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Issue 238

Two Poets Consider Family in the Age of Climate Catastrophe

Jorie Graham and Geoffrey G. O’Brien on poetry as a tool for fostering responsibility in a changing world

BY Jorie Graham AND Geoffrey G. O’Brien in Opinion | 25 OCT 23

This article appears in the columns section of frieze 238, ‘Family Constellations

Geoffrey G. O’Brien We’ve been asked to think, as poets, about the family form during environmental crisis, which is to ask about furtherance, about tomorrow and about making, all while hard up against catastrophe. What’s your current version of those questions and what are your provisional answers?

Jorie Graham What have these months, this suddenly everywhere-visible acceleration, meant for you? Would you still bring a person into this reality? I still have my old belief system operational, my operative illusion, my ability to take on board irrefutable facts, and then my pendulum-like return – even if only by habit – or habitual memory – to something I still hang on to as ‘the normal’ – a notion of the future which is fraught but still possesses extension – an as-yet-not expanse into which the crucial imagination of and sensation of futurity can glide. By which I mean into what does a person shape thought? Can imagination even function in a radical breakdown of the field of futurity? You need to have an opening – a towards – which is palpable, solid, into which to move. Your body, your spirit, thought, imagination, all require a current in which to flow – what I’ve called a draught – which only comes alive when you are living in relation to both the past and the future – meaning you are in human time. Are we still in human time?

Cy Gavin, Untitled (Holly border), 2022.
Cy Gavin, Untitled (Holly border), 2022. Courtesy: © Cy Gavin and Gagosian, New York; photograph: Rob McKeever

GGOB The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion was asked about treating people in a terminal cancer ward and said the following: ‘If there’s a job to be done for making the life of people in a particular ward bearable for such time as they have got left to live, then there is something to be done […] It’s got to do with making such life as is still to come, still in the bank so to speak, tolerable and available.’ That matter-of-fact answer applies equally to making new life and new poems, even when the idea of a future or a posterity is bracketed. The quotidian remains when ‘the normal’ has departed – that’s the ‘such’ in ‘such life as is still to come.’ We are still in human time, but it isn’t what it was.

JG No. It isn’t. But it can seem like it. Perhaps it’s the reality that both are true at once which is the new form of human struggle? I think much of my book To 2040 [2023] comes out of that struggle. As I sit here, for example, there are sheep in the next field. It is still. The heat is dry. Their bleating crosses the half mile to me. I can smell the dry grasses. As I am writing this. They intensify. Emotions rise up in me. I hear the bees up close now. I might as well be in the archaic. A small prop plane flies over. This is the time into which I have to place the rapid and irrevocable breakdown of AMOC [Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation], the burning Mediterranean basin, the sudden water rise, the unliveable earth and the fleeing stateless. So, how do I do that? Because I must, to keep sane and keep it honest.

GGOB It’s eerie and demoralizing to feel the gaze change as it hits the surfaces and relations of the material world because of what is happening; and temporality altering so rapidly, the psychic time arrow fraying, splitting, falling to the ground. Feeling both in a before and in a slow, then not-so-slow, after.

The danger is that one will respond by making the present earth and its inhabitants ghosts or at least ghostly, which is to deprive oneself, a little, of the gift of responsibility. When it rains and everything is verdure I fear its future as kindling for wildfires. To see the flower as only a flower is pastoral escape; to see it only as metonymy for fire is inert despair. It must be both at every moment, a ratio. And the same with our nearest most loved faces and those beyond them – their present has to matter without any forgetting of the long harm in which they’re set.

Cy Gavin, Untitled (Grass growing on a weir), 2022.
Cy Gavin, Untitled (Grass growing on a weir), 2022. Courtesy: © Cy Gavin and Gagosian, New York; photograph: Rob McKeever

JG That feeling, which I share as we move here as well between drought and deluge, captures the sensation so perfectly. Sometimes it’s as simple as the suddenly close-up date that is burning into view before us – 2025 for the AMOC – right there on the calendar of our only ‘human time’: the quotidian narrowing to reveal its apocalyptic face which had until very recently only been a ‘possible scenario’. It turns out reality can do it one better than imagination – no surprise there. The surprise is that even in these up-close realities, so much in us still freezes in place, stunned. And we have to jolt ourselves awake, as in: I am still sitting in the heat, grass now almost non-existent, no rain in years, birds not coming back again, the water in the tap discoloured when there at all, and still, the body – the mind – inventing some way to make this feel ‘normal’. So we have to live in this long-imagined futurity and this immediate present tense. It’s always been somewhat like this, life. But this has the simultaneous qualities of acceleration, dilation and end-time. We can intuit unimaginably long stretches of a next-on geologic era – a planet without us – right alongside, or underneath, or in the cracks of, the insanely quick present tense with its fractured attention span. To survive, we are being asked to knit these together. How is the question.

