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100 Poems to Save the Earth

Zoë Brigley
Kristian Evans
ISBN-13: 
9781781726242 
Publication Date: 
Monday, July 19, 2021
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Our climate is on the brink of catastrophic change. 100 Poems to Save the Earth invites us to fine-tune our senses, to listen to the world around us, pay attention to what we have been missing. The defining crisis of our time is revealed to be fundamentally a crisis of perception. For too long, the earth has been exploited. With its incisive Foreword, this landmark anthology is a call to action to fight the threat facing the only planet we have. 

Writing from rural and urban perspectives, linking issues of social injustice with the need to protect the environment, this selection of renowned contemporary poets from Britain, Ireland, America and beyond attend carefully to the new evidence, redraw the maps and, full of trust, keep going, proving that in fact, poetry is exactly what we need to save the earth. 

“This compelling suite of poems is a timely reminder to cherish, to celebrate. What could be more enjoyable than beautiful poems about this beautiful planet? This collection is immediate, moving, wise and unforgettable as it is unputdownable!” – Daljit Nagra, poet and presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Poetry Extra 

“These achingly beautiful poems, from a range of stellar talents, animate and explore the sometimes-frayed connection we have with our precious planet and remind us how to refind ourselves amid the landscape we call home.”  – Sonya Huber, author of Pain Woman Takes Your Keys 

“Wales was the first country in the world to introduce a Future Generations Act. This collection of Poems to Save the Earth from a Welsh Publisher reminds us that poetry and art can also be a vital part of a sustainable future.”  – Mark Drakeford, First Minister of Wales 

“...it is an absolute necessity for poets to celebrate our world and engage with its future. This is a marvellous compendium to show how they are attempting this…” – Robert Minhinnick

 

Featuring 100 of the best new and established contemporary poets:

Gbenga Adesina, Kelli Russell Agodon, Sascha Akhtar, Kazim Ali, Mir Mahfuz Ali, Abeer Ameer, Simon Armitage, David Baker, Fiona  Benson, Liz Berry, Wendell Berry, Rachael Boast, Eavan Boland, Leo Boix, Sean Bonney, Marianne Boruch, Helen Bowell, Elizabeth-Jane Burnett, Jane Burn, John Burnside, Dom Bury, Duncan Bush, Siobhán Campbell, Vahni Capildeo, Gillian Clarke, Ross NR Cogan, Grahame Davies, Tishani Doshi, Cath Drake, Camille T Dungy, Rhian Edwards, Carrie Etter, Vievee Francis, Izzy Galleymore, Ross Gay, WS Graham, Vona Groarke, Philip Gross, Richard Gwyn, Jen Hadfield, Paul Henry, Sean Hewitt, Bob Hicok, Jane Hirshfield, Rhiannon Hooson, Jennifer Hunt, Kathleen Jamie, John Kinsella, Mimi Khalvati, Joanna Klink, Gwyneth Lewis, Gerry Loose, Jane Lovell, John McCullough, Medbh McGuckian, André Mangeot, Paula Meehan, Jennifer Militello, Kei Miller, Robert Minhinnick, David Morley, Katrina Naomi, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Caitríona O’Reilly, Alice Oswald, Craig Santos Perez, Pascale Petit, Carl Phillips, Clare Pollard, Kate Potts, Sheenagh Pugh, Sina Queyras, Vidyan Ravinthiran, Deryn Rees-Jones, Carter Revard, Roger Robinson, Erin Robinsong, Carol Rumens, Owen Sheers, Penelope Shuttle, Colin Simms, Peter Sirr, Martha Sprackland, Anne Stevenson,  Em Strang, Will Stone, Melissa Studdard, Michael Symmons Roberts, George Szirtes, Rebecca Tamás Marvin Thompson, Samuel Tongue, Ellen Van Neerven, Maggie Wang, Gwen Nell Westerman, Sam Wilson Fletcher, Jillian Weise, Jennifer Wong, Tamar Yoseloff, Nidhi Zak/Aria Eipe.

