How Form Informs Content: Barbara Langhorst’s “Climate Change” from Restless White Fields

The phrase “climate change” refers most obviously to global warming, the melting of polar ice caps, the erosion of the ozone layer, the impact of human industry on the environment. It makes sense to title a poem about catastrophe “Climate Change,” and Barbara Langhorst does not disappoint, though the environment is the family, and the catastrophe is the problem of motherhood.

“Climate Change” opens with the speaker addressing her daughter, then parallels her self-perceived failings as a mother to her own “radiant” mother (27). The parallel is quite literal—the past and present exist simultaneously on the page, with the speaker’s present on the left and her memory on the right, curving outwards and foreshadowing the later shapes and melding of present and memory into grief. 

On the following page, these two parallels are brought together through an italicised stanza that describes and enacts what the speaker is doing: reading. The italics indicate quotations from other written works (citations located at the back of Langhorst’s book), so that the poem shows us what the speaker reads even as she writes the poem. The tension between memory and the speaker distracting herself through reading is realized with the mention of “at her funeral,” when the reader sees that the memory of summer lake visits is overwhelmed by the presence of mosquitos at the mother’s funeral (28). The reluctance to face this other memory—or the desire to hold onto the happier memories—is indicated through word-spacing. A small stanza on the left could read “the last day / the inevitable / soggy three-day / holiday week / end—” and be talking about the speaker’s desire to remain at the lake as a child, or the desire to remain inside that memory (28). However, the lines “[the mosquitos overwhelming / at her funeral]” interrupt this stanza, claim space beside the end lines, so that the end of the holiday weekend becomes the funeral weekend (28). The square brackets around those lines further indicate the intrusion of thoughts the speaker would rather keep at bay. The poem then focuses on describing the mother as she was, but this is overrun by the mention of the speaker’s father, and the poem abruptly reverts to quoted lines; the speaker turns off her thoughts by returning to reading.

However, the thoughts return and the speaker soon tells us—hesitantly, haltingly, with many interruptions from other texts—that her mother was murdered, and that “three days the bodies lay,” with no other hint of her father (29). The following page retreats into quotes and memory, with the speaker berating herself and her family for forgetting their mother’s birthday, and the accompanying quotes relaying a mother-daughter experience that could have been shared by the speaker and her own mother (30). The layout of this page positions the speaker’s memory inside a cocoon of borrowed memories (quotes) that insulate the speaker’s regret. This regret is tied to how her mother died, and that it took so long to discover her death, but ensconced inside the mundane quotation-memories, this specific instance of disappointment speaks to the larger regret without facing it head-on.

Conversely, the next page is displayed in a circle, with quotes and the speaker’s thoughts interspersed together and a void left in the middle of the page (31). On this page, the poem can be read as italics, then non-italics, across the lines, or down either side and then the next, or even jumping between stanzas, so that the eye crosses over at each extra space between lines. The lack of direction in how to read this embodies the lack of direction experienced by the speaker, regarding both processing her grief and reconciling her ‘failures’ as a mother with her ‘failures’ as a daughter. The circle implies the cyclical nature of grief and trauma, while existing as a gaping hole, but the poem leads out of this in a descending line that continues straight down the page, offering a path out of grief and depression, while still allowing for that grief to be revisited and explored from other angles upon (re)readings.

While the end of the poem tells the reader that the speaker’s father is responsible for her mother’s murder, and that afterwards he killed himself too, the poem refuses to be defeated. The end circles back to the beginning, and returns to food and notions of nutrition, allowing room for her family climate to change again, for the better, while recognizing that that change has not occurred by the end of the poem.


Work Cited

Langhorst, Barbara. Restless White Fields. NeWest Press, 2012.

Essay by Allie McFarland, a bi, white settler originally from Calgary, AB on Treaty 7 territory. She holds an MFA in Writing from the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of English, where her thesis, a manuscript on eating disorders currently under consideration with multiple presses, was nominated for the College of Arts & Sciences Thesis Award. She is a co-founding editor of The Anti-Languorous Project, which publishes antilang. magazine, soundbite, Good Short Reviews, and the On Editing blog series. Her poetic suite “Lullaby” won the 2015 Dr. MacEwan Literary Arts Scholarship. She is also the author of the chapbook Marianne’s Daughters (Loft on EIGHTH, 2018). Allie currently runs a not-for-profit used bookstore on the unceded territories of the Lekwungen people of Vancouver Island. Disappearing in Reverse is her full-length debut.

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