Fossils in the Making
by Kristin George Bagdanov
Black Ocean, 2019
$13.90, purchase at bookshop.org
Review by Joely Fitch
Here is something true: everything is made out of everything else. The atoms that make up me, you, these keys I’m typing on, the books in any library, the screen on which you’re reading this: all of it used to be something different. I’m pretty sure that’s how the law of conservation of matter works. True, I’m a poet and not a scientist—but Kristin George Bagdanov’s Fossils in the Making reminds me that, at their best, poetry and science are inherently inseparate pursuits. In the tradition of many contemporary poets and their predecessors trying to make sense of living in, looking at, and loving a world that’s also semi-constantly on the verge (or in the midst) of its own unmaking, Fossils offers poems that meditate and meander, that question and sing. This is a book that looks hard at this world in all its complications and somehow lands on something that doesn’t feel quite cynical—there’s joy in these pages, as well as real, difficult reckoning. I’m saying I loved it: I will try to say why.
Bagdanov’s opening poem, “Lines Written After Crisis,” precedes the collection’s three sections—”Proofs,” “Wagers,” and “Remains”— and its first lines drop us into a scene likely familiar to many readers:
The privilege of having
of can’t even imagining
The dream of children but also the fear
That nothing is
disposable because nothing can be
widens wider now it is plastic
Oracle that reads
in glowing teeth a future now
Orpheus singing into the ears of leaves
a song to re
A song to rewind eternity, to turn it back; a song to wind eternity again. Moments of subtle wordplay, like this one, shimmer and sparkle throughout the collection. Here, I’ve landed on a strange and wonderful collage of mental images: eternity as a videotape; eternity as a clock (someone’s wristwatch, maybe); eternity as a wind-up toy in the hands of a child who both does and doesn’t exist in a future we can’t quite imagine accurately, but which fills us with dread. “Lines Written After Crisis” ends: “And mourning would make a method // to take / from every / form.”
Mourning is certainly among this book’s methods, but so is wonder. Maybe that’s what it means to think of everything alive now as a fossil in the making. The joy at what is is also the loss of what was and the potential of what will be—some kind of nautilus shell spiral of past and future, now and then, the inextricability of all of it. “Proof of Extension” opens:
I express the shape of clouds but not their substance
which is heavy yet diffuse I think
inside the lonely cloud and the wandering one too
as they think in me Diaphanous composing
change then stay then was
These lines are careful yet playful, and they invite me to ask: what is the difference between shape and substance? Do clouds think in us? (For Bagdanov, yes.) “A rigorous thought is a cloud,” she writes later, but warns: “Do not trust its color.” There’s something cloud-like, too, about the way these lines spread out across the page—or spiderweb-like, ephemeral but also oddly durable, adorned with early-morning dew.
This poet is unafraid of lingering in uncertainty, of holding tensions and opposites in balance in a way that doesn’t need to land on one answer. In “Proof of Infinity,” Bagdanov declares: “We are always a part of and apart.” Here, she’s echoing and modifying C.D. Wright who said that “the popular perception is that art is apart… I insist it is a part of.” A part of, apart: I’m reminded of the poet Sarah Vap’s phrase “infinite and opposite truths,” which she describes as what we have to learn to hold inside ourselves in order to stay on earth. Bagdanov knows this: “the comfort is there is possibility the violence is there is plenty.”
If this seems like a wild constellation of quotes, take that to be the highest form of compliment—Bagdanov’s words made me think of many of the other books I’ve loved the most. This one has earned its place on my shelf, and in the web of books I think have taught me how to think in new ways, ones I’ll return to, ones I’ll need to keep thinking through (thinking with) for quite a long time. My best advice: read Fossils in the Making, aloud if at all possible, and spend as much time as you can with these poems. They’ll prove what they claim: “All words are song / if we hold them gently / inside / our mouths.”
The Broadsided Poem:
“Earth Body,” words by Kristin George Bagdanov and art by Katherine Clancy, published in June 16, 2015.
This broadside was part of a special feature, wherein writers and artists from Moscow, Idaho were paired and broadsides were created to ride the buses for the summer/fall of 2015. Read more here.
