Scott T Starbuck, Industrial Oz. Burlington, VT: Fomite Press, 2015. ISBN 9781942515166
Scott T Starbuck, Hawk on Wire. Burlington, VT: Fomite Press, 2017. ISBN 9781944388058
These two books of ‘Ecopoems’ attempt to find a way through perhaps the most pernicious and intractable problem of climate change: reorienting perceptions and values so that we stop seeing it as something happening ‘out there’ that someone should do something about, and start seeing it as something happening to us just as much as it is happening to the polar bears on melting Arctic ice floes. In pursuit of this, Starbuck uses ambiguity, metaphor, cadence and rhythm to arrest the reader’s attention and make them reassess not just the obvious, primary causes of climate change and environmental degradation, but the whole ideological superstructure that supports it, distracts us, and continually diverts and dilutes action.
This is clearly a huge task, but luckily Starbuck’s dexterity in poetic technique is equal to it, rarely assaulting the reader with obvious polemic, but willing to do the groundwork and make properly frugal use of words planted like seeds that germinate and grow, blooming into a full range of meaning and possibility. ‘How would stars look if you never saw TV?’ asks ‘Ancient Dwellings Near Paisley, Oregon’, playing on the double meaning of ‘stars’ as evanescent celebrities on TV and the eternal stars of the night sky (Hawk 35). ‘If meaning were people you dug roots with’, he asks, ‘would you care enough / to venture beyond Facebook’ (Hawk 35). Similarly, the title poem of Hawk on Wire asks the reader to think about where wild animals can flee to when even the poles have melted, as it recounts a hawk that
from pole to pole
until there are
no more poles
like wild things
fleeing acidic seas …
This melancholy and chilling use of ambiguity is pushed even further in ‘Water Cave Near Mogollon Rim’ where Starbuck is ‘meditating on the words placenta and phoenix’ in the womb-like cave before returning ‘back into the world of those who have forgotten / where they came from, where they are now / and, like all animals, where flesh is soon going.’ (Hawk 32). Starbuck’s frugality with words forces us to question his meaning here. Does this final thought refer simply to the truism that every mortal thing must die? Or does it remind us that due to climate change everything mortal may soon die? Of course, we are meant to conclude that it is both. Starbuck (2014) has written elsewhere (‘Manifesto from a Poet on a Dying Planet‘) that the task of the poet today is to make people ‘recognize physical reality around them, and conscience and/or spirit-reality inside them’. We must consider that we will one day die, consider the futility of material wealth and like the poet meditate on the necessity of attending to the ‘spirit-reality’ inside.
Starbuck even asks us to question such fundamental constructs of the modern world as the idea of discrete and fixed time itself. Time is not fixed in these poems but malleable and contingent:
Here a second can seem so long
Like when reaching for a fish without a net.
Other times, ten years goes by
In the blink of a love-struck eye.
I read that Inuit maps are based on ‘sleeps’
And difficulty of travel.
Before leaving, you must understand
The machine understands none of this.
(Ind. Oz. 45)
References to exact times and locales are therefore spliced with references to geologic periods and mass extinctions (as in ‘The Meteor’). Futurity is fragmented by references to the ancient world and the difficulty of changing human nature itself. When astronauts observe warfare on Earth from their hermetically sealed environment in ‘View of Modern War from the Space Station’ one of them is reading The Iliad, reminding us that the real problem is within us and cannot be escaped.
In the haunting poem ‘Coyote’s Prediction’ the theme of time is not foregrounded or explicit, but is still fundamental. A scene of decay is also one of healing, as industrial society’s marks on the landscape are effaced and overwritten by nature. The poem could be about the process of reclamation of an old logging mill on the river now, or, equally, it could be about the world after modern civilisation has destroyed itself and nature is – finally – left to slowly heal and replace:
There is a ghost
The water healing
River paddle wounds,
Old logging mill
Lanced by seeds
Of forgotten giants,
that belong here
(Ind. Oz. 85)
The alliteration here – water and wounds, logging and lanced – emphasises the theme of nature’s vegetable power, too slow for human eyes to notice, but utterly inexorable. Nature in this poem is not reduced to ‘mother earth’, passively forgiving and accepting, but is more the nature of indigenous legends. It has real agency and is able to both heal and lance as it sees fit, recalling G K Chesterton’s remark about old forests being places of enchantment where ‘things [were] double or different from themselves’ (2000, 321). By changing focus from the merely human time-span and therefore our perceptions of permanence and transition, Starbuck de-centres humanity.
The connections between modern conceptions of time and the fantasy world of neoliberal financial speculation are neatly brought together in ‘After 2008’ which considers the necessary role social conditioning and symbolism play in the modern economy. ‘Did you ever stop to think / some crosswalk buttons you push each day / are connected to nothing?’ the poem asks. Of course, there is little if any difference in the timing, whether we push the button or not:
This makes you question
if they were designed by social engineers
instead of electrical engineers,
and similarly, if we are all
so that some day
40 years of your hard labor
in saving and pension
will disappear from banks
the instant symbol makers decide.
(Ind. Oz. 52)
By such means Starbuck compels the reader to think about not just climate change itself, but also how deeply ideology and symbolism are embedded in the functioning of Western society and how unthinking acceptance of them has led to a world where money is digital. The digits on a screen are now no longer connected to any real or physical thing, but they are enough to make us acquiesce and take part in the continued rape of the planet. Such is the power of symbolism and conditioning in the industrial Oz we now inhabit and which Starbuck attempts to cut through in these poems.
Thus, whilst poems such as ‘San Diego Swap Meet’, ‘Patient Y’ and ‘If Washington Were Pompeii’ might seem to be about the 2008 financial crash and its devastating aftermath, they are still very much ‘ecopoems’ in that they are making the necessary connections between the world we participate in every day as we go to work, watch TV, listen to politicians talk about the stock market, and the seeming impossibility of actually achieving a real reduction in carbon emissions. Which, the poems ask, is really the less real: financial debt or ecological debt? Why? Because so much of what we see of the world comes via media such as television or social media and the Internet, our ‘reality’ is increasingly mediated and manipulated through ‘symbolism that represents / interests of the symbol-makers’ (‘Moon and Money Poem’, Ind. Oz. 46). Whilst we believe that we are better informed about the world than ever before, these poems question and unsettle that belief, pointing out the disconnection between the superficial world media reflects and serves, and the physical and spiritual realities, without and within, that we have become blind to.
Starbuck expends so much thought and energy explicating this (dis)connection because, as the anarcho-primitivist philosopher John Zerzan has argued, ultimately it is symbolism that allows us to rationalise our putative separation from nature:
Amid the standardizing, disciplinary effects of today’s systems of technology and capital, we are subjected to an unprecedented barrage of images and other representations. Symbols have largely crowded out everything real and direct, both in the daily round of interpersonal interactions and in the accelerating extinction of nature. This state of affairs is generally accepted as inevitable, especially since received wisdom dictates that symbol-making is the cardinal, defining quality of a human being. We learn as children that all behavior, and culture itself, depend on symbol manipulation; this characteristic is what separates us from mere animals. (2002, 199-200)
This disconnect forms much of the subject matter for the later volume, Hawk on Wire, with Starbuck exploring the role that the glossy, affectless surface-world of television, social media and computers play in seeming to connect us whilst keeping us ultimately disconnected. Starbuck cleverly weaves this motif of surface-world into his poems, with the constant, troubling thought that that surface may be broken and the past return to bite us. Hence ‘Geo-Poem’ observes that ’66 million years ago in the Cenozoic era / seawater filled these valleys / with bass hovering like piñatas unaware’ (Hawk 16). These primitive bass ‘knew only the language / of hunger, sex, territory, blankly staring / like men today watching TV” (Hawk 16). As with so many of these poems, Starbuck achieves his effect by what he leaves unsaid, asking the reader to make the connections for themselves. Seawaters may well fill these valleys again after 66 million years whilst most of us are as unaware and unconcerned as the bass were.
Starbuck’s careful but effective use of poetic techniques is neatly displayed in ‘Canyon’, the final poem in Hawk on Wire. The poem begins with intricate near-rhymes (‘I wanted to fish but there were cliffs, / thorns, wasps, underwater drops’) before switching to tightly-wound descending cadence (‘I can say more / but to know / you must go’) that echo the treacherous and precipitous decline that must be negotiated before ‘melting glaciers / change experiences like these / maybe forever’ (Hawk 76). Starbuck leaves the ambiguity open, inviting us to ponder how much this difficult descent is literal, referring to the necessity of communing with hard-to-reach wild places, and how much metaphorical, referring to the coming descent into apocalypse that must be negotiated as best we can.
Starbuck has said that his poems swim in two different ‘rivers’, one of which is environmental poetry and the other ‘Pacific Northwest nature poems’ (Wilkins 2016). Whilst Starbuck’s Pacific Northwest nature poems are accomplished and thoughtful, it is the environmental poems that really show his capability as a poet, drawing connections for the reader, challenging, and meditating not just on the effects of climate change or its proximate causes but the deep structure of the ideologies that promote passivity in the face of apocalypse.
Chesterton, G K ‘The Age of Legends’. On Lying in Bed and Other Essays. Ed. Alberto Manguel. Calgary: Bayeux Arts, 2000. Pp. 319-326. Print.
Starbuck, Scott T ‘Manifesto from Poet on a Dying Planet‘ Split Rock Review (1 September 2014). Web. Accessed 30 August 2017.
Wilkens, John ‘Book of Poems Tackles Climate Change‘. The San Diego Union-Tribune (26 June 2016). Web. Accessed 30 August 2017.
Zerzan, John ‘No Way Out?’. Running on Emptiness. Los Angeles: Feral House, 2002. Pp. 197-204. Print.
Michael Potts is an early career researcher with an interest in the intersection of environmentalism, culture and literature, as well as a general interest in the literature and culture of the twentieth century. He has written articles on Edward Abbey, JRR Tolkien and others. His most recent work was published in Violence Against Black Bodies: An Intersectional Analysis of How Black Lives Continue to Matter (ed. Sandra E. Weissinger, Dwayne A. Mack, Elwood Watson; Routledge, 2017)