Like the formally experimental Whereas, Rebecca Dunham’s Cold Pastoral participates in the fluid field of documentary poetry. Dunham is a lyric poet whose previous collections have focused on interior spaces. In Cold Pastoral, she turns her gaze outward to focus on manmade and natural disasters, though the collection’s central power resides in its intense engagement with the aftermath of Deepwater Horizon, the months-long spill that resulted in profound damage to marine and wildlife habitats and devastated the fishing industry in the area.
Dunham is a poet of sculptural precision. In “Elegy Written in Oil,” she harnesses facts and marries them to images in order to convey devastating truths:
massed strokes, the pelican’s
beak is daub, is plaster.
She rises from the bay’s water,
limbs out and hung in tatters
of oil—our angel, wings
heavy and mouth cast open
always. She is scarved
blind and deaf. Tarped mute....
oil-soaked pelicans had been picked up
dead or dying. Another
1,200 were found dead after eating
fish contaminated by oil....
The pelican is “our angel,” and with that image the poet quietly conjures this country’s inability—despite an attachment to or-ganized religion with its espousal of good works—to attend to the massive destruction of life caused by greed, negligence, and hubris. Human agency here and throughout the book is imbued with pathos and powerlessness. There is no answer, no possible salvation. Yet there is no turning away either. Immersed in a suffering charged with consequences, Dunham forces herself to remain present, as in “Elegy, Sung in Dirt”:
filled with dirt. Mouth
shut. But tell me
who among you could conjure
the gift, at such depths,
of seeing in the dark?
Such awareness defines the poet’s task: to not only see in the dark, but to make the darkness sing. And sing Dunham’s poetry does, as in the third and seventh sections from the highly fragmented “Blowout”: