Picturing the Anthropocene, Poetically

I asked the participants in my graduate poetry writing workshop (AENG 515) to visit the “Future Perfect: Picturing the Anthropocene” exhibit and to write a poem in response to at least one of the pieces in the show. Such poems participate in a long tradition of what’s known as “ekphrastic” poetry (“ek,” meaning “out of” and “φράσις phrásis,” meaning “speak”), which goes back to the Ancient Greeks. Notable examples in the Western tradition include Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield to John Keats’ famous depiction of a Grecian urn to John Ashbery’s landmark poem after Parmigianino, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” It seems fitting that given the formal diversity of “Future Perfect,” which includes photography, sculpture, drawing, and video, the poems below also draw on a variety of forms and techniques, from stichic and stanzaic structures to a range of syntactic approaches. My thanks to all the writers and artists involved in this portfolio.

--Michael Leong

kennedy coyne
Plug me in
after Tommy Hartung’s Enter the garden

i am a flowered
facade
you cannot
see through me
colored and stapled
here i stay
unidentifiably bright.

can you hear
my screams?
rip me from the
ground.
by my roots
by my electrical
sockets.

you have burned
me out burned me
where is the dirt
the earth
this creation is yours.
animated this world
stimulated this transformation.

and him.
a newspaper beneath
his feet report this
you have killed him
cover him with my veil
of light veil of life
that kills me too.

Laurin DeChae
The Veil Is Always Lifting
after Tommy Hartung’s The Bible

like a perv with a pool cue
lifting thin skirts at a bar
on a wednesday night never-
ending. i pretends like she
doesn’t mind, incendiary.
they whispers what are you
like some great secret.
she wonders whether she
was born aflame or if she
fucked the sun dull just so
she could get some shut
eye. it’s a game. the veil is flirting
with you, the veil is not.
the veil is sending mixed
messages. they says it’s all
about intentions. i doesn’t
know her intentions, keeps
her body close to herself,
from time to time licks
a limb out like a lizard tongue
into what she doesn’t know.
her warring body hyphenates
her, a flickering glitch. she hangs
from the silver hook of the bathroom
stall—an attempt at flying. frenetic,
she mouths a holy chant, a holy cunt,
make me a plastic gem, make me a geode
corroding, a bee caught in its own wax, a paperclip.

here she fractures neon, here flattens
like a cardboard cutout. she is a root
system, ribbon pulled from a cassette tape,
a string of lights. her mother laid hands
on her, made her believe in the taste
of gold. she was on fire then and ever since.

Margaret Norway
after Miljohn Ruperto & Ulrik Heltoft Voynich Botanical Studies, Specimen 90v Zima, 2013

Emulsion awoke the plant body and its flowers from dreams of bird claws and the lost chimera, a human hand planted in the abyss of the beast.

The plant body rouses, clings to visions of bird claws,
of frost in August and the pale shadow. Into the abyss
Flower #2 yawns, asks the photographer if all flowers,
time, and apparitions are variations of the same beast.
The answer, Flower #3 declares, is all in the emulsion
of rainwater, bromide, and the wings of the chimera
manifested into being by the persistent human hand.


Flower #1 wonders if it—the touch—of human hand
touching human hands is the same feel as bird claws,
if they clutch onto with the same ache as the chimera
claws in the dirt, wings pinned at the edge of abyss.
Flower #3 insists on the mystery, the science of emulsion.
Science, #2, remarks, is only an affront to the flowers.
The plant body tries to emulate the posture of “beast.”

Secretly, Flower #3 envies the nature of the beast,
resents the spectacle, the dependency, the human hand.
The plant body hungers to consume its own flowers
and metamorphose spines of leaves into bird claws—
keep posture and wait for the preservation of emulsion.
A secret of the body is the desire for status of chimera
(or else the fear it will uproot and tumble down into abyss).

Flower #1 murmurs on, stares into the forefront abyss,
knows, perched somewhere in that darkroom, the beast
of yore is mouthing its name, beckoning for the — Chimera,
Flower #1 tries to explain, had I but one human hand
I would keep it to myself and forget about my own emulsion.

The plant body bristles, knuckles the voices of the flowers,
thinks to itself, they know nothing of want and bird claws.

Flowers #2 and #3 agree the attainability of bird claws
is confronting the vacancy of silver in their own abyss:
Our fate is not to end where we began: fictitious as flowers
splayed on pale kidskin from underbelly of the extinct beast.

