Pesticides. Extinctions. Abandoned, ruined cities. These signposts of ecological devastation occupy much of Heather Swan’s A Kinship With Ash (Terrapin Books, 2020), a collection of gut-wrenching grief and persistent tenderness in response to the Anthropocene. These poems redefine natural wonder for the age of climate catastrophe, forcing speaker and reader to come to terms with their complicity in the crisis. As Swan pens a litany of losses in “In Which I Begin to Bargain,” the cost of life under capitalism comes into stark focus: “for my gas cap—the polar bear, the harbor seal, the tern.” Though this poem and many others are anchored in ecological loss, Swan’s real accomplishment is a profound humanity—one which demands empathy, makes space for grief, and, in doing so, offers hope.
Swan writes as a descendant of Romantic nature poets, retaining wonder towards the natural world even as human activity pushes the climate to collapse. Uncannily, even this decline is beautiful: “By the lake’s edge at dusk, / a raft of lavender ice / is being consumed by / the warming blue.” Crafting vivid images of environmental upheaval as “a hot wind thorough as pain… ushers in the end of the holocene,” Swan casts a sharp new light on scenes of climate change that have become familiar, even routine. The collection rejects the detached reporting that accompanies such news in mainstream journalism media. Instead, the speaker navigates a complex, anxious, and guilt-ridden response to environmental destruction and human violence.
In fact, in A Kinship With Ash, these two tenets are intimately connected. The speaker bargains not only animals and ecosystems for her comfort, but also “the seamstresses, and their eyes, their children, their hands.” In response, the collection invites us to learn from the natural world we insist on destroying: “But here: the snail, my teacher, / lifts his unarmoured head.” The question that Swan poses crystallizes with this attention to the “… unstoppable, / excruciating tenderness everywhere inviting / us, always inviting.” How do we, in this destructive system, live well? What would a relationship with (rather than exploitation of) our planet look like?
Perhaps the answer to this question is the effortless coexistence described in “Sleeping With Yaks,” where the speaker details the generosity of “a family of sherpas,” who feed her “boiled potatoes and hot butter tea” and offer her a place to sleep. Alongside the family’s yaks, the human importance that characterizes so much anxiety over climate change seems to diminish: she finds herself in “a room not much bigger / than their two enormous bodies.” Vulnerability leads to relationship, when “[w]e measured each other with our eyes. / I blinked mine slowly in a kind deference.” Shedding power for humility, the speaker’s relationship with nonhuman life is no longer antagonistic or guilt-ridden. Instead, “they held me in the halo / of their warm, sweet breath.”
It’s a lesson that informs human relationships, too, as Swan entwines stories of motherhood and romance with an attentive, observational nature poetics. Tracing inherited knowledge through ancestry and detailing the lives of children raised in a world on fire, the collection centers the deeply human experience of crisis as the speaker and her mother watch a devastating storm roll in while her daughter hides in the cellar. Intense love for her child transforms the speaker into something other-than-human, more-than-human: “my entire life curved / like a nautilus around you.” This process, though, is not easy, and Swan’s understanding of the grief that comes with such love is stark and gutting when she writes: “Never have I been so raw, child / as I felt bringing you into this world / of both violets and beheadings.”
A book so focused on human culpability for environmental devastation could easily lead its readers to despair, but Swan’s quiet observations of empathy and compassion offer a revolutionary alternative. Even as “the factory hums on, / its wires reliably pulsing / so we can endlessly / use our phones,” she notices “on a mat of branches / and sand, quiet as monastics / in a chapel, two cranes / stand perfectly still.” These moments of resilient beauty, even more than the overwhelming horror of loss, carry us forward.
There is a devotional tone to Swan’s precise, focused detail, to the way the deep compassion of her poetry extends from the boy who holds a frog tenderly before releasing it into the water to lovers past and present to the thawing ice on Himalayan mountaintops. Reading these poems requires surrender, and, in the speaker’s admitted culpability for ecological chaos, each piece feels confessional. We seem to kneel with her when “I acquiesce, / sink to my knees, / palms open like deserts.” Nevertheless, the throughline of hope that carries the collection never wavers; A Kinship With Ash exemplifies and teaches “the tremulous gaze that love requires.”
Katherine DeCoste is a queer, white settler currently living on the unceded territory of the Lekwungen-speaking peoples and the WSANEC peoples, where they are pursuing their MA in English at the University of Victoria. In 2020, they received their BA Honours in English and History from the University of Alberta, as the Rutherford Memorial Medalist in English and Dr. John Macdonald Medalist in Arts. You can find their poetry in Barren Magazine, Grain Magazine, The Antigonish Review, and other outlets. In 2020, their play “many hollow mercies” won the Alberta Playwriting Competition Novitiate Prize.
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