And What If I Spoke of Despair
And What If I Spoke of Despair
Ellen Bass's "And What If I Spoke of Despair" was first published in the Missouri Review in 2001, although it experienced a wider distribution with its 2002 publication in Bass's latest poetry collection, Mules of Love. Bass's poem discusses her despair over the actions of modern humans, including the destruction of the environment and genetic engineering, two factors that make her lose hope in the sanctity of humanity as a whole. In her poem, Bass cautions her readers to do their part to fight these issues. Bass wrote her poem at a time when environmentalism and genetic engineering were both hot topics in the media, often leading to polarized debates. Unlike most of Bass's nonfiction works, like The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (1988), this poem does not deal with the issue of child abuse. The poem does, however, address negative issues, like much of Bass's poetry and nonfiction. A current copy of the poem can be found in Mules of Love, which was published by BOA Editions, Ltd., as part of the American Poets Continuum Series, in 2002.
Bass was born on June 16, 1947, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Bass attended Goucher College, where she graduated magna cum laude in 1968 with her bachelor's degree. She pursued a master's degree at Boston University and graduated in 1970.
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From 1970–1974, Bass worked as an administrator at Project Place, a social service center in Boston. Bass has been teaching Writing About Our Lives workshops since 1974 in Santa Cruz, California. She also teaches nationally and internationally at writing conferences and universities.
In the early 1970s, Bass also began publishing her own and others' poetry. In 1973, she coedited (with Florence Howe) a collection of poems entitled No More Masks: An Anthology of Poems by Women. This collection included selections of Bass's own poetry, but she soon began to publish her own volumes, beginning with I'm Not Your Laughing Daughter, which was also published in 1973. Her other poetry collections include Of Separateness and Merging (1977), For Earthly Survival (1980), Our Stunning Harvest: Poems (1985) and Mules of Love (2002), which includes, "And What If I Spoke of Despair," a poem that was chosen for the 2002 Editor's Prize from the Missouri Review.
Bass is most known for her nonfiction works, such as The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (1988) and Beginning to Heal: A First Book for Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (1993), both of which she wrote with Laura Davis. These books, and others like it, have helped countless survivors come to terms with their painful pasts and move on with their lives.
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"And What If I Spoke of Despair" begins with the titular question: "And what if I spoke of despair—who doesn't / feel it?" Immediately, readers are engaged, because the poet is implying that everybody, including her readers, feels despair. In the second through sixth lines, she uses a long sentence to go into more detail about the physical effects of despair on people. The poet uses the phrase "Who doesn't know the way it seizes," to underscore her belief that everybody feels despair at some point or another. Likewise, by noting the blood sloshing through "our" veins, she attributes the rush of blood—the physical side effect of an increased heart rate, one of the side effects of many powerful emotions such as fear or despair—to the community at large. At the same time, the poet is careful to note that, while everybody feels despair, there is no comfort in this fact; grief is still very much a "personal" experience. Having defined her belief that despair effects everybody, although in individual ways, the poet now hooks the reader with a very odd statement that starts in the last half of line six and continues through until line eight.
The statement, "It's beauty / that brings it on, calls it out from the wings / for one more song," seems out of place. Bass is deliberately trying to disorient her readers. In the previous lines, she has introduced the idea of despair and grief, so one might expect that the rest of the poem is going to be a dark poem, filled with negative images. Bass takes the exact opposite approach, however. She says that the beauty of nature brings on her personal despair. She notes a very pastoral, natural image, "Rain / pooled on a fallen oak leaf." The pooled rain creates a mirror, in which the poet can see a reflection of a cloudy sky, an image that implies an uncertain future. At this point, Bass still has not explained why these beautiful images of nature make her grieve.
Over the next few lines, Bass continues this trend of providing a natural image, yet does not explain why this brings her pain. She talks about "the red moon / in September," which is so massive and awe-inspiring that people feel compelled to stop their cars and get out and look at it. Following this image, at the end of line thirteen and into the next line, Bass switches gears somewhat, with the phrase: "like a photo / of a lover in his uniform, not yet gone." The reader starts to get an indication of why natural images are bringing the poet grief. The hypothetical photo of the soldier in uniform, and the observation that he is "not yet gone," implies that someday he will be. Military service can be a dangerous job, and the poet is noting that even though the lover is alive in her hypothetical photo, he may someday live on only in the photo. In the same way, the poet is implying that someday natural phenomena might only be as alive as the images in a photo.
