Reading and Reviews

An extract from Grieving with the Animals:

 

I came home

to find him

doing nothing.

Limp armed.

Could do nothing.

Sat on the sofa

lost to the world.

I have some bad news

 

 

 

I’ve been seeing ghosts. Birds on water

 

 

 

The day before I received the news, two swans flew low over my head. Their wings thrummed like a helicopter. Eyes turned to watch the rescue vehicle, and instead saw white bellies.

The sound travelled, nothing like their usual flapping, as they soared over and onto water.

Returning to my boat, a shadow shifted on the river bank. A furry creature – small, sleek – edged its way through the grass, took a moment to drink, then slop, slipped in.

 

 

 

Animals are in communion for you.

As are we,

nosing each other’s armpits

as we bed in

for warm companionship.

Because you went cold.

 

 

Review of Polly Robert’s Grieving with the Animals by Daniel Marshall, published in The High Window Review

The Anthropocene poet, ecologically tuned to the grizzly death-throes of the planet, must discover meaning in the madness if they have any hope of reconciling the degenerate self that has allowed this to happen, with an aesthetic, meliorate self that goes some way to being part of the solution. Polly Robert’s debut poetry collection Grieving with the Animals published by Dempsey & Windle (https://www.dempseyandwindle.com/polly-roberts.html), is such a book: authentic, earnestly moving, & aware of the tradition it belongs to symbolically & functionally. Polly writes an eco-poetry that evades the dangers Terry Gifford outlines in his book Pasotral:

‘The danger that green literature becomes didactic in a simplistic way is really a danger that it loses its power as art and becomes reductive propaganda or vague right on rhetoric. There is a point at which green literature can become a contemporary form of Leo Marx’s ‘sentimental pastoral’’. Polly doesn’t stray. The polish of the poems is contemporary, it has the edifice of a contemporary art, but I felt I was very much in a tradition that utilizes the archetypal, the dream, the symbol, to give the natural world its importance. When a poem is archetypal, it is part of convention, it becomes part of the unconscious, it, as Northrop Frye explains, is ‘a symbol which connects one poem with another and thereby helps to unify and integrate our literary experience.’ In short, it becomes part of ‘poetry as a whole.’ Why does this need to be said? I says this, because Grieving with the Animals takes a necessary place in the accumulating oeuvre of Anthropocene poetry, but also within a tradition of human, unconscious symbols, which the poet of Grieving with the Animals has clearly experienced firsthand.

Admittedly, were this not a deeply personal collection, it might be less impactful, solipsistic & limp, but as I shall show, because it is personal, the use of archetypes & symbol is founded at the personal, & extended to the global, through an interpretative, interactive reading.

Polly is from Devon. These poems, when they move into the autobiographical, find Polly living on a houseboat, on the River Avon near Bristol. Carrying the world’s weight like an anchor, wrapped around her heart, she looks into the natural world for a metaphor to stave off the hurt from a tragic loss.

The poem is structured around 12 sections. Each page is used as breathing space, sometimes a single line’s gravity pulls us into orbit around its emotional weight, the heaviness of the meaning, the grief of the poet, fishing for our heart, pulling the reader in as the poet is pulled down by grief. To countervail the grief, the poet turns to nature for culture, a crutch, to both discover meaning & to compensate for the loved one. In the natural world, the space to turn the urban into wild symbols, aids the articulation of grief. The opening poem Animals in Communion foreshadows the theme of grief explored throughout:

 

I came home

 

to find him

 

doing nothing.

 

Limp armed.

 

Could do nothing.

 

Sat on the sofa

 

lost to the world.

