Aaron Kreuter's Shifting Baseline Syndrome
Reviewed by Geoffrey Morrison
The qualities I associate with an Aaron Kreuter poem—confident, clear-throated, funny, sometimes apocalyptic, sometimes lacerating, but brimming always with an undeniable moral centre—dare I say a kindness—were already there fully-formed in his first collection, Arguments for Lawn Chairs (Guernica Editions, 2016), which I reviewed at the time for The Rusty Toque. One of the joys of his second book of poetry, Shifting Baseline Syndrome (University of Regina Press, Oskana Poetry and Poetics, 2022) is that its poems continue this sensibility, but with new forms, new subjects, and a seemingly effortless emotional and tonal range. Everything I loved about the last book is still here, but with an even greater sense of itself and all the things it can do.
Formally, Shifting Baseline Syndrome sometimes uses the free verse short lines or stanzas of Arguments for Lawn Chairs, but these pieces are accompanied in significant numbers by another form that only appeared twice in the first book - prose-poetic paragraphs, sometimes in the form of a dramatic monologue. I enjoyed these very much, and felt they were a natural next step for Kreuter’s insistent, propulsive poetic voices:
So says the father in the exquisitely titled “My Father Philosophizes about the Ocean to Steph’s Aunt and Uncle, Who We Just Ran Into at the Cheesecake Factory and Who, After Telling Us about Their Post-Breast-Reduction Sex Life Using Quite Graphic Language, Mentioned They Never Go to the Beach, even though Here We Are, in Florida.” Here as elsewhere, the prose-poetic form helps the writing to be relaxed, personable - to the extent that it’s hard not to identify the poetic speakers with the real people they may or may not be, the strictures of critical best practices be damned. They also lend themselves well to the set-up/punchline structure that is another Kreuter hallmark—including in an inverted form where, after several comic turns, the final line brings us face-to-face with whatever it was we needed jokes to soothe the pain of in the first place.
The tragicomic stakes of Shifting Baseline Syndrome are expressed well in one of its introductory epigraphs, a remark from New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum: “Some days I can feel the sheer unwatchable amount of television expanding all around me, it’s like humidity.” I’m not sure Nussbaum meant us to take it quite this way, but I can’t read her words without feeling powerfully conscious of how much waste undergirds advanced capitalism in the imperial core—shows are being made that no one will see, and consumer goods that no one will buy, and luxury accommodations that no one will live in, and apps that will never work, while at the same time life and labour and land and air and water are being used up as if they can be replaced when they can’t be. And, say, didn’t you notice how hot it’s been out lately?
Well, Aaron Kreuter has. The ecology of culture, and the culture of ecology, are always at issue in these poems, and for as much as there’s an urgency to their expression, they nevertheless intertwine in a variety of elegant and often very funny ways. “Rivers I” transposes a concerned Boomer-style monologue about the deleterious effects of internet porn onto the state of our watercourses:
Elsewhere, in the also wonderfully titled “The Last Six Minutes of the Nature Documentary, Where David Attenborough Tells Us the Beautiful Animals We’ve Just Been Watching Are Going Extinct, and It’s All Our Fault,” our favourite plummy naturalist—“old British sophisticated me”—warns viewers,
One of the remarkable things about these poems is that their sharp, referential wit is never cynical, never revelling in irony or pomo reference for its own sake. On the contrary, I think Kreuter has found an admirable way to restore poetry to its ancient place as something very public and very political (what Juliane Okot Bitek once called “the old work of poetry”) through the shared demotic language of Carmella and Homer, finales and reruns (“So what? No fuckin’ permafrost now?” you can almost hear A.J. saying). After all, to stick with Nussbaum’s metaphor, humidity is ambient and everywhere; struggling for something else to say to a stranger, we are liable to ask them about their shows. As the poem, “All We Care About is the Season Finale but Series Finales Are Always Terrible So Why Do We Continue Care You Know Why It Is Because We All So Badly Want Something to Believe In,” puts it,
Just like the Nussbaum quotation, it’s another precise statement of purpose. That “used to” is doing so much ominous work. It’s not just that people aren’t spending enough time out of doors; as I write this, a third of the way through the month of October in famously wet Vancouver, the temperature outside is as warm as it is inside, the sun is shining, I can’t remember the last time it rained, and long-distance visibility is compromised by a vague, sickly haze. None of this has much precedent in our weather records. But neither did last year. Or the year before. I teach English to international students at a language school, and when they ask me what any given season is like here I no longer know what to tell them.
We have a name for this phenomenon of forgetting what the seasons are supposed to be like. It also happens to be the name of this book. In environmental contexts, “Shifting Baseline Syndrome” is the phenomenon by which ever-worsening conditions cause each new human generation to have a more modest perception of what a “normal,” healthy ecosystem looks like. As Reagan Pearce writes for Earth.Org, “In the UK people are actively conserving ecologically desolate ecosystems as they have no reference to past British wilderness.” We are all doing this kind of thing—clinging to shit, because we’ve forgotten what’s good, and because what’s coming is even shittier—all the time, and not just with respect to the environment.
It’s in the relation of the shifting baseline to forgetting that I think Kreuter’s book really comes into its own, where its subtle but grand structure manifests itself, and where his poems express a level of artistic honesty and maturity that moved me very much. Because the reparative flipside of all this forgetting, all this numbing the pain by watching Elaine throw George’s toupee out the window again, is remembering, and for Kreuter this means poems about the natural world, about trees, about family, about forebears known and unknown, about inheritance, about Jewishness, about Montreal, about Palestine. This aspect of the book appears most clearly in the remarkable third and final section, “The Last River,” but the seeds are there from the beginning and develop in a discernible arc.
It is as though, after the sticky fugue of television has completely washed over us, certain small, insistent voices get louder - so that by the end we are learning the family histories of revolutionary grandparents, hiking with a Palestinian cousin “on trails restored and renamed” in a decolonial future, visiting the old working-class Jewish neighbourhoods of Richler’s Montreal, and eulogizing a felled walnut tree. This book itself has a shifting baseline, only in the opposite direction. Each poem brings us closer to an appreciation of all that has been lost, and what may yet be found again.
Geoffrey D. Morrison’s debut novel, Falling Hour, was published in February 2023 with Coach House Books. He is also author of the poetry chapbook Blood-Brain Barrier and coauthor of the experimental short fiction collection Archaic Torso of Gumby. He lives on the unceded Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh territory.