Although the poet is giving some indication that she is worried over the future life of nature, she has not yet explained why exactly she is concerned. At the beginning of line fifteen, the poet once again turns the discussion from the global, general images of nature, to the specific life of the reader. She says "or your own self, as a child," encouraging each reader to remember back to his or her own childhood. The poet draws on an image that many of her readers will identify with, a family day on the beach. The scene she draws is one of peace and innocence, of a child falling asleep in the sun, without a care in the world.
At the beginning of line twenty, however, the poet brings the reader back from this happy memory into the present. It is at this point that the poet confronts the reader directly, "That's when you can't deny it." The poet talks about the fact that elements like water and air are still in existence, and equates these natural elements with a mother's nurturing, which she expresses in simple images: "sweeping hair off our brow, her scent / swirling around us." This underscores the family image that she already used of a child at the beach. Up until now, Bass has combined beautiful images of nature with an increasing sense of doom but has not explained why people should be concerned. In the middle of line twenty-three, however, the poet notes that the child, humanity, is destroying its mother, nature. Ultimately, humanity's pollution, such as the kind created by automobiles, could destroy Mother Nature's ability to nurture. Bass holds all humanity responsible, including the readers: "But now your own / car is pumping poison, delivering its fair / share of destruction." In the middle of line twenty-five, the poet begins to discuss genetic engineering, another factor that she says is destroying nature.
She starts by talking about a salmon that has been genetically engineered "with the red, white, and blue shining on one side." The colors refer to the colors of the American flag. Bass is noting the fact that when countries begin genetic engineering, they take ownership of nature and could start literally modifying natural organisms like fish to display a symbol of ownership, in this case the American flag. While Bass feels this is bad enough, in line twenty-seven, Bass notes that genetic engineering sometimes crosses even more profound natural boundaries, such as the boundary between plant and animal—as in the case of "Frog genes spliced into tomatoes." Bass sees this as an affront to the tomato, which she says has been "humiliated enough." Readers might wonder what Bass means by this statement. Most likely, the poet is referring to various genetic experiments on tomatoes that took place around the turn of the twenty-first century, when Bass wrote the poem.
In line twenty-nine, Bass uses the idea of genetic engineering to segue into the threat of nuclear war: "I heard a man argue that genetic / engineering was more dangerous / than a nuclear bomb." Through another question, presumably directed at the reader, Bass wonders about the implications of this argument: "Should I be thankful / he was alarmed by one threat, or worried / he'd gotten used to the other?" Bass is noting the fact that the threat of nuclear warfare, while still a threat, has been around for six decades, since the end of World War II ushered in the atomic age. This has given many people time to get used to it. The widespread discussion and use of genetic engineering, however, is relatively new. So for many it can be perceived as more of a threat, because people are not used to it yet. Bass's question also implies, in a subtle way, that if genetic engineering is allowed to continue, perhaps someday people will get used to this, too. At the end of line thirty-three, Bass shifts gears one last time.
For these remaining nine lines, Bass acknowledges that she has reason to lose hope that these issues will be resolved: "Maybe I can't / offer you any more than you can offer me." In other words, Bass is saying that she does not have any solutions to offer the reader, and the reader most likely does not have any solutions to offer her. Yet, Bass is defiant and refuses to just sit and do nothing. Her way of coping with the problems addressed in the poem is to confront her despair directly. In this final, extended image, the poet stands in a very natural setting, "on the trail, with shreds / of manzanita bark lying in russet scrolls / and yellow bay leaves." In this setting, the poet embraces despair as she has her own children. Just as she sometimes held her children even when it was unnecessary to hold them, the poet acknowledges that embracing despair is an unnecessary act because it probably will not change anything.
As the title indicates, the poet is mainly discussing despair, which is a profound and total loss of hope. In the beginning of the poem, Bass describes the physical effects of despair, the sudden rush of blood through a person's veins when they begin to feel this powerful emotion, the way that despair "seizes, / leaving us limp." Following this introduction, Bass gives readers several examples that explain why she is losing hope. She cites several natural items, such as rain, sky, leaves, and sand, drawing the reader into the natural world. She also talks about lost loved ones, or at least the potential for lost loved ones, by invoking a hypothetical "photo / of a lover in his uniform, not yet gone." This draws the reader into the human world. Throughout the poem, Bass warms her readers up to both of these worlds, invoking ideas with which most readers can identify, such as a family day at the beach, where "you fell asleep with sand / in the crack of your smooth behind." Bass speaks about the natural and human worlds in ways that imply they may not exist, at least in their present forms, someday. Over the course of the poem, Bass reveals that her despair is generated from the fact that the purity of nature and the sanctity of humanity, two things in which she believes deeply, are being compromised in various ways.
