Poetry

“In Line to Vote on Our Future Climate,” by Meg Day

 

In Line to Vote on Our Future Climate

Years from now—
………after the ice caps
…………………..& the asteroid;
after the stars have died

………& we receive word
………of their passing,

but before the melting
………point has sung
…………………..some lullaby
of mercury always tugging

………closer that sun
………we did not know

to fear; after the heat
………has become so rote
…………………..we cannot recreate
much less recollect

………the feeling of cool
………or of breeze & even

stones quit carrying
………any memory of chill—
…………………..I will think of your
body cracked open

………at the center
………like the surface

of the Susquehanna
………in deep December,
…………………..the cool field
of your thigh against

………my cheek, the creek
………of me sprung cold

from sleep. I will keep
………for myself
…………………..the moment
before all this: the sand

………& the wasteland
………it made of us—

the day we woke & green
………in all its iterations
…………………..had abandoned us
& with it the earth—after

………the famine but before
………the drought, when

you fed my wet breath
………into the hot terrarium
…………………..of you still chilled
at the edges by less natural

………disasters. Like
………the neighbor boy

who told you where
………in the snow you should
…………………..put your bare hand
& for how long you should

………leave it. How it was
………returned to you still

fixed to your arm
………but so cold it
…………………..nearly boiled,
so blue it was ablaze.

 

This poem originally appeared in Poem-A-Day and also appeared in Best American Poetry 2020; it is reprinted here with permission of the poet.

 

Meg Day is the author of Last Psalm at Sea Level (Barrow Street 2014), winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the Audre Lorde Award, and a finalist for the 2016 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Day is also the author of two chapbooks: When All You Have is a Hammer (winner of the 2012 Gertrude Press Chapbook Contest) and We Can’t Read This (winner of the 2013 Gazing Grain Chapbook Contest) and, with coeditor Niki Herd, published Laura Hershey: On the Life and Work of an American Master (Pleiades 2019). Day’s poems appear in Best American Poetry 2020, The New York Times, POETRY magazine, Prairie Schooner, AGNI, Beloit Poetry Journal, Drunken Boat, and Vinyl, among other journals, and in recent anthologies, including Best New Poets, Wingbeats II: Exercises & Practice in Poetry, We Will Be Shelter: Poems for Survival (edited by Andrea Gibson), and Troubling the Line: Trans & Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics.

Raised in northern California’s Bay Area, Day holds a B.A. from the University of California, San Diego, an MFA from Mills College, and a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing with an emphasis on Disability Poetics from the University of Utah, where Day was a Steffensen-Cannon Fellow, a United States Point Foundation Scholar, and Poetry Editor for Quarterly West. The 2015-2016 recipient of the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship and 2013 recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, Day has also received awards and fellowships from the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, The Amy Clampitt Fund, Lambda Literary Foundation, Hedgebrook, Squaw Valley Writers, the Taft-Nicholson Center for Environmental Humanities, and the International Queer Arts Festival. An Assistant Professor of English & Creative Writing at Franklin & Marshall College,Day lives in Pennsylvania. For more information, visit megday.com  [Sources: American Academy of Poets and megday.com]

 

 

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

What struck me immediately about today’s poem is its structure, a pattern that alternates ten quatrains with nine couplets and also makes use of unusual, but very patterned, line indentations. In each quatrain, first and fourth lines are left-margin-justified, while second and third lines are stepped-in with successively larger indents; meanwhile, the couplets are indented so as to line up with the second line in each quatrain. As in the natural world, the pattern is recognizable but complex and subtle, making the poem appear to be more mercurial than it actually is. With no meter or rhyme scheme, it’s free verse, but like all free verse, not really “free.” Robert Frost said writing free verse was like playing tennis with the net down, but he did not say that it was like playing tennis without any rules.

The poem’s syntax consists of two long sentences that divide the poem into two parts, one beginning with the first line and ending with “from sleep” in the sixth quatrain, and the second beginning with “I will keep” in that stanza and continuing all the way to the end. This extended syntax works against all the short line breaks to create the momentum that pulls the poem forward, and it generates a structural or inherent tension that keeps the lines supple and taut.

