Entre Ríos Books recently published “The After,” a new poem by Melinda Mueller, a member of the Seattle Academy science faculty, who is a trained biologist and an accomplished author. This poem explores the future of Earth after humans have so dramatically altered it.
When I asked Melinda which of her works has been her favorite, she responded, “That would have to be ‘What The Ice Gets.’ I love the story it’s written about. It is a story I’ve known since I was in grade school. I’ve always loved it.”
“What The Ice Gets: Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition” is Melinda Mueller’s most recent published work before “The After.” It tells the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s adventure across the arctic in a series of historically accurate poems about his crew and himself, and their struggle to explore the arctic. “What The Ice Gets” earned a 2001 Washington State Book Award and later an American Library Notable Books Award for Poetry in 2002.
Mueller’s other works include “Private Gallery” (Seal Press, 1976), “Asleep in Another Country” (Jawbone Press, 1979), and “Apocrypha” (Grey Spider Press, 1988).
For “The After,” Mueller collaborated with Alaskan illustrative artist Karinna Gomez and the local Seattle Experimental Jazz duo The Syrinx Effect (Kate Olsen and Naomi Siegel). Mueller wrote the book solo, but was introduced to her collaborators by Publisher Knox Gardner.
“What Knox is really interested in publishing are books that are either collaborative from the beginning or that have some artwork to which the writer responds (or vice versa),” Melinda said. “We found an artist whose work we loved and we approached her.” Gomez had previously created some stunning illustrations that are now included in Mueller’s book.
The Syrinx Effect created a background track to the poem, titled “Song for Dead Sparrows.” This track is recorded on a CD and included with the book. Mueller and Knox decided to extend this CD. “Knox said if we’re going to have music we have to have a CD in the book” Melinda said, so they added a recording of her reading the book. Cornell University allowed them to use a track of the birdcall of the now extinct Dusky Seaside Sparrow to match the haunting theme of extinction in “Song for Dead Sparrows.”
To complement the book/illustration/audio piece, the inner cover pages are covered in the names of endangered bird species in almost illegibly small font.
Mueller said she began thinking about the idea for this book back in 1985 while on a class retreat with her students on the Oregon Coast. She describes the moment of inspiration in detail, “One evening we were sitting out just after sunset on the beach, full moon behind us rising, stars like crazy above us. But way out at sea in front of us there was a huge thunderstorm… one of my students says to me, ‘Are there any other species that look at something like this and think about how beautiful it is?’” Mueller says she believes that may be one of the traits that make humans unique. She says it inspired her when her student suggested that perhaps humans are a “test for everything.”
Then, in spring of 2014, the poem came together and she wrote it within two weeks. Since then she has been revising and changing it. “The hook that I finally grabbed onto was we are having a great extinction,” Mueller said. “Extinction rates are exponentially greater than the norm today. But there has been, previous to now, evidence of six great extinctions where most of the life on earth becomes extinct and the remaining species continue to evolve. We are now having that level of extinction but this time we’re causing it.” Mueller titled her poem “The After” because it imagines what will happen after our extinction. She was trying to write about something that nobody could ever write about, because nobody will be there.
Mueller left me with a chilling statement: “If what my student said was true and we are the test for everything, then we’re failing. And if we don’t pass the test we’re going to be one of the extinct species.”
Melinda Mueller will be giving a reading and discussion of her poem on Nov 11 at Open Books Poetry Emporium in Wallingford at 7 PM.