Shifting Baseline Syndrome

25 May 2022

Shifting Baseline Syndrome
by Aaron Kreuter
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Elena Bentley
$19.95 ISBN 9780889778542

Can anyone alive remember a time without TV? Not many people can. Soon enough, no one will remember a time without it. TVs and screens of every size will become part of our collective memory—things that have always just been—and we’ll forget how things were. The “name […] for this forgetting” is “Shifting Baseline Syndrome,” which is also the title of Aaron Kreuter’s second book of poetry. In this collection, Kreuter, with a unique blend of directness and sardonic wit, shows us how “[t]elevision is just another name for the Anthropocene.”

Although we’re seeing a growing trend of climate change and doomsday poetry, Shifting Baseline Syndrome stands out because of its ingenious use of the television/life metaphor and Kreuter’s unabashed approach. These poems don’t hesitate to comment on the ridiculousness of our obsession with and over-consumption of television, the internet, and cell phones. For example, in the poem “Meanwhile,” we watch “Homer and Marge argue about the nuclear codes they / accidentally won in the town raffle; […] [m]eanwhile, the balsam fir colonizes another warming valley.”

Put in a language us TV-obsessed readers can understand, the speaker says “nature isn’t dying, / it’s simply revising / its target audience […] and, perhaps worst of all, / there will be nowhere left / for you to send the hate mail.” We’re so distracted by what we’re watching on-screen we miss what’s happening right under our noses: “Toxic waste and coffee cups piling up off-screen,” “[o]ff-gassing mostly affects people off-screen”—“[i]t’s another world, isn’t it, off-screen.”

Another noteworthy feature of Shifting Baseline Syndrome is the abundance of prose poetry; Kreuter’s poems take various forms, but I am most impressed by the prose poems. If you’re looking to broaden your prose-poem repertoire, I would add this book to your list. I also appreciate all the pop-culture references, especially in the poem “This Meeting of the Westeros Environmental Alliance is Called to Order.” For all you Game of Thrones fans out there, how great is it to imagine that the small council “slashed / funding for the Dorne Nature Reserve,” or “that the drowned god drives a Tesla”?

One of the most effective devices Kreuter makes use of is the first- and second-person points of view. The speaker says, “I see you there;” “Are you asleep? Are you still watching? […] You do know that the animals / on your infants’ onesies / and crib sheets are going the way / of the telegram, don’t you?” By directly engaging with and addressing the reader, we are instantly implicated, and our addictions called out. In the closing poem, aptly titled “Final(e) Thoughts,” we’re told the world is “midway through the first [season] and cancellation looms.”

While I could go on and on about Kreuter’s whip-smart poetics, since we’re on the verge of being cancelled en masse, I better stop writing this review now—I need to binge the final season of my favourite Netflix series before it’s too late…


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