A recent study found that the global climate disruption known as the Little Ice Age—an early modern dip in temperatures that famously caused the River Thames to freeze over—had its roots in European colonialism. The genocide of the indigenous people of the Americas left vast tracts of agricultural land untended; subsequent reforestation pulled enough CO2 out of the atmosphere to cause a global decline in temperatures. These findings provide quantitative support what for countless people and communities have already known: that human and planetary history have been entangled from the outset, and that the violence of settler colonialism and imperial warfare extends to the ecological.
This set of intersections is the investigative territory where Allison Cobb’s Green-Wood opens. First published in 2010 by Factory School, and recently reissued by Nightboat Books, Green-Wood takes its title from the Brooklyn cemetery that acts as the locus of the book’s investigations. Interspersing expository prose with lists, memoir, found text, and lyric fragments, Green-Wood constructs a poetic framework that yokes broad historical and ecological vision to individual subjectivity. Beginning with its speaker’s walks through the cemetery and accounts of its history, Green-Wood moves outward in concentric circles of exploration, growing exponentially in scope and scale: it details the lives of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the illustrator J.J. Grandville, and the cemetery’s first historian, Nehemiah Cleaveland; connects the history of land use in the United States to the displacement and genocide of its indigenous people; documents the relationship between the natural sciences and Western imperialism in Southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea; and mourns the victims the of Bush- and Obama-era imperial wars. Yet Green-Wood's inquiry is never untethered from the local or the personal, from either the eponymous cemetery or the embodied subjectivity of the book’s speaker. The associative logic that guides the book’s movements repeatedly pulls us back to the speaker’s own life: more walks in the cemetery, but also struggles with infertility, her Mother’s illness, and research in the New York Public Library’s rare books room. This wedding of the autobiographical and historical foregrounds the fact that knowledge, in Green-Wood, cannot be divorced from context, nor shorn of its contingency.
This underlying tension—between the poet’s aim of communicating information about the world and her awareness of the subjectivity that must mediate it—is enacted in Green-Wood's frequent formal ruptures, moments when its expository sections are broken open as if by force. At the end of Green-Wood’s opening section, Cobb writes:
Green-Wood’s founders aimed to create an Eden, and they did not fuck around with security. They promised to prohibit the entrance of all improper persons and to protect the rich from resurrection men, who dug up and sold bodies for medical research. Quaint. As if the mind did
a country or a place,” which
= time, the body
breathing (a weather).
Think, akin to magic,
“to cause to appear.” Think
thirsty constant weed
whackers, the rising
tide of grass, the force that
through the stupid
lilies drives the bone
glow from below. Think
up tendon straps.
600,000 sets of teeth lamps.
The sleepers awake, I am enclosed by iron spikes, some places razorwire.
Patrolled by security guards in cars that say K-9. I feel watched constantly.
Alive among the dead for no purpose. No grief or leaf blowing.
a lifelike picture, dear
Here, an expository passage about cemetery security breaks midsentence into lineated fragments that combine etymology, visceral description, and an interpolation of Dylan Thomas’s “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” When the prose form returns, the speaker’s tone has changed: no longer one of declarative certainty, it’s constrained, haunted—observed by the world instead of observing it. Other formal techniques, though subtler, have outsize effects. The fragment “the ruin inside the eye”—derived from Emerson’s claim that nature’s “ruin or the blank . . . is in our own eye”—reemerges throughout the book in various contexts, coming to take on a host of contradictory meanings. The phrase unsettles the epistemic foundations that Emerson’s claim is based on, erases the line that would separate what the eye contains from what it reflects.
Green-Wood's engagement with environmental writers like Emerson, and its ecological project more broadly, frequently returns to the history of violence that the Western idea of nature was founded upon. In “The Fence,” the book’s second section, the speaker relays how the careful design and caretaking of private land was contingent upon the widespread clearcutting and destruction of the Eastern Woodlands (to make way for agricultural land, land colonists could own) and the forced removal of Native Americans: “April 1838. The New York state legislature votes to recognize Green-Wood as a body corporate with the right to hold two hundred acres. In May, U.S. troops begin rounding up Cherokees in Georgia and marching them west of the Mississippi.” The alignment of these dates, Green-Wood shows us, is not coincidental: the ideology that enabled the former demanded the latter.
Yet the North American poet is a longstanding accomplice in this violence: for the speaker to note that she “walk[s] (literally) in the footsteps of Whitman” is to simultaneously relay historical fact and acknowledge her place within a poetic tradition that, from its very beginning, functioned as an ideological amplifier for U.S. imperial domination and the environmental devastation that has so often been both its motive and consequence. This history, the speaker knows, can be acknowledged, faced, yet never fully accounted for: “Official recorders don’t keep track of worth- / less lives,” and the record of the individual, dwarfed by history’s scale, will necessarily fall short of the truth. Early in the book, the speaker notes that: “Fact means not ‘true’ but ‘to make.’ The fact of art a trace.” Traces of artifice—formal ruptures, the writer’s self-implication—move through Green-Wood like waves on sylvan water, disturbing the surface of objectivity, whose ideological force made the present (its poetry) possible. For Cobb, to call attention to the poem’s artifice heightens the seriousness of her project. We come to know the poem—like a cemetery, like nature—as a made thing, shaped by the material presence of the past in the here and now. To write, the poet tells herself: “First fence a voice. / Lie / down ferocious feeling.” What must be made to lie down for the fence to be constructed is precisely what Green-Wood concerns itself with, and the tension between what’s enclosed and what’s in common, what’s visible and what’s buried, what’s present and what’s erased, becomes, in Green-Wood, the force that drives the poem onward.
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing ecological thought in the present is the problem of scale: how to perceive and make tangible the connections between the rhythms of individual day-to-day existence and the macrolevel processes—of history, of biosphere, of politics—that are paving the way for a future whose catastrophe will be (is already) without historical parallel. Green-Wood is, among many, many other things, a brilliant and inimitable response to this challenge. Nearly a decade after its publication, it remains an essential work of ecological thinking and an extraordinary poetic achievement.
by Allison Cobb
Nightboat Books, 2018
$17.95 paperback; ISBN: 978-1-937658-88-5