The first major way that nature is being destroyed is through pollution. The example she cites is air pollution: "But now your own / car is pumping poison, delivering its fair / share of destruction." Air pollution results from the release of certain chemicals into the air. One of the most common is the release of carbon monoxide, which is a by-product from the use of internal combustion engines found in many vehicles. This is a form of pollution that many people, including Bass's readers, help to create. Air pollution is not the only environmentally destructive thing that humanity creates, but it is the only one mentioned in the poem. This is intentional on Bass's part. Generally speaking, poets aim to utilize as little space as possible to convey their meaning to the reader. Each word has a purpose, and extraneous words or lines are ruthlessly cut, so that the poem can be tightly constructed and have the most impact. Bass realizes that discussions of environmental destruction are generally not limited to one issue, such as air pollution. Like the Earth's ecosystem, many aspects of environmentalism are interconnected, and it is difficult to discuss one environmental issue without getting into other related issues. Bass could have filled this section of her poem with several examples of environmental destruction to get her point across. Yet, this is unnecessary, because most of her audience will understand that air pollution from cars is not the only issue that threatens to destroy the environment.
Genetic engineering, on the other hand, is relatively new, so Bass feels compelled to give more than one example. Although some of Bass's audience may be familiar with the various genetic experiments that are being performed these days, they might not realize the extent to which genetics is being used to modify animals and plants. For this reason, Bass gives one example of each. The first example, a "salmon / with the red, white, and blue shining on one side," demonstrates the sometimes ludicrous applications that humans have for science. Genetic engineering gives humanity the power to change nature any way it wants, in theory at least, and Bass notes that this power is being used in frivolous ways—such as creating signs of ownership like the American flag.
In her second example, which addresses genetically modified food, Bass paints a Frankensteinlike picture of weird experiments involving mismatched parts—in this case "Frog genes spliced into tomatoes." Nature would never create this combination, and Bass is saying that since humanity is doing this, it is threatening the purity of both nature and humanity. Although the poem only directly addresses the genetic engineering of fish and tomatoes, the unspoken fear is that this tampering might eventually lead to tampering with or cloning of human genes. This is why Bass cites one man's argument that genetic engineering is "more dangerous / than a nuclear bomb." While a nuclear bomb can kill an immense number of people, it has only the power to destroy. Some people believe this is secondary to the effects of genetic engineering, which can change humanity itself at the genetic level.
Topics for Further Study
- Read through magazines, newspapers, or other media sources to research the major issues in the debate over human cloning. Plot the pros and cons of these issues on a board, citing at least one media source for each pro and con.
- Imagine that it is a time in the future and you are the world's first human clone. Write a short journal entry that describes what your life is like on a typical day. Be creative and try to incorporate situations that only a human clone would face.
- Research the pros and cons of genetically modified foods. Pick one major associated issue (ethical, political, medical, etc.) and use that issue to write and deliver a speech that explains why you are either for or against genetically modified foods. Use whatever support you can find to make your case and provide supplementary photos, charts, or other graphics, if possible.
- Research the state of environmentalism today and compare it to the state of environmentalism in the late 1980s, in the period following the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Research and discuss the effectiveness of environmentally motivated efforts such as recycling and paperwork reduction.
- Research the various processes that are required to create nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, as well as which countries have the most of these weapons. Create a board that lists all of these weapons. For each one, include a capsule description of the weapon and list the five countries who possess the largest amounts of these weapons.
One of the reasons that Bass's poem works so well is her use of powerful imagery that is both positive and negative. The poem begins with a negative image of the effects of despair that cause many to be deafened "by the slosh / of our own blood." The imagery soon turns positive, however, when Bass says "It's beauty" that evokes her despair. At this cue, Bass switches gears and gives the reader several positive images of natural and human beauty. Bass paints natural pictures such as "Rain / pooled on a fallen oak leaf," a sublime September moon, and even the image of her readers in childhood, frolicking at the beach, unaware of anything bad. Because the poet goes to such great lengths to show the good things about nature and humanity, these images give the poem more impact when it turns dark. The images ultimately work as an emotional hook to grab the reader, because the poet's argument, revealed over time through the poem, is that these pretty pictures might not exist in the future if current trends in environmental destruction and genetic engineering continue. At the end of the poem, these two image systems, negative and positive, combine in one final, powerful image of the poet embracing her despair even as she stands among the source of it—the beautiful nature that she fears will someday be destroyed or altered beyond recognition.
