Manual for Extinction
The National Poetry Review Press, 2014
Reviewed by Julia Madsen
Caroline Manring’s Manual for Extinction exquisitely traces an ecopoetics of loss in the face of industrialism and myths of progress, revealing through nuance and beauty the “news that stays news.” Her collection extends our documents and records of extinction, allowing space for both the language of fact and emotion to face one another with the knowledge that birds, yes, real birds are “as likely to die / as fruit” and that “the fall the / end looks / like just an / -other soft descent on / -to a con- / vex / -ity.” Manring’s nod toward the genre of the manual tells us that the collection is both lyrical and pedagogical, that these poems are here to teach us how to read the world again from the perspective of our own culpability. Persuasive and nearly-elegiac, her poems show us how humanity has vexed our relationship to the earth through lack of care and foresight—how “[we] found a pasture / & delivered ourselves / into it / unprepared.”
In Manual for Extinction’s post-pastoral landscape, the birds foretell and envision what humans can’t quite begin to imagine, signaling with supreme visual acuity our future doom if we continue on an unsustainable trajectory. In the bird’s-eye view, our lives are fraught with signs of destruction to which we are willfully, woefully blind. Indeed, the birds hover over earth like carriers of letters containing urgent premonitions. In “How to Get Over the Gulf” Manring writes,
[an] assembly of ruby-throated hummingbirds departs
out over the Gulf stumbles upon a headwind
& just over eight hours in
drops into the waves
almost without sound. One bird catches
an improbably eddy of wind
and, finished with its fat reserves
consumes its own muscle
to get to the bayou
drinks a thousand flowers
and lives to be if not tell
that’s where the hummingbird lives.
These birds weave stories, their own tales of falling into extinction, if only we would heed them. In “How to Number the Abundant Things While They Are Still Abundant” Manring writes, “[three] forests, one untouched / one logged one / razed / sustained the same / birds but not the same / beetles / we must make endings meet / this is a place called Earth.” The collection as a whole inhabits the space of the annihilated forest, the wasteland where what was once ‘untouched’ becomes gutted and now we must struggle to ‘make endings meet’ knowing all the while that time is running thin. These are the “days of sore veins,” and the body of the earth wears itself out just trying to maintain equilibrium. We can’t keep up with the speed of things, with engines and machines boring through greed’s dark heart, and trains once symbolizing progress are now on a suicide mission throttling evermore forward:
[to] step on a fox tooth or a fish bone
on the railroad tracks & not know
what it is
opens one vein
in an evening that wasn’t
there before. One more
place for blood to go.
The earth’s veins break open and bleed out, and the fox tooth and fish bone become remnants or artifacts of the bygone while also serving as reminders of what’s to come. Furthermore, time in these poems takes on diverse iterations and scopes: human-time, geologic-time, rocket-time, celestial-time, forest-time, captivity-time, even suicide-time. Manring writes, “[red-] winged blackbirds slit their wrists / in February / so we don’t have to. / No wonder they sound / like rust.” She warns that “[you’ll] never remember / how your fingers get clean,” knowing that we will feel remorse for all that blood on our hands and forget it again in a second.
In Manring’s poems, we are the beastly predators who walk over the barren land in gestures of grief. She implicitly asks: how long can we go on like this? This perspicacious collection constellates grief, uncertainty, bereavement, and sensuality, encompassing the breadth and breath of experience in the Anthropocene. In “Sunsick” she writes, “[hair] falls / harp notes / Cut / above a / slow drain / Does not / land / Down and down a / downy, O, sigh for / a shroud / I can make / no wool / Can I have your / hairs to keep / Can I hold your / middle,” and for a fleeting moment time slows down enough for us grasp its sad beauty. The poem lands with a subtle reference to Emily Dickinson’s “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” when Manring writes that “I’d gone acres, quarts / before I knew / There was no shade / in the satchel and / No shade for / the bone.” While Dickinson proclaims a fear so cold that it is “zero at the bone,” in “Sunsick” the over-exposed world burns any dream of shade or relief.
In the midst of heat and conflagration, in “How to Train Your Palate to Taste French Oak as Tumbleweed Rolls By” (a gorgeous title, like so many others in this collection) the ‘glorious end’ is resonant with the act of immolation:
[you’re] so far up into the jettisoned
fractures of birch I know
the glacier doesn’t give up her living.
In the paralysis of a prism you see your heart
flagless and desperately communal:
is whoever withholds the most
It is uniquely human
to build a mining town in your lungs
just so you can name the glorious end
& pretend it wasn’t imperceptible.
Manual for Extinction is impressive in its strength and courageous renderings of our dire ecological times, imploring readers to reach within and find a pulse that can—hopefully, unflaggingly—sustain us.
Julia Madsen is a multimedia poet and educator. She received an MFA in Literary Arts from Brown University and is currently a PhD candidate in English/Creative Writing at the University of Denver. Her first book, The Boneyard, The Birth Manual, A Burial: Investigations into the Heartland, is forthcoming from Trembling Pillow Press. Her poems, multimedia work, and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in jubilat, Black Warrior Review, Versal, Caketrain, Alice Blue Review, CutBank, La Vague Journal, Flag + Void, Word for/Word, Entropy, Fanzine, and elsewhere.