What Is Nature (Poetry) For?
I’ve been pondering this question thanks to an excellent conference my husband and I attended in Stamford in the middle of November: New Networks for Nature. This is the third year my husband (a teaching associate in the biology department at the University of Reading) has participated, and the second year in a row I’ve chosen one day to go. Last year I had the privilege of seeing some truly phenomenal nature writers. Dave Goulson spoke about his efforts to protect bumblebees; Helen Macdonald gave a reading from H is for Hawk; and Paul Evans and Mark Cocker were on a panel about being Guardian country diarists.
This year one of the conference highlights was a debate between Guardian journalist and rewilding proponent George Monbiot (Feral) and Tony Juniper (What Has Nature Ever Done for Us?), former head of Friends of the Earth. The topic: Is nature an economic resource or a thing of intrinsic value? Both gentlemen came out swinging and were at their most convincing.
Unless we make an economic case for preserving nature (pollinators, hydroelectric power, ecotourism), Juniper believes, we will lose it. If we reframe our approach to play on bastard politicians’ turf, Monbiot counters, we’ve already lost our integrity. Nature is worth saving for its own sake; the problem is not our arguments but our lack of power.
I tended to agree with Juniper: we aren’t winning the conservation debate in any other way, so why not introduce financial incentives? This doesn’t stop us from appreciating nature for aesthetic and spiritual reasons; it’s just another strategy.
I amused myself by imagining the opponents as a solitary noble knight waving the flag of idealism (Monbiot) and a new Noah packing nature into a money-papered Trojan horse to trick the pesky government (Juniper).
If these two, in a roundabout way, pondered what nature is for, the previous session had asked more specifically what nature poetry is for. Led by Ruth Padel, one of my favorite poets, the roster also included Jo Shapcott and Pascale Petit. Each read from her work for 15 minutes and then together they answered audience questions as a panel.
I’d never heard of Petit but ended up loving her poems – they were the highlight of my day. One was about the piece of land her mother left her in France; she asked herself in what sense she could possess the place, and soon realized that it was really a pair of resident kingfishers who owned it. She writes around her difficult childhood, imagining a father who could never be cruel to birds – but then picturing him polishing off an ortolan bunting as his last meal, as Mitterrand was said to do. Along with birds, big cats provide many of the metaphors in her work, including Aramis, a black jaguar in the Paris Zoo, and the jaguar corridor in Belize.
Padel read “The Alligator’s Great Need and Great Desire,” followed by several poems from The Mara Crossing that she had written for members of the conference steering committee, such as one about storm petrels off the Skelligs and a snippet of biographical verse about Audubon. The lovely “Nocturne” commemorates nightly jellyfish migration, a “ghostly flotilla.”
She also read one that she said was the closest she gets to an angry poem: “The Forest, the Corrupt Official and a Bowl of Penis Soup” (from 2004’s The Soho Leopard), on the absurdity of killing rare animals – in this case the tiger – so their parts can be used in medicine or cuisine. Her final reading, from memory, was “Tiger Drinking at Forest Pool”; I nearly teared up when she spoke of “Sadness healed. Haven, in the mind, // To anyone hurt by littleness.”
Shapcott read two series of wildlife-themed poems. The first set, commissioned by Padel for the Zoological Society of London, was about the slender loris, which is also suffering from its use in traditional medicine as well as habitat loss. The second was a sequence about beekeeping, from the perspective of a woman who has just been left by a beekeeper. “Telling the Bees” reflects the folk belief that you have to inform bees of major events or they will leave; it ends “he’s gone, honeys; now you’re mine.” As the poem cycle continues, the hive becomes incorporated into her body until she can’t be separated from the bees.
Padel prefaced the discussion by asking how poetry should be in the face of extinctions and the destruction of the planet. She believes a sophistication of voice and expression is required; it’s not a matter of grabbing people by the lapels and saying “LOOK AT THIS,” but of putting the details together and being a witness.
