collections aim to disrupt. It’s also potentially disingenuous: if poetry is to shift how we see, are the ecological visions it offers genuinely different to those it claims to disavow? And can such poetry really be said to be ‘universal’, and thus the ‘most ideal’ way to understand the climate crisis, if it’s often obscure to the point of inaccessibility for all but the most literary of readers?
In 100 Poems, the speaker of Wendell Berry’s ‘The Peace of Wild Things’ finds refuge from climate anxiety in the waters that surround his house:
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the last sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water […] I come into the peace of wild things […] I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. Like many of us living in the Global North, this speaker is only now sensing the real extent of the climate crisis, because they finally see how it might encroach on their life. The nature that becomes their sanctuary is explicitly ‘wild’, a seemingly unpopulated retreat in which human activity is reassuringly absent, giving way to a soothing aestheticism. This vision of nature, as a luscious, green and sensory escape, has pervaded nature writing historically, and continues to do so. It’s a tendency that manifests in different ways across 100 Poems; in one poem we travel through a ‘lane stitched with hazel’ and hear a ‘beehive’s sultry / murmur’ (Seán Hewitt, ‘Meadow’), while in another we see ‘white hens [pecking] at shreds of light’ and smell ‘honeysuckle air’ (Jennifer Hunt, ‘September’). ‘Don’t wait to walk out […] to the boggy fields’, instructs Em Strang, and her energetic poem ‘Water of Ae’, encapsulates what so many of these poets imply: that to connect with nature we must go out and find it, before it disappears.
Of course, there’s nothing objectively wrong with that; in the context of the ecological emergency, it seems fitting to write words that revel in and memorialise those sites of loss. But in doing so, many of these poems – particularly when read together – inadvertently perpetuate traditional ideas of nature: it is, in Morton’s words, a ‘reified thing in the distance’, opposed to humans and civilisation. That interconnection we must seek if we are to achieve ecological balance, the messy enmeshment of the human and nonhuman, is lost to a pastoral idyll that may never have existed and feels increasingly disconnected from our ecological realities.
But there are also poems that are actively wary of this perspective, acknowledging the way such aestheticism can accidentally commodify; Out of Time aims to distance itself from a ‘neo-Romanticism’ that celebrates the beauty of nature. In Cath Drake’s ‘What I’m Making With the World’, the speaker turns the world itself into a handbag: she ‘cut around the best bits: / the Alps, Machu Picchu,
Pyramids, Grand Canyon, and ditched / the ugly blots like Calcutta, Guatemala, Brisbane […] endless boring tower blocks’. In 100 Poems, Samuel Tongue turns deliberately to the mundane and ugly: his poem ‘Fish Counter’ studies ‘[c]od that have been skinned. Cod that have a pebble / of dill butter in their heads’, ‘pollock, de-scented’ and ‘[f]ish fingers mashed from fragments of once-fish’. His poem suggests that the relations between the human and nonhuman are largely global, economic and consumeristic; it captures the dissonance of imagining a fish as part of the ‘peace of wild things’ and encountering it as a dead bit of meat in a brightly lit supermarket.
The editors of both anthologies state their intention to seek out an intersectional lens: in 100 Poems, Brigley and Evans note that ‘the voices gathered[…] often speak in terms of ecological justice’, while the introduction for Out of Time states that the climate crisis is ‘inextricably tied to the metrics of justice’. While both anthologies could include more poems that genuinely confront the political nature of the climate crisis, those that do so do it very well. In particular, I find myself thinking of Marvin Thompson’s ‘Whilst Searching for Anansi with My Mixed Race Children in the Blaen Bran Community Woodland’ (100 Poems), and of Gboyega Odubanjo’s ‘Oil Music’ (Out of Time), for weeks after I read them.
Thompson’s speaker encounters a fox, lying deathly still: ‘Dad, is it dead?’, his children ask, intrigued. He cannot engage as they do: ‘Inside my head / are Mark Duggan’s smile and last night’s heavy dread: / I dreamt his death again’. The fox in front of him is a hollow, mangled echo of the human injustices and deaths that fill the speaker’s mind and memory, distancing him from the woodland environment. But when he dismisses the fox as dead, his children protest: ‘It’s breathing, Dad […] Listen, hard!’ Through their eyes, a simple tenderness emerges: ‘[t]he fox’s eyes listen.’ Mark Duggan is present in the poem, but so is the fox – not because they are equal in the mind of the speaker, but because these realities emerge intertwined, in strange conversation.
The inherent connection between racism and the environment is made explicit by Odubanjo’s ‘Oil Music’, which riffs on Blackness and fossil fuel extraction to explore the insidious processes of racial capitalism. As he writes:
i’ll get the bathtub ready. i’m in. we in ceramic. let’s say black. i’m bp. you’re shell. we all in. we in the black. we both in a barrel. call it a village. we both in the pumping. the people no get no nothing. A bathtub becomes a barrel of oil, which becomes a synecdoche for the oil industry in general as it gains material riches – black oil – through destroying Black people’s lives and lands. As the poem continues, this
40 Poetry London | Spring 2022