather first-hand, one study by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found, there is a tendency to rapidly normalize abnormal weather patterns in how we think about them, further complicating the endeavor of telling an believable and impactful story. They see no story arc, even as it’s happening all around them. Even if we all realize that the worst is occurring, we still tend to delude ourselves on the level of feeling.

Fossils in the Making, Kristin George Bagdanov’s first book, tries to operate in the space where such an understanding can take place. She is not alone in trying to operate here: Others (e.g. Forrest Gander, who just won the Pulitzer, and the late W. S. Merwin) try to lend to poetic imagination toward environmental threats. But among early career poets, Bagdanov’s project is relatively rare. Dominant subjects among early career poets tend to deal explicitly with personal narratives, selfhood, and identity — what distinguishes human beings from each other rather than what they share. The environmental stakes are extremely high: they are both universal and personal in the formal sense of the term (reading this collection will tell you nothing about the vicissitudes of Bagdanov’s own life).

“The poem I am / writing,” Bagdanov writes, “is not a field / in which I find / or do not find my / self.” Here, the self is a subject for poetry only insofar as selves are contained in actual bodies taking up increasingly limited resources and space. These selves are both effect — with respect to the ancestral past — and cause — with respect to the unprecedented global danger of the future: “each of our bodies is source and citation etching a future through the past / as when one person makes history by killing the others.”

Nature reflects patterns of cruelty we can see (if we allow) in ourselves: “Cf: how the female wasp replaces another’s eggs with her own: / labor can be exploited even in nature.” But nature is blameless. And because we are free (at least, free enough to inflict so much damage on the Earth) we are essentially responsible. In freedom, there’s always the possibility of acting — and of having acted — differently.

Fossils is split into three sections, lending the lyrics a larger narrative arc: “Proofs” takes up the issue of arguing for a new state of affairs, proving by measurements the scarcity and inequalities the future will bring: “This one measures those two knocking against each other / crest against breast as one person least brown calls for help.”

“Wagers” sees the body, the material existence of a person, as a kind of wager posited by existence: “sentience is the wager / we all bet / we forget.” This posited thing buys into a game or gamble being played by the world: “I asked for another body once / Once I was given a stone // and asked / to hallow : // I asked / to follow : // I asked / for another.”

“Remains” becomes increasingly fragmentary, as if enacting degradation, finally ending on a move derived from Paul Celan, erasing the parts of a word until we’re left with the cry of a single...