Shapcott echoed her with Heidegger’s query – what is the poet for in a desperate time? She reiterated that the poet should hold up key questions and let them resonate in people’s imaginations, not force-feed answers. Petit added that in her poetry birds are metaphors for the exploitation for the weak. All three agreed poetry is about embodiment, sensory response to the world – essential since we live least in our bodies of any species, Shapcott observed.
The theme of this year’s conference was “Place and Belonging,” and it struck me that all three poets were responding to the idea that nature belongs to us and can be used like any other possession. Instead, they reply, we should think about the places we belong to, and how we can serve rather than exploit nature. But the key is not to spell that out in polemic verse, but rather to speak of life’s particulars and hope that we manage to point to the universal.
I’ll end with part of a stanza from Padel’s “The Watcher” that seems to reinforce the personal, spiritual value of nature that so much of the conference suggested:
Quest for the sacred. And if I
could track that one stork down
on its winter ground, maybe I’d know
what has become of life and me
and where to go. I’d pour libations, follow
the omen, set up sacrifice
to the god of wayfarers, even pay a call
on the seer who decodes
the flight of birds. I’d prophesy.
Reviews Roundup, August–September
One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month I’ll provide links to all the book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a short taster so you can decide whether to click to read more. A couple of exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie or BlueInk reviews since I don’t get a byline.
Dandelion Angel by C.B. Calico (& interview): This was inspired by a non-fiction work, Understanding the Borderline Mother by Christine Ann Lawson. The four mother/daughter relationships in this Germany-set novel – all marked to some extent by dysfunction, physical and/or verbal abuse, and borderline personality disorder – are based on Lawson’s metaphorical classifications: the hermit, the queen, the waif, and the witch. Looping back through her four storylines in three complete cycles, Calico shows how mental illness is rooted in childhood experiences and can go on to affect a whole family.
The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock: Cinematic descriptions of the California desert setting plus excellent characters and dialogue enliven this debut novel about a fictional test pilot and his family troubles during America’s Space Race. Johncock is British, but you can tell he’s taken inspiration from stories about the dawn of the astronaut age. If I allowed myself small points of criticism, I would say that it’s a challenge to accept the passage of time in the final 50 pages, and that a keen interest in astronauts is probably a boon to keep readers going through the test flight portions, which to me were less compelling than the domestic drama of Jim, Grace and Florence.
Home Is Burning by Dan Marshall: At age 25, Dan Marshall went home to Salt Lake City to care for a father with ALS and a mother with leukemia. He and his four hapless siblings (a Sedaris-like clan) approached caregiving with sarcasm and dirty humor. Gleefully foul-mouthed, his memoir lacks introspective depth. He hardly ventures deeper than initial descriptions like “My gay brother, Greg” and “My adopted Native American sister, Michelle.” And even when his sentiments about his father are sincere, they are conveyed via what sound like clichés: “I wanted my poor dad to get better, not worse.” But to my surprise, Marshall made me cry in the end.
Of Orcas and Men by David Neiwert: Inspired by personal sightings near his home in Seattle, Neiwert set out to learn everything he could about orcas. The result is a thorough study of whales’ behavior and interactions with humanity from native mythology through modern-day aquarium shows. Some specialist interest would probably be helpful to those attempting this book, although there are plenty of black-and-white photographs to keep even casual readers interested. “Recovering our humanity may be the real gift of the orcas, what they can teach us. It’s our choice whether to listen.”
This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison [a subscription service, but an excerpt is available for free]: A widow in her seventies relives the ups and downs of her life while on an Alaskan cruise to scatter her husband’s ashes. Chapters alternate between a third-person account of the cruise and a second-person survey of Harriet’s past, delivered in the format of TV’s This Is Your Life. The narration is fresh and effective because the gradual revelations undermine Harriet’s elderly persona in such surprising ways. She is an out-of-the-ordinary but believable protagonist who, like all of us, has a mixture of victories and disappointments behind her. This is a charming novel about learning to reckon with the past.
