On a recent road trip through Washington State, I was so happy to find bug splatter on the front bumper and windshield of the car: distinct fragments of striped bee, tiny red fly splotches, and the torn wings of a pale green and ivory moth, still fluttering in the wind. I was happy, despite the carnage, and the irony that I caused it, because bug splatter has become less and less common as insects decline at a rate of 1 to 2% annually world-wide. I can remember road trips as a kid in the ’70s, and the masses of insects on the windshield. But my kids have no such memory—a clean windshield on a road trip is what they have always known. This is the phenomenon known as “shifting baseline syndrome”: what is now, is what has always been. We never know what we have lost.
This is also the title of Aaron Kreuter’s second collection, Shifting Baseline Syndrome (Oskana, 2022), which offers an entangled, humorous view of our particular moment in the Anthropocene, through the lens of contemporary culture and digital technoloy. The best poem of the collection (albeit with the worst title) is “Cousinage: A Meet Cute.” As with much of the collection, this is a prose poem, which I excerpt here:
We first met at the airport; you were arriving, I was departing. Well no, that’s not true. We met at the docks. You had a snow globe of the shtetl on your back […] That’s a lie. The truth: we met in the MEC parking lot. We met outside the walls of Jericho, ready to defect. We met outside the cave, you sapien, me neanderthal […] We met at the dawn of the Upper Silurian, you were a fresh-jawed fish, I was a giant scorpion, all elbows. We met on the shore, you still tasted of salt, slick and briny, were still wobbly on new legs […]
I wish I could simply quote this entire poem—it’s brilliant and it gets better; you’ll have to seek it out. Why is it so good? First, in its contraposition of references—the contemporary (the MEC parking lot), are juxatposed with the historical (“a snow globe of the shtetl on your back”) and the prehistorical (“the dawn of the Upper Silurian”), resulting in humour and intellectual surprise. Second, these effects are magnified by increasingly outrageous analogies (“you were a fresh-jawed fish, I was a giant scorpion”). Third, the poem manages to negotiate, through the pyrotechnics of these increasingly fantastical scenarios, a deeper exploration of evolutionary time, cosmology, and the fleeting chance encounters that strike sparks and seed love. There’s even a humorous erotic charge: “you still tasted of salt, slick and briny.” Technique does not obscure the poem; it crawls onto the land and breathes.
“Cousinage” also illustrates a pattern most poems in this collection follow: the use of anaphora—repetition of initial phrase; creation of a catalogue; hyperbole. This suite of tools, which work so beautifully in “Cousinage,” become a bit formulaic through repetition throughout much of Parts 1 and 2 of the collection: later poems seem at times like reruns that float in the puddles of popular culture. Although even here, humour and cleverness mitigate this effect and engage the reader, as in “Eighteen Ways of Looking at Magneto Destroying Auschwitz in X-Men: Apocalypse,” a funny-angry play on Wallace Stevens: “IV. No Nazis were harmed / In the making of this revenge fantasy.” Poems in section 3 touch a deeper nerve, when they engage with family memory, in sequences on the poet’s grandparents: “Dreams I Had the Week before My Grandmother Passed Away” and “Grandfather Suite.”
The strengths of Aaron Kreuter’s new collection lie in his ingenuity of wordplay; clever use of analogy; sense of humour, which is embodied in some of the titles and many of the poems; and a lively, honest engagement with popular culture.