Once in Blockadia
Stephen Collis
Talon Books, $18.95 (paper) 

In the middle of Once in Blockadia, Stephen Collis’s interdisciplinary ode to his habitus, the poet looks up from his witnessing walk across the world’s largest reservoir of crude bitumen to invoke an unlikely genius loci: “Wordsworth—I feel you too!” and again, a few pages later, “Wordsworth there are things / That are fucked up / That we live among // That we are.” Ambleside and Windermere bear no resemblance to the “huge sand-ensnared world” of the Athabasca Tar Sands. “The aesthetics of the place,” home of the mammoth Syncrude and Suncor oil refineries, “are pure negation— / Open maw is no landscape / Ripped wound no terrain.” Wordsworth’s relevance for Collis resides not in location, but in locomotion: that mode of “knowing by walking,” the “biotic and slow-moving” practice that falls somewhere between surveying, meditation, and trespass. The object of Collis's intervention is the Biotariat, "the radical social agent appropriate to the Anthropocene, or what [he prefers] to call the era of Geophysical Capitalism.” Only by “breaking the bounds” at foot- and eye-level can one begin to lean into the ongoing planetary disaster.

In a series of prose poems at the center of the book, Collis presents his field notes from the Tar Sands catastrophe:

Walking the route of the proposed new pipeline still an imaginary line in data bank accounts begin on river mud banks beneath bridge the pilings & log booms small midspan island treed & reedy temporary trail closed signs barbed-wire hypocrisy of man-made habitats in shadow of cathedralled concrete bridge towers we counter-surveil with beer-can pinhole camera under cottonwood trees unstable popweed & pizza boxes & rebar & rebar & rebar the dirt banks of heavily worked earth through trespass fencing past vending garage doors industrial park polymer shapes stacked Coke Machines behind fencing Schnitzer Cat Leavitt the nest of yellow & blue crane arms at Phoenix Truck & Crane . . .  (33)

Dense blocks of physical detail work to correct the vague, mass-mediated mental image most of us have of the region. The abstracted data are beyond visualization: beneath an area of 140,000 square kilometers (approximately the size of New York state, or 21% of Alberta province) lie roughly 175 billion barrels of extractable bitumen. Poisoned and as yet unreclaimable tailings ponds total over 720 billion liters; these ghostly stews of naphtenic acids, unrecoverable hydrocarbons, and trace metals seep into the surrounding ground water, soil, and surface water. Discontinued megamachinery such as bucketwheels (as long as football fields and as tall as skyscrapers), which moved 5,500 tons of matter per hour, have been superseded by hydraulic shovels and heavy haulers that thunder in and around the open pits. The Caterpillar 797F, for example, weighs in at just under 1.5 million pounds; each of its six tires weighs 11,680 pounds. Operating at almost 4,000 horse power, the truck burns up to 15,000 gallons of diesel per day.

Even documentary photographers are daunted by the scope and scale of the Tar Sands. When Stuart Hall (no relation to the late cultural theorist Stuart McPhail Hall) arrived at the site in 2011 with his cameras at the ready, he was immediately defeated by the enormity, and by the barriers and road-blocks that protect the mining sites from outside visitors. The photographer's only solution was to put aside his fear of flying and take to the air. From one after another chartered plane over the next few years, Hall leaned out at 5,000 feet to shoot the stunning series of images of the Tar Sands featured in Wired magazine

Collis favors an on-the-ground approach that allows for both close observation and political insurgency: think Robert Macfarlane meets David Harvey. Though Collis frequently participates in walks of healing, solidarity, and protest (including an 80-mile, 9-day walk with poets, artists, detainees, and refugees from Dover to Crawley in the UK, a 2015 event initiated by the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group), he shares Harvey's conviction that the old ways alone no longer serve us.  In a thrilling series of reviews and commentaries at Jacket2, Collis develops his definition of the Biotariat, and his understanding of the roles “a poetry of human movement (displacement, migration, refuge, and borders)” might assume in this precarious new world. Drawing together, for example, the biotarian work of poets as disparate as David Herd, Cecily Nicholson, Drew Milne, and Layli Long Soldier, Collis calls for a recalibration of the “class of those beings that have been set in motion by the relentless expansion of capital—whether human, posthuman or nonhuman.” Inasmuch as all planetary life forms are now “subject to, and the substance of, the extraction of wealth”—that is, inasmuch as capital has effectively annihilated space even as it unevenly delimits the places within and between which lifeforms may live and move, or die—where and how are we to turn?

How might the expanding category of “bare life” become a new sort of subject capable of resisting its subjection? How might poetry be the imaginative plane upon which the Biotariat might test its limits and consistency and potentiality? How, indeed, might poetry be the very nursery of the Biotariat, in its manifold and diverse expressions?

