“Choose Hope or Despair”: On John Shoptaw

calidris alba at ocean beach san francisco california 20101116

A flock of sanderlings in San Francisco, California, in 2011. Brocken Inaglory, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CCO 3.0.

In 2007, the same year I was taking my third undergraduate poetry class with John Shoptaw at UC Berkeley, I wrote a short story for a fiction seminar. It involved two estranged friends driving a route familiar to me, between Cupertino and the sparsely visited San Gregorio State Beach. Halfway through the story, we learn that there has been a nationwide pandemic of debilitating anxiety and that everyone has received government-issued Ativan pills. We also learn the reason for the friends’ strained conversation: the Ativan is not working for one of them. When he looks at the world, all he sees is loss and future agony. The friends have a final showdown at the beach, which is littered with dead bees. One friend insists that everything is fine (though his denial is wearing thin), and the other skulks off to a boat that he plans to launch recklessly into the slate-gray, unfriendly surf.

This was of course an argument with myself, one I failed to resolve in my life as much as in the story. Thanks to Shoptaw, with whom I reunited eleven years later, and whom I count as a close friend and mentor, I’ve learned a word that helps me understand the problem I faced. It came up one hot day a few years ago, in a sliver of redwoods at a local botanical garden, where we were discussing our respective projects involving time. The term is prolepsis, a figure of speech in which a future event is represented as having already taken place. An oft-cited example of prolepsis is in Keats’s “Isabella,” in which two men and a man they plan to kill are described as “two brothers and their murder’d man.” For many of us, especially those of my generation and younger, there is a serious need to address something like a habitual prolepsis, a feeling that we inhabit a(n already) murdered world.

How does one find the missing character, the hidden part, the middle—where things still grow, actions remain possible, and the heart recovers its appetite? It is in this ambiguous, breathable space that you’ll find Shoptaw’s practice of ecopoetics. Against the timelessness of traditional nature poetry, ecopoetics takes place in a crisis-ridden present that is populated with individuals and mixtures, not symbols or binaries. The nonhuman characters of these poems are not allegorical but fellow imperiled travelers whose earthly wisdom and survival instinct are one with our own. This can be seen in “For the Birds,” the very first poem in Shoptaw’s forthcoming book, Near-Earth Object. The visiting birds are transcendent, but they are also familiars, and in a few cases even have names. Where a bird in a nature poem might be an impersonal stand-in for immortality, these are mortal neighbors and refugees from the wildfire smoke that the poet breathes too. The poem is simultaneously ode and elegy: a line perfectly capturing the personality of chickadees is immediately followed by the mournful observation that “the chickadees once came to my feeder in bunches.”

With Shoptaw as their human agent, many nonhuman denizens of the world speak to us in Near-Earth Object: Max the cat, garden ants, squirrels, the crickets chirping the temperature. Perhaps one of the most important messages they impart has to do precisely with declinism. It is in the nature of Nature to try to flourish; to give up on life is unnatural. In “After a Cricket,” a cricket has

like it would never have occurred to him
to stop before he was done.

In “Leaving Tsunami Hazard Zone,” the poet’s own future-dread is answered by a rookery of harbor seals “living their loves out” on the rocks below. In “The Fall Equinox,” the image of a turkling intuitively trying to get back to the right side of a deer fence replaces the car-and-road image of the “point of no return.” And through “Unseasonably,” where the ends of each line contain seasons more and more out of order, swims a contingent of gray whales, surprisingly resurgent after being left enough alone.

When I first read these poems and was trying to describe them to a friend, I said they felt cosmic, even though they often take place in Shoptaw’s backyard or around his Berkeley neighborhood. Breaching the boundary of human/nonhuman also means troubling the boundary of earthly/spiritual. The results are often funny, inflected with a tone of teasing admonishment. In “The Tree in the Midst,” where the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge are revealed to be one, Eve learns all she needs to know by watching the animals. It’s the angels, who have never set foot on Earth and don’t know how to tell good fruit from bad, who have no useful knowledge. Likewise, “Jacob’s Meadow” flattens the hierarchy of Christianity’s great chain of being, with a mourning dove indicating the actual location of “heaven”: the telephone line on which it lands. “Earth to Jacob!” says the poet to the man whose biblical stage props turn out to be real living things: a “steep oleander riverbank” (Jacob’s ladder) and “bats homing in on mosquitoes in the meadow” (angels).

