Swift – New and Selected Poems by David Baker
W.W. Norton, April 2019
160 pages / Amazon
In October of 2019, the journal Science published a study estimating the collapse of avian populations in the Western Hemisphere over the past fifty years. Their findings suggest a desolate sky that will become increasingly difficult for American poetry to reconcile with. Meanwhile, there is David Baker’s Swift.
Opening the book, fifteen new poems invite us into an ecopoetic vision of subtlety as well as clarity. The contradictions of the natural world meld with polarities of human grief to blur our modern demarcations between inside and outside. In the poem “Why Not Say,” broken dogwoods after a storm characterize the speaker’s injured father, who is then imaged into a red-tailed hawk; the speaker wishing somehow to become its prey in order to mitigate his sense of loss:
Now the air after storm. The old road empty. Swept white,
by blossoms by headlights, my father hovering still:
why it flew so close, why it was so terribly slow.
I think I hoped it would tear me to pieces. Lift me,
of my genus helpless, as wretched. And drop me away.
Throughout the collection, Baker delights in an expert knowledge of scientific names for various species. Here, that understanding is turned upon the lyric I to alter its whole identity. The poem continues into a final line which leaves the speaker in limbo between human and animal selves.
Baker takes care to engage with flora and fauna in their own habitats, and he extends this function to contextualize human voices in civilization. The poem “Checkpoint” develops a speaker’s anxiety around population collapse in migratory birds, and then superimposes it onto a series of grim allusions to U.S. immigration interview questions. Here are its opening lines:
These are the days when the birds come back.
These are the days the birds. These days
these birds. These days are these birds.
Let us see these days these papers. When
are these birds, and where are your papers.
The obsession with the now in the poem speaks to me of the Anthropocene’s intersecting tragedies. Human-caused climate change has led to habitat loss and mass-extinctions, but that’s somehow more comfortable to discuss than the unprecedented numbers of climate refugees imperiled by our current immigration policies. The poem goes on to meld the taxonomical language of plumage identification with the invasive questions a customs officer might ask, suggesting the kinds of beauty turned away at our borders. Swift pairs an unrelenting, yet measured gaze with a refusal to tell us the world will be okay or that poetry is going to fix it.
Baker’s lyric honesty in the new poems is its own kind of solace. Following them in Swift, selections from eight of his previous books read like an ecopoetic origin story told in reverse chronological order. If you’re new to Baker’s work as I was, expect to enjoy its formal permutations; couplets, fragments, thin columns and often full pentameter lines are all tools to build his aviaries. Thematically, the selected works evoke a naturalist’s playful curiosity, a child’s love for his parents, and a humanist’s concern for the world. The long poem “Scavenger Loop” is a 29-page sensorium in which flashes of postmodern irony light the reader’s way through all the uncanny implications of our position on the food chain.
For me, the poem that has become the most emblematic of the collection is “What is a Weed?” in which Baker explores the destruction of local ash trees by an invasive species of beetle known as an emerald borer. Its third section opens with these lines:
All over the village, the ashes are
dying. Already dead, my tree friend says.
The scourge emerald borer rode in on
shipping crates, Asia via Lake Erie,
2002. They date it to the month.
I was enchanted by the notion of the speaker’s “tree friend”. I think these poems, in their affection and concern for all life in our fragile biome, can become a tree friend for their reader. Perhaps also a bird friend, to remind us we’re not alone as we search the emptying skies.
Nate Duke was born in Arkansas and is currently a PhD student at Florida State University. His poems are forthcoming in Puerto del Sol and have appeared in Driftwood Press, The Hunger, and elsewhere. You can find him on twitter, @realnateduke