Four Questions from Broadsided Press; Four Answers from Kristin George Bagdanov:
Bsided: Kristin, let’s start with your Broadside, “Earth Body.” It’s interesting to me to read it side-by-side as both a poem on its own, in this form, and as the version of it that appears in Fossils in the Making. The poem highlights some of what I love throughout your book: your close attention to sound and a poetics that allows for multiplicity, both as idea and as literal process of reading, which I find most striking. This is so fascinating to me, and makes me think of Dickinson’s variants, or contrapuntal poems by Tyehimba Jess and others, but what you’re doing here and in other poems using this device isn’t quite the same as anything I’ve seen before. Can you talk about how you arrived at this structure, either in terms of influences or in terms of what kind of ideas or reading possibilities you wanted it to communicate?
KB: Throughout this book I was trying to think of how to formally represent new modes of thinking–how could I inhabit a perspective that was less anthropocentric, less binary and more collaborative, more-than-human? On the page, this poem splits the line in places to offer plurality–a “both/and” articulation.
In some lines, the distinction seems minor: “break” vs “grind” to describe plate tectonics. In another, “soul” vs “self” offers an entirely alternative history and ontology in the distinction. So, to think these aspects together, which is possible visually on the page and less so while reading the poem out loud, offers a way to compare, contrast, and cohere these aspects all at once, holding the tension or the contrapuntal logic together. Ecological thought, I think, requires us to do just that.
Bsided: That makes a lot of sense to me. I love to think about how formal or writerly choices can make various modes-of-thinking available to us as readers. Okay, shorter question this time: I hopped on your Twitter for a minute and saw that you just recently finished your PhD—congratulations! Could you share with us a brief description of your academic work and perhaps speak to the connections between your creative and scholarly practices?
KB: Thank you! It was a long but rewarding journey. I do find that my critical and creative thought worlds are very much entwined, and I learned a lot about my own poetry while writing about the poetry of others.
My dissertation, “Nuclear Poetics: Energizing Social Forms in Cold War America” argues that Black, Indigenous, queer, feminist, and anti-capitalist poet-activists were instrumental in shaping the anti-nuclear movement in the U.S. during the 1970’s and 80’s. These poets demonstrate how nuclear power both extends and intensifies white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist, and settler logics. In turn, these anti-nuclear ideologies and imaginaries shaped and sustained social movements during this period. Demonstration as a method of representation and a type of action names how poetry articulates the obscured and contradictory logics of the nuclear age to generate new socio-ecological relations. In demonstrating the nuclear complex’s many forms—including weapons, waste, fallout, radiation, and uranium—these poets produce new social and aesthetic forms that reconfigure the nuclear complex’s structures of oppression.
The practices of the poets I study–Amiri Baraka, Linda Hogan, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Allen Ginsberg, and June Jordan–have informed my thinking on form, political poetry, and how to represent environmental crises. Regarding form, a term often debated in my M.F.A. program yet something I never felt I grasped, I was able to articulate a definition that is more encompassing and dynamic than just the shape of the words on the page or the subgenre in which a poem is written. In short, poetic form demonstrates relationships. Form is structure that organizes; it is shape that structures and logic that shapes. However, forms are always in formation: this dynamic stasis is the contradiction that defines form, that makes it so difficult to pin down beyond terms like shape, genre, or container. What forms do, then, is endeavor to make emergence portable.
A poem, for example, emerges from some combination of a poet’s experience of and imagined relationship to the world. The poem’s system of operations organizes sound, words, and space in a meaningful way. Together, these parts form the contingent whole we call the poem. However, folded within and between these parts is information that is not immediately accessible or ultimately knowable. These are the excesses and recesses of meaning. Like the proteins that perform their proper function in an organism only by remaining folded, or the origami animal that is recognizable only because part of the paper remains hidden, forms are portable only to the extent that they suppress the particularities of their emergence.
Form often becomes conflated with genre in the history of poetics when theorizing the “portability” of a poem. The manifest relations of the Petrarchan sonnet—the rhyme scheme and lineation—are the part of form that repeats across time and space. The historical, social, ecological, and psychological conditions from which the form emerged remain dynamic and resistant to its portability. To unfold the poem’s form is to lose the identification that makes it portable. However, the act of unfolding does not reveal essential meaning residing within the poem, but rather makes one participate in the formation of the poem. To study poetic form is to de-form, un-form, and re-form all at once while holding together the portable, knowable, and contingent whole of the poem—the origami crane, for example—and the intersecting creases that are the residue of the historical, ecological, and social conditions through which the form was produced. The complexity of the form is at once finite and irreducible.