Speak by Louisa Hall [subscription service, but the full text of my review will be available for free during the week starting September 25th as part of Editor’s Choice]: Hall interweaves disparate time periods and voices to track the development of artificial intelligence. The fact that all six narratives are in different documentary formats – memoirs, letters, the transcript of a dialogue, a diary, and so on – means they are easy to distinguish. One might argue that two of them (Alan Turing’s letters and Mary’s shipboard diary) are unnecessary, and yet these are by far the most enjoyable. They prove Hall has an aptitude for historical fiction, a genre she might choose to pursue in the future. A remarkable book interrogating how the languages we converse in and the stories we tell make us human.
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman: Think of Alexandra Kleeman as an heir to Dave Eggers and Douglas Coupland, with a hefty dollop of Margaret Atwood thrown in. Her first novel is a full-on postmodern satire bursting with biting commentary on consumerism and conformity. Television and shopping are the twin symbolic pillars of a book about the commodification of the body. In a culture of self-alienation where we buy things we don’t need, have no idea where food comes from and desperately keep up the façade of normalcy, Kleeman’s is a fresh voice advocating the true sanity of individuality. Don’t miss her incredible debut.
Conflict Communication by Rory Miller: Based on “ConCom,” the police verbal de-escalation program Miller developed with Marc MacYoung, this book aims to introduce readers to more conscious methods of verbal communication that will sidestep instinctive reactions and promote peaceful solutions. The advice is practical and intuitive, yet picks up on tiny details that most people would not notice. Concise, helpful, and well-organized, this is strongly recommended for readers interested in the psychology of violence and improving communication skills.
Detained by Brian Rees: Rees intersperses witty e-mail updates from his tours of Iraq and Afghanistan with clued-in commentary about war tactics, terrorism, Islam, and the benefits of transcendental meditation (TM) for soldiers with PTSD. The mixture of formats and topics generally works well, though the spiritual material deserves its own book. There’s no denying Rees’s expertise, and his fluid writing keeps the pages turning. This could make a fascinating companion volume for fans of recent war fiction such as The Yellow Birds, Redeployment, and War of the Encyclopaedists.
Talk to Me of Love by Julia Anne Bernhardt: The poems in Bernhardt’s first collection range from erotic to spiritual as they investigate love in all its forms. Repetition, rhyme, and mantras produce hypnotic sonic effects and support the central message of the epigraph: “God is in the detail.” The everyday and the eternal mix here. This well-structured collection celebrates different types of love through meditative verse. The themes’ strength is enough to recommend it to readers of Jo Shapcott and Julia Copus.
The Hidden Treasure of Dutch Buffalo Creek by Jackson Badgenoone: Otherworldly ghost writers (the “Neverborn”) compose biographies for ordinary people in this playfully metafictional novel. James is a strong central character whose memories from the 1950s through the present give a sense of history’s sweep, while vivid descriptive language enlivens the settings. Although well written, the book as a whole is an unusual amalgam of spiritualism, historical nostalgia, and technology. James’s story might have been better told as a simple coming-of-age novel with flashbacks.
Common Ground by Rob Cowen: An unassuming patch of edge-land outside Harrogate is Cowen’s nature paradise, providing him with wildlife encounters and imaginative scenarios. Essentially, what Cowen does is give profiles of the edge-land’s inhabitants: animal and human, himself included. For instance, he creates an account of the life and death of a fox; elsewhere, he crafts a first-person narrative by a deer being hunted in medieval times. These fictions emulating Watership Down or Tarka the Otter, though well written, are out of place. When the book avoids melodramatic anthropomorphizing, it is very beautiful indeed.
We Love This Book
Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks: In Faulks’s thirteenth novel, his trademark themes of war, love and memory coalesce through the story of a middle-aged psychiatrist discovering the truth about his father’s death. Reminiscent of Birdsong as well as John Fowles’s The Magus and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, this does not have the power of Faulks’s previous work but is a capable study of how war stories and love stories translate into personal history. [A few extra thoughts at Goodreads.]
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads.
