The poet writes of a vision, in a dream, of a coral tree growing amidst a ruined city:
At the center of the
unmade world is a tree that draws
from the soil of everything
from the soil of everything negated.
Jackie Wang’s book is full of uncanny, beautiful images, each portents of renewal. The sunflower and the coral tree, heliotropic and vibrant beings emerging in unlikely places, all come to embody the potential for regeneration amidst socioecological breakdown. Such visionary images echo Black radical thinker Robin D. G. Kelley’s argument in Freedom Dreams for the vital importance of dream and surrealist imagination in envisioning transformations to come. “The most radical art is not protest art,” argues Kelley, “but works that take us to another place, envision another way of seeing, perhaps a different way of feeling.”1
Amid this turbulent present of accelerative biospheric change and cascading societal crises, how might a poem conjure imaginings of other ways forward? How can poetry call attention to creative forms of survival and persistence, human and nonhuman?
Fortunately, there are recent books—like Wang’s The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us from the Void, as well as Valerie Martínez’s Count and Desiree C. Bailey’s What Noise Against the Cane—that confront such questions with visionary force. They develop generative, often enthralling approaches to the pressing challenge facing poets and other artists in our present, the challenge articulated by Kelley: how to make art that can imagine through catastrophe.
Each of these texts is a book-length experiment in portraying the ways cataclysm imprints on bodies, dreams, landscapes. Books of the deluge—saturated with figures of flood and fire, images of violence and displacement—they portray existence at the precipice. A poem from Martínez’s Count recounts a dream of small figures tumbling inside a great book of storms. Bailey’s poems chronicle colonial violences sedimented in Caribbean land, borne by the all-seeing Atlantic ocean, and lived in the everyday impermanence of diasporic existence: “How deep the wound,” she writes. Wang’s poetry delves into the space of dream, as it reconfigures the death-driven surround of our present.
These works sound impossible depths: unearthing traumatic histories; sketching apocalyptic futures; attending to what resists full inventory, to stolen life and ecological webs depleted. Their imaginative span is kaleidoscopic, intricate, planetary.
What I find fascinating about each of these poetic projects is their distinctive approach to this complex task of reckoning with social and ecological catastrophe in its many forms. Perhaps the idea of environmental poetry connotes distilled lyric vantages on dynamic landscapes, processual studies of somatic interrelation with other beings, or documentary poems that chronicle disaster. Even so, these three texts share a different disposition. And while these poems are profoundly attuned to the “everywhere” violences of our present—social, ecocidal—as inextricably bound to longer arcs of colonial and racial capitalist history, they are less oriented by the modes of linguistic critique and formal erasure that often define contemporary poetry of social engagement.
Instead, these texts find expression in resources like dreams, spells, incantation, hypnotic count, voices of spirits, communal tale. They dwell in times and situations that, as Martinican philosopher Édouard Glissant writes in his Poetics of Relation, “do not keep company with the rhythms of month and year alone.”2
These are poems, in other words, that are decidedly visionary. Yet they draw on these realms of dream, story, and spirit not as wholesale departures from the real. Instead, such visions are employed as essential sources for understanding the material conditions of our present, discerning their limits, and expanding their potentialities.
These works’ shared approach is what I might term—borrowing Glissant’s phrase—a poetics of the “known-unknown.” They explore what Glissant calls the “underside” of landscapes and everyday lives, the unrecorded histories hidden in plain sight. As their very titles suggest, these books take seriously the idea voiced by Kelley above. First, that there are modes beyond the directly apprehensible: expressed in dream, inscribed in collective ritual, story, and song, envisioned in the forceful, radiant presences of more-than-human entities (sunflowers, soil, the sea). Second, that such visionary modes can provide vital ways of grappling with real material conditions that otherwise bewilder and overwhelm.
Poetry, then, for all three authors, can turn to terrains of inner imagination and collective vision and find expression for what is found there. In so doing, Wang asserts, poetry can enact vital work for this difficult moment: “the work of creating openings where there were previously none.”
In one section of Count, Martínez describes the miraculous forms and capacities of various species: Pando, an enormous grove of quaking aspens connected by a single root system that has been called the largest living organism; the Atlas moth, with its giant wingspan; the katydid’s ingenious communicative system. She asks: “Have we ever thought to count these out? / I mean, count?” To count, for Martínez, intimates a deep attention to the ways such beings count, conveying their intrinsic ecological value and their marvelous capacities. Across its 43 sections of couplets, Count reminds us—through its multiple forms of counting and accounting—of poetry’s unique capacities to gather together disparate modes of knowledge and story.
