by Ethan Fugate
Plastic: An Autobiography
A recent article in Nature describes how we are literally eating the fallout from mid 20th-century nuclear bomb tests more than a half century later. Radioactive material from those mid-century bomb tests (cesium-137) looks, from a molecular perspective, a lot like potassium (a food source for plants). Plants in areas with low potassium levels mistakenly consume the isotope, which eventually ends up in plant nectar and, ultimately, in honey that researchers discovered is 100 times more radioactive than other food samples.
The story this article tells seems almost too big to think about and yet it is only a small part of a much larger story told through Allison Cobb’s Plastic: An Autobiography. Through an inexpert, but precise social, historical, scientific, and poetic investigation of that ubiquitous, distinctly human product, the author reveals a vast network, or, rather, a net that isn’t picky about what it captures, one draped over the whole world.
Plastic: An Autobiography is multi-genre. More than anything else, it generates a space where memoir meets creative non-fiction as seen through the eye of a poet. It is also a work of what Cobb calls “inexpert investigation,” a term that comes from an essay by Jules Boykoff and Kaia Sand. Inexpert investigation “involves swerves and leaps, unlikely connections, fortuitous juxtapositions.” It is a way for someone who is not a historian, sociologist, or scientist to “step into an endlessly entangled and ongoing conversation, conducted through archives, stories, artifacts, actions, and lives.”
Cobb’s Plastic: An Autobiography is filled with these things, its scope, immense.
Despite the intimidating scope, Plastic: An Autobiography tricks the reader by telling a vivid asynchronous story via several short jump cuts (or chapters). Each cut is cleverly disguised to appear only loosely connected to the next, but the reader begins to sense Cobb pulling on the drawstrings and making connections early on. These connections urge the reader to find out what unlikely connection will happen in the next scene.
The book spans three centuries and several continents in three sections. In the first section it talks about the rise of modern chemistry and Nazi Germany. It covers the terrible birth of the first hydrogen bomb (Cobb is a child of the atom, having grown up in Los Alamos, N.M., her father working at Los Alamos National Laboratory), the lives of a US WWII pilot, and the Japanese designer of WWII fighter planes.
The accidental origins of plastic and its creeping spread, mainly as single-use plastic that becomes permanent ephemera in nature is delved into. As Cobb says, “The rejected remains as fact. It flows through soil and water and air. It floats on breath and washes through cells. It fails to disappear.”
In the second section, there is a startling revelation—how the author, during her investigation of certain histories, inadvertently left out the history of women in these events. In a sense, this book is as much a book about writing as it is about plastic. Cobb pivots to talk about the erasure of women scientists from the rise of modern chemistry, the role women played in the work in Los Alamos related to the bomb, and their inevitable erasure as well. She meditates on the death of a parent, the end of one relationship and the beginning of another, and the concept of “apology” as it relates to an immense historical wrong, in this case the bombing of Hiroshima.
Ultimately, the third section of Plastic: An Autobiography brings us to the living present and demands that Cobb and the reader bear witness to ongoing violence done to historically black communities (Freeport, Port Arthur, Mossville) in and around the gulf coast of Texas and Louisiana thanks to what seems like an unstoppable spread of gigantic petrochemical companies and their pollution-producing factories.
Cobb tells the stories of communities that remain and of their struggles against the backdrop of burning smokestacks and miles of pipes. She also explores the ongoing Marshall Island diaspora caused by atomic testing. The backdrop here is a Marshallese population more susceptible to COVID-19 than other populations and a giant concrete dome—a giant eyeball—meant to contain radioactive waste. It is an eye that is weeping radioactivity.
One of the unlikeliest connections in the book is one of the most unpleasant. A National Geographic photo from 2005 showing the carcass of an albatross chick bursting with plastic it had mistaken for food next to another photo of that same plastic, carefully removed from the body and preserved, a record of grief. Cobb writes of the National Geographic photo:
A few readers wrote to point out that a white shard in the lower right of the photo said VP-101, the name of Christman’s WWII Navy squad … a navy historian, called the plastic piece “typical” of Navy ID tags attached to equipment, like a toolbox, or a bombsight.
Bombsight. The word fuses entities, monsterish. As if the bomb itself had sight and could see its own target. Or it gave the bomber power to see like a bomb. Which would be what? A falling, blurred, a blast, maybe light and flame, and then what?
Early in the book, Cobb describes herself as a watcher and that watching was a way of surviving in a world, a lidless eye, observing. I think, in part, this eye manifests itself in Cobb’s poetic attention to language. Throughout the book, Cobb uses a device that readers can trace to her earlier work in Greenwood and After We All Died.
Cobb periodically pulls back to examine the root of words she commits to the page, like a chemist examining a molecule or physicist considering the nature of an atom. The close examination of the kenning created out of “bomb” and sight” is also perhaps a distraction from the also monstrous connection between a piece of WWII plastic that’s been cycling through the environment for decades and the doomed albatross chick that consumed it.
The catalytic totem of the book—a piece of plastic from a car—appears one day in the author’s yard. Through her work as a writer with an environmental group, Cobb has had the opportunity to meditate on plastic quite a bit, but something about this car part “snags.” Something about it opens the door to a meditation that pulls together several disparate, but actually not at all, threads and joins them into an exploration of the plasticity of being and relationships between it all. She says of her totem:
I wanted it to speak to me. I wanted it to tell me something about how to live. How to live now, on this planet, in this real life, as a member of the human species. I wanted it to tell me what to do. What to do about being alive in a dying world. Where being alive is monstrous. Where the terms of every breath seems to be death.
Cobb has seemingly adopted this piece of plastic. It lives with her and travels with her. And, as the book invokes Coleridge and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” it is her albatross. She is compelled to tell its story. We are compelled to listen.
ALLISON COBB (pronouns she/her) is the author of Plastic: An Autobiography from Nightboat Books. Her other books include After We All Died (Ahsahta Press), Born2 (Chax Press), and Green-Wood, originally published by Factory School with a new edition in 2018 from Nightboat.
Cobb’s work has appeared in Best American Poetry, Denver Quarterly, Colorado Review, and many other journals. She was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award and National Poetry Series, has been a resident artist at Djerassi and Playa, and received fellowships from the Oregon Arts Commission, the Regional Arts and Culture Council, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She lives in Portland, Ore.
ETHAN FUGATE lives in Charleston, S.C., with his partner, two dogs, four chickens, a cat, and several thousand honey bees. He is a board member of the Poetry Society of South Carolina, celebrating its centenary this year.