Book Review: You Are Here

Ada Limón recalls that soon after being named the 24th Poet Laureate of the United States, she found herself “staring out the window of my office in the Library of Congress thinking, I just want us all to write poems and save the planet.” If any book could help bring about these lofty (perhaps intertwined?) goals, it would be You Are Here: Poetry in the Natural World. This concise yet eclectic anthology collects fifty poems, all written expressly for this project by some of the most inventive and thought-provoking poets currently crafting with language in America.

The poems assembled in these pages traverse a wildly varied range of linguistic, emotional, and ecological terrain. From spare to voluminous, ecstatic celebration to mournful memorial, from the southwest border to the rainy pacific northwest, from the conserved wilderness of National Parks to more quotidian biomes of the local city park, You Are Here is a collection that does indeed contain multitudes, in the most American and Whitmanian sense possible.

There are some poems here which eschew predictable rhythm or rhyme schemes while others take up highly traditional poetic forms, such as Michael Kleber-Diggs’ “Canine Superpowers,” which uses the structure of a villanelle to praise the act of walking in the park with goldendoodles. Kleber-Diggs’ contribution is also one of many works in this volume that illustrate just how much our idea of a “nature poem” has changed over time. We have come a long way since the days when nature poetry was a label applied to a handful of canonical works, mostly by white men, mostly consisting of odes to flowers, fawns, nightingales, and the personification of benignant motherly Earth spirits/goddesses. Instead, You Are Here offers poems which remind us in varying ways that we humans are a part of nature, and that nature can be violent, messy, smelly, scary, and incomprehensible, at least from the limited perspective of an anthropocentric viewpoint.

This anthology goes far beyond the romantic, rugged wilds and the pleasant pastures which once defined and delimited the “natural world” and its representation in poetry. For the poets featured here, nature exists right in the midst of human habitation, as in Danez Smith’s “Two Deer in a Southside Cemetery” and Alberto Ríos’ “Twenty Minutes in the Backyard.” Hanif Abdurraquib finds a natural wonder in the corner of his own bedroom in “There are More Ways to Show Devotion,” a poem which salutes the daily labors of a spider building and rebuilding its web. Nature can be found in the soybean field as well as the pharmacy in torrin a. greathouse’s “No Ethical Transition Under Late Capitalism,” a poem that considers the moral knots tying all of us into a global web of medications with ecological as well as physiological side-effects: “Each needle, each pill, a seed planted / in my body. The roots they grow there, inextricable from theft.” The poems in You Are Here acknowledge that our species is inevitably and ineffably linked to industrial monocultures, to spiders, to deer, to redwoods and rabbitbrush and every part of the planetary systems that at some point gave rise to and, at least for now, continue to sustain organic life.

This realization—that we humans, despite all our insulating technologies, are as enmeshed in ecosystems as any other living thing on earth—is one that can be both devastating and comforting to confront. The poems in You Are Here explore many points along a spectrum of impassioned responses to witnessing our world, and what our species is doing to our world. Jason Schneiderman’s “Staircase” unspools across dizzying lines like a panic attack, mirroring the speaker’s obsession with catastrophic news: “the sun / is a faded saffron blot and the world burns every summer, / and the bees are dying, and the glaciers are melting, and the ocean is full / of plastic, and I told you already, I’m not coping very well.” But if Schneiderman’s apocalyptic anxiety gets to be too much, just a few pages later you can seek solace in Aimee Nezhukumatatathil’s “Heliophilia,” a sunny psalm of a poem which reassures that “To be pulled to the light / is nothing to be ashamed of.” Contrasting these emotional extremes might make You Are Here sound like an erratic read, but really, it is a potent reminder of poetry’s power to evoke complicated and contradictory emotions.

Perhaps the awe, the wonder, that so many of us feel when we immerse our attention in a poem or in the more-than-human-world has to do with our capacity to feel joy and terror simultaneously, and also with the fact that nothing in life is static. In Donika Kelly’s “When the Fact of Your Gaze Means Nothing, Then You Are Truly Alongside,” there is a phrase which repeats a few times almost like a mantra: “this is a process.” For me, that line and that poem come as close as anything I have ever read to expressing the essence of “nature.” It is a poem which encompasses life and death and cyclicality and amazement at the fact that, however fleetingly, “we are alive in a green / crashing world.”

Whether you are craving a jolt of righteous fury, or a sympathetic caress, or simply a reminder that “You Belong to the World,” as Carrie Fountain asserts in the opening poem, you will find them all within this book, which has been so beautifully curated and introduced by Limón and given a lovely physical form by the venerated independent publisher Milkweed Editions. There is an oft-repeated idea that the aim of art should be to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” and You Are Here does both things, amply.

You Are Here: Poetry in the Natural World
ed. Ada Limón
Milkweed Editions

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