The Sea Came Up & Drowned, Rachel Jamison Webster’s fourth book, is a collection of poems extracted from John McPhee’s Pulitzer Prize winning nonfiction book Annals of the Former World. Webster’s “mined” poems are about actual mining, and how through excavation humans have gained knowledge about the earth’s interior and its geological deep history, but have in that process exploited or destroyed landscapes, ecosystems, peoples and nonhuman species that dwelled on those mined lands. The Sea is a book concerned with both the “surface” and the “interior,” geology’s slow machinations—faulting, subduction, compression, and humans’ fast extractions of oil, gold and natural gas. The collection meditates on our own “surface” and “interior” lives in love and loss, and our relationships to the natural world and one another. In the book’s first poem she writes:
owes less to finishing
in unexpected places.
To sense structure
one must develop a talent for seeing through—
The poem’s lines tumble and zigzag down the page, leaving a trace of where in McPhee’s text she gathered her words. The typology is reminiscent of a canyon’s descent or uneven layers of strata in a core sample or the jagged surface of a rocky cliff. Webster’s divining practice for poem assembling and the resulting forms imitate and evoke her subjects. The reader in this first poetic incantation is asked to “look” and “see through” these layers with her. Layering, moving, temporality, and scarring are prominent themes whose meanings multiply throughout the poems.
The term “mined” belongs to Webster. In the introduction to The Sea she shares that at 28 she had been feeling lost, stranded in her own life, and awake one night she decided to “divine” a message for herself. When she found her Divination book, it was stuck to Annals of the Former World. She writes, “When I grabbed Divination, The Former World fell open on my desk, heavy as a geode”. Webster was drawn to the “dense and elaborate” prose and decided to devise a found poem. She made two rules for herself: she could “only choose words in the order they appeared,” and she “could not add any words”. Webster explains how this “mining” project developed over many years, seeing her through changes in relationships, the birth of her daughter, and then the terminal illness and death of her partner. The book’s trajectory maps our human story of mining but also mirrors her personal life history of change, birth, and loss.
The book’s opening section begins in deep time: “a continuous surface / not long ago”; “watch the landscape change, see it / move, grow collapse in / time”; “the mountains: / a distant relative”; “But in the center was a deeply buried fault”; and “the old story— / everything’s moving”. She depicts the planet before people, where over millions of years, land masses merged, drifted, and collided. Then about half-way through the section Webster extracts:
Prospectors wore over their hearts
a magnet that
tingled and shocked.
Geologists, scientific men,
unskilled men, soldiers, sailors—
nearly everybody would
catalogue the earth
Humans enter the earth story, ready to “prospect” and “catalogue.” Her form in the excerpt above and throughout the book demands unhurried reading, measuring each word or phrase against the next. “Nearly everybody” is suspended solitarily, hanging there in whiteness with all its implications; then “would” surfaces, followed by “catalogue.” And finally, “the earth” and below that “for profit” occupying its own space on the page. The eye shifts with the line—our physical gestures while reading complicate and deepen the text’s meaning, and the reader cannot mistake Webster’s meaning, that collectively humans have sought to monetize the earth’s resources.
In the book’s middle section, the human dominates. She makes explicit that human society would not have had the Great Acceleration without the Big Excavation of gold, oil, coal, metals and minerals. She often applies geological language to human actions or human constructions. The collection is most poignant to me when I have to work for the meaning, when the poems are delicate, sparse and enigmatic, as in, “Pouring,” from the middle of the second section:
roadside colored yellow-cream.
A steeple structure in its
own red scree.
in long moments.
Her use of yellow and red color to describe the road and then the steeple make them feel more earth structure than human structure, and the church “protrude[s]” “like foam” as if it were a sea creature or magma bubbling up from a fault line or volcano. Webster coaxes new revelations, new ways of seeing the world, from McPhee’s words.
In the precise collages interspersed through the book, she frequently imposes circles on landscapes. They intrude into scenes of coarse rocks or softly contoured clouds or a line of clothes drying. In “Countdown to Irreversibility” a turquoise moon circle, with a smaller red circle beneath, hovers low in the sky; a tree with a boldly colored bird towers above. A woman performs some kind of labor in the foreground. The poem “Salt,” about the displacement of indigenous people, precedes; and “Children Outnumbered the Trees,” which describes resource depletion, follows. The dark collage in between underscores her themes of hardship and desolation, yet there is a strange beauty and tranquility in the image of a woman working outside by moonlight, a butterfly floating nearby.
The Sea’s final section feels post-human, post-apocalyptic, as if someone is traveling through a pitted and destroyed landscape, as witness. In the section’s first poem “The Accumulated Strain Unrelieved” she writes, “This is the moment / breaking open so space gapes. // Vibrate on the edge but do not fall—”. These poems brim with crevasses, gaps, strains, ravines, faults, buckled landscapes, and blasted sites “the sides lie open like butterfly wings and / are immense” “the clay in which are embedded all / the / shards”. Brokenness reigns.
In “They Began Falling” Adam and Eve figures “shivering / collapsed upon / themselves, thrown // as if floating in air,” meet “The End: / A Golden Destination. / Fine sands hydraulically pumped in”. The end of paradise is a fracking site—fracking is the “fall.” “Golden Destination” could be interpreted as a “golden spike,” a marker in the geological record created from a global event delineating a new geological time division like the iridium spike and the K-Pg extinction event. In Webster’s argument, some human activity—fracking, mining—is the “golden spike” for our own extinction event. Donna Haraway writes in her essay “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin” that she believes the Anthropocene is more like a “boundary event than an epoch...and marks severe discontinuities; what comes after will not be like what came before.” This collection of poems details that Anthropogenic boundary event. By imagining the human as geological and the geological as human, Webster warns that the human story of extraction has implications for the human future and the earth’s future.
Tracy Zeman’s first book, Empire, recently won the New Measure Poetry Prize from Free Verse Editions. Her poems have appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Chicago Review, TYPO, and other journals, and her books reviews have been published in Kenyon Review Online and Colorado Review. Zeman has earned residencies from the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, Ox-Bow School of Art and Artist Residency, and The Wild. She lives outside Detroit, Michigan, with her husband and daughter.