What Have We Done?
June 30, 2016
Jun 30, 2016
7 Min read time
David Baker's virtuosic poems express ideas through the senses.
Photograph: Brad Smith
Why not, David Baker asks, express ideas in such a way that we perceive them as sensations? That we comprehend them not as argument or discourse or information but as lived experience—“thought through my eyes,” as Joyce described it—closing the gap in that binary divide. This fusion occurs in the opening lines of “What Is a Weed?”:
Emerald, as in the leaf of the ash,though nothing’s burned, not yet, as the ash-green,gray-green fiery wingspan of the adultwhose bullet body and “flat black eyes” areless the way we know them than by the trees,by the death of the trees, by the millions.The adults emerge, A. planipennis(of the genus Agrilus), in May, June…
There is a touch of virtuosity in this passage, but virtuosity is not what holds our attention. In the first line we are presented with a simile, “as in the leaf of the ash,” which suggests that “Emerald” is a color. But in the second line, “the leaf of the ash” (my emphasis) is prefigured as a leaf of ash, “though nothing’s burned, not yet.” In what follows, the conflation of those two images gives rise to a third, an amalgam of color and flame and cinder: the “ash-green, / gray-green fiery wingspan” of what, it turns out, has caused “the death of the trees.”
But how are we meant to read that “wingspan”? As metaphor? Mythology? Some corollary fact? The postponement of an answer, sustained through a series of strategically placed caesuras (obeying and disobeying their syllabic constraint), gives this passage its slowly accruing syntactic power, for there are three lines still to come before, in a sudden taxonomic turn, the source is identified: the emerald ash borer, the Asian beetle responsible for the ecological catastrophe that, since it was first identified in 2002, has killed tens of millions of ash trees in the midwest and northeast United States.
Though true to the “organic” Midwestern experience, Baker explores the incessant babble that fills the ear of the modern world.
It is hard to imagine another poet sure-footed enough to cover that ground in only eight lines. Or, for that matter, in fifty. This is poetry of a very high order, yet its pathos is uncompromised by ostentation, didacticism, or self-consciousness. It is “less the way we know,” he reminds himself, “than by the trees, / by the death of the trees, by the millions.” The reach of this achievement extends well beyond the scope of its subject. Indeed, the borer’s channeling is re-enacted in “loops” the book plays out in contexts as various as a weekend picker scavenging junk “the day before / our village ‘free-for-haul’”; a “raven :: rearranging the meat“; a Facebook “status update . . . / ‘shared’ from a status update which picked it / from someone else’s status”; the “decomposers and detritivores [completing] the process by consuming remains.”
Scavenger Loop is Baker’s eleventh and most accomplished book of poems, and it follows from a career that spans thirty-five years and includes five prose books of criticism, commentary, interviews, and reviews. He has spent a lifetime immersed in poetry’s constituent elements, the scholarly history that has monitored it, and the mysterious workings of its aesthetic appeal. What sets Scavenger Loop apart from so much poetry being written today is how it manages to blend those varying perspectives through a faceted overlay of languages: sound bites, glyphs, tags and bywords, the banalities of politicians, the denatured nomenclature of medical care, the coercive formulations of commerce—the incessant babble that fills the ear of the modern world.
Baker’s poems reveal the breadth and complexity of this vision and, at the same time, articulate the poet’s more personal, life-size concerns. To take one key example, he manages to fold into that din of voices a deeply moving elegy for his mother. At times his grief arises in isolated scraps of memory:
Tell me, where does it hurt? Everywhere else—She sang “Yellow Bird” when she was happy—Playing Clue counting her bean jars pingingI am her son sign here She’s my mother
At other times those scraps coalesce into twilit utterances from her final days:
Can we go now I wantto go now please David some money Pleaseis it nice is it muddy is it somemoney Sweet the Hmm Hmm Let’s go todayI want to go Tomorrow Sun Today
At still other times his loss is invoked, as in this graveside scene, in deconstructed narratives cast across lacunae in the text:
two huge covering elms—the longprocessional of neighbors, friends,the town’s elderly, her beauty shopfamiliars, her club’s notables . . .The world is full of prayersarrived at from afterwards,he said. Look up through the trees—
In the poems that precede and follow this sequence Baker appeases his need to work up a poetics, inflected by his own temperament, that is true to what I will call the “organic” Midwestern experience. By nature a nature poet, he writes poems that are often singled out as praise songs to the landscape in which he lives. But he also takes on the more daunting task of opening the doors to an ever-enlarging “inorganic” threat to that landscape, a threat embodied in sinister encodings like “SmartStax RIB Complete,” “trait stacking,” “VT Triple PRO,” ciphers entwined in a carcinogenic loop of genetic modifications, herbicidal excess, cropland erosion, habitat destruction, chemical concentrates in our water supplies—all traceable links to (among other things) the spreading multinational takeover of Midwestern farmland.
In taking on such public subjects a poet is always at risk of currying ideological favor with the reader or, to borrow his trope, recycling ideas ratified by consensus. To fend off those possibilities, Baker turns his poem against itself, short-circuiting his natural impulse toward fluency and elaboration. “The world gives you itself in fragments / in splinters,” and the poet returns it in kind. If anxiety had an idiom and syntax of its own, I suspect it would sound like this.
The “Scavenger Loop” sequence is a landmark in Midwestern poetry, reenacting a struggle, an epic struggle, that will redefine that region in the years to come. But this is not simply a regional struggle. It is a global struggle played out on a regional stage. And the question it asks—“what have we done”—is echoed in the warning it issues: “Something is coming more than we know how.”
The exactions of Baker’s attention and the sense that he is doing justice to his provenance, even in the midst of his lament, are what make his poems so poignant and authentic. The depth of his engagement is achingly evoked in the closing lines of the book’s final poem, “Metastasis.” At once elegiac and soul-stirring, it enlarges the “loop” to include both what is before us and what is beyond: “the heart of the seeds that fell from your hands” and “the spark that fell from the star.” It is what prayer sounds like. And psalm. And for that I give him the final word.
. . . it’s a work day, and the heat is the heat of the colorof your clothes, wash day, and hands hurt from swinging of a scythe.Then it’s day into night at the heart of the seedsthat fell from your hands breaking open, strewn in rowslike water along the ancient seabed floor of the farm.Someone is standing at the door. Someone is waving from the car.This day and that one sinking to brightness and the blueevening wall before that, like a spark that fell from the starbecoming, as you will say, one day, all we will become.
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June 30, 2016
7 Min read time