Reviewed by Deborah Bacharach
by Ann Spiers
June 2021, ISBN: 978-1-73418-739-7, 100 pgs, $16
In Rain Violent, Ann Spiers unfurls the ravages of climate change. The salmon end up “skittering across the pavement” and “Snakes too starved / to rattle, hang from buses to beat the heat.” Then there’s the unrelenting horror of “Dumping Ground”:
I gut my sea duck; trinkets fall out.
Microbeads nest in fish flesh.
The Garbage Patch sheds jetsam
from its gyre of the little that floats.
Using the International Weather Symbols as a frame, Spiers’ tight four-line poems focus attention on one of the great crises of our time.
Each title in the book—“Ice Needles,” “Weather Station in a Deep Valley,” “Turbulence Heavy,” etc.—comes from the International Weather Symbols. I love how the titles feel like imagistic poems themselves, and I get to learn a code weather-watchers all over the world use to help each other chart the safest course, or, as in the case of this book, focus attention on the climate crisis. Spiers not only introduces us to the terms, but she includes the actual symbol above the poem. Bolinas Frank is her artistic collaborator. I found his calligraphed drawings charming and compelling.
Spiers’ take on climate change is not just on how our planet is changing but the human culpability behind those changes. In “Ground Moderate,” the ground is, in fact, not moderate:
Summits bare; glaciers melt back.
We can no longer choose ice
over fire, disrobe, fold our rags,
kneel naked, and be assured.
Spiers gives us the extremes of bare summits, the unwavering glaciers going fast. In the leap between the title and the imagery in the first line, she is warning us that if are willing to accept bare summits as moderate, a reasonable price to pay for the choices that lead to global warming (like the gold aerosol spray paint that shows up in “Weather Station on a Plain”), we are the architects of devastation. In this poem she references Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice” that suggests we have some choice over how the world ends, though no choice that it will end. For Spiers, we have already made the choice toward ending by fire, and we cannot pray away the fear, the pain, the danger, the struggle. No deity is going to intervene and assure us.
Spiers’ poems are haiku-like. In addition to what we may have learned about haiku in grade school—the tight syllable count, the reference to a season—haikus also juxtapose images and create a sudden sense of enlightenment. Instead of three lines, Spiers consistently makes these poems all four with syllables ranging from 7-10 a line, but they still retain a haiku’s compression, focus on imagery, and juxtaposition.
In “Visibility Reduced by Smoke,” Spiers gives us three images of the planet under attack:
Shooting stars burn through our air,
boil the sea, and fire the forests,
filling the wind with steam ash.
The horizon is as close as our hands.
The powerful verbs “burn,” “boil,” and “fire” create vividness and energy in these compressed images. Spiers juxtaposes the fast moving fire with the still horizon, the natural world with the human presence. In the last line, the speaker both sees the horizon, an image, but has a revelation about it “as close as our hands.” This line gives me some hope that humans can reach out, do something about the devastation, but Spiers is not writing a happily ever after tale.
It’s all going wrong, “The wind comes from the wrong direction” (“Tropical Storm”). “Squall” juxtaposes two natural images—the wind and the cherry blossoms—with human efforts to hybridize:
Wind scours pollen from the cherry blossoms;
ten thousand years of hybridizing gone.
Fickle wind mixes this and its unlike-that.
We are out there with our Q-tips, trying.
The weather has turned on the trees. “We are out there with our Q-tips, trying” refers literally to the gardeners trying to save the cross-pollination, but in the context of the book, I also see the small step-by-step of humans trying to mitigate the destruction of climate change. I would argue that reading this book, letting the images live inside you, is one of those small steps.
About the reviewer: Deborah Bacharach is the author of Shake & Tremor (Grayson Books, 2021) and After I Stop Lying (2015). She received a 2020 Pushcart honorable mention and has been published in journals such as The Adroit Journal, Poetry Ireland Review, Vallum, The Carolina Quarterly, and The Southampton Review among many others. She is an editor, teacher and tutor in Seattle. Find out more about her at DeborahBacharach.com.