Sea Ice Melting While We Fall in Love
The Owl Inside by Ivy Ireland. Puncher and Wattmann, 2020. ISBN 9781925780727
Forget what you were doing just now, or planning to do thereafter. Forget the cup of tea or the wine, the crackers you thought would pair well with an evening of leisurely poetry. Once you open Ivy Ireland’s The Owl Inside you’ll find yourself within a spell zone. Better to relax into this undergoing and become comfortable with the uncomfortable like a long stretch. Better let the tea get cold. Nothing too mystical about these words, the speaker of the title poem insists, shrugging. A calling owl to her is just a reminder to take out the green bin, and the regular one. The owl is a regular boobook—she knows her owls—and neither omen of doom nor Hadean creature from the underworld. Yet everything in this poem is made carefully strange; the ordinary is out of order, the familiar estranged, the owl somehow inside:
In fact, it was numinous: scorpion moon in a cloud ring,
Bleeding out into the mottled sky like thoughts through an
(‘The Owl Inside’, 11)
The speaker here has clearly tuned her faculties to the mythic dimension of the world surrounding her, as someone who experiences the world as being animated, stones and rocks included. After taking out the bins she stands “statue still”, with her chest bare, “absorbing moonlight like a witch” (11). If this is not a set-up for myth what is?
From this first mesmerising poem on, a game is being played in Ivy Ireland’s collection, dissolving seemingly separate spheres: inside and outside, nature and culture, the mundane and the numinous, the factual and the fantastical. This often results in the display of a simultaneity of everything, an affective overload that feels familiar:
sea ice melting close by while
we fall in love
(‘Crossing the Sun’, 12)
Reading Ireland the term permeability comes to mind, omnipresent in so many ecological and earth processes. Ireland’s speaker, or rather perhaps speakers, seem to be almost in an osmotic exchange with the world that surrounds them. The Glossary for Writing within the Anthropocene, edited by Linda Russo and Marthe Reed, has the following to say about permeability:
a porousness that insists upon the co-presence of the other, of the outside, of the self as other (…) [a] state of compassion and vulnerability that is an opening of the self and an acknowledgement of the various systems (people, objects, animals, ecosystems, histories) that compose the self.
Naturally, all this has its perils. Anybody who experiences great compassion for other living beings and for the world at large, is increasingly prone to suffering in the face of great loss; be it dreadful extinction rates, ocean acidification, the meltdown of glaciers, harrowing wildfires. Ireland—a local to the Newcastle area of NSW—writes about the threat of bushfires in the poem, ‘How to Protect the Lungs’:
Inhalation of ash is the new normal
as I fashion myself Jungian,
transpersonal, still able to scribble and scrawl
what dreams are left of me,
while my hands wrinkle and curl to crone,
and the forest burns. All forest,
not just this one here by the garden.
The poem is an artful exploration of many of the themes in this collection: the unfathomable simultaneity of outright desperation and teeth-grinding defiance, moments of hope, of mystery and beauty, and the cognitive dissonance of humans as a whole species. The future feels extinct, Ireland writes, but still goes out to buy a box of breathing masks against the thick smoke of a burning landscape.
There is a certain tongue-in-cheek feeling to her poems, a humour, and a lightness of the heart, despite it all. Motherhood meets climate disruption, meets space travel, meets the guilt of a non-free-range drive-thru breakfast, meets the wondrous communication of trees. Kinship and the connection of everything to everything else is articulated rather factually, without much accusation. Certain observations read more like private jokes and musings to the speaker, and she lets the reader know about it: “If no one else felt the connection: owl, bin, ring” (11), Ireland writes in the title poem, then the discovery is solely hers. That’s how it should be. Other times she invites the reader to complete the one line she can’t finish herself, “perhaps it will bear its own weight / and leave its own imprint” (‘Sea Eagles’, 17).
The predicament we’re in as humans is so huge in proportion that overwhelm, paralysis, and chilling and watching Netflix are common responses. Bearing witness has always been the task of writers and poets at any time, but Ireland’s speaker notably quarrels with the limitation and value of even this occupation. Nostalgia and marveling at the wonders of nature very clearly seem insufficient responses while the forest next to the garden is bursting into flames. But is it enough to witness the calamity? A poem won’t purge the flames, won’t keep the sea from rising, and millions of animals from becoming extinct. So, what do we do, as poets and writers? Ireland writes in ‘I am Not Doing Anything’:
I spend my time reading up on the burden of overwhelm –
This is as useless as everything else.
We never really get to know about the other things that need to be done instead of reading, and consequently as readers we experience overwhelm. In other pieces, Ireland is more accepting of her/our limitations:
Forgive yourself for choosing the
Straight way to small victory;
For finding safety in the folds of
Clean towels crisping up the linen press.
(‘Household Accounting’, 44)
To bury one’s head in a heap of fresh towels is a relatable scenario in the face of catastrophe. It is also an act that speaks to the way Ireland’s poems in The Owl Inside perform a kind of open-heart surgery, leaving you raw and vulnerable but also with a renewed sense of gratefulness. In a true Wittgensteinian sense these poems are composed in the language of information but are not available for the language-game of giving information. Put another way: Ireland won’t tell you how to tackle the ecological crisis that is upon us. What she will do, and does in utter elegance, is alert us to the comfort of immensity without ever suggesting we just wait and do nothing:
Out there beyond all this endless egging on
Spins a diamond-core planet with beings
Being the days away, just like us –
But much better at it, naturally.
(‘Sea Eagles’, 17)
Russo, Linda, and Reed, Marthe (eds.). Counter-Desecration. A Glossary for Writing Within the Anthropocene. Wesleyan University Press, 2018.
Anne-Sophie Balzer is a German journalist, doctoral candidate and poet. “Writing with Glaciers”, her PhD project, is an inquiry into glacial poetics written under the influence of what is known as the Anthropocene. Anne-Sophie holds a BA in Comparative Literature from the University of Erfurt and a MA in Cultural Theory and History from Humboldt University of Berlin. She recently moved back to Germany from Norway where she worked on organic farms and practised playing the violin.