One Sunday in February 2019, during my first winter in Philadelphia, an unusual fog descended over my neighborhood. The day was mild, and a haze hung over the buildings; it smelled of both sulfur and metal. I kept a handkerchief over my mouth as I walked to the laundromat, doubtful that its thin layer of synthetic fabric would prevent me from inhaling whatever filled the air. Wary of walking the two blocks in the smog to wait at home for the load to finish, I sat on a cracked plastic chair by the window and searched the internet for clues about the weather. According to one news meteorologist, we were in the middle of a temperature inversion, in which cold air is trapped close to the ground by a warmer layer thousands of feet above. The hot air acts as a lid, and pollutants that would typically travel into the atmosphere’s upper reaches remain in the layer we breathe.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection issued a code orange for Philadelphia and surrounding counties. Young children, the elderly, and people with respiratory problems like asthma, emphysema, and bronchitis were advised to limit their exposure to the outdoors. While the DEP’s advice seemed to suggest that too many solo drivers were to blame for the smog, I thought instead about the plumes emitted by the Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) oil refinery, on the Schuylkill River, a threat I eyed each day as I drove on the highway to and from Camden, New Jersey, for work and school, a threat I knew was only a mile southeast of the laundromat.
On that February day when the foul smog smothered my neighborhood, I also searched for information about the refinery. I learned that the 150-year-old complex was the biggest on the East Coast, as well as the single-largest source of particulate emissions in the city, and responsible for nearly 16 percent of Philadelphia’s carbon footprint. On my commute, I’d take in the vista from the highway: the sprawling geography of South Philadelphia’s shipping crates, barges, and cranes—a stunning metallic and industrial landscape. The view evoked beauty and disgust, awe and terror, an amazement born of the tension between these poles, a physical sense of astonishment alongside a low, deep-seated dread.
The scholar Jennifer Peeples might describe what I felt as “the toxic sublime.” She uses the term to describe the feeling of dissonance elicited by the work of environmental artists documenting the unexpected beauty of industry-altered landscapes, such as that of Canadian environmental photographer Edward Burtynsky. His large-format photographs of copper mines, oil fields, and logging operations are both gorgeous and disturbing. Of Burtynsky’s work, Peeples writes that “his interest in generating dissonance aligns itself with Kant’s understanding of the sublime, in which the satisfaction is arrived at indirectly, as one is attracted to the sublime object, but alternatively repelled, a state Kant calls ‘negative pleasure.’”
In the spring after the smog descended, I picked up Brian Teare’s 2019 book, Doomstead Days. The poetry collection feels marked by the toxic sublime in its attention to the entangled environmental, industrial, and colonial histories of different regions of the US. In eight long and ecologically attuned poems that stretch from the Bay Area to the Alabama coast, from rural Vermont to industrial South Philly, Teare exposes the countless forms of violence that affect historically oppressed peoples, as well as the air, water, land, plants, and animals. Teare’s poems explore the toxicity and slow violence of environmental degradation across vast spatial and temporal reaches, using both wide-angle and microscopic lenses. They deal with landscapes and watersheds, histories and statistics, but they also present sensory images gathered through bodily encounters—the crush of pine needles, burning thighs, sticky resin, wind. His lyrics unspool in ambulatory fashion, employing syllabics to create a pedestrian rhythm as their lines trail over the extra-wide pages. Some carve a river across the blankness; others stream downward in long, thin strips.
Two of the poems explore Philadelphia landscapes and neighborhoods. “Toxic Release Inventory (Essay on Man)” catalogs the pollutants found in the city via a series of interlinked haikus, while the book’s title poem, “Doomstead Days,” uses the Wissahickon Creek as a central figure to investigate the hidden history of the region’s watershed. They answer the call issued by literary scholar Rob Nixon for artistic work that “convert[s] into image and narrative those disasters that are slow-moving and long in the making.” In Doomstead Days, language becomes a way to capture the landscape, naming and specifying what sight alone cannot reveal: “in the Delaware / River Wards, anatomy / a map of grids skewed // by diagonals / & two sinuous rivers, / contaminated // map of pipes & tracks / that truck crude from the west to / the refinery…” The poem’s title name checks the toxins released into the Schuylkill River and its surrounding wetlands by the PES plant—cumene, hydrogen cyanide, sulfuric acid, all of them by-products of refining crude oil.
The sensory richness and intimacy of Teare’s work derive in part from his compositional methods: he often writes poems while walking, in a practice he calls “en plain air poetics.” But his work also incorporates language from scholars such as Nixon, philosophers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and activists such as Teresa Hill, a Philly resident who lives near the refinery. Through both of these techniques, Teare underscores the need to grasp the small-scale effects of environmental violence as it appears in an individual body or neighborhood, and the need to gain a broad understanding of global environmental degradation: “when industry goes / so wide, so deep, & touches / us so totally // we find our final / privacies violated…” These poems respond to the representational challenge Nixon identifies by blending historical, political, and scientific language within a lyric frame to offer readers a phenomenological experience of the toxic sublime on the page.
