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A Caribbean Consideration of the Anthropocene: Jennifer Rahim’s Eggy Poems

For some of us in the Caribbean, memories of the Covid pandemic may be fading rapidly as we move [“in]to the chimerical new normal” (Rahim, “Gone Viral,” 2021); however, the pandemic has altered irreparably how we live, breathe, and have our being. We must pause to consider how and why. The pandemic reminds us that we have been shaped by previous pandemics – long forgotten or misnamed – and we will be reshaped again by future ones. Catholic Trinidadian poet Jennifer Rahim (1963-2023) muses on this in her 2021 collection of pandemic poetry, Sanctuaries of Invention: Poems, where she admits, speaking of a young child bemused by the pandemic lockdowns: “The world is falling/and the future we hope to somehow make better is hers” (Rahim, “A Future,” 2021).

This reflection engages with the first three poems of Rahim’s pandemic collection, which are treated as a triptych. In the first two poems, Rahim marks two significant arrivals in the Americas – of the first crocodile (“First Crocodile’s Arrival”) and of Columbus (“Columbus’s Egg, Retold”) – both of which forever changed the world we inhabit today. The third arrival issues from the second and imbricates another – the arrival of our African and Indian ancestors to the Caribbean; these ancestors were impelled by force, fear, and even fraud across the Ocean. The third poem “Orbis Spike, 1610” circles back to the first two as it reminisces on another significant past event of geological proportions engendered by Columbus’s arrival; this geological event was the significant dip in atmospheric levels of CO2 that marked the beginning of a new geological era – the Anthropocene or human epoch, which has caused the current climate crisis. Even as we call it the human era, DeLoughrey et al. note that it “actually derives from the activities of a powerful minority of human beings” (DeLoughrey et al. 2019, 5; emphasis added.). Notably, Mimi Sheller describes the Anthropocene as “built out of the[…] ingredients of global power that took land, extracted resources, re-shaped place, and exploited bodies in the name of modernization and development” (2016, 977). Importantly, all three poems treat with, ever so subtly, the image of an egg/eggs/orb, which is literally shattered, consumed, needs protection yet paradoxically serves as a treasury of the future.

In the opening poem, a pregnant prehistoric crocodile, “who no one forced or stole”, becomes the ancestor for future species. Ancestor Crocodile provided her descendants with many physical characteristics that helped them survive in their new world. She shades into the African and Indian ancestresses of Caribbean people, forced migrants to the region, in whom, likewise, possibilities resided. In the second poem, aeons later, ancestor crocodile’s descendant watches from the river’s mouth seeing “all” as the ill-fated Church-blessed Cristoforo – “brute genius of discovery’s error” – bumbles his way into the Caribbean; she covers her stash [of eggs], protectively, until later they are hatched “armoured”, with the gifts bequeathed by their pre-Columbian matriarch.  “Retelling” Colon’s story around a celebratory egg, consumed hard boiled with sherry, Rahim allegorises the destruction to come to the earth and its people (especially inhabitants of the Caribbean and the Americas) with a shattered (egg)shell (of the earth) and a spot on the yoke. Later, in “Orbis Spike, Rahim calls upon Earth, the much-ill-treated suffocating orb, to forgive us, so we may breathe again, drawing our attention to the suffocation of George Floyd and the continued genocide of Indigenous and African-descended peoples, as their land and other resources are again stripped/ripped away and consumed for “development”.

The Orbis Spike, 1610

The events detailed in the first two poems culminate in the destruction of the orb, as foreshadowed in the egg consumed. The egg in “Orbis Spike, 1610” is the planet, which tells its own stories, has its own memories. Just over a hundred years after Columbo’s bumbling discovery, planet Earth began to change dramatically such that a new epochal division marked by genocide, mass irreversible species swapping between Old and New worlds (flora, fauna, pathogens, and humans), and global trade can be identified Lewis and Maslin. Scientists chose “orbis”, the Latin word for ‘world’, to point to the global changes wrought by previously disconnected peoples becoming globally linked. Previous epochs began and ended because of factors such as meteorite strikes, sustained volcanic eruptions and the shifting of the tectonic plates. For a new epoch to be identified two conditions need to be met: long-lasting documented changes and global environmental change captured in natural materials such as rock, ancient ice or sediments from the ocean floor Franco. So as mentioned before, scientists therefore speak of an Orbis spike[1] occurring around 1610, when marked falls in levels of CO2 have been identified, for example, in core samples of ice from the Antarctic Franco. Rahim muses on this in her opening lines:

Rock, ice and sediment tell/their own stories./they keep this memory:/in 1610 CO2 levels dipped. (“Orbis Spike, 1610”).

The Columbian encounter led to the spread of Euro-colonialism across the orb, which gave its name to the singular event. Human actions unleashed large-scale and long-term processes that were difficult to predict or manage. Among these were genocide and ecocide:

an Orbis Spike marks the martyred/on fields emptied of trees, emptied/ of the dead that could no more labour/Breathing hectares &/breathing lungs-limbs of bark and limbs/of flesh. No more alive. (“Orbis Spike, 1610”)

Between 1550 to 1800, as many as 50 million people are estimated to have been exterminated, due to colonisation, slavery, war, displacement, containment, and outright ethnic cleansing, not just the effects of smallpox and other diseases, as some maintain (DeLoughrey et al. 2019). Many of these people were farmers, whose fields were left untended and, as a result, reforested allowing trees to grow back, sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.  These “shamanic leaves sucked away/that sick era’s poison/like unsolicited forgiveness” (“Orbis Spike, 1610”). Later, the sugar and slavery complex reversed the reforesting, with massive deforestation that significantly altered cloud formation and rainfall patterns Sheller. Indeed, “[c]apitalism changed climate in the past and continues to do so today” (Sheller 2016, 974). Caribbean philosopher Sylvia Wynter rightly noted that it was with “the discovery” of the New World and its vast exploitable land that the process of reducing “Man to Labour and Nature to Land under the impulsion of the market economy began” (Boyce-Davis 2012, 212). Through “Wynter’s postcolonial critique, we know that a particular bourgeois ‘ethnoclass’ that calls itself Man ‘over-represents itself as if it were human’”, that small group of human beings responsible for initiating the Anthropocene (DeLoughrey et al. 2019, 5).

