Poetry Sunday: “Anthropocene Pastoral,”
by Catherine Pierce

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

One of the most successful poems I’ve read on the subject of climate change, “Anthropocene Pastoral” is careful not to rant about or even invoke the words naming that controversial contemporary phenomenon. It does not lament, rail, or warn of dire consequences. In fact, the poem takes the wholly surprising approach of focusing on what we, short-sighted, deluded fleshpots that we are, cannot help but sometimes perceive as a positive consequence of climate change—false spring. It also acknowledges that the earth, even in the early stages of what may be its death throes, can, in its way, be magnificent.

The poem sneaks up on its subject, cueing us first in the title, a near-oxymoron juxtaposing “Anthropocene” with ”Pastoral.” For readers in the know (or resorting to Google), “Anthropocene” does in fact summon the specter of climate change, for it means “the current geological aged viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment [OED online].” Even readers only vaguely recognizing “Anthropocene” as the technical, scientific name of a geologic age, though, will be startled to see it paired with the word “Pastoral.”

Outside of poetry, “pastoral” means “having the simplicity, charm, serenity, or other characteristics generally attributed to rural areas [dictionary.com].” Given its etymological root meaning “pasture,” it’s not surprising that in a secondary meaning of “pastoral,” sheep and shepherds gambol into view to portray country life “idyllically . . . [in] a work of literature, art, or music”[Id.] In poetry, the pastoral concerns itself with the natural world or, more precisely, with human beings and their interactions with that world. In its more philosophical manifestations, it examines the difference between perception and projection: Does the world exist separate and apart from our apprehension of it? In contemporary political work, pastoral poems often raise issues of the earth’s exploitation and spoliation, comprising a whole new branch of poetry (and its own annual conference at UC Berkeley) called “eco-poetics.”

Pastoral or nature poetry began with Theocritus’s Idylls in Sicily in the 3rd century B.C. Theocritus wrote about the lives and loves of shepherds, but over time the genre came to include praise poems about the natural world and verse instruction about farming and husbandry; Virgil’s Eclogues and Hesiod’s Works and Days are examples. Over its long life span, the pastoral has been adapted by poets in ways that reflect how human beings—through agriculture, industry, technology, migration, and war—interact with the environment. Devotional poets like Herbert, Donne, and Hopkins saw nature as a manifestation of God. Blake saw it as visionary, capable of expanding human seeing, but he also wrote dark poems like “London” about nature defiled by civilization. For Romantic poets, nature was a wildly popular theme, often imbued with human qualities in what Ruskin called “pathetic fallacy” (discussed in a previous column, here). Contemporary poetry borrows from the Romantics to use an object in the landscape as a springboard opening out into some larger revelation.

I make these points not just to set the context for what is traditionally meant by the term “pastoral poetry” but also to point out that the term carries within it the seeds of its own resistance, or at least of its own sense of looming loss. Even in ancient pastoral poetry, one form was elegy—a shepherd mourning the death of a friend or beloved, an urban dweller longing for the joys of country life. The Industrial Revolution and rapid rise of technology in this and the last centuries has led to an increasing sense of human alienation from nature, and in modern pastorals like T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” and Hart Crane’s “The Bridge,” the natural and human worlds are shattered, ruined, and agonizingly at odds. Today’s pastoral poem is as apt to mourn or make a political comment on the environment’s defilement as it is to celebrate what’s left of its beauty and transcendence.

Today’s poem does both. Even readers not versed in the pastoral form will relate to its common meaning as used in the title, just as readers not completely familiar with the definition of “Anthropocene” will still appreciate the way the word signals something ancient and vast, geologic time measured in units beyond our comprehension. Before we read the first word of the poem, its title sets up a vast canvas: eons and epochs rather than hours and years. We understand immediately that the poem is going to treat something larger and weightier than, say, the events of one speaker’s life. The title also sets up deep conflicts: man v. nature, technology v. the earth, despair v. hope and joy, central to the poem.