GGOB I think of art as a form of attention that encourages further, active attention. To what does it attend is one question. What does promoting further attention do is another. If it’s all virtual engagement, on the page and in the mind, it will disappear in fire and water despite Shakespeare’s and Allen Grossman’s claims for poetry’s sturdiness as compared with metal and stone. I’ve yet to see a poem, or its readers, alter policy on climate change with the nothing it can make happen, to paraphrase W.H. Auden. It can testify to wrong life, and it can offer imaginations of other forms of life, less wrong or more right?

Has it ever been more important to give a form to what we feel – because otherwise we might stop feeling Jorie Graham 

JG There’s been a lot of fire and water since Shakespeare, and it still moves me in what I would call a real experience. Grossman’s endurance – against our vanishing – is of the human presence and voice, and I would not doubt poetry’s ability to give us an enduring sense of someone’s humanity. Shakespeare’s sonnets have preserved a sense of a person struggling with love, ambition, desire, jealousy – what it feels like to be alive – across five centuries. That’s not virtual. Few arts keep life alive from the inside, so to speak, as poetry does. But no, not alive in its ability to make policy or science. As [W.B.] Yeats says, ‘we have no gift to set a statesman right’. So perhaps, now, poetry must do justice to what it means to live in this impossible crack between radically contradictory temporalities? Though in a way that’s what it’s always done. ‘To hold in a single thought reality and justice’. To rise to the occasion. To be adequate to the moment. To bear witness. To leave a trace. To imagine a future in which this account and this witnessing, this imagination, will serve a purpose.

GGOB One we can’t see from here.

Cy Gavin Untitled (Yellow pine) , 2023.
Cy Gavin, Untitled (Yellow pine), 2023. Courtesy: © Cy Gavin and Gagosian, New York; photograph: Rob McKeever

JG Has it ever been more important to give a form to what we imagine? Because otherwise we might stop imagining. Has it ever been more important to give a form to what we feel – because otherwise we might stop feeling. This may be the same reason, perhaps, for having a child. Because the future is fundamentally unknowable, but we want to reach towards it, or push forward others who will reach further into it still full of complex human emotions. Full of wonder and paradox and capable of touching the unknowable. To pass on what the refining fire of form makes of our raw first impressions. That’s what the mystery is. To not know. To shape. To love most what has no knowable outcome. To engender and protect the imagination of the future.

GGOB That answer could deftly describe attention, or writing, or making family, the last of which we haven’t really attended to yet.

JG I’ve been avoiding it. Let’s try.

GGOB Well, the family can be a structure of care and intergenerational knowledge transmission to be sure, but it’s also an economic unit, a political factory of gender and sexuality, and a place where love can tend inward, away from care for others. What can poets ask of the family, this diverse and ancient form of association and blood, while it is keenly under threat and while it is sometimes the threat itself?

JG Perhaps it’s the first time we’ve really had to transcend entities like family – or neighbourhood, community, society, nation-state. To extend our physical, emotional, ethical borders. To try to imagine and give shape to genuine global equity – realities that really do concern all those living on the planet. Not to mention other living entities – arable land, forests, coral, watersheds, aquifers. In this way, a person can think of this as a tremendous time to be alive – and to bring others into life – because we have an opportunity for extending the very notion of what justice, and genuine equity, mean. Perhaps this is a fond dream. But catastrophe, though it will affect us differently, will affect us all. Maybe we can finally revise our notions of security, compassion, justice on behalf of everyone on the planet. Our survival doesn’t seem separate from that.

GGOB When I watch my child fascinated by a book or hummingbird, I know why I write poetry. When I write poetry, I know why I wanted to make more life. These palpable, extant forms of tether to the earth and social life and its archives are why I still believe we could revise those notions you speak of into a total love-driven reorganization. For me it has the name full communism and poetry is one of the places I sometimes hear it sounded.

Cy Gavin, Untitled (Paths, crossing – blue), 2022.
Cy Gavin, Untitled (Paths, crossing – blue), 2022. Courtesy: © Cy Gavin and Gagosian, New York; photograph: Rob McKeever

JG I would agree with that. And if this is the task now, we have an incredible tool in hand – we have this art form, poetry, which has in its DNA the ability to bridge these gaps, and to move from the most intensely local and personally felt emotion to the borderless reaches of communal human emotion. By virtue of its forms and traditions, it can link past and present, keeping that temporal current of human time alive. Perhaps poetry’s capacity is being called upon with such renewed urgency because of this ability? And perhaps poets will imagine, speak to, or summon their readers in new ways – somehow more intimate – shoulder to shoulder? We have to move from our sense of being territorial to being terrestrial.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 238 with the headline ‘Such Life to Come’

Main image: Cy Gavin, Untitled (Crossroads/meadow), 2022. Courtesy: © Cy Gavin and Gagosian, New York; photograph: Rob McKeever

Jorie Graham is the author of 14 collections of poetry, including To 2040 (Carcanet and Copper Canyon Press, 2023).

Geoffrey G. O’Brien is a professor at University of California, Berkeley, USA, and the author of Experience in Groups (Wave Books, 2018).