 

I have some bad news

 

The terse lines build tension to the final lines reveal. The gaps between the lines become voids the poet & ‘him’ fall between; breaking from nature, from life. There is an urban ennui to the action taking place. On the following page, centered, is the line ‘I’ve been seeing ghosts. Birds on water.’ a line that repeats throughout the book. An anchor line, reminding both reader & poet of the implacable flux of life, the metonymy of the ghosts into birds, which is the change of the dead into constituent parts of atom, molecule, cell, reintegrated back into nature in death. Later, we discover these birds are ‘Two yellow wagtails’ that ‘float by on a log.’ A memory shared with someone who is now ‘light. Carbon released.’

The natural world is sometimes mystical, portentous, giving the poet an opportunity to foresee tragedy. Nature signals to the poet, if they have the interpretative ears to hear, & eyes to see, what will come:

 

‘The day before I received the news, two swans flew low

over my head. Their wings thrummed like a helicopter.

Eyes turned to watch the rescue vehicle, and instead saw

white bellies.’

 

Time is squeezed. The swans & helicopter are analogous, the former a sign from the past, the latter, the event, the tragedy. We get them superimposed, as if grief has abolished time from the griever. The tragedy will force the poet into an interior world of archetypal symbols (traditional images that squeeze time, by reinstating their antiquity into the contemporary & personal):

 

‘Returning to my boat, a shadow shifted on the river

bank. A furry creature –small, sleek – edged its way

through the grass, took a moment to drink, then slop,

slipped in.’

 

The ‘shadow’ of the ‘furry creature’ is the grief that will haunt the poet, a grief that will submerge itself into dream & the ‘subconscious serial’, rising as these perception-events, in nature, taking on fresh meaning, becoming poetry. There will be, perhaps for the entire life of the poet, this oscillation back & forth between worldliness, & the submersion of self into the underbelly of existence. Apperception of this oscillation installs meaning into the world.

Without catharsis, without the essential, aestheticizing of experience, the challenge of processing grief becomes inexorable. The processing of personal grief through the discovery of symbols within the environment, encourages the extension of metaphor to that of nature itself. Nature is never italicized, it is an existential nature, not a romantic pastoral nature; this is not a return to a natural world, the natural world is continuously present. These poems are ecological. If the poet is grieving with the animals, then the animal/human dichotomy is broken up. We become through archetypes, akin to one another in our emotional spectrum. The animals can as much grieve with us as we can grieve with them. This only makes sense if the poems are both personal & ecological, because our shared grief is the loss of our habitat. Therefore the lost loved one the poet grieves for, by dying & being reborn as something in nature, is something the poet can search for; in the section The Sea They Came from we discover,

 

If one looks to nature, they will find anything created by

man. Accordion bellows, helicopter propellers, flutes,

umbrellas.

 

Where do I look to find you?

 

The subconscious is automated. But the poet wants the sensations of the subconscious to rise supernatant, filtered by the subconscious mind, to aid the conscious self in remedying the ever-present, amorphous hurt. There are snatched moments of insight, where the poet alights on an answer:

 

That night, I dreamt the answer to the universe.

 

It was blue,

 

inside a conch shell. Spiralling

 

in and out of crystal moments.

 

Eggshell blue.

 

In and out of images of the hospital bed,

 

and these dreams.

 

The ‘answer to the universe’, are understandably, a means to grasp the mysteries of life & death, which bring with it, meaning. Perhaps the blue is emotion, perhaps it is the realization that life is tinged with pain. The conch shell’s spiral is the same downward motion as the shadow of the furry creature, they both move in the same direction, being symbolic of the poet’s own movement within. The egg here is a created safe-place, it is Kim Seung-hee’s dalgyal sokeui sheng (‘life within an egg’), a shell ‘for the sake of our life…as sturdy/as a wall that stands cold and/will never collapse’, full of the yolk of life, new generation. In this shell, the poet writes poems from an experience of loss, with all the multitude of considerations that attend this: memory, love, nature, self, experience, motion, grief; these poems hatch their attendant themes & we enter into a relationship with the poet. Later the poet will ask the question ‘Was the world all snail?…Will life be found inside?’ Suggesting that the invitation to vertiginously delve (think Yeats’ gyres) was always there; is always there & it can be discovered in numerous things.

