Kirsten McAteer on Meredith Stricker’s Rewild

Can we rewild? It feels to me like one of the most important questions of our time. Can we restore degraded landscapes, bring back vanishing species, find ways of living that are vital and connected as opposed to numby consuming, endlessly scrolling – watching our image flicker against the wall of a cave as the forests burn? For this reason, Stricker’s Rewild (which was awarded Tupelo Press’s Dorset Prize) is an important book, as Stricker addresses this question with originality, skill, vulnerability and a generous dash of black humor.

The first section of the collection, “Staring Into the Atom,” is both a meditation on the rise of the nuclear age, and almost a conversation with Rilke who famously said that the task of poets and artists is to be the “bees of the invisible,” to stamp this “provisional, perishing earth into ourselves so deeply, so painfully and passionately, that its being may rise again ‘invisibly’ in us.” We are then the world’s only refuge. Rilke was a Platonist, in love with the ideal beyond the real. He also eschewed getting his hands dirty by dealing with the messy domestic tasks of the everyday, leaving it often to the servants of friends. And how can a refuge be created for something so itself such as an “...island, inlet, leaf, genome,” by rendering it invisible? In this section there are wonderful poems as timelines where Stricker weaves Rilke’s biography with the rise of the atomic bomb. She wonders in another how we could market Rilke if he were here now – “For God’s sake, keep him focused, get a trainer in, get him under a tanning bed,” and she lets him know his occasional pettiness and meanness broke her heart. Then there are two poems which talk back to the idea of “bees of the invisible.” In “The Work of the Invisible” bees are forensic workers who “reintroduce wild salmon, set a broken hawk wing, etc.” All those who do the actual, messy job of healing, remembering, restoring. And at the end of the section is the powerful “Flame Hive,” where the poet references the bomb and Rilke dying “pinned to his bones in a centrifuge of pain.” She writes, “I try to imagine a world that cannot be blown up, cannot be Abstracted, entirely irradiated by maniacs in power, by maniacs not in power.” Then, “there is no other world so the imagination must create this one.” Amen to that.

The other sections also contain powerful poems that speak to each other, and evoke the risk of destruction, of turning what is alive and precious into an abstraction or something to only be consumed. She encourages us to un-buy ourselves. One of my favorite pieces is “Dark Matter,” about the destruction of the buffalo, “...the loud Angels, the ones clanging and bellowing with prophecy, they are the rich ones, tallowed and tangled in wet, sweet smoke.” They became commodities – belts and tallow – that became the “sinews of nineteenth century production.” Dark matter is evoked at first in the buffalo’s eyes, “the large dark eyes are the eyes of a Giotto saint,” that then are rendered invisible like dark matter. Here we are back to the invisible – but the poem ends on a line, the last in a list on the resources of dark matter – its overwhelming presence in the universe and its resistance – “imagine bird-flight.” Stricker writes, “how relentless commerce is, busy and global, large as the sky. But the world is not yet emptied. Scattered in bits like sparrows vowels.”

Her website, which is worth visiting, includes a section of “Dark Matter,” and excerpts from a fairly recent Washington Post article about Native American tribal groups joining to rewild buffalo to millions of acres of land and how this restoration is bringing back other species – vegetation and birds – so that “vast green swaths,” can now be seen from space. Through hard work, attention and care, what was once invisible can become visible again – but we do need to change, and as she writes – un-buy. Stricker’s photo on her website (especially in this age of selfies), made me smile. It is a shot of her back, walking down a hillside in Big Sur, with purple meadow flowers blooming behind.

Kirsten McAteer lives in Portland Oregon and is a poet and therapist.  She holds an MFA from New York University. Her poems have appeared in various journals, and recently one was longlisted for the Australian Book Review’s Peter Porter Prize. She is currently working on a full-length collection.