Bsided: Thank you for this. I love your reflections on form and the context you’re bringing to how you think about that. On the subject of some of your own formal choices: Fossils in the Making is divided into three sections, titled “Proofs,” “Wagers,” and “Remains.” Would you talk about this structural decision, and in particular, about how you see the idea of a scientific or logical proof operating in conversation with the poems titled “Proof of X”?
KB: As a whole, Fossils in the Making explores how poetry can measure dynamic realities and entangled conditions, from trash gyres and oil spills to police violence and parasitic wasps. By examining these phenomena in poems through self-erasure, decomposition, and feedback loops, I synthesize lyric subjectivity and scientific objectivity into a method that can register ecological relations under duress. What I mean by that is: we often think of science as the truthful and objective mode that can tell us something “real” about the world. However, even the scientific gaze is mediated by a series of tools and assumptions that are, at the root, subjective. On the other side of the equation, art is often considered wholly subjective and relative—as if it can’t tell us anything “real” or “true” about the world, only someone’s interpretation of it. I play with the boundaries between these modes of discovery, writing “proof poems” that play with the idea of the geometric proof, including scientific language and mathematical equations into my poems. In this way, I am reframing how we think about what different modes of seeing and knowing grant us in terms of access to the “real” world.
The sections, then, are conceptually and materially yoked: “Wagers,” a long poem of sorts, is actually composed almost entirely of the language from “Proofs.” It is an iteration and a re-iteration of the attempts to prove, demonstrate, and make real in the first section. What are we willing to risk, who are we willing to sacrifice, and who “we” are all become disproven, reorganized, and reconsidered in this middle section. The final section, “Remains,” which employs a “slash” in the title of each poem (e.g. “bleat / bleed”) is again revisiting the unmaking of the binary, the relationship between before and after, cause and effect, to consider what will “remain”—meaning to endure while also pointing to the unincorporated residue or byproduct that is produced through certain actions. What new “fossils” are being created now–new plastics, wastes, modes of thought–that future creatures will read the present by? How is a poem an attempt to fossilize a moment, thought, life? How can a poem be both a dynamic engagement with the world and a memorial to what is always already in the process of being destroyed? These are the questions that remain through the end of the collection.
Bsided: Thanks for that, too. What a wonderful set of questions to stick with, and write into, and carry with one both on and off the page. One last question: I really loved both of your epigraphs to this collection, especially as a pair, and thought they made so much sense as a framing for the book. Can you share with us how you chose those passages from Niedecker and Ramke, and some of your thinking around what they’re doing in conversation with your work?
KB: These two poets, writing a half century apart, resonate so deeply with each other and in turn so deeply with what I love about the possibilities of poetic thought. Lorine Niedecker’s representation of deep time—”in every part of every living thing / is stuff that once was rock”— blurs the line between living and nonliving, human and more-than-human. The image of the fossil here is reversed. Rather than the mineral encrusting the once-living, the fossil is within the living: “In blood the minerals / of the rock.” These four lines at once upend and reframe my entire way of thinking about the book and I hope they do for the reader as well.
Bin Ramke, one of my favorite living poets, is a scientist and mathematician at heart. His poems are so intricate and musical, creating new poetic logics with each line, I find myself reading the same poem over and over because the depth of it is unfathomable. What I especially love about his collection Missing the Moon is how poems reverberate across the collection, calling out and responding to one another. The two quotes I’ve included here are from poems on “opposite” sides of the book, and yet you can see that they’re clearly revising, reiterating each other. One poem states: “Contain is what a body does / until it doesn’t and spills itself,” while another insists: “Contain is what a body does / Until it doesn’t then spells itself.” The body is overwriting, overwhelming its “container.” This is the type of work I want Fossils to do.
Joely Fitch is a writer currently living, reading, studying, and walking in Cincinnati, Ohio.