 

David Baker reads his poem 'Pastoral'. Read his accompanying prompt on our blog

 

REVIEWS

Review by Neil Leadbeater, Write Out Loud

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

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.

 

Review by Steve Whitaker, Yorkshire Times

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

There are many mantras in Seren’s new anthology of ecologically concerned poems, and it is a shame that radical change and recovery cannot be effected by the simple reinforcement of creative solutions through repetition. For here, in concise and refined form, we might find a teleology of celebration expressed in a form of biblical chant (‘A New Song’, Michael Symmons Roberts), or hope borne out of the absolute ordinary in Grahame Davies’ understated ‘Prayer’ – a hymn to the silent workings of invisible hands that move us ‘slowly closer to the light’.

Davies’ sense of purpose is embattled in the wider sphere of catastrophic climate change. That his hope is conditional on an invocation is one measure of how little we are prepared to invest in the kinds of constructive thinking that might offer some breathing space. But his faith in the integrity of ‘honesty and truth’, and in the achievement of quiet miracles, reminds, tangentially, of the little grey, toothless men in suits who transformed the Britain of 1945 into a society of serviceable decency.

Alice Oswald’s profoundly pained ‘Seabird’s Blessing’ clears the field of anthropocentric hubris: the studied murmurings of birds, in a landscape frighteningly denuded of locators, are wrought as liturgical pleas whose meaning is both desperate, and desperately ironic:

‘Pray for us this weird
bare place – we are screaming
O sky count us not as nothing
O sea count us not as nothing’

But anything is possible, even in the most aridly unprepossessing of circumstances, as Erin Robinsong’s orison to the mutating of the leopard’s spots devoutly desires. Her witty perambulation through the hinterland of unlikelihood reverses Dante’s Contrapasso by wishing enlightenment on those – the oligarchs and the politicians – who move and shake, and liberation on the moved and the shaken:

‘May our actions be deft as the inhale after a dream of suffocation.’ (‘Late Prayer’)

One of the many wonderful things about Zoë Brigley and Kristian Evans’ curation of 100 Poems to Save the Earth is the angle of approach, which is both unconventional and generous: half expecting a division into sections, I was pleasantly surprised to discover general themes arising in vague, suggestive tranches. For there is a concealed sense of order here, as though underwriting the needfulness of unity and cooperation in the interests of lasting resolution. And to this degree, at least, the collection as a whole may act to ‘legislate’ for truth when the received and commonplace aspect is of a tent marked ‘Poetry’ tucked away in one corner of the literary field.

The uniformly high quality of the work here ensures that poetry is anything but marginal to the expedient of survival. From ‘Prayer’ to ‘Flood’, to the natural world going about its business, to the terrible counterpoint of ‘Extinction’, the turn of mind, if not the commitment, is frequently religiose in character. And it is good to see a revivification of a canonical poetics hither and thither interspersed amongst a phenomenally able representation of current writers. Not least Wendell Berry, whose seminal ‘The Peace of Wild Things’ gets a deserved reprise here, and looks increasingly relevant in the present crisis, as great poems should.

Good, too, to see a loose arrangement of more formal poems at the heart of this compelling anthology, whose presence gives body and structure to what amounts to an existential plea. Medbh McGuckian’s richly metaphorical mapping of the body politic in ‘The Colony Room’ is a tactile conflation of human, natural and cultural nuances where points of conjunction are ‘watered’ like thirsty roots by soft rhythms, rhymes and half-rhymes. And John Kinsella, whose metre and lineation in ‘Penillion of Cormorants in Polluted Rivers’ is as thin and withered as a bird’s leg, and as drained of life as a diesel-clogged waterway. Traditionally sung at Eisteddfod, a Penillion, or series of improvised verses performed to the accompaniment of a harp, is rendered deliberately stagnant, in a mire of alliterative entropy:

‘Those snake-necked birds
Perch on absurd
Protrusions, test
Pillar and post’.

