Book Review: Groundglass by Kathryn Savage

book cover for Kathryn Savage's Groundglass, the words around broken fragments

Kathryn Savage’s gorgeous lyric essay Groundglass is a poetic reckoning with environmental pollution and its unavoidable connection to human bodies. In the book, available August 2nd from Coffee House Press, Savage blends tough questions about external systems with nuanced reflections on internal harm. Savage chooses the lyric essay, a hybrid form combining poetry and essay, as the conduit for this examination. A mix of personal memoir and reported research, Groundglass tenderly dissolves the perceived boundary between environment and self.

The book opens in the Humboldt Industrial Area neighborhood in Minneapolis, where Savage lived as a child. Savage compares this area with the place in which she now lives and raises her son. Both neighborhoods are dominated by industry. Savage reflects on the loss of her father, noting “his cancer occurs at a slightly higher rate in areas that produce industrial waste and pollution.” She suspects pollution is related to his illness, but she struggles to grasp concrete connections. In some ways, the pages that follow are an attempt to do this. Savage gathers statistics, perspectives and reflections like potential clues. She holds each item up to the light and asks: Does this connect?

Despite its meditative, reflective tone, Groundglass is not a slow read. Savage’s captivating prose effortlessly pulls the reader through memories, research, conversations and trips to industrial sites. The essay is divided into short chapters, some with accompanying images like maps and body scans. The most poignant moments are those in which Savage reflects on the absence of her father or describes the earth as a body itself. “Remember how a room could smell like a person, now gone,” she writes, reflecting on the days after her father’s death. “What a marvelous disturbance. The room, briefly, alive with him.”

Savage also includes contributions from other individuals, which launches the book’s reflective scope out of Savage’s personal observations into a shared experience of Americans (an unsettling 60%) who live within three miles of a Superfund site or brownfield. These additional perspectives drive home a critical point: pollution affects bodies everywhere, but it especially harms those historically treated as more disposable than others. From the contribution of Keisha Brown, a Black environmental activist who grew up in Birmingham near a Superfund: “The problem is inside my body, not in my yard.”

Savage sees this body problem as a generational one: “Body burden—the load of environmental pollutants bodies hold—can be transmitted genetically, so is intergenerational, becoming a strange inheritance.” She considers her identities as a daughter and as a mother, and reflects on the ways these roles literally connect her body to past and future—just as pollution held on land exists as both past and future. Everything flows forward; there is no clean break between today and tomorrow, between this generation and the next.

While Savage focuses on the effects of a polluted environment on her own body and life, she contextualizes these issues within the broader need for social justice. She writes with refreshing humility about the connections between environmental justice and other social justice issues, drawing parallels that demand accountability: “The oil and gas industry pose danger but enjoy a freedom that is so like being born a man or white or wealthy in this society. The harm is real, yet suffered by others.”

Savage considers her own role as a white woman in this context: “Maybe I am as complicit as the rail yard. I desire this place for my use too. I have been asking myself, What would true remediation look like here, ecologically and culturally? A restoring, a redress. It would be reparations; the end of settler violence; land back; my absence.”

Readers interested in Superfund sites and links between pollution and sickness will learn much from Groundglass, which confronts problems that are often ignored. Savage’s beautiful writing is a fresh meditation on the interconnectedness of all bodies, both of land and beings. Perhaps most importantly, Groundglass invites readers to settle into their own bodies and cultivate an ever-deepening awareness of the spaces they occupy.

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