by David Baker
David Baker is author of twelve books of poems, including Swift: New and Selected Poems (W. W. Norton, 2019) and Never-Ending Birds (Norton), awarded the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize in 2011. His six prose works include Show Me Your Environment: Essays on Poets, Poems, and Poetry (University of Michigan, 2014). He has won prizes and fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Mellon Foundation, and Poetry Society of America. Baker holds the Thomas B. Fordham Chair of Creative Writing at Denison University and for many years has served as Poetry Editor of The Kenyon Review. For the past seven years he has curated an annual eco-poetry feature, “Nature’s Nature,” for The Kenyon Review.
Oops, we say, sorry. Then we clean up the spill with a paper towel, or a sponge, or maybe a mop.
British Petroleum spilled some oil in the Gulf of Mexico, forty miles off the Louisiana coast, and it spilled for months underneath a huge rig called Deepwater Horizon. Deepwater Horizon: such a lyrical name, full of expansive majesty and resonance, as if making someone a great promise that extends both outward and up-and-down. The American hope of manifest destiny—exploration and discovery, identity and fulfillment, possession and ownership. Why do we insist to turn hope into entitlement, over and over?
On April 20th, 2010, eleven people died in the explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon floating rig, seventeen others were injured seriously. Ten years later we still can’t fully gauge the actual extent of the damages. As far as we can guess, each day something in the neighborhood of 2,000,000 gallons of oil—another estimate says it’s about 60,000 barrels—spewed out a mile deep into the rich blue-black waters of the Gulf, and so, by a conservative guess from the U.S. Geological Survey, more than 150 million gallons of oil (give or take a lake’s worth) floated and oozed and rose and sank in those semi-tropical waters as a result. At least now the spill is stopped. The damage will continue for decades or more.
Oops, we say, sorry.
Spill, a transitive verb, reaches up to us through Middle English from the depths of Old English spillan, which derives from older Old English spildan: to destroy; and perhaps bubbles up from the deeper Latin, spolium, as an old smelly animal skin, and the deep-dark Greek sphallein, to cause to fall.
Spill, in its archaic and oldest English usage, is to kill, destroy; to cause blood to be lost by wounding. It is to allow, often unintentionally, something to fall, flow, or run out until it’s lost or wasted. It is to throw off, as from a horse; to let out, as a secret; divulge, flow, seep, run, become wasted, scattered; to spread profusely beyond usual bounds, as a crowd into the streets.
We can spill our guts. We can confess, blurt, blab. We spill the beans. Oops.
We spill the oil.
And this is just what we know. What damages and what spills happen every day that we don’t know or hear about or remember? Do you know there is a coal-seam fire burning in an underground mine in Ohio, still burning, that started in the 19th century? There are dozens, maybe hundreds of fires burning in old coal mines in Pennsylvania and West Virginia and Ohio. According to the New York Times, oil spills in Nigeria that equal the Exxon Valdez disaster have occurred every single year for the past five decades. Nigeria supplies about 40% of the crude oil exported into the United States.
People were outraged about the BP Deepwater spill, even as they are—as we are—complicit; even as we tuned in again and again to watch video of the underwater disaster as yet another form of momentary entertainment complete with voice-overs and advertisements. Even as we drive our SUV four blocks to the store to buy strawberries grown by migrant laborers in the Central Valley or tulips from the Netherlands. And yes, poets are writing frantically about this recent newsworthy mess. In the autumn following Deepwater, when my magazine, The Kenyon Review, opened to its new season of submissions (I am the Poetry Editor for this journal), we have found a vast and spreading oil slick of poems about the spill, one after the next full of venom and self-righteous indignation and accusation.
I probably won’t write about the spill beyond this occasion. I just don’t know enough, and neither do nearly all the poets whose poems I read at The Kenyon Review. I can’t begin to imagine the effect on the animals and plants in the region, the dying, the hurt, the forever-affected. I don’t know the details of the effects of the Deepwater spill on tourism, on the livelihoods of fishermen and their families, and all the related lives in all the vast connected industries and flyways. I know the news, and I have my tidbit of research. Outrage and shame are one thing, real but often vague. The lived and learned capability to witness and speak wisely is another.
We write best, we write most truly, about the place we inhabit mostly deeply. The best writing is more than headlines and outrage. It is backstory as well as headline, it is the bio behind the byline as well as streaming video, it is the rest of the story in all the human complexity. “It is difficult to get the news from poems,” writes William Carlos Williams, “yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Art is shaped by the fate of our happenstance as well as by the causes in our consciences. And when I say “inhabit,” I mean the place where we live deeply in our body as well as in our mind’s imagination.
