Book Review

Field Notes from the Flood Zone, the fourth poetry collection by Heather Sellers, opens by recording the moments before a season of destructive rain in Florida begins. The speaker walks alone and notices details whose randomness confers poignancy: a malfunctioning parking meter, tourist shop kitsch, snatches of overheard conversation. At a bar by herself, the speaker reads “an essay on mystery, distinguishing what is secret from what is hidden,” and takes notes on what she reads. Her task to distinguish terms in relation to one another is ours, too. For the notes she takes, of course, double as the poems themselves—the “field notes” we are holding. And these first lines throb with an anticipatory atmosphere that not only awaits the rains to come, but also puts the weather in apposition to the book: with every image, with every line, both storm and poem gain momentum. In the final lines, the speaker “steps out into the amphitheater of night” and “the rains begin.” Metaphorized as amphitheater, the night sky is always already a constructed space for artistic performance at the same time at which it is an incomprehensible force pouring with torrential rain. The drama of the downpour is simultaneous with the flourish of the first poem’s final line and the beginning of the book.

This is Sellers’ signature move throughout Field Notes: again and again, nonhuman animals and the environment become metaphors for the speaker’s pain, childhood trauma, or loneliness. In “North Coast,” a goshawk flies “as though right out of my head”; pages later, in similar identification, the “black snake in the living room, rising, uncoiling” doubles as a metaphor for the speaker’s mother “emerging from shadow.” In a poem called “My Viper,” the speaker relates to the snake: “His bite is ragged, ready. Just like mine. We both have scars.” Tempestuous tides mirror passion: “The whirling water matched the vortex inside of me and the thrilling feeling didn’t seem like fear.” And atmospheric tumult sketches an interior: “I watched the black felt sky lose its softness as evening and storm came together quickly, outlining my loneliness.”

While many nonhuman and more-than-human beings and forces are legible throughout Field Notes as cyphers for the speaker’s personal experience, it is the storm which attains the most powerful resonance, both metaphorically as feelings, and literally as rainfall caused by climate change. In “Between Storms,” an accusatory letter from the speaker’s mother, dated from years before, drops out of a cookbook. Folding laundry, the speaker cannot put the clothes away because “the path is not yet clear—evacuation suitcase? Dresser drawers? When? To where? To whom?” The storms between which the speaker waits suspended are both actual and internal. This season of destructive flooding is not only made up of environmental devastation to her Florida home, but also the violence of her past. “Heavy” is how she describes the teardrop that her mother drew beside her signature on the hurtful letter—an image of emotional rainfall.

What does it mean for global climate change to be a feeling? On the one hand, this is a version of pathetic fallacy—“the attribution of human emotion or responses to animals or inanimate things” (OED), damned by John Ruskin and many others as “producing a falseness.” But the swift, affective interchanges between poetic speaker and the world she inhabits also perform entanglement, feminized embodiment, and acknowledgement of implication in a way that complicates, rather than simplifies.

Theorists of the posthuman such as Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour, and Karen Barad describe the complex interrelation of beings on this planet using a term from particle physics—entanglement—which describes the correlation between separate quantum systems as ontologically inseparable, continually interacting, and without intrinsic boundaries. Sellers’ personalization of climate change foregrounds her own anthropocentric involvement in the world, and the humanness of her preoccupations. Climate change is domesticated and internalized: “My hair rains its own kind of rain.” Sellers never attempts to occupy a position that approximates either formally or imaginatively the strangeness of the other. Or rather, her encounters with the strangeness of the other challenge the stability of the subject, but ultimately reaffirm her own particular identifications and experiences.

When Sellers’ speaker foregrounds herself as a feminized body in space, that experience is often one of being animalized. These are the moments at which the coherence of her subject position is most precarious. For instance: “A whistling man rides past on a foldable bicycle. He does not seem to see me kneeling by the low hedge, thus I experience myself as an animal” (28). The man’s whistling evokes the predatory sexualization of the wolf whistle, except the speaker is passed over by his male gaze. This fleeting encounter—more of a non-encounter—embodies the speaker where she kneels, crouching, in a nonhuman, or more-than-human, stance. She does not become a specific creature, but rather becomes animal as category. There a capaciousness to this term of marginalization that attaches so readily and so variously across Sellers’ poems. Within the term animal, many bodies and many identifications can share troubled community. Or maybe the specific animal she becomes in that moment is a woman.

Similarly, in “After the Gala,” the speaker returns home buzzing “like a bee” after the “waves” of wine during the evening:

What am I doing here?

I patted my hair, encapsulated in tight twists, and shellacked, looped coils, a phantasmagoric up-do to undo.

Could I sleep on this head? Sleep on a reef of coral.