Besides imagery, Bass also relies on personification to explain the depths of her despair. Personification is a technique by which the poet ascribes human qualities to nonhuman objects or ideas. When she first introduces the beautiful nature that she is afraid of losing, Bass talks about it as if it is alive in the human sense: "It's beauty / that brings it on, calls it out from the wings / for one more song." Beauty is an intangible concept. It has no physical form, so it cannot actually call out. In the poet's world, however, beauty becomes a living thing, calling out despair, which in turn sings its mournful song. This is another use of personification, since despair is also an intangible concept that could not literally sing in the real world.
Bass uses other examples of personification in the poem, such as the "humiliated" tomato. The most notable use of personification, however, is the depiction of nature as a human mother. People use the term Mother Nature frequently, as a respectful way of referring to the natural world that has supported humankind since its inception. In this poem, however, Bass is giving Mother Nature actual, mother-like qualities, once again in the human sense. The water and air that the poet references act like a nurturing human mother, "sweeping hair off our brow." Bass's purpose for this soon becomes clear. By making nature a living, humanlike thing, the effect is stronger when the poet talks about humanity killing it. Humans destroy plants, animals, and other agents of nature on a routine basis, and many do not notice. The loss of human life, however, is more likely to elicit an emotional response. Because of this, when Bass talks about humanity's "mother" being poisoned by air pollution, it seems like even more of a tragedy.
Although environmentalism had existed in one form or another for centuries, environmental consciousness as we know it today did not happen until the late 1980s and early 1990s, thanks in large part to a number of high-profile environmental incidents. In 1985, French government agents sank the Rainbow Warrior, the flagship of the nonviolent, environmental pressure group, Greenpeace, in Auckland Harbor, New Zealand. The same year, British meteorologists confirmed their earlier suspicion that humans' use of certain chemicals had created a hole in Earth's ozone layer over Antarctica. The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill, however, was the incident that really galvanized the public. On March 24, the tanker crashed into an underwater reef, dumping more than ten million gallons of oil into the pristine waters of Alaska's Prince William Sound. Shortly after this accident, the media began to cover all environmental issues, including pollution, deforestation, acid rain, the widespread use of landfills and incinerators, over-population, and wildlife extinction. This trend continued off and on throughout the 1990s, sparking an interest in recycling and other ecologically friendly methods that many consumers tried. Although environmentalism was still active by the time Bass wrote her poem in 2001, the world was beginning to turn its attention to more pressing issues, the most prominent being the new war against terrorism.
Genetically Modified Food
The 1997 announcement of the birth of Dolly the sheep, the first adult mammal clone, sparked a wealth of debates about cloning, as well as genetic engineering in general. By the time Bass wrote her poem, one of the most heated debates was about the use of genetic engineering to modify foods. A massive protest movement began in Great Britain and spread to the rest of Europe and the United States at the turn of the twenty-first century. Proponents of genetically modified (GM) foods claimed that crops could be made that were resistant to attacks by insects. They also stated that they could genetically engineer crops that included vaccines, which could in turn help fight diseases like hepatitis B. Opponents claimed that scientists were tampering too much with nature and that researchers could not possibly predict all of the potential consequences of such measures. Many people were also concerned about the commercialization of engineered crops. Large firms in the United States bought up many varieties of seeds, and some speculated that in the future the world's crops could be owned by a few companies who would determine the fate of much of the world's food supply.
Despite the controversy, scientists continued to study and implement new genetic methods. In 2001, researchers at Cornell University identified a gene in tomato plants that helps to determine the size of the tomato fruit. This landmark discovery caused some to speculate that crops in the future might be engineered to larger, previously unattainable sizes. Proponents of genetically modified foods say that larger fruits could be used to help wipe out starvation on a global level, since each fruit could feed more people.
One searches in vain for criticism on Bass's "And What If I Spoke of Despair" or any of her poetry, for that matter. The most likely reason for this is that Bass is known mostly for her self-help books designed to help childhood survivors of sexual abuse, the most famous of which is The Courage to Heal (1988). Bass has also written Free Your Mind: The Book for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Youth (1996), a book designed to guide gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth through sexual-identity issues. "And What If I Spoke of Despair," while different in theme than most of Bass's other works, still deals with negative issues—the destruction of the environment and genetic engineering, as opposed to child abuse.
