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Cultivation and Catastrophe

Posmentier Cover
, 304 pages

15 halftones

June 2017



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Cultivation and Catastrophe

The Lyric Ecology of Modern Black Literature

At the intersection of social and environmental history there has emerged a rich body of black literary response to natural and agricultural experiences, whether the legacy of enforced agricultural labor or of the destruction and displacement brought about by a hurricane. In Cultivation and Catastrophe, Sonya Posmentier uncovers a vivid diasporic tradition of black environmental writing that responds to the aftermath of plantation slavery, urbanization, and free and forced migrations. While humanist discourses of African American and postcolonial studies often sustain a line between nature and culture, this book instead emphasizes the relationship between them, offering an innovative environmental history of modern black literature.

Posmentier argues that environmental experiences of growth and rupture define the literature of black freedom, an archive that ranges from sonnets, mini-epics, documentary poems, periodicals, and novels to blues songs, dancehall productions, and ethnographic writing. In turn, this literature generates important and surprising models for ecological thought. Claude McKay, for example, connects rows of potatoes to the poetic line; Zora Neale Hurston composes rhythmic communal lyrics in the Florida "muck" following a deadly hurricane; and Derek Walcott critiques property-based ecological relations through the archipelagic shape of his mid-career poetry. Posmentier examines how these writers, along with Gwendolyn Brooks, Bessie Smith, Sterling Brown, Lloyd Lovindeer, Kamau Brathwaite, and others give voice to racialized experiences of alienation from the land while simultaneously envisioning a modern poetics of survival, repair, and generation.

Going against the grain of scholarship that has situated modern black diasporic agency largely in metropolitan sites, Posmentier traces a black literary history of environmental and social disaster while exploring the possibilities and limits of poetry as an archive for black modern culture in its many forms. This pathbreaking book offers stunning new insight into modern black literature, environmental humanities, and poetry and poetics.

Sonya Posmentier is an assistant professor of English at New York University.

"Must-read scholarship for the fields of black poetics and ecopoetics. Treating African American and Afro-Caribbean cultures as distinct, yet profoundly interrelated, Posmentier leaves readers with an expansive sense of the ways that various writers and lyricists have analyzed and mounted critiques of the history of violent oppression of black people."

"This brilliant book has the potential to invigorate the nascent field of environmental, ecological approaches to African American literature. Posmentier gives us a groundbreaking new grammar for understanding black diasporic aesthetics as a wondrous, constant interplay between the ideology of enclosure and the ecology of expansion."

"There is much to admire in this wide-ranging and carefully researched study. In particular, its close attention to poetic form represents a valuable contribution to postcolonial ecocriticism, which has tended to focus more on narrative genres."

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