If I had already stumbled upon Jennifer Boyden’s notable debut, The Mouths of Grazing Things (winner of the 2010 Brittingham Prize in Poetry), I might have been better prepared for the brilliance of The Declarable Future. Then again, unprepared might just be the best way to enter into this book — the unprepared reader finds herself on the same wobbly footing as the characters she will follow through The Declarable Future, and so she can thoroughly appreciate their predicament.
It seems fair to call The Declarable Future, Boyden’s second collection released this May by the University of Wisconsin Press (and winner of the Four Lakes Prize in Poetry), an amazing book, the kind of book that must be read, not just by other poets but by everyone. This is the sort of poetry that disproves the argument that poetry no longer serves a purpose past being artful. It is the sort of poetry that reminds us that language is vital and that we can and should use words to investigate what it means to be a human citizen of the world.
Speaking of worlds, the world of The Declarable Future is quite recognizable. It bears unnerving resemblances to our own world in spite of (or because of) its futuristic, near-apocalyptic condition. The doorknobs may all be “made of crystal” and able to transmit “filament voices,” but they are still doorknobs on doors of houses with porches. The toilets “swirl reliably to the right,/and the refrigerator spits out” ice cubes. As Boyden writes, “It’s the world we know, on cue.”
We are introduced to many characters: The lost man, the giant, the person with the loupe, the men in white coats, the daughter, the husband, the landlord, the grocer and the governor. There are the neighbors who “aren’t the type who believe/in particulate matter or dark matter or matters/smaller than their Toyota Sequoia” and the named neighbors, Sheila and David and Becky. There are gods, too. The world Boyden creates is a fully inhabited one.
Almost a character itself, nature is ever-present in these poems. In a January 2013 interview with basalt, Boyden discusses why she focuses so intensely on environmental issues:
My poems focus on environmental issues because we live in a dying world, and part of how I understand my responsibility as a moral being is that I don’t feel like I can look away from that. The earth’s plight is a tragedy I am intimately involved with as both an individual and a cultural product… I do understand that there are other things to write about, but all neural pathways seem to lead to an environment-related unease.
This “environment-related unease” permeates The Declarable Future and infuses it with a sense of urgency. At the same time, nature offers a counterpoint to all of the scientific examinations taking place. The lost man “still believes/the trees might save them.” And although saving seems unlikely, it is nature that permits a temporary survival:
As long as they can cull the matted sheep, the swirling
cats, as long as they can pull seaweed, reel fish,
follow riptides through to pelicans and cormorants,
find canisters of wheat, haul in bears with grapple hooks,
hack meat of turtles, empty the ocean’s bag
of fish. As long as that, then that.
While nature continues to exist, so too can the human characters continue to exist. But if nature should cease, so to would the order of all things and with it, the people who require that ordering.
Still, as these characters struggle to understand the new world around them, they rely as heavily on the scientific as on the natural. It is the person with the loupe who is tasked with interpreting and determining everything:
The person with the loupe is never described or even given a gender, and yet he or she is of primary importance. When the lost man wanders into the town, the neighbors consult the person with the loupe to ascertain who he might be. In the old world, the people “used dreams/to interpret how to speak/to each other; [they] used clouds and birds.” But because “[t]he loupe cannot see the dreams: they do not exist.” This is a world where what cannot be studied and quantified is supposed to be dismissed entirely.
But then what is lost if, like Boyden’s characters who have learned to trust only what the loupe can verify, we dismiss what we can’t give context to? The characters living within The Declarable Future are constrained by their reliance on the loupe, and so they are thankful for what they are still allowed to not fully grasp:
The birds have proven more difficult,
as they seem to exist but get both near and far.
The loupe is still turning one way
and then another to determine the whether-
ness of birds.
This takes some time, which we are grateful for,
as until it is declared will be free to wonder.
After all, is there anything more valuable than the freedom to imagine?
The interconnectedness of the poems within The Declarable Future mirrors the interconnectedness of the world within those poems (and of our own world). In the book’s title poem, Boyden writes that “we are here in an assemblage of days/that appear to come one right after the other./The supreme order of this-and-then-the-next is exquisite/if you need that kind of thing.” And we do need that kind of thing; the way we understand how one event follows another is that same way that we understand how one poem leads to the next. The way we order and give context to our lives shapes our interpretation of everything around us.
The Declarable Future tells a precise and detailed story, but ultimately asks more questions than it answers. The future is not something that can be measured and “declared,” it turns out. I, for one, think that is a very good and hopeful thing.