Ryan D. Poquette
Poquette has a bachelor's degree in English and specializes in writing about literature. In the following essay, Poquette discusses Bass's use of opposites, symbolism, and metaphor in her poem.
Throughout history, poets have often written elegies—mournful, sorrowful poetry that expresses despair over something that is gone, generally something that was once living and is now dead. In most cases, the poet writes about a person or group of people that have passed away. Bass's poem is slightly different. Her elegy mourns the loss of nature itself, which is being altered by human intervention through processes such as environmental destruction and genetic engineering. Since her poem is mourning the loss of something, it does not differ in a basic sense from any other elegy. Bass's poem does have one huge difference, however. Her poem is an elegy for something that is not yet dead. As she is writing her poem, nature is still alive. Bass's point is that it will not be alive, or at least will not be alive in the same form, if current human interventions continue in the future. Bass uses several techniques to convince her readers to mourn the loss of something that is not yet gone, including juxtaposition of opposites and the use of symbolism and metaphor.
Bass's poem employs several techniques to give it a powerful effect. The first of these, and the technique that gives the poem its overall structure, is the juxtaposition of opposites. Throughout the poem, Bass bounces back and forth from positive to negative images and ideas, beginning with the overall negative idea of despair itself. Despair is a monumental feeling that affects everybody, as Bass notes when she says "who doesn't / feel it?" While despair affects everybody, it also does so in ways that are unique to each person. Although each person feels the same rushing of blood that is the physical side effect of powerful emotions like despair, Bass says that this blood rushes "through the narrow, personal / channels of grief." This image of personal grief only lasts for the first six lines.
At this point, Bass juxtaposes the negative image of despair with the positive image of beauty: "It's beauty / that brings it on, calls it out from the wings / for one more song." Here, Bass identifies several positive images of nature, such as rain, which pools "on a fallen oak leaf." She also reflects on the image of a beautiful September moon. Yet, even in the midst of these positive images, she carries the thread of negativity. For example, while the rain on the leaf is beautiful, it also reflects "the pale cloudy sky." The cloudy sky implies an uncertain future; it might rain again or it might not. Images like this draw on both the positive and negative feelings that the poet is trying to convey. Bass also uses this juxtaposition technique in her discussion of the September moon, which she says people are drawn to stare at, "like a photo / of a lover in his uniform, not yet gone." While the image of the beautiful red moon is inherently positive, the photo of the soldier has negative implications, namely of the possibility of the soldier's death. People who sign up for or are drafted into military service recognize that there is always the chance they might not return from fighting. By using a photo of a loved one in uniform, an inherently positive image, and juxtaposing this image with the possibility of the soldier's death, Bass once again carries the thread of negativity, albeit in a subtle sense.
This juxtaposition continues throughout the poem in several ways. Bass juxtaposes a pleasant image of a happy childhood day at the beach "on that day your family stayed / at the sea, watching the sun drift down" with the direct address to the reader: "That's when you can't deny it." This abrupt switch from a dream-like memory to an accusation-style directive produces a negative feeling in the reader, which only continues as the poem juxtaposes a living Mother Earth with the human-produced poisons that are killing her, salmon that have been genetically enhanced to display signs of ownership, and tomatoes that have been crossed with frogs.
In addition to juxtaposing these images and ideas, Bass also chooses her words very carefully, in many cases selecting words and phrases that have symbolic meanings. A symbol is a physical object, action, or gesture that also represents an abstract concept, without losing its original identity. Symbols appear in literature in one of two ways. They can be local symbols, meaning that their symbolism is only relevant within a specific literary work. They can also be universal symbols, meaning that their symbolism is based on traditional associations that are widely recognized, regardless of context. The poem relies on the latter type. Early in the poem, Bass uses the image of blood rushing through a person's veins to indicate the physical effects of despair, as noted above. There is a second purpose, however. Blood is a universal symbol that is often used to denote violence. Many of the negative images that Bass goes on to describe in the poem—such as the air pollution—imply violence, at least indirectly. The pollution is destructive, and is killing Mother Earth, just as a "nuclear bomb" has drastic and violent effects on the Earth. Even genetic engineering is considered dangerous because it disrupts the natural order of things. All of these are human inventions. Humans in general are often described as destructive animals, so Bass's use of the blood symbol is an effective, if subtle, way to underscore the theme of human-induced destruction.