I pulled out the pins, one by one, to count them. Ninety-three black bobby pins.

I, alone in the dark at fifty-one, partway undone.

Her hair is a coral reef, and the verb “shellacked” evokes, through submerged sonic play, the shells of mollusks and other sea creatures while literally referring to the layers of chemical shine that hold her feminized presentation in place. Although the speaker does not describe this coral reef as one that is bleached by climate change, the readiness of the image—both as a description of the damaged and dying reefs and a common hairstyle—seems to introduce it implicitly in this passage. While the environmental metaphor is tightly connected to the speaker’s embodied femininity, her identity is at the same time fluid. The snippets of self-questioning—“What am I doing here?” and “Could I sleep on this head?”—reveal a line of thought that could risk the stability of the subject. One way to read these lines is as powerfully dissociated, but within the broader context of the poem they feel more lighthearted than that, reflecting the speaker’s slightly drunken and bemused disorientations after a night out. Her state of being “partway undone” refers simultaneously to her hairstyle—and, by extension, to the “undoing” of the coral reefs in global climate change—and to her personhood in this moment of sleepy ease after revelry. Climate change is as complicatedly connected to her shifting identifications as her femininity.

The three poems comprising the brief, visceral, and heartbreaking middle section of Field Notes provide a snapshot of the manipulative and highly gendered shaming the speaker experiences from her mother and the physical and perhaps sexual abuse inflicted on her by her alcoholic father. In “Fun for Everyone Involved,” Sellers’ speaker recalls growing up on a dirt road west of Orlando where one summer an alligator gets trapped in a fenced drainage ditch, caged and hungry. Again, the animal becomes a portable metaphor. It represents both the speaker, who finds herself similarly stuck—“My father said I could not ever move out”—and the violent father himself who ventriloquizes the gator:

Throw you in there, my father loved to say. Can you swim? How fast? Every time he said fast, he reached down and grabbed one of my thighs with both his ice-wet hands, and leaned over, bit my shoulder.

Chomp, he liked to say. Chomp. 

Oh come on. Don’t be that way. We’re just having fun.

In the complex identificatory web cast by this poem, the speaker empathizes with the trapped alligator whom her father names Big Fella, while also fearing it as an extension of her father’s violence:

I thought maybe we had it all wrong. And not just the story we told ourselves about Big Fella. All of it.

For example, that gator could be a girl. Could have no name.

By suggesting that the powerful animal “could be a girl,” the speaker forms an identification. But in the following line, when she recognizes its possible namelessness, she opens the potential for its freedom within the confines of the drainage ditch fence of human language. The alligator is not reducible to the names or identifications which are cast onto it. As with the coral reef hairstyle, this moment of self-formation for the speaker also skirts the risk of unmaking on a large scale. Actually, “All of it” could be wrong—“And not just the story we told ourselves about Big Fella”—but all of the structuring narratives of gender, language, and violence. The wrongness of the world, the unhomeliness of home, become the rain-battered landscapes of later poems.

Ultimately, Sellers’ Field Notes are just that—records from an observer of and participant in climate change’s disasters in coastal Florida. They are embodied, inextricable from the speaker’s history and emotion, and their testimony is a partial document filled with humanizing lapses and limitations. This is not a book that positions itself as activism—rather, these poems insist on the speaker’s implication in the climate catastrophe. From the first lines in which the speaker is parking her car, vehicles are so ubiquitous that movement attains insistent materiality—it is rare for a poem’s speaker to be in any place without describing how she got there. Of the twenty-four poems in the first section, seventeen of them involve driving, cars, trucks, highways, planes, or cross-country travel. At the peak of storm season, Sellers describes evacuating by a taxi to the airport, catching a plane to New York City, and having a conversation with her driver in Manhattan. Later in the book, she describes watering her “deep green St. Augustine grass” during the drought. Far from exempt from or pure of the sins of the Anthropocene, Sellers’ speaker acknowledges and even foregrounds her participation in the human-caused disaster. The result is an honest, unsparing exploration of personal and public storms, and—in the book’s final line—a grim look ahead to a “dream house built in the future sea.”

About the Reviewer

Claire Marie Stancek is the author of several collections of poetry, including wyrd] bird (Omnidawn, 2020), Oil Spell (Omnidawn, 2018), and MOUTHS (Noemi Press, 2017). With Daniel Benjamin, she co-edited Active Aesthetics: Contemporary Australian Poetry (Tuumba/Giramondo, 2016). With Lyn Hejinian and Jane Gregory, she is co-editor and co-founder of Nion Editions, a chapbook press. Claire Marie has a Ph.D. in English Literature from UC Berkeley, and currently lives and works in Philadelphia.