Through Radical Empathy, Perhaps We Can Save What’s Left of Life on Our Planet
October 06, 2021
A Q&A with W. J. Herbert
W. J. Herbert’s Dear Specimen is a five-part series of interwoven poems from a dying parent to her daughter, examining the human capacity for grief, culpability, and love, asking: do we as a species deserve to survive? Selected by Kwame Dawes as our winner in the National Poetry Series, her collection juxtaposes a profound sense of intimacy with the vastness of geological time and offers a climate-conscious critique of the human species. Bill McKibben says it “engage[s] the most critical question humans have ever faced . . . from the wellsprings of passion and grace.” Our publicity assistant, Priyanka Ray, caught up with Herbert to chat with her about it.
Priyanka Ray: Dear Specimen is written from the perspective of a dying mother to her daughter. Why did you frame the collection as a “love letter” from a parent to a child? And what was the process of adopting this point of view?
W. J. Herbert: A woman meditates on her impending death and the crisis her species has created in the original version of this manuscript which contained only fossil and specimen poems. “Do these creatures ever answer your speaker’s questions?” asked friend and fellow poet Tim Carrier. They don’t, I told him. He said: “But your readers need a way in.” I wasn’t sure what he meant but, in my heart, I knew he was right: we need to care deeply about the speaker.
As he and I talked, I realized that my grief over my mother’s death might offer a connection. Many of the manuscript’s poems already involved animals and their offspring. In one, a beaver slaps the water with her tail “. . . to warn kits away from bobcat, / anchored barge leaking tar sands.” In another, a baby mammoth is “. . . unearthed from the tundra, / mother’s milk inside her.” Because I was once a daughter and have daughters myself, it wasn’t hard to imagine poems that would function as the dying speaker’s love letters to the daughter she will leave behind.
Though these poems are not autobiographical, I hope their emotional landscapes seem real to the reader. To me, they are among the most effective poems in the collection, but because I was aware of their importance to the manuscript, I found them difficult to create. I seldom write with such definite intentions!
PR: The speaker often connects her own impending death to species extinction. In the poem “Sea Lily,” she converses with an extinct sea creature, asking, “Lily, why do we have so little time?” How does the speaker’s self-identification of her individual mortality with mass extinction allow us to develop a more intimate understanding of our relationship with the Earth and other beings?
WJH: In the collection’s opening poem, “A Homo Sapiens on the Brink of Extinction Speaks to the Fossil Mosasaurus,” the brevity of one life, the speaker’s, is set in urgent relief to those species we have already lost. She watches an echocardiogram of her own beating heart “. . . as if a fossil had come to life . . .” and, comparing herself to the mosasaurus, whose species was nearly as ferocious as ours, asks: “. . . why didn’t you survive?” At the poem’s conclusion, she imagines the two of them, not only as individuals, but as members of extinct species who have become the objects of puzzlement to future life forms.
But in the final section of Dear Specimen, the speaker no longer asks creatures to answer her unanswerable questions. In “Triage,” an acutely-ill woman (whom we presume is the speaker) imagines that the hospital she has entered has become a building whose “. . . body moves / like a whale, that breathing, / leaves wind and light behind it as it dives.” We are told that the woman sinks quietly and soon “. . . she’s so deep, / that, to capture / what light is left in the darkness // around her, her eyes / leave her body and grow out on long stalks . . . but her arms glow / as if lit by a strange / fish whose forehead / gleams as it glides by // and the woman dreams of harp / sponge, sea whip / coral, the luminous / arms of light-tipped squid.” She no longer understands her life, or even her death, as separate from theirs: she is, and always will be, a miraculous strand in the web of life on Earth.
PR: In one of my favorite poems in the collection, “Shanidar, First Flower People,” the speaker imagines that after death, rather than being cremated, she will be left in a cave containing the fossils of an extinct human species. What does this poem, and the collection at large, say about remembrance and legacy in the context of the imminent extinction of humankind?
WJH: Even in death, the speaker abhors the idea that her cremation might contribute to global warming. She has already expressed the fear, in the poem “Squander,” that her own culpability set within the context of our species’ larger greed, is an unendurable legacy. In “Shanidar,” the issue is not only that she can’t bear the imagined pain of her cremation—it’s that she wants to be placed with other members of her genus who are already extinct, as if she could join them on a flower-filled journey into a future that exists beyond the reaches of time. If, after our extinction, the cave is discovered by a newly evolved species, they may rename us Homo neglegens, heedless man.
But the poem, “At the Sea Floor Exploration Exhibit, Sarah Asks,” mitigates that harsh assessment. Here, the speaker’s daughter, grieving after her mother’s death, is spellbound by the mysterious creatures she sees. With humility, she asks those who inhabit a world still largely unknown to us, “Please, tell me what you told her.” If we translate into action a radical empathy like hers, perhaps we can save what’s left of life on our planet.
PR: The final poem in Dear Specimen foretells climate refugees overrunning one of our planet’s last habitable places. You write, “Still, no one stopped us / from swarming onto sacred land / with its legend / of a magic caribou boy who, / enchanted by a moonlit herd, / no longer wanted to be human.” Can you discuss the idea of no longer wanting to be human, and how this relates to feelings of guilt and self-loathing around our role in climate change? How do you recommend we combat these feelings?
WJH: Guilt over our culpability for the climate crisis is just one of the many reasons this boy no longer wants to be human. Yes, we seem unable to turn our climate juggernaut around, despite the best efforts of scientists and policy makers over many decades. Yes, we all suffer the warming climate’s effects, though many communities who have few resources to prepare for or mitigate this catastrophe had nothing to do with its creation. And yes, those of us in richer countries still haven’t made it clear to governments or corporations that we won’t tolerate continuing devastation.
But the boy in this poem has an even more powerful reason for not wanting to be human, and this points a way for us to combat our own negative feelings about our species’ culpability. In the harsh climate of the Northwest Territories, Indigenous people have relied on caribou for food, shelter, and tools for thousands of years. The boy’s enchantment is born of gratitude and reverence for the natural world.
The speaker of Dear Specimen represents all of us: We face mortality; we worry about our children’s future; and, in the context of the climate crisis, some of us wonder if our species will survive. By creating a speaker who feels acutely these concerns, I hope readers not only share her urgency as she searches for meaning, but also her awe for the myriad species with whom we share this miraculous planet.
About W. J. Herbert
W. J. Herbert’s work was awarded the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Prize and was selected by Natasha Trethewey for inclusion in Best American Poetry 2017. Her poetry, fiction, and reviews appear in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Atlantic, Hudson Review, Southwest Review, and elsewhere. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, she was raised in Southern California where she earned a bachelor’s in studio art and a master’s in flute performance. She lives in Kingston, New York, and Portland, Maine.