Paperback, 50 pages
Reviewed by Elizabeth Kate Switaj
If, decades after our extinction, shreds of the documents that recorded what would eventually cause all our deaths survived, these texts might look like the fragments of Angela Hume’s The Middle. In this way, the book becomes both prophetic and deeply enmeshed in the present, as perhaps all true prophecies must be.
The notes at the end of this slim volume confirm the impression of the pieces’ sources. They come from EPA reports, Pediatrics, and www.extinctioncrisis.org. They contain various health and environmental findings or discussions of war and other types of violence. The effect of the fracturing of these documents in Hume’s book, in addition to the reference to the inevitable degradation of texts following the collapse of human society, is that certain phrases have the space on the page to unfold their full horrors in the imagination of the reader. In the first section—“fragments (one)”—for instance, appear the lines:
The left-flush phrase by itself is awful, especially as it follows on the page both “a violence” and “chlorpyrifos” (a broad-spectrum organophosphate insecticide). What harm we do now is not just for today or tomorrow but for the “long-term”; the white space that follows the expression emphasizes its openness. “Long-term” means that we do not know when it will end. Perhaps it never will end. And then the eye moves to the right and see the even greater horror. These are not “long-term / impacts” on a few people or a small place but for the whole population. Are we murdering ourselves or poisoning ourselves? Does it matter? Hume, also on the same page, gives us a phrase to describe both terms: “containers for brutal acts.” These containers prevent none of the harmful effects of the acts but merely hide them away.
The desire to ignore our own approaching mortality is why we, as Hume writes in the following section, “fragments (two),”
ask a name for
But these names, these containers, given space, leak. Hume asks us to read between them, to see what they cannot show us. She asks us to read with courage, and with urgency.
The insufficiency of words to tell us what dangers we face and their hiding of the horrors of late capitalist life are not inherent characteristics of language, however. If they were, we might ask what business Hume has adding to the mass of language and text already in existence. That language has been made an obfuscating force by corporate and governmental authorities becomes clear in the chapbook’s third section, “the middle” in which
1700 miles of energy security
crosses hundreds of bodies
That first right-flush phrase is governmental but supports corporate mining interests. It seems positive. We want security. We want energy. Hume, instead of only giving this phrase space to reveal its awfulness, reminds us that what is done in the name of “energy security” damages actual bodies. She might have said thousands (millions?) instead of hundreds.
bit open fluid pockets
She goes on to give us more fragments of what coal mining does,
foul(ing air water land
It can’t go on forever.
Angela Hume’s The Middle reminds us that we are in the middle of a story that began when humans became human and will end when the last human dies. She reminds us that
when the water
runs out the middle
She asks us to interrogate the language we use to hold the destruction of the environment, and humanity’s other acts of violence, at a distance from ourselves, and to question the language the powerful use to disguise how they encourage and engage in these terrible actions. She asks us to see how we are now from the perspective of the end, when only fragments of what we have said for ourselves survive—though of course, in that phase of the human story, there will be no one left to read them.
Elizabeth Kate Switaj is a Humanities Instructor at the College of the Marshall Islands and a Contributing Editor to Poets’ Quarterly. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Queen’s University Belfast and an M.F.A. in Poetics and Creative Writing from New College of California. Her first collection of poetry, Magdalene & the Mermaids, was published in 2009 by Paper Kite Press. Recent poems have appeared in UCity Review and Coldnoon. For more information visit