Extinction is a sad business, and poets have as much to say about it as scientists. Don’t mistake Extinguished & Extinct: An Anthology of Things That No Longer Exist for an elegy, however, because most readers will encounter more life forms here than they likely knew existed. The volume beckons readers to embark and reflect on a meditation regarding what it means to pass through this world and then pass out of it. The longevity of any given species is the least of the matter.
Within these pages, everything these writers turn their attention to—from airships to nomadic tribes to lovers who have left to love someone else—feels more alive for being gone or its absence only imagined. A free-verse speculation of being the last surviving Jew follows upon a conjuring of the ghosts of the Falkland Islands wolf in five acts, which itself follows a brief prose history of the passenger pigeon. Humanity, we are reminded, not only remains this planet’s most ferocious predator but a species of animal equally as vulnerable as those we’ve plundered.
Fortunately, certain people can also summon a certain eloquence regarding the passage of all we’ve witnessed, lavishing an equally lapidary attention on a genus of orchids as well as a single flower with thousands of extant replicas. Unlike plants, we can sense the mortality in every birth from which nothing, particularly human history, can claim exemption. Yet the end inherent in every beginning only propels poets and storytellers to keep writing.
So, alongside long quondam Carolina parakeets and cave paintings of ancestral horses gone the way of the dinosaurs, we have in these pages Cambodian women who believe the ghosts of babies slain by the Khmer Rouge still live within the scarves in which they once were swaddled. Alongside scientific fact we have mythology—or stories from a world as close to deathless as humanity can fathom—and readers have only to turn a few pages to realize this book is far richer in anthropology than taxonomy.
The volume’s refusal to narrow its definition of extinction to anything as concrete as species of animals is both its charm as well as a potential source of frustration, depending on its audience or the reader’s mood at the time. There’s no continuous narrative here or plot to stoke interest, only an investment in contemplations of erstwhile phenomena, from a shuttered Chicago envelope factory to lost languages. As is also the case with anthologies, some voices also resonate more than others, irrespective of their subjects. Some writers prompt a desire to read more, some less, but the editor of the collection has allotted them all a roughly equal word count.
The cataloguing of the demise of mastodons, moas, and saber-toothed tigers interspersed among metaphysical speculation as to why we’re all here to begin with doesn’t demand much sustained attention. To those with fragmented lives and attention spans, this volume poses big questions but in small, digressive doses. Sitting in an armchair for a longer stretch, however, might leave some readers craving coherence; organizing the volume into related sections or by genre might have made some readers more comfortable. But then comfort is hardly poetry’s purpose, and though there’s some prose here as well, even the smattering of nonfiction essays are decidedly lyric.
Had the editor divided the book into different categories of extinction, from cultural to botanical or scientific to anecdotal, Extinguished & Extinct: An Anthology of Things That No Longer Exist might appeal more to the left-brained among us, those who like organization to supply some teleological significance. It also might have calmed what feels like the chaos of subjects whose random presentation can feel a little profligate. Then again, if anything embodies chaos—if anything places us at the mercy of the gods, perennially determined to hew life from mud just to destroy it—it is extinction, whether taking the form of the flattening of a family home by a tornado or the disappearance of a certain birdsong from the forest.
Ultimately, given that extinction here conflates with everything literally under the sun, one also can’t help feeling randomness is also part of the point of this collection, because nothing leaves us helpless quite like absence, when our only enemy is silence. Nothing likewise leaves us freer to infuse the resultant emptiness with meaning of our own making, a possibility the volume’s lack of all organization may suggest tacitly.
The editor’s introduction to the volume stipulates that extinction itself is a concept predicated on materialism, that nothing can cease wholly to exist so long as it remains in the larger consciousness. A better, if clunkier, subtitle, he offers, would run more closely along the lines of “things that no longer exist in the traditional sense of existence,” which provides, if not exactly hope, a way of reframing loss. Had any of the subjects addressed survived in their old husks, their chroniclers would lack for material and perhaps miss something key to living in the present. Embedded in anything we perceive as beautiful, these poets daring to dabble in science softly whisper, is the awareness that it cannot last, however hearty its species. Each heart, after all, beats for only so long. All the more reason to grow quiet enough to hear its rhythm.
March 2014, Twelve Winters Press
$14.99, paperback, 130 pages
—Reviewed by Melissa Wiley