Embark on any poem from Kathleen Heideman’s Psalms of the Early Anthropocene and it is immediately clear: this is a poet who writes from direct experience and knowledge of the wild places she describes. This is a scholar of the land, whose boots have met some mud.
Heideman is a well-travelled writer who has completed artist residencies in such far-flung places as Antarctica. But in Psalms, she writes of the familiar landscape of home surrounding her cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where she is part of the local fauna.
Any title with the word “anthropocene” suggests a sobering read for those who care about the natural environment, and it’s true that looking clear-eyed at what we humans have done can be painful. Heideman is unsparing in her literary excoriation of those who would—and do—degrade the land and water without regard for the life that it sustains.
In the collection’s title poem, she writes:
“We wait for eagle chicks to hatch—swollen with hope—
thank God the grandkids moved away so we don’t
have to explain about the mercury we played with,
rolling quicksilver blobs in our bare palms, chewing
wood tar gobs like it was bubblegum down at Cliffs Dow,
blackening our teeth before it was a Superfund site.
We sample streams for eleven heavy metals, salts,
total dissolved solids. Sift sediments. Filter taps.
Otters still ply these streams playing Catch & Eat
since they can’t read Fish Advisories stapled to the trees.”
And in “Modified Permit Conditions,” she scrutinizes permit language that purports to limit damage to a creek but only serves to let it happen, and the kind of backroom logic that can allow projects to move forward despite environmental costs:
“…Listen honey, nobody’s getting what they want
here, you gotta dial it back, you gotta put some sugar on it. Remember, a
discharge permit is just a strainer, another flimsy container holding certain
thoughts we can’t help thinking.”
But clear-eyed is what Heideman is: and what the times call us to be. As a collection, this is not a work of despair, but a work of unflinching spirit that gives us courage.
In “What God’s Teeth Know,” she walks a trail in the dark and hears the sudden howl of nearby wolves. She considers that there will come a time in the natural course of things when she will be like a sickened winter moose or its malformed calf, the weak one felled by something greater that senses her decline, allowing a literal or metaphorical pack its meal. But not just yet.
“Tonight I say I am healed—standing straighter than I am, stepping faster
downhill, stomping mink-oiled boots through watchful firs
as though I own my own bright vigor, and ever will.”
Yes, we are wild, too, in our way, owning our own bright vigor for a time.
In Kathleen Heideman we find a poet steeped in the the wild legacy of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and this Great Lakes region— in its native species, its patterns and rhythms. Her work reminds us that life is a verb. Read her “Song of Salmoninae,” then read it again, more slowly. See what poetry can do.
Song of Salmoninae
Salmoninae loves what is larval, alluvial, a tug of fin
in graveled riffles and upwellings of groundwater’s
phreatic debris, tannin-sweetened tea. Come nymphs!
Here hatched, here snatched — we should be so lucky,
resurrected into fish-skin, knowing what a river knows,
nosing dark holes below wild falls, eyeing slate-laddered runs
ever meltwater-fresh, palettes of stones and stoneflies,
the air at dawn an inhalation of fog and white cedar,
decaying reeds gnat-pulsing with frog-song or breathless,
noon-perfumed by pine. Timeless sandbars. Gills.
What bright things flutter in the tag-alder’s shadow-halls?
What braves the shrill light? A glimmer of green-laced wings
darts through the water lens, and everything that shimmers
feeds the swimmer. Come trout, descend, your roe
need no road to know their way home, your house
the doused tapestry stitched by river-skimming needles,
darned by overlapping silver threads, wriggling dapples,
dark ripples where the water bends or veers and turns,
and under the river, another river—hyporheic, half-known,
a mingling of darkness and light, plunging and lifting,
hidden and feeding everything. Here, even boulders grow
mottled, resembling salmon-trout. Here is where I cast my string
of words, a tiny, tied-together psalm no bigger than a prayer:
a thing of barb and barbule, filament and hair.
© Kathleen Heideman
About the poet
Kathleen M. Heideman is a writer, artist and environmentalist working in Michigan’s wild Upper Peninsula. She is past fellow of the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program, and has been granted artist residencies with the National Park Service at Isle Royale, Apostle Islands, Badlands, Sleeping Bear Dunes and Voyaguers, as well as the Artist at Pine Needles Program of the St. Croix Watershed Research Station in Marine, MN. Find more at her website https://orebody.com.
Psalms of the Early Anthropocene is available at https://squareup.com/store/kathleenmheideman/item/psalms-of-the-early-anthropocene.
More on salmon trout, or “coasters”
[A note from Kathleen] Song of Salmoninae refers to “salmon trout,” better known as “coaster brook trout.” Whole books remain to be written about the local struggle to understand this fish before it is lost, which directly ties in with the sulfide mining threat. Eagle Mine, a copper nickel sulfide orebody, lies directly underneath the headwaters of the Salmon Trout River. Coasters breed in the Salmon Trout River and at Isle Royale. According to the USFWS, the fish is a Species of Concern, but not federally listed as Endangered.
All rights to poetry quoted in this review reserved by Kathleen Heideman. Agate extends its appreciation to Kathleen for permission to include selected lines and Song of Salmoninae.