Poetry Review: The Edges of Empathy

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Darkened Rooms of Summer: New and Selected Poems
By Jared Carter
University of Nebraska Press, 2014 

The Last Incantations
By David Mura
TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University, 2014 

Gazelle in the House
By Lisa Williams
New Issues/Western Michigan University, 2014 

One day in the bonobo home at the San Diego Zoo, the keepers scrubbed the moat, let the apes into the enclosure, and started refilling the water. “All of a sudden the old male, Kakowet, came to their window, screaming and frantically waving his arms so as to catch their attention,” writes Frans B. M. De Waal, head of the primate lab at Emory University. The old bonobo had spotted young apes caught in the moat and now in danger of drowning. The keepers offered the animals a ladder, and they climbed out. Kakowet reached in and pulled up the littlest one, which had been unable to climb the ladder.

What the old ape exhibited was that most human of traits—empathy. Humans (animals ourselves) share the ancient trait of empathy not only with bonobos, but also with horses, dogs, and other mammals.

De Waal is one of a group of scientists who study the biological roots of social systems. Most prominent among these, E. O. Wilson, in his 1975 book Sociobiology, advised: “Scientists and humanists should consider together the possibility that the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized” (27).

In Consilience, his book of more than twenty years later, Wilson surveyed the results of the sociobiology he had invented. “In my own writings, from On Human Nature in 1978 forward, I have argued that the etiology of culture wends its way tortuously from the genes through the brain and sense to learning and social behavior. What we inherit are neurobiological traits that cause us to see the world in a particular way and to learn certain behaviors in preference to other behaviors”

In Consilience, Wilson articulates a “productive insight” of sociobiology: that “prepared learning of social behavior . . . is usually adaptive. It confers Darwinian fitness on organisms by improving their survival and reproduction. The adaptiveness of the epigenetic rules of human behavior is not the exclusive result of either biology or culture. It arises from subtle manifestations of both.” A note in the same book describes De Waal’s discoveries of “proto-ethical behavior in chimpanzees, including cooperation and retribution toward those failing to cooperate”

Neuroscientists have shown that empathy has cellular propulsion. Recent discoveries of “mirror neurons” indicate how activities historically considered essentially human, such as responsiveness to works of art, are rooted in biological mechanisms that link us to other mammals. As the New York Times summarized the discovery: “The same brain cells fired when the monkey watched humans or other monkeys bring peanuts to their mouths as when the monkey itself brought a peanut to its mouth.” There was a similar mirroring effect when a monkey heard a human open a peanut. “It took us several years to believe what we were seeing,” said neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti of the University of Parma.

If the monkey is capable of this cross-species empathy, the researchers found, human mirror neurons are much more subtly responsive than those in monkey brains, reflecting “the evolution of humans’ sophisticated social abilities.” Human mirror neurons enable people to understand not just what an action is but its social meaning, its intentions, and its underlying emotions. “We are exquisitely social creatures,” Rizzolatti told the New York Times. “Our survival depends on understanding the actions, intentions and emotions of others. . . . Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking.”

In other words, the brain’s mirror neurons enable empathy. People who rank as highly empathetic have energetic mirror neurons. And art, one researcher told the New York Times reporter, “exploits mirror neurons.” The article explained: “Experiments show that when you read a novel, you memorize positions of objects from the narrator’s point of view.”

Human society may not look particularly empathetic some days. The morning news can tempt one to see humans as violently competitive. So can some U.S. public policy. But humans can do things some apes cannot, such as live in cities, because of empathy, De Waal told a reporter. Chimpanzees “would start killing one another. Humans do not do this. They put up with masses of strangers around them. In that sense, we are very strange: we can tolerate others in huge numbers.”

As recent research indicates, literature helps us build those connections and that tolerance. Empathy, it turns out, is malleable. A study published in the journal Science shows that people who read short passages of literary fiction can quickly augment their empathy. The study compared the effects of reading literary fiction, which emphasizes nuance, character, and the movements of mind and emotion, to reading popular fiction (more likely to emphasize plot) and nonfiction. The study did not consider poetry, but it does raise questions about what poems do.

I chose the three books reviewed here because I thought the writing strong and the projects interesting. But it soon became clear that each of these poets, in a distinctly different way, nudges the boundaries where we might think empathy possible. We extend empathy only so far. It’s easier to empathize with humans than with aquatic animals, for instance. And, as De Waal points out, empathy is most common among animals that are more similar, socially proximate, and familiar. Humans, he writes, also have an easier time of empathy when they perceive the other as cooperative, rather than competitive. The books reviewed here aim their empathetic attention at the difficult, the distant, the competitive, the nonhuman, or the different. These aesthetically dissimilar books share an ambition—each pushes at the edges of empathy.

