Problems of Place: Breath Under Threat, With and In the Absence of Iodine

In the reflections that follow, I briefly graze the work of Albert Saijo and Kaia Sand, two poets of place. I also offer a small glimpse into my own poetic practice in connection with environmental justice organizing and the profound necessity of breath. As an ecocritic, I am interested in the strategies poets employ to expand the terrain of environmental politics by doing away with unhelpful divisions, whether disciplinary, methodological, or based in genre. Expansive poetic practices can activate a collectivizing element—an uncommon sense—that opens into alliance-building and solidarity. 

In his recent retrospective on Freedom Dreams in the Boston Review, Robin D.G. Kelley notes that it will not suffice to imagine an oppression-free world. Rather, “we must also understand the mechanisms or processes that not only reproduce subjugation and exploitation but make them common sense and render them natural.” In both my creative and scholarly endeavors, I see poetry as a site for denaturalizing harmful forms of common sense. I am especially compelled by poets who help expose mechanisms and processes that mark yet exceed the particular, calling forth radical connection-forging activity based in establishing common cause across struggles for justice. Struggles, in a sense, for the right to breathe.

The act of breathing, fundamental though it may be, is a contingent one. As poet M. NourbeSe Philip puts it, “we begin life in a prepositional relationship with breath: someone breathes for us” and this contingent, prepositional relation accompanies us throughout our lives: “breathing for, with, instead of, into.”[1] A cardinal index of the unequal distribution of precarity, breath is easily compromised, and the physical, embodied realities that correspond with its contingent character tend to reflect a single, grim social logic based in racial capitalism and colonialism.

Lush yet insurgent, Albert Saijo’s posthumous collection Woodrat Flat (Tinfish, 2015) offers a structural diagnosis of the forms of domination that imperil our planetary (and atmospheric!) commons. Alongside his call for a “DIRECT ABSOLUTE DEMOCRACY OF NATURE,” Saijo provides a clarion assessment of how enclosure operates. “EVERY STATE IS A POLICE STATE,” he writes, sensitizing readers to the oppressive place-unmaking forces of policing, military power, and technocratic governance. Against this backdrop, Saijo articulates a commoning practice founded on breath, that vital, enactive process of mutual vulnerability. Here’s “ARE YOU A BREATHER TOO”: 


For Saijo, problems of place manifest the life-cheapening operations of “civilization,” a term he uses to capture the proliferating enclosures of our capitalist world system and the imperial, carceral, and militarized-forms of force upon which it relies. Saijo rejects technologies of biotic and social management alike, casting scrutiny on conventional notions of progress, expertise, and resource management. “WHO POISONED THE AQUIFER WITH THE ANTI-LIFE DREAMS OF THE SCIENTIFIC IMAGINATION,” he asks. 

Saijo is a critic of expertise culture, and I see fruitful connections between his work and that of Kaia Sand, a poet, housing justice advocate, and experimental geographer.[3] In her collection Remember to Wave (Tinfish, 2010) Sand tackles problems of place and memory together through poetic investigation, archival engagement, and mixed media collage. The opening poem reads as follows: 

How do I notice 
what I don’t notice?

How do I notice
what I don’t notice
I don’t notice? 

Inexpert, I 
notice with the attention
and drifting inattention 
of poetry

Inexpert, I 

Inexpert, I 
walk, and walk.[4]

There is a strikingly public character to Remember to Wave, which has taken several forms, both ambulatory (the guided walking tour) and conventional (the physical book). The book excavates past disasters and violences in Vanport, Oregon, including Japanese internment and a mass flooding event that devastated and displaced the city’s majority Black community in 1948. Through “inexpert” investigation, Sand engages the social structures within which environmental calamities play out, offering an orientation toward environmental history that underscores how climate justice will only come about through direct confrontation with ongoing yet historical processes of subjugation, of exploitation, of dispossession. 

A full-color version of the title page from Kaia Sand’s Remember to Wave. Photo via
[Image description: this image contains both text and photographs; “REMEMBER TO WAVE: a poetry walk” appears at its center; this title is surrounded by a hand-stitched map, which charts a path along the perimeter of  Vanport, Oregon. Segments of red serif font text appear along the stitching, partially covering the beige background, which displays a set of 22 images associated with the site.]

Since problems of place inform my own poetic practice, as well, I want to share a final set of situating reflections related to a poem that I composed last year as a grad fellow with Penn Sustainability. The poem is dedicated to Adam Toledo (March 29, 2021) and Duane Wright (April 11, 2021), both of whom were murdered by police during the weeks leading up to Earth Day. I’d agreed to develop an occasion-specific poem about sustainability for Earth Week, yet in the attempt, the massive environing force of policing filled the scope. I found myself dwelling with Ed Markey and Cori Bush’s then-recent proposal for the Environmental Justice and Data Collection Act, which proposed addressing the mutually-reinforcing connections between police violence and classical instances of environmental injustice (urban heat island effect, exposure to toxic industries and harmful environmental practices, etc.) together. 

