Coffee House Press, 2022
240 pages, $16.95
Review by Daniela Naomi Molnar
Early in Kathryn Savage’s deep, probing book Groundglass, she describes an unexpected choice at her father’s cremation: would she like to see the process? That is, would she like to watch her father’s body turn to ash? The core of Savage’s creative practice seems to be a commitment to witness, especially parts of the world that are meant to be unseen. She writes: “I felt a responsibility to look. I was his only daughter. Looking can be many things, and one of those is love.” So she says yes and watches as heavy curtains made of “chintzy pink satin” part “slowly, loudly,” so that only a pane of glass separates her from the burning. She looks, she bears witness — until she can’t anymore. Then she looks away.
She describes this conflicted moment of sight in her extensive endnotes: “Watching his body transform from flesh to ash would only happen once, here and now, and so to look at this or to look away from it was equally mired in the fraught blurriness of witness. Was watching this happen love or rubbernecking? Later, would describing this watching be spectacle or truth-telling?” This ethical tension inherent in witness is the sinuous underground river coursing below Savage’s powerful book. Again and again, she not only asks us to clearly see suffering, devastation, death, and beauty, but also asks us to consider how doing so is an ethical stance that might bring necessary awareness to the socio-ecological catastrophes playing out in our world and in our bodies every day.
Savage knows looking is difficult. Her book is partly the story of her training herself, with and through her grief, to see, a journey that leads her to ever deeper and more complex levels of spiritual, emotional, and biological entanglement with the earth. “I couldn’t watch his body burn,” she writes, “but I decided I could visit the Superfunds.” As we join her on her journey, we are guided by her spare, poetic prose and self-possessed voice. Savage is a trustworthy guide, humble and very astute. Slowly, haphazardly, bravely, we wander with her through changing visions of herself, her loved ones, and our world. We share her quiet struggle with witness as she decides, moment by moment, what and how to see. Allison Adelle Hedge Coke has written, “Everything in every environment is relevant. The moment you think otherwise, you’ve lost clarity, consideration, contemplation, reason. You’ve lost hope.” In a complex way, Savage’s journey into seeing her environment and herself is a reclamation of hope.
Like a shattered window or a mosaic, Groundglass is composed of short, titled chapters that weave between linked themes, stories, and narrative modes, including memoir, essay, and reportage. This lyrical form gives the book a sense of dimensionality, offering multifaceted views of mortality, parent-child relationships, persistent industrial pollution, and the societal histories and possible futures that swirl around and through these linked themes.
Some chapters zoom into personal narrative, magnifying our understanding of individual lives or specific locales. Taking a cue from Muriel Rukeyser’s groundbreaking 1931 book of docupoetics, The Book of the Dead, in which Rukeyser tells the story of poisoned West Virginia miners by relying primarily on the miners’ voices rather than her own, Savage is careful not to generalize or appropriate others’ unique cultural relationships to place, instead allowing people she meets to tell their own stories in their own words. This specificity is one of the book’s many gifts, cultivating the sort of diversity that is central to any healthy ecosystem. In welcome contrast to these subjective views, other short chapters telescope out, offering wide perspectives on social or ecological context across time and biome.
As a book that is fundamentally about grief both personal and planetary, it feels appropriate that this mosaic of chapters doesn’t resolve into a single argument or narrative. Grief is an opener of things, a complex mess of emotions ranging from elation to devastation, traversing everything from irony to gratitude, wonder, regret, and complicated hope. Savage allows for the spaciousness that grief requires and creates, wisely resisting forced conclusions or strident appeals. Instead, Savage repeatedly prioritizes multiple stories and voices, especially those that highlight realities that are often drowned out by comforting status quo narratives.
The short chapters also feel like a cellular structure, a network that extends in four or more dimensions, a structure that is common to most life-forms. Through this network of linked entities courses a story of resilience and trauma, abuse and care.
Savage turns her gaze first on Shoreham Yards in North Minneapolis, a 230 acre polluted train, trucking, and bulk-distribution site two blocks from her current house and near where she grew up. We quickly learn that her proximity to this polluted site is not at all unique: there are 1,322 Superfund sites in the United States, each a severely poisoned place, usually as a result of decades of industrial activity. Another 450,000 brownfields are also scattered across the country, areas that are less poisoned than Superfund sites but are by no means unpolluted. She writes:
“According to the findings of a 2020 EPA report using census data, approximately 200 million people live within three miles of a Superfund remedial site or brownfield, which is roughly 61 percent of the population. The racial and income inequities among impacted populations are stark. Of the 21 million people who live within one mile of a Superfund, 49.8 percent of the residents are described as minority and low-income populations. […] 25 percent of all U. S. Superfunds are located within the boundaries of sovereign tribal nations, on tribal lands.”