As Count counts the unquantifiable importance and beauty of such presences, it underscores how such beings and their habitats face existential threat in a warming world. Martínez counts myriad losses: bottleneck dolphins washing ashore, “100 million dead trees in the Southwest,” mondo grass and staghorn coral disappearing. She evokes images of firefighters trapped by a forest blaze and climate migrants trying to escape devastated homelands. It’s a relentless and impossible tally, and many of the sections accordingly depict a feeling of exhaustion: “Make it stop,” Martínez pleads.
If to count is to calculate, it also indicates an act closer to chant or prayer. It can be a means of calling oneself to attention or inducing a meditative or dream state. Count evokes all these senses of counting, moving deep into interior realms of dream and vision. One section describes a vision induced by hypnosis, a “feral place” beyond language where the speaker is curled inside other animal bodies. Martínez describes dreams of “stick figures / in a giant earth tome” of catastrophes: “book of mudslides,” “book of super-storms,” “book of drought-devastated fields.” Several sections return to a haunting, mysterious image of a young girl at the ocean’s edge, about to be pulled under by stormy waves. In such dream-images, humans take different forms, morphing into other beings or emerging as mythic figures of precarious life at the brink.
Count recounts a series of indigenous stories that narrate flood, tragedy, and endurance. Some of these “tales of the deluge” tell of human negligence that leads to world-transforming catastrophe. Others evoke lessons learned from disaster and small acts that facilitate survival. In an Incan story, the stars foretold a great flood, and “forever after the people minded the slightest / movement of stars, mapping and deducing and guessing.” A Dinè narrative tells of the people cleaning and fitting back together the broken pieces of the world. These stories provide models for how to “be reverent and disciplined, to live / on the edge of great balance.”
Like the stories and dream-books it conjures, this book presents the work of counting and reassembling as an urgent practice on which future life depends. We have to learn anew, Martínez indicates, how to count our way through.
How can poetry call attention to creative forms of survival and persistence, human and nonhuman?
“Where will we live?” one of Bailey’s incantatory and searching poems asks. Across many of her poems, the question of home and belonging persists. For example, the present-day speaker, a city-dweller living far from Trinidad and Tobago, seeks out origins: “Diasporan daughter, raking the soil for a map, a glint of my mama’s gold, a bone to call my own.” The homeland remains a receding image, geographically remote, transformed by rapacious cycles of touristic development, agricultural plunder and climate-fueled storm. Another poem, “Ex(ile),” evokes the choral perspective of islanders displaced by hurricanes:
So it seems when we’re no longer property
we become less than property
a nail sick with rust, jangling in high winds.
Bailey underscores how climate catastrophe becomes a boon for disaster capitalism’s developmental schemes, even as the welfare of the island’s people is disregarded.
Many voices and geographies are assembled in Bailey’s first book of poems, What Noise Against the Cane, to convey stories of Black life and land relations across centuries. Bailey’s poems bear generations of life held in “empire’s grasp,” alongside the devastations of wrecked ecosystems and intensifying storms. Moving from Caribbean plantation and maroon landscapes through diasporic urban locales, Bailey’s revisionary cartography holds space for immeasurable losses wrought by colonial and capitalist violence.
Yet alongside these poetic chartings of ongoing loss, What Noise Against the Cane gathers sources of divine revelation and resistant power. In particular, feminine religious figures and spirits—Mami Wata, the Haitian spirit Lasirèn, Oya, Guabancex, La Divina Pastora—appear as guiding figures. These poems offer prayers, devotions, rituals to these deities, and invoke their presences as shaping forces, generative and destructive, ever connected to the islands and their people.
In “Ex(ile),” the collective speaker prays to “our climate’s first spirits”: “Spare our kin, we plead. Save your wrath for the profiteers.” And Bailey invokes liberatory images of island ecology and intergenerational care:
flowers crowning the head
of the flamboyant tree,
“the firm singing hands” that cultivate and tend. “I believe / in what makes me free,” she writes.
What Noise Against the Cane opens with a long poem set amid the Haitian Revolution. “Chant for the Waters and Dirt and Blade” is from the perspective of a young enslaved woman, who narrates with visionary power slavery’s devastations and revolutionary uprising for freedom. Saved from drowning by the powerful sea spirit Mami Wata, the speaker is entwined with this transcendent presence: “I am cast from my body’s tethers / I am no slave.” This prophetic perspective surveys the death-prone logics of the plantation—the white planter’s “coffee his cane arrows toward the death / of everything the land chewed up”—and the forced labor by enslaved peoples that produces it. The speaker contrasts the violence of slavery on human and ecosystemic life with what she calls “freedom’s seed,” the circulation of maroon knowledge of plants for birth control, medicine, poison, sustenance, and beauty, and the fiery flowering of insurrectionary rebellion on the island. The speaker emerges as a figure of revolutionary force and endurance: “my sea-spirit rises / gleaming upon the shore.”
