Kimberly Ann Priest
“I’ve spent much of my life in a quiet tryst with nature,” says Tanya Holtland in the introduction to her debut book of ecopoetry Requisite, a series of poems addressing the need for a collective healing response to climate change and the environment. What strikes me about her work, almost immediately, is its incantatory and even proverb-like structure, the way that lines move both solo and chorused like a lone iceberg or many boats “carving black” on the water “like the path / of a traveling / fracture.” In this book, all of the natural and constructed world is observing and groaning “inside a crisis of planetary scale” asking us to grieve and rage together against this crisis—not to accept “the potential of our own demise” as inevitable fate.
“Fated” is the title of the first long, multi-page poem; a poem originally written for a liberatto performed with composer Daniela Candillari at the University of Pittsburgh. It’s stanzas are separated into four sections movements, interludes, transitions, and coda and explore what we “cannot see” as we exist in a world unaware of the small environmental changes occurring around us to eventual large effect. “You don’t notice the edge of a continent / moving half a centimeter a year” observes her speaker,
or the tree line thinning.
The slow quieting.
And in keeping with the poem’s title, the speaker questions our acceptance of this unseen change:
The thing about believing only in fate—
it saves you the pain
of having to risk the decisions of living.
If we hold to our blind acceptance, the speaker suggests, no difficult choices have to be made.
This liberatto moves into three other sections of poetry titled Inner River, Other Names for the Future, and The Story. Using white space to encourage abstraction and dissonance, Holtland’s poetry feels both fractured and echoed. I linger on single lines for longer than I typically would when reading a poem. I reflect as one wading through a dream of ocean waves and roots and “greened prairies,” each line calling me to consider what is eroding and diminishing even as there is as the natural world continues its efforts to expand and grow.
The world these poems create is slowly moving toward greater instability and “part of a lifelong relationship to instability is this,” says the speaker:
to lose the lover of the known
to enter into the active
whether by force or to acquiesce
a house freed of its foundation floats
and is otherwise aimless
Where do we go from here? the speaker seems to ask, Is all lost? Or can we find something solid to hold on to? The earth, undergoing erosion and diminishment, reels with hopelessness, likened to a person longing to die by his or her own hand.
I was once told that the desire
is more than it seems
I was told that there is a wisdom
in that impulse
even if for a brief moment
What is the earth trying to tell us as it hurries toward an ending? What need are we failing to meet? For, as the poem suggests, there is a wisdom in this longing to die. The soil eroding, the sea receding, the prairie burning, and the icebergs pooling away are all sending us a message concerning survival, and that survival cannot be sustained without the efforts of a community thoughtfully caring for all of its social and environmental functions and parts. The speaker continues . . .
I was told that darkness at its core is a desire
And by way of example . . .
Mt. Rainier once cut the land open as a miracle
so we think the world anew despite getting lost
we hear prayers coming down the river
Change has happened before, will happen again, is happening. There is a move toward transformation. What will it be?
Holtland is, with these poems, taking us on a journey over land and ocean to consider—in language both concrete and abstract—what this wide world is asking us to do about its transformation, its demise as it makes a “decision to lose,” communicating “the need / for a love unendingly deep.”
“These events” says Holtland in her introduction, “have their roots, and to let yourself feel them, to be a witness, is nothing short of the practice of getting comfortable with uncertainty and the potential of our own demise” (emphasis added). It’s not easy to dwell in the dark, stand on unstable surfaces, and ask the hard questions about what is needed to produce necessary change. It’s easier, as Holtland has shown us, to exist in a dream of fate; to assume that what is happening now was always meant to be and we have no part to play in healing the wounds of an environment that we, ourselves, have wounded.
But, says Holtland, this story of change and decision is not new. We have always lived in the midst of helping our environments choose redemption and restoration or not. We have always been tasked with ending destruction and engaging reparations. “Ancestry leans in to trust—” the speaker whispers in our ear and,
you too will be,
at the end of the line, capable
of carrying these rivers down.
Read Requisite and be drawn into a breathtaking poetry examining environmental loss and our human calling to participate in the earth’s redemption.
Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 22, Issue 4.
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