The undeniable connections between environmental justice issues and policing have increasingly inflected my sense of the extensive oppressive and never just “environmental” conditions under which place-based struggles for justice unfold, and so in my poem, I ultimately approach place as a carceral problem set of sorts. This is a small gesture toward what Ruth Wilson Gilmore terms “abolitionist geography,” which entails recognizing “the forms and patterns” in our world “that coalesce into premature death, [revealing] human sacrifice as an organizing principle.”[5] Following Gilmore, police terror—including where it happens, how it is normalized, and the social austerity measures through which it is funded—is a necessary consideration when assessing the horizons of change that emerge in environmental justice contexts. In my home of Delaware County, PA, attending to this sacrificial principle lends an explanatory framework for connecting seemingly disparate social facts: massively bloated police pensions, for example, cannot be considered outside of the “financial” and “economic” arguments that get leveraged to secure the continued operations of harmful industries perpetrating dire environmental injustices. I composed my poem with my attention split between police brutality on the one hand and the more pernicious, daily environmental threat posed by the poisonous waste management practice of incineration on the other.

“Matters of Pollen and Earth” 

For Adam Toledo and Duane Wright 

Finding April still 
the cruelest, we take down the maps again. 

Go past the poison factory, the incinerator 
with its purple plume. You’ll find these and other plants
among the roads most fuzzed with roving blue fabric, 
most coated in the gray, killing pollen of industry. 

To talk of trees, now, must be
to remember how these roads were formed,
how the sidewalks were made to cut and cut off.

They were after an islanding effect,
lives encroached on and narrowed out,
redlines to assure the RealFeel of extreme heat.

Sustainability, or all that we must refuse
and propose.

It’s so much hotter already,

without Adam and Breonna, 
without Michael, and Duane, and George. 

For those living in the shadow of incinerators, purple smoke indicates that iodine is burning. Yet, through the education I’ve received organizing alongside Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living (CRCQL), I’ve become acutely aware that it is the very absence of agents like iodine that enable operators like Covanta to persist in spewing NOx, acid gases, and an array of  noxious pollutants into the air (these include dioxins, heavy metals, and dangerous particulate matter like PM 2.5). While industry propagandists are quick to insist that incineration merely generates steam, they obscure the dangerous, freighted character of incinerator “steam,” which causes a host of adverse health effects from cancer and respiratory illnesses like asthma to reproductive problems, including markedly lowered birth weights. Unlike the pernicious “steam” poisoning my neighboring community Chester, the purple plume has a more visual, even elocutionary aspect: it speaks out, says there is something here, in this air, in this air, which is bound for lungs, in this air unequally shared air, which is burdened with poison. 

In the absence of iodine and its shriek of purple, the task is something like what Kaia Sand describes: we must notice all that we’ve been conditioned to ignore. Doing so clarifies pathways for engaging, urgently and materially, in struggles toward an uncommon sense based in just, life-giving practices of place-making, from Zero Waste initiatives to urban greening. Visible or not, problems of place are often quite materially in the air, and through the basic common denominator of breath, relations of solidarity across interconnected struggles can be forged. To quote Zulene Mayfield, CRCQL’s founder, continuing steward, and fierce warrior against incineration, “My environment is concrete and buses, and that same environment deserves protecting.”[6]

[1] M. NourbeSe Philip, “The Ga(s)p,” in Poetics and Precarity, eds. Myung Mi Kim and Cristanne Miller (Buffalo, NY: SUNY Press, 2018), 31.

[2] Albert Saijo, Woodrat Flat (Tinfish Press, 2015), 102.

[3] Jules Boykoff, “Poets as Experimental Geographers: Mark Nowak, Kaia Sand and the Re-Composition of Political-Historical Space,” in Placing Poetry (New York, NY: Rodopi, 2013).

[4] Kaia Sand, Remember to Wave (Tinfish Press, 2010), np.

[5] Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Abolition Geography and the Problem of Innocence,” in Futures of Black Radicalism, eds. Theresa Johnson Gaye and Alex Lubin (New York, NY: Verso, 2017) 227-228.

[6] This quote is drawn from comments Ms. Mayfield offered at a political education event for Delco DSA. The event recording, audio, and additional information is available here.

*Cover image: Residents were alarmed when this magenta plume emerged from the Covanta trash incinerator in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, indicating iodine combustion. Photo by an anonymous Reddit user.

[*Cover image description: In the foreground of the image, a set of coniferous trees frame a trash incinerator, the smoke stack of which towers over the surrounding plot of land, filling the center of the frame; a vibrant plume of purpled steam can be seen exiting the stack and entering the expanse of an otherwise blue sky; the words Waste to Energy can be deciphered on the front face of the building.]

Edited by Asmae Ourkiya, reviewed by Elizabeth Hameeteman.

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