“The Great Chain of Being”: Alice Major’s “Welcome to the Anthropocene”

Wilson’s Consilience (1998), a problematic attempt at the unification of knowledge replete with assumptions about the nature of scientific inquiry. While her poems point out that we have all arrived in medias res, she does not allow this to stand as an excuse for stage paralysis. Thus, Major’s Welcome to the Anthropocene finds a ready readership prepared to consider conservation and climate change but also genetic interventions and cosmology. In Welcome to the Anthropocene, Major sets up the natural world as dominant over our knowledge of it. Newly occurring disasters may result in an exposure of human limitations, but they are preceded by the effect of human actions at a global scale. / We’ll plant some trees.” This sentiment provides tension in a book that finds truth and beauty in science, but which also has critiques of some of its processes and outcomes. Major unfolds her ideas by projecting images of biotechnology, mutant rats, and drifting universes on the back walls of our minds. Rather than in Coleridge’s moors, we are awash in the rising tides of information flowing from rodent laboratories and starry universes seen through telescopes. Readers readily understand that the power of science does not always come from knowledge production, as in the case of the children’s clinic, where the “discovery” of the value of touch is in fact the ratification of folk wisdom. There is no ending, happy
or otherwise. By invoking this work, which tries to understand how human beings fall into the structure of the universe, Major imbues her poem with Milton’s ethical concerns about humans accepting their position in the “Great Chain of Being.” Major’s poem raises questions about humanity’s position relative to God, or at least nature, given our ability (and inability) to create and manipulate the world around us. Yet her direct addresses avoid blame, guilt, or their attendant emotion: self-loathing. When you cut the birth cord,
it will drift away — unless you stitch it tight
This way of juxtaposing folk knowledge and scientific knowledge sets the power of science on its ear. Still, whatever is, matters, in a wholeness where
everything is common and everything is rare. Our universe comes blossoming / out of a vacuum that is not void.”
But touch takes on new meaning in “Old Anna,” an homage to the feminist folk wisdom that babies require touch, an idea “discovered” by modern medicine through a children’s clinic cleaning worker, Anna:
Old Anna’s theory. At times, her poems invite comparison to James Applewhite’s Cosmos: A Poem (2014) and Time Beginnings (2017), which express both scientific concerns about the nature of the universe and humanistic philosophical inquiry. And for a little while, we are each a lens
in its compound eye. Auden. Major has worked at the intersection of art and science before in her creative nonfiction work Intersecting Sets: A Poet Looks at Science (2011) — a book that is more celebratory of science than her latest work, which is tempered by the social complexities of climate change. However, there are moments when Wilson’s prose puts off the fragrance of poetry just as Major’s poetry can veer toward prose before sliding back into tantalizing assonance and rhyme:
                                    We are time’s derivative. She avoids suggesting that science can save us from our current predicament by satirizing those who are interested in an easy fix: “We can fix / anything, we are smarter than bacteria. Don’t look for gods
descending in a basket,
or prompters in the wings. Turn a spotlight. Major is one of a host of contemporary poets engaging questions of science. Major does not miss a chance to show us the science we already think with and the implications of this science on our ethics. Now sewn with buttons
or weighted with watches. The volume is somewhat lengthy for a recent book of poetry, but readers soon find out why this ambitious collection spans 136 paperback pages. There isn’t any reason for hysteria. In her title poem, Major moves between voicing a popular form of biological determinism (“Unaware, we live our lives according / to scripture written in our genes. What Major adds here is the duality of the Anthropocene: our despair in the face of it and the fact that whether we avoid, protest, reform, or embrace this new world, we are still in it. Her poems have appeared in The Carolina Quarterly, Catch and Release, and with Louffa Press. The reappearance of scientific language to express personal experience elevates the book’s themes: “Then think how everything / does touch. NOVEMBER 27, 2018
IN CANADIAN POET Alice Major’s Welcome to the Anthropocene, readers are introduced to a poetry ready to probe the ethics and political dilemmas of climate change, genetic shifts, and problems wrought by human choices through technology. ¤
Hannah Star Rogers grew up in rural Alabama and received her PhD at Cornell University. In Boston Review’s “What Nature” issue (March 2018), edited by Timothy Donnelly, B. H. Major is especially concerned with how improved scientific understanding and new technologies may cause us to mistake our position in the “Great Chain of Being.”
In Welcome to the Anthropocene, Major is not offering a guide to action so much as a guide to broadening the problem beyond the sometimes pat suggestions of political and environmental activists. Any respite the poems offer from this fact is tinged with the speaker’s fear of discovering plastic bottle in the waves or the possibility that butterflies will not unwind themselves from chrysalis attached to aluminum fencing. Declaim one memorable soliloquy. The first poet laureate of Edmonton, Canada, Major opens her book with the poem “In medias res,” into the midst of the action, a lament for children born into a world they did not create:
Alas poor child, you’re born
in medias res — the stage is set
with swirling depictions of a globe
in panic, small rainbow-colored frogs
hopping into oblivion,
a scene of smoggy atmosphere
With this opening, Major then turns to a 10-part response to Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man (1734), a second bite into the apple of rationalizing the ways of God to man (after John Milton’s Paradise Lost [1667]). Or pick up
pelting litter from the stage. Recording / angels of our DNA”) and a beautiful tempered reflection of the real complications of life on earth (“Equivalent / in worth and intricacy to the ferment / of a galaxy’s vast, spouting spirallings, / or a small, green, leaf-shaped frog. Not only does the poet dissect the ethics of current science, she also refuses to see this as a contemporary problem, insisting that we understand our climate predicament in a long humanist tradition of verse, religion, and human choices. Her poems harken back to William Wordsworth’s experiments with language and the mind, signposts in the lineage of romanticism which appear in the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, and W. Major’s practical philosophy of science avoids a pie-eyed love of science and technology while refusing simple dismissal or disgust. Rather than rhetorically invoking future children who will arrive in the wake of environmental disasters, Major speaks directly to the children of today:
Dear child of fortune, born today
into the middle of things,
break a leg. We might not unite
behind Pope’s verse Whatever is, is right. These poetic incantations are sometimes reminiscent of Wendell Berry’s Life Is a Miracle (2000), the welcome rejoinder to E. Strains of this inseparable link between art and science (think land art, eco-art, bio-art, and art for the Anthropocene) have appeared in galleries, like Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution (Exit Art, 2000), Sensing Change (Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum, 2013), and Placing the Golden Spike: Landscapes of the Anthropocene (INOVA, 2015). Things / do not get simpler just because of size”). O. The book that opens out of this meditation is a bicycle-paced tour of the animals in our lives, the gendered existence we live in offices, an interpretation of the philosophy of mathematics, and lines on the resonances of time and health. A newborn’s soul is light,
lighter than swansdown. Fischer, and Stefania Heim, collected poems for the “predawn of the Sixth Extinction Event,” one considers how the threats posed by nature are now understood to be the result of human actions. Just play your part. K. On the other end of these concerns are the well-curated poems in the environmental magazine Orion, which voice hope as often as climate-change doom, as in Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s “The Pepper Kingdom”:
Let that small fire on our tongues combust
just enough that we never forget pepper
first came not from a land of flame and blaze,
but from a quiet shoreline of green.