In her new book, Alice Major observes the comedy and the tragedy of this human-dominated moment on Earth. Addressing questions such as “Where do we fit in the universe?” all is made more urgent by the climate emergency challenge we face. Welcome to the Anthropocene, is a fascinating exploration of the human impact on our planet.
Most of us acknowledge that we now live in the Anthropocene – a geological epoch in which humans are having a dominant influence on the planet. This influence is so significant that it is changing the earth’s climate and ecosystems.
The Anthropocene is a term that continues to pick up velocity in scientific circles in recent decades. Now the term Anthropocene is used across society, including in the media and within arts communities, as we try to come to terms with how (and how much) human activity is shaping the planet.
So what is it like being on our planet in this time dominated by humans? As we near the end of the second decade of the 21st century, our daily newsfeed answers this question unequivocally. It is frightening, occasionally funny, sometimes baffling, but definitely worrying. For some, it’s anxiety-inducing.
We receive plenty of grim updates on the impact of humans on the planet from scientists and organisations such as nature and animal protection charities. Even psychologists chime in, telling us that grieving a rapidly changing planet and the loss of some of its species is now a recognised cause of emotional stress.
Artists too have an urgent voice in exploring the Anthropocene. They speak in all forms, from films and documentaries through to novels and poetry.
One recent contribution is a collection of poems by award-winning Canadian poet Alice Major [link: Alicemajor.com], titled “Welcome to The Anthropocene”. This is Alice’s 11th volume of poems, and it observes the comedy and the tragedy of this human-dominated moment on Earth.
Alice is an artist, but she is also at ease in the world of maths, science, and cosmology. This is evident in Welcome to The Anthropocene and some of her earlier collections, including “Intersecting Sets: A Poet Looks at Science” (University of Alberta Press, 2011), and “Standard Candles” (University of Alberta Press, 2015).
In “Welcome to The Anthropocene”, Alice persistently asks: “Where do we fit in the universe?” Her question is made more urgent by the ecological catastrophe of climate change driven by humans. Alice’s poetry leads us to question human hierarchies, loyalties, and consciousness. She also challenges us to find some humility in our overblown sense of our cosmic significance.
“Welcome to The Anthropocene” begins with “In medias res,” – in the midst of the plot. It is a poem of sorrow for the world’s youth who have been born into a world they did not create. “In medias res” speaks without judgement. All we can say – and all Alice can write at the end of this piece, is: “Just play your part”.
Alas poor child, you’re born
in medias res — the stage is set
with swirling depictions of a globe
in panic, small rainbow-colored frogs
hopping into oblivion,
a scene of smoggy atmosphere.
This beginning sets the stage for the poet’s riposte to Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man” (1734). Alice looks back to Pope’s great chain of being. In “Welcome to The Anthropocene” Alice tells us that the great chain of being is clearly at breaking point. This is because, as she explains, we humans are creating modified mice, transgenic zebrafish, inbred dogs, and all manner of beings that undo the world around us.
Alice illuminates the fact that humans have been (and continue to be) both collaborators and apathetic bystanders. And we continue to be so, even in the face of today’s ecological disasters.
Many of the poems explore the gravity of today’s ecological issues. Having said that, “Welcome to The Anthropocene” delivers a message of hope. Consider “Badger”:
I like to think of future roots
pushing through this paving,
of buckled towers becoming roosts for ravens,
the roof dome opening to the sky
like an ancient amphitheatre
and poplars standing, a chorus
of soft voices at centre stage.
No matter how we feel about the world today, we are a part of it and living within it. It’s time for not just poets like Alice – but for all of us – to envision a new a different future for the Earth.
Alice Major was born in Dumbarton, Scotland, and emigrated to Canada when she was eight. She grew up in Toronto and eventually settled in Edmonton, Alberta. Alice has published eleven collections of poetry, two novels for young adults, and an award-winning collection of essays about poetry and science. She has given many talks on poetry and science around the world. Alice has been nominated for a number of awards and in 2009 received the Pat Lowther Memorial Award, an annual award presented by the League of Canadian Poets to the year’s best book of poetry by a Canadian woman. Alice is an active member of the arts and writing communities, and in 2008 founded the Edmonton Poetry Festival.