Main photo credit: themandarin.com.au
When we reflect on such calamities surrounding our local environment and beyond, we only hope for a quick resolve. When we think about our fellow neighbor and the personal struggles they endure due to these matters, we sometimes turn a blind eye or remain silent. In the way of a great educator acting as a friend, Rebecca Dunham’s Cold Pastoral hand-walks us through a library of tiny volumes of shock as we are then asked to reevaluate our comprehension of it all as students of the earth.
Take, for instance, a line from the poem “In Which She Considers the Water” about the Flint, MI water crisis:
“Lead levels peak at 13,200 ppb and the pipes moan: what was done cannot be undone. Fill a glass. Hold it to the light. No one here to see.”
Rebecca Dunham answers our questions:
DC Life Magazine: Where did the inspiration for this poem come from?
Rebecca Dunham: The poem deals with the Flint, MI catastrophe, in which it was finally revealed that residents of the city particularly those from less affluent neighborhoods—were being poisoned by high levels of lead that had leached from the pipes into their drinking water. Whenever I hear about something disaster like this, I am struck by the fact that there is a whole other facet of daily life for others. This is obvious, and something I am always aware of on an intellectual level. But it is moments like this in which, like running into a sliding glass door, the knowledge impacts me on a physical level. It is painful and true that there are some mothers who every day have to worry about as simple an act as giving their child a glass of water. I can’t imagine the impotence they must have felt, especially before the city acknowledged that yes, the water was poisoned, and it wasn’t something they were imagining.
DC: What message do you hope this poem conveys?
RD:Ideally, it would help readers recognize and experience the violation of having poisoned water literally flowing through the walls of your home, and the pain one would feel when that water—a basic human need that should be safe and free for everyone—is being consumed not just by yourself but by those dependent on you. I also would hope people recognized the terrible impotence Flint’s citizens would have felt at their inability to be heard.
With every poem, I hope to engage readers on both an intellectual and visceral level. The goal is to have people not just understand the problem but to perhaps feel an echo of the emotion. To encourage empathy, which is something sorely lacking in society at this particular moment.
DC: How does poetry and writing work for you?
RD: For me, writing is how I figure out what I think, to a certain extent. It is as I put words on the page and refine them that I am able to articulate my feelings and thoughts most clearly. At different points in time, I have interests and concerns that take up a good portion of my mind, and poetry is part of the process by which I engage with them. I spend a lot of time revising, both because I love language and want to find exactly the right word or phrase, and because I don’t always believe my first thoughts are necessarily my best thoughts.
DC: Can we actually take action in regards to Flint?
RD: Definitely, and in fact, I believe it is more important than ever right now.
The news cycle moves on and Flint may seem like something that was dealt with, but it will take years just to replace all the pipes. Even the recent EPA funding is inadequate to the task. The city still hasn’t identified a long-term primary water source. It’s been documented that fetal deaths have risen exponentially since the crisis first came to our attention. The effects of lead poisoning are lifelong. A good place to start, if you are interested in helping, is the Flint Child Health and Development Fund https://www.cfgf.org/cfgf/GoodWork/FlintArea/FlintKids/tabid/855/Default.aspx
Visit Rebecca Dunham here: https://milkweed.org/book/cold-pastoral
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Cultural and Poetry Editor