The Ground Aslant: An Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry (ed Harriet Tarlo)
Odes to nature, but with a cutting edge
Sunday 01 May 2011
This is a superb anthology, full of trouble and wonder.
It proves that poetry can still engage with nature, and it can do so without falling into daffodil-dilettante clichés or the pieties of eco-doomed despair. The term "Radical" in the title matters – there is an edge in what these 16 poets do. They take "landscape" as both refusing various pastoral traditions and as changing the poet in the act of observation. These works are anti-confessional, irreducible to storytelling prose and un-pruneable to homilies; moreover they act through not patronising or packaging up experiences for a reader.
Rather, the poets address how language captures detail, from microcosms to ecosystems, and they trace how this might respect the "otherness" of the scenes and animals encountered. A range of forms helps: the anthology spans multiple voices and grand, open-field poetics. This plethora shows how, when given a chance, words can create as many environments as there are to depict: from the rectilinear trunks of Peter Larkin's arboreal prose poems through to Colin Simms's works with their broken meditations on forms of watching and waiting – for owls, for otters – which dapple and span the page.
Helen Macdonald, one of the subtlest poets included, has an intensity that brings the body of the observer and the observed creature together. Her work as a falconer surely informs this, diving outside human time to "where rate of change chanced to mark itself against a chevron of feathers". But a strand of British modernism, from W S Graham to Basil Bunting, has long taken nature as inspirational. Beyond even that legacy, Peter Riley's tideline debris is reminiscent of surrealist objets trouvés – "plastic bottles, rope knots, tin cans, bird bones" – but also of John Masefield's "Cargoes", where quotidian listing becomes transcendent. Other oblique processes of cognition spool out in Thomas A Clark's delicately minimalist works:
an entire astonishment
as if it were raining
What then might be the consequences of such poetry? New ways of looking at a vista, a single torn leaf, a blackbird? Such looking takes effort but brings rewards. As Clark puts it:
lifting your eyes
take the small voyage
out to the horizon
and back again
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