The poems in Jason Sommer’s Portulans are charged with a muted tension, often relinquishing themselves into resigned tenderness and sighs that are less sighs of relief at the end of a journey than sighs of acknowledgment that the journey cannot end. And yet, every so often it is possible to take
in how suddenly this life
of mine—of ours—at any moment might
give itself to be reimagined newly.
These lines exemplify Sommer’s exquisite craft: the alchemical em dashes transmute “this life / of mine” into the collective excursion of our life—“this life / of mine—of ours—.” In so doing, Sommer recalls the famous opening line of the greatest of all poems about an inner journey: Dante’s “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita.” My life is always in the middle of our life, wherever it is.
Poems are maps without a territory. Linguistic lodestars, they help chart new courses of language, thinking, and feeling that furnish other worlds, the discrepant elsewheres hiding in the present. Exploring the motif of a poetic journey are three new books: Will Alexander’s vatic The Combustion Cycle departs on a cosmic journey to reimagine the fundamental elements of existence, while Dennis James Sweeney’s In the Antarctic Circle and Jason Sommer’s Portulans also cast themselves as expeditions—the former a trek across the most alien region on the earth, and the latter an inner journey as intimately meditative as Alexander’s is cosmically expansive.
Each of these expedition books is, to quote Baudelaire, an “Invitation to the Voyage,” and a cadenced breath of fresh air to unquarantine minds still isolated by an endless pandemic. In taking us through language to map new and unknown outsides, they also aid the search for an exit from the present’s calamities and enclosures.
Attentive to ecological catastrophe without deploying an activist register, Alexander, Sweeney, and Sommer depart from the tonal urgency of much contemporary ecologically minded poetry to cultivate other modes of imagination and experience. Notably, these poems also do not try to lament or preserve what is rapidly being lost through environmental and political degradation. Instead—as Sommer’s “reimagined newly” makes clear—each of these three poets are searching for what is yet unfound.
Once, the poets say, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and delivered this ambiguous gift to humans. Ever since, the intentional burning of earth materials has proven essential to human survival and technological advancement. But not all forms of combustion are the same: today, a malign coalition of historical circumstances, economic and class forces, environmental conditions, and political decisions privileges the mass industrial extraction and combustion of fossil fuels as the central form of energy use. This development has uprooted countless millions, ravaged the biosphere, disrupted the carbon cycle, and altered the earth’s climate.
Amidst this disaster of carbon and capital, what other kinds of combustion might be possible? How might the poetic imagination help point us out of this cycle of destruction?
Enter Will Alexander’s The Combustion Cycle, a major recent addition to a prolific, incandescent, kaleidoscopic, and utterly singular body of work. Alexander is incomparable, but, if pressed, one might think of a concoction including the inventive sharpness and bracing defiance of Aimé Césaire, the mythic raptures of H.D. and Robert Duncan, the hypnotic intonations of Alice Coltrane’s ashram recordings, and the occult ruminations of James Merrill. The Combustion Cycle adorns a corpus that is one of the genuine and mysterious treasures of contemporary American poetry, and, along with Alice Notley and Nathaniel Mackey, revitalizes the possibilities of the long poem today. As a formidable three-part epic, the book is not without its difficulties, nor lacking in ambition: an epigraph declares its purpose to be nothing less than to “wage war against everything that is established.”
The book overflows with obscure terms gathered from a seemingly bottomless archive of technical-scientific, geographical, esoteric, mystical, historical, and philosophical exploration. Yet Alexander deploys such terminology in a sensuous and inviting way; his rhythms seek to inhabit the inner poetic heartbeat of both scientific and esoteric knowledge, and open these modes to an emancipatory rewiring. Such linguistic alchemy has long been a trademark of Alexander’s Afro-surrealist poetic practice, which attempts to explode diction and “bring a curious Anglophone to fruition.” The Combustion Cycle extends this endeavor at peak intensity. Who else but Alexander would dare yoke together such an array of words—like “dormition” (an Orthodox theological term for the assumption into heaven of the sleeping Virgin Mary), “tachyon” (a hypothetical particle in quantum physics), “Calabi-Yau” (complex theoretical manifolds in algebraic geometry), “Purple-throated Woodstar” (a South American species of hummingbird), and “Pachacta Unanchac” (an “Inca device for determining solstices”)—within the span of 50 lines?
In a recent interview, Alexander invokes the magical qualities of poetic language to bring them into correspondence with the “cadence of other realms” he finds in science. Alexander’s work journeys through these other realms while leaving behind what it calls “haunted maps.” The poet seems right to describe his work in such terms. Indeed, approaching this book is like discovering a tattered codex from out of a wormhole. Reading it, one is unable to tell whether this codex is a cosmic-engineering manual from an alternate universe sent to fix the “cosmological errata” in this disastrous one or, instead, a parchment detailing some ancient, esoteric initiation rite, all that remains now of a long-vanished alien civilization.