Sobering statistics such as this are not unique in our lives. It’s easy to become inured to them, to stop bearing witness. This type of fatigue might be one reason why ecologically-concerned writing can easily devolve into a preachy tirade. It’s understandable — dig into just about any ecological issue and you’ll find a long, enraging history of deliberate ignorance and obfuscation of information by those in power, to the detriment or death of our most vulnerable and innocent populations (human and other-than-human). Who wouldn’t want to shout the story that’s been silenced? Whose voice wouldn’t become shrill with grief and rage? But Savage’s voice throughout this book is preternaturally composed, at times almost distant. As a poet, she is used to creating highly crafted, compressed statements that neatly contain layers of grief and rage. Instead of lambasting us with feelings and facts, Savage provides the necessary information and then steps away from the role of the authoritative narrator, instead allowing specific images and stories to percolate, slowly revealing deeper layers of meaning. This light touch allows the reader to bear witness on their own terms and to draw their own conclusions, an individual experience that is more likely to precipitate new recognitions and internal change.
Perhaps the deepest layer of Savage’s thinking has to do with the way the body of the earth and our own bodies are haunted, and how this haunting can be both generous and deadly. Billy-Ray Belcourt has written, “The earth isn’t just a place but also a shared subjectivity.” Savage’s book tracks her deepening sense of this subjectivity and her own imbrication within it. What is the difference, ultimately, between a memory and a molecule? She writes, “I am both who and where I’ve come from; I echo. […] When I absorb toxins, my body is transferred into a site of post-industrial waste; I have become this damaged ecology. […] We are, all of us, precise ecologies.” What is inside is out, what is outside is in. Savage’s careful seeing leads her again and again to the porosity of the body, the porosity of consciousness and of the earth’s consciousness as it lives through each of us.
Because so much of our planet has been rendered toxic by late capitalism’s violence, our porosity can can be cancerous, as it was for Savage’s father, and as she fears it will be for her or her son. Porosity, especially for low-income communities in close proximity to polluted sites, can be a constant source of “no, no, no, no,” as Keisha, one resident of a Superfund site in Alabama, writes to Savage. Keisha’s community has been told no, they cannot grow a garden; no, their children can not play outside; no, they should not have backyard barbecues — the list goes on. “When does a yes come?” she asks. The absence of a yes is a sign of longstanding negligence and ineptitude by governmental organizations and outright manipulation of the government by the corporations that cause the damage. But many communities and individuals are creating their own yes, finding strength in the fact that we cannot turn our porosity off and that our continued physical, social, and psychological vulnerability can also be an asset, a source of regeneration and remediation.
As one example of making a “yes,” Savage offers the story of Rebecca Jim, a Cherokee activist and teacher who founded and runs the nonprofit LEAD (Local Environmental Action Demanded) in her hometown of Miami, Oklahoma. Jim has dedicated herself for decades to restoring and protecting Tar Creek, a severely polluted Superfund site that was largely ignored by federal agencies until Jim began her work. Savage goes with Jim and her adult son to visit the creek one day and they find a small cement dam where a dam should not be. Within minutes, “Rebecca is knee-deep in the creek pulling at the hunks of cement that stop the water. ‘This damming is a violation of her right to flow,’ she says.” The three go about dismantling the dam. When the work is done and they are sipping cold sodas on the creek bank, Jim says, “The water is more free tonight and that’s how this day ends, so this is a good day.” Savage’s nails will be stained orange for days from the creek’s pollution: “the tips of my fingers will hold the creek.” Such is the complex beauty of porosity, a beauty Savage shows us how to love. Love deepens grief the way water deepens a stone’s hue, allowing the rock a fuller expression of its beauty as well as its scars. Savage’s tender, ferocious book is a grief stone deepened by her love for her father, her son, her home, her community, and her planet. She presents it to us so we may bear witness and carry its wisdom into our own bodies and homes.
Daniela Naomi Molnar is an artist, poet, and writer working with the mediums of language, image, paint, pigment, and place. She is also a wilderness guide, educator, and eternal student. Her book CHORUS was selected by Kazim Ali as the winner of Omnidawn’s 2022 1st /2nd Book Prize. Her work was the subject of a recent Oregon Art Beat profile and a front-page feature in the Los Angeles Times. This entry about her work in the Oregon Encyclopedia pushes all her nerd buttons at once. You can read about her poetics in this recent Poetry Daily feature. Her visual work has been shown nationally, is in public and private collections internationally, and has been recognized by numerous grants, fellowships, and residencies. She founded the Art + Ecology program at the Pacific Northwest College of Art and is a founding Board member of the artist residency Signal Fire. A cornerstone of her practice is to be resolutely non-competitive, non-expert, and committed to always changing. She can be found in Portland, Oregon, exploring public wildlands, or at www.danielamolnar.com / Instagram: @daniela_naomi_molnar