The Modernist Review Issue #16: Environments

The Modernist Review is very much aware that the ice caps are melting. We’ve all seen the bright, all-encompassing orange hue on the latest pictures from Australia. People are dying, homes are being destroyed, ecosystems are burning and collapsing. The nymphs are departed or departing; we are in the midst of a mass extinction and a climate crisis. 

At the last BAMS executive meeting in October, we spoke about the academic carbon footprint, gas emissions from long haul flights that many academics feel they have to take on a regular basis to present their work at the right conferences. There is no quick fix for a profession with a propensity for travel, but a commitment to carbon off-setting for flights and promoting digital participation in conferences were both encouraged. Within our research, new terms such as ‘anthropocene’, ‘plantationcene’, ‘capitalocene’, ‘ecocide’, ‘petroculture’ have surfaced, expanding ecocritical or green studies with researchers working on ‘extinction studies’. Caroline Hovanec and Rachel Murray are planning a Modernism/modernity Print+ cluster on ‘Reading Modernism in the Sixth Extinction’, and Anne Raine has written on ‘Modernism, Eco-anxiety, and the Climate Crisis’. ‘Modernism and the Environments’ is one of five strands of the 2020 Modernist Studies Association Conference in Brooklyn this year, asking for discussions of energy regimes, wilderness, land art and climate. Modernism has often been discussed in relation to the metropolis, hailed as a product or symptom of the urban, but as we witness an ecocritical turn, scholars are becoming increasingly concerned with modernism’s engagement with, and anxiety about, the natural environment. 

This month, to start off the new decade, the Modernist Review is asking you to pay attention to the melting, the burning, and the quiet possibilities for growth. Beci Carver reviews Matthew Griffith’s The New Poetics of Climate Change, in which twentieth-century literature, and late-modernism in particular, ‘may become our laboratory for imaging a more fraught planet’. ‘How do we write about nature now?’, Carver asks. ‘What does a crisis-era poetry of the natural world look like? What are its peculiar urgencies and sadnesses and ambitions?’

In her article on ‘memorial digging’, Hattie Walters draws significant starchy connections between Ford Madox Ford’s interest in potatoes and the post-war concerns of It was the Nightingale. As Ford’s imagination oscillates between the pragmatic pursuit of the disease-free potato and the bucolic mythologising of his plot of land, Walters reflects on the earth’s potential for the cultivation of narrative and remembrance. Moving on from earthy brown to a burst of bright green chlorophyll and warm sunshine, Jasmine McCrory concludes our critical section with an essay on Wallace Stevens’s poetics of photosynthesis, looking at the poet’s creative energy as part of a sun-powered ecosystem. 

Finally, Sarah Hymas brings us poems from her 2018 residency in the Arctic, part of her research in how the marine lyric riffs off a modernist lyric hybrid. Her Melt sequence, which opens on the quiet, striking image of ‘[t]his shallow ocean, stumped by hills eddying a heartbeat’, explores the pains and consolations of being, moving and writing in a cold but warming world. ‘I’m not used to being lost’, says the I, progressively depersonalised in a mirroring and merging of human and ocean. The ice becomes ink, ‘to damp-shadow the page as / squid fluoresce the cold’. 

From crises of melting and burning to poems, potatoes, and touches of new green, we hope you found a sense of urgency and solace in this month’s environmental voices and glimpses. As always, we warmly welcome responses and contributions from our readers. If you would like to discuss an idea for a piece, or suggest a theme for an upcoming issue, please get in touch by emailing us at or tweeting at us @modernistudies

The TMR team wishes you a rather belated but very happy 2020!

Polly & Cécile 

Please consider donating to the bushfire relief and recovery activities (find out more about that here), opt for a digital presentation rather than a long haul flight if this is a possibility, consider factoring carbon-offsetting funds for flights into travel grant applications, or if you can, consider alternate modes of travel.

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