Neck deep in the need for change, epoch-making change of the kind that might carry an impacted world towards sustained renewal, feeding our kinship and care to the more-than-human communities we are part of, keeping vibrant the pulse of the biosphere, ourselves included, one could ask why we would ‘waste time’ with poetry. What cultural threads might poetry expose and tug at with sufficient force to achieve such ends? Who is it that would listen even if such demands could be expressed?
It’s the old question the little person asks to be let off the hook in times of
pressure—“what difference can I possibly make?” Or as Jayant Kashyap’s smoker says in ‘The Earth as a Woman Passively Smoking’:
what difference does quitting make
isn’t death the only constant?
This is the voice of one who has mastered, Kashyap suggests, “the art of not having / regrets”. Such artistry can itself become, of course, part of the tapestry of a given time. Every (smoker’s) breath adds to the fabric of what is caused and what is possible. Every poem.
The question of whether we should bother with poetry needs to be replaced, I think, by acknowledgement that it is here, undeniably present across multiple cultures. Expression designed to reflect, to pause, to shift the angle of our gaze, to challenge—collections of humans seem to breed a will for it, one way or another, and the poems in this issue powerfully evidence the draw and strength of speaking in poetry’s peculiar ways. The question to ask of it, and of all human pursuits anywhere, is not ‘why’ or ‘if’ but ‘how’—how will its practitioners be taking part in the conversations that are of our time?
Large in these conversations are the currently dominant patterns of exploitative, human consumerism, few of which are serving the planet well. We face no single problem the removal of which would render our current state optimistic. Solve climate change and we would still be facing tipping points in habitat and biodiversity loss, in pollution, poverty, population … we should not be looking for single solutions within the systems of exchange (human-to-human and human-to-more-than-human) favoured by the industrial-technological cultures by which so many of us are occupied. We should rather be looking for ways to re-write, open-out or up-end the characteristically assumed relationships these systems seem to require. We could look, just for a start, at what lies outside the human-contrived box of growth-dependency.
Poetry tells us there is something to be seen. Many of this issue’s poems describe a larger, more complex connectivity just waiting to be acknowledged, waiting to be returned to, valued, liberated, or rather, waiting for those of us caught up in the ways of colonial capitalism to liberate ourselves enough to recognise the ecosphere as always and already involving us. From Kim Carter’s ‘The Body Wants to Say’:
moonlight unseam this
lonely skin and make rivers
once more in marrow canyons
Madronna Holden’s ‘This Body that Carries Us’ also embeds the connectivity as a tangible presence in our bodies, the commons of this deep time we share emerging in the poem as the sense that what we think of as ourselves can never truly be just our own:
Sweet net of skin,
you have caught me too:
the birds in my blood
are rustling in their nest.
Falling deeply into what the body knows, we can hear it “instructing us how to love this world / with all those spirits speaking their names / next to our hearts.”
‘We are all river’, Helga Jermy explains, and in this poem there is the refreshingly explicit inclusion not only of the river in its so-called natural state, but as we have shaped and dirtied it, running it by power stations, through sewerage pipes:
The river is looking confused at the
U-turn, escaping into clay banks
or eddying about in circles driving
the fish crazy in its dance.
Will we drink that stir of crazy
when it meets our dinner plate as salmon?
The importance of this inclusion can’t, I think, be overstated. If the nature we are to care for is always ‘over there’, never the nature we are consuming, never the tap we turn, the food on our plates, or the plates themselves, then we will never escape the human/nature divide currently at centre stage of the degradation inflicted on this planet.
We can respond, these poems tell us, to the spiralling decline of the health of the ecosystems we are part of by reminding ourselves of our embeddedness, by reaching out to a sense of kinship and responsibility. Yet not all of the poems accept this approach as being truly available. Even if the allure is strong, there’s rarely an absence of competing interests. Immediate gratification, the perks (for some) of the status quo, the weight of resistance to change, indebted as our modern societies are to an imagined future profit—all these things are perhaps what allow Jane Campbell to conclude, in ‘Politix’, that while we may “beg for transformation”, in the end we are less likely to rebel than to regret. Nola Firth’s ‘Humbaba’ underscores this propensity by comparing the sins of Gilgamesh (from the many-thousands-of-years old ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’) to today’s timber industry—Humbaba, god of the forest, will not conclude that we have learned anything good.
Jesse Caverly’s ‘Arc of the Covenant’ describes the larger connectivity by which we are surrounded as, rather pleasingly, a poem, the poem, yet it’s one “we cannot decipher”, one within which our fragmented pursuits are perhaps as much cause for despair as hope. We are of this poem that is “always ready to be heard” and yet are divided by our encounters within it. Like some kind of curse, the fragmentation of our narrow, too-human lives rides every approach to the whole we are perhaps predisposed to long for, our self-minded pursuits forever derailing the unity we are sure is beside, inside and still, as if always, beyond us.
There are some decidedly sinister aspects to this derailing. Cindy Botha’s ‘dear being’ reminds us sharply of the ‘othering’ we achieve on a daily basis by forcibly drawing our senses to a raft of crimes made invisible, cruelties the majority of us have allowed ourselves, one way or another, to ignore or to be awfully content with: a shark in “fin-less freefall”, an Asiatic black bear, or moon bear, caged for decades to allow the extraction of its bile. There is a temptation, even within the poem, to turn away from the pain. In Botha’s ‘Rhino, absent’, we are encouraged to lie beside extinction itself. You should feel, the poem says, the gravity of it. But do we? And if so, do we rebel in response … or do we regret?