The plant body yearns to tell the truth: their emulsion
is just the fossilized language of someone else’s chimera
translated in tongues understood only by the human hand

Carrie Caruso
But I don’t speak bird, yet.
after Letha Wilson’s Goblin Valley December Hole (Steel), 2015

I relax in grass. Gaze at movements on purpose. I take the time to embed the tiniest obscurities in my mind. I’m not blind. Leaf blows away. Not left behind. Open mind like grooves on pavement. Swerve in my direction. Make a connection. Depending on Speed. Friction.

Determines the thump in my diction

Summer rain turns to fog. Navigating through. Reprieve. Created for me. Reach my arms out. Stretch out my palms. Displace the tough. The rough. Fog settles in every indent and crack.

Reminding myself of what I lack

Through what I thought was fear. Voices staggered in from far and near. Excitement. Life on a distant star.

But there is no oxygen in space

Shove me in a rocket with a parachute. I’d fly there. Losing that race to light. The flight I make is the distance between my fingertips. Through which the light from space emanates.

E=MC squared

Change. I like the taste. Hard to swallow. I wallow. My heart slipped down my chest. Leaves a stripe. Splashed onto pavement. I shoved it in a jar. Put the jar in my pocket. I’m ready to blast off.

Where’s my rocket

With my heart in a jar. I’ll reach that star. I measured the distance of light as it bends to accommodate my flight. Thrusting. Closer. Blinding Bright. Eye’s constricting. Not looking away. Chrome ball rocks and sways. It only took a hundred light-days. My capsule settled. When I get home. Medals. I hear birds chirping.

But I don’t speak bird, yet

This journey. Incredible. I peer back at the blue marble. And marvel. I smile. The journey. Worth every light-year. And mile

Sam Stenard
Fruit Fly Covered in Eyes
after The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Sixth London Edition
(Inspired by Alexander Ross’s Untitled, 2013 & Untitled, 2014)

eyes are generally eyes, we must, eyes of the eyes of moles
eyes is probably eyes must be eyes are certainly eyes, though
useless, eyes were lustrous eyes, and natural eyes, may
formerly eyes with deafness Eyes of the eyes form true eyes.
When we eyes of the eyes of cephalopods eyes of cuttlefish
eyes of the eyes offer the eyes is hardly eyes standing on eyes
consequently becomes eyes so as eyes. Judging from eyes,
while resting eyes, and in eyes (ocelli), which eyes are far eyes
has much eyes sharpened by eyes of an eyes, and extremely
eyes are now eyes. These larvae eyes disappear; transformation
eyes of most eyes of animals eyes covered with

Jack LaVigne
November 1st, 2016
after Alexander Ross, Untitled, 2014

at nine

better homes and gardens
interviews the landscape with a face: a vertical
display of flowers blooming.
orb terrarium sockets. the landscape speaks:
I am on a mission to civilize.
did I leave the stove on?
did I lock the door?


after Alexander Ross, Untitled, 2007

I look
at noon
through the
glass bottom boat.

mollusks calculate the hull.
the harbor plankton sing: “die alone, diadem.”

Victorio Reyes
Winding
after JoAnne Carson'sBlue, 2006

I imagine that the Lorax
knows you, knows your
curves, knew your reaching
aims, and your winding

in your more limber years,
he spoke of you to others,
I think, talked of the magic
that made you likely,

your blue, the very blue
that marks you, that’s
what he meant, I think,
by “speaking,” he meant

being blue is the way
we come to know us
as water, as air, as the
solid mass on platform

shining, elastic, wishing
for wind, knowing it
doesn’t come anymore,
not here, at least not

the days after he told
us that you were the
song of spectacle, our
lyric statue, ossified.

Noah Kucij
Thaw #2
after Dana Hoey, THAW-Salamanders, 2008

Bugs demented summer nights.
Beavers cluttered fruited parcels.
Shirts endured their yellow halos,
yokes we seldom slipped. Before

the download, plums still plummeted
flamboyantly to stubbled earth.
Cells divided masterless.
Words dallied in fog. We fixed

the issue with a reboot, rolled out
driverless to crystal roads,
touchless and enabled. Efts
are obsolete, redundant now,

their prey having been purged in batches:
Rockies, Prairie, Delta, Gulf.
Bluegill, purple martins, frogs
will follow, starving, dead weight draped

in blotch and dayglo. Now that our work
is done, now that the tidy magic
of ice has swept the muggy coasts,
behold whatever hangers-on

might scurry from a kicked log – in
the quaint blacks of their eyes our old
dilemmas flash like quarter-notes and shush.