Book Review: Solastalgia, by Brittney Corrigan

A 2021 global survey (published in The Lancet) found that 84 percent of young people and children are moderately to extremely worried about climate change. We can only assume that’s gotten worse – and in Brittney Corrigan’s 2023 book Solastalgia, that eco-anxiety is confronted, examined, and articulated with a fierce love that ultimately outpaces the sense of loss.

Solastalgia, the first of many words I looked up while reading this book, refers to emotional or existential distress caused by environmental change. Within, Corrigan’s poems range from formal to lyrical, narrative to free verse; readers who enjoy poets like Jorie Graham, for example, whose lingual gaps and ciphers have been called unintelligible, won’t find themselves challenged in the same way by Corrigan’s work. Rather, the challenge in reading Solastalgia lies in appreciating the liberal use of scientific terms (“thanatotic,” for example) and in following its author through 99 poems about climate anxiety.

The opening poem, “Clothesline for the Sixth Extinction,” is arresting in its combination of the mundane and domestic with the existential – the author imagines a global clothesline hung with all manner of animal species, from the huge elephant with its “unironed trunk, / balanced by the massive teardrop of a whale,” to the tiny “pair of hairstreak wings unlatches, disappears into the blue.” Corrigan’s choice of “hairstreak” rather than “butterfly” reveals her mastery of scientific language, combined with a writerly delight in, and ear for, its sonic capabilities. This language flows throughout the book, lending it an unexpected lightness.

Corrigan’s book is divided into four equal “spheres” – Biosphere, Lithosphere (the rocky outer part of earth), Atmosphere and Hydrosphere/Cryosphere (the latter two referring to water and ice). Another source of upbeat energy in this book are the nearly twenty “Anthropocene Blessings,” scattered throughout, which are dedicated to creatures as diverse as the pangolin, the monkey puzzle tree, and the Rock Creek tiger beetle. All subjects of these “blessings” are rare and endangered, all are heartbreakingly rendered, as in this one about the sea turtle: “May your serrated beak never know/plastic or bycatch, never press against / the polyamide weave of nets.” As “blessings,” these poems carry a fiery energy, almost as invocations, as in the end of the sea turtle poem, about hatchlings, “May their fleeing shells upend the night.”

Solastalgia is filled with meticulously observed animals and their environments – for the most part, this is not a book of poems that examines the life of the speaker. Humans are present mostly as species; agents of destruction or remorse. But there are a handful of glimpses at the speaker’s life as a woman, a mother, and an animal-loving child (“Horse-Girl”) as well as a pair of triolets honoring careers never attained (wildlife photographer and marine biologist). There are also some examples of what I consider “world without us” imagery, as in the tender-comic “The Strip Mall Changes Its Mind,” which finds a post-consumer structure’s “Signs unlatched, bedded down in tendrilled leaves.”

These consolations – images of nature moving on without us, images of the decaying built world and the theoretical comfort of geologic time — help leaven what could be, but isn’t a grim elegy of a book. Composed partially during the initial lockdown of the Covid pandemic, Solastalgia invokes a kind of judgement-day recklessness and asks us to reckon with our choices, as in “New Year’s Eve in the Anthropause”:

Let us say home with unraveling marriages, with dispirited kids. Let us put our exhaustion to bed early. Tuck in our worries and fears.

Let us turn out the lights, let the loggerhead turtles come ashore. Let us sleep in this world of our making. Let us rise and remake.

If Corrigan has used her skill with poetry to grapple with her own eco-anxiety, then readers can address their own by reading Solastalgia—in all its tragedy, beauty, humor, and heart – and joining her in that conversation.