Other potent symbols in the poem include childhood. Children, and childhood in general, is often a symbol for innocence, since most children are not aware of, nor understand, the various negative aspects of humanity. The example that Bass uses of the child at the beach underscores this idea of the innocence of childhood: "watching the sun drift down, / lazy as a beach ball, and you fell asleep with sand / in the crack of your smooth behind." The image is one of peace. The child does not have a care in the world and so can drift off to sleep with no worries. Even the use of the word "smooth" denotes the difference between children, whose smooth skin is a universal sign of youth, and adults, who become more wrinkled and haggard over time.
This symbol is ultimately not positive. While many poets have talked about the positive aspects of childhood, in this poem childhood, like the beauty of nature, is a negative thing because it indicates something positive that is gone. Bass's readers are no longer children. They can no longer simply fall asleep on a beach without a care in the world; they must face the negative issues of humanity. Likewise, Mother Nature is changing. The various forms of pollution will have an effect on her, changing her appearance just as time marks the smooth skin of a baby with wrinkles. Unlike the human process of aging, however, the destruction of the Earth's environment is not natural and could be prevented.
It is this realization that leads to the most powerful image in the poem. She "cradled despair / in my arms, the way I held my own babies." A metaphor is a technique where the poet gives an object a secondary meaning that does not normally belong to it. Bass does not literally mean that despair is one of her children, a situation that is physically impossible in the real world. Metaphorically speaking, however, and within the context of the poem, Bass does embrace her despair like she would one of her babies. The idea of cradling a negative emotion like despair is strange and sets up a compelling image for readers. This is especially true, since cradling is a protective gesture, and is generally considered a positive thing. As Bass notes, this maternal, protective instinct is hard to shut off sometimes. She remembers back to the time when she "held my own babies / after they'd fallen asleep, when there was no / reason to hold them." Despite the fact that the gesture was unnecessary, Bass notes that she "didn't want to put them down." Likewise, Bass feels the same way about her despair.
This idea, ultimately, leads to Bass's main point. She recognizes that there is probably nothing she, or any one person, can do to reverse the trends of environmental destruction, genetic engineering, and other human factors that are destroying nature and humanity as she knows it. Yet, she refuses to let her despair go and move on with her life. Holding on to these powerful emotions is the lesser of two negative choices. For the poet, it is better to mourn the future loss of nature and humanity, even if her suffering has no effect on a global scale, than to put her emotions aside and perhaps become as barren as life itself may be in the future.
Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on "And What If I Spoke of Despair," in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2003.
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature. In this essay, Aubrey discusses the poet's protest against genetic engineering.
Bass's "And What If I Spoke of Despair" is a poem of passive protest. The poet sets appreciation of nature and her memories of childhood innocence against the ugly fact of environmental degradation caused by human activities. The despair the speaker feels is because she apparently sees no way of preventing or reversing the threat to the human environment. Instead of pursuing action to remedy the situation, the speaker concludes by turning her mind in on itself, examining the feeling of despair and musing over what attitude to adopt to it.
The poem mentions two man-made disruptions of the beauty of nature that the poet sees in phenomena, such as rain gathered on a fallen oak leaf or a full moon in September. The first is the pollution caused by the gasoline-powered automobile, "pumping poison, delivering its fair / share of destruction." The pollution caused by automobiles is due to the carbon dioxide they emit, which is one of the chief causes of the phenomenon of global warming. Although the causes of global warming have long been known, the world community has still to take effective measures to combat it. Bass brings the problem home to the reader in a personal way by saying it is "your own car" that is doing the poisoning (by which she means herself, but the reader feels the jab too). In other words, the polluting is not something that is being done to people against their will or unbeknownst to them by some large corporation that can be conveniently demonized; ordinary citizens are doing it themselves.
The pollution caused by the automobile is a well-known fact. Less well known is the second target of the poet, to which Bass devotes much more space. This is the genetic engineering (GE) of food crops, fish, and animals that has become widespread since the mid-1990s.
Genetic engineering is the process by which scientists, using what are called recombinant DNA techniques, alter the genes of an organism. Genes carry the information that specifies the structures of an organism. When genes are individually manipulated, it is possible to cross the species barrier and create organisms that are not found in nature. The ostensible purpose is to make the food more useful or convenient for humans. For example, in genetic engineering, genes from arctic flounder, which give the flounder its "antifreeze" qualities, are spliced into a tomato so that the tomato is able to withstand cold temperatures and avoid frost damage.
