Review of Shale Play by Julia Spicher Kasdorf and Steven Rubin

Julia Spicher Kasdorf and Steven Rubin. Shale Play: Poems and Photographs from the Fracking Fields. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press. 2018. 138 pp. $24.95.

This magnificent book looks like a coffee table book, and may be used as one by owners. But it is a deadly serious description and expose of the depredations of fracking in the Marcellus Shale of Pennsylvaina, the home territory of the book’s authors. In 23 poems, 74 photographs and introductory essays, it delivers on its intentions and elicits a thoughtful and emotional response in its readers.

The poems represent the recent development of the genre of “documentary poems,” or “docu-poems,” as defined by the journal Poets and Writers: “socially engaged poetry that often uses nonliterary texts—news reports, legal documents, and transcribed oral history.” (“Where Poetry Meets Journalism” 10-22-19). Shale Play exploits all of those sources

What is a poem? I don’t think I will ever accept a legal transcript, a letter, or a news story, arranged in poetic lines, as poetry. But as such items are interspersed with more conventional verse, they contribute their own impact to the intentions of the book.

The most compelling poems are the monologues by real people, whether they oppose fracking—the President of the Okoma Conservation Club, the Tioga Museum docent, the Grandma along Hope Hollow Road—or advocate it, such as the truck driver from New Jersey.

The most structured, purposeful poem is “What This Picture Can’t Tell You,” which uses parallel syntax as a rhetorical tool to integrate many comments from random sources. The final poem is Kasdorf’s history of her family, from colonial Pennsylvania up to the current crisis in her two home communities, Bellefonte in the center and Westmoreland County in the southwest. The poem, and book, concludes with Kasdorf in her kitchen cooking “my groceries on a gas stove.” The line summarizes the complexities exposed by the book, as well as the author’s own complicity in using the results of fracking.

The wonderful, beautiful large colored photographs that are interspersed with the poems sometimes illustrate the contents of the docu-poems and always complement them. They are so beautiful as to almost blunt the horrors of fracking.

Steven Rubin, the photographer, is consciously aware of how photographs tend to “aestheticize” their subjects. But he invokes the verbal contexts of their presentation here, saying that the poems give the photographs a meaning different from that of mere “art.” No captions appear in the main part of the book; the poems supply the message. But at the end of the book, each poem is clearly documented and with additional thematic comments by Rubin. The result is two sets of complementary texts on fracking.

In addition to the question of the nature of poetry, the book deals with two other longstanding concerns in literary studies: W. H. Auden’s claim that “poetry makes nothing happen” and the question raised by Gayatri Spivak in postcolonial studies: “Can the subaltern [marginalized person] speak?”

Neither Kasdorf nor Rubin is sanguine about their book stopping fracking or preventing future environmental destruction. Their work is a witness and a testimony, and at least creates heightened awareness—of facts and feelings—in the reader. The “Foreword” by Barbara Hurd is an impressive, nuanced discussion of the nature of the social impact of the visual and verbal art published here.

The book is certainly a valiant attempt to give subalterns an articulate, prominent voice in the big issues that affect them, and in which they are seldom consulted, or made fully aware of the implications of their and others’ decisions. Spivak’s idea of the limits of a “quoted” voice articulated on behalf of subalterns by outsiders, whether anthropologists or poets, applies here. The tape recordings are edited, perhaps heavily. Have the informants approved the re-workings? Will the informants ever see their voices in print? Can they afford to buy the book?

A partial answer to those questions appears in a post-publication anecdote from Julia Kasdorf. At a reading from the book in Westmoreland County, attended by a dozen informants, one woman “sat in the back, weeping, flanked by her grand-daughters while I read the poem in her voice.” Afterward, two informants, who were given free copies of the book, bought two copies for their local libraries.

As in the fracking industry, complications and contradictions also abound in Shale Play. But it is a fine achievement—deserving much more immediate attention than this very belated review.

Fracking began in Pennsylvania in 2004-06. The book was researched from 2012-17 and published in 2018, near the end of the fracking frenzy, which began to decline in 2016 and in 2021 is almost over. The book is becoming a historic document, although it was named the 2021 selection of poetry for the “Route 1 Reads” project sponsored by the Pennsylvania Center for the Book, affiliated with the Library of Congress. That signals that it will retain its universal relevance as a warning for the next, or continued, commercial devastation of the natural world.

About the Author

Ervin Beck

Ervin Beck is Professor Emeritus of English at Goshen College, where he taught English, dramatic literature, postcolonial literature, folklore and Mennonite Literature, He was Fulbright professor of English and folklore at the University College of Belize and, following retirement, taught twice at LCC International University in Lithuania. He has published widely in his teaching fields, including articles on Mennonite and Amish folk arts and folklore, as in the books MennoFolk 1 and MennoFolk 2. He was an original co-editor of this online journal and a planner of the Mennonite/s Writing conferences at Goshen College in 1992 and 2002. He lives in Goshen, Indiana.