As far as what we must do in the crisis of humans and our environment, at least this much seems clear: poetry will not be the key field of battle. Nonetheless, some of us, for whom poems are an essential mode of understanding, need to write about poetry about it anyway. And so we’re led to the question: what kind of poetic writing about the environmental crisis is useful? In Green-Wood, a revised version of her 2010 book, Allison Cobb creates one such model. She has made complex and deeply satisfying book aesthetically, which also enlarges the reader’s field of vision about the emergency we are in.
Green-Wood begins as an investigation of the large public cemetery by that name in Brooklyn.
Collective shock and grief of the residents of New York City is fresh in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Towers. Cobb begins to take long walks in Green-Wood, where remains of and memorials to the attacks’ victims are located. From this launching point she draws an array of materials into her net, and the first two sections, “The Question of a Name” and “The Fence,” widen to a profound meditation on the post-colonial American relationship to trees, property relations, mourning, and memorials, among others.
Cobb builds her work out of information. She finds historical figures, such as Emerson and one Nehemiah Cleveland, author of the first guidebook to Green-Wood (and thus her unwitting ancestor) whose primary texts and life stories add personal dimensions to the history. These are interwoven with moments of Cobb’s walks in the cemetery, along with boldly lyrical etymologies, and catalogues. Her rich and compelling strands of the latter—one of the odd materials by which people have memorialized their lost loved ones, a second from an actual catalogue of pesticide names—form a key structure of the book.
But Green-Wood remains a book of poetry as well as information. Cobb’s writing holds many levels of poetic intelligence—at the level of phrase, sentence, arrangement of text on the page—but most of all is animated by a kind of lyricism of facts. By this I mean that the data that Cobb gathers, and the way she moves from item to item and rubs them against each other, proceeds in a kind of lyrical, associative fashion, as if the facts themselves were lines of a poem.
The scope and depth of the book, as evidenced by its forty (!) pages of footnotes and bibliography, call for a far more extended, careful reading than a brief book review allows. But even the first few pages showcase the primary elements of Green-Wood’s method as well as a number of its pleasures. It opens with epigraphs from musty 19th Century texts on the site, followed by two pages with fragments of verse and prose standing in white space. Large swaths of white space will be deployed boldly throughout the book, often I think to indicate a kind of muteness or grief, and offering breaks to the forward push of the prose.
That prose, as in this first description of the building where remains the 9-11 victims are interred, is consistently swift, chiseled, and fresh: “The catacombs turn out to be American, a filing system. The long whitewashed tunnel built into a hill exhales its blank air.” From this description we are rapidly drawn into the lyricism of facts as Cobb recounts that she and a guest encounter:
… Micah Green, who will be kidnapped in Iraq while shooting a documentary about looted artifacts. Fact means not ‘true’ but ‘to make.’ The fact of art a trace.
My guest is also named Micah, who prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem. This one made an anti-Bush book out of World War II propaganda posters. Later The Washington Post will reveal as a lie his detailed description of jumping into Panama as an Army Ranger. A fact I wore like jewelry.
In a few sentences we can see Cobb’s swift weaving of a seamed and seamless fabric out of history, personal story, etymology, with meaning hovering in the multiple connections between all these kinds of thinking. Tenses too shift fluidly, as the fabric ranges across times as well as varieties of texts.
Amid the solidity of the prose narratives and informations, Cobb’s elliptical fragments of verse (e.g. “what language did this blood once speak”) add energy and mystery. These italicized lines, mostly unattributed in the footnotes, might be Cobb’s own, or quotes of other texts—by the end, when an extended verse coda struggles directly with what could be a right response to the horror of the 9/11 WTC attacks, I suspect many of the verse fragments are drawn from this or related poems of Cobb’s. But we don’t finally know. In this loosely defined space one surrenders to a text that is multidimensional, extending in modes, times, spaces.
“The Foreign Birds,” the book’s final section, moves from exploring the exotic birds which have taken residence in Green-Wood to an uncovering of the brutality underlying Western scientific and cultural relationships to “Nature.” Accounts pile up of how, for instance, the bodies of orangutans and butterflies ended up across the world from their homes, preserved with arsenic, on display in museums of natural history in Paris or New York City. This section defies summary, as it gathers in perhaps even more materials than the first two, from Greek mythology to Walter Benjamin. But an intuition for me draws a line between the local grief of lost lives in NYC ca. 2001, and our mind-boggling collective grief at so much wasted, savagely consumed natural resources. Sometimes scary, always subtle and deepening, Green-Wood is one kind of necessary writing for this moment, a guide to losses that might help us understand what to do now.
Green-Wood, by Allison Cobb. Brooklyn, New York: Nightboat Books, October 2018. 172 pages. $17.95, paper.
Dan Alter‘s poems have lately been published in Burnside Review, Field, Fourteen Hills, PANK, and ZYZZYVA, among others. He lives with wife and daughter in Berkeley and makes his living as an electrician. He holds an MFA from Saint Mary’s College. He can be found online at danalter.net.