Dear Specimen: Poems (Paperback)
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A National Poetry Series winner, selected and with a foreword by Kwame Dawes.
A 5-part series of interwoven poems from a dying parent to her daughter, examining the human capacity for grief, culpability, and love, asking: do we as a species deserve to survive?
Dear Specimen opens with both its speaker and her planet in peril. In “Speak to Me,” she puzzles over a millipede, as if the blue rune of its body could help her understand her impending death and the crisis her species has created. Throughout the collection, poems addressed to specimens echo the speaker’s concern and amplify her wonderment. A catalog of our climate transgressions, Dear Specimen’s final poem foretells a future in which climate refugees overrun one of our planet’s last habitable places.
The collection’s lifeblood is a series of poems in which the speaker and her daughter express their concern for, and devotion to, one another. The daughter’s questions mirror the ones her mother asks of specimens: what are we meant to do with so much hazard and wonder? When the speaker hints at the climate crisis in a bedtime story she tells her grandson, we, too, feel the peril he may face.
Juxtaposing a profound sense of intimacy with the vastness of geological time, the collection offers a climate-conscious critique of the human species—our search for meaning and intimacy, our capacity for greed and destruction. Dear Specimen is an extended love letter and dire warning, not only to the daughter its speaker leaves behind but to all of us.
About the Author
W. J. Herbert’s work was awarded the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Prize and was selected by Natasha Trethewey for inclusion in Best American Poetry 2017. Her poetry, fiction, and reviews appear in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Atlantic, Hudson Review, Southwest Review, and elsewhere. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, she was raised in Southern California where she earned a bachelor’s in studio art and a master’s in flute performance. She lives in Kingston, New York, and Portland, Maine.
“Herbert writes movingly about a world of extinction, using the lenses of fossils and storytelling to create an involving worldview. . . . The writer’s gift for deep seeing elevates even the smallest of details. . . . In mostly short poems, Herbert describes a vibrant yet highly vulnerable world. . . . She breathes life into fossils, skeletons, and nature today, even our world in its current damaged state. A unique and thrilling collection that pulses with wonder; not to be missed.”
“These poems engage the most critical question humans have ever faced—and do it from the wellsprings of passion and grace that are the best thing about our species.”
—Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature
“Few cultural achievements are as gratifying to witness as, in W. J. Herbert’s Dear Specimen, a true, patient, and devoted practitioner of the craft of poetry vaulting into mastery, into the sort of inspired brilliance all poets long for, at least once in their lives. Flawlessly weaving together themes of personal tragedy and ecological crisis, Herbert says of the trilobite, in the context of deep drilling in the Permian Basin, ‘If we raise you, / no one can save us.’ Despite what Auden said of the practical utility of poetry, in these days of environmental lunacy, Dear Specimen is not only a welcome book but a necessary one.”
—B. H. Fairchild, author of The Blue Buick: New and Selected Poems
“No other way to say this: after reading Dear Specimen, I was stricken. I felt like my heart was breaking, because it was. But I also know this: if there is any consolation to be found in the acknowledgement of humanity’s crimes against the planet, such consolation will come to us through art like that of W. J. Herbert. Yes, the book will break your heart, because it beautifully, eloquently, and artfully enacts our common responsibility in the loss of the thing we all share and depend upon, the single thing no one can live without—our mother, Earth.”
—Robert Wrigley, author of Nemerov’s Door
“The persona who inspires W. J. Herbert’s debut volume, Dear Specimen, maintains a brave and plaintive voice as she records the signs of a dying planet and simultaneously faces her own imminent demise. Quietly fierce, her poems interweave personal loss with the decline of species diversity—yet they also reflect hope, awe, and a poignant yearning for human redemption. Not only a brilliant meditation on the ephemeral nature of mortality, Dear Specimen is also a soulful lament conveying a stark message: we, too, face extinction if we don’t act now to save Mother Earth. This tender and alarming volume may well be the most important book that you’ll read this year.”
—Maurya Simon, author of The Wilderness: New & Selected Poems