At 4 a.m. on June 21, 2019, the PES plant exploded. A video of the blast captured from the window of a moving car shows an apocalyptic fireball burning above the freeway, flooding the sky with flares of chemical light. The blaze burned for more than a day, and the wind carried its fumes east, across South Philadelphia and over the Delaware River to Camden, New Jersey. A friend who lived in nearby Point Breeze, in Philadelphia, at the time told me he woke up to the blast illuminating his apartment like a momentary flash of daylight. He got up to close his window, then went back to bed.
It was later confirmed that the explosion had released hydrogen fluoride (HF), a toxic material used in the refining process. Of the nation’s roughly 135 oil refineries, fewer than 50 use hydrogen fluoride. It can enter the skin and react with calcium in the bones, leading to a painful death; according to the CDC, even a small splash on the skin can be fatal. Refineries must file worst-case scenarios for the event of a toxic chemical release, and the PES file included a release of “143,262 pounds of HF over 10 minutes, which could travel as a toxic cloud for more than 7 miles and potentially impact 1,098,799 people.” If not for the rapid response of a refinery worker who moved a large quantity of HF at the last minute, the explosion could have killed millions of Philadelphians.
Eight months after the incident, in February 2020, a nonprofit watchdog group reported that before the plant exploded, it had produced some of the highest levels of benzene pollution of any refinery in the country—444 percent higher than the EPA standard. An EPA model reported that the PES refinery had a score nearly ten thousand times higher than the petrochemical industry’s median. The refinery’s emissions were comparable to those for the entirety of the statewide Marcellus Shale production activities, which comprise a much larger topographical area with a more widely dispersed population. The exposure to toxins for those of us living in the city, then, even on a code-green day, was frightening.
In the wake of the explosion, I learned that local organizations had been protesting the refinery for years. One of these, Philly Thrive, was formed in 2015 to unite Philadelphians around the fight for clean air in the city. In 2016, it launched its Southport campaign, which helped block a proposed refinery expansion; and in 2017 it began organizing for a fossil fuel–free Philadelphia, beginning with a survey of South Philly’s community concerns regarding the refinery. In its survey, Philly Thrive found that 34 percent of locals polled had experienced asthma at some point in their lives, as compared to the national average of about 8 percent. More than half had experienced either heart disease, cancer, asthma, or another respiratory condition, while 80 percent expressed negative feelings about the refinery, critiquing it as a health concern and environmental hazard. More than 113,000
people live within a mile of the refinery complex. The Philly Thrive mission statement asserts that “low-income families and communities of color… shouldn’t bear this burden while oil and gas companies like the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery profit from pollution.”
The refinery closed in July 2019, and in January 2020 the site was put up for sale. Philly Thrive members gathered in the lobby of the building, in New York City, where the auction took place, singing songs, telling stories, and reciting poems about how the refinery had affected their lives. The explosion had created an opening that their activism could fill, and PES ultimately agreed to sell the complex for $240 million to a Chicago-based real estate company with a history of acquiring and repurposing defunct fossil fuel infrastructure sites.
Yet the PES site itself remains highly polluted. What will happen to the toxins stored there, to the former refinery workers, and to the lives of many South Philadelphia residents remains a living question. About a year after the refinery explosion, the air in Philly seems clearer. The trees have bloomed and filled out with leaves. I do my laundry at home, in my bathtub, with a plastic laundry spinner. On sunny days when I walk through the neighborhood parks, it looks like everything is normal, aside from the masks. People play fetch with their dogs, children shout and climb jungle gyms, groups gather on blankets. Yet I know that what I see is not representative of the truth. Amid this scene, slow violence continues. How do years of contact with pollutants continue to harm the most vulnerable Philadelphians?
Teare’s poems can’t provide an answer to that question. They don’t posit an alternative to the refinery, or to the social order we live under. The poetic project of Doomstead Days is diagnostic, not curative. And while a poem cannot do the work of a social movement, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a relationship between the individual imagination and politics. Art allows us to encounter the myriad facets of a reality we live with but cannot hold in our consciousness all at once. It brings to the surface the data, sensations, and understandings that litter our subconscious minds but that we cannot readily call upon. Teare’s poems—like the songs and stories of Philly Thrive—show that aesthetic experience can be moral, intellectual, embodied, and deeply social.
In the months or years of the environmental crisis to come, we will need new representations to convey the lingering effects of pollution. But we will also need new forms of community resistance to create a just world. We will need practices that forward environmental justice not only at the level of the state, via laws and policies, but from the ground up, via the voices, bodies, desires, and demands of the people. This is not a time for incremental work that upholds a status quo rooted in racist dispossession and extraction. If legislation represents one route for social action, art and activism are among the other methods ordinary people can draw upon to challenge state and corporate power. I see them as potentially twinned efforts in the fight for our environments and lives.
In their depictions of the toxic sublime, Teare’s poems represent an aesthetic effort to articulate what’s at stake; they’re an accompaniment to the activist work of Philly Thrive and other movements. The image of Philly Thrive members testifying in the lobby of the building where the refinery was being auctioned, sharing how the plant had damaged their land, communities, families, bodies, and spirits, has stayed with me. Artistic and activist efforts remind us that our body is our environment, and our environment is our body. And, ultimately, an engagement with both artistic and activist resistance to environmental destruction allows us to perceive the depth and range of what, on earth, we’re fighting for.