Disaster prone

Life on the brink, from Tambora to now

When Mount Tambora erupted in 1815 on one of the islands of Indonesia, the surrounding countryside and towns were smothered by a blanket of pumice and ash. Those who didn’t instantly die starved to death from the resulting contamination of food and water. The following year, because of particles in the stratosphere, no summer came as far away as Europe; crops failed and populations around the globe suffered from epidemics and food shortages. Rachel Lebowitz anchors her new collection of lyric essays in these apocalyptic years—years that spawned a host of social and spiritual upheavals around the globe as well as a flurry of artistic works including J.M.W. Turner’s turbulent paintings of sunsets and Shelley’s Frankenstein. She then spirals around it toward the present, pausing to dive into another, more recent disaster: the boggy battlefields of the First World War. Her essays abound with allusions to fairy tales, Greek myths, and literary works, creating a veritable palimpsest of texts and times. From volcanic ash to midsummer ice to Passchendaele’s mud, from Daedalus to Norse gods, from Lord Byron to Wilfred Owen, Lebowitz seizes on ominous events that obscured, transformed, and/or disappeared swaths of unsuspecting people, and she does so in order to muse on what it means to live and to die.

In part because of its recent bicentenary, Tambora smoulders in the spotlight again, in scholarly and pop culture circles alike. Our rekindled fascination with the disaster speaks to its resonances with our times. Scroll Twitter, read the news, make small talk about the weather at a bus stop: now, more than ever, the apocalypse seems not only possible, but promised. Part poem, part study, part meditation, part confession, Lebowitz’s interconnected essays seem at once intimate and alienating. They explore what it means to live under constant threat in the twenty-first century, while supporting Lebowitz’s paranoia with snapshots of people at their worst—or, at least, their most unlucky.

From passengers trapped on a raft after a shipwreck cannibalizing one another while still clutching silverware, to famished villagers waiting for carriage horses to collapse so they can butcher them in the street, to the casualties of war being mined for their teeth to stock the dentures of the rich: if how we’ve reacted to catastrophes in the past reveals who we really are, and how we will act when the next one comes, our human being ain’t pretty. But, by including her own personal reflections in this assemblage of historical narratives, literary allusions, and striking aphorisms, Lebowitz prevents an overwhelming sense of doom from pervading her essays. As she hurtles through history, stitching shreds together, she constantly returns to her own memories, making each essay veer and flex to accommodate disparate impulses.

As a patchwork of counterpointed vignettes, The Year of No Summer follows in the footsteps of Claudia Rankine, Maggie Nelson, Daphne Marlatt, and Anne Carson. However, by privileging the historical over the personal, the book renovates the “lyric essay” genre by expanding its scope far beyond the bounds of authorial control: as each essay superimposes disparate events from many eras and places one on top of the other, the book’s inevitably incomplete historical survey, coupled with Lebowitz’s deliberate concession of any claims of mastery (“my hands are too small for God”), conjures a sense of humility as intimate as it is impressive: “What do you call it when I sit here and pull this thing, that, into some sort of order, make it cohere, smoosh it into a kind of wisdom?” she asks, before insisting, “I tell you, I shout it from the roofs: I am not wise.” Thus, in beginning with 1816, the year of no summer, the book stems from the Romantic period and, in turn, recalls Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s confidence in the power of the imagination to unify the world. But because Lebowitz’s own imaginative attempt to thread a needle through myriad historical disasters fails (as she intended, of course—how could it not?), that Romantic ­optimism sours, turns to awe-full disillusionment.

Our state of being constantly in danger—floods, wars, famines, storms—soils the veneer of the consistent day-to-day reality we rely on, as well as the meaning of our lives: as Lebowitz writes, “we know nothing, we never did.”

A constant tension pulses in the book between what I’d call levels of omniscience: as a historian, Lebowitz can connect past events that must have been, while they were occurring, too overwhelming and demanding to get clear of, to gain distance from; and yet she, too, is bound to her own subject position, struggling to get a sense of the past from the tumultuous vantage point of her own present moment. By adding her personal life into her historical arrangements, Lebowitz gets to both frame and fill in the past with the privilege of hindsight, while at once empathizing with the victims of the disasters she catalogues. Take, for instance, the way Lebowitz’s own position shifts in two passages from her essay “Medusa,” which hones in on the wreck of Méduse, a French frigate that, in June of 1816, snagged on a reef and was hastily evacuated so that 147 people wound up stranded on a raft adrift in the ocean (only 15 survived the ordeal):

For it is not enough for me to just tell one story, as if there is this one thing, this one wreck on the stormy sea. To them, on those boards, it must have seemed so, the raft must have been their only world, and yet I? I have the eyes of God.

In this first passage, from her comfortable vantage point among a series of books about the shipwreck, Lebowitz can collect and connect snapshots, weaving a narrative out of different accounts. And yet, no matter how much information she finds, she still can’t understand why the wreck happened:

I look out and see the ships and the pigeons, men waving pitchforks, transforming into wolves. Mount Tambora erupts—and if I have the eyes of God, it is of an uncomprehending deity’s, who stares and stares and cannot see.

The gorgon Medusa meshes with Medusa-the-frigate here: Lebowitz, in attempting to petrify history, to capture its essence, becomes petrified, herself. To look history in the face is, in the book, to risk paralysis at the horror of being human.

Physical metamorphoses are not the only transformations in the book; one of the most marvellous aspects of The Year of No Summer is the way words transform via their repetition throughout the essays. Lebowitz remembers, in one passage, her son asking why the Earth is “always changing,” and remarks in another that “things turn into other things”; the same can be said for the malleable, melding language in the book. Take, for instance, the word “eruption,” which she uses to describe volcanoes exploding, wars beginning, food riots breaking out, and childbirth. Or try tracking the movements of flocks of pigeons throughout the essays, as they migrate apocalyptically at one point, flock with abundance at another, are likened to waves striking a boat’s hull, and are also likened to the sun-blotting wing of God that “hath covered” the sun (the opposite of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “ah! bright wings” in his poem “God’s Grandeur” perhaps?).

Just as Lebowitz’s foray into the archive has created a singular work that depends, entirely, on the idiosyncrasies of her own life, so this book will surely snag each reader in a particular, puzzling way. Moving passages on motherhood inject the text with glimmers of wonder made all the more potent by their proximity to scenes of grotesque, depraved human behaviour. Alongside “stories of mothers, eating their young,” Lebowitz, a mother herself, can’t help but ask, desperately, but also hopefully, “always, where are the children?”
The Year of No Summer is full of poignant echoes that are, to echo her essay “Tambora,” “so hard, so sad, so beautiful.”

The word in the subtitle, reckoning, applies in its many senses: as “the action or an act of accounting to God after death…as in Judgement Day,” “a time of calling or holding to account,” “a calculation,” “a calendar,” “the act…of estimating something,” “a way of thinking…a point of view,” “a calculated term of pregnancy,” and “an estimate of a ship’s position.”1 And the book becomes all the more impressive when one sees it encompass all of these definitions: from crises of faith, to suggestions that our own lives could very well end in unforeseen disasters, to intimations about motherhood, to shipwrecks. Lebowitz speaks to the book’s poetic wordplay herself when she writes, almost exactly halfway through The Year of No Summer, at its epicenter, “Perhaps it’s right that in writing about this morass, there should come a metaphor so mixed.” Anything more unified would ring false; diverse and haunting, these essays cling to you long after you’ve read them, like lingering grains of wet, black sand.


  1. As defined in the <i>Oxford English Dictionary.</i>