* * *

In “The Purpose of Poetry,” Jared Carter tells of an “old man who grazed thirty head of cattle / in a valley just north of the covered bridge.” The man had two dogs. At night, one dog slept on the front porch and one on the back. One evening, a man came from the courthouse “to tell him how the new reservoir / was going to flood all his property.” A paraphrase of the visitor’s speech follows, though the poem contains no quotation marks. It’s as though we readers are inside the farmer’s mind, receiving the grim message that he is “too far up in years / to farm anywhere else,” that he should “sell now” and go live with his daughter “in Florida, in a trailer park.”

The poem does not record the farmer’s response. Instead, it tells what he loved:

Always he had been around

cattle, and trees, and land near the river.

Evenings by the barn he could hear the dogs

talking to each other as they brought in

the herd, and the cows answering them.

It was the clearest thing he knew.

On that night, the farmer shot his dogs and himself. The poem concludes: “The purpose of poetry is to tell us about life.”

There is information here—that a man can live a long time on a farm, that a municipality can take that farm “for the greater public good,” and that a man might kill himself in response. This is plot and general fact, with its own weight. But Carter offers an interior. He tells us who the man is in relation to his surroundings, implying the farmer’s suspicion that without this place he may not have a self. He tells us that the farmer understands that the man giving him the message about the reservoir can’t perceive his connection to this land. And that the farmer feels the government’s message as violence.

This way of telling about life is empathetic; it attempts to mirror the play of mind and emotion in response to an external world. Not all poetry registers empathy. Some concerns surface, sound, intellectual play. But some poems linger not only in the mind and not simply in the rhythms the body repeats and remembers in pleasurable compulsion—but in other bodily imprints as well. For me,  “The Purpose of Poetry” stayed like grief in the throat, increasing its pressure with recall and rumination.

The empathy of “The Purpose of Poetry” aims toward the past. The Mississinewa Reservoir that flooded the farm in the poem was built in the 1960s. But for midwesterners the poem has more recent resonance in the farm crisis of the 1980s, and the stories (in the media, certainly, but also told through rumor or friendships with farm families) of grief, family breakdown, and suicide. From this vista of 2014, the farm crisis itself may seem a long way off, but it wasn’t for Carter, a resident of Indiana, when he first published the book that contained this poem, in 1993.

Carter’s method in some poems resembles that of an oral historian or a journalist. “Covered Bridge” is a story of the Civil War that Carter recorded during a 1983 family reunion. The interviewee’s great-grandfather originally told the tale. Unlike a journalist or oral historian, however, who must report the story word for word, the poet alters this story, and presumably others in this volume. There’s a link to an oral culture in this, a story transformed through multiple tellers, yet tied to the first teller via specific language: “a turnip watch / on a gold chain that turned out to be brass— / a watch he always said never did work anyhow.” (“Turnip watch” is a common nineteenth-century name for a big pocket watch.)

In other poems, the words of historians resonate with local stories, which add detail and emotion to fact. In “Recollections of a Contingent of Coxey’s Army Passing through Straughn, Indiana, in April of 1894,” jobless men march to Washington to protest a government that, the epigraph tells us, “failed to act.” The actual Jacob Coxey was a labor leader who gathered his “Army of the Unemployed” from many western and midwestern states during that depression year when the unemployment rate reached 18 percent. In Carter’s poem, the townspeople respond with a mix of respect (including some salutes) and disdain. Boys throw rocks, though their father punishes them. A preacher waves his hat but then follows the marchers, “running to heave a brick at them.” Others perceive their hunger and feed them. One girl supplies a man in a faded Union Army jacket with hedge apples he hungrily stuffs in his pockets. She remembers no words “in later years,” only the moment of connection: “finally reaching down to press / her fingers, then hurrying on, turning back once to wave at her.”

Another brief moment of empathy involves “the sybil,” of the poem “Spirea,” who in the summer drinks evenings at the only bar in town and sleeps out in the weather by choice. She’s intentionally alone, but the townspeople also reject her: “Many avoided her passing,” Carter writes, “many were afraid, unable to return her bright gaze.”