Also subtle and complex is the way sound works here. Again, there is no patterned end rhyme, but each stanza includes at least one instance of rhyme, assonance, anaphora, or other repetition of sound. For example, the first stanza slant-rhymes “asteroid” with “died” and also repeats the words “after the” at the beginnings of lines 2 and 4; the “asteroid/died” rhyme gets picked up again in “word” in the couplet that follows. Other sound pairings occur across stanzas, as seen near the end of the poem when “chilled” is echoed in “cold” and “boiled” in the poem’s last few lines.

Within its subtle but definite structure, the poem sets up a series of oppositions that play the idea of cold against heat, darkness against light, verdancy against wasteland, and so on. For example, “ice caps,” a “feeling of cool,” “Deep December,” “cool field,” “sprung cold,” “chilled,” and “cold” are counterbalanced by “melting point,” “mercury always tugging,” a thawing river (“the Susquehanna”), “hot terrarium,” “nearly boiled,” and “ablaze.” We see similar paradoxical oppositions between “the sand / & the wasteland” on the one hand and “green / in all its iterations” on the other, between freezing and thaw, and between the arid, hostile landscape and the vibrant, passionate bodies that inhabit it.

The poem speaks from the present, when climate disaster is incipient but not yet realized, when we still “did not know to fear” the sun. It looks forward with dread to the time “after the ice caps” are gone, when the experience of terrible, relentless heat will have become “so rote” that we’ve forgotten “the feeling of cool / or of breeze.” When this happens, the speaker will carry with them all the greenest memories of the before time, memories “of the Susquehanna / in deep December” and of a lover’s “thigh against / / my cheek, the creek / of me sprung cold.” The speaker will also keep close the memory of “the moment” when it all turned, when “sand” made a “wasteland” of everything, when even the idea of green “had abandoned us.” Into this pivotal moment comes another memory of the lover, a “you,” a lush “terrarium” whose heat in the before time was a good thing, tamed by “less natural / / disasters.”

The poem closes with an example of one such “less natural” (because it came from a human) source of chill: a cruel childhood prank in which a boy convinced the lover to do self-harm by holding their bare hand in a snowbank. In that final image of her lover’s hand “so cold it / nearly boiled, / so blue it was ablaze,” the oppositions come together and are resolved. It is not the heat by itself or the cold by itself that is necessarily bad, it seems, but each of those things in extremity.

The view of the future is bleak here, and the poem, with its memories of greener, happier times feels like an elegy, even a dirge. A bit of consolation is offered in the title, which reminds us that the disaster is still in the “future” and that there may be things—voting, for example—that could lead to a different outcome for our planet. I was about to say that I was consoled, too, by the blooming memories of times the speaker spent with her lover, but in fact, I think those images are the stone against which the knife of future climate disaster is whetted. The inevitable result of unchecked climate change is the extinction of our species—not just the chance to experience the world in normal temperature variations, but also to experience loving other human beings.

“In Line to Vote on Our Future Climate” resists the kinds of missteps that can scuttle political poems. It does not rant or rail; it does not moralize or preach. It does not even openly lament but instead simply poses images of lushness and life against those of aridity and death, allowing readers to draw their own inevitable conclusions about what we hope for our planet. That it can be all this at the same time it is a poignant love poem is its singular achievement.

 

Rebecca Foust is the author of three chapbooks and four books including ONLY, forthcoming from Four Way Books in 2022, and her poems are widely published, in The Hudson Review, Narrative, Ploughshares, Poetry, Southern Review and elsewhere. Recognitions include the 2020 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry judged by Kaveh Akbar, the CP Cavafy and James Hearst poetry prizes, a Marin Poet Laureateship, and fellowships from The Frost Place, Hedgebrook, MacDowell, Sewanee, and West Chester Poetry Conference.

 

 

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