Review of All Night in the New Country by Miriam Bird Greenberg

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Miriam Bird Greenberg writes dystopia with a lilt. Her most recent chapbook, All Night in the New Country (Sixteen Rivers Press), figures postapocalyptic conditions in clear, supple poems. Her writing masks its artifice, hinting at metrical and syllabic constraints without reckoning their shackles. If this is the end, I’m none too worried; but Greenberg’s work is less about danger than about the meditative work of world-making.

Dystopias can be terribly banal. Pop versions (witness The Walking Dead) often rehearse the pernicious social logics of the present day in sets of gussied-up ruin porn. The Road is Cormac McCarthy’s worst book, and Fernando Meirelles reduced Blindness to hollow allegory when he adapted it for the big screen. Yet the speculations of Octavia Butler demonstrate dystopia’s critical potential. In interviews Greenberg has aligned herself with more recent sci-fi writers, such as Neal Stephenson and China Mieville.

True to form, All Night in the New Country is loaded with sly references to dystopias past. The unnamed cataclysm (“people theorized the earth’s orbit / was off-kilter”) evokes the scenarios dreamed up by H. G. Wells. More important, Greenberg tackles the romantic imagery of self-reliance that often suffuses the postapocalyptic. Such images (largely bunk) draw on frontier rhetoric. Mythy pictures of grit and skinned deer made the doctrine of Manifest Destiny attractive, and animated sundry genocides. All Night in the New Country, crammed with penknives and bloodied hands, runs the risk of reprising them.

To her credit, Greenberg does not. She sets her poems in the East Texas Piney Woods, a region known for its pluralism (refuge for antislavery guerillas and Native Americans). She hints at the historical complexities of utopia in language redolent of antebellum America (“Southerners / had migrated bodily north / leaving fabric shreds in the mesquite”). She does a fine job of sketching the poles of precariousness and resistance in her imagined apocalypse. The evocative imagery of “bird bodies” shed by adolescent boys is followed hard by women grown in the “noun-filled fields of pumice rock / specked with obsidian.” The tender and the tough. For Greenberg, the language of dystopia offers vital proof that “there are ways of making violence / into an offering.”

And so, given Greenberg’s well-attuned ear and attention to detail, the best comparison for All Night in the New Country might be Tarkovsky’s Stalker. (I think of Robert Bird’s analysis of the film.) The poem “It’s Hard to Forget” beautifully renders the still-lifes left behind by human passing. She places raveled hemlines against “the abandoned kitchen’s clapboard walls / and slat-backed chairs,” calling to mind the ways in which Tarkovsky’s camera dwells on what Greenberg calls “disaster’s stratum.” How to make a world when all the world’s a memento mori, the half-corroded coins that Bird describes?  

Finally, last things are never far from first things. “We spoke the same language. No, / we did not speak the same language.” The future’s no tabula rasa, even in the face of the floodwaters, and Greenberg rounds out the chapbook with three characters bantering around (re-)creation stories. From feasts of small game and structural innovations in bamboo, the denizens of dystopia rebuilt a world. And, in the book’s final words, they “knew that it was good.”