If ever there was a time for a collection of poems like On the Other Side of the Window, by Marianne Szlyk, it is now. I was immediately struck by Szlyk’s use of the word Eaarth, which, she explains, is Bill McKibben’s term for our planet during the process of climate change. I knew this collection was going to be a somber reflection of the preciousness of the Earth and how seriously we ought to heed its messages, its cries for help. And while these poems are heavy, they are yet incandescent
The collection wastes no time coming out with sudden and profound meditations. In “Easter 2116” Szlyk describes a future world where she’ll have to wear goggles on an Earth that she says could be like Bradbury’s Venus.
I hear only the buzz of mosquitoes, balked by the heavy cloth.
Shuffling, weighed down, I watch holograms hover
Over the soft stones of the square that resist ceaseless rain and wind.
The holograms show skin, unlike the living.
Mosquitoes will not bite them. They have no blood to poison.
Holograms do not talk to me. I am too poor and homely.
The poem continues “I walk to the shores of the acid ocean.” I can relate to the dreariness the poem relates about the potential future of our planet. Will the earth be hollowed out and lacquered with toxic jellyfish and seaweed? I sighed when I finished this poem and read on.
In “Crape Myrtle in East Rockville” Szlyk writes how Crape Myrtle trees are now growing up north for the first time. I don’t know if this is fact, but I’ll accept that it is. But the author doesn’t stop there. Szlyk presages a future where palmetto palms and bananas will one day grow there, too. And the people of that future time will ponder the curiosity of this phenomenon as she is now thinking of the strangeness of Crape Myrtles growing in her neighborhood. That’s how these things happen. They creep up. Even as we were warned. And then, it’s too late.
While the author considers the potential impact of climate change, there is still poetry in the presentation. There is love of nature and of words in these poems. In “What I Found Among the Reeds” I followed the delightful play of words, despite the harkening of danger.
The reeds conceal
the wetland that remains
Smooth stalks protect
algae, frogs, birds
the swallow of water.
Fighting through the poison that humans have poured out over the wetlands, the “reeds reveal the wet stench of life / sour mud, honeysuckle, / sulfur mixed with exhaust, / grease, and perfume.” Nature, like the poetry itself, is fighting to emerge. Neither can be completely tamed or held back. Poetry, it might be said, is born from nature. It sprouts from the human mind the way reeds punch through the refuse, refusing to give up. Nature isn’t done until it’s done.
There is a longing in these poems. These are like love poems to a world slipping away from the arms of a lover. This world is glutted with life – with birds, insects and animals, with sky and rain, despite the grease and sulfur. These are sad poems – a beautiful sad – we could stop this but yet we don’t – we keep destroying our world – while it waits for us to awaken and take care of her.
In “Nature on the Other Side of the Glass,” Szlyk offers profound moments of reflection, intermingling nature with the human-made world. On a train leaving Trenton, New Jersey, looking out the window, the author glimpses the buildings smeared with graffiti, imagining the feeling of water on her body, as if casting a ghosted image that is riding the train on the other side of the glass. Even when trapped in city skyscrapers and exhaust-producing machines, Szlyk is pushing out beyond the formal attire and manners, longing to “smell raindrops on asphalt” and “feel indigo air.” As I read this poem, Szlyk is suggesting that, even if society has imposed a rift between nature and human existence, we can’t help but find our moments of epiphany, of discovery. There is boundless Earth consciousness in every leaf or drop of water from the sky. If only we’re awake to those moments.
I especially like “Mother at the Town Beach.” It’s a haunting poem, describing a mother’s advice to her child about swimming in the contaminated waters of this beach location. Even if people have stopped pitching broken beer bottles into its waters, there is still pollution at the bottom. I saw the images of pollution as being a demon lizard, like Grendel, still lurking in the deep of these waters.
You don’t want to swim here.
The weeds won’t drag you down
to where you gulp greeny-
brown water instead of air.
Then later she writes:
The water is cleaner,
much cleaner than it used to be.
It won’t leave faint scum
on your skirted swimsuit
or your flabby thighs.
Its dark, sour smell
won’t last, not
on your short hair.
A quick shampoo
will wash it off.
But you don’t want to swim here.
In “Mother at the Town Beach” Szlyk is the mother in the poem, cautioning us. By polluting the environment, I think Szlyk is saying, we contaminate our souls. And this soul contamination lurks in deep places.
In this somber but necessary collection, I can hear Szlyk crying out for the Earth. With love and affection, she sings sad songs of a planet struggling with climate change. I am with her every step of the way, watching the Earth slip away. Tears like raindrops run down my cheeks, as I squint at a sun getting dimmer with haze.
For those who long to hear the music of a poet resound the preciousness of the Earth, or for those who want to be moved by the beauty of words, read On The Other Side of the Window.