Sonya Posmentier’s urgent and innovative book, Cultivation and Catastrophe: The Lyric Ecology of Modern Black Literature, considers how a series of twentieth-century black texts portray the ecological relations that emerge in and through the geographies and material conditions of black diasporic life. Working at the intersection of critical race studies and ecocriticism, Cultivation and Catastrophe develops a compelling claim for the centrality of ecological thought to modern black aesthetics.
From the plantation and the provision ground to hurricane and flood zones, the sites and situations of Posmentier’s study foreground a collective history of environmental alienation, disaster, displacement, and survival. The book highlights the interrelated dimensions of cultivation and catastrophe, enforced agricultural labor and disasters at various speeds, as essential components of the socioecological conditions and experiences of black diaspora in the twentieth century. Analyzing a literary archive that reflects on the material forces of slavery, colonialism, and capitalist production as they shape and unmake bodies and ecosystems, Posmentier generates a capacious framework for approaching the environmental history of modern black literature.
Cultivation and Catastrophe also makes a sustained argument about the lyric as a literary form that affords particular insights into these ecological experiences and conditions. Posmentier focuses sustained attention on works of lyric, drawing on texts by black writers and musicians from Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, Bessie Smith, and Gwendolyn Brooks to Kamau Brathwaite, Derek Walcott, and M. NourbeSe Philip. Posmentier frames these works as “lyric ecologies,” drawing attention to the ways they evoke dimensions of ecological experience in their forms and themes. Such lyrics attune readers to moments of temporal rupture and historical caesura, as well as to forms of interconnection between humans and ecological processes, often highlighting perceptual conditions that hover at the edge of representability. Posmentier’s expansive rubric of “lyric ecologies” crucially reorients histories of the lyric toward ecological concerns as well as toward histories of violence, exploitation, and dislocation that remain largely unaccounted for within studies of classical and Anglo-American lyric traditions.
This symposium brings together scholars of African American history and literature, critical race studies, and modern poetry and poetics who extend the lines of inquiry developed by Posmentier’s groundbreaking book. Engaging in particular with Posmentier’s emphasis on socioecological catastrophe, Joshua Bennett turns to the question of atomic apocalypse and the specter of the world’s end. Here, Bennett highlights a key component of twentieth-century environmental history that Posmentier’s book does not address at length. As Bennett argues, atomic fears present a generalized version of the forms of social death and fears of total destruction that persistently organize collective black life. A rejoinder to these annihilative logics, Bennett claims, can be discovered in the critical and creative work of black optimism and its “commitment to care for the least of these.” Bennett’s response to Posmentier’s book draws on the poetry of Lucille Clifton and June Jordan, along with the anti-nuclear writing of Barbara Omolade, to forward a claim for black ecological thought as a generative undertaking, a “practice of envisioning life on earth beyond human chains.”
In the symposium’s second essay, Juliana Chow asks whether Posmentier’s account of lyric ecologies can be applied to other diasporic formations. Highlighting Posmentier’s description of black diaspora of a “dynamic, cross-cultural, extranational zone,” Chow asks, “What do we call this zone? What is a term that can be capacious without losing specificity?” For Chow, Posmentier’s framework importantly draws attention to losses, displacements, and recessive forms—to the “interstices within.” Chow highlights works by Colson Whitehead, C. S. Giscombe, and Layli Long Soldier that explore the complex spatial motions and enclosures of indigenous and black lives, evoking what she calls a “grasslands ecology in the lyric.” Chow turns attention to the opacities, erasures, and openings that poetic evocations of “minor” spaces and sites can reveal.
Finally, Britt Rusert’s essay raises questions about the relationship between black lyric and the histories and forms of racial capitalism. She asks, “Does preservation and repair mark a poetics of the dispossessed or a poetics of private property?” Considering the forms of enclosure and containment that are central to lyric form, Rusert inquires into the possible limits of lyric, and poetry more generally, as a means of exploring experiences of dispossession. She points to the assertion by Tommy McKay, Claude McKay’s brother, that he had not read his brother’s books because he was “too poor to buy them” as a particularly poignant description of such. Highlighting how alienation can serve not only as a form of deprivation but also as the grounds for resistance and social change, Rusert asks whether and how the forms of relation that Posmentier charts might include these responses. Rusert’s review concludes by suggesting that these black poetic “claim[s] to the land” might be understood as elaborating a vital claim about the commons as shared inheritance.