It takes an insightful leap of the imagination to re-interpret the bewildered condition of an animal species imperilled by manmade climatic phenomena, and when artfully construed, the process transfigures perception by the subtle re-calibration of our empathic senses. A neat corollary to Alice Oswald’s poem, Leo Boix’s livid images of an Icarean goldfinch flying towards an all-consuming fire, its voice and vibrancy consumed in the flames, harbour a symbolism every bit as visceral as Louis MacNeice’s in ‘Brother Fire’, yet as profoundly current as news images of koalas incinerated in Australian bush fires. If Boix, like MacNeice, can trace purgatorial beauty in conflagration, a quite other message is implied in ‘the giant ball’ that ‘glows a bright red, maroon, resplendent, / blowing shards, magenta’. (‘Goldfinch Comes to Tell Us There’s a Fire at the End of Our Garden, He’).

This book is eloquent precisely because it is so thematically and tonally diverse: that the Doomsday Clock’s grim setting – presently 100 seconds to midnight - is a cool scientific calculation of the world’s potential for catastrophe taken in the depressing round and covering every conceivable denouement, underwrites poetry’s moral obligation to consider the spectres of war, famine and migration as parallel, indivisibly interwoven problems. Abeer Ameer’s haunting diptych, ‘the Storyteller’, explores a region beyond pain where the meaning of the war-torn present is extruded through fable for the children of a Najaf classroom. The crushing verisimilitude of Art and Life melt into the empty space where a child no longer thrives, and story and reality enjoin a perverse unity in one hopeless epithet – ‘When you cling to a thing you love it dies’. The dark intrusion of suggestion into innocent lives is echoed in Fiona Benson’s harrowing prose-poem, ‘Eurofighter Typhoon’ where the sudden shock of a jet’s ‘metallic, grinding scream’ poleaxes a child in terror, and yields for the narrator/mother, the terrible realisation of existence for so many besieged others: ‘It’s never all right now’, she despairs, ‘Christ have mercy’.

Desperate prayer will not mollify the gods of war; Mir Mahfuz Ali’s harrowing, close-range depiction of ‘Mig-21 Raids at Shegontola’ is rendered with the open-eyed authenticity of the witness, and with acute attention to the fine detail of a missile attack. Reaping the wild wind in a vortex of metaphor, the poet’s deft touch - ‘The whirling smoke packed / with bricks and cement, / chicken feathers and nigella seeds’ – makes of the typhoon of destruction a savage irony, as the boy caught in the maelstrom ‘finds himself dressed / like an apprentice baker’.

The shaping of the world into a sterile mess, by missile, radiation or overheating, focuses the poetic mind into apoplexies of dark reflection. Starkly visual rejoinders disturb the root as effectively as an exposed nerve: close observation of the breakdown of the natural order acts as a warning by default so that some of the most striking poems, here, acquire gravitas on the strength of prognostic suggestion. Sina Queyras’ brilliant, dystopian ‘Endless Inter-States: 1’ subverts perception in a shady underworld supervised by watchmen with machine guns, where the collective grip on old realities is loosening and ‘seasons / Vaguely reminiscent of seasons’ just about obtain. And Tamar Yoseloff’s couplets in ‘Knotweed’ embody a relentlessly destructive power whose subject is an efficient metaphor for the silent undermining of humanity’s earthly leasehold. The stubbornness of the root that brings down houses carries no calling card save for an energy as inexorable as Thomas’ ‘green fuse’: ‘Fleeceflower, the fleet hour of inflorescence / bursts, you drape your skirts // over the earth’.

Maybe there is hope in the invigorating authority of words. If we were to identify one poem in this beautiful, brilliant, desperately sad collection, that encapsulates the most pressing concerns of an age, it might be Gillian Clarke’s exploration of the blending of myth and reality, of time and tide, and of a delicate landscape in uncontrolled overdrive. ‘Cantre’r Gwaelod’ is an elegy for a land in turmoil, conceived in achingly refulgent images embellished in the credulous and innocent glow of the ancient past, yet tarnished by the expedients of a neglectful present. Clarke’s final sestet is a clear-eyed and concise denunciation of an indifferent age:

‘for Earth’s intricate engineering, unpicked
like the flesh, sinews, bones of the mother duck
crushed on the motorway, her young
bewildered in a blizzard of feathers;
the balance of things undone by money,
the indifferent hunger of the sea’.

Review by Judy Darley, SkyLightRain

Sunday, August 15, 2021

How could a single poem, or 1000, hope to save our world? That’s the question laid out by Seren in their latest anthology, 100 Poems to Save the Earth. In 127 pages they answer time and again – through revealing the ecstatic beauty of nature, and its perilous fragility, as expressed here by poets ranging from Simon Armitage to Sheenagh Pugh to Alice Oswald.

The anthology’s editors, Zoe Brigley and Kristian Evans, state in the Introduction that “we live in a time of unprecedented crisis”, but that poetry “calls us to stay awake, to find the words to describe how it feels, to sing to what hurts, to reach out, to attend more closely and with more care, (…) to see all things as our kin.”

In Chorus, David Morley reminds us how “The swallow unmakes the Spring and names the Summer” while “The bullfinches feather-fight the birdbath into a bloodbath”. It’s a vivid reminder both of the majesty of nature, and the characteristics we’re prone to share.

Some of the poems ache with such exquisiteness that I felt a lump in my throat as I read. Carrie Etter’s Karner Blue is one such work, with its echoing refrain of “Because” drawing you in: “Because its wingspan is an inch./ Because it requires blue lupine./ Because to become blue it has to ingest the leaves of a blue plant.” And once we’ve marvel at the wonders that comprise this butterfly, the damning line is served: “Because it has declined ninety per cent in fifteen years.”

Yearning lines abound throughout, urging us into wild spaces: “I go and lie down where the wood drake/ rests in his beauty on the water” (The Peace of Wild Things, Wendell Berry); “Stride out with your boots on, or, better still/ barefoot, and be inside the wind a while” (Water of AE, Em Strang).

Meanwhile, Isabel Galleymore’s Limpet & Drill-Tongued Whelk devotes 14 lines to seaside molluscs, describing a limpet as: “moon textured, the shape of light/ pointing through frosted glass.”

Elsewhere there are conversations with and between trees, and “redwoods veined with centuries of light” (Earth, John Burnside), while Kei Miller brings us the world’s palette in To Know Green from Green. In Sean Hewitt’s Meadow, loss of a loved one tangles in with “the beehive’s sultry/ murmur” as the poet watches “each floret and petal/ inscribe life in its colour.”

Nature in this context offers both consolation and affirmation.

The anthology contains countless lines of awe regarding our wild neighbours, from fungus to octopus, woven in with notes of foreboding. One of the most chilling for me vaults from Sina Queyras’ From ‘Endless Inter-states’: 1, in which the narrator offers “coffee, hot while there is still/ coffee this far north, while there is still news/ to wake up to, and seasons”.

There’s humour too, as in Rhian Edwards’ The Gulls are Mugging and Samuel Tongue’s Fish Counter, which offers “Wise lumps of raw tuna”, “Fish fingers mashed from fragments of once-fish”, and “Hake three-ways”, before delivering the warning: “Choose before the ice melts.”

Near the end, in Dom Bury’s Threshold, we uncover the urgency beneath these poems – these declarations of love, of alarm, of sadness amid beauty, as the poet shares the realisation “That we have to be taken to the edge of death/ to choose, as one, how we live.”

A thought-provoking, at times disconcerting, occasionally heartbreaking, but more often veneration-inspiring hoard of nature-observations, this anthology speaks the message we all need to hear: we must do more than just notice nature to save it and ourselves, but noticing is a good first step.

Review by Jon Gower, Nation Cymru

Saturday, August 14, 2021

The appearance of this poetry curation could hardly be more timely given the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which sounded a clear ‘code red’ for climate catastrophe, even as enormous swathes of California and Siberia were swept by wildfires while tourists ploshed through a flooded St Mark’s Square in Venice. The editors anticipate that obvious question – how can poetry save the world? – in their introduction.  Here they suggest that poetry can

call us to stay awake, to find the words to describe how it feels, to sing to what hurts, to reach out, to attend more closely and with more care, to each other, and to all ourt fellow species, to see all things as our kin.

