Newton on Farrier, 'Anthropocene Poetics: Deep Time, Sacrifice Zones, and Extinction'

David Farrier
Robert Newton

David Farrier. Anthropocene Poetics: Deep Time, Sacrifice Zones, and Extinction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019. 176 pp. $23.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-5179-0626-9.

Reviewed by Robert Newton (Independent Scholar) Published on H-Environment (May, 2021) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

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It has become commonplace to sense distant geological periods breaching into the present day. We taste air thick with incinerated carboniferous life-forms. We purchase and discard persistent petrochemical products. We might overhear a news report about nuclear cooling systems ingesting shoals of jellyfish, one of the few creatures flourishing in warming, acidifying, desertifying seas. David Farrier’s 2019 book, Anthropocene Poetics, examines what these new intimacies between everyday life and geological time mean for reading and writing poetry. Much recent work in literary Anthropocene studies proceeds in an urgent mode, implying that scholars and writers have a duty to use the written word to expose the forces driving planetary catastrophes, catalyzing political change. Though not dismissive of such thinking, Farrier’s focus here is less on how to help resolve ongoing crises through literary work than on how to use the idea of the Anthropocene as “a means to think about poetry itself” (p. 5). He suggests that poetry can help us to “appreciate in new ways what it means to live enfolded by deep time,” sounding out the quandaries of “scale, interconnection and response” that dominate ecological experience under late capitalism (pp. 7, 8).

Anthropocene Poetics is divided into three sections. The first, “Intimacy,” concerns the poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Seamus Heaney; Farrier discusses how they work lyric voices to reckon with geological time. He observes that while Bishop and Heaney are not generally considered “Anthropocene” writers, certain poems of theirs are alert to the residuality of the deep past in the present in ways that have gone “largely unremarked upon” (p. 35). He ponders how scholars in the environmental humanities might learn from their efforts to make the deep past’s ambient presence in everyday life more “amenable” to literary expression (p. 29). For example, Farrier describes how in Heaney’s driving poems, disparate time-spaces intermingle: the tranced hold on the steering wheel, the “earthed lightning” of swans glimpsed through the window, the combustion of refined oil in the engine. Poetry, here, is a “hurry through which known and strange things pass,” absorbing what Farrier calls the “thickened” time of petroleum-fueled capitalism (p. 37).[1] For Farrier, Heaney’s driving poems enact how under such conditions, the encapsulated “now” of lyric expression leaks and the “division between self and kind” warps (p. 32).

In “Intimacy,” Farrier’s method is not to focus on poems that respond explicitly to socioecological disasters but rather to read texts that register recent geological shifts in quiet or subliminal ways, asking what they offer to recent thought on the Anthropocene. In the book’s second section, “Entangled,” he turns to poems that look more directly at processes of resource extraction and ecological depletion. He considers how for Peter Larkin and Evelyn Reilly, writing about the capitalist “division of the world into inventory or surplus,” and the “sacrifice zones” generated by this economic attitude, complicates and even forecloses the use of a lyric voice (p. 52). An important concern here is how contemporary industrial activities, by stirring up earth systems and reaching into the deep future, pressurize the writerly use of a “singular and therefore stable ... perspective” (p. 6). Larkin and Reilly deploy Olsonian “open field” poetics, collaging disparate voices, sources, and registers to represent the complex dynamics of forestry plantations and seaborne plastics, respectively. They hereby aim to counter extractive descriptive modes that rely on, as Farrier puts it, a “mass simplification”: the conversion of living landscapes into commodities and the consequent unseeing of a “dense, plaint weave of relations” (pp. 52, 74).

The vexed question of poetry’s political efficacy haunts Anthropocene Poetics. As I mentioned, Farrier is careful to frame the book as a discussion of how the Anthropocene “change[s] our sense of the poem” rather than as an inquiry into literature’s activist potential (p. 6). Even so, the question of what writing can do about the Anthropocene lingers. Larkin and Reilly strive to “reveal the density of entanglements” behind consumer supply chains, offering “a critique of, and alternative to, scalability” (pp. 11, 63); Bishop’s and Heaney’s poems are dense with “images ... adequate to our predicament.”[2] In the book’s third section, “Swerve,” Farrier discusses recent texts that “turn towards the animal” (and which, in doing so, mingle lyric and open field techniques) (p. 89). His critical voice here verges on urging readers to cultivate feelings of kinship with nonhuman beings: we “need” to recognize that “we are not separate but fundamentally coconstituted through others,” to “feel ourselves made strange” (pp. 93-94). Implicitly, then, this book asks what the Anthropocene means for criticism, as well as for poetry. Farrier is at his best, I think, when wrong-footing expectations of literary critical subject matter and voice, slipping the genre’s porous borders. For example, he periodically assumes the voice of a science fiction narrator: “vast numbers of jellyfish blocked the plants’ filtration systems”; “the dire seed’s song will sound into eternity” (pp. 94, 112). Farrier’s shapeshifting voice allows him not only to critique his chosen texts but also richly to describe the historical and ecological worlds in which they are embedded. Varying his focus and tone, he experiments with what poetry can offer to prose writing about the Anthropocene—with a nonfiction Anthropocene poetics.

This kind of writing, which Farrier develops more substantially in his wider work, balances careful attention to the “poetics” of the Anthropocene with an understated emphasis on literary activism. Poetry can, as Farrier argues, perform “bold linkages,” “compress vast acreages of meaning into a small compass,” and “widen the aperture of our gaze” (p. 5). Even so, it is difficult to shake a sense that the difficulty of much Anthropocene poetry hinders it from effectively “revealing,” “critiquing,” or otherwise offering “alternatives” to existing industrial systems. Anthropocene Poetics closes with a meditation on Heaney’s observation that poetry “does not propose to be instrumental” but rather to “hold attention for a space,” inducing moments of “pure concentration.”[3] Our historical moment has given rise to a raft of literary forms with specifically instrumental ambitions—arguably nonfiction, certainly climate newsletters, blogs, and podcasts. It is worth asking what these nimble and informative tools can learn from poetry’s attentive intensity, just as it is worth carefully listening out, as Heaney did and as Farrier does throughout, for how poetry “marks time in every possible sense of that phrase.”[4]


[1]. Seamus Heaney, The Spirit Level (London: Faber, 1996), 70.

[2]. Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978 (London: Faber, 1980), 50.

[3]. Seamus Heaney, Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001 (London: Faber, 2002), 190.

[4]. Heaney, Finders Keepers, 190.

Citation: Robert Newton. Review of Farrier, David, Anthropocene Poetics: Deep Time, Sacrifice Zones, and Extinction. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. May, 2021. URL:

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