Book Review

Doomstead Days, Brian Teare’s latest book, reads like a sibling to his earlier volume, Companion Grasses. Both track a lyric encounter with ecology and landscape through walking, writing, and research, but the earlier title rings with intimacy while the latest tolls despair. The six years that have passed between these books barely register on the geologic time scale, but they have left deep marks on those of us willing to acknowledge, as Teare is, our responsibility for ongoing and significant damage to Earth. Six years of steadily rising temperatures and seas, worse storms, worse wildfires, speeding glacial melt, and the election of politicians determined to do nothing about it. In Doomstead Days, Teare does far more than acknowledge this litany. He probes the consciousness of his own culpability, admitting that his existence—any human existence—is now reliant on industries contributing to environmental destruction. This acknowledgment of environmental damage seems the only sensible stance in the Anthropocene, and from it, Teare crafts poems of urgency, prophecy, and elegy.

In lesser hands, the scope of the project might overwhelm, shading all plaint, no poetry. But Teare’s ethics are always a music. It’s apparent from the opening lines of “Clear Water Renga,” in which he writes of the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill in San Francisco Bay:

            fog, error, radar
                        failed  ::  the container ship hit
                                    the bridge tower hard  ::

                                                its hull split, spilled fifty eight
                                                            thousand gallons of bunker

                                                                                                fuel oil :: November
                                                                                    7th, 2007 ::
                                                                        the next day it hurt

                                                            the eyes to walk dockside, wind
                                                bringing the sting of petrol ::

The disaster is alive again, a propellant rhythm that cannot be stopped from cascading down the page. That rhythm is also a form of bearing witness: commemoration and documentation become one with alliteration and consonance. The repeated sounds resonate from the compact lines the way the oil spill’s repercussions resonate beyond its perimeter, past seabirds slicked and killed within, up the coast and through marine life that will no longer come to spawn in poisoned breeding grounds. Like spilled fuel, the lines stick.

Teare writes that “it was the first disaster / I could walk to” and this recognition is crucial. It collapses the vast scale of climate change to intimate distance, acknowledging that human consciousness, despite its abstract capabilities, is most alive to what it can touch. It also refers to his writing method: to walk, notebook in hand, recording what he sees, following footpaths into thought paths. As the poem expands upon wildfires in Santa Cruz in 2008 and 2010’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Teare reflects:

fact  ::  the war’d been on
            all those years but not so close
                        I could walk to it,

                                    its smoke staining my snot black,
                                                meaning, I think, the local

                                                                        real made me begin
                                                            to experience the mind
                                                as a form porous

                                    as mile after mile of trees
                        accepting fire, to begin

to see aftermath
            as the start of thought, the way
                        some conifers need

                                    extreme heat to unseal seeds

What sprouts from his burned bracts is the realization that the environmental disaster we have wrought is erasing the line between Earth and body, atmosphere and mind. It’s in our synapses. It’s in our nostrils. It comes on foot because we are its feet.

The poem’s physical and mental movement from stanza to stanza, line to line, parallels a larger journey in the book. Teare moves to the East Coast after years of living in the Bay Area and writing, as Companion Grasses attests, in deep kinship with the landscapes of Northern California. He moves for the reasons many people move: a job. But his direction carries an undertone of reverse Manifest Destiny. He travels against the United States’ westward expansion, which begat so much destruction of forests, of native peoples, of fauna, to arrive at one of its founding cities. Thinking through such layers while still in California’s Marin Headlands where the Miwok lived, he writes that “it challenges the white mind // to look at this coast / & think this is a ruin.”

Teare carries that challenge to Philadelphia. Throughout “Toxic Release Inventory (Essay on Man),” he finds fodder in and around his new home while longing for the coastal landscapes he left, and their particular colors, flowers, elk and owls. Yet on city streets he encounters wheat-pasted animals coming alive on walls; he mistakes plastic bags for roadkill, before locating wilder places and pinning his lyricism where the “Wissahickon twists / frigid, diminished // through mud the cliffs jut / above, famous schist that breaks / off itself in sheets.” Weaving in fragments of texts from Alexander Pope, as the poem’s title suggests, as well as including the voices of Virginia Woolf, Rachel Carson, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and contemporary interviews with victims of pollution, Teare provides an account of writers’ response to disaster.

There are moments when Teare’s indictment of the city feels overwrought, or that he might have balanced it with mention of the environmental advantages cities do hold. Yet it’s checked by the way he evaluates his own vulnerability—having to ingest, essentially, a poison as medicine against possible HIV infection—and his struggle to make sense in the Anthropocene: “some marry the world / I write next in the notebook / & I don’t know what // I mean by marry / or world.” The display of thought in action is a reminder that the poem is, like in Pope’s “An Essay on Man,” an attempt at outlining a moral outlook for our age. Teare asks what it means to still find landscapes and cityscapes—in Northern California, Pennsylvania, Vermont, etc.—beautiful, or a source for poetry, as he so clearly does. Should “landscapes” even remain our term for a particular location’s flora, fauna, and environment when so much of it has been shaped by human intervention? What is the mental journey one must make to refer to the “natural world” and still be inspired by it?

These questions drive “Convince Me You Have a Seed There,” a poem that borrows its title from Thoreau. Observing a stand of red pines in Vermont, Teare writes:

each trunk

unsettled by wind
torque makes

groan & crowns

twist against
roots in earth

the way I might

fight an idea
that seizes me

with its weather

& I wonder
what it sounds like

the lobllolly

by ArborGen®

The auditory pleasure he takes in the pines’ quiddity emanates from the tight soundscape. The hard k and q and t sounds echo the trees’ own creaking, and the single lines interwoven with couplets create a parallel sense of leashed movement. But his mind can no longer rest on that pleasure. It jumps to the specter of an entire landscape created by humans for human consumption, “the very genome // grafted to capital.” The lyric movement is stopped by a corporation’s registered symbol. What’s more frightening: our species creating tree species that contain E. coli, or that we might still thrill to such a pine’s wind-tossed music? Will these creations foster ravenous hybrids as dominant over the Earth as humans have been? If we still find pleasure in their “treeness,” what is that pleasure? What are we?

Biological and ontological, these are the questions of our age, or our days as Teare has it—a reminder that human nature has always been tied to Nature. That thread is unraveling in the world we’ve made, and to be apocalyptic is to be realistic. What’s to come is “a kind // of life not yet / legible to us,” but Doomstead Days is Teare’s beautiful and brave attempt to read that life, write that life.

About the Reviewer

Andrew Seguin is the author of The Room In Which I Work, selected by Calvin Bedient as the winner of Omnidawn’s Open Prize. His other work includes the chapbooks NN and Black Anecdote, as well as a series of cyanotypes inspired by Moby-Dick. A former Fulbright scholar, Andrew lives and works in New York City.