There is a telling line in Stephen Collis’s 2021 collection, A History of the Theories of Rain—in fact, there are many. But for me, the line that captures the book’s central concern, the daunting, infuriatingly impersonal disaster of climate change bearing down upon us, appears in the title poem: “… maybe the cosmos doesn’t do sustainable maybe there’s only / so much air in my lungs and the tunnel’s too long”. (82) The disquiet contained in this line—that mitigation and adaptation may be inadequate, that climate change cannot be solved by science or economics—is present throughout the book. It surfaces in the specifics of language Collis uses to invoke lives lived, eras folding one over the other, the beautiful and the profane. All of it, all of us, facing an uncertain future in a world hurtling toward a tipping point.
Collis opens A History of the Theories of Rain with an untitled poem that places us (humans) alongside all creatures who stare into the “… collapse of intricate order …”, a future where “… the possibility of song remains / without words to smother it”. (1) He then troubles the logic of these two notions, collapse and possibility, in each of the book’s four sections: “Future Imperfect”, “Sketch of a Poem I Will Not Have Written”, “Notes on the Derangement of Time”, and “A History of the Theories of Rain”. Consider these lines: “I TOLD MYSELF / / catastrophe / / is a revolution too / a sudden turn or overturning / more like for whom / more like what are the outcomes too / …” (24), or, “Swing low / exquisite wisteria / I feel the depth / in the names of things / what has changed / the same nothing / I am still / Statius in / Canto whichever / fawning over Virgil ….” (30), and, “… I want to say / hydrological cycle say / every infinitesimal bit / of coding that makes a tree …” (76) Touching on subjects as diverse as the natural sciences, history and literature, Collis gives form to the inexplicable and renders in images, ideas and feelings, the affective depths of climate dread. All delivered in a complicated syntax that left me breathless.
Indeed, grammar and syntax play an important role in this collection. While reading A History of the Theories of Rain, I happened to hear a critique of discount rates—a controversial tool used by economists to model the costs and benefits of climate change mitigation. It seems to me that this tool, the way it frames our relationship to the future, is profoundly addressed in Collis’s work—directly so in “Future Imperfect”. In this sequence, Collis considers the idea of “future” as it is constructed in English grammar, challenging our capacity to visualize “future” as an actual time or place. He writes: “The future is imperfect and tense / the deadlines will pass and still some will be dreaming states of continuity / I want to state some continuity / look at the climate and say / ‘my grammar did this to me’ / my grammar and / my economy”. (3) From here, the sequence moves through a series of possible futures in propositions like: “… A—grass dies / B—human beings die / C—human beings are grass. …” (5), and “… It will always uninterruptedly be so / it will always be that it will be that p / possibly so? True now or in some possible futures. I like / possible / futures. …” (7). How does one define “future”? When there is no single line reaching from the present forward? But rather, many possible lines, an infinity of futures, or maybe none at all?
And so, while discount rates speak to capital’s perspective of the future, the language of markets and governments, Collis marshals the richness of our planet, geomorphic upheaval, science puzzling, and the collective histories of we humans alongside our companion species, into an anxious narrative at once beautiful and urgent, containing all that is at stake as we struggle to imagine our way forward.
Stephen Collis is a poet, activist and professor of English at Simon Fraser University. He is the author of numerous works of poetry and prose, including: The Commons (2008); On the Material (2010); Once in Blockadia (2016); Almost Islands: Phyllis Webb and the Pursuit of the Unwritten (2018). Collis is the recipient of numerous awards, including the BC Book Prize, the Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy, and the Latner Writers’ Trust of Canada Poetry Prize. A History of the Theories of Rain was shortlisted for the 2021 Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry.
For a fascinating close reading of Collis’s “Yes I Do Want to Punch / fascists in the face”, one of the poems in the book’s second section, “Sketch of a Poem I will not have Written”, go to the podcast PoemTalk #165 at: https://jacket2.org/podcasts/punch-fascists-poemtalk-165
For an equally fascinating critique of climate economics, go to the London Review of Books podcast, The Climate Colossus, featuring Geoff Mann in conversation with James Butler, at: https://www.lrb.co.uk/podcasts-and-videos/podcasts/the-lrb-podcast/the-climate-colossus
A History of the Theories of Rain
by Stephen Collis
Talonbooks, 2021, 121 p.p., $16.95
Jody Baltessen is a Winnipeg poet, writer and archivist. Her work is forthcoming in Hamilton Arts and Letters (HA&L), has appeared in Grain, Pangyrus, Poetry Pause (League of Canadian Poets), Prairie Fire, and The New Quarterly (TNQ), and has been shortlisted for the Gwendolyn MacEwen/Exile Poetry Prize.