We as a species are lessened by the loss
of unknown places.
- Pauline Drobney
In an age of emergency, experiments are always the first things to be
abandoned. It happens gradually, or so the glaciologists agree.
Something massive moves in, melts, and rapidly meanders out. A
lone mammal dips its nose in the river. Leave it to something
celestial to abbreviate nomadic momentum. A meteor cuts through
the low cloud-cover and all the stampeding herds abruptly stop and
stand bewildered. Parents call the kids from their kitchens, but the
kids are on their backs in the black night, on the black grass, with
the light of the already-over leading near. Inside, televisions
tout a sports story: a front runner is swallowed by the pack that’s
been pursuing now, for laps. Commentators ramble relentlessly into
the evening about endurance, how nice it must be to go on like that
forever, to be as infinitely lucky as a light year seems. Legend has it
the sail is a product of the Stone Age. The waves and the ancient
wonderers about to see whether they’re seaworthy. The rest is
history. A conquistador steps off a ship in a new world and loses his
stomach on the shore. Getting a good look at his insides a shop
owner pulls his mangled hand from a meat grinder. The small
mistake a butcher makes in the busy hour. The city bustles by and
not a note is taken in the bustling. Not about the pocket-money
raining on the pedestrians from the person dangling from the
balcony above. Not about the driver pulling her lover’s face back
through the windshield. Violence
finds a way. The meteorologist agrees that there is a great momentum.
History happens in waves, nomadic hunters hefting spears that—in
their arching—turn into arrows, turn into cannonballs, turn into
bullets, always more efficiently turning the target’s insides out.
Extinction is a byproduct
of evolution. The global grid goes down and the earth seems quite
deliberate in its darkness. Mass graves are continual signs of our
malfunction. Breath clouds crowd the square as the convicted traitor
is shot at nightfall in the snow. A photographer takes pictures of an
unpopular regime, buries the photographs in jars after everyone
Agrees that democracy is a better way to dictate terms. War is, first and
foremost, a mimicry of the geological processes of the planet it is
fought upon. A convergent boundary. A collision of forces in a
confined space. Plates collide and mountains sprout from all the
crashing, jagged and monstrous with snow collecting at the caps.
This is the place where clouds obscure the colder weather and its
wandering, where all the good sled dogs go to die. None of this
explains the strange
phenomena, the forest opening up to absorb the airplane. The tall
trees where the skeleton of the hang glider holds on. It’s not the
that’s important, but who they sell it to. A little bird of an early
settler leaves the settler’s shoulder and beelines down the canyon.
He called for it once and then kept calling. The main objective is
finding the difference between what had to go and what has gone.
The landowners lease off what’s left of their anemic acreage. It’s
common knowledge: the West was won one weed killer at a time.
When the people can’t make sense they manufacture myth. They
talk about the future like the unfolding events won’t take them
there. Even the earth is elliptical, affected
by the gravitational pull of other planets. No wonder the adolescents
tilt their magnifying glass to engulf the parading ants. Everything
moves one way or the other. The cartographers won’t stop talking
about adaptable careers—how they charted and, now, charter. The
bus lets everybody off to flashbulb the blitzed and blinking
landscape. A railroad comes and goes. The buffalo roam in a diary
of a dirty prospector who died a hundred years ago today. It’s
important to bury embarrassments. For example
in the wee hours the least talented talk show host takes the reins.
The cable company calls back all its vans. All the antennas begin to
spin like weathervanes. Directionless, the broken vase makes the
lovers sing the baby back to sleep. Hushed tones and howling in the
hand-me-down suburban home. A nomadic hunter picks up a pinch
and lets it loose, points his party toward the over-there, the yonder
plains, the uncontainable continuum of years. Revolution means this
all comes back around: ice sheets carving up then carving out a way,
the turbine towns siphoning the wind, the little lightning fires
burning what they may, then burning out.
NOTE: “Milankovitch Cycles” refers to the eccentric orbital patterns of planet earth and the effects those cycles have
on the climate. The cycles are named after the Serbian geophysicist Milutin Milankovic who theorized their
patterning in the 1920s. Much of this poem was inspired and written in awe of Richard Manning’s biological
history of the heartland: the 1995 book, Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie.
The epigraph of this poem is taken from a conversation Manning had with the US Fish and Wildlife biologist,