The empathy with this isolated one is certain, if fleeting. The woman plunges into a hedge of bridal veil (also called “spirea”) in the yard of a local physics professor. He has set up a telescope and “has trained it on an elusive entity— // a nebula / thousands of light years away, a great star cluster / tilted on one side, displaying vast spiral arms.”

Carter makes clear here the limits of understanding. Is the professor young, new to the town, and handsome, or “white-haired,” having “outlived / an affectionate wife, sent forth children,” and “taught generations of young people”? The poet pushes the questioning: Do things such as his age matter? “Does he himself know about any of these things, / on a night like this, at the moment she emerges / from the spirea’s whiteness, as though swum up / through a heavy, pounding surf?”

This is to say, something is happening beyond the demographics that might otherwise force these two apart. The woman bends her head to the telescope aperture and gazes at the nebula he has put “in perfect focus.” “She looks for a long time,” says the poet. The professor stands back, knowing what she perceives. The sybil and the physics professor share the same rare sight, and an ecstatic merging based in shared mind:

                                    Finally she begins,

she raises her head, the light is in her eyes,

the shining, and she speaks what comes. He bows

as though in prayer, knowing there is no difference—

it is the far galaxy, great orb and afterimage

in his brain, it is the milk-white hedge cresting

all around them, it is the unsummoned presence

come at last, and always, up through the waves,

it is the voice speaking through all, to all,

here, now, in the darkness, in the starlight.

I’ve focused so far on narrative poems, often in blank verse, often implicitly tied to oral story. But these are not the only poems in Darkened Rooms of Summer. This book of selected poems includes pages from Les barricades mystérieuses, a 1999 volume of villanelles. These poems are lyric and elegant, rather than narrative. Because of the demands of villanelle, they draw power from exact repetitions. Those repetitions, with their suggestions of chant or spell-casting, aim to connect the poem (and implicitly the poet and reader) with an otherwise unavailable past, and with the people from that past, who are now gone away or dead.

The section of villanelles originally stood as its own book, but it takes on extra power here. Its placement in this volume is haunting. The repetitive, incantatory poetry takes on the quality, at times, of primordial magic that allows the poet access to the past. “He is farther away now, part of a choir / of lost voices,” writes the poet about a dog sleeping in front of a fireplace. The line occurs in the last stanza of the poem “Summons.” The sleeping dog responds to feral memory. There is a kinship here between the dog and the narrator, who seeks to hear lost human voices.

Magic is not simply metaphor. In Carter’s narratives, it is a tool of the people, practical and useful. In “The Measuring,” the speaker takes a sick companion to the sexton’s wife, who measures the suffering one’s body with pieces of string she will knot together, all the while muttering her spell. As she does so, her husband plots out a burial spot for “someone else expected there.” The spell is implicitly successful. The knotted string will “rot / the winter long / on hinge of gate,” while a different body rots in the grave. In “Ginseng,” the poem informs us, “A god-fearing man did not labor / on the Sabbath, or witch for water / during the week, or work charms / for warts or rain.” So when the husband wants to dig ginseng, which will travel to “the other side of the world / where it is ground into dust / and mixed into potions,” he waits for his wife to fall asleep over her Scripture. In these poems that precede Les barricades mystérieuses, such folk magic has an everyday ordinariness akin to a doctor’s visit or a daily job.

Les barricades mystérieuses doesn’t talk about others’ folk remedies, but instead casts its own spells. Carter makes his purpose explicit: “Step down; into that darkness now, that dream, // descend, not to renounce but to redeem / the surface world” (“Berceuse”). He’s not renouncing reality, but enriching it by seeking meanings the “surface world” conceals.

Among the poems of Les barricades mystérieuses are those that seek to recover objects and actions of the past. In “Ditchweed,” “the banks own everything now.” Yet in these rural locations touched by the farm crisis and the depopulation of rural towns, “In the forgotten places where it still grows,” people remember and respond, hauling “green trash bags and gunnysacks.” And in “Palimpsest,” the speaker scrapes leaves to find a “walk that led out through the apple trees,” a place worn by human tread, “forgotten all this time, but not quite lost,” that reappears only during brief weeks when peonies bloom. While the poems recover fragments of the past, they also register loss. “Labyrinth,” which appears near the end of Les barricades mystérieuses, situates a loose, banging door on rotting hinges amid the sounds of crickets and toads. The animals pause, then connect to each other through their calls, while the door, the poem tells us, has nothing that will any longer bring “meaning to this maze.”

