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We're all here thanks to the rhizodont: not a lot of people know that

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What are we doing to the planet? What is technology doing to us? These are the common themes, according to the poet herself, within the new collection of poetry by Katrina Porteous, who might well be described as the laureate of the Northumberland coast.

Her collection Rhizodont, published by Bloodaxe, takes its title from the name of a three-metre-long predatory fish which became extinct 310 million years ago. It belonged to a family of fishes that are the ancestors of all four-limbed vertebrates, including humans. A rhizodont fossil has been found on the Northumberland coast.

Although it has common themes, her collection can be divided into two distinct groups – poems about the North Sea coastline, and others about science, such as researchers in Antarctica drilling into the ice and making discoveries related to climate change.

Many of her coastal poems feature birds, who, as she told her audience at Alnwick’s Barter Books, “have been accompanying us throughout our history – they’ve been here longer than we have”.

A poem about sand martins that she read at Alnwick is located at Low Hauxley dunes, near Amble, where she said peat strata exposed on the shoreline dates back at least 7,000 years, and where ancient animal and human footprints had been found. Deposits on the shore reflect the impact of a tsunami that swept across from Norway, and may have helped to inundate the legendary Doggerland inhabited by prehistoric man.

Other bird poems featured the fulmar, and eider ducks – ‘Cubby’, according to the word for them by the fishermen of Beadnell. She also read poems located in County Durham, where she grew up – about beaches once blackened by coal waste dumped out at sea but swept back by the tide, and more personal ones about family and the lost opportunities of previous generations, in poems such as ‘Kittycouldhavebeen’, compared with her own life: “What would you have made of my books,/  My Northern granddams, my tough-knuckled pioneers?” (‘Hermeneutics’).

Book II of the collection is arranged around two long sequences written in collaboration with scientists. The first sequence, ‘Ingenious’, considers the implications of data-based technologies and artificial intelligence. The closing sequence, ‘Under the Ice’, looks at how remote sensing technologies and data analysis can be employed to understand more about Earth’s systems, and in particular its climate, and patterns of change.

The collection also includes a group of linked poems from an audio sequence, 'Susurrations of the Sea', that was comissioned by BBC Radio 4, and broadcast in 2022. Porteous is very much a sound poet. ‘Melt’ is about warm currents undercutting the ice shelves of Antarctica, and her awe at the processes, a theme she explored in a show called Under the Ice which she performed last year:


     All that action and reaction, changing, exchanging –

     Loosening, tightening, shifting, shaping, making, remaking,


     Small and large negotiations with light;

     The capture, store and release of a star’s heat;


She said: “As an artist, it’s completely wonderful to me what scientists do.”

Porteous also reminded the Alnwick audience that we are moving from “an analogue age to a digital age – it’s a time of transition.” Some of her listeners of a certain age may have inwardly shuddered at this inevitable but sometimes almost impossible to negotiate world of apps, QR codes, and internet banking. She added: “It is crucial for us to concentrate as human beings on what we can do that machines can’t … the sympathetic imagination, and emotion, the things that poetry does really well.”  

And if all this makes you worry a bit about humanity’s place in the history of evolution, don’t. As Katrina Porteous put it: “We’re just passing through … I don’t find that a depressing thought.”


◄ Lisa Kelly at Write Out Loud Woking on Thursday

Celebrating nature, mourning lost landscape: England’s ‘awkward’ poet John Clare ►

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