Restless Messengers: Poetry In Review

Alison Cobb, Plastic: An Autobiography
Nightboat Books, 2021, $17.95

Review by Rachel Blau DuPlessis

In what senses does Plastic: An Autobiography come under the rubric “poetry/poetics,” presumably the remit of this Restless Messengers review blog? There’s no doubt that Allison Cobb herself is a restless messenger, bringing an ecological investigation of tragic force and import to a final point of confrontation with the reader. This is the symbolic, allegorical, and imagistic bundling of responsibility into one horrible realization—that the large piece of plastic junk (from a Honda) that provoked this whole book’s journeys and research projects belongs to both the writer and readers. “That’s yours.” (final line). In simplest terms, Cobb found this thing by the side of a road; she owns it. The fender under-part is not the property or concern of the car factory to which she wittily and willfully tries to “return” it. This factory made the plastic but cannot and will not recycle or “compost” it. The understory: plastic does not decompose. (The efforts currently at large to solve this issue are not the subject here.)

Of course, this “yours” cannot be offloaded so easily—the plastic problem is ours—and of course “Theirs”—how could so much get built by polluting industrial processes involving oil and chemical by-products and not be, let’s say, some state or federal social responsibility in general and in particular the responsibilities of the industries that have destroyed so much in the name of development? Cobb’s point is to make this point, to raise such questions about social costs that have for years wounded communities, induced extremes of people’s health (through major illnesses), caused sick birds and fish, and blasted earth, air, water—and only these entities are paying the price. Emphatically a work of documentary poetics (one strong specialty of Nightboat Books), this 340-page book in lucid prose reportage has a wide-ranging research bibliography and a gripping impact.

Reviewing this book in a “poetry blog” leads me to observe that this important (and teachable) work is structured like poetry in several particulars. That is, its roots in poetry contribute to Cobb’s poetics of hybridity. First the work is layered like a palimpsest of the written, half erased, overwritten stories meticulously tracked, but apparently disparate, narratives that suddenly gain meaning from discovery of messages intermingling. The palimpsests Cobb presents are also multiple and interlocking. Among these are the “discovery” of benzene and dyestuffs from oil byproducts, the industrial excitement around plastic, its crucial and chilling relation with the atomic and hydrogen bombs, and the world-wide floating tide of plastic that are consequences of its status as a cheap, malleable but virtually permanent material. These examples are barely half of a startling (and at first unconnected) array of vignettes. We soon find that they are interlinked by cascades of often unintended consequences.

Plastic is structured like poetry because it is an extended serial work (a piece of serial prose) in which individual sections—each with its own internal logic, integrity, and affect—intersect with and fold against / and with other sections in a convincing set of vectors of revelation, connection, and ongoing thought. What seemed like random vignettes begin, as the book unrolls, literally to implicate each other—and command our attention.

Because the scope of Plastic is world-wide (with a strong propulsion and writerly control), the work engorges great ranges of stories that are discovered to be linked in a vast network. Hence Plastic resembles the literary attempts to organize encyclopedic materials into a symbolic structure of “comprehensiveness” and (often, as here) obsession that have been characteristic of the modern long poem, as in in the works of Charles Olson, William Carlos Williams, and Anne Waldman. As in many long poems, it is true that some material seems willful or “extraneous,” but there is no demand to be brief in investigations, and some parts of Plastic have a chronicle-like insistence. The structure of an endless and generally unresolved network, often mapped on or with a linear quest (a narrative of the process of discovery, research, and evaluation) is a portable structure. It is not isolated or segregated in poetry only but can be a property of hybrid works or works of pure prose texture, as here.

One of the characteristics of these varied works are their multi-generic qualities. So too Cobb’s exposition includes anecdote, reportage, well-chosen detail, personal narrative, autobiographical revelations, and interviews. We can read a war story of bravery, loss and rescue, studies in impressive 19th-century scientific discoveries, a story of finding an unmeltable trigger part for the hydrogen bomb, tracks of many occluded women who have been “forgotten” when serious science is at stake. The core of this book is a mystery in plain sight—how to analyze the origins and impacts of plastic, and how to acknowledge its gigantic earth-wide ecological destructiveness.

As for literary allusions (a characteristic of a poetic text), Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner contributes to Cobb’s mourning the death, from ingesting plastic bits instead of food, of an almost-fledged albatross, a baby in a nest. Cobb notes this poem along with a fierce polemic about guilt and responsibility. In fact, the photograph on the cover of Plastic documents some of the plastics in their stomach that kill various dead albatrosses. In the Coleridge poem, a willful mariner, in a gratuitous act, kills for no particular reason an albatross companionably following a ship. The burden of guilt from his crime against nature can virtually never be expiated: the deaths of fellow sailors, his living torments of isolation, and visions of the disturbance of nature are some consequences. Cobb’s real tale of a real albatross and the impact of plastic intersects with Coleridge’s as a devastating symbol of human inhumanity and depredation.

The book becomes a smoldering if calm polemic with an ethics of relation. Cobb’s exacting accuracy of detail is a commitment to honor the facts—hence the book is also a series of memorials. The relationships among all of this are the central historical, ecological, and ethical findings—and this amongness becomes a structural /aesthetic principle that Cobb pursues. It is her notable strength as a writer.

Plastic has four parts—the fourth being an unconventional one. This last is not only the account of her tourist visit to the Honda factory—the Odyssey plant-- and the “that’s yours” that closes Cobb’s own odyssey, but also pages of notes, situations and connections made, thanks, bibliography, and acknowledgments, making this book very consciously a community enterprise and engagement. Many books have these paratextual materials; this book seems to refresh the genres of acknowledgment with an ethics of respect. The book is loyal in carrying out the task set out in its epigraph: knowledge emerges from “direct material engagement with the world.” This empirically engaged ethics saturates the many stories and connections made in the saga.

Plastic offers the core insight that “the basic unit of existence is not the individual, but the relationship” (157), true in quantum physics, true in natural ecologies, true for humans, true for ethics. Cobb’s investigation is factual, humane, and filled with blistering ironies on scales from the precise reading of etymologies and “literary”-social analysis of statements on the record, to the challenging of illusions created by the PR Departments of various industries to the most enormous and exorbitant clashes of society and ethics. Who gave “them” the power to burn the earth, “fevering our sphere” (283) Cobb has an elegant eye for the symbolic or crucial moment of image, finding, event, and she has made important intervention by the braid of her poetic and journalistic skills—and the empathy and feeling that she lucidly reveals in this stubborn and humane book.

Post by Rachel Blau DuPlessis on 7/17/2021 at 12:00 PM

Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s most recent book of poetry is Poetic Realism (BlazeVOX, 2021), and before that Late Work (Black Square Editions, 2020), both from the multi-book work Traces, with Days. Her Selected Poems 1980-2020 is forthcoming from CHAX in 2022.