* * *

The title of David Mura’s new volume is The Last Incantations. If that sounds eerily similar to the summonings and spells of Carter’s work, it’s because Mura’s project, while different in style, resembles Carter’s in its aims. Rather than the rhythms and rhymes and chanting repetitions that link Carter’s villanelles to magic, Mura’s work uses end-rhyme and meter rarely (though Mura’s lines and line breaks contain complex, meaningful music), and is more consistently an elastic free verse, including short lines, long lines, and prose. Mura is Japanese-American, and his poems often explore racial and cultural conflict, subjects that appear only in hints in a few Carter poems. Mura makes a similar commitment to oral sources, multiple perspectives, and narratives and dramatic monologs drawn from real lives. Also like Carter, Mura uses his incantations not to summon another realm but to more fully inhabit this one.

In “Last A.A. Incantation” (“A.A.” stands for Asian-American), the summoning rises from a quick narrative and a quote. A “young Vietnamese friend” delivering a pizza screams at a mugger:

                        You going

to shoot me for a pizza? A pizza?

Go right ahead, motherfucker.


The guy slunk off in the night

confused by death

in the guise of a gook-faced

pizza boy, muttering his own

ending to the world.

The rhythms of this poem depart extravagantly from Carter’s. Yet Mura’s poem resembles Carter’s work in its loyalty to the grit and noises of the world. The “last incantation” here is the shouted profane dare, which draws force from vernacular speech, real street crime, and the possibility that the gun will fire. This tie to lived life is exactly what this poet seeks. Like his friend who screamed death at the mugger, he writes:

Yes. I’m going down to the cellar

where the roots thrive

and the shit-faced angels lived long ago

and only the Buddha squats on his

pot smiling his sly stoned-out smile.

Other incantations of this book include voices of sons and fathers, meth addicts, a sheriff, a member of the Viet Cong who lives in the tunnels, Tenzing Norgay (the Tibetan Sherpa who mounted Everest with Edmund Hillary in 1953), an Abu Ghraib prisoner strung with electrical wiring, and Roméo Dallaire (the force commander for United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda).

Some touching poems concern fathers and sons. In “South Carolina Sea Island,” a father fishes with his sons on islands where runaway slaves once hid. This incantation asks questions the escaped slaves do not answer:

Did they holler praise

to the crabs and boars and fish for their bellies?

Pray to their gods to hold their bodies hidden?

And are they still listening, those Gullah ghosts?

In apparent response comes “a giant wave” that “roars up higher and higher and thrashes on”—natural power and noise that, at the same time, shuts the speaker off from any real answers. At evening the father and his sons leave with their catch. But the last line and a half summons the past. “I tell them again / a history we can’t take back.” There’s a dual empathy here—the speaker’s incomplete connection to the dead slaves and his purpose in passing empathetic knowledge to his sons. The poem’s final hard consonants and stresses emphasize the brutal facts he relates, as well as his separation from the people those facts describe.

In “My Son in Ninth Grade,” an American boy whispers his love to his Somali girlfriend until the girl’s father finds out. Again, the empathy, transmitted in speech (in part via cell phone), is multiple. Even after Yasmine’s father slams the romance shut, the speaker says, “and still I hear my son behind his door / weeping and whispering in the dark.” The speaker understands his son’s grief via the past—a World War II biracial love: “Once a white boy fell in love with my aunt. / Slipped to the camps, she never kissed him again.” The poem counts out the Somali young men “shot or knifed” or “vanished / to Mogadishu.” A sad admonition follows: “Children, all this began so long ago.” Yet, if an incantation can summon connection, this poem does so. In the last stanzas, the son leaps on his father’s back. “Of course, I don’t let him beat me,” writes Mura. And “even as he cries out I give. I give, / assenting to the father, I cannot grip / him tight enough. I cannot let go.” The enjambment of the penultimate line captures the contradicting impulses and limits of parental affection; even as the poet uses the word “grip,” the enjambment lets go.

The figure of the young son is consistently an optimistic one in this volume, likely because of youth, and the adult hope that our children will live better lives. Adults are more complicated figures. In “A Surprise Visit,” a Japanese-American father discovers his son’s “twenty-year-old black lover”:

and when she came down, draped

in kimono and her flesh

as temptation, as she bent down

and her nipple spilled forth,

his Nisei father

saw only this witch, this demon,

and not a twenty-year-old girl living through

her dream time, her model time, her own years

in L.A.

