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In Spite of Death: A Review of Stephanie Niu’s "Survived By: An Atlas of Disappearance"



Stephanie Niu is a poet, writer, and digital humanities scholar from Marietta, Georgia. She is the author of Survived By: An Atlas of Disappearance, winner of the 2023 Host Publications Chapbook Prize, and She Has Dreamt Again of Water, winner of the 2021 Diode Editions Chapbook Contest. Her work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Lit Hub, The Missouri Review, Copper Nickel, The Offing, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a Fulbright scholarship for community archiving work on Christmas Island’s immigration and labor history, through which she led free youth poetry workshops and published Our Island, Our Future: A Zine of Youth Poetry On Christmas Island.

 

Wildfires, floods, and superstorms continue raging across the globe, drastically transforming environmental spaces and forcing many species into, or onto the brink of, extinction. A recent climate risk report from the EU reveals that changing farming habits and restoring nature is not enough to curb the consequences of rising global temperatures. Thus, Stephanie Niu’s Survived By: An Atlas of Disappearance arrives at a critical moment in both literature and humanity. It focuses on Christmas Island, an Australian territory located in the Indian Ocean, where Niu conducted research. The speaker of Niu’s book observes radical biological transformations and the disappearances of fragile animals and reptiles, and they contemplate their role as a mother, responsible citizen, and scientist amid the unfolding disasters.

What makes Niu’s collection particularly innovative and unique is its incorporation of graphics and maps. Images merge with verses, creating a visual-verbal experience. “A Guide to What Lives Between Land and Sea” is the first of these experiences. The graphic offers readers a journey into the spray zone, the high tide zone, the middle tide zone, and the low tide zone. In each zone, readers encounter tide pool inhabitants like the periwinkle, which, along with science, “tells us Greenland is losing two hundred gigatons of ice per year.” Other creatures like the Buckshot barnacle offer readers a more direct take on the matter: “The science tells us We’re fucked.” Interwoven with scientific facts is a personal sense duty to protect these fragile creatures. The speaker conveys a particularly beautiful moment as they recalled how they “loved digging for clams during family beach trips” and would plunge “a hand in the mud to pull up the ones too slow to escape.” However, the speaker’s hands were more than hands. They were protectors as the speaker’s “fists kept the earth safe.” This simple action establishes the sense of individual responsibility the speaker harbors in recognizing and, ultimately, combatting the deadly effects of human-caused climate change.

The collection develops an even more dystopian tone when readers encounter poems like “Extinct in the Wild: Blue-Tailed Skink.” The poem appears as a series of maps depicting the blue-tailed skink’s prevalence in 1979-1988 and 2003-2008 until the skink disappeared in 2009-2010. The poem’s words are inlaid on each map, and the most jarring of those words appears at a small corner on the final map: “forest hide me.” The words bend and blend together, making them nearly indecipherable. The small cry for help is actually, at first, quite unnoticeable, and readers have to carefully scan the map in order to find them.

“Motherhood in the Climate Crisis” adeptly captures the speaker’s anxiety about raising a child in a world where “Violence precipitates peace.” The speaker determines they will teach their daughter “extinct species / from old paintings.” The speaker also surmises that they “need to believe she will grow old” so that the speaker can teach the daughter their “secrets,” like “how to fix / her eye on the distant sea to watch / for coming wind.” The speaker discusses the importance of finding life where others may not notice it, where it “still runs rampant,” such as in “Dandelion roots” and “Wild onions.” These small acts of observation, awareness, and environmental stewardship are gentle reminders to readers that preparing future generations by educating them about the environment is no longer a choice; it is a necessity. In this regard, Niu’s collection echoes similar sentiments displayed in eco-focused fiction like Gina Chung’s Sea Change and Alison Stine’s Trashlands.

Concluding the collection is “Extinct: Christmas Island Forest Skink.” Its important to acknowledge the poem’s placement as the collection’s final one. The poem is not only the end of Niu’s collection. It is a step into an inescapable cycle of “absolute death,” to stand on the precipice of the “sixth mass extinction,” which is driven primarily by humanity’s unsustainable usage of land, water, and energy. As the speaker holds the dead body of Gump, the last Christmas Island Forest Skink, the speaker seems at a loss for words as they process the magnitude of Gump’s death. The turn of the poem occurs with the line “Extinction is meant to be a rare event.” However, the poem’s message is, that, sadly, extinction is becoming a rapidly increasing event. The next question is “Who, or what, will be next?”

Survived By: An Atlas of Disappearance is a brief, quick read. Sadly, that brevity also serves a purpose. It reminds readers that the time to act and change the course of climate crisis has passed. However, it also reminds readers that small actions matter, and, as Greta Thunberg once said, “Once we start to act, hope is everywhere.”


Survived By can be purchased here:

 

Nicole Yurcaba (Нікола Юрцаба) is a Ukrainian American of Hutsul/Lemko origin. A poet and essayist, her poems and reviews have appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Atlanta Review, Seneca Review, and Ukraine’s Euromaidan Press. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University,  teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University, and is the Humanities Coordinator at Blue Ridge Community and Technical College. She also serves as a guest book reviewer for Sage Cigarettes, Tupelo Quarterly, Colorado Review, and Southern Review of Books.

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