a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
What would happen if we began treating ourselves as sacred beings and all the Earth and her creatures as brothers and sisters, as sacred beings? We would have emergent justice from a living geography. — David R. Kopacz MD & Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow)
O angel of outrage, where are you? — Richard Hoffman, Mundus et Infans
It is early April, and as we wrap up our work as editors, we cross the one year mark since a great quiet descended on our world, when most street traffic and air travel was all but silenced, and we watched in astonishment as the streets of New York City and Rome emptied of life as if in some nuclear apocalypse. Though we did not know it yet, this Quiet Time would signal the end of the age of distraction, when in the interruption of our busy lives, we first heard the tremors of a tectonic shift. As Jordan Rodriquez writes in his essay on remote teaching through a time of convergent crises, “Distance Teaching and the Spectacles of 2020,” while his students were confined indoors not only from a pandemic but from a toxic orange fog that enveloped his city as the forests of the Pacific Coast burned– through it all, his students kept on writing. While a deranged president lobbed his hate-packed tweets daily at our public discourse like so many grenades, they kept writing. While the world this time at last paid attention to the police murder and torture of yet another unarmed Black man, they kept writing. As did the hundreds of poets and writers who responded to our call for submissions. I could not have imagined, of course, when I committed three years ago to this project that I would be reviewing submissions through such a time at this, when in symbiosis with a shift in public consciousness, we are experiencing a remarkable moment for art and poetry. I am deeply humbled to have had a hand in the creation of this collection– in partnership with my generous co-editors, Richard Cambridge and Charles Coe, and with the indispensible support of Jesse Hughes and Michael McDermott— what is an extraordinary testament to these extraordinary times.
Years ago, one of the first lectures I attended as an MFA student was a defense of “subject matter” in poetry. Subject matter no longer needed a defense only one year later after the twin towers fell, and soon after the United States launched its series of endless wars. By now it seems clear that the defense against an infiltration of “subject matter” into poetry was a defense of its whiteness, a refusal of the academy to admit the voices of those who do not have the privilege of turning away from subjects deemed “controversial” because they are living them. Czeslaw Milosz wrote in The Witness of Poetry that “the poetic act changes with the amount of background reality embraced by the poet’s consciousness” as if he felt a need to defend that embrace. What might have been background reality has by now become foreground, as it is impossible to ignore the many forms of violence– a creeping climate change that is by now devouring the world in fires and floods, the racist policing that is there for us to see, plain as day to anyone who isn’t living under a rock of massive denial. We are each of us, as citizens, as artists, living in a time when we are being held to account, and this deep reckoning, this confrontation of the self-in-world, finds its most profound expression in the arts, and in these pages: the witness, the necessary grieving, the deep empathetic listening, the demand to be heard by those for whom reality was never in the background. This awakening of public consciousness would not be possible without the hard work of artists and poets, truth-tellers who have long been excavating the buried historic traumas, exposing the faultlines; who are doing the work of grieving for a dying Earth, and seeding a new culture in the turbulence of a changing planet. For without the work of a cultural imagination we cannot imagine change.
When we developed our theme for this issue, we had in mind a living, textured map of an entire geography of injustices; we wanted to see how ecological violence, resistance movements, and struggles for racial equity, are as bound and interconnected as mountains and rivers and valleys are by the same forces of weather and deep time, erosion and upheaval. We wanted to envision how, as David R. Kopacz and Joseph Rael put it, justice might emerge from a living geography.
The seven sections in this issue came organically into shape: works on climate chaos, war, and pandemic, fell naturally into the section we have named The Unraveling. Poems and essays that lift “the veil of whiteness” (Elizabeth Foulke) to expose the buried historic traumas of place, are included in Layers: What Came Before. In Faultlines, work that dissects those artificial lines imposed on living geographies in order to exclude and confer privilege, and in Borders and Walls, artistic expressions on the cruelty of borders and prison walls. In the Hollows includes those works of grief and witness in a time of mass extinction and climate disruption, and in Ways of Seeing, you will find an essay on a presidential election as seen through the lens of an ancient practice of divination, as well as work that literally gives us the stars. Finally, in Ascents and Descents, the Struggle Continues, we have photographs from the frontlines of the 2019 uprising in Chile, as well as a personal essay on the uses of poetry in the navigation of systemic racism.
We begin this issue with a slide collage from Ian Trask, Undead Forest; it is one example of the kinds of layering you will find in this issue, here exposing the once living forest out of which the civilizing project was made. I see the ships that brought human beings in shackles across an ocean to be sold into chattel slavery; the ships that carried a genocidal idea and a malignant greed across four continents, and set into motion this great unraveling.
But I see, too, in this surreal, dreamy collage (which reminds me of our origins as tree dwelling primates) the possibility of a reversal: the forests made undead, brought back while there may still be time.
And in the contents of this volume, the possibility of justice emerging from a living geography.
Alexis Lathem an environmental journalist, essayist, author of the poetry collection Alphabet of Bones (Wind Ridge) and two chapbooks, and is currently working on a collection of lyric and documentary essays on ecological themes. Her poems and essays have appeared in About Place, AWP Chronicle, Beloit Poetry Journal, Chelsea Review, The Hopper, Hunger Mountain, Gettysburg Review, Saranac Review, Spoon River Review, Solstice, Stonecoast, West Branch and other journals. She has worked in support of environmental, food justice, and Indigenous sovereignty movements for many years, and is currently active in climate justice and racial equity work in her community and with her faculty union at the Community College of Vermont. She lives on a small farm in Vermont, in N’dakina, land of the Abenaki. She is a 2018–2022 Black Earth Institute Fellow.