Welcome to the Anthropocene by Alice Major
University of Alberta Press, 2018; 96 pp
Reviewed by Edward A. Dougherty
I could recommend Alice Major’s 10th collection of poetry, Welcome to the Anthropocene, on the strength of the title poem alone. It is a 20+ page poem in 10 sections that replies and extends Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man.” Written in heroic couplets and in response to a Neoclassical classic, one debating the role of humans in nature and the cosmos itself, the poem could have fallen flat on any number of levels. And yet, it is a masterpiece.
“Welcome to the Anthropocene” is a completely contemporary poem. It includes scientific studies of the Black-6 Mouse to study genetic mutations of all kinds; the process yields a kind of immortality for the genetic material, though not for individual mice, of course, who suffer. She refutes Pope’s Great Chain of Being by asserting kinship: “We’re relatives, a clade,” which indicates descendants from a common ancestor. She catalogues a great many cruelties and stupidities of humanity, commenting, “We are not angels. But we’re family,” and she does not only mean that all humans are kin but all life.
These kinds of meditations lead Major to consider the role and function of human intelligence. In an intelligent universe, is it just an add-on that the animal homo sapiens possess as a unique characteristic. Instead, it is “an elaboration…of the skill required / by any animal that has been wired / for movement in the world.” In a remarkable section, she imagines the evolution of life from slime mold into terrestrial plants that send seeds into the wind. And in such a context, maybe humanity’s role is “To climb / the tower of consciousness” which is part of the living world. Then, she adds, slyly, “or not.”
The limiting mentalities of religion and militarism come under her incisive scrutiny. She demonstrates how these mental frameworks have caused in our era massive tides of refugees, humans like us in all biological ways. However, it is our minds and the concepts we proliferate that blinds us to our bonds, to each other and to all parts of the earth.
In sections 8 and 9, Major’s planetary, biological vision soars, as she examines how we seek our place in the world, in history, and in conceptual understandings. Our role and identity is individually defined by such considerations, and we can align with the limiting concepts or seek a wider vision:
Dear planet, we might find illumination
in you, and lessons in murmuration
of starlings, shape shifting veil of wings
in evening air.
The rest of the book is bold and uneven. When she is at her best, the forms and themes echo the inventiveness of the title poem, like in “Catena,” Latin for “Chain.” As its formal organizing principle, Major uses the first 31 digits of “e,” which she explains in the notes is “the number of which is the basis of natural algorithms.”
These examples make it seem that all the poems deal with science-related subjects. But the topics are as varied as the magpie in suburban trash, an ode to dust, a suite of office poems (including one about the typical workplace potluck and one about the idea of “free time.”). In “Discounted Annuals,” the speaker is at a big box store shopping for bedding plants where she meets Larry who is “a little different from the rest/ of us.” When he carries her flowers to her car, she comments that “it’s a great day / for the human.”
Welcome to the Anthropocene is a real achievement, and it deserves more readers. More importantly, these poems are intelligent, philosophically and ethically searching, formally engaging, and dappled with precise information and detail, and so they will reward all readers who find them.