Being forced to accommodate the genes of a fish was not the first indignity to be suffered by the "humiliated" tomato of the poem. The tomato was also the first food to be genetically engineered and sold to consumers. This was in the form of the Flavr Savr tomato, made by Calgene, that had been engineered to stay firm for longer, thus acquiring a longer shelf life. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved it for sale in 1994. The Flavr Savr tomato was a commercial failure, however, since consumers resisted the idea of a genetically engineered product. It was withdrawn from the market in 1996.
Critics of genetic engineering claim that foods produced by use of recombinant DNA techniques may not be safe and may also damage the environment. A case in point, as highlighted in the poem, is that of salmon. By the use of foreign growth hormone genes, select salmon have been genetically engineered to grow to market size in half the time it takes normal salmon. Some ecologists fear that such salmon (which have not yet been approved by the FDA for human consumption) will escape from fish farms and mix with the wild salmon population. The ecological effects this might produce are unknown. A study at Purdue University concluded that genetically engineered salmon could eradicate natural populations of wild fish. This is because the genetically engineered male salmon would be larger at sexual maturity and would thereby attract more mates, and so would quickly spread the genetically engineered characteristics to wild populations.
The attempt to create GE salmon has already had unwanted effects. According to a report by the Associated Press in 2000 (referred to in Cummins and Lilleston's Genetically Engineered Food), one company in New Zealand decided to discontinue its interest in GE salmon because of fear of where the technology could lead. Some of the salmon had deformed heads and other abnormalities.
Bearing in mind this and other concerns about the ecological effects, still untested and unknown, that GE organisms may have, the immense ramifications of genetic engineering can be readily understood. As Suzanne Wuerthele (quoted in Cummins and Lilleston), a toxicologist with the Environmental Protection Agency, said in 2000, "This is probably one of the most technologically powerful developments the world has ever seen. It's the biological equivalent of splitting the atom." This explains Bass's comments in the poem that she heard a man say that genetic engineering is "more dangerous / than a nuclear bomb."
What Do I Read Next?
- Over the past two decades, Bass's The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (1988), written with Laura Davis, has become one of the standard self-help works for abuse survivors.
- Bass's first nonfiction book is a collection of writings by women survivors of abuse: I Never Told Anyone: Writings by Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (co-edited with Louise Thornton).
- The end of the world, by man-made or natural disasters, has been a favorite topic of science fiction writers for the last century. In Bangs and Whimpers: Stories about the End of the World (1999), editor James Frenkel collects nineteen apocalyptic tales by noted authors, including Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Connie Willis, and Robert Heinlein.
- Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) is a nightmarish vision of what could happen in the future if politics and genetic technology supersede humanity. Huxley's novel depicts a futuristic, "ideal" world where there is no sickness, disease, or war. However, to achieve this ideal, people are mass-produced in test tubes and social classes are created through genetic manipulations that predetermine a person's intelligence and body type.
- Henry David Thoreau's Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854), which is a collection of essays, chronicles Thoreau's attempts to get away from human civilization by living on his own in the woods. Today, the book is generally known by the shorter name of Walden.
What drives the recent explosion of genetically engineered products, advocates say, is a desire to grow better food and to solve the world's food problem. Opponents say it is really about over-enthusiastic scientific experimentation allied with the desire for corporate profits. The salmon in the poem is red, white, and blue—not literally, but because it has been patented in the United States by the company that developed it. Virtually all genetically engineered foods, even though the companies that create them are often multinational, have been granted U.S. patents. A patent gives the owner the exclusive right to an invention and any profit that accrues from it. Patents on living organisms have been allowed since a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1980. The patenting of a product, whether animal, plant, or seed, allows the companies concerned to reap a speedy return on the massive investments they put into the development of genetically engineered organisms.
The idea that living organisms can be patented by profit-driven private corporations is disturbing to many people. How can life be "owned" in this way, they argue. Add to this the fear that genetic engineering is in any case a violation of the integrity of nature, and the impulse that drives "And What If I Spoke of Despair" becomes clear. Nature is no longer nature as it came fresh from God's hands, with inviolable barriers placed between species, but a man-made jumble, created out of partial, highly fallible scientific knowledge that could cause irreversible damage to the fragile, interdependent ecosphere that humans share with all other life. Once a genetically engineered organism is released into the environment, for good or ill, it can never be recalled.
