KR Reviews

On Forage by Rose McLarney

New York, NY: Penguin Books/Penguin Random House, 2019. 80 pages. $20.00.

The first poem you’ll come across in Rose McLarney’s Forage—if you’re the kind of reader who sets out from the beginning and doesn’t randomly graze—is a six-liner with a title lifted straight from Virgil: “‘What Need Have I for Loftier Song to Sing?’” The title is, of course, an homage to the instructional poet, whose Bucolics are a kind of agricultural tutorial, but the poem is actual instruction itself. Its first lines teach us that, in order to find plums in the subdivision, we must “walk looking at the pavement / for spatterings and pits.”

It is a small poem—not even half a sonnet—but contained within it are many of McLarney’s themes: close attention to the details of the natural world (though not necessarily in a bucolic setting—this is the subdivision, after all); the ability to find beauty, and even use, in the neglected and the abandoned (the “falling plums / no one will pick”); the situating of the local and the personal within larger mythologies (we’re picking fallen fruit, after all); the invocation and acknowledgement of source material (which is a kind of foraging, too); and the decentering of the egocentric (there is no “I” in the poem, only an implied first-person).

The poem is a practical suggestion, but by its end we recognize an imperative: “Walk looking down so as to know when to look up.” That act—to observe the world before you so as to discover a sweetness and a necessity you might otherwise overlook—is at the core of McLarney’s ecopoetic project in Forage.

An established term these days, ecopoetry began, as all new poetics do, with earnest attempts at definition. Perhaps the critics anticipated this reductive question: Isn’t it just a fancy term for nature writing, which has been around since Gilgamesh journeyed into the Cedar Forest? I like the terseness of John Shoptaw’s definition: “an ecopoem needs to be environmental and it needs to be environmentalist.” Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street, in the editor’s preface to The Ecopoetry Anthology, write, “Generally, this poetry addresses contemporary problems and issues in ways that are ecocentric and that respect the integrity of the other-than-human world.”

The poems in Forage check all these boxes, to be sure—they are environmental, environmentalist, ecocentric, problem-addressing—but they are even more multidimensional; they exist at the intersections of the personal, the historical, the scientific, the linguistic, the political, the ethical. Really, many of the poems, in fact, would be right at home in Ghost-Fishing: An Eco-Justice Anthology—editor Melissa Tuckey’s urgent and necessary collection of “poetry born of deep cultural attachment to the land and poetry born of crisis.”

Take, nearly at random example, McLarney’s poem “Pastoral,” which deserves to be quoted here in its entirety:

Cattle are a black weight on the light sway of land that was once
prairie. The wind pulls at pasture, wantful; they appear to hold it in place.

Though it was the cattle that ate away the native grasses.
Perhaps the impression is scenic because their necks are bent

with the downward stroke of feeding. I could say the oil derricks
too are feeding, with enormous avian pecks.

Or that they are nodding in assent. Yes, yes, we are allowed
so much. Let us strike again, the pose of plenty.

Like many of the poems in Forage, “Pastoral” is part elegy, part critique, part celebration. The voice isn’t overly rapturous; rather, it is often quiet and humble, but committed. The speaker reminds us that the prairie has gone to pasture, as it were, and implies that such ecological destruction is the result of our relentless factory-farming and oil-drilling. But the speaker doesn’t blatantly condemn. In fact, before ending in a kind of celebration (ironic or not), the speaker hesitates, in a self-reflective and even self-critical pause—“I could say . . . ”—before making the metaphor that connects oil derrick with bird.

One question to pose: Why not just write “the oil derricks too are feeding, with enormous avian pecks”? Why the qualifier “I could say”? The answer, I think, is that McLarney is always aware of the privileged position of the poet. Many of these poems reflect on the act of writing poetry itself:

Surrogate, transfer, substitute, ersatz—I set out
to say something of an animal without any of that,
not making it enact some strand of human behavior.

So begins the poem “One Way of Posing,” a meditation on the ethics and craft of writing about animals and the non-human. The key word in both poems is “pose”— a word that isn’t so far from “poesy” and is at the root of “compose.” (To read through Forage is to experience an interconnected poetry collection about interconnectivity). It’s an illuminating connection—the poet as poser, someone trying to capture the nonhuman world in the pose of words. Thus, to say “I could say” is to have it both ways—that is, to say and not to say—which is its own kind of privileged “pose of plenty.”

This is all to say that these poems are very concerned with the limits and necessities of language, especially in relation to environmental destruction. We know that CO2 is being pumped into the atmosphere at unprecedented and detrimental rates. We know the climate crisis has caused extreme weather, animal extinction, sea-level rise. We learn or remember, from reading Forage, other facts: highways are where “habitats are cut in two,” Carolina parakeets went extinct from over-hunting, “Aquifers are so depleted it would take a great flood / to replenish them.” (Indeed, one of the hallmarks of ecopoetry is its ability to incorporate scientific knowledge within poetic language—or, better yet, poetic rhythms.) And we know that our governments are doing very little about all of this and that governments don’t read poetry.

So, what can poetry actually do? What need does one have to sing? Can a poem do anything to help solve the climate crisis? Are we crying into the void? Are we just striking a pose? As McLarney writes,

After many years of what I meant
to say and what I tried to show, to whom
          have I made reverence truly known?

It’s always tempting to cite here, for the umpteenth time, Auden’s tired maxim, “For poetry makes nothing happen.” But Forage reminds us that the point of ecopoetry is to remind us. In “After the Removal of 30 Types of Plants and Animals from the Junior Dictionary,” (first published in the Kenyon Review) a poem that is half-elegy, half-warning, McLarney ends with another imperative:

                              Leave a few things intact,

allow the possibility of turning books’ pages back
to lobster, leopard, lark, then forward to last—to lasting—to live.

Language, especially poetic language, can help us reestablish a deep humility as we remember our relationships to the environment. What is metaphor, after all, other than its own environment, the connection of two unlike things? And what is metaphor but the essence of poetry?

It’s likely, yes, that our poems are only voices crying into the great void, and the forces of the bulldozer and the chainsaw will always go on. Nevertheless, nevertheless, these poems say: We must continue to celebrate the small joys of the world—as when a lover, fixing a drink

From the remains

          of eaten fruit, makes
          perfume arise.

We must, that is, celebrate the world in full understanding of the fact that we are destroying it. We must keep singing loftily.