by Heather Lang
While privy to discussions about STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math) versus STEAM (all of the latter plus art), I’ve noticed an intriguing parallel. Alexander Pschera, author of the nonfiction book Animal Internet, criticizes postmodernist efforts to return to nature. Certainly, in a culture where hiking trails are riddled with signs stating, “Do Not Touch,” and on a planet suffering from climate change, urban sprawl, and pollution, Pschera makes an important point. “What may well be possible, however, is that emergence of a new image of nature—an image that is concrete and stimulates the senses, that breaks through the abstraction,” writes Pschera (as translated by Elisabeth Lauffer). Perhaps we can apply this logic not only to our view of nature but to the arts, as well. In Local Extinctions, Mary Quade demonstrates how poetry can and will continue to thrive.
Mary Quade’s second full-length poetry collection, Local Extinctions, exemplifies a contemporary intersection between the natural world and poetry. Her poem, “Stinging Things,” for example, is “after shootings in a Cleveland public high school.” The poem itself does not mention students, schools, or guns – at least it does not reference them literally. Rather, the lines explore a person who is pruning a tree being stung “on the ear, as if to say to its pliant softness, Now hear this.” In the second and final stanza of this poem, we discover that just above hangs a wasp or perhaps a hornet nest (these “Stinging Things” are never named). Quade describes the nest as “a child’s head, wrapped in bandages, / disembodied, and the warnings / brimming from the mouth.” She closes the poem with the following: “Inside, chambers and chambers of flightless / angers – substance but not yet shape.” Certainly, this piece is an exploration of the school shooting, not a traditional nature poem. Quade projects urgent and tangible contemporary problems onto this symbolic narrative. Nevertheless, the poem, like the collection, has some roots in the natural world.
Local Extinctions also acknowledges our disconnection from, our misunderstandings of, nature. In “Killing Songbirds the Compassionate Way,” we’re asked to witness a bird flying into a window. The effects, for the bird, are crippling: “broken wings,” “worm-filled wounds,” and “crumpled” bones. We bring them into the house and pretend “that the eye dropper / of sugared water / you slip inside their beaks / doesn’t drown them” even though the “bubbles / click on their tongues.” In the end, the poem closes by asking us to imagine that these songbirds saw us through the window, our “lids nictating,” our “plumage unpreened,” and they “tried, suicidal, / to revive you, / to keep you, / (suffering) alive.” This twist at the end of the poem not only prevents the piece from becoming didactic about our ignorance of the natural world, but it connects us to these birds in a more thought-provoking way, a way that – if I might be so bold – could only be both explored and, ultimately, articulated through poetry.
Instead of trying to turn back time, poets are embracing our contemporary world, and their work is increasingly relevant. H. L. Hix’s American Anger (Etruscan Press, 2016) fiercely explores politics and national identity. Liu Xia’s Empty Chairs (Greywolf Press, 2015), as translated by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern, passionately contemplates the poet’s experience as the wife of an imprisoned dissenter in contemporary China. Similarly, in the most lyrical, imagistic, and ultimately artful way, Mary Quade’s Local Extinctions demonstrates the imperative nature of the green humanities. Local Extinctions is a collection of poetry that should be read in Science, Civics, and Literature classes alike.
Heather Lang is a poet, literary critic, and adjunct professor. Nevada’s NPR member radio station has twice interviewed her this year about her writing, and in June she served as the Las Vegas Poets Organization’s featured poet. Her writing process is currently on exhibit at the Nevada Humanities Program Gallery. Heather’s poetry and prose have been published by or are forthcoming with HOOT, The Normal School, Paper Darts, Pleiades, and Whiskey Island, among others. Heather holds an MFA from Fairleigh Dickinson University, and she serves as an editor with The Literary Review.