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This Tilting Earth

Jane Lovell
ISBN-13: 
9781781725252
Publication Date: 
Tuesday, March 5, 2019
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Winner of the Mslexia and PBS Pamphlet Prize 2018

J​​ane Lovell’s poems are both beautiful and disturbing. A deep feeling for the natural world is aligned with an acute lyric sensibility, as well as a profound ethical awareness of our responsibility for the planet and the devastation of its landscapes and vulnerable species.
 

‘With a delicacy and rhythm that is mesmeric, Lovell places each word as a seed with the intent to sow a deeper awareness - so very needed in this time of grave ecological uncertainty. These poems read as a roll-call of loss; of creatures, of species and their landscapes; of our own human innocence degraded through cultural and scientific pursuits that have picked the earth clean of its once-teeming life. With scientific precision, Lovell binds together parcels of the lost, lifts them from the silts of a too- swiftly forgotten history, and gives them voice.’ 
– Autumn Richardson

‘Jane Lovell’s poems are crafted with a jeweller’s precision. They make visceral connections with the wild in a language all of her own.’
–James Roberts​

 

 

 

REVIEWS

Review by Mat Riches, Shpinx

Friday, November 1, 2019

From the moment I turned the first page I felt like was wandering down the halls of a dark and temperature-controlled museum. This feeling was justified when I read the closing poem, ‘Curator’s Decision’, as though it was the final note in a glossy guidebook.

While there’s a strong argument for writing this OPOI about horses (they feature in six of this pamphlet’s twenty poems) it’s Lovell’s roving scientific eye that interests me more; she seems to switch roles from biologist to botanist to geographer to explorer, changing hats as she goes, like some sort of Victorian polymath. This is most notable in ‘Galapagos’ with its invocation of Charles Darwin and the samples he collected:

Stuffed skins in glass cabinets line halls
that echo with our footsteps.
We are all in this together.
No one is watching.

In the preceding poem, ‘Portraits, Samoa, 1853’, we meet our protagonist observing the natives…

I listen to their stories,
surround them with charcoal waves

[ … ]

I scribe their names, put away my books.

The decision to place these two poems at the centre of the collection is a masterstroke of sequencing. They act like a hinge and a focal point for the idea (which is also a warning) that we (all species) are in this together and that we (humans, I think) aren’t paying attention, even when we are collecting the stories and creatures for study.

It’s largely through this looking back that we can see Lovell pointing the way forward for us. In ‘Exhibit, ‘Song of Lost Species’, the poet mentions

a future emerging from banks of mist.

We tell our children: ‘Watch this.
Remember…’

I like to think that there’s hope riding in the last lines of the final poem:

In laboratory conditions, creating a culture
from leaf and shadow, birdcall, rainfall, oxygen,

we have managed to simulate environments
suitable for the existence of essential species:

bats and birds, bees, beetles and plankton.
These may be returned to the surface

at the appropriate time, at which point balance
will be restored and the host will bloom.

While I think Lovell is working within a geological time-frame for this book, I’d very much like to see a full collection from her within my lifetime.

Review by John Foggin, WriteOutLoud

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

...This brings us in roundabout ways to Jane Lovell’s remarkable pamphlet This Tilting Eartha pamphlet lit by her fascination with the fossil record and also with historical ones, and by biophilia (the title of one of the poems). I didn’t know the word. It means the urge to affiliate with other forms of life. I’m glad to have learned it. I took a chance on ‘reviewing’ this pamphlet, responding to a plea on Facebook. I’m so glad that I did. I read it first on the Supertram in Sheffield on my way to a Poetry Business Writing Day. It’s a good job the tram was almost empty. I found myself punching the air, and saying (under my breath, I hope, but I can’t be sure) YES!! YES!! I go on about Clive James’ dictum about ‘the moment that gets you in’. This slim pamphlet is packed with them. It does what Kim Moore said in that interview about "those solitary moments of reading, when you read a poem and put the book down because the poem is so good, because it has articulated something you didn’t know you felt".

Let me tell you about all the things that hauled me in, and then I’ll share a couple of the poems before insisting that you go out, at once, and buy the book.

First thing: the title. This Tilting Earth. I suppose this is personal. I seem to have been fascinated by the fact of the Earth’s tilted axis, without which we would have no seasons, for decades. I think it started with Ted Hughes:

 

     Brought to bare trees, to spike