Show Me Your Environment

By David Baker


University of Michigan Press
January 2014

Reviewed by Tyler Mills


David Baker's Show Me Your Environment: Essays on Poetry, Poets, and Poems investigates the philosophical implications of place—as historical site, ecological and cultural landscape, and aesthetic position—for lyric poets writing today. This collection, influenced by the ecosophical writings of Felix Guattari but also Baker's own life and work, begins by asking, "But what is our environment? Where do we live? Where do we live in our poems?" Critically acclaimed poet, poetry editor of the Kenyon Review, and self-identified Midwesterner, Baker successfully merges all of these frames of reference in insightful readings of the work of a number of contemporary lyric poets (such as Anne Carson, Emily Wilson, Linda Gregerson, Ted Kooser, Stanley Plumly, Solmaz Sharif, and Ellen Bryant Voigt), meditative case studies of our poetic forbearers (such as Herbert, Dickinson, Keats, Moore, and Whitman), and critical essays such as "If: On Transit, Transcendence, and Trope" and "Spill," which ask us to think about how—and when, and even if—a poem can be inflected by politics and environmental disaster.

Baker isn't arguing for the return to a fictive pastoral, outside of time as much as it is outside of place. Also, his purpose is "not to urge us to select or prefer an aesthetic, or a region." Instead Show Me Your Environment investigates what it means for the contemporary lyric to reflect the way the body and mind are irretrievably marked by (as much as they mark) the places in which we live and work now: "I am looking toward a poetry of site and situation—highly aware of its place in the world, its human residence in all particularity, value, and peril." At times personal (we learn of Baker's stint as a guitarist in "Hum Along") and at times nearly glittering with wit ("Reading Stern is like jogging with an extrovert who's been cooped up too long"), Baker's essays gather together a variety of readings that, with grace, ask us to think about the environment that has come to shape the way we approach the lyric today.

Baker begins with an epigraph from Virgil's Eclogue II: "Even the gods / Have lived in these woods…" Within the context of the collection, I can't help but read this as, "if even the gods have lived in these woods, so can you (in your poems)." The real woods, or "environment," which is inevitably entangled in a network of human practices, must enter into the representation we make of it—otherwise, the poem would sing on blindly, ornamental to the point of godlike hubris (wouldn't it?). As Baker writes, "My Midwest must also include the horrible omnipresence of meth labs and jobless ruin, the abuses of migrant labor, murderous pesticides, and the denatured sprawl of meaningless franchising." Baker argues for a poetics of our time that takes into account Guattari's "ecological registers": "the environment, social relations, and human subjectivity." And in doing so, Baker reframes the idea of the eclogue for our twenty-first century context of agricultural industries—"ConAgra, Cargill, Tyson, and Archer Daniels Midland"—that preside over the land and its laborers like "feudal lords."

What does all of this mean for the contemporary lyric as an aesthetic? In "If: On Transit, Transcendence, and Trope," Baker argues for a kind of contemporary "transcendence" that functions in language through the trope of metaphor: he asserts that "[a] trope is transcendent" because it is a "transfer" of "power" that occurs in language "from one thing or state or discourse to another"). Baker renames metaphor as an "ecstatic gesture," and explains that a contemporary transcendence is also dependent on irony, perhaps even "sublime irony":

Is even religious discourse now most possible when vividly ironized? Anne Carson says in "The Truth about God": "My religion makes no sense / and does not help me / therefore I pursue it." And Geoffrey Hill, in "To William Corbett," epitomizes the paradox and problem of religious belief: "I say it is not faithless / to stand without faith, keeping open / vigil at the site." Jorie Graham's "Prayer" is also on point, correlating the desire for the sublime transit with ironic awareness. Faith's fate is transformation, she says, but an "impure" one.

Baker's point about transcendence is in response to two very different approaches to the lyric he finds problematic: (1) of "social realist" poetry that "can run the risk of devolving the language of metaphor into the language of information," and (2) a kind of irony that is merely of "voice," or "merely ironic, smart, sarcastic, fast-talking, even erudite, but without a soul or the soul's music." Instead, what the "ironies of transcendental discourse" can do, Baker argues, are three things: (1) "Although it seems to desire an erasure of self, the transcendental—like the operation of metaphor—depends on a self as an origin and locus"; (2) "As the transcendent depends on the body, so does it depend on time"; and (3) "transcendence requires a death" in that it "requires, if only for an instant, a release from our identities and our familiar gestures into a space where we may reconsider our identities and gestures." Ultimately, if the transcendence Baker is arguing for looks a lot like the Romantic lyric, that is because it is meant to. He writes, "For all its ruined cottages, dark souls, pale whales, and melancholy inspirations, Romanticism is ultimately a hopeful aesthetic. Its evolution is hopeful: a revolution of progress for politics, the body, and the soul."

However, Baker does not argue for a return to the personal lyric that is gratuitously about the self, but for a poem that locates the self in a world, our world, where real social and economic forces affect it. Show Me Your Environment articulates a poetic ecology, one that includes the poet's own life and experience, as well as the conditions in which poets of today produce their work (our MFA "program era," to quote Mark McGurl.) In a discussion of poets he identifies as "emerging" in the introduction to his collection—including G. C. Waldrep and Emily Wilson—Baker notes "the sheer numbers" of poets writing today: "MFA programs and workshops are producing—and I mean producing like shoes and advertisements and French fries—a staggering number of young poets, looking for jobs, publications, building their resumes, networking like mad." In "Native Colors," Baker praises the work of Emily Wilson, who he defines as being "part of the large crowd of recently emergent poets for whom innovation and intellectual indeterminacy are central aesthetic tenets," though she is very different from them in her attention to place: "she is landed, sited, familiar with the native colors and their names and habitats."

In "Spill," a meditation on the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the oil spill and its uncontrollable effects become a metaphor for that which is at the periphery of our knowledge. The oil spill and other catastrophic environmental events are a reality of our twenty-first century existence; if we are to write about our environment, then we must be honest about how little we really know. Baker writes, "The peril of the political artist can be certainty and superiority, accusation and piety, single-minded commitment: the temptation to categorize into villain and hero. These traits tend to wash away or sop up the complicating spill. They often can't afford complexity, or contradiction, or self-contained opposition." (He also notes that he found his own "vast and spreading oil slick of poems about the spill, one after the next full of venom and self-righteous indignation and accusation" in the slush pile of his magazine.) As Baker points out, all too often poets are quick to pontificate on an event such as an environmental disaster like Deepwater, as though we can immediately grasp what it might mean and damn it with all our fury. But he also notes that accident is part of the artistic process—that we have to acknowledge the mistakes we make in the act of writing. And if we are writing about personal material, these spills, damages, and unexpected details that creep into our metaphoric constructions are also part of our environment. (He analyzes his own poem "The Spring Ephemerals" in a beautiful moment of vulnerability as an example.)

Baker's Show Me Your Environment does not romanticize (lower-case "r") nature and our relationship to it. This is a collection of essays by a poet who is keenly aware of our landscape—as a site that is rife with contradictions, in both our literal and aesthetic environment. "Show me your environment" is indeed a fraught directive for a poet writing today, as Baker notes with good-natured skepticism in his introduction: "But what is our environment?"

We may indeed live in the mind. But—this is essential for my argument—the mind lives in the body. And the body lives in a particular time and a particular place on the earth, making social connections, walking, loving, sometimes abusing, always taking its very nourishment from the place where it lives. Its survival depends on the environment where it lives.

Yet as Baker notes in "Provision and Perfection: Stanley Plumly's Poetry," the lyric is always trying to escape the body: it "desires to stop time or step out of time, to hold static the instant of song." This "paradox" is the "grief and irony of the poem." As Baker writes, "The desire to be out of body is a bodily desire." (What follows is an elegant essay on Stanley Plumly's new and selected, Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me, and Out-of-Body Travel.) Baker's "poetics of a new generation" is an acute sensibility for what the lyric can do—what it can still do—and a reminder of how our environment, fraught as it is, can become a site of meditation on the many human networks that have indelibly marked our mortal world, and us.