100 Poems to Save the Earth, eds. Zoë Brigley and Kristian Evans, Seren
The timing for the launch of this anthology could not have been better given the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the COP26 UN climate change conference to be held in Glasgow later this year. As I write this, there are huge swathes of wildfires raging through Siberia, California and Greece, serious flood disasters in parts of western Europe and a severe hurricane has ripped its way through Louisiana. The Earth is in peril now.
The title of the anthology poses the question, how can poetry save the world? It’s a big claim and a big leap of faith on the part of the editors. In their introduction they suggest that poetry can act as a wake-up call, it can “find the words to describe how it feels, to sing to what hurts, to reach out … and to see all things as our kin”. Collectively, it can impress upon us a sense of duty and responsibility to look after each other and, by implication, the welfare of all living beings, be they animal or human.
It was refreshing to see how the editors had cast their net wider than usual in seeking / selecting contributions for this anthology. In addition to ‘household names’, it was pleasing to see contributions from international poets such as Craig Santos Perez, Gbenga Adesina, Vidyan Ravinthiran, Marianne Boruch, Leo Boix and Aimee Nezhukumatathil. The poems are sensitively presented, enabling the reader to compare with ease the ways in which different contributors approach related themes.
For the most part, the poems in this collection celebrate nature, make us pay more attention to it or catalogue something of what we have already lost. I particularly enjoyed Roger Robinson’s ‘A Portable Paradise’ – the title poem of his TS Eliot-prize winning collection - which emphasised just how precious a gift nature really is, and David Morley’s ‘Chorus’ which contained some beautiful, inventive and alliterative phrases aligned to the miracle of a birth in the family:
The nuthatch nails another hatch shut. The dawn is the chorus.
The merlin bowls a boomerang over bracken then catches it.
The capercaillie uncorks its bottled throat. The dawn is the chorus.
The treecreeper tips the trees upside down to trick out insects.
The sparrow sorts spare parts on a pavement. The dawn is the chorus.
The hoopoe hoops rainbows over the heath and hedgerows.
The wren runs rings through its throat. The dawn is the chorus…
There are also some very fine poems by Gbenga Adesina, Vidyan Ravinthiran, Marianne Boruch and Jen Hadfield.
The titles of some of the poems (‘Prayer’, ‘Late Prayer’, How We Were Transfigured’ ‘A New Song’ and ‘Seabird’s Blessing’ acknowledge the spiritual dimension. Others focus on celebrating creatures that have been under-represented in the poetry world: limpets, whelks and snails. Unloved vegetation such as knotweed and couch grass are also to be found in this anthology. In ‘The Peace of Wild Things’ the wisdom of Wendell Berry helps us to “rest in the grace of the world” and to be “free”. I liked the visual layout of Leo Boix’s poem about a goldfinch coming to warn the inhabitants of a fire at the end of their garden, where each stanza mimics the movement of the bird and the precision and discipline with which each of the lines moves through a rotation of 1,3,7,5 and 7 lines.
Paula Meehan’s ‘Death of a Field’ also held my attention. In it, she documents what is lost to us when property developers buy a greenfield site. One set of household names is exchanged for another. The poem is a powerful statement about the extent to which nature is eradicated using the image of domestic cleaning agents, as if it were a stain, a blot on the landscape, something that has to be wiped clean off the map:
The end of dandelion is the start of Flash
The end of dock is the start of Pledge
The end of teasel is the start of Ariel
The end of primrose is the start of Brillo
The end of thistle is the start of Bounce
The end of sloe is the start of Oxyaction
The end of herb Robert is the start of Brasso
The end of Eyebright is the start of Persil
There were moments when I felt that some of the poems did not quite square with the title of the anthology, which seemed to lean towards ways of saving the planet rather than a commentary on what has already befallen it. I was looking for poems on reforestation, animal welfare, sponge cities, electric vehicles, recycling and the reduction of carbon emissions but instead came across poems about Ragnarök, the end of the world, MIG-21 raids at Shegontola and dead cormorants in a polluted river. To this extent, some of the poems did not speak to me about saving the Earth. Maybe I have missed the messaging but some poems were hard to interpret being cast in abstract terms. Surely, when it comes to ideas, this is the time for clear statements, not for hiding one’s lamp under a bushel.
Overall these poems remind us of our own fragility. They are an invitation to take note of the world around us, to look at it with fresh eyes and to interact with it in a new way.