In response to the Oxford Junior Dictionary’s decision to winnow numerous nature words from future editions, the poet Robert McFarlane and illustrator Jackie Morris collaborated to create Lost Words: A Spellbook (2017) in order to draw, or recall, awareness to the important links between language, observation, and conservation. From page to page of this over-sized picture book, life forms (wren, otter, and kingfisher) flit amid lyrics that celebrate lives endangered by rhetorical erasure.
Rose McLarney’s latest poetry collection, Forage (2019), also acknowledges the scope of the threat in its opening selection, “After the Removal of 30 Types of Plants and Animals from the Junior Dictionary.” Why banish “acorn,” “blackberry,” or “cheetah,” McLarney wonders when such words are hardly archaic? (1). Why hasten extinction by marginalization? If the elimination of “almond” is justified by the prediction that “the young will use language for nature less,” if the word “bluebell” must be weeded out “because flowers are fleeting,” the poet worries that all transitory impulses could be justified out of existence (2, 4). After all “arousal” is merely a “brief surge of blood that cannot continue / but lets lives be conceived” (3-4). How might any mortal life be recognized as worthy of keeping? If we want “mother” to hold value, the poet offers a plea for retaining other “m” words like “mistletoe, minnow, and magpie” (8, 10).
Because she recognizes that writers who indulge in anthropomorphosis are less likely to impress sophisticated, adult readers, McLarney refuses to reduce doves to symbols of peace or raptors to emblems of rapaciousness. Even as she aims to describe the “animal itself” in “One Way of Posing,” she also resists objectification as twentieth-century imagists might have recommended or intended (6).
“But to put an animal on the page is to still it,” McLarney recognizes (13). Audubon shot the birds he illustrated. No matter how large the pages or how vibrant the colors, his birds remained “contorted, curled and crushed into the corners” (17). Mere words can never replace livingness any more than taxidermy can. Still, even if the poet does not hunt as Audubon did, McLarney recognizes her culpability in a culture that allows feathered lives to be “crammed into crates, stacked on semis” (23). The bird life she spies when she drives on the interstate is all “breast meat, no metaphor” (28). It may be easier to eat what isn’t humanized and even easier if, “misshapen[ed] by breeding,” chickens lose the ability to walk on two feet (27). Why did the chicken cross the road? It was being transferred for processing.
In choosing Forage for the title of her collection, which transcends the category of eco-poetry, McLanery invites us to contemplate multiple meanings for the term. On one hand, “foraging” can be perceived as closer to gathering than it is to hunting. But, on the other, the word still involves taking (scrounging, stealing) in order to sustain other life. The verbs “salvage” and “appropriation” also came to my mind as I read McLanery’s work.
The latter is suggested by context in the opening to “Signs May Say ‘Don’t Touch,” a short poem, in which McLarney invites us into any museum where patrons are admonished to keep their hands to themselves. While the first couplet recommends distance for better perspective, the poem’s conclusion acknowledges the damages, the smudging from too much touching of “antique busts” (10). Even statuary can be violated. In observing that “the paint of the pupils [can be] worn bare,” McLarney reinforces the impression of stolen agency (11). Whatever subjectivity a sculptor might have lent to his creation has not survived cultural or temporal appropriation.
Still, our museums benefit from the collecting motivated (sometimes) by the desire to remind us of what might otherwise be lost to future generations. But the middle section of the poem shifts the focus to a more intimate perspective as the speaker compares the roping off of exhibitions to the consequences of her own expressed desire for solitude. Watching family members as if in lit tableaux from a dark hillside, she regrets her previous request to be allowed to “walk alone” as she realizes that parents will “go on getting older” and lovers “to whom [she] would make vows for life” will not (and cannot) retain permanence no matter how determined their devotion (8, 4-5).
The poet recognizes how art depends on the griefs of our lives. In “Little Monster, Masterpiece,” McLarney invokes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, conceived in a “Year Without Summer,” in which “volcanic ash encircled / the earth in shadow” (10-12). In one stanza, we’re reminded of human dependence on nature’s survival in the world at large:
A sharp crust of frost covered all crops,
ruining corn in America, wrecking
Asia’s rice fields. Farmers foraged
for nettles, then people ate clay, then they
themselves froze. (13-17)
The following stanza—by juxtaposition—establishes the threat posed during the speaker’s own milieu, though the warning this time comes from global warming, not water in the form of frost. Throughout the poem, McLarney deftly shifts between her own efforts at conjuring (a child, her poetry) and Shelley’s construction of “a few hundred pages, a great book” amid so much loss (28). The child the novelist was carrying did not live long; “tens of thousands” of Shelley’s contemporaries succumbed to climate change, but her monster, a creature stitched from salvaged body parts, lives on (29).
Like Shelley, McLarney says, women continue to recognize the risks, the “monsters [that] humans can create” (34). Even so, not all would-be makers and mothers consign themselves to despair. They do not give up on nature or nurture. The poem ends with a hypothetical woman “strok[ing] the round / of her stomach,” attempting to extend “the radius / of wishfulness” to a future in which the word “nursery” can transform “empty space” into hope (37-38, 41-42). This woman could be the poet herself, who, despite erosion and depleted water levels, admits, “And Still I Want to Bring Life Into This World,” the title of another poem in the book. Ultimately, what is foraged is faith in words, in their capacity for serving as glimmers amid existential darkness, as charms against loss, disappointment, annihilation. In the wishful, wistful world, imagined in McLanery’s poetry, a child might be exposed to “lobster, leopard, lark” in a dictionary, then flip pages to discover “last—to lasting—to live” (“After the Removal . . . 12).
McFarlane, Rober. Lost Songs: A Spellbook. Illus. Jackie Morris. Hamish Hamilton, 2017.
McLarney, Rose. Forage. Penguin, 2019.