So, the speaker in Bass's poem feels despair, and she feels it, the poem hints, not just for herself but also for the young, who must live with the legacy of the previous generation's mistakes. The images of childhood innocence—children playing in the sand, babies sleeping in the arms of their mother—add poignancy to the poet's belief that nature, which has sustained humanity throughout its existence as a species, has now become the victim of the humans it nourishes. It is as if the child has turned on the mother and forgotten its filial obligations. This analogy is suggested by the recurring tender images of human mother and child. These serve as an ironic commentary on the ruptured relationship between Mother Nature and her human children, which has been violated by the carelessness and selfishness of the child.
The speaker's despair at humanity's arrogance and foolishness is not, many would say, surprising. She is not the first and will not be the last to feel that way. What is perhaps surprising is her unusually passive, contemplative reaction to the ills she depicts. Many people who feel the way she appears to feel take courage from action. They actively oppose what they believe is wrong and encourage others to do so as well. The poet's attitude is quite different. She ceases, it seems, to think further about what Mother Nature suffers at the hands of her children and returns to an exploration of the feeling of despair with which the poem began. Rather than examining the reasons why despair has appeared in her life, she contemplates the feeling as an object in itself. She seems to be weighing different ways of dealing with this emotion, exploring what it really might be and what possibilities lie within it. The emphasis has shifted from the outer world, with its hopeless rash of insoluble problems, to the inner world, full of mysterious possibilities. The speaker wonders what would happen if she were to embrace the feeling of despair as if it were something to be loved and cherished. She imagines a situation in which, surrounded by examples of nature's own beauty, she might "cradle" despair. This at first seems a curiously passive way to end a poem that has expressed such a keen awareness of social and environmental problems. One might perhaps call it a fatalistic or pessimistic attitude. It is as if, renouncing all hope, a condemned prisoner has attained a state of calm: nothing can be done, so the inevitable fate must be embraced.
It may also be much more than this. The last eight lines of the poem hint at the speaker's readiness to explore a counterintuitive method of dealing with a negative, strength-sapping emotion such as despair. Rather than fighting against it, which is the normal human instinct, the poet suggests accepting it. Perhaps the belief that informs the poet at this point is that to fight against an emotion only has the effect of making it stronger; to accept it lessens its grip. Embracing despair rather than running from it therefore offers, paradoxically, a way beyond it. At least this is what the speaker seems to envision, although she does not actually take the proposed step. Her thought remains at the stage of "what if"—an approach contemplated but not yet taken. She clearly hopes, at some level of her being, that like a fairy tale in which the feared monster turns into a charming prince, the emotion she experiences as despair may turn out to be, once known and welcomed, no more substantial than a cloud that temporarily hides the sun. For there is no doubt that this poem that begins in despair ends with a startling image of serenity and happiness.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on "And What If I Spoke of Despair," in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2003.
Bass, Ellen, "And What If I Spoke of Despair," in Mules of Love, BOA Editions, 2002, pp. 78–79.
Cummins, Ronnie, and Benn Lilleston, Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers, Marlowe, 2000, pp. 17, 59.
Steinberg, Mark L., and Sharon D. Cosloy, The Facts on File Dictionary of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering, rev. ed., Checkmark Books, 2001.
Yoon, C. K., "Altered Salmon Leading Way to Dinner Plates, but Rules Lag," in the New York Times, May 1, 2000, p. A1.
McGee, Glenn, ed., The Human Cloning Debate, 3d ed., Berkeley Hills Books, 2002.
First published after the 1997 cloning of the sheep Dolly, this updated collection of essays outlines the major ethical issues involved in human cloning. It also gives a comprehensive overview, in layperson's terms, of the science involved in cloning.
Nader, Ralph, and Martin Teitel, Genetically Engineered Food: Changing the Nature of Nature, 2d ed., Inner Traditions International, 2001.
Nader, a well-known environmentalist and Green Party political candidate, and Teitel give a thorough overview of how food is genetically engineered. The authors also examine the potential ethical and environmental consequences of genetically engineered food.
Schor, Juliet, and Betsy Taylor, eds., Sustainable Planet: Solutions for the Twenty-First Century, Beacon Press, 2003.
Schor and Taylor, both involved administratively with the Center for a New American Dream (CNAD), compile sixteen essays from a variety of environmental commentators. The mission of CNAD is to protect the environment, enhance the quality of life, and promote social justice. Each essay offers suggestions for how to achieve this goal.
Stock, Gregory, Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future, Houghton Mifflin, 2002.
Stock is the director of the Program of Medicine, Technology and Society for the School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. In this book, Stock discusses his belief that the same genetic engineering that is being used to redesign natural foods like tomatoes will also be used to redesign humans at the genetic level.