Rebecca Dunham, Cold Pastoral (Milkweed Editions)
Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!” The Legal Presentation of Rebecca Dunham’s Cold Pastoral
In legal terms, a traditional memorandum provides five individual segments of information: presentation of an issue, a short answer, pertinent facts, a discussion, and a conclusion. Rebecca Dunham’s fourth full-length collection, Cold Pastoral, centering on environmental collapse, delivers this judicious declaration with exactitude and conviction, calling all poets to action. Utilizing a series of recent disasters as backdrop, including the explosion and oil spill involving Deepwater Horizon, Dunham indicts mankind itself through a relentless catalog of facts any prosecutor would be proud to present.
There have been a series of excellent contemporary poetry collections addressing environmental catastrophes, including Katie Ford’s Colosseum, Allison Hedge Coke’s Streaming, Catherine Pierce’s The Tornado Is the World, Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler, and Alison Pelegrin’s Hurricane Party. Dunham’s collection is unique in her no-nonsense arrangement and delivery of facts, leaving her reader both astonished and overwhelmed at the scope of recent events involving pollution and natural disasters.
The collection opens with “Mnemosyne to the Poet,” a sobering call to action. “For you,” Dunham declares, “memory is but / an oil lamp to snuff, left to / smoke” (3). She then urges her fellow writers to chronicle the environmental disasters repeatedly befalling the planet. As with all people of the literary community, Dunham is “not permitted / to learn how not to look” (3).
The speaker then presents her short answer argument in the form of seven elegies exploring the seeming outlier tornado which leveled Joplin, Missouri in 2011. She invites her readers to view the environment as a person defiled (“the wind like a human body”) (7). Then, she asks a series of rhetorical questions in keeping with the legal-brief format: “What is the chief end of human life?” and, “What reason do you have for saying so?” (10). Dunham masterfully draws us, the intent jury, into her enveloping, brilliant argument.
What follows are a series of irrefutable facts involving the voices of individual victims, a parade of eyewitnesses who testify to us from both the epicenter of disaster and even beyond the grave. A series of poems entitled “Field Notes 2011” examine the morass of oil and filth accompanying Deepwater Horizon’s deadly fire and spill. The speaker herself has visited the bayou on a fact-finding mission: “’The fresh water was as bad / as the oil’” (25), she reports. Later, interviewing an unemployed fisherman, the speaker quotes the man: “’I offered / to show them all my dead oysters. / They don’t want to see it” (50).
Cold Pastoral’s discussion phase is crisp and to-the-point. Through the testimony of a wide variety of witnesses, including victims of Flint, Michigan’s water crisis, as well as the drilling facility’s dead crew, the speaker catalogs a devastating series of errors, miscalculations, and consequences. Dunham exposes British Petroleum’s own drilling risk assessment in her briefing as a point of discussion, quoting it in damning clarity:
No agencies or persons were consulted regarding potential
impacts associated with the proposed activities.
“I hereby certify that BP Exploration & Production, Inc. has
the capability to respond, to the maximum extent practicable,
to a worst case discharge” (28).
Tellingly, the group commissioned to investigate the rig fire declares, “No one knows what happened” (38). In describing the ocean at the drill site, the members issue the following statement: “. . . Its throat stuffed shut / with the testimony of the dead, black-carapaced and clicking” (38).
The speaker’s tone is urgent, both in subject matter and how Dunham constructs the contents of the collection. She employs no internal divisional sections within the collection until the closing, hybrid poem (“A Hive of Boxes”) forms a kind of enclosure portion of clenching, concluding evidence. The poet argues, “Death is the speaker and the image is a warning in the present tense” (63).
Dunham then closes the legal memorandum with a short, image-filled poem entitled “Daybreak”: “An egg cracked into a cut-glass bowl. Clear / sky, a single cloud, and the floating sun” (66). Then, suddenly, the piece recalls the famous eye scene in Salvador Dali’s 1929 surrealist film Un Chien Andalou. The poet writes, “Eyelids steamed open like a mollusk’s shell. / / Like the light they shine in a dead man’s eye, / this perfect black pool. And the ink spreading” (66).
Rebecca Dunham’s Cold Pastoral is a full-on indictment of mankind’s criminal behavior involving its mishandling of the environment. In a logically ordered procession of victim-impact statements, eyewitness testimony, on-the-scene investigations, document examinations, and closing film, she creates an evidence-filled document designed to move us to action, as well as trace our collective complicity in these disasters through ignorance, greed, and selfishness. As readers conclude this exhaustive, exhilarating collection, they themselves sit entranced at the close before snapping to attention at the rap of the hardwood gavel.
Paul David Adkins’s publications include Pleiades, River Styx, Rattle, Diode, Baltimore Review, Crab Creek, and Whiskey Island. Lit Riot will publish his wartime collection Dispatches from the FOB.