The fluid enjambments of the first four lines evoke the movement of the decidedly casual kimono, its loose openness, and the ways the fabric first suggests the “flesh” beneath it, then slips apart to reveal her body. That the uncontrolled flesh is “spilled” here suggests contamination, as though the girl has polluted the kimono and the son, who are not of her culture. We are in the father’s mind, a position the repeated use of “she,” “her flesh . . . her nipple,” and “this” underlines. The recurring pronouns and articles suggest the father’s attempt at psychological distance, objectifying the demon-witch he spots in the young woman, and repeatedly linking the black woman in a kimono to physicality and dangerous magic.

The poem contains a counter to this vision. When it returns to the pronoun “her” (“a twenty-year-old girl living through / her dream time, her model time, her own years / in L.A.”), the perspective belongs to the young woman, who sees herself in a sharply different way. The enjambed line breaks here suggest the possibility she perceives in life—her entrance into the future. This accommodating and supple use of perspective via poetic technique allows Mura to spend much of the poem exploring a mindset that can be difficult to evoke and hard to understand, and that American popular culture tends to stereotype: that of the racist. Mura explores even the man’s prejudices with an eye to understanding the whole. The poem connects to the distraught and condemning father, even as it gives the young woman her consistent dignity.

The father’s position reverberates from this poem to other fathers in the book. For instance, the poem’s insight into the Nisei’s grief about lost heritage seems to parallel that of the Somali father who otherwise has no voice:

And the Nisei wanted to shout to the Southland,

to no one in particular: Tell them

my father once spoke a language

as difficult as orchids or roses or the ancient

songs of the Heike, with rhythms all its own.

One bracing trait in Mura’s work is its refusal to see empathy as an easy end to conflict. For instance, listening holds peril. Cruelties based on ethnic conflict don’t end. Rather, they transmit hurt via language to those who seek to know more. In “The Rape of Nanking,” the psyche of a reporter who conducted interviews with survivors drowns in the memories of the tortured ones’ words. The reporter kills herself. Although Mura calls this poem a fiction, the narrative parallels the life and death of the American historian and journalist Iris Chang.

A brutal physical end is similarly the trajectory of the “rumors of atrocities.” The “severed ears” of Vietnamese villagers that some Viet Cong keep in their belt pouches, says the VC soldier:

            were listening

and knew always

where they were going

long before they reached

the tunnel where we hid

and so greeted them

as they expected

with all the gifts

of the underworld

where the dead eat

the living not for survival

but to taste the sunlight

they will never see.

Again, Mura seems drawn to a difficult perspective: that of the soldier who thinks he understands those he murdered. Although the “severed ears” of this poem echo Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel,” in her poem sympathy lies with a speaker who witnesses the Colonel spill a grocery bag of ears onto the table. Mura’s work instead seeks to enter the mind of the one who severs ears. The first seven lines quoted above again use enjambment to suggest possibility, as in the passage on  the girl living out her “dream time” in L.A. But what these ears hear in their future, the soldier claims, is their own death and dismemberment. The reader’s empathetic connection here, however, is less with the ears than with the soldier’s craving to justify atrocity as something the ears “knew always,” offering “all the gifts / of the underworld.” The V.C. understands himself and the soldiers of the tunnels where he lives and fights as residents of this underworld. To kill, then, is to bring others home. To eat their flesh is, again, a kind of joining, a tasting of “the sunlight” the V.C. can’t access.

This poem’s ending links to “Last A.A. Incantation,” and its evocation of death and the underworld, suggesting some of the risks of “going down to the cellar / where the roots thrive,” and where death is not figurative.

For Roméo Dallaire, the journey to the cellar mentioned in “Last A.A. Incantation” means memories won’t dim. “I let men die, women, and children. / My boys, my soldiers, those smart-ass Belgians,” he says. And if some of those responsible are in jail, “What comfort’s that to the voices of Darfur. / Please shut the door. It’s noisy, sirs, here in hell.” Dallaire aims to share the voices with others. UNAMIR, the United Nations Assistance Mission army, Dallaire says, told him to “stop my testimony.” Yet Mura’s poem tries again to make others listen, several decades after the world didn’t listen to Rwanda enough. The poem’s internal sound patterns (“I,” “die,” “my,” “my,” and “comfort,” “Darfur,” “door,” “sir,” “here,” to mention only a few) convey guilt and obsessive rumination. The rhymes connect readers to Dallaire’s psyche. We hear his pain physically, intellectually, and emotionally.

