In Plastic, Cobb investigates the origins of our contemporary intertwining crises by constructing a circle of cross-linked lyrical essays about the eternal presence and persistence of plastic in our natural world, our bodies, and our communities. Into this circle of narratives, she weaves facts, remainders, curiosities, and griefs— “the plastic will outlast the bones, the sand, this writing”—and like the shards of plastic she traces, her narrative structures are periodically broken by verse, lists, etymologies, and other voices, such as Samuel Coleridge, Claudia Rankine, and Karen Barad.
Throughout the course of the book, I encountered countless utterly depressing facts and stories about how we’ve polluted every corner of our world with plastic, but I also encountered people, real people whose lived lives are entangled with plastic and with one another—people who fought in wars, invented bombs, and built factories, but also people, particularly women, who created art—Yukiyo’s “diaphanous life-size sculptures of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs out of kimonos made by her paternal grandmother”—started nonprofits, built communities, and made scientific breakthroughs. I encountered places, islands where “the tides had tossed up a whole cosmos: tree trunks, coconut shells, coral, car tires, barrels, and plastic,” industrial towns polluted and degraded but populated with dedicated passionate individuals like her friend JP who told Cobb that “the story here in these lands is not all heaviness, loss, and sadness . . . if those were the only stories we would all be dead already. . . . There is a joy to the struggle. A joy to surviving.” Ultimately, I found in Cobb’s words, a frank, vulnerable, truthfulness about the state of the world, about the author’s own life and place in that world, and meditations on love, hurt, anger, and grief, and in that way, I found commiseration, compassion, and connection. Like the molecular shape of benzene, time in Plastic is circular, as her research crisscrosses decades and centuries and traces figures like the mathematician Stan Ulam, a key figure in the effort to develop a thermonuclear bomb, then his daughter Claire Ulam, and Cobb’s own father’s work in Los Alamos, then her mother’s recent death from cancer, to Cancer Alley in Louisiana. Cobb traces the albatross through time and landscape and circles back frequently in the text to “Shed Bird,” a two-month old albatross on Kure Atoll who died from consuming more than 500 pieces of plastic, and the mariner’s albatross in Coleridge’s poem. They haunt Cobb throughout the text like plastic haunts lands and bodies. Cobb writes “the albatross around the neck is a mark of guilt. The mark remains, even after the body of the bird is gone. The sailor is compelled to spend the rest of his life telling others what he has seen.” In Plastic, Cobb names the women who haunt the background of men’s narratives: computing, conducting experiments, recording, getting married, having children. She acknowledges the histories of indigenous people who once lived on the land she writes about, “place names reflect the distinct bands of Kalapuya who lived along 150 miles of river: Tualatin, Yamhill, Santiam.” The Kalapuya people lived in the valley that would later become the Christman family farm. Elwyn Christman is a WWII pilot we follow through life and war, and whose plastic bombsight shard makes its way across time and ocean. She documents the ri-Enewetak who were forcibly removed from their ancestral island so the US could detonate nuclear bombs there, whose design incorporated plastic. Or the many examples of African American communities destroyed by plastic manufacturers: Freeport is not unique. Across the country, a majority, 57 percent, of people of color live in counties with at least one failing grade for smog or particle pollution, compared with 38 percent of whites. Privilege keeps the impacts largely hidden from the white majority. The destruction of places usually circles back to the destruction of bodies, human bodies: “we might have jobs at the plants, but then we get ready to retire and we come down with cancer. We are a sacrifice community,” and animal bodies. In documenting this destruction of animal bodies, Cobb writes about albatrosses exterminated for “feathers, which sold as ‘swan’s down’ . . . a visitor to Midway in 1902 found great heaps, waist high, of albatross that had been killed with clubs, their wing and breast feathers stripped.” She recounts the extinction of two species of sea snail whose mucus was used to make dye, “evidence still exists of the ancient frenzy for purple: smashed shells several feet thick cover the beaches around modern-day Tyre.” Cobb’s narratives about human massacres of animals occur in parallel with narratives about human massacres of other humans, whether slowly from cancer like the communities near “cracking” plants or quickly after a bomb is dropped. This juxtaposition seems to indicate that both occurrences stem from the same impulses, the same sources: that cultures like our own are “built and organized around the notion that certain lives are disposable” and that the “longing” or “lust” for material wealth or profit is more important than certain types of lives—both human and animal. As author and individual, Cobb continually reflects on her position and positioning in the book’s narrative and the greater world, with a clear backdrop against the climate: “I flew, once again, 2,592 miles across the Pacific, blasting out planet-warming gases as I went. This visit marked my place in a long lineage: white settlers imbued with authority to speak as protectors and defenders of the ecologies they helped wreck.” Her only true “power is this: to practice ‘hauntology.’ To embody and record our pained entanglements. To imagine this reality and remember—re-member—possible futures.” In the re/membering, she attempts to answer a central question: I wanted it [the plastic Honda part] to the speak to me. I wanted it to tell me something about how to live. How to live now, on this planet, in this real life, as a member of the human species. I wanted it to tell me what to do. What to do about being alive in a dying world. Where being alive is monstrous. Where the terms of every breath seem to be death. It’s a question I’ve asked myself many times, how to live now, as a member of the human species. This book is part of the answer; it contains apologies, testimonies, stories of friendship, love, art-making, and community-making, while still acknowledging our placement in these events and histories, our complicity, our existence on this world we’ve wounded that still somehow sustains us. Tracy Zeman’s first book, Empire, recently won the New Measure Poetry Prize from Free Verse Editions. Her poems, essays and book reviews have appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Cincinnati Review, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and others. She lives outside Detroit, Michigan, with her husband and daughter, where she hikes and birds watches in all seasons.