Eco-theological Concern

So, Poem 3 brings us squarely into the present with lessons for today. Rahim closes it with this declaration: “Now…we are full-blown, obscenely/anthropocene” (“Orbis Spike, 1610”). She calls our attention again to the now, before, in stating, “Now, uncaring, we strip ourselves/and call that development…” (“Orbis Spike, 1610”). Nowhere is this more evident than in the Caribbean. The Caribbean has been subject to a history of “slow violence” such as colonialism, the genocide of the indigenes, slavery, and plantation economy, exploitative indentureship, ecological destruction and resource extraction Sheller. Development processes have led to the destruction of the Caribbean environment. Climate change and other anthropogenic factors have led to bleaching of coral reefs, beach erosion, saltwater intrusion and mass deforestation has released masses of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Our oceans are polluted by plastics and garbage, industrial discharge/waste leading to acidified water and mass fish kills, and lands are stripped by mining and communities suffer air pollution and decreased livelihoods Taylor.

Our lack of harmonious living with the Earth is suffocating us. Rahim laments the continued burning of forests and the ecological injustice that again causes First Nations to be the first to die. Yet, knowing the power of plants, trees, and leaves, Rahim “plant[s] a poem/…] ask[ing] for a multiplication of leaves -/and for First-Garden breeze”. She calls for reforestation and many pages (“leaves”) of poems that will have the power to restore our relationship with the Earth, somewhat akin to the “coolness of the breeze” felt by First Man and First Woman in the Edenic paradise (Gen. 3.8).  Hers is a faith in the art of poetry.

She directly addresses “Dear Earth” from whom “we have grown apart”, begging for forgiveness – “will you forgive, allow us, again, to breathe…”  (“Orbis Spike, 1610”). Rahim makes clear that humanity is not a passive observer of the Earth’s functioning, rather, we significantly determine the future of “our common home” Pope Francis. Unlike other forces of nature, however, human actions and their effects can be reversed, withdrawn, or even modified Ivakhiv. As we recognise how widespread and deep-reaching are the effects that our actions have on our lifeworld are, our very theologising is impacted as we cleave more closely to hope.

Excursus on Hope

I close with a quick return to the image of the egg/orb. Reengaging the image of the orb/egg enmeshed in a circle/cycle, we can return to the idea of hope, which featured subtly in the first two poems and is tied to the idea of rebirth, reforestation, forgiveness, breathing again…Rahim delved deep on the idea of hope – Columbus’s hope for “no more split living” as he reflects on being caught between Iberia and Italia, thirsting for home (“Columbus’s Egg, Retold”). The hope and conviction of the First Crocodile is poignantly displayed and described. “Hope/must always be bold/and sharpened for tomorrow”.

References

Boyce, Davies, Carole. Caribbean Spaces: Escapes from Twilight Zone. University of Illinois Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/duquesne-ebooks/detail.action?docID=3414315.

DeLoughrey, Elizabeth M., Renee K. Gosson, and George B. Handley, eds. “Introduction,” Caribbean Literature and the Environment: Between Nature and Culture. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2005: 1-30.

Francis, Pope. Encyclical Letter Laudato Si by the Holy Father Francis, On Care of our Common Home.  Dicastero per la Comunicazione – Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2015.

https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html

Franco, Michael. ‘Orbis Spike’ in 1610 marks humanity’s first major impact on planet Earth, CNET. March 12, 2015.

https://www.cnet.com/science/orbis-spike-in-1610-marks-date-when-humans-fundamentally-changed-the-planet/

Ivakhiv, Adrian J. The Orbis spike. Immanence [Blog]. March 24, 2015

https://blog.uvm.edu/aivakhiv/2015/03/24/the-orbis-spike/

Lewis, Simon L. and Mark A. Maslin. Defining the Anthropocene. Nature 519, March 12, 2015: 171-179.

Rahim, Jennifer. Sanctuaries of Invention: Poems. London: Peepal Tree Press, 2021.

Rahim, Jennifer. Ground Level: Poems. London: Peepal Tree Press, 2014.

Sheller, Mimi. Caribbean futures in the offshore Anthropocene: Debt, disaster, and duration. Society and Space 36 (6) (2018): 971-986.

Taylor, Michael A. “Why Climate Demands Change,” GraceKennedy Foundation, February 2015.

[1] The researchers have named the 1610 dip in carbon dioxide the ‘Orbis Spike’. They chose the Latin word for ‘world’ because this golden spike was caused by once-disconnected peoples becoming globally linked (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/2015/mar/epoch-defining-study-pinpoints-when-humans-came-dominate-planet-earth#:~:text=The%20researchers%20have%20named%20the,disconnected%20peoples%20becoming%20globally%20linked).