Once in Blockadia is just such a nursery, by turns a tender and riotous verbal biosphere of heirloom and hybrid species. The book includes lyric and prose poems; erasures that are revisions of “scenario plans” on Shell Oil’s website; a CBC radio “raw machine transcript” and poems that riff on its distortions; dreamy, pin-hole camera images made by fellow artist-activists; lists of the precise GPS locations of the boreholes on Burnaby Mountain, British Columbia, where Collis and other “caretakers” erected makeshift barricades, temporarily disrupting Kinder Morgan’s drilling; a “blockade chant” with its old-school refrain, “smash the petro state”; as well as excerpts from the court transcript of the 2014 lawsuit in which Trans Mountain sued Collis and four other protestors for 5.6 million dollars. This last detail inspired Eden Robinson, Haisla First Nation writer, to call Collis “the most dangerous poet in Canada.” The plaintiff's statement quotes at length from Collis’s work, and even includes a bit of close reading: “So underneath the poetry is a description of how the barricade was constructed.” Trans Mountain dropped the lawsuit a few months after its instigation.

In certain respects, the list of Collis’s forms is a familiar mishmash, echoing the documentary poetics of Paterson and the insistent address of Howl. But in its unfolding, Collis’s book moves beyond the scale of both Williams’s man/city and Ginsburg’s generation/nation to bring the bioregion into deep focus as both place (actually inhabited) and space (increasingly uninhabitable). Collis’s strength as a poet is his ability to hold in simultaneous suspension the descriptions of particular lifeforms and of sprawling, capitalist ecocidal apparatus:

we swallowed enough swag
to become temporal stuff
glitter burn corpses
of millions' years dead
organic matter seeping
beneath greeny meadows
called overburden taunting
interminability with swank

Undergirding the book is Collis’s critique of the term Anthropocene itself. Naming the era with the root anthros (Greek for "human") distributes the blame for the degradation of the world's geophysical systems across the entire species, rather than singling out those historically uneven structures of power, from the long sixteenth century through the present, that have transformed, consumed, and destroyed the planet. “The ‘Anthropocene’ in many ways lets patriarchal white supremacist capitalism off the hook,” writes Collis, “and, in Imre Szeman’s words, it ‘can reproduce the conditions of anthropocentrism’ it purports to analyze.” Jason Moore (whose Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital is another formative work for Collis) tracks capitalism’s “law” of “Cheap Nature,” according to which labor, power, food, energy, and raw materials are appropriated.  “At the core of this law," writes Moore, "is the ongoing, rapidly expansive, and relentlessly innovative quest to turn the work/energy of the biosphere into capital (value-in-motion).” (Moore, pp. 13-14) Collis follows Moore, Harvey, and an increasing number of others in favoring the admittedly awkward but more precise term “Capitalocene.”

Indigenous scholars and writers have brought to critical rethinking of the Anthropocene a nuanced, historical focus on settler colonial capitalism. Metis anthropologist and poet Zoe Todd argues for “indigenizing the Anthropocene”: “[a]n effective art of the Anthropocene is one that directly engages with the structural violences of heteropatriarchy and white supremacy as they shape discourse and praxis.” Ever mindful of indigenous positions (“for [the Zapatistas], the apocalypse has already occurred—for them, it began 500 hundred years ago, with contact”), Collis’s walking praxis feels more like the Zapatista’s work of “walking the world into being” than the rambling of William and Dorothy Wordsworth. In the “Blockadia” sequence, Collis invokes the Tsilhqot’in First Nation aboriginal title to Athabasca lands, quoting the Supreme Court of Canada’s 2014 decision:

Tsilhqot’in says it is collective title and cannot be encumbered in ways that would prevent future generations from using or enjoying it means we must all cede to the unceded home to unsettle settling. Pipefitters. Markets. Title. Out sharp camp Indigenous forest home blockade home territory not lost come wolves run wolves come leap becquerel leap along path no pipeline has or will be built circling haven glow remorse no remorse breathe deep air touch fertile land roaming. [35]

Legal language spills into a freeform, neo-Romantic vision tinged with radioactive, ethical conscience. This technique calls Juliana Spahr’s work to mind (especially Well Then There Now), but no one is writing into the tainted wilds quite like Collis. “We are chemical and consolation, bane and boon,” he writes in his review of Allison Cobb’s After We All Died (Ahsahta, 2016), as if glossing his own project as well. 

What power Collis packs as a poet to disrupt capitalist climate change is up for  debate. In answer to the question, “Can poetry stop ecocide?” Collis writes, “I would have to answer no. But,” he goes on to say, “it’s not not going to stop it either.” And yet, “Poetry cannot be the only ‘doing’ we engage in.” The poetic “doing” Collis does in Blockadia is already more thoroughly embedded in bioregion than is most contemporary ecopoetry. It is more fluid in its shifts of time, scale, and system, and readier to spill off the page into practice. Collis’s work provokes this question: what happens to the lyric impulse under the dual pressure of an abstract anti-capitalist theorizing and an affective commitment to living beings? Once in Blockadia offers the answer that it is a renewable vein of ore:

The body a sharing of space

And resources and energies produced
By relation and proximity and—

Can we say this regardless
Of whether or not it is a poem?

Love— that the barricade
Was made of love

And anger and bodies and the fire
Made by bodies brushing

One against another. (128)

The Johnny Appleseed of the Biotariat, Collis traverses the bioregional and global commons (“which none can own but upon which we all commonly depend”), broadcasting the seeds of his own resistant strain of dialectical utopianism. He leaves the tending to his readers, with whatever resources we may muster.