Brent Cantwell’s ‘a good run –’ offers awe at our capacity for delusion: “I just can’t believe you think you are way out there”, says the poem, the ‘good run’ an erroneous self-assessment of how things are, a deception born, the poem suggests, of a view broken into too many parts, our “calorie-counted / progress”. Storm Ainsely’s ‘401(k)s’ manages to poignantly capture the baggage piled as if impenetrably against the desire and need for an alternative route. Laurence Lillvik’s ‘Wahclella Falls’ recounts a comparable failure, though with a very different tone and in relation to a specific location: please, the poem concludes, “Please know that I miss you”.
For all that we may seek to reconnect with the more-than-human world, to recognise and respond to our embeddedness within it, we are also held, it would seem, by the narrowness of our own stories, devastating examples of which have become deeply entrenched in the societal machines through which we operate. A number of the poems in this issue offer the same persistent answer to these limitations. Namely: awareness. We can and must notice the life and life processes we share the planet with. What else are we missing, asks Isabella Mead in ‘Visions’, imploring us to hunt out, urgently, the news of our non-human neighbours. Annie Hunter’s ‘Whale fall’ rewrites the history of whaling by filling the gaps in our human-centred versions with the vital and absorbing presence of the more-than-human life we are surrounded by. The world we live in is wonderfully enlarged by her writing.
Awareness is not only about how we see, of course, but also about how we behave in response. Stuart Cooke’s ‘On My Octopus Teacher’, like Gavin Van Horn’s ‘Coyotism’, questions some strong-held assumptions about the kinds of relationships that might be possible, each illuminating the contradictions in the narrations that uphold them. Julie Watts tips these possibilities for change into an actual sense of upswell–
“could this could this be”, she asks in ‘The Changing of the Rug’, the “sun and oranges” pitched to the British as a reason to emigrate giving way, the poem allows, to something more respectful of the depths of this country:
all the white-washed stories
trembling in the threads.
kaleidoscopic imprints flicker
a silent gasp an ancient hum
yes this could be.
There are many ways to conceive of ourselves and our relationships, many ways of framing and misrepresenting, as well, the places we inhabit and the life we share these places with. In the sad, oddly desperate encounter described by Marlowe Jones’ ‘In the Woods Behind the High School‘, it appears the only deeply more-than-human experience on offer occurs outside the school in a remnant wood beside a highway. Genuine connection happens in the cracks, the poem tells us, within our dominant ways of being. Departmentalisation, false straight lines and forced divergences—it’s no wonder the potential for such connection is dampened.
There’s a particularly interesting comparison, on this front, between two poems by the same poet, Alex McKeown. In ‘prayer for kunanyi’, shared knowledge is carried in us as a two-way relationship, a spiritual connection with stone that defies conventional measure. In ‘The Gathering’, it is measure itself, a reef survey, that becomes our point of focus. The poems could hardly be more different, intimate and refreshingly fluid on the one hand, with the cool mechanisms for objective observation on the other. There’s no overt complaint offered against these mechanisms—they are, rather, another way of seeing, a way proven to be useful though also, it shouldn’t be forgotten, incomplete. Andie Hay picks up the same comparison within her poem ‘Earth tide’, describing the intricate techniques for measuring the tidal movements of the Earth’s crust as “One of our gentler acts / of domination”, adding the provocative, beyond-measurement question of whether this movement might not prompt us to consider the Earth alive.
What have we learned from all these poems? We know we are part of a more-than-human world. We know we witness it via the narrowness of our human tales. We know we can push against the bias of our human-centricity by increasing our awareness of the world around us, though our means for doing so can themselves be laden with assumptions. Ion Corcos, in ‘How a Word Untangles Itself to More’, reminds us to work with and not against the limits of our language. Where our will to know fails, where language refuses again to contain what we would describe, we can perhaps be grateful:
rather than not being able to explain further,
its fall does just the opposite;
silence opens the way to notice
the sand, the sea, a weathered stone,
as what they are, themselves,
and in situ;
the burden to understand what a stone really is
is lifted, the focus broadened
to see the picture in its unbrokenness.
And so the circle is complete, returning us to the more-than-human whole within which we breathe. The transformative now, we might conclude, is an ongoing oscillation, requiring our voices, those here, those of all who are willing, to be applied repeatedly to the ways that might yet open up for us.
Asked to challenge the human-centric viewpoint, replacing it with the relationships we need to be better citizens of the world we share, the poems of this issue have returned two central ideas. That the multiple ways in which we are connected to this rich and complex Earth wait only for us to notice them and to live like we believe they matter. And that this noticing, and this belief, will not arrive as a final destination but as an ongoing involvement. Why? Because we know there will always be competing interests, other ways of seeing, as well as knowledge yet to be uncovered. We can aim to integrate into our daily behaviours the recognition that everything we take comes from somewhere, everything we do has an impact, every breath we take has a relationship to other life, but we will need, as well, to accept what this recognition means. That it requires change, that there will be some things, and some values too, we relinquish and others we take on board. And that we must use the voices we have to write the poems, or perhaps the poem, that will yet, and again, engage us amid the relationships of a living world.