read a book recently that began by stating that we are now in a dire climate emergency, with very little time to act. This is a common enough idea, whether coming from internationally verified scientific data or by way of last summer’s wildfires and floods, but this was an older book, a classic. I had to do a double-take on the copyright date: 1991.
That’s the kind of statement that should no longer be relevant, no longer feel like news thirty years later, and yet this message of emergency has now reached a state of ongoingness. Whether the longevity of this emergency is horrifying or comforting, motivating or debilitating, depends on the person, the day, the power they hold or don’t hold. But it struck me mainly in how long a state of emergency can last, how it can shift—from terror over nuclear fallout (the main environmental concern of the 1991 book) to terror over wildfires and imminent drought—and yet still be generally true: as humans, we have reached a state of emergency in relation to the world itself. Whether it really feels that way from day to day depends quite literally on where you stand.
An emergency shouldn’t last—that belies its own definition—just as topicality shouldn’t last. What’s topical is surface, is temporary, is immediate; it’s the stuff of the ever-changing news cycle. By the time the slower work of literary writing finds its way into the world, what’s topical should have lost its relevance. Yet so much of what might have once been considered topical seems to be ongoing now too: war in Afghanistan, American racist violence, authoritarianism in Ukraine, and on and on. These crises may fade in and out of view, but it seems like they never get to become old news. Like literature, they have become the news that stays news.
Some of the selections in this particular issue might seem as if they were written and then published in order to capitalize on the momentary focus of the public eye. Take for instance Hisham Bustani’s story of one refugee’s ocean-crossing dread or Alice Greenway’s novella, which unfolds around the complicated relationship between an American teacher and an Afghan family in a crowded camp. The latter was written over a period of years and submitted for publication last fall. Today everyone is talking about Afghanistan. What about tomorrow?
And what about the poems by Aldo Amparán and Natalie Scenters-Zapico or even Emma Trelles, which speak to what in newsy shorthand is called “the immigration crisis”? Are they attempting to address what for many is just the day’s urgent story? Clearly not. These crises have been news for decades and only seem topical for some, as thousands of new refugees crowd the Texas border and beyond. What these pieces provide, in addition to their various literary pleasures, shocks, and perspectives, is a longer view, a steadier gaze, one that doesn’t flip from one emergency to the next the way our news feeds do. They invite a slowdown on the reader’s part. A break from the flash but not a break from the fact of these persistent states of being.
Last fall, our future poetry editor Jennifer Chang gave a talk at Middlebury called “Other Pastorals: Writing Race and the Environment.” The pastoral is a subject of ongoing scholarly concern for her, but it’s also a personal and artistic obsession. From the outset, one might think that “pastoral” is a kind of antithesis to “topical,” predating any kind of climate crisis and possibly even being hopelessly outdated. I’m not alone in associating the term with shepherds and maybe the romantics, so I had to wonder, how can this mode still be alive and of use?
Because it’s a shapeshifter, she says. It’s a social form, one that engages in the space between country and city. Or, to put it more precisely, it’s “a mode of ecological engagement and sociocultural critique.” It has always been thus, since Theocritus. And that’s how it continues to be something we can engage in and expand on and be in conversation with, or even opposition to. Maybe call it the “anti-pastoral.” Either way, this topic of the tensions between society and nature—of our being both part of and apart from the natural world—will shift in its emphasis and form but will not go away.
Once again I sense a closing of the gap between what’s literary and what’s urgent. How the topical becomes the poetic, and how the poetic becomes the topical. Just as the pastoral should have become outmoded, an emergency from 1991 should no longer be an emergency. And yet both are here to stay, entwined with the human experience. Literature allows us to be singularly attentive to the experience of others, so it stands to reason that it also allows us to be more attentive to what seems like today’s news, designed to be consumed and passed by for the next thing. These topics, these emergencies, are part of our deepest experience and our most superficial experience at the same time, making them the stuff of literature.
I’ve written elsewhere about how delighted all of us at New England Review are to bring Jennifer Chang into our editorial team. But as this is the first issue for which she’s served as poetry editor, it’s worth noting again how wholeheartedly we welcome her voice, experience, discernment, and care in determining what’s next for poetry in NER.
This issue began to come together while we were working remotely, in a state of emergency (of the covid-19 variety), but it is now being completed in person, with the first interns we’ve seen in the office since March 2020 (even if we never see the bottom half of their faces). At least the official state of emergency has been lifted, for now. But like the pastoral, like the climate emergency, like the “refugee crisis,” this pandemic is a shapeshifter too. It’s up to us now to pay attention, absorb its lessons, and evolve both in our ways of being and in our ways of perceiving and communicating that being.