In Crisis and In Beauty

by Kathryn Kirkpatrick Issue: Spring 2018

When I chose Kathrine Geoghegan’s “Barley Field” as the cover image for this issue, I was drawn to the movement and the color. Only later I recognized that her series, “Crash,” paints the paradox we are now living—in crisis and in beauty.  Her “Willowherb,” “Wild Carrot,” and  “Wheatfield” celebrate some of the common plants on which bees thrive. To find beauty in what feeds our beleaguered pollinators, who in turn make it possible for us to eat, is a powerful offering. Geoghegan takes her inspiration from the farmers who manage hedgerows and field borders in Ireland, leaving spaces for these wild plants to flourish and support bee populations. Like the underpasses now being built to provide safe passage to deer, raccoon, bobcats, and other wildlife, “Crash” paints our current extinction crisis as an urgent call to revalue and re-evaluate how we live with the more than human world.

Geoghegan’s paintings reach across the pages of this issue to Basia Goszczynska’s photographs in “Spoils,” images which make visible the vast collections of plastic awash in our oceans and, as Christina deVillier laments in “Grief Work,” showing up in the bellies of our ocean birds: “the albatross / . . . swallows // toys and floss and shrapnel bycatch / with its herring, and its nestlings // choke and die.”  Goszczynska’s images ask us to consider how beauty can be made within a materialistic capitalism, and with Geoghegan, she is unwilling to practice her art apart from environmental pollution and climate crisis. Taken together, the images of these artists arrest us with the awareness of what industrial consumer cultures have done to make our planet less and less livable; they also suggest that challenging our aesthetic norms plays a role in making change.  

The poetry and prose in this issue of CMR, as in other issues, continues our exploration of human—nonhuman animal bonds, including the infinite variety of these bonds and the myriad possibilities that await us through them. Certainly for me, this work suggests that shifting our relations with other animals, as part of the larger project of transforming how we live with nature and with our own natures, is the most powerful practice with which we can now engage. Teresa Scollon employs the incantatory power of poetry to avenge a mink family shot by a perverse suburbanite in “After Perfection,” the poem enacting a ritual retribution as “cold steel” on the killer’s forehead. Just so, Stephen Philbrick’s chilling “Abraham’s Apprentice,” this year’s winner of the R.T. Smith Prize for Narrative Poetry, recounts the haunting of the narrator by his killing of a sheep 40 years earlier, the poem witnessing to the  wounding required to wound, “any old hurt that I needed to hurt me forward,” and the costs passed down through generations for the act of killing. But Philbrick’s retelling of the Biblical story brings the nonhuman animal forward as he writes of the sheep with “his neck across the altar”: “[h]e looked back. A parallelogram glinted gold in his large dark eye: the pupil.” This depiction of another animal looking back as the subject of his or her own life reverberates through other poems: in “[t]he hawk’s turreted eye, forbidding as / God’s on the dollar bill” of Joan Murray’s “Like the Evening News”; in the narrator’s encounter with her bedmates in Heather Swan's “Sleeping with Yaks”:  "We measured each other / with our eyes.  I blinked mine slowly / in a kind of deference and waited for them / to blink back.”

Deference to the nonhuman animal reappears in H.E. Francis’ “Part of the Landscape,” where Ruth Wickford follows a skate into the ocean: “she kept close, riding its light down, up, till the skate reached a crest and stood straight up.” Her communion with the fish takes Ruth to the border between life and death, a transit echoed in “The Yellow Birds,” as Kat McNichol’s narrator follows yellow birds through memory and beyond the body. In both cases, an enchanted encounter with another animal provides a bridge and a reckoning for the human subject.  How do we propose to live without the other creatures whose habitats we destroy and whose lives and well-being we disregard? The writers here suggest that our own imaginative and emotional lives are sustained by our encounters with these nonhuman others.

But there are many paths in this issue of CMR, and I have taken only one. Down another lies R.T. Smith’s owlish vignette on the Winner and Honorable Mentions for the Narrative Poetry Prize, a piece that takes literary award judging to a new level. On this trail, too, you can find Samantha Hunter’s interview with Jeremy Jones about his recent book, Bearwallow, a personal history exploring, as his prose narrative here, “Wild(er)ness,” does too, his unsettled origins in these Appalachian Mountains.  Intersecting this path you’ll meet Wisconsin native and longtime Southern transplant, poet Susan Ludvigson in her appreciative exploration of eco-poet Brendan Galvin’s two recent poetry collections as well as her own interview in which she discusses dreamscapes and uncanny correspondences with other animals. Perhaps in another direction entirely is Sarah Beth Hopton’s engrossing exchange with scholar Timothy Snyder about his recent directive for all citizens, On Tyranny, a searing discussion of the ways democracies can be eroded and how also they might be protected.

And still there are stumps to examine as well as found butterfly wings, goldeneye ducks, mock orange petals, dogs gone feral, sourdough gone bad, and marriages sustained. It is spring here in the Appalachian Blue Ridge: the land with its flora and fauna are both deeply affected by and also far from equivalent to our flawed social and political structures. While working hard for the environmentally just society we desire, we can never give up on nature’s surprising resilience. We can partner with that resilience by creating social justice in a biocentric key. As Philbrick observes in “Abraham’s Apprentice,” “It’s an old story that I have been telling, / now and again, mostly to myself, /  to see if it ends any different yet.” As always at Cold Mountain Review, here’s to reclaiming the strands of old stories we didn’t need to lose and creating the new stories we now so desperately need.