Such is the power of Alexander’s nomadic vision, which he describes as “shamanism.” It is an apt description, for throughout the three long poems, the poetic “I” (a first-person unlike any other “I” in American poetry) becomes a hillstar hummingbird, or is guided by an “alabaster shark” and “hoar-frost lizard.” The book perhaps resembles nothing so much as the fractious, abstruse cosmology of William Blake’s late epics, particularly when Alexander’s verse spirals into passages of startling beauty:
I who brew
in the braille of snow & starlight
from each asylum of wounds
a masterful substance of thorns & resurrections.
Alexander is on a quest to unsettle the settled, deploying poetry to return to the source and investigate how things might be put back together differently, or not at all. The book cycles through a breathless series of cosmogonic inventions, rearranging the primordial ooze to recreate conditions and ring changes on every facet of existence, resulting in the engraving of a “pre-cosmic intaglio.” In Alexander’s poetic voyage, no secure position is left untouched, including that of gender identity: “exploded & re-combined as experiential solvent / … a strange transgressive Uranian androgyny.”
Early on, the hummingbird speaker claims: “I’ve lived prior to carbon.” While we might detect a speculative flirtation with non-carbon-based life-forms, the frequent return of the word “carbon” (including one mention of “ideological carbon”) leaves little doubt that CO2 from fossil fuel combustion is on Alexander’s mind. In this way, The Combustion Cycle’s restive forging of connection also registers a strange ecological poetics—poet Andrew Joron’s blurb, which declares the book to be “the first and best epic of the Anthropocene,” seems spot on.
Despite its otherworldly and primeval fascinations, Alexander’s vision is closely attuned to the tradition of the oppressed; his work broadcasts that anti-colonial and environmental struggles are inseparable. The middle long poem, “On Solar Physiology,” which bears an epigraph from West African revolutionary Amílcar Cabral, revisits the violence of Portuguese colonialism in Africa and New World slavery in Brazil. Historical figures like Portugal’s fascist dictator Salazar and Pope Pius XII drift in and out of the shamanic speaker’s reveries, as the poetic gaze solemnly turns toward “the Atlantic as galaxy / as void.”
The book dwells at length with slavery’s legacy, understanding the demonic and destructive energies of the slave trade as entangled with “the suffering of the Earth” itself. In its darkest moments, it drops down to “the iron floors of the Atlantic”:
before the iron floors of the Atlantic
I am a ghost in collective dimensions
being the charcoal Vicar
being the gnostic sand which overruns the garret
picking up signals
from partial locations in heaven
from empty sigils in space.
It is these signs emitted “from partial locations in heaven” that Alexander, in the midst of hell, seeks to translate—furtive resonances of a “firmament in exile.” In the deserted regions of language and history, he carves out corridors of Black radicalism and subaltern refuge, “psychic quilombos” and “invisible agoras,” to generate another sensing of the universe. Dispensing with the destructive combustion of the modern world to ignite the “neural combustion” of a mind ablaze with poetry, Alexander opts for another burning: a “beatific occupation by fire.”
Poems are maps without a territory.
Dennis James Sweeney’s stirring debut, In the Antarctic Circle, turns not to beatific fire but to a silent wilderness of ice. Swaying between the personal, the ecological, and the political, Sweeney’s book opens inner worlds amid the snowy void of Antarctica. The book is also a map, tracing the journey of making relations in a frozen world: “You can’t map emptiness. Only affiliations.”
Antarctic exploration has long been the mythologized province of white male explorers, a fact with which the book explicitly wrestles. Invoking Toni Morrison’s argument about the pervasive whiteness of American literary culture, Sweeney presents a loosely connected sequence of poems following a speaker and their lover, Hank, across a jagged terrain of bleached Antarctic expanse, wounded domestic intimacy, and fragmented memory. As Sweeney’s speaker says: “We cut holes in the ice and sip history out of it,” a wonderfully jarring image that evokes both extractive oil drilling and the fact that the connection between global warming and atmospheric CO2 was first confirmed by examining Antarctic ice cores, which kept a subterranean archive of deep climate history.
Obliquely, then, the book interrogates race, gender, and intimacy against the backdrop of the endless white realm of the South Pole and the white space of the page. In so doing, In the Antarctic Circle invites readers to consider how social forms and roles inhabited in the everyday connect to planet-altering trajectories of environmental devastation:
The white ice sheet cracking. We are on it or it is on us or it goes through us
We hold our wounds dear, open them repeatedly, sell them for further wounds, trap the blood in cycles of sighing. Men, we keep calling ourselves, because I insist.
What Sweeney calls “the massive, slow threat of geological time” gets caught up in other temporalities in these scenes of wintry sublimity. One precursor in fiction is Ursula K. Le Guin’s sci-fi classic The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), which stages complex explorations of gender and politics amid vast, visionary snowscapes of barrenness. Likewise, Sweeney’s book reckons with environmental degradation by contending with a phantasmatic masculinity whose violence is a measure of its fragility: “Men, we keep calling ourselves, because I insist.”
