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A Poet Defends the Earth

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Geode 300
geode by Susan Barba (Black Sparrow Press)

Susan Barba’s second collection of poems, geode (Black Sparrow Press, 2020), opens with this poem, titled “(song).” In a note at the back of the book Barba credits Appalachian folksinger and songwriter Jean Ritchie (1922–2015) for inspiring the poem. With its call to care for the Earth, Ritchie’s “Now Is the Cool of the Day” became an anthem for environmentalists in the fight against nuclear power and strip mining and mountaintop removal in her native Kentucky. “You may live in this garden, if you keep the waters clean” goes one of its lyrics.

now

is the heat of the day

where is the garden the garden of my lord

where he walked in the cool

of the day

Both Ritchie and Barba evoke the scene in Genesis 3:8 when Adam and Eve hear God walking in Eden “in the cool of the day” and hide themselves among the trees. “Where is the garden?” asks Barba; this question resonates throughout her 90-page volume — for geode is a book about a planet we are losing. It is plea and protest, at once personal and broad, containing the whole world in its lines.

A second preamble poem, “Earthwards,” further defines geode’s thematic direction. Barba likens “early earth” to “a mind/spinning to recall a word a word.” There is no big bang here, but rather a kind of sentient orb seeking to articulate its existence. The final four lines of “Earthwards” recall poems by Abbie Huston Evans that celebrate the mineral makeup of terra firma: “then the slow uplift//of syllables/jasper, quartz, obsidian/speaking of earth.”

In the series of eight poems called “exhibits” that follow, Barba makes a case to defend Earth. “Exhibit 1” presents the world as wondrous blank slate, “unannotated, apolitical,/as if a mighty snow had settled there.” The poem conjures “six billion acres/under time, under stress and stretches//of content.” A bit of wordplay completes the portrait: “Blue-green grid of constant revolution.”

Other exhibits feature images of a “gnomic earth”: trees and desert, water and rocks. The final one, “Exhibit 8,” describes Walter De Maria’s New York Earth Room (1977), an installation in which 250 cubic yards of earth fill an upper-level room at 141 Wooster Street “above the SoHo circus” in New York City. In Barba’s poem, this “room to watch the dirt” with its “susurrus of soil/pneuma of mildew” upends “the usual axis.” It is, she observes, a “portal in the planet’s/most vertical city.”

“Ore” consists of nine short riffs on the evolving relationship between man and rock, including the development by “last century men” of methodologies for “monetizing/inert matter,” for turning “rock/into bread.” There is a sense of exasperation to the poem, but also of wonder: “Darwin compared our knowledge/of the structure of the earth//with chickens scratching in the corner/of a hundred-acre field.”

The book’s middle section begins with anger incited by the day’s headlines: “Exxon Mobil plans to Triple Its Bet/on Hottest Shale Field in the U.S.” The newspaper reader takes it out on her kids and her neighbors “who’d razed the forest/next door for sport.” She “planted protests,” but “the mayhem/was innumerable.”

In “Letter from Gaia,” that primordial Greek goddess lets us have it. “Do they think I am resigned,/incapable of anger, that I orbit/the sun submissively out of some dark/planetary passivity” she asks. Later, in a prose-poem text block, Gaia makes a full-blown indictment of humankind’s crimes, proclaiming, “They have turned the rain to acid, they have named superfund/sites, they have forced their young to drink lead, breathe ash.”

This condemnation continues in the collection’s longest work, the 12-page “River,” which opens with a legal recommendation: “To save a river you must give it standing.” The river in question is the Colorado. The speaker offers an extensive inventory of its “dependents,” from the humpback chub to the nearly 40 million humans who depend on its fluid largesse, and makes an argument for bestowing personhood upon its “14-million-acre-feet” length.

Certain elements of “River” bring to mind Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems, Theodore Roethke’s North American Sequence (1959-1963) and Sawnie Morris’s poetry collection Her, Infinite (2016). Barba mixes lyric reflections with factoids, such as the capacity of various dams to alter the river. Like the Colorado, the poem’s flow is interrupted, for example, by a quote from Judge William O. Douglas’s Sierra Club v. Morton decision or by naming the chemical crimes of Dow Chemical and Monsanto. It’s a virtuoso act of environmental empathy.

The book’s final third is both personal and provocative. There’s the amusingly titled “Wide Margin Love Poem,” with its thin stack of one- and two-word lines that divide the page in half; “let me/let you/be//my/love,” it concludes. Elsewhere, “Retrospective, Agnes Martin” is a compact 10-couplet tribute to the painter’s “painstaking grid of immanence.”

By contrast, “Micellae” cites a script for teachers to use during a school lockdown and references a new Israeli-made kamikaze drone, the Harop, which, in its first launching in April 2016, killed seven Armenian volunteers on a bus headed for the Nagorno-Karabagh region. Barba’s Armenian descent adds resonance to this latter item.

The poem “Practice” is Barba’s ars poetica: “Write the necessary elegies,/the songs of temporary//fury. Human seasons are/as leaves, not oaks.” The poem ends with an homage to nature by way of a tree: “Oak, whose girth/exceeds my reach//forever I am/at your feet/looking up.”

In these pandemic days, geode’s cover image, Richard Tuttle’s “IX” from his Stacked Color Drawings series (1971–75), suggests some organism seen through a microscope. More likely it’s meant to evoke the eponymous crystal beauty found inside a hollow rock. Like many of the poems within, the image is elemental and elegant.

The overall arrangement of the poems in geode bears mention. Barba, who is senior editor for the New York Review of Books, uses the book’s epigraph, the formula for depicting a sphere linearly, x2 + y2 + z2 = 1, as an outline. This collection is ambitious in its breadth and vision — and deeply satisfying in its measurements.

geode by Susan Barba is published by Black Sparrow Press and is available online and in bookstores.


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