What Noise Against the Cane returns, page after page, to the ocean as living entity of origin, loss, and renewal. Running across the lower margin of each page in the collection is a long, sinuous monologue by the “Sea Voice,” a forceful and lively voice of the ocean, whose presence serves as counterpoint and refrain to the collection’s poems. This all-knowing perspective, which speaks in Trinidadian English (evoking Kamau Brathwaite’s Caribbean “nation language”), bears witness to centuries of colonial-capitalist conflict that have played out in its waters. Turning to the devastating histories of the Middle Passage and contemporary climate migration, the sea offers a mournful acknowledgment to “All dat stolen life, dat raw weepin deep into me.” The sea is also the burdened recipient of ecological degradation, from “oil spill” to “sewage” to “all kind ah plastic.”
Despite all, the ocean remains, forceful and strong, “survivin however I survive.” The sea voice emblematizes the book’s insistence on survival—of Black collective memory and lifeways, of island and oceanic ecologies, of spirits and forces beyond the human.
When Poetry Summons the Dead
Poems across Wang’s The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us from the Void convey the claustrophobic ambience of late capitalism’s techno-surveillance and carceral enclosures: “Always, this nowhere-to-go.” People exist within confined and collapsing spaces, searching for escape, safety, connection. We see police outside the window and “GOOGLE MEN” living in disaster-proof sanctuaries. In “The Sewer Rat Counter-Haunts the Prison by Nesting in Society’s Collapsing Aorta,” Wang writes of a dream of sneaking into her brother R’s prison and sleeping “curled up beneath the concrete, between walls, in the air vents.” While those in prison cannot see their loved ones, outside it rains without cease. The speaker wonders: “Did they finally figure out how to control the weather?”
Wang’s debut collection is immersed in the charged space of dreams. Wang, author of the critical study Carceral Capitalism,3 here examines how the calamities of late-capitalist life find impression in one dreaming mind. Each poem immerses the reader in the textures and forms of a dream as it expands through prose poems full of charged images. They describe unfolding situations of dreams with precision, dread, humor, and awe, exploring the abject and transformational capacities they bear.
Wang’s poems meditate on the existential fears generated by intensifying climate change and late-capitalist crisis. Anxiety, terror, and guilt suffuse these pieces, with their repeated images of cities deluged by flood, the earth scorched by heat, dead landscapes, and extinct creatures.
In an early poem in the volume, “Death as a Survival Technique,” Wang writes of a dream evoking a kind of Hunger Games scenario allowing only one person to live on: “The world is warming, and we humans are to blame.” The speaker survives by playing dead, a new kind of “survival technique.” Another piece, “The Covert Apocalypse,” describes an intense dream of the speaker’s father, who was carrying around a coffee tin full of radioactive materials.
Did his hands shake?
We had nothing.
Other poems depict eating in a diner or going to a party while terrifying apocalyptic scenes unfold outside. Equally absurd and intense, these pieces dramatize scenes of bare existence, and convey the abiding desire to repress or symbolically escape the trauma of environmental collapse.
Dreams, Wang indicates, offer a radical means of reconfiguring the terrain of the present, working through interior and social responses to calamity, intimating different realities. Wang’s poems reshape the hermetic and confounding work of dreams to reveal these secret capacities, there all along.
Reading these works side by side, I see the conditions of extremity they chronicle converge into one deluge, unceasing. In their haunting images, Wang, Martínez, and Bailey catalog the cascading effects of the racialized carceral regimes and industrialized ecologies, which have transformed the Earth’s systems and reorganized its populations, human and nonhuman, under the fatal sign of progress.
Yet they also share an insistence on the potential for reimagining and renewal, discoverable in common resources: the dream, the communal story, image, song. As Glissant writes in an essay on the present and future of Caribbean literature, “We write in order to reveal the inner workings, hidden in our world.”4
These visionary texts, with their immersion in such “inner workings,” offer powerful blueprints, not only for poetic practices in the present, but for our broader capacities to envisage conditions of survival and replenishment in a disastrous age. As Wang puts it, “That’s where I was: walking through a destroyed city. But… the luminous tree!”
This article was commissioned by Eleanor Johnson.
- Robin D. G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Beacon Press, 2002), p. 11. ↩
- Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation (University of Michigan Press, 1997), p. 72. ↩
- Jackie Wang, Carceral Capitalism (Semiotext(e), 2018). ↩
- Édouard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays (University Press of Virginia, 1992), p. 245. ↩