This is to say I have my own Deepwater (and Katrina, for that matter) to write about. I find my poems affected, as I write, by my own spills and damages, those nearby, those I fully inhabit and sometimes those I cause. We ruin our home even as we build it. My own ongoing Deepwater is regional and ecological, my awareness and witness of the relation of the green world—what we used to call nature—with the peopled world. I have taken as a guidepost some of the thinking of Felix Guattari and his theories of “ecosophy.” Guattari asserts that there are at least three “ecological registers” that must be brought into synchronous operation when we write about nature: the environment, social relations, and human subjectivity, which I take to mean both the self in all its slippages as well as language and art in all of theirs. This becomes Guattari’s “ethico-political” calibration and, as I write about my own Midwest, my personal challenge. One of poetry’s important tasks is to make room for, to include the things that often surprise us in their unbidden presence, our daily spills. Tell all the truth, as Emily Dickinson advises, but tell it slant. Tell all the truth, we might say as well, but tell it deep.
Tell all the truth, we might add, but sometimes let it spill. Spill. Oops, a mistake, an accident. Yet poetry is driven by, shaped by, discovered by something akin to a spill—that is, error. What is metaphor, the life’s-water of poetry, but the purposeful yet often unbidden leakage of detail to detail. The leakage, the linkage of unlikes.
Is there something useful—in fact, something inevitable and beautifully necessary—in the making of art that we may learn from accident? Are we open, as we write, to the surprising spillover from the subconscious, from play, from association, from surprise, from contradiction, and from error? That which leaks into or maybe spews all over our determined intention?
If I say—to make a very simple illustration—that the sun today is like a silver dollar, I am making a kind of metaphoric linkage, using the figure of a simile. The sun borrows some of the characteristics of that silver dollar, to be like a silver dollar. Maybe it is bright, or shiny hot, or of some aspect of value. It is round. But even as I assert this likeness, I am reminding us that, in fact, the sun is not a silver dollar. My likeness contains an acknowledgment of the falseness of my analogy, or the incompleteness of it, the inaccuracy.
Sometimes, some days, I write to find out what I have to say. Not what I thought I would say, but what, in the process of discovery and linkage and error and spillage, I have to say. Then the work and play and poetry begin.
I do not think of myself as a political poet. I do not think of myself as not a political poet. The peril of the political artist can be certainty and superiority, accusation and piety, single-minded commitment: the temptation to categorize into villain and hero. These traits tend to need to wash away or sop up the complicating spill. They often can’t afford complexity, or contradiction, or self-contained opposition.
Several years ago I thought I would write a love poem. I have written many. I thought I would capture a moment when my wife Ann was gardening. She loves to garden, and has gotten so good that she has a stall at our local farmer’s market. We made a huge garden, more than 2,000 square feet with twelve twenty-foot-long raised beds, and we had ten acres of old woods and paths and meadows and ancient bramble. On three sides of our little acreage were hundreds and hundreds more acres of farmland—corn and soybeans and pasture—and old growth woods of beech and oak, papaw and walnut and locust, and the thousands of little plants in the shade and understory. So my poem, “The Spring Ephemerals,” began like a garden, gridded, measured, carefully lined and contained. I thought it should be in quatrains, five or six of them, in decasyllabic lines. I had no title yet when the opening came: “Here she comes now with her face to be kissed. / Here she comes with an armload of baskets. . . .” What is an armload of baskets? I started to revise.
It happens that our species is ravenous in its hungers, its need for space and growth. We call this, without a tinge of irony, development. And development inevitably spills over. We found out that our rural area was being developed, and four hundred acres of wilderness and field and hills around us were to be turned into a series of exurban neighborhoods with their McMansions, as we call them.
So first Ann, and then both of us, dug and replanted frantically. Like spies, we sneaked onto other properties to retrieve the ferns and trout lily, twinleaf and Dutchman’s-breeches before they were bulldozed. As I wrote, I folded into my rather pastoral love poem this sudden storm of the damaged and sorrowing. And I thought more about growth, appetite, and I watched my skin-cancer-susceptible wife work in the hard sun with a set jaw of determination, saving as many as she could of the small ones.
But to cut to the chase: There are dozens of houses now plopped in the middle of their one-acre plots. Most of the trees are gone, the old ones, and a few new ones are planted and set in decorative designs. Most of the ephemeral plants we moved are still alive on those ten acres, moved to new homes along the creek and under the trees; and the creek still flows, but in its diverted bed. The water table is lower, and who knows what runoff goes where. And now, even, the long marriage is over. But the relationship goes on, and the incessant growth and spillover of things go on. I wanted the poem to face the complexity of the growth of things, the love and custody, the fear and loss. My love poem grew into something I had no sight of when I started. Art is full of accidents. Here is “The Spring Ephemerals”:
Here she comes with her face to be kissed. Here she comes
lugging two plastic sacks looped over her arms and stuffed
with fresh shoots. It’s barely dawn. She’s been out
for an hour already, digging up what she can save
before developers raze the day’s lot sites and set woodpiles
ablaze. That’s their plan for the ninety-plus acres.
She squats in the sun to show me wild phlox
in pink-running-to-blue, rue anemone, masses
of colt’s foot, wild ginger, blood root and may-
apples, bracken and fiddlehead fern—ferns being not
spring ephemerals per se, but imperiled by road graders
come to shave the shaded slopes where they grow.
Once I held her in a snow cover of sheets. Wind beat
the world while we listened. Her back was a sail,
unfurling. She wanted me to touch stitches there,
little scabs, where doctors had sliced the sick cells
and cauterized her skin for safety’s sake.
Now her hands are spotted by briars, bubbles of blood
daubed in brown. She’s got burrs in her red hair.
Both sleeves are torn. She kneels as the sunlight
cuts through pine needles above us, casting a grid
like the plats the surveyors use. It’s the irony
of every cell: that it divides to multiply.
This way the greedy have bought up the land
behind ours to parcel for resale at twenty-
fold what they paid weeks ago.
It’s a race to outrun their gas cans and matches,
to line the path to our creek with transplants
of spice bush, yellow fawn lily, to set aside space
in the garden for the frail. She adjusts the map
she’s drawn of the tumbling woods—where each
flower and fern come from, under what tree, beside
which ridge. Dysfunctional junctional nevus:
a name like a bad joke for the growth on her skin,
pigment too pale for much sunlight. Drooping trillium,
she says, handing me a cluster of roots, unfolding leaves—
rare around here. How delicate, a trillium,
whose oils are food for ants, whose sessile leaves are
palm-sized, tripartite. They spread a shadow over
each stem’s fragile one bloom, white in most cases,
though this one’s maroon. This makes it rarer.
It hangs like a red bell safe from the sun. It bends
like our necks bend, not in grief, not prayer,
as we work with our backs to the trees, as they burn.
Flash forward. For six years I have lived in the village center of Granville, Ohio, population 3,200 in four square miles. As I live here longer, and become a neighbor and citizen and one of the village people, I write about this environment as I learn its particularities. And yes, we never quite fit. Things spill and overpower us. We feel the pressure of what we can never control. Here is “Hungry”:
This time the jay, fat as a boot, bluer
than sky gone blue now that the rain has
finished with us for a while, this loud jay
at the neck of the black walnut keeps cawing
I want, I want—but can’t finish his clause.
Hard runoff has spread the driveway with seeds,
green talcum, the sex of things, packed
like plaster against shutters and tool boxes,
sides of the barn, while the force of water
pouring down from the stopped-up gullet
of gutter has drilled holes deep in the mud.
Yet the world of the neighborhood is still just
the world. So much, so much. Like the bulldog
next door, choking itself on a chain
to guard the yard of the one who starves it.
Something of a similar motivation underlies “Too Many,” a more recent poem. I hope even the lines of this poem bear some of the weight from the work of accommodation, of making things fit or find room. Things are too crowded, aren’t they? Everywhere this crowding spills over. I hope the formal characteristics show this pressure—things broken, bitten off, or overfull, unbalanced—even as I try also to make something shapely and pattern-holding. Pattern out of apparent chaos: fractal as poetic form.
Finally I hope the voice of the poem finds its own way to shift and reconstitute. It sounds to me pretty separate at first—the knowing self amid those amusing neighbors—and quick to judge. I hope it sees itself thus, too, and reorients itself. For all the blurred and plural shapes, the over-plenty of deer and development, the over-plenty of menace and money and leisure, there is one small figure of the fawn. What to do in this case, but stop? That’s the purpose behind the shift in point of view at the poem’s end. The “they” becomes the “we” . . . even as the final line pills over, too long for the page, too long for the form, too long for its own good. Oops. This is “Too Many”: Too many
say, when what they mean
are deer—the foragers, the few at a time, fair
if little more
than rats, according to
a farmer friend nearby, whose corn means plenty.
They nip the peaches,
and one bite ruins;
hazard every road with their running-
menace; plague; something should be done.
Or here in town,
found a kind of afterlife—the townies hate
the damage to their varie-
shadeside ferns—what they do inside white bunkers of
the county’s one good
course is “criminal,”
deep scuffs through the sand—that’s one thing—but
lush piles of polished-
ruts in the chemically- and color-enriched greens . . .
one more, curled
like a tan seashell not a foot from my blade, just-
world fawn, speckled,
wet as a trout, which I didn’t see, hacking back
brush beneath my tulip
poplar—it’s not afraid,
mews like a kitten, can’t walk: there are so many, too
many of us,
the world keeps saying,
and the world keeps making—this makes no sense—
The wild woods are going away, and decorative, engineered trees teeter among our houses and skyscrapers. The hills are smoothed off, and the creeks retrenched, and the drainage managed, the birds fewer, the animals fleeing farther back into the woods and shadows and deeper waters, while a few turn tame from our hothouse hostas and garbage dumps.
The marriage is over. The oil flows. The old fires burn belowground, but the heart grows a new vein. The world keeps making more. What can we do?
Ebb and flow. Spill and capture. Listen and sing.