“The trees are weeping
in the Land of Israel…
There is no compassion
For the land’s raiment –
Its seven species…
And on these parcels of land
Concessions will be granted
To Burger king
And Kentucky Fried Chicken.”
From The Trees are Weeping by Aharon Shabtai
We’ve seen how poetry and the environment can intersect, as in the work of poet laureate Robert Hass. ‘Earth Shattering: Ecopoems’ is an exquisite collection of vital writings on the most important topic today. That is not to say all the poetry and collected pieces in ‘Earth Shattering: Ecopoems’ are wonderful and worthwhile, but collectively they form a powerful and deeply persuasive mandate for reflection and response.
I love the range of work presented here – from small and subtle observations of animals and smells and sounds, to real destruction and the real consequences of ignorance and pollution.
“It’s about selling off resources
having a place in the global glut.
& moving greed, mediocrity & stupidity
to a new plateau of power…”
From ‘What Do They care’ by Jayne Cortez (about the Ogoni people)
Despite what he says in the introduction, editor Neil Astley (who founded the wonderful Bloodaxe Poetry Publishers in 1978: many celebrations for your 30th year!) has a clear bias toward British poets. Those of us with a British literary education may welcome reconnecting with some of the old favourites, although many learnt at school aren’t included.
I was surprised that Derek Mahon’s ‘A disused shed in County Wexford’ wasn’t here, although it appears in many other anthologies. American poet W.S Merwin appears 10 times here, which does seem excessive. Less Merwin, more Mahon, more Yeats, maybe some Rupert Brooke – but these are just my own preferences.
The middle section of the book is crammed full with Hardy, Hughes, Motion, Harrison, Larking and Betjeman – all worthy of inclusion absolutely, though a heavy and heady chunk of British narrative and experience that weighs down our Imperial and Industrial heritage.
The introduction implies that North American poets in particular define the school of ‘ecocriticism’ that ecopoetry has grown out of, but as the collection demonstrates, nineteen-century poets like Wordsworth, Gerald Manley Hopkins, John Keats, and William Blake (even earlier) knew of no such term. They just saw, reflected, and wrote, needing no school or tradition.
“All nature has a feeling: woods, fields, brooks
Are life eternal: and in silence they
Speak happiness beyond the reach of books…”
From ‘All nature has a feeling’ by John Clare (d.1864)
This aside, ‘Earth Shattering’ is a valuable collection that greatly advances knowledge and appreciation of the poetic form towards many aspects of the world – its natural majesty, human influence, and the human/nature interaction. American poets do find their place here (in addition to Mr Merwin), such as Henry Thoreau appropriately early on, followed up by the recent genius of Gary Snyder, as do several other nationalities, and the opening section featuring examples of wilderness poetry of Ancient China is a real gem – grounding the collection in crisp and concise imagery.
Editor Astley divides the collection into topics and subtopics within this theme: ranging from ‘rooted in nature’, to ‘killing the wildlife’, ‘loss and persistence’ through to ‘force of nature’ and ‘natural disasters’. Many of the poems scatter their words and images out from the subdivisions they are squeezed within, but some order out of the literary chaos is needed.
“Owls shuffle their silent wings
and dissolve in the fixer.
Shape words over what you see.
The river flows from your
Eyes into the sink, bulrushes
Hum with mosquitoes
That speckle the print.“
From ‘Meshing bends in the light’ by Robert Adamson
To quote Astley; “Ecopoems dramatise the dangers and poverty of a modern world perilously cut off from nature and ruled by technology, self-interest and economic power.”
“What is the smell of the earth
except an indescribable
sense of belonging,
hard to tell from longing.“
From ‘Sweetness’ by Dinah Livingstone
If poems can spark emotions and responses in their readers, the poet has struck the arrow of carved and crafted words right into its intended target.
“the high flats at Craigston stand
rawboned in a raw land,
washed by thunderstorm and sun
and cloud shadows rolling on …. “
From ‘The high flats at Craigston’ by G.F. Dutton poem
While reading ‘Earth Shattering’ I have bought 2 books from poets featured whom I wanted to read more of. There are a dozen or so poets included here it was a delight to discover. This collection should be in homes and schools, and in the hands of anyone who cares.
That is the highest praise I can give this collection: it will be a treasured book to keep close while the years ahead demonstrate how climate change will affect us, and whether the currently meagre human response will ease nature’s course. Poetry can sometimes be a balm, and this may be precisely what is needed in the years ahead.
“They considered the lilies, how they grow,
And read their secondhand books, still wondering
If even Solomon’s wisdom could suffice
To save the human venture that began
In Eden; its art, its building, and its law.”
From ‘Hurry Up Please, its Time’ by John Powell Ward
Others may get fired up to act and encourage others to act after reading words included here. However we respond to words, and the themes and ideas presented in poems: we must keep them close.
Otherwise, the future looks bleak indeed.
“Imagine it, they think,
way out there, outside of ‘nature’, unhampered,
a place contrived by man, supreme
triumph of reason. They know it will happen.
They do not love the earth. “
From ‘Those Who Want Out’ by Denise Levertov
‘Earth Shattering: Ecopoems’ Edited by Neil Astley 2007
Published by Bloodaxe Books UK www.bloodaxebooks.com
There are plenty more reviews for your exquisite perusal in our
Green Prophet ‘summer eco reads festival’. Check out some of our previous book reviews: