How American poets contend with the downstream consequences of today’s ecological crises.
Earlier this week, the world marked Earth Day, the theme of which was plastic pollution. Environmental organizers around the globe are calling for increased awareness of plastic consumption and its protracted environmental effects, and hope to achieve a dramatic reduction in plastic pollution by Earth Day 2020. Contemporary poets, too, have been calling attention to the impacts of plastic on ecosystems and biospheric processes in their writings. In “The Age of Plastic,” a piece published in a recent anthology on the poetry of climate change, Chamorro eco-poet Craig Santos Perez catalogs the innumerable ways plastics are embedded in contemporary life. Found in household goods and medical products, technological, military, and transportation networks, bodily interiors and industrial processes, this synthetic material plays an enabling role in virtually all spheres of human activity. Perez highlights some of its beneficial, life-sustaining applications:
plastic keeps food fresh—
delivers medication and clean water—
forms cable and clothes—
ropes and nets—even
“plastic is the perfect creation
because it never dies”—
In other sections, Perez explores how plastics facilitate the prenatal development, birth, and newborn care of his infant daughter, pointing to the birth tub in which his wife labors, the Ziploc bag holding the placenta, the plastic nipple that feeds his baby milk. Drawing together this personal description of plastic’s role in his own family’s reproductive dynamics with the larger imbrications of plastic in everyday existence, Perez portrays plastic as an intimate container for and enabler of bodily experience. He wryly contrasts this synthetic substance against the delicate, vulnerable bodies of new baby and mother, calling attention to the uncanny endurance of the “perfect creation” of plastic.
The rise of plastics and their deleterious ecological effects is one key story of the Great Acceleration.