Inventing New Forms in the Context of Disappearance: A Review of Kristie Maxwell’s Goners by Kaf Warner

“Who hunts who?
Who got got?”
-Kristi Maxwell, Goners

How does extinction affect you?

Kristi Maxwell’s latest collection of poetry, Goners, attempts to answer this question by visualizing extinction through language. This daring book warns of the reality of the extinction and environmental crises that we're experiencing today. As corporations burn through resources at paces nature can’t endure, and as animal populations continue to decrease while the human population increases exponentially, the poet asks: what would happen if we let this eco-genocide continue?

Maxwell is currently an associate professor at the University of Louisville and holds a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Cincinnati, as well as an MFA in Poetry from the University of Arizona. She is the author of eight books of poems including Goners (Green Linden Press, 2023) which won the Wishing Jewel Prize. Her other books include Realm Sixty-four (Ahsahta Press, 2008), the editor’s choice for the Sawtooth Poetry Prize and finalist of the National Poetry series, Hush Sessions (Saturnalia Books, 2009), the editor’s choice for the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, and My My (Saturnalia Books, 2020). Maxwell's poetry appears in Issue 10 of Miracle Monocle

Goners couples well with Maxwell’s previous collection, My My, as both books center the environment and the ways in which humans interact with it. Where Goners breaks out, though, is with an entirely new poetic form—one that shakes up what we know about eco-poetry and the expansive conversations it invites.

Goners is interested, in specific, in discussing the diminishing number of animals in the environment as felt by humans as we enter a new stage of environmental catastrophe. Maxwell created the extinction, a variation on the lipogram, as a way to showcase how our dying planet affects us. Could you imagine a world without cheetahs or deer? Goners asks us to try. In an extinction, the title of the poem includes all of the letters the writer is able to employ in the writing of the poem. In this way, endangered animals may star in the title, but their dizzying absence throughout the poem is felt and seen in each maneuvered line. Each poem in Goners is haunted by its title animal, and its absence in the poem felt throughout. Maxwell has created a future, one we near now, that is rife with lack.

Goners hinges on prevailing hope for a fuller future, and invites readers not to settle for “The scenic minus species,” as Maxwell phrases it. While some poems in the collection are almost suffocating in their grief, many gave me hope for a tomorrow wherein the musk deer still gallop in the twilight. And, with this hope, came a shock to my system: Goners wants readers to take notice of our own impact on the environment, but is also interested in engaging the ways in which we can rebuild and preserve the earth around us. Each poem is a stabbing reminder to experience the world before it's gone, and to spread change wherever we go so that generations following never have to feel what it is to miss an animal, a plant, the earth, again.

Once I started reading Goners, I was unable to put it down. Maxwell weaves together so many different ideas about how humans create connections with the world around us—both the good and the bad. Goners is not only concerned with the obvious repercussions of endangering our planet and its many species, but also the easily-ignored consequences of a declining climate, like what reproduction will look like in an overpopulated world. The concept of the world being overpopulated and simultaneously undergoing mass extinctions throughout the book highlighted, for me, just how human-centric our world is. Humans continue to populate and dominate the globe, leaving little room for anything else. The topic of climate crisis requires humans to unite towards the common goal of reversing this crisis, and Maxwell goes beyond just acknowledging this fact.

I recently had the pleasure of corresponding about Goners with Maxwell. The following is a lightly-edited transcript of our exchange: 

Kaf Warner (KW): First, I noticed a motif of infertility imagery that I think plays really well with your idea of the extinction. I was wondering if this was your way of linking climate change and our progression towards an inhabitable Earth with the idea that the oppression of the environment goes hand in hand with the oppression of women? I know you've mentioned an interest in eco-feminism, and, to me, your poems brought this idea forward. I would love to hear your thoughts on this reading.

Kristi Maxwell (KM): What you’re identifying as infertility imagery, I think of perhaps more broadly as non-reproductive imagery. As an intentionally non-reproductive person, I feel and have felt alienated from certain conversations, rhetorics, and visions regarding futurity and "progress" (questions of who/what we're shaping "our" world for). I think the ways in which certain bodies are valued or fail to be—for instance, the reproductive female body over the non-reproductive—speaks to the ways in which valuation plays into protection, both of human and nonhuman animals and habitats. Proliferation (of which reproduction is one version) is of course one of extinction’s opposites, but, with ever dwindling resources and a broad failure to show we can be responsible stewards and promoters of thriving, I’m not so sure about the claims we humans feel we have to the world. That’s not to say I don’t want humans to go on (I do!), but instead that I feel a commitment to multi-species thriving will also renew and invigorate a commitment to human thriving across borders, classes, etc.

I am indebted to Carol J. Adams’ work in The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory and her belief that we can broaden our capacities for compassion by thinking beyond the human in terms of exploitation and foregrounding interconnection over hierarchy.

KW: Second, would you mind talking about how you decided which endangered animals to use as titles? Was it random, or did you have personal attachments to them?

KM: I chose the animals I used somewhat at random, and somewhat range-seeking, in terms of the letters available.

KW: What do you hope readers to gain from reading Goners? For me, these extinctions really highlighted what a world without these animals will look like. We are experiencing so much negative change globally, and this was a huge reminder of that. I do think that using endangered animals over extinct animals gives readers a sense of hope—maybe a way to reverse the damage?

KM: I think you’re right on with your assessment! I don’t think the landscape of the book is ultimately bleak (though there are some bleak moments, as there always are in life)—there’s play and resilience. For me, constraints affirm and strengthen one’s sense of resourcefulness, which maybe just maybe can map onto other modes of creative problem-solving or help people feel motivated to see the generative potential of perceived limitations.

KW: Finally, what do you feel is next for you after Goners? Would you want to experiment more with the extinction and environmental poetry? Or, do you think you will move onto some different form of experimentation entirely?

KM: I have a hope that others will try their hand at writing extinctions, creating companion pieces for the poems in the book, but I've moved on to another project as of now.

I like to tell people I'm ending the alphabet. What I really mean is I'm working on an extension of Danish poet Inger Christensen's alphabet (trans. Susanna Nied), a book of poems that intersects the abecedarian with the Fibonacci sequence and engages the tension between resilience and devastation—the things we make and unmake, the things we can and can't come back from. Christensen's book covers the letters "a" through "n," and I'm picking up at "o" (a 987-line series, as determined by the Fibonacci sequence). The poems are centered on environmental concerns, and I've already learned so much by leaning into the letter. For all the problems of naming, language does have a way of expanding one's world rather than narrowing it—without this project, I might not have ever learned about oilbirds, for instance, and so I never would have known to mourn the captured chicks boiled for the oil they ingest in the form of the oil palm's fruit.

Kristi Maxwell’s Goners will be available from Green Linden Press when it publishes on December 5, 2023. 

KAF WARNER is a writer and a verse editor of Miracle Monocle.