That close attention and care is abundant in its pages.  In one of the opening poems ‘A Portable Paradise’ by Robert Robinson he describes a treasure, handed on to him collaterally by his grandmother. The poet doesn’t give us its dimensions, or tell us what it is exactly but he does share his gran’s advice that he should keep it on his person lest it be stolen. Then, should the stresses of life prove to be too much

Get yourself to an empty room – be it hotel,

            hostel or hovel – find a lamp

            and empty your paradise onto a desk;

            your white sands, green hills and fresh fish.

            shine the lamp on it like the fresh hope

            of morning, and keep staring at it till you sleep.

The two editors have carefully and judiciously drawn on a wide range of poets from around the world – including a fair smattering of Welsh poets such as Paul Henry, Deryn Rees-Jones, Richard Gwyn, Rhian Edwards, Owen Sheers and Grahame Davies.  The works often link thematically, echoing each other, braiding in meaning, theme or in message. So we have a number of poems celebrating watercourses such as rivers and lakes, or ones about weeds such as knotweed and couch grass, which, let’s face it, are very seldom celebrated in verse. Even some of the other plants, such as the medicinal mugwort don’t get as much attention as, say roses and lillies. Yet Robert Minhinnick is a definite and attentive celebrant of its qualities, as ‘The Magician’ in his poem lists the plant’s healing qualities, from the gold dust of its pollen to its aroma, which is preferable to ‘wormwood and the silver salvias/Though savory I suppose must run it close.’

Celebration

That sense of attentive celebration is present in a few of the poems here presented, from David Morley’s ‘Chorus’ which runs as a ticker-tape list of the dawn chorus’s constituent voices, from the swallow which ‘unmakes the Spring and names the Summer,’ the nuthatch which ‘nails another hatch shut’ and the rook which ‘roots into roadkill for the heart and the hardware.’ It’s a poem that ends as if the poet himself is running out of words:

The dawn is completely composed. The pens of its beaks are dry

            Day will never sound the same, nor night know which song wakes her.

The wonders and complexities of the natural world recur throughout the collection, from Bob Hicok’s ‘Lush’ which examines the ways trees communicate ‘through roots that braid’ to Wendell Berry, who escapes despair for the world by ‘lying down where the wood drake/rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.’ But this is not a romantic or pastoral assemblage – there are poems about the indestructibility of plastic and about screaming fighter bombers turning houses into flour dust. Others, such as Paula Meehan’s ‘Death of a Field’ chart that which is lost when property developers buy some land, with the ‘end of hidey holes,’ the loss of the magpies’ sound of ‘flying castanets’ and the disappearance of its flora, the yearning yarrow and the scarlet pimpernel not to mention the ‘woodpigeons in the willow’ and the wagtail in the elder which sings its ‘hungry summer song.’

Meanwhile John Burnside’s respectful ‘Earth’ commemorates eco-activists such as David “Gypsy” Chain, who was killed in 1998 while protesting the clearcutting of Californian Redwoods as he ‘trusted to the earth/the heart he had kept intact…’ And in one of the most restorative and uplifting poems, Camille T. Dungy’s ‘Trophic Cascade’ there is a bountiful account of re-wilding and what happened in Yellowstone when they reintroduced the grey wolf.  This led to trees growing up ‘beyond the deer stunt/of the midcentury’ and with that the return of underbrush which ‘warrened snowshoe hare’ and soon the place, and thus the poem is full of songbirds, muskrats and American dippers while abundant berries bring in the bears.

There are many poems here which lodge like limpets in the mind. One such is American poet Ross Gay’s ‘A Small Needful Fact’ which concerns Eric Garner, who died in New York City in 1994 as a result of being placed in a police chokehold.  Eric Garner, the poem tells us, worked for some time for the city’s Parks and Recreation Horticulture Department and suggests that it is therefore likely that with his hands:

he put gently into the earth

            some plants which, most likely,

            some of them, in all likelihood,        

            continue to grow, continue

            to do what such plants do, like house

            and feed small creatures,

            like being pleasant to touch and smell,

            like converting sunlight

            into food, like making it easier

            for us to breathe.

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