Seeing the natural landscape she loved as a child succumb to the concrete of suburbia “radicalized” Wells at an early age; she understood “environment” not as an abstraction, but “where we lived,” and dropped out of school in tenth grade, unwilling to be complicit in civilization’s “unsustainable expansionist system.” Her thought-provoking and capacious book examines how and why we let this system turn a paradise of natural abundance into a “near dead world.” But even as that process also kills something inside us, we don’t have to live lives as depleted as that of the places we’ve desertified. Surveying a range of art and literature including Gilgamesh, the Bible, and Salgado’s photos of Brazilian mines, she tracks the shifting relationship between humanity and nature; from this conceptual foundation she explores a range of alternatives to mainstream capitalist business as usual, from desert “outlaws” living off the grid to alternative spiritual communities to environmentalists rewilding devastated landscapes. Ultimately, her fascinating book leaves us hopeful: if we can stop dominating and imposing ourselves like colonizers and instead cooperate and adapt, like migrants, we can restore both ourselves and the planet.
Like the ocean itself, Hoare’s book is a scintillating mix of wonders and surprises. At one level it’s a rich study of the life, work, and times of the German Renaissance master Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). At another it’s a survey of cetaceans, charting the economic and cultural roles whales have played in a wide range of nations and periods. At yet another it’s a virtuoso performance of associative writing as Hoare expands on the eponymous topics with extended looks at the writing of Herman Melville, Marianne Moore, and Thomas Mann, delves into Dürer’s influence on Goethe and Nietzsche, traces various iterations of the Faust legend, and eulogizes some of the many creatures humans have hunted into extinction. Whether celebrating or lamenting—and the many descriptions of whale slaughters make for painful reading—Hoare’s writing is unfailingly buoyant, his enthusiasm and deep learning lending a certain bioluminescence to the prose; no less than Dürer himself (whose “unity of perception, art, science, and natural history” could describe his own method), Hoare, too, “looks so we can see.”
When Reece spoke with Louise Gluck, who had chosen his manuscript for the Bread Loaf poetry prize, he noted how “she spoke in fully formed, complete, complex, laser-like sentences….My own English tightened to keep up.” Similarly penetrating portraits of James Merrill, Mark Strand, Richard Blanco, and other luminaries of contemporary poetry stud this memoir, but Reece’s rise to their ranks was slow and anguished. He struggled for over 15 years and racked up 300-plus rejections before the Bread Loaf breakthrough. These were years not only of literary frustration, but of alcoholism, family estrangements, and, the anguish of a gay man afraid to come out, even to himself. Reece writes wrenchingly of “the way my life swung between buttoned up repressions and drunken outbursts,” but while he couldn’t face his sexuality, he did recognize that he loved poetry, and from Plath to Dickinson to Elizabeth Bishop, George Herbert, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, it saved his life over and over. This would be a rich enough story, but, like Hopkins, Reece shares the dual callings of writing and religion; now an ordained Episcopal minister, he has made poetry key to his spiritual mission,an experience he renders in powerful, resonant language—as he does everything in this heartfelt, haunting book.