In ecopoetry, such details matter beyond aesthetics. Just as cosmic gravity is always bringing us back home, Near-Earth Object resolutely sets our sights on earthliness as the only possible or worthy goal: the ultimate condition and the ultimate gift, wounds and all. There is a name for this joy-in-grief and grief-in-joy, this self-dissolving awe mixed with sharp concern, this uneconomical responsibility to something in its hour of need: it’s called love. Even the legal scholar Christopher Stone, in his 1972 proposal for the legal standing of trees, describes a needed “development of our abilities to love.” But this is something more than a fond or even tortured affection, or a patronizing call to save the Earth. Instead, I’m thinking of what the Kanaka Maoli wahine artist and activist Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio said in an interview: “As humans, we don’t actually protect our environment … She gives us an opportunity to come back into our humanity when we step into the role of protector.” This kind of collaborative role, one that Shoptaw’s poems assiduously demonstrate, is what can allow us to take it all in: the pleasure, the fear, and most of all the commitment.

In the coming years, it is not just the forests and the watersheds and our many neighbors that we’ll have to look after. Experiences of extreme climate events also cause psychic and emotional wounds in humans, as the red skies of September 2020 revealed here in the Bay Area. I’m not any more confident that we as a species are prepared for this than I am about our seawalls. That is to say: the poet has an incredibly important job to do. The Aboriginal novelist Alexis Wright acknowledged something similar at the end of her eulogy for the animals who died in the 2019–20 Australian bushfires: “We cannot be guided by an ethos of neglect, brokenness of heart, misery of spirit that will lead us into a future world devoid of joy. The world’s combined humanity must sing the planet up with careful songs, songs of responsibility and respect.” Near-Earth Object is a book, but a poem is first and foremost a song, just like the songs of birds, crickets, frogs, and whales. The impulse to sing comes from the impulse to live, and it’s catching. I encourage you to return to Shoptaw’s poems multiple times and to read them aloud—to yourself, to your friends, maybe even to the birds. If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll find shelter in them from shifting weather systems of wonder, sorrow, gratitude, and anger.

Earlier this year, after having read Near-Earth Object, I happened to visit a patch of coast near San Gregorio, the location of that unresolved argument in my college-era short story. No longer an allegorical dead end, the beach stretched out before me, its ancient sandstone cliffs sheltering me from a cold early summer wind. I watched a flock of sanderlings, whose incredibly smooth and rapid running, seconding the movements of the waves, has always brought me unaccountable delight. Sanderlings. I looked them up on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. “Common Bird in Steep Decline.” Just as I felt myself in the steep decline of prolepsis—common bird now extinct—another flock burst onto the beach: this one of school-age children, having tumbled out of the van of an organization working for equal access to the outdoors. They ran screaming and laughing toward their ocean, where they promptly began acting like sanderlings, playing tag with the waves.

“Despair is a form of pride,” says Reverend Toller in First Reformed, Paul Schrader’s 2017 film about the moral-spiritual dimension of the climate crisis. “ ‘I know that nothing can change and I know there is no hope,’ ” he continues, quoting the author Thomas Merton. Cross-legged on the sand, my pride evaporated by the scene, I thought again about my old story. Neither character had been correct. The future will not be perfect, but neither is everything lost; there is simultaneously cause for grief and cause for celebration. I have Shoptaw’s ecopoetics of impurity to thank for this binocular vision. With it, I loved what I saw so much that I couldn’t help it: I was forced to imagine a future for these children where they would know flourishing, where common birds were simply common. And in the meantime, as I kept watching the sanderlings with a pleasure I truly cannot explain, I heard a response to my own juvenile question, For what reason should I go on? The answer is in the very first line of this book. “For the Birds.”


Jenny Odell is an Oakland-based artist and the author of How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy and Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock. This essay is adapted from her introduction to Near-Earth Object, which will be published in April.

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