In his 2020 poetry collection “Habitat Threshold,” Craig Santos Perez wields his poetry as a way to critique climate change and the societal ills — racism, bigotry, capitalism and corporate greed, among others — that contribute to it. He doesn’t shy away from describing scenes that result from climate change, like refugees, rising sea levels and pollution. He confronts his struggles with raising his daughter in an environmentally fraught world and with his own complicity in the systems that contribute to climate change. This book is not for the faint of heart — but neither is contemplating the existential threat of climate change. And just like awareness of the climate crisis is necessary, so too is reading this collection. Poetry won’t remove microplastics from the ocean or reverse the melting of glaciers, but Perez demonstrates that it can make you feel something genuine in a seemingly doomed world.
Perez experiments with form through necropastorals, haikus, sonnets and prose poetry. Perhaps most notably, he employs “mimic poetry” (also known as “after poems”), which use the form of a pre-existing poem to create a new work that comments on new topics. Perez draws on well-known authors and their famous works, including Allen Ginsberg’s “America” and Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones,” and alters them to speak to ecological themes. In a wink and nod to the overtly ecopoetic slant of his poetry, instead of writing “after Wallace Stevens,” for example, under his new poem’s title in reference to the original “Thirteen Ways,” he writes “recycling Wallace Stevens.”
By retaining original, often familiar poetry formatting (he also “recycles” Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” and Dr. Seuss’s “One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish”) and juxtaposing it with jarring images of climate disaster, Perez forces the reader out of complicity and into a contemplation of the way our environment affects every aspect of our lives — even those aspects that feel so routine. William Carlos Williams’s original “This Is Just To Say” is a sweet, intimate and often-parodied poem reminiscent of a note left on a kitchen table in which the speaker is apologizing to an unknown other for eating their plums. Instead of plums, Perez’s speaker has eaten the “‘meats’ / that were in / the lab” and asks for forgiveness because they were “impossible™.” In a tongue-in-cheek manner, Perez pokes fun at lab-grown meat substitutes. Tellingly, he replaces an unequivocally “natural” food, plums, with a wholly processed, man-made food. Even in doing our best to do what’s right for the Earth — in this case, eschewing the meat industry — we cannot escape, he points out, the artificiality of the world we live in.
Perez’s poetry doesn’t merely allude to climate change science — it makes this science central to his poetry. Throughout his collection, there are graphs that are reminiscent of those of rising sea levels, rates of species extinction and rising global temperatures that often accompany climate change education. Perez’s graphs (created in collaboration with Donovan Kuhio Colleps and dubbed “Poetry-graphs”), however, combine the statistical reality of the climate crisis with the poetic power of figurative language. In one, a graph of rising sea levels is re-titled “We are not drowning …” In another depicting global mean surface temperature, the final endpoint of the graph teeters at an exponential angle and is labeled “Us.” Graphs and data can feel cold and remote; poetry, at its best, feels like an understanding that is deeply human. Similar to how he subverts the form of well-known poems to make a point about climate change, Perez combines statistical representations with poetic language to comment on the ways these seemingly antithetical forms can work together to communicate the severity of the climate crisis.
The poems of “Habitat Threshold” don’t shy away from “cold” scientific language; in fact, they embrace it. In the poem “Halloween in the Anthropocene,” Perez writes “Darkness spills across the sky like an oil plume. / The moon reflects bleached coral.” In these two opening lines, he simultaneously condemns and poeticizes oil spills and coral bleaching. Later in the poem, he mentions other real, specific causes and/or results of climate change: “black boys, enslaved by supply chains,” “fire (that) unthreads sweatshops into charred flesh” and “open-pit uranium mines.” This poem masterfully weaves in other, less overt contributors to climate change, like the racism inherent in “kids masquerading as cowboys and Indians” and the corporate greed of companies like Disney, which gets its own special shoutout in the form of “a girl dressed as a Disney princess.”
But climate change isn’t just big-picture, abstract issues like incrementally rising seas or temperatures. Nor is it just the struggles of those most dramatically affected by climate change, like climate refugees or the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. It is also present in the everyday, lived experience of individuals on this planet. Perez explores this presence in his poetry, as he “host(s) (his) daughter’s first birthday party / during the hottest April in history.” The climate crisis is inextricable from our lives, even though it can feel remote. After all, “it takes 3,000 gallons (of water) to make one smart phone” but, at the same time, “our bodies won’t survive a week without water” — being so wasteful with something so precious is just one of the many ways humans exhibit cognitive dissonance regarding climate issues. Perez uncannily describes this general dissonance of living in the modern world: the way “a ‘normal’ Sunday” can be the same one in which “hours earlier :: fifty people were murdered / at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida” or the innocent act of eating canned cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving can be complicated by the environmental effect of a lake “now polluted with phosphate / discharge from nearby cranberry bogs.”
Perez’s poetry is perhaps at its most moving (in an already profound collection) when he speaks about raising a child in a world blighted by climate change. “I don’t want our daughter to know / that Hawai’i is the bird extinction capital / of the world,” he writes in “The Last Safe Habitat.” After asking “Will plastic make / life impossible?” in “Age of Plastic,” he continues, “Our daughter falls / asleep in a plastic crib, and I dream / that she’s composed of plastic, / so that she, too, will survive / our wasteful hands.” At the same time, though, these parts most effectively counter the hopelessness of climate change — his daughter represents love and innocence in a world of hate and ignorance. An easy response to poetry about climate change is, “What will this change, really?” In other words, what’s the point? Perez proves that poetry still has a place in the human conception of climate change.
His poetry and others like it edge out climate doomism, a consistent issue especially for younger generations. How can we change the world if we’ve given up on it? In this situation, poetry — Perez’s included — does what it does best: It puts into words that feeling that’s been scratching at the back of your brain. It makes the world strange and new and wonderful again. It spurs us to continue on and create a better future — after all, Perez’s daughter (and all of us) will have to grow up in it.
Senior Arts Editor Emilia Ferrante can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.