The poetry of extinction
After discussing creation stories last week, we turn to extinction stories this week, another important theme in eco-poetics.
Above: Siberian tigers are an endangered tiger subspecies. Three tiger subspecies are already extinct. | wikimedia
Scientists claim that the earth is on the brink of a sixth mass extinction. Dozens of species are dying off everyday and, by mid-century, half of all species—amphibians, birds, fish, invertebrates, mammals, plants, and reptiles—may be endangered.
Many Pacific islands, including Hawaiʻi, are referred to as “extinction capitals” because the biodiversity that once defined tropical islands is disappearing. In turn, Pacific islands are also seen as “conservation laboratories”—sites where scientists can experiment with preservation and captive breeding theories. In class we watched the documentary, Hawaiʻi: Isle of Extinction, which captures this complex discourse.
While our class has read about the necropastoral and disaster poetry, extinction poetry can be more emotionally difficult because of its existential finality. At the same time, extinction poetry can be somewhat impersonal since we do not necessarily engage with endangered species on an everyday basis, if at all.
So we read and discussed three very different extinction poems; one by Hawaiian poet Joe Balaz (“Da Last Squid”), and two by White-American poets Juliana Spahr (“Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache”) and W.S. Merwin (“For a Coming Extinction”).
Below you will find a selection of poems from students in the class, responding to extinction and endangerment. Feel free to comment, share, and respond with your own poetry.
Prayer for the Abatement of Limuʻs Endangerment
by Darlene Rodrigues
God of Restoration
Please deliver us from our ignorance.
Lessen the greed of our politicians.
Clear the pathway of our streams to flow freely to the moana.
Spread your limu ʻeleʻele far and wide.
God of Kinship
Please forgive us from ourselves.
Lessen the haste of the developers.
Strengthen our courage and conviction to speak out against these harms.
Spread your limu lipoa far and wide.
God of Refuge and Strength
Please help us salvage our sense of well being.
Lessen the pain of our grief as we mourn the loss of our kupuna.
Help us listen to the deep knowing within ourselves.
Spread your limu wawaeʻiole far and wide.
God of Harmony
Please keep us from ourselves.
Abate the advancement of the invasive species that choke our reefs.
Give us the strength to pull them out of the waters.
Spread your limu kohu far and wide.
God of Transformation
Please save us from ourselves.
Lessen the treachery of apathy growing in our souls.
Help us awaken from the slumber that is this modern life.
Spread your limu kala far and wide.
God of Justice
Please help us recover from ourselves.
Lessen the burden of our fear and anger.
Help us find the joy of our belonging.
Spread your limu lepelepe-o-Hina far and wide.
The Extinction “Dear John” Letters
by Jessie Lathrop
I became extinct today.
I and 150 or so animal friends.
I will not list them for you,
Won’t “add to heartache.”
In the lastness, you speak of firstness –
“At the beginning, it was like so…” and
“We are more, so we come before…” –
Shame your firstness elicits lastness.
Shame the older you get, the more you’ll
long for me. Have my tombstone read
* * *
When turtles talk, our voices creak
along their throats with age and wisdom.
We advise you dig your nose in the sand
like the monk seal. Smell the earth and tell us
* * *
Coexist? I’d rather die.
* * *
My mom yelled me into existence much like
The rest of sealkind does its young.
And much like your kind does offspring.
I’d like to yell your eardrums into your eye sockets.
Hawaiian Monk Seal
* * *
I’m here with the icebergs.
We held each other as we left.
Now we’re headed to an extinguished party.
You’re not invited,
* * *
Don’t speak to the Great White if you see her.
She has little time left for your bullshit.
She smells with her mouth,
* * *
[I’m giving you the finger.]
* * *
Out like the lamp oil you keep making me into.
You’ve been extinguishing me for years.
Have fun with your overgrown military,
* * *
I’m leaving. You are sweet sometimes
but I can’t take the mood swings.
It’s not me – it’s you.
No longer yours,
Catalogue of Photographs I’ve Taken of Dead Animals
(with quotations from a suspect documentary called Isles of Extinction)
by Henry Wei Leung
Blackbird crusted in ice outside library, frozen mid-flight. “How is it transmitted?” Dead of winter.
Bunny the size of a cherry sitting open-eyed on a concrete driveway in a still summer, “a beautiful and a sad place.”
Hawk devouring squirrel in gulch formed by snow industrially plowed to margins “on the planet.” This margin is whose oblivion? Straddling a steaming body, red seam pulled from a red throat. “One dog bite could kill the whole species.”
Deer dragged to unmarked clearing in center of unmarked park, faded path a streak of white along grass and daisies. Covered in white powder. Organs intact.
“Once they disappear and once the land disappears, who are we?” Nirvana and extinction a tautology, an escape plan. “Bred in captivity, these hatchlings have escaped the clutches of the. . .”
Squirrel wound around dry claws of dead bush like a yogi. And the pornography of what remains. Body of me, too, relieved of spectacle soon. Foreign thing, nearly desperate beauty, dangered, look, look at me, me.
in search of feeling
where form follows
to browse – look
percent of salamanders
bloodred rate of
to the very
The Littlest Tang
by Chase Wiggins
Extinction is a slow, gentle thing—slowness—
but no one mourns them bee by bee, until
the colony collapses for good.
It is not the swift and bright flaring of a match,
but the slow and steady dying of our sun.
Asteroids are not the only change agents, and
not every extinction means to go out with a
bang to couple the first.
Sometimes extinction is simply this:
A symbiotic relationship gone sour.
When little cleaner fish are the infectious ones,
Honu either grow algae and parasites, or tumors.
And there is trouble in paradise, trouble on
And we have lost our ability to relate—
Are extinct to one another.
Okina Puka Okina Puka
by Brian Lieu
Everywhere there’s life, there’s music
The Mother is always singing Her songs.
The male ʻōʻō whistles to a female
that will never come.
Life slipping through our mortal fingers.
Now his voice is gone.
Their species is a symphony,
one by one,
each instrument deplumed
from the orchestra.