Tracy Zeman’s debut collection, Empire (Parlor Press, 2020), contains the hallmarks of a skilled ecopoet: an expansive scientific lexicon and a tendency to eschew the didactic, for starters. But there is something radically innovative about her work as well, something I had trouble putting my finger on initially: while reading this collection, I felt like I was inhabiting a non-human entity. In her ecological and historical exploration of the North American prairie, Zeman resists establishing a narrative through-line, allowing us to see this exquisite landscape through an eerily objective lens.
There is a tradition among ecopoets of experimenting with unconventional punctuation or stripping it away entirely. Zeman has chosen the latter, utilizing an image-driven syntax reminiscent of the Objectivist Lorine Niedecker’s work. In the first poem “Grass for Bone,” Zeman writes:
noise herded into rows & hoof-prints
where old railway decays into foxglove
stream carves into gully into dusk into
bodies boiled in lye then scraped clean
turning bones into rusted machinery
a stand of pale orchids no longer
Like her midwestern predecessor, Zeman’s poems are utterly devoid of sentimentality. Her frequent repetition of into here not only emphasizes the interconnectedness of humans with nature, but also the porousness of time and place. Lyrical quotes are woven throughout, but the speakers are unidentified in these poems; this creates a polyphonic quality which permeates the collection. These stylistic choices bring to mind Robinson Jeffers’ inhumanism, given how Zeman provides a strong sense of the overwhelmingly vast scope of the “boundless whole.” As we envision how far back the grassland’s history goes—to “the old seabed that is/now the Great Plains”—we are forced to reexamine “our complex relationship to reason/& its corrupt imitations.”
I was particularly interested in how the prairie’s violent human history has all but been subsumed by nature. There is a ghostly peacefulness to “monarchs [floating] above milkweed” as we contemplate the “wasp’s nest found inside a skull.” The human suffering which took place here was two-fold: there was the barbarity of the pioneers toward the Native tribes (“new way of burial/as manipulation as a tactic for conversion/funeral as cover for war”) coupled with the sheer difficulty of their own survival in this uncharted territory (“private burials/disallowed for fear of covering up/the ‘violent context of life’”). The predatory nature of the colonists toward nature feels equally unsettling, as we visualize “a bull’s eye/painted on a bison” and “horse & rifle & glut.” Through image-stacking and the power of association, Zeman drives home the notion that the legacy of war never really “ends.”
Over the decades, ecopoets have strived to articulate nature’s dichotomy of immensity and specificity. Zeman’s crystalline imagery provides a window into the past, and we watch as the cycle of destruction toward Indigenous peoples and the environment unfolds. Empire allows us to view the many facets of nature as they exist outside of ourselves. In doing so, we can more fully grasp the scope of loss and transformation that defines the Anthropocene, ultimately coming to terms with our own impermanence.
’s first full-length collection, Empire (Parlor Press, 2020), won the New Measure Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in publications such as The Cincinnati Review, TYPO, Chicago Review, and Beloit Poetry Journal, among others. She lives with her family outside of Detroit, where she enjoys bird-watching and hiking.
is the ’20-’21 Poetry Heritage Fellow at George Mason University. She is a Harvard graduate who taught English in China and Thailand for several years before recently returning to the states. Her poems have recently been published in The Write Launch, Alluvium, and The Los Angeles Review. You can find her on Instagram @a.e.p.13.