Cold Pastoral by Rebecca Dunham
Milkweed Editions, 2017; 66 pp
Reviewed by Kelly Lucero


Rebecca Dunham takes on a great task with her collection of poems, Cold Pastoral: to document disaster when “the world decides it’s over.” Through her use of ekphrasis and pastoral elegy, Dunham expertly depicts the horrific scenes of manmade disasters (with an emphasis the demolition of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig) and ultimately invokes feelings of shock in her reader.

In her opening poem, “Mnemosyne to the Poet,” Dunham writes, “I am not permitted / to turn, pillow to cheek, / and wait for sleep to find me. / Am not permitted / to learn how not to look.” Through her use of ekphrasis, Dunham places the reader directly into the harrowing scenes in which disasters occur. She does not permit her reader to look away from the disasters either. As Dunham explains in her book:

I step inside the picture’s space and time, its vibrant web.
I stand outside the image, in my own space and time. All
the same moment. The ekphrastic moment an elegy to the
singular self.

Cold Pastoral portrays the suffering of victims in various manmade disasters. For example, in “Elegy, Wind-whipped,” Dunham places the reader directly in the 2011 Joplin, Missouri, tornado by equating the reader with a doll that hangs from a tree branch: “See—your own / eyes stitched open as hers— / there is no difference.” Immediately, the reader is made to feel compassion toward the victims of the tornado. By equating the doll to a human being, the reader recognizes the fragility of humanity. Further, with this comparison, Dunham parallels humanity’s destruction of nature with nature’s ability to destroy man.

Throughout her collection, Dunham discusses the implications of manmade disasters by considering their impact not only the victims, but also the reader, and ultimately the earth. Dunham’s account of these disasters is presented through the perspective of the victims, often in their own words. Because of this, it is easy for the reader to empathize with the victims. If that isn’t enough to convince readers that humanity is destroying nature, Dunham connects the destruction of earth to the destruction of humanity in “Backyard Pastoral” by offering the image of a mother feeding her infant son and exposing him to a chemical weed killer, which could result in his development of cancer thirty to forty years later. This brings disaster into an intimate space: the backyard.

Dunham’s goal to teach the reader not to look away from tragedy is successful. Through her collection of poems, Dunham successfully evokes the feelings of shock and disappointment that are essential to make a change to the way humanity treats each other, themselves, and ultimately, the earth.