Saturday, January 18, 2020

Poem366: “the elephants are asking” by Karen Neuberg



the elephants are asking by Karen Neuberg

the elephants are asking by Karen Neuberg, Glenview, Illinois: Glass Lyre Press, 2018

Unrelenting. That’s a good word to describe Karen Neuberg’s chapbook the elephants are asking, a collection that sounds a clear alarm about the environmental catastrophe that some refer to as “looming,” but that is clearly happening all around us.

The title poem lays the responsibility for addressing the issue squarely at the feet of the reader. It states,

the elephants are asking—

and the bees and the bats, the prairie dogs, the lemurs, the dolphins—one in six species—asking!

And the coral reefs, the rivers & oceans, the islands & shorelines—asking!

The poem goes through a longer list before nothing that the baby, with wiggling toes and plump arms, is asking. “Even God is asking,” Neuberg writes. With urgent work to be done, these animals and babies are asking us what we plan to do about the situation, and maybe why it exists.

The poem I liked most in the collection is called “Information,” and it starts with an epigraph by Gertrude Stein: “Everyone gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.” It’s a powerful indictment, I can say after noting that I have been on phone or internet this entire day as I write this. It’s no wonder the environment has gone to hell; its caretakers are asleep at the wheel. Writes Neuberg,

I see another spectacle blocking my view,
another fad slipping into my bed.
The cave walls are filled with conflicting shadows
demanding attention in urgent & dazzling tones.
How small respect has become. …

The poem points out that a barrage of information is “burying us beneath ourselves,” and perhaps there is such a thing as “TMI.”

Look, it’s not an optimistic collection, and the keening, desperate feeling of those who care about the world is summed up in “Occupy Today.” “I have seen falling / continue to increase its pace,” the poem states, and continues,

Some days I want only
my mother. Some days I want to wrap
my arms around the world. I see
the future falling at accelerating speed.

But there is one beautiful poem that does offer a glimmer of hope, and in fact it reminds me of the folk song “If I Had a Hammer”; written in an era of tremendous turmoil and struggle, that anthem acknowledges the power of one person to make a difference. So does “If all I have is a teaspoon,” located near the end of this chapbook:

If all I have is a teaspoon

and if there’s a calamity; say, a raging fire,
then I’ll carry my teaspoon
filled with water and I’ll pour it on
the raging fire and I’ll go back and get
more water and that’s what I’ll do …

The poem describes a small act—an act so small that it feels inconsequential—but any act is better than none at all, and there remains a hope that thousands or millions or even billions of others will add their own teaspoons, and together we might find salvation.

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