Heather Swan
A Kinship with Ash
Terrapin Books

Reviewer: Erica Goss

“A hot wind … // ushers in the end / of the holocene.” These lines from the poem “Heat I” bring us face-to-face with the raw truth at the heart of Heather Swan’s A Kinship with Ash. In a voice detached and devastatingly precise, Swan excavates our human toll on the environment, uncovering its impact on not only nature but also relationships and motherhood.

Swan writes eloquently of the emotional costs that result from witnessing the decline of the natural world. In “Directive,” the book’s opening poem, she declares that we must “etch a new map // born of bone, aware of our / kinship with ash.” In other words, humans are part of the environment, not separate from it; its decline is also ours. And yet we stand by, seemingly unable to take meaningful action.

Our paralysis in the face of myriad environmental disasters informs “Remote Sensing,” where satellite images “invite us / to notice earth’s changes:”

And I am moved by the pictures,
the beauty, the loss, inspired even,
to do something. But I am so easy to distract.

This distraction feels almost willed: it’s so much easier to turn away, to notice instead “my unruly veins … how hungry I am.”

The environmental damage shown in the satellite pictures, as well as a lack of solutions or instructions, overwhelms us. We have no idea how to respond. Instead, we may find ourselves going through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. “In Which I Begin to Bargain” finds the speaker in the third stage, offering a random list of commonplace conveniences (plastic bottle, cotton quilt, tortilla chips, and insecticide) in exchange for the vanishing: the albatross, the polar bear, frogs, songbirds’ eggs:

for my fossil fuel—the fossils, the strata undisturbed
for my palm oil—the orangutan
for my mascara—the rabbits, the mice
for my smartphone—Congo

“And the Maple Stands Bare in the Wind” builds on the theme of inaction’s consequences, as illustrated in these lines:

How is it we were not built
to endure but rather
to grow numb in the cold,
to slowly cease to function?

That numbness evokes the fourth stage of grief, depression: as Swan writes in the beginning of the poem, it’s like “fingers bared / in frigid air.” What can one person do when faced with such enormous problems, such as the gradual submersion of Florida (“Disintegration”) or the forced extinction of the passenger pigeon (“Zoological Collection: Passenger Pigeon”)?

Hope appears in this damaged world in the most unexpected ways. In “Empath,” Swan’s son is the victim of a robbery. Safe at home after the incident, “he says he imagined as he ran the desperation / of those men—Not much older than me!— / that pushed them into a life like that.” The poem ends:

Like a rabbit looking up at the hawk
and not seeing talon or beak,
but the soft underside of the wing.

In “How to Love the Damaged Ones,” Swan reflects on the power of kindness to heal: “Don’t give up. / Lean in.” A frightened horse will calm, eventually: “her heartbeat slow, / her face soften.” The final lines, “You will be surprised / by how far she can run // and what she’ll be willing / to carry,” contain the message that for far too long, we’ve ignored the hurt and wounded, from the animals who depend on us to the planet we depend on.

And yet we persist, despite our misgivings. In “On Breaking” and “One Kind of Desire,” Swan explores the emotional territory of motherhood; from “On Breaking:”

Never have I been so raw, child,
as I felt bringing you into this world
of both violets and beheadings.

And, in “One Kind of Desire,” caring for an ill child prompts this painful truth: “Love is a cliff in a high wind / with no handholds.”

Swan celebrates the resilience of nature, and its vulnerability, with “To Softness:”

Oh, Softness,
we have all but destroyed you
with our bullets, our bombs,
our fear.

The speaker observes a snail, “my teacher,” who lifts “his unarmored head” and continues his path. That little snail, so unconcerned with the business of humans, is nevertheless one of the targets of a billion-dollar industry. In its quest to kill snails and other crop-destroying creatures, commercial agriculture dumps over one billion pounds of pesticide into the environment per year. Swan titled several of the poems in the collection after pesticides, whose innocent-sounding names, i.e., “Liberty,” “Calypso,” “Luna,” and “Vespers,” belie the terrible consequences of their use.

In “Pesticide II: Calypso,” Swan describes a field of corn, disturbing in its perfection, “each ear / like a shuttle of gold,” which “lures / the farmer who thinks only / of the comfort, the ease.”

In “Pesticide VII: Victor,” spraying destroys a hive, leaving the bees

… Limping
in a circle like someone
who’s been spinning
on a tire swing for too long …

“Pesticide X: Serenade” recalls the title of Rachel Carson’s classic book about the deadly effect of agricultural poisons on wildlife, Silent Spring. Carson’s title refers to the absence of bird songs due to their deaths from the aerial spraying of DDT in the 1950s; Swan’s poem starts with a list of sounds that Bernie Krause, a soundscape artist, once recorded: “the tremolo of water, and the rasp of soil shifting / as worms worked their way through.”

As the poem informs us, however, “The years passed, and the spaces grew quiet. One by one / the voices were silenced. Now he records / the absence, all that we’ve undone.”

A Kinship with Ash reminds us of the cost of plundering the planet for short-term gain. The destruction wrought so cavalierly, with such little regard for its impact on Nature, has brought us to a perilous edge. Our emotional lives, as well as the physical environment, bear the burden of these acts. In a voice of both grief and hope, Heather Swan’s poems demand action.