When I open Wendy Barnes’ Landscape with Bloodfeud to begin reading, it is one of two relatively new collections strewn across my desk, both with the word “landscape” in their titles, and I can think of at least a few others from the last several years: Through a Grainy Landscape by Millicent Borges Accardi (2021), some other wet landscape by Lynne McEniry (2017), and Landscape with Headless Mama by Jennifer Givhan (2016), just to name a few. In other words, to make a statement that’s of no surprise to either poets or readers, a preoccupation with landscape is something of a cliché. Indeed, poets’ fixation on landscape, both in the form of the reverent pastoral and as a means of meditating on the idea of home, is so well explored as to turn dull. I, for one, can only read about so many fields and birds and sunsets cutting through trees; it’s been done before and it’s easy to say that there is nothing new under this bit of sun.
Beyond the worrisome invocation of cliché, there are a few other reasons today’s crop of poets might not want to approach forms like the pastoral, or other dreamy, ecological themes, and one is that it’s hard to compete. Nature poetry is a subgenre with a legendary body of predecessors, and when faced with work that sweeps from Milton and Whitman to Stevens and Kumin, the rest of us may as well hang up our hats. Still, there is a key distinction here. We live in a changed and changing world—welcome to the Anthropocene, also known as the Great Acceleration. In this era, which began in 1950 and is defined by overwhelming human intervention into the natural world, what it means to write about that world is utterly changed and changing more every day. Why not learn to see it anew, this time on Barnes’s “deathship,” with her speaker tied to the mast?
The idea deathship, however it is rendered, is not new specifically to Barnes. In fact, one of its earliest usages dates back to the 1920s, with the publication of Das Totenshiff (The Death Ship in English) by the writer B. Traven. “Death Ship” was also the title of a 1963 episode of The Twilight Zone, and each instance bears some relationship to the world Barnes renders in this collection. As she writes in “Landscape, Unmoored,”
I am tender of us in this American moment,
as we burn through the early century, our credit
suddenly as dicey as the waters, as this whole
deathship, breaking free from its rotten moorings.
I am tender of our flawed cargo,
of our air-conditioned doorways and neon
lawns, the way their alien green usurps desert and plain
Undeniably linked to this strange cruiser, Barnes’ describes an existence both brilliant and decayed, lit up in neon as the anchor points disintegrate into nothingness. It is a world unrecognizable. The lawns are an “alien” shade of green, not in the sense of Marvin the Martian, but in the sense of the unnatural and the unknowable—simultaneously foreign, as in seeming to come from somewhere else or reflecting another existence, and stateless, as in originating from nowhere at all. These are in fact the two ways that deathships function in The Twilight Zone and in Traven’s novel, respectively, but it’s also impossible not to read the idea of a deathship as the Earth itself, this decomposing home planet whose “comeuppance creeps like floodwaters, / swamping the decks.” Disaster is coming from us and no matter how the speakers’ crew navigates, tries to “tack toward the future,” we are left to contend with this “self-inflicted storm.” This is precisely the manner of the Anthropocene, an increasingly deadly churning wrought of our own excesses, and one Barnes masterfully captures.
While “Landscape, Unmoored” concerns itself with a broader stage, in the majority of Landscape with Bloodfeud takes a much narrower geography as its focus, specifically Louisiana’s uniquely vulnerable environment. Built on unstable ground, the state is the second poorest in the country, and so its residents are also the least able to contend with the risks posed by life there. Such tenuousness creates a landscape where home is something of an impossibility, situated on both literal and metaphorical shifting ground. In the title poem, Barnes puts this issue bluntly, as her speaker describes the family trailer as
Our own home.
But home is
the permanent question,
the always unsteady
She then moves on to a parallel description of home as “the empty set, the ever-shifting/proposition.” When home is a trailer, it can occupy any of a number of landscapes, and can also be overturned by a storm, picked up and dragged down the highway, split open like a tin can, all outcomes either impossible or less likely in the era before the Anthropocene, which has swept into existence with trailer-transplanting trucks and “Once in a Century” storms that come year after year.
Another distinctive element that shapes Barnes’ approach to landscape in the Anthropocene is the fact that the landscapes that both this trailer and this speaker occupy are not the sort exalted by classic pastoral masters. Instead, Barnes’ writing is overrun by the particular degradations that shape marginal places, like the storm-scarred, colonial project of Louisiana, a landscape she defines further in historical palimpsest poems, like “Photograph from Angola Penitentiary, 1935,” “The Profiteers: The Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans Railroad, 1898,” and “The Cadillac Club, 1922.”
Through such maps of the past in pairing with interrogations of the speaker’s family history, which include complicity in the racist harms of the Reconstruction Era, and transmogrification of slavery into the contemporary prison system, Barnes help us as readers to understand that even those poems which seem preoccupied with landscape are actually more interested in how we arrived here, where here is not so much a physical place as the Anthropocene itself. We are “a coffin-shaped canker / in the would-be pastoral // scene” also outlined in that photograph of Angola, as much as we are the child-victim of this alchemized earth, setting down a trailer where we can “move in and let / the formaldehyde / begin to pit our lungs.” To describe this era is to mourn a future that our child will never have, or at least a future as unrecognizable as the alien green grass. Anthropocene landscape poetry is inherently elegiac, at least if it also tries to be realistic—and Barnes certainly does.
Barnes is a poet young enough not to remember a time before this new era, unlike other recent pastoral poets like Kumin, and Landscape with Bloodfeud is tender and guilt-ridden, rooted and eroding, just like the landscapes it explores. Nearly seventy-five years on, we are only just entering a moment when it’s impossible to ignore the extent and depth of the changes humans have wrought on our world, when most of us lack access to glimpses of the world as it was. It’s hard to step outside this new era when we have supercomputers in our pockets, cameras that can photograph a winding river, while we fill that same river with forever chemicals that mean it will never be the same again. It’s this changed and changing world that the modern landscape poet must take as her subject, documenting something abject with a facility of language that still casts it in a surprising and wonderful light.