Welcome to the Anthropocene

By Kit Dobson

by Alice Major
University of Alberta Press
2018/$19.95/136 pp.

Welcome to the Anthropocene is a virtuosic, challenging book of poetry by Alice Major, who served as Edmonton’s first poet laureate. This collection is by turns a lament, a dirge and a celebration of being on earth in this human-dominated moment. It is a book of hefty, rhythmic poetry that demands our listening and asks for repeated readings—an intelligent book that expects its readers to think about the verse they are reading and about the world they are harming just by being here.

Take the titular poem, “Welcome to the Anthropocene,” which was written as a response to Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man,” a poem most often encountered now in undergraduate literature survey courses. Taking on Pope’s 18th-century writing prompts Major to create rhymes and rhythms that speak back to Pope’s vision of a “great chain of being” of which humans are a part. In Major’s version, today the chain is fraying, breaking, broken: Humans are creating modified mice, transgenic zebrafish, inbred dogs and all manner of beings that undo the world around us. Not only does Major undo Pope’s poetics in her turns and returns to the canon, but she also points a steady gaze back at us, her audience, observing our complacencies and our complicities in the face of modern-day ecological catastrophes.

The situation is grim. Between overpopulation and the selective multiplication of species that serve human ends, all of which lead to environmental loss, “We’re heading / gravewards faster than we think,” writes Major, in “Dust to dust.” This is a volume of poetry that holds much sadness, as readers encounter in “Within, without”: “sadness like a nut contained. / (The light without, the dark within / a walnut’s shell.)” This sadness comes from witnessing so much loss—the trees dying and species vanishing. It is a book that asks, too, for forgiveness: “Forgive me / for living in my time, / accepting its blinkered limits,” the poet writes in the poem “Complex number plane.”

Welcome to the Anthropocene is not a downer, however. It is a compelling book of tightly wrought, deeply skilled verse that contains within it the seeds of hope, as in “Badger”: “I like to think of future roots / pushing through this paving, / of buckled towers becoming roosts for ravens, / the roof dome opening to the sky / like an ancient amphitheatre / and poplars standing, a chorus / of soft voices at centre stage.”

Imagining a future for the planet is deeply important now (and perhaps at all times). Major’s ecologically minded poems demonstrate anew why poetry and art play leading roles in helping us to conceive of better times that are yet to come.

Kit Dobson is a faculty member at Mount Royal University.

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