Poetry and Extinction in the Anthropocene


Life itself is a form of poiesis, a perpetual world-making. But if eco-criticism also sees the poem as an exercise in world-making, how are we to read it in an age of extinction?

Perhaps more than any other environmental crisis, extinction pitches us into deep time: into awareness of the richness of our inheritance from the deep past, and the depleted legacy we will leave to the deep future. But in the midst of death, the pull of connection persists. To make kin is to incline towards another, relinquishing the illusion of the separate, bounded self for the startling reality of the self in community; that is, to perform a clinamen, a swerve between contexts. As I argue in Anthropocene Poetics, clinamen can help define a poetics of kin-making in an age of extinction.

In Vahni Capildeo’s ‘Latona and Her Children,’ we find an example of kin-making organised around the swerve of clinamen. The poem is an ekphrasis, responding to a seventeenth-century Dutch tapestry depicting a scene from the myth of Latona, or Leto as she appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In Ovid’s telling, she is seduced by Jupiter and conceives twins (Artemis and Apollo), and as punishment is made by Juno to wander the earth without refuge, “debarred from settling anywhere in the world.” Her exile continues after she gives birth, and one day, under a blazing sun, she arrives with her children by a lake in the land of the Lycians. She seeks permission from the Lycian men working the shoreline to drink from the lake, and to give water to her children, but they refuse to take pity on her, and even maliciously stir up the muddy bottom with their feet. Outraged, Latona pronounces a curse on their inhospitality—“live forever in that lake of yours, then!”—and turns the men into frogs.

As a form of clinamen, ekphrasis encloses a number of swerves: like apostrophe, it performs a turn towards an object; as in citation, it draws another artwork into itself; comparable to metaphor, it is an account of one form in the manner of another. It also poses a particular temporal relation: that of the stilled scene. The archetypal Romantic ekphrasis is, of course, Keat’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn,’ which rhapsodises “silence and slow time.” Capildeo, however, shows how ekphrasis may allow us to think “fast and slow time together”, as the artist Ilana Halperin suggests we must do in order to grasp our own “geologic intimacy.” The first stanza reads:

This tapestry’s in sympathy

with wives who have been wronged

in gorgeous-feeling houses

where rage bindweeds into rugs.

You could lay your cheek against this

woolly silky rosy thread,

smug in a censored village

where the frogs have been erased.

The opening lines positions this as a poem in search of affinity: art is a form of kin-making, Capildeo affirms, a means of inclining beyond singular experience. The maltreated Latona is, of course, the primary focus of sympathy, but Capildeo’s prefatory note, that in making the tapestry, “the heads of men were woven as frogs and then altered to human,” also introduces a rather ambivalent sense of multispecies relations. For one, it inverts the metamorphosis, changing frogs to men rather than men to frogs, introducing a ghostly sense of kinship. The human genome shares around 1,700 genes with the genome of the African clawed frog, and many common elements of structure—structures that were present 360 million years ago, in the last common ancestor of all mammals, amphibians, and birds alive today. Prefaced by this creaturely haunting, we enter the poem aware that we, like all species, are what Deborah Bird Rose calls densely woven knots of embodied time.

The inversion (frogs to men rather than men to frogs) initiates a series of clinamen or swerves that undo the neat justice of the Ovidian myth. The erased frogs in the first stanza turn towards the ‘erased’ Latona, wandering in exile in the second; the “bastard fruit” she carries in her womb turns towards the final stanza, which is preoccupied by the Dutch weavers’ decision to enclose the scene of abuse in a vision of bucolic calm, surrounded by “green, without drama.” The frame transmutes the violence of the myth into the violence of enclosure, and the forcible exclusion, like that of Latona, of nature as the outside of human experience.

Capildeo’s swerves show us that the malice of the Lycians begins in their destructive attitudes towards their environment, as no more than a resource to be exploited or withheld. In turning attention to the frame, however, Capildeo also looks beyond it, laying the poem open to other times and places that torque the myth into an Anthropocenic context. The “reassuring woodland décor” also hints at “signs of Artemis to come,” and this intimation that another kind of relation with the natural world is possible prompts a final turn: one that looks back to the animal of its opening stanza, and to the fast-and-slow-time-together of extinction—back, that is, to the “censored village / where the frogs have been erased.”

Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer prize-winning The Sixth Extinction opens with a visit to El Valle de Antón, a town in Panama that, in 2006, lost virtually its entire population of golden tree frogs in an outbreak of a deadly chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd). Bd is responsible for the extinction of around ninety frog species since the 1970s, along with serious decline in around another five hundred amphibian species; a quarter have lost more than 90% of their population. It emerged in the Korean peninsula sometime in the 1950s and, coeval other symptoms of the Anthropocene, spread rapidly worldwide. International shipping, the mass transit of soldiers during the Korean War, and the global trade in amphibians as pets have introduced Bd to Australia, North, South, and Central America, the Caribbean, and the Iberian Peninsula in a matter of decades. Kolbert notes that frogs evolved “at a time when all the land on earth was part of one large mass”—the Pangaea supercontinent—a geologic reality of the deep past effectively reconstituted by global trade: biologists refer to contemporary trade networks as “a functional Pangaea for infectious diseases in wildlife.”

Like Leto searching for a place to rest, Bd has found a home on six continents in a matter of decades. There are other peculiar parallels, other swerves between myth and reality. One key early driver in the spread of Bd was the use of African clawed frogs in mid-twentieth century pregnancy tests; the disease itself causes the animals’ skin to harden and slough off, preventing them from taking in fluids. There is currently no viable cure for Bd in wild frog populations, which continue to decline alarmingly, embedding a deep irony in Latona’s curse on the Lycians: “live forever in that lake of yours.”

Although erased, the frogs populate the poem’s soundscape, in the many ‘g’ sounds—wronged; gorgeous; rugs; smug; glanced at too in rage and village—that cluster in the first stanza. Rage is bound into this tapestry, not just the wrath of maltreated Latona but the scandal of extinction as well. As Capildeo’s ekphrastic poem swerves away from the tapestry’s frame and inclines towards the animal hidden in the weave, the immense slow time of evolution and the devastatingly fast time of species loss flow through it. Through the figure of the clinamen, Capildeo’s poem urges us to swerve back towards life, and to see that our responsibility in the Anthropoecene is to cultivate collaborative rather than exploitative relations with other species. It reminds us that life, woven in deep time, is itself a form of poiesis, an ongoing exercise in world-making.

David Farrier is senior lecturer in modern and contemporary literature at the University of Edinburgh. He is author of Unsettled Narratives: The Pacific Writings of Stevenson, Ellis, Melville, and London and Postcolonial Asylum: Seeking Sanctuary before the Law.

“The Anthropocene spells trouble: not only with respect to the global environmental changes, largely for the worse, to which it refers; but also in terms of the troublesome nature of the word itself. David Farrier’s brilliant elucidation of a multi-faceted ‘Anthropocene poetics’ delves into these troubles with great philosophical, scientific, social-ecological and aesthetic discernment. Whilst acknowledging the limited efficacy of poetry in response to the immense challenges of our perilous times, his carefully contextualized close readings of exemplary texts do indeed demonstrate how literature, and other art forms, can ‘help to frame the ground on which we stand as we consider which way to turn.’ This is, moreover, not only a work about poetry: it is also an exquisitely poetic work of scholarship.” —Catherine Rigby, Bath Spa University, author of Dancing with Disaster

“In Anthropocene Poetics, David Farrier ventures into a poetics of the Anthropocene and calls for the need to create ‘an Anthropocenic literary imagination.’ Exploring the Anthropocene conundrums and dysphorias with avant-garde and lyric poetry, Anthropocene Poetics will certainly change the way we perceive deep time as well as our understanding of the poem. Imagine a creative becoming enfolded by the new poetics of deep and thick time!”—Serpil Oppermann, Cappadocia University

“The Anthropocene needs poetry. With its vorticular temporalities, swift shifts in scale, enmeshment of the human and the nonhuman, and constant challenges to the adequacy of language, this age of ecological crisis may never be better understood by any other technology—even as the Anthropocene changes what we understand a poem to do. David Farrier’s brilliant new book is a rapturous meditation on ecocriticism, time, the limits of human comprehension, and the power of the humanities in a turbulent era.” —Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, author of Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman

Leave a Reply