How to Write a Novel by Melanie Sumner: Our would-be novelist is Aris (short for Aristotle) Thibodeau, 12.5 years old and as precocious as Flavia de Luce. Diane is her single mother, and Max her downright weird younger brother. Using Write a Novel in 30 Days!, Aris is turning her family’s life story into fiction. In some ways they are very out of place here in Kanuga, Georgia. The child’s wry look at family dysfunction reminded me of Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾. I would probably read something else from Sumner, so long as it wasn’t quite as silly and YA geared as this.
The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr: I would recommend this to anyone who reads and/or secretly wants to write memoirs; for the latter group, there is a wealth of practical advice here, on topics such as choosing the right carnal details (not sexual – or not only sexual – but physicality generally), correcting your facts and misconceptions, figuring out a structure, and settling on your voice. Along the way Karr discusses a number of favorite memoirs in detail, sometimes even line by line: Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Stop-Time by Pat Conroy, A Childhood by Harry Crews, Maya Angelou’s books, Speak, Memory by Nabokov, and so on.
Emblems of the Passing World: Poems after Photographs by August Sander by Adam Kirsch: A charming mix of historical photographs (1910s–1950s Germany) and poems. Kirsch uses his poetry to bring these one-dimensional figures to life, imagining the stories behind their generic titles (“Office Worker” or “Farming Family”) and sometimes slyly questioning the political and status connotations of such designations. One of my favorites was “Student of Philosophy.” This book could draw people whose interests usually run more to nonfiction – especially social history – into giving poetry a try. Releases November 17th.
Browsings by Michael Dirda: Dirda wrote this pleasant set of bibliophilic essays for the American Scholar website in 2012–13. He’s the American equivalent of the UK’s John Sutherland: an extremely well-read doyen of the classics with a special love for Victorian and Edwardian genre fiction, often as revived by small presses and specialist societies. At times Dirda’s interests can be a bit obscure for the average reader, and some of the essays feel redundant. Still, it’s easy to relate to his addictive book purchasing and hoarding.
The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: I read this on the train to Manchester, appropriate reading when approaching one of the UK’s biggest centers of Victorian industry and the place where Marx and Engels met to discuss ideas in the mid-1840s. Like Darwin’s Origin of Species, another seminal Victorian text, this has so many familiar lines and wonderful metaphors that have entered into common discourse that I simply assumed it was composed in English. My eyes glaze over at politics or economics, so I valued this more for its language than for its ideas. Part II, “Proletarians and Communists,” is the most focused part if you want to sample it.
Number 11 by Jonathan Coe: This is a funny and mildly disturbing state-of-England and coming-of-age novel. I’d only read one previous book by Coe, Expo 58; this is a better example of his usual pattern: multiple, loosely linked storylines. Here the theme is the absurdity of modern culture, encompassing many aspects: unjust wars, the excesses of the uber-rich, the obsession with celebrity, and suspicion and exclusion of those who are different from us. The number 11 keeps popping up, too. My favorite parts were a Survivor-type reality television show and a laughably over-the-top prize ceremony banquet. Releases November 11th.
My Family and Other Superheroes by Jonathan Edwards: Edwards displays his proud Welsh heritage with poems reflecting on his family tree and the country’s landscape. One of my favorites was “View of Valleys Village from a Hill,” in which the narrator, with a God’s-eye view of his family, envisions messing around with them. The witty “In John F. Kennedy International Airport” imagines that Wales has been abolished and recreated in miniature in a small Kansas museum (a bit like Julian Barnes’s England, England).
The Whole & Rain-domed Universe by Colette Bryce: Many of these poems are about the author’s Irish family inheritance, both literal and figurative, as in “Heritance”: “From her? Resilience. Generosity. / A teacher’s gravitas. / Irish stew. A sense / of the ridiculous. High ceilings.” I loved the first line of “Signature” – “When I finally gave up and became my mother.” It’s particularly nice how enjambment often makes the thought go just that one line beyond what you expect. I’d read more from Bryce.