Skip to content

“Habitat Threshold” is mandatory climate change reading

In his 2020 poetry collection “Habitat Threshold,” Craig Santos Perez wields his poetry as a way to critique climate change and the societal ills — racism, bigotry, capitalism and corporate greed, among others — that contribute to it. He doesn’t shy away from describing scenes that result from climate change, like refugees, rising sea levels and pollution. He confronts his struggles with raising his daughter in an environmentally fraught world and with his own complicity in the systems that contribute to climate change. This book is not for the faint of heart — but neither is contemplating the existential threat of climate change. And just like awareness of the climate crisis is necessary, so he too is reading this collection. Poetry won’t remove microplastics from the ocean or reverse the melting of glaciers, but Perez demonstrates that it can make you feel something genuine in a seemingly doomed world.

Perez experiments with form through necropastorals, haikus, sonnets and prose poetry. Perhaps most notably, he employs “mimic poetry” (also known as “after poems”), which use the form of a pre-existing poem to create a new work that comments on new topics. Perez draws on well-known authors and their famous works, including Allen Ginsberg’s “America” and Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones,” and alters them to speak to ecological themes. In a wink and nod to the overtly ecopoetic slant of his poetry by him, instead of writing “after Wallace Stevens,” for example, under his new poem’s title in reference to the original “Thirteen Ways,” he writes “recycling Wallace Stevens. ”

By retaining original, often familiar poetry formatting (he also “recycles” Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” and Dr. Seuss’s “One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish”) and juxtaposing it with jarring images of climate disaster, Perez forces the reader out of complicity and into a contemplation of the way our environment affects every aspect of our lives — even those aspects that feel so routine. William Carlos Williams’s original “This Is Just To Say” is a sweet, intimate and often-parodied poem reminiscent of a note left on a kitchen table in which the speaker is apologizing to an unknown other for eating their plums. Instead of plums, Perez’s speaker has eaten the “’meats’ / that were in / the lab” and asks for forgiveness because they were “impossible™.” In a tongue-in-cheek manner, Perez pokes fun at lab-grown meat substitutes. Tellingly, he replaces an unequivocally “natural” food, plums, with a wholly processed, man-made food. Even in doing our best to do what’s right for the Earth — in this case, eschewing the meat industry — we cannot escape, he points out, the artificiality of the world we live in.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.