Book Review

As poets­­­­—non-journalists—we are frequently caught between conflicting expectations for our art. We are told not to be too blunt in our politics on the page, lest we dull the pen. We are told poetry is not enough in a time of crisis, is not useful, is self-satisfied and indulgent. It is not marching in the streets. It is not handcuffing oneself to construction equipment that threatens treaty lands. And yet I have been challenged most developmentally through poetry. I have become politically and environmentally engaged through poetry, found an interest in and understanding of the relevance of history through poetry. I march and feel elated for a day. I write a poem and feel I am contributing to a movement beyond myself. I read a poem and the comradery that inspired me to accountability while marching is renewed and sustained. For a poem to have such an impact and maintain the most elevated facets of the medium—attention to sound, language, pacing, multiplicity, etc.—is indeed quite the feat, and to be sure, Craig Santos Perez sustains such elements throughout Habitat Threshold, his fifth collection and the first after completing his series from unincorporated territory. But there is also a new sense of urgency throughout the work that will not be refused its place in the poet’s repertoire.

In Habitat Threshold, Perez grapples on the page with climate anxiety and rage in the face of mounting environmental injustice, social violence, and unbridled capitalism while attempting to preserve a glimmer of hope for a sustainable future his young daughter might still inherit. If from unincorporated territory took a multi-book, documentary approach, Habitat Threshold progresses unit by unit with each poem, demonstrating a diversity of forms both recognized and, in Perez’s own words, “recycled.” For poetry itself to remain sustainable, we too must remember to look both ways, to our inherited past and the future we craft, to maintain the line of conversation—particularly, in the case of Perez, with our ancestors and marginalized ways of communing with the world we are both inhabiting and destroying.

We do so, Perez suggests, by example through a polyvocal approach to being present in the world—through listening as much as through speaking. Throughout the book, quotes from poets and scholars of various fields sit on the page next to the poems as echoes, or perhaps, as islands in a single chain, not set above in a hierarchy as an epigraph, but more often adjacent to the poem. Following from unincorporated territory, the conversation facilitated between modes of information and poetics has been a singular strength that develops further through layout decisions in Habitat Threshold. Adjacent notes remove academic divisions and allow more voices to occupy the room simultaneously. Each time I found myself questioning a certain decision by Perez—an imperfect application of a nursery rhyme or the distinct voice of a beloved children’s book author to a sobering reflection on environmental decay, made more jarring by tonal dissonance created by syllabic misalignments—I found myself not interrogating the poem or poet so much as my own resistance to this discomfort. Some recycled forms translate more cleanly than others. The recycled Irving Berlin, “Christmas in the Capitalocene,” puts strain on the individual lines and musicality of the poem to create a work marked by tonal dissonance—which again, however, is hardly out of line with the poem’s subject matter:

I’m dreaming of a black Christmas,
just like the boys we used to know,
where cops fire munitions and citizens petition
in the malls and streets of White America.
May your murderers be indicted,
and may all your Christmases be just.

If there is an “uncanny valley” of poetry, perhaps the persistent recycling of children’s song lyrics most closely approaches it in these poems. Poetry being that reserved genre wherein intellectual and emotional propriety are often maintained in tension with that which seeks to overflow each artful line, even excessively enthusiastic punctuation can feel unsettling. Throw in the nostalgic charms of that familiar master of rhyme and meter himself, Dr. Suess, and we are again confronted with the fragility of the reality with which we surround ourselves. As each poem in this collection admits, without flinching, the ending isn’t always happy. From the abrupt, unresolved (i.e., unpunctuated) end of “One fish, Two fish, Plastics, Dead fish,” a “recycling of Dr. Suess”:

Here are fish that used to spawn, but now the water is too warm

Some are predators and some are prey,
Who will survive? I can’t say.
Say! Look at its tumors! One, two, three . . .
How many tumors do you see?

Two fish, One fish, Filet-o-Fish, No fish

These are poems expressly for the moment and are unapologetically political. There are beautiful moments of transubstantiation in these poems to be sure, as when the poet’s daughter, playing with her new stuffed elephant, “touches its tusks, / smiles, then touches her own teeth.” And there are declarations of resilience, in the end: “praise our trans-oceanic / past present future flowing / through our blood.” But the heavy hand of certain facts dropped as they are found in the work at times threatens to push the reader out of the poetic space of revelry back to confronting the “scarred” world. Perhaps, however, necessarily so. If at times the poems turn their gaze to the soapbox, so to speak, they remind us that we are still waiting for answers—we are still asking questions. The poems provide space to engage with this uncertainty, to lay all our cards on the table. Furthermore, unlike the dynamic between preacher and choir, our participation is required. While those familiar with the Standing Rock protests might immediately supply the anticipated term to fill in the blank of the long poem “Chanting the Water,” we are given license to articulate its significance to us as readers individually, by our own terms.

A work engaged as much with the visual as the sonic capacity of poetics to engage the reader, Perez does not fail to make evident on the page the parallels drawn between loss of species and habitat and loss of language, of the extinction of species and the silencing of indigenous peoples, languages, and knowledge, as in “Th S xth M ss Ext nct  n”, a poem absent on the page apart from the similarly erratically erased quote from poet Alison Hawthorne Deming. Considering the ways in which we are asked to participate in these poems—the absence of language becomes a site of participatory generation. We are not given the rules of deletions. Inconsistent vowels go missing and remain. But we are able to recall what has been lost nonetheless. The layout of poems on the page, down to their recto/verso arrangement further enacts false endings almost to assure us the poem does continue, will continue past us. These moments of insistence are perhaps the closest the work comes to providing hope. It might be enough. We must, perhaps, forgive the poet for the blunt delivery: we’re running out of time, Perez reminds us. These poems are not here to comfort us. They are here to remind us of our agency, to invite us to turn our rage and anxiety to action.

About the Reviewer

Abigail Chabitnoy is the author of How to Dress a Fish (Wesleyan, 2019), shortlisted in the international category of the 2020 Griffin Prize for Poetry and a finalist for the Colorado Book Awards. She was a 2016 Peripheral Poets fellow and her poems have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Boston Review, Tin House, Gulf Coast, LitHub, and Red Ink, among others. She is a Koniag descendant and member of the Tangirnaq Native Village in Kodiak. Visit her website at