In fact, the modus operandi of “Anthropocene Pastoral” as a whole seems to be juxtaposition and the suspension of opposites. If the poem is a camera looking at things, then we are given the widest possible panoramic lens—the world in geologic time—at the same time we are given a series of minute, intimate vignettes that detail one person’s experience of more limited earthly time. There are many surprising juxtapositions, such as daffodils in January and predatory animals laying down, fairy-tale like, in deep drifts of wildflowers, almost as in a painting by Gaugin. The poem’s first line, “in the beginning, the ending” invokes, well, pretty much everything, and like the title, communicates a universe of meaning. We are made to understand that we are—right now—in the first stages of some kind of ending. The words carry within  them the notion that there will one day be an end-stage of that ending, and that it will not, like the early stages, be beautiful. Instead of the fraught, overused clichés of melting ice shelves and starving polar bears, though, this poem focuses more subtly on the way increasing temperatures are throwing off biorhythms, seasons, and life cycles. Daffodils bloom on New Year’s Day, and wild creatures are invading our gardens. What is surprising is the way Pierce’s presentation of early-stage climate change is not merely neutral, but tips into the outright positive: “purpling desert at twilight” and “pink bursting dogwoods” are just two examples of the many extraordinarily luscious images found in today’s poem. It is as if spring, even when it arrives at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons, so seduces with its leaf buds and blooms and neon greens that we cannot help welcoming it.

But let’s look again at some of those images, for I would argue that even the most gorgeous of them harbor the destructive power that looms at the periphery of this poem. For example, “the trees furred / pink and white” is lovely, but is not that word “furred”—highlighted by being at the end of the line—just the slightest bit creepy when applied to trees? Likewise, the green of lawns is “sharp,” and the sky “so blue it looked / manufactured”—or fake. Desert bloom is described, readers, as an “explosion / of verbena.” Once again, the word signifying something negative and terrifying (“explosion”) is brought into focus by being placed at the end of the line, and we read first that “the desert was an explosion” before we understand that explosion to be a metaphor for bloom. Bobcats among primroses could have been something from Beatrix Potter, but “slinking” short-circuits the whimsy, and when we see coyotes sleeping “deep in orange / poppies,” some part of our brain registers opium and Agent Orange.

About halfway through the poem, a turn is signaled in the phrase “near the end.” We have moved a bit further down the road to The Big End, but I read this as meaning something less dire, more like near the end of an early stage of climate change. Look what happens in this stage: All the verbs become passive participles as the poem describes what is happening as something that is happening to us:

………………………..Near the end
We were eyeletted. We were cottoned.
We were sundressed and barefoot.

These lines paint an image of us dressed in summer clothes—eyelet lace, cotton, sundresses, bare feet—that in any other context would be delightful, but here carries darker connotations. The passive voice communicates a loss of agency and volition, maybe even of  the ability to do anything that can reverse the impending disaster. The poem gets to have it both ways, allowing us to enjoy the image at the same time we sense something looming and awful that rebukes us for our frivolous pleasure.

The poem goes on to acknowledge the insanity (“absurd comfort”) of enjoying being able to wear sundresses in winter while also explaining it: hope and the desire for heat and light are programmed into our DNA. We are “built like that,” the speaker says, and our impulse is to “hold tight to every pleasure even as we / rock[ed] together toward the graying.” Like that remarkable series of phrases above, “graying” makes a passive verb form (a gerund) of a noun, and “graying” stands in bleak contrast to the rainbow of colors—pink, white, green, blue, orange, and purple—that came before. Who doesn’t want more heat and light, and how is it possible to believe in a future graying when the present is such a rainbow riot of color? Maybe that’s why climate change has been such a hard thing for some people to believe in: it’s a tough concept- sell, like the idea of too much chocolate, and it’s a whole lot more fun to enjoy an out-of-season bloom than it is to think about what it may portend. Rather than just dismissing the climate change deniers, the speaker implicates herself and acknowledges the difficulty and complexity of the problem that now confronts us all. What’s wonderful is that at the same time she manages to praise our beautiful, doomed world.

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