* * *

If emotional connection to the dead, or those no longer accessible for other reasons, is often Mura’s aim, and Carter’s career-long project, Lisa Williams seems drawn to a different barricade in Gazelle in the House. Williams seeks to understand the animals.

But this is no naïve task. Shelley’s skylark and Keats’s nightingale signaled from another realm (“Bird thou never wert,” says Shelley). But in places Williams’s poems specifically reject such impulses, refusing for instance, to find false meaning in the wind: “The wind is not your companion. / Nor is it whispering anything to you. / Nor is it not whispering.” And while “Hummingbird Aviary” plays with the instinctive impression that some animals are not of this world (“phantom / of a bird, not a bird, a spirit, a sprint”), above the hummingbirds, humans have hung “a never-not-visible, fine-meshed, permanent net” to contain the birds’ physical bodies.

Williams’s task, like those of Carter and Mura, often involves digging into the available world at empathy’s edges. Gazelle in the House opens with an epigraph from Charles Bergman: “I wanted, as it were, to see with my feet, connected to the earth.” Williams approaches this responsibility seriously. The opening poem, “To an Exterminator,” acknowledges cruelty and human-created devastation among animals:

Because civilization is always

a retort to another’s guts—


remove the hive. It is in

the wrong place, restful and humming

as if error could become a home.

It needs your corrective violence.

“There are ways,” says the poem, “to make disaster a part of our world.” To do so, however, exacts human cost. In order for the speaker to “see what exists / now does not,” the exterminator must “Craft a lock / for the mind. Leave no sign / of vacancy.” An unlocked mind risks opening to compassion and understanding of what “corrective violence” might mean to a wasp. (The metaphorical connection to human conflict over land is palpable.)

But the book contains its own corrective. In the title poem on the following page, Williams considers the radical change required when a gazelle enters a human home:

                        You will bring things forward that are not

of your world. You will push things back that seemed

massive, fundamental—packed away, out of the path

of a gazelle.

Other poems describe animals, particularly sea creatures, from the outside so perceptively that they convey the subtle physical motions as if revealing emotions or personality traits. One particularly moving poem is “Brooding Eels,” which uses as its path to empathy the sexual drive humans share with these snakelike fish. The eels swimming in a freshwater lake and blocked by a rock fall from access to the sea, where they must travel to breed, circle for decades “growing bigger          growing tremendous,” and lifting “heads now huge out of water to smell / air                     whether there will be a change / so they can swim to the sea.” But there is no route out. They are circling toward death:

                                    there is no way no way

to the sea         breeding is necessary             brooding


is what happens          will there be a chance a storm

or just this ache for distance another century?

Sometimes a creature trait that seems at first alien does a metaphorical flip to reveal human failings. In “Bees in a Time of War,” bee swarming seems difficult to comprehend. Williams tries out a series of analogies:

their bodies skimming the weedy surface


like thoughts. Or like a mass of thoughtless shapes

moving, only moving and not meaning,


the bees’ quick bodies and the bodies’ shades

bullet-shaped, but much too soft


to be bullets. Much too gentle, visibly

flitting over green pennants of grass.


The metaphors build until the gentle bee swarming signals the ungentle swarm of warring humans:

something shifts under its vibrant buzz


moving almost silently without cause,

building and building a field of bodies.

Williams doesn’t always write about animals. But there’s a reason why this book takes its title from the gazelle. Williams’s poems about the natural world linger in the mind, lead one to question what is and what’s possible.

* * *

Why would empathy, particularly empathy with long-dead voices and voices of those who have abandoned the rural landscape (Carter), with voices in cultural and sometimes murderous conflict (Mura), and with insects and sea creatures (Williams) figure so prominently in the work of three poets whose books appeared in the same year? De Waal’s research suggests an answer. On his Web page, De Waal comments that his research on empathy has larger social implications: “It is hard to listen to conservative politicians explain that it is okay to starve the masses, that this is how nature works, and not to counter with what we actually know about nature, including human nature,” he writes.

Perhaps a book of poems that elegiacally examines the aftereffects of a government reservoir, or the farm crisis, or a vanishing oral culture could connect us empathetically with the past and cause us to act differently in the present. So, too, might a book that attempts to enter perspective after perspective to understand racial and cultural conflicts. And what about, in this crowded moment of human pressure on the planet often called the Anthropocene, a book that seeks connections with cool, water-dwelling creatures? Perhaps these poems push at the edges of empathy so patiently and obsessively because they have the potential to change us.