Much of In the Antarctic Circle is written in stanzas of prose poetry, and Sweeney’s lyric voice is sharply defined and pierced with longing. Notably, none of the poems have verbal titles, being differentiated only by Antarctic coordinates of latitude and longitude. When Sweeney writes “creation is a weather map,” he also means poetic creation. More than a linear narrative, the book is a pulsation of moods and modes, interspersed with flashes of memory and dialogue as the two central figures make their way through the ice and life together, searching for alien communion in the “horizonless expanse.”
In the Antarctic Circle refreshingly diverges from much of contemporary environmentally focused poetry (what might have once been called “nature poetry”) in incorporating narrative elements, but little resolution is offered. Instead, space is cleared so new journeys can begin. Between the slow threat of geology and the faster threat of human violence, certainties of doom and redemption are both dispelled: “The end has come and already left,” and in the wake of winter’s inexorable erasures, new forms of connection are awaiting their birth: “Blankness, too, can gestate.”
Poetry for the Deluge
A portulan—as the epigraph to Jason Sommer’s new volume Portulans relates—is not exactly a map. Instead, portulans are closer to itineraries that chart existential terrain, marking differing sites of experience and possibility. Portulans register, then, the fraught and delicate zone where inner experience and our conditions tumble into each other.
Sommer’s poems expertly do the same. While Sommer is less explicitly ecologically conscious than the previous two authors, his book, as its title indicates, is just as much a journey.
Sommer explores the internal depths of consciousness with a sly precision that is unsettling and revelatory. Quietly but restlessly, the poems capture fragile analogies for consciousness only for consciousness then to abrade these braided likenesses, to dissolve them, and so the journey begins again, the detritus of analogy left behind like a recursive trail of ruined monuments, markers in a portulan.
“It’s inner space he’s after,” as the opening poem “Soul” murmurs. These deftly sculpted lyrics spill out in search of connection and resemblance: “the spark of life, / in persons as in stars.” This poem ends with the memorable image of “the mind’s buoyant gravities” as bubbles of sulfur rising from vents in the seafloor, a metaphor characteristic of the book’s quest for analogy. Hovering just above this zero point of existential emptiness, near the impersonal luminosity that dwells in stars and persons, Sommer seeks “that light behind things when the world’s abraded.”
Sommer does gesture toward the cosmic, as in “Multiverse,” a poem that spins out possible worlds forking off from each minute decision. Evoking John Stuart Mill’s definition of lyric poetry as overheard speech, “Multiverse” suggests that poetry’s voice aligns with déjà vu and communiqués from alternate universes: “Though déjà vu may hint at something, / muffled voices coming through the wall.”
Muffled voices also come to us across spans of history and tradition. Indeed, the centerpiece of Portulans is a poetic sequence called “Lot’s Daughters,” which offers snippets from the book of Genesis followed by brief verse commentaries, a kind of poetic midrash. “Lot, the adjunct patriarch,” appears here bumbling amidst the destruction God visits upon the cities of the plain. The sequence ends with a harrowing mediation on justice, gender, and inheritance, calling into question the very concepts of purity, righteousness, and deservedness (punning on “desert places” and just deserts):
No need to frame as thought what hums beneath all thinking
its little tunes: why else spared but by deserving?
Not a rescue of the righteous merely but of righteousness itself
and of their sort precisely, the favored blood.
In our era of digitally collapsed distances and the instant ubiquity of global disasters, these books remake epic, narrative, and lyric forms to enrich our notion of space, moving outward into the expanses of the cosmos, the political, and the corners of consciousness. In this way, these three books demonstrate how poetry can push back against the walls closing in on all of our shared spaces (pandemic isolation being only the most immediate example)—how poetry pierces these walls to let the light of other worlds shine through. All three poets open up the constricting space of masculinity, mapping different ways male poets might reckon with—and imagine different spaces within—a gendered positionality. These writers—whether Alexander’s “transgressive androgyny” that shamanistically unsettles and recombines every identity, Sweeney’s studies of masculine hubris and environmental extremity, or Sommer’s deconstruction of Lot’s possessiveness—demonstrate that gender, too, is not just a spectrum but a journey. And, moreover, they show that poetry can guide this embodied transport to new destinations.
Alexander, Sweeney, and Sommer take their readers on voyages across space, time, and history, into the recesses of thought and out on the debris of roaming galaxies. These books reckon with ecology and our relations to a suffering earth, relations weighted with strained histories of race, gender, capitalism, and religion.
They remind us why we turn to poetry in times of personal and global crisis. Poems keep inviting us elsewhere, into what Alexander calls “invisible agoras.” These are places of uncertain assembly that remain unfound and, yet, are here and—in what I take to be his pun on the Portuguese word agora—are “now.”
This article was commissioned by Eleanor Johnson.