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Gone to the Dogs:
Alice Major's Welcome to the Anthropocene

Alice Major, Welcome to the Anthropocene
Edmonton: University of Albert Press, 2018.

Alice Major’s eleventh book of poems features a cast of bit players―oilfield workers “flush with Friday’s pay,” a coffee shop waitress who “moves like a beautiful camel,” an orange cat and a speaker who sheds “seven million flakes of skin a minute.” But easily the top-billing star of this latest collection is our “battered, tilting globe” which, despite humanity’s deepening tread, still manages to gleam like “a blue pearl on the necklace of the planets.”

Sweeping in scope, Welcome to the Anthropocene boasts a 20-page title poem and six theme-based sections with subjects ranging from the planetary to the personal. The title poem, an eloquent and technically accomplished discourse written in loosely rhymed, near-heroic couplets, reads as a contemporary response to Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man, in which he elaborates on the ancient concept of The Great Chain of Being, a hierarchical and ordained structure of all life. In Major’s response, however, tropical frogs hop into the wings of the metaphorical stage and into oblivion, making way for an ever-growing number of canine breeds, transgenic zebrafish and lab mice identical “as plastic beads”―emblems of Homo sapiens’ need to tinker with the natural world to satisfy an unsatisfiable human agenda. The poet concedes, with a post-Darwinian advantage, that nature has been distributing genetic material―which we share with the sea sponge, fungus and kangaroo―for eons. Yet, like Pope, Major warns that our species, despite “Our vaulting crania, our vaunted brains,” risks becoming a victim of its own hubris. “We know, and know we know,” but always with a mortal’s limitations.

The poem “Badger,” from the first section, considers the transience of human settlement. Whether it’s “Knossos, Abu Simbel, Troy” of ancient civilization or the “rust-belt cities” of modern America, each settlement is much like another stage in the natural process of succession, as ecosystems lose ground to buildings, which succumb, in turn, to nature and the “wind’s continual freight / of dust.” As the poet muses, it’s an eventuality to which our own asphalt jungles have no immunity, human creations being at the mercy of more powerful forces.

The book’s sections cycle through different perspectives, from big-picture detachment to more intimate poems grounded in everyday life: scenes of mind-numbing office routine in which the narrator longs for a farmer’s wife to “chop computer cable / like the gristle of rodent tail” or that “hour or two after supper / tethered to the television.” The poet makes us suspect that unwise choices on a personal level―a night of heavy drinking, flushing a pay cheque down a “casino’s drain”―find disturbing parallels at the collective level.

In the section “Discounted annuals” we’re introduced to various characters who stand out in their ordinariness: the big-box grocery worker whose “brain gets tagged with a discount sticker,” the woman whose crocheted hat―rising up “like the crust of a soufflé”―causes a snicker from a nearby group of teens with rebellious tats and piercings, the Plain Jane who longs to be as pretty as the Second Cup barista, and the eccentric cat-caregiver whose “solemn religiosity … made / her neighbours awkward.”

These snapshots of contemporary life elicit not just a touch of sympathy for the underdog but also suspicion about the wisdom of our species. With its blend of science-savvy and compassion, and its circling back to naturalist themes, this finely tuned collection suggests that more than scientific precision or corporate efficiency―“hardness masquerading / as transparency”―what we need in these times of reckoning is greater stewardship of the planet and one another.

ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.