The poems from In Conversation with You pair human response to grief with an animal, thus becoming animistic, mythic:

 

I caw like a crow.

 

I wail like an elephant.

 

I moan like a cow giving birth.

 

I yelp like a puppy.

 

I sniff like a mouse.

 

Words no longer speak for me.

 

Words & language are no longer accurate means of expressing that which is seemingly inexpressible. The poet has begun the metamorphosis into the animal, or rather, begun an aesthetic metamorphosis. The human & animal are distinguished by their means of communication, except in grief, where the expressiveness is onomatopoeic. There is poetry here & poetry has no trouble being the expressive medium of the animal. Grief becomes, ironically, organic through simile.

Between the symbolic & dream, lucid episodes appear throughout; reminders that these processes start from very real, existential beginnings:

 

In and out of images of the hospital bed,

 

and the sensation of my body.

 

Every part alive.

 

Eyelids drawn back,

 

pupils darting and dilating.

 

Mind alert, ears open.

 

Chest stretched as it breathes

 

in and out of images of the hospital bed.

 

The hospital bed grounds us in an uncomfortable reality. It is the existential bed on which human fragility is cradled. Even in this most unlikely of places, the poet is able to forage hope that ‘The world is alive. Every colour, every shade, every blade, every beast.’

This is a book of hope. Out of oppressive grief comes the search for expression. Though this grief is shared with nature, it is only humans who articulate grief in a way that can be shared ubiquitously, can be community forming. This is why I take the personal trauma to be extensive with the ecological trauma taking place. It is to discover ‘universal tongues’, an indelible connection with ‘the trauma that keeps [us] human’ a journey into things as a journey into self, a journey underwater where ‘Grief momentarily slips away’. Maybe it’s time to grieve with, rather than for, the animals if we are to sea change our ecological impact. What Polly teaches us is that loss is similar between the example & the precept, so that microcosmic examples refer to macrocosmic precepts: the personal loss is the global loss.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Words in response to ‘Social or Solitary’

‘Your observations and comments are thought-provoking and that is how a good book should be.  About how people live their lives, to what extent they give or take from society; how we treat each one of them and what we think of their chosen lifestyles.  Food for much debating – great!’

‘I am really enjoying the book!  It is bringing me strange nostalgic emotions – harking back to times past’

‘Truly truly loving your book.  So beautifully written!  Inspiring!’

‘This was incredibly beautiful, moving and inspiring.’

‘Last night I finished your book – very impressed.  I don’t often re-read books, yet this will be one.’

‘Just finishing now has made me all weepy and inspired!’

‘I’ve just finished your book.  It is AMAZING! Like Eat Pray Love but better!  I couldn’t put it down!’

‘we read to each other from your book – it was like sweet sweet rain drops on our tongues – THANK YOU!’

‘Got your book.  Am hooked.  Am cancelling all social engagements and retreating into your thoughts for the weekend.  What a gem, can you write the sequel now please!’

‘I’m a long term fan of that kind of writing (it reminded me a bit of  “My Secret History’ – one of Paul Theroux’s earlier works) Polly’s (or the character’s) trip through New Orleans was particuliarly fascinating and a unique insight into life there.  I don’t think there are many writers that can credibly depict it if they haven’t lived it.’

‘I really enjoyed reading each chapter of your journey – to vicariously live amongst those characters whom I would never meet (or probably dare to mix with) was wonderful.  There was none of this book I didn’t enjoy, in fact there were numerous passages I re-read because I enjoyed them so much.  I was thoroughly gripped by its rich, beautiful, insightful and endearing story.’

‘Argh I really need to go to sleep but I can’t stop reading your book tales!  The whole thing is so big and brave and wonderful.’

‘I found it a gripping read and read with great appreciation, both as a story and as a remarkable journey.’

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