Anthropocene Poetics: Deep Time, Sacrifice Zones, and Extinction

Anthropocene Poetics: Deep Time, Sacrifice Zones, and Extinction
by David Farrier

University of Minnesota Press, MN. 2019
184 pp., illus. 5 b/w. Trade, 92.00; paper, $23.00
ISBN: 978-1-5179-0625-2; ISBN: 978-1-5179-0626-9.

Reviewed by
Robert Maddox-Harle
July 2019

This book is an in-depth scholarly investigation into the relevance and efficacy of poetry, understood in its broadest sense, in this period of history we find ourselves in called by some, the Anthropocene. As Catherine Rigby notes; “This is not just a work about poetry; it is an exquisitely poetic work of scholarship.”

So just what is the Anthropocene?  It is the current era in which human impact on the planet as a whole is taking place. Human activities such as fossil fuel extraction, massive scale monocultural farming practices, large scale deforestation activities and pollution of the atmosphere and water ways are causing actual geological changes. Various authorities argue about when this period started, the most popular agreed on time is around the middle of the 20th century. At this time massive expansion in all human activities, including population growth, took place and on a larger global scale than ever before.

David Farrier is a senior lecturer in modern and contemporary literature at the University of Edinburgh. In this highly readable, though complex theoretical and detailed investigation he, “puts deep time at the center, defining a new poetics for thinking through humanity’s role as a geological agent, the devastation caused by resource extraction, and the looming extinction crisis.” (rear cover).

The book has five sections; Introduction: Life Enfolding in Deep Time. Chapter 1 – Intimacy: The Poetics of Thick Time. Chapter 2 – Entangled: The Poetics of Sacrificial Zones. Chapter 3 – Swerve: The Poetics of Kin-Making, followed by a short Coda: Knots in Time. There are a smattering of black & white illustrations and an extensive Notes section, extremely valuable for future research.

Chapter 1 looks “at the “geological intimacy” presaged by the Anthropocene in terms of the “thickened time” of lyric poetry. It explores the intimacy that inheres within the deep time of geological and evolutionary processes. Thick time is discussed in detail and is defined as the way lyrics can put many different time scales into one frame to bring about an awareness of these other times. Farrier discusses the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and Seamus Heaney.

Chapter 2 explores the, “extractive economies and depleted environments of the Plantationocene in the context of what Evelyn Reilly calls “relational poetics”. The experimental poetry of Reilly and Larkin are discussed to show how “avant-garde writing can reveal the density of entanglements that lie behind ostensibly homogenized or “smooth” spaces and surfaces of plastics and plantations” (p. 11). This chapter also “proposes a diffractive poetics of entangled spaces”.

Chapter 3 “applies the work of Haraway and Deborah Bird Rose on multispecies kin-making to poetry concerned with a less biodiverse future” (p. 9). Farrier introduces the figure of the Clinamen in this chapter, which defines a poetics of kin-making and also stands for a range of literary figures that can provide us with shapes for thinking about what a poetics of kin-making might look like” (p. 12).

In the Coda Farrier introduces Singapore’s “super trees.” These are an “ingenious combination of giant solar panels and vents for the heat generated from creating electricity from the city’s waste biomass.” They exemplify the notion that technology will offer a way out of our ecological disaster. Singapore, the Garden City, is paradoxically a combination of vast amounts of concrete and gardens. Farrier sums up briefly the various poets discussed throughout the book and ends by saying that he does not want to overstate the case for poetry.

The real question the coda raises is just how efficacious poetry is in bringing about significant global change for the better. My great grandmother wrote “activist” poetry in London in the late 1890s. I have written essays discussing poets as visionaries, often quoting Shelley’s famous lines that “poets are the legislators of the world”. Some of my own contemporary poetry exposes the dangers of disastrous extraction practices such as CSG. None of these have changed a single thing. As W.H. Auden, once said “Poetry makes nothing happen” (p. 128).

Farrier does note quite correctly, I believe, “an Anthropocene poetics – of relations thickened in deep time, of our entanglement with sacrificial zones, and of the inexorable drive of kin-making – can help frame the ground we stand on as we consider which way to turn” (p.128). Like the poets discussed throughout this book Farrier’s heart is in the right place, if only this book, and all Anthropocene poetry could be read, assimilated and acted upon in “present” time as we turn towards the future.