Susan Richardson. Words the Turtle Taught Me. Wales: Cinnamon Press, 2018. ISBN: 978-1-909077-71-3
Daniela Brozek Cordier
What the Mariner didn’t hear?
Susan Richardson’s Words the Turtle Taught Me caught my attention after having read Mitchell Thomashow’s paper ‘Environmental Learning in the Anthropocene: The Language of Reciprocal Sentience’ not long before. Tomashow’s paper surveys the language of nature; from Robert Macfarlane’s archival collections of disappearing words (words that open our eyes and deepen our connections to nature and place) to David Lukas’s suggestion that, through creative engagement with the environment and actively expanding our perceptive powers, we could invent new words for nature. Tomashow, like the writers he cites, suggests that we should ‘ … use language as a tool for transcendence, an open-ended conversation with species and landscapes … ‘.
Words the Turtle Taught Me is a wonderful example of what Tomashow advocates. It is a collection of thirty poems about threatened species (one poem per species). The poems were written, by Richardson, for the ‘Thirty Threatened Species’ project of the Marine Conservation Society, UK. The publication also includes an exegesis, which focuses on how Richardson’s personal engagement with each of the species influenced the poems. As I was reading this, I wondered if the exegesis somewhat overshadowed the poems, creating a massive, inescapable human presence that detracted from the species themselves, which are so brightly illuminated in the poems. The poems on their own would have made a wonderful chapbook.
The exegesis has some value though. At one point, Richardson draws attention to how problematic it can be, trying to make people enthusiastic about many marine species. She notes, for example, the temptation to use ‘domestic, human-focussed similes and metaphors’ (83). Generally Richardson resists this compulsion however; in ‘De-extinct – Squatina squatina‘, her language is spare and scientific. The lines are coupled like strands of DNA, only it is DNA that is stressed, breaking apart, threatening to drift away:
If we can fashion fur and tusk
from mammoth cash;
fabricate great awks and engineer
sheer redemption –
we won’t need to untrawl,
by catch bye-bye
for we can match
and mix, do
and un-die, get high
on tech, spawn sci-fact
from sci-fi …
The exegesis certainly offers a lot of food for thought. Together with the poems, which, though thematically similar, are extremely variable in form, Richardson’s exegesis demonstrates how many different ways there are to write, and offers ideas writers might try in their own projects. For this reason, Words the Turtle Taught Me could be really useful to help those teaching creative writing and poetry. It would be suitable for people of all ages.
But returning to the poems themselves: each of Richardson’s poems has a one word title, followed by a subtitle which is the Latin name for the subject species. I know a few Latin names, and have a rudimentary enough grasp to sometimes guess what sort of species a name suggests, but mostly, I read Words the Turtle Taught Me the first time without knowing precisely to which species a poem was referring. I did this because I wanted to read the poems for what they evoked in their own right, without allowing my preconceptions to obscure Richardson’s words. I wanted to know whether her poems really could open my mind to unanticipated ways of perceiving the species. Certainly they do. The heartbreaking ‘Waste – Dermochelys coriacea‘ completely belies any notion of sentimentality that might be suggested by the title. It describes in shocking, visceral detail, the impacts of plastic bags, nets and other human waste upon turtles (33–34). ‘Stench – Galeorhinus galeus‘, on the other hand, wrenches open the doors of perception, making us wonder at the incredible sensory faculties of a shark:
Imagine smelling the creeping acidity of the sea
tiny shelled terrors
The poems ‘Watch – Lutra lutra‘ and ‘Watched – Prionace glauca‘ are startlingly juxtaposed. The former (about otters), follows animals who are absent and yet reassuringly present, for they leave traces affectively strong enough to impact on the narrator:
Now oaked among roots
I can feel
the river dream him again.
tarka my way
Despite the upfront ‘I’s, which are repeated throughout ‘Watch’, it is always the animal, Lutra lutra, that is foremost. Richardson evokes it through descriptions of the traces it leaves, and these vibrantly bring the creature to life in the reader’s mind, making it seem as though it is indeed physically present. The tables are turned brilliantly though, in ‘Watched’, which is about the Blue Shark. In this poem, it is the trailing, blundering, human who is conjured-up and Richardson dramatically exposes all of our inadequacy as the would-be custodians of other species:
… Always baiting
your breath with blamings and stats.
Always wording. Always herding
us into bar charts and grids.
Always blurting our secrets …
Words the Turtle Taught Me is a thoughtful and engaging collection of poems, and has been presented bound in this volume, with the accompaniment of evocative, intricate images by Pat Gregory. It is an appealing publication, but one that cannot be read with undiminished wonderment and joy, for the poems and images, together, seem almost more a memorial to these thirty species, all of which are edging inexorably closer to extinction every day. This cannot be forgotten as one weaves one’s way through the book, for the species are organised into short sections, each titled according to the level of concern for the species, in accordance with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s ‘Red List’. The collection begins with three species of ‘Least Concern’, before marching adamantly onward, through ‘Vulnerable’ and ‘Endangered’, and eventually to ‘Critically Endangered’. Richardson ends there, with one of her most curious and haunting poems: ‘Plibble – Acipenser sturio‘. I will not provide an extract of this poem, for it is beyond mere human words. In fact you will discover what it does if you turn to page 72: it preserves and transcribes, Richardson suggests, the language of ‘the last sturgeon to be sighted in the Severn Estuary, … some three decades ago’. This astonishing poem will surely encourage readers to cup their ears to the languages of the natural world occasionally. It is a marvellous feat of trans-species imagination.
As is surely clear from the example of ‘Plibble’, it cannot be said that reading Words the Turtle Taught Me does not bring some real pleasure, despite the overarching gloom. Richardson shows us how to hear the other sentient beings that surround us and, in so doing, she also makes us understand why their extinction would be so great a loss. This is the lasting effect of one of her most joyful and poignant poems – ‘Play – Lamna nasus‘, where I will leave you, with this wondrous extract:
love quickswim and squidding
love egging little finniness –
love best when frondling kelp
the overunder underover roll and oh
the gilly tingle
Tomashow, Mitchell. ‘Environmental Learning in the Anthropocene: The Language of Reciprocal Sentience’. Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built and Natural Environments, March 3, 2017, https://www.terrain.org/2017/environmental-learning-in-the-anthropocene/reciprocal-sentience/. Accessed 8/3/2017.
Daniela Brozek Cordier was made by Tasmania’s wild and human places. She has taught English in Europe, been a guide on Tasmania’s Overland Track, worked in tourism and marketing, grown and sold plants, and was an environmental consultant for many years. She is principal of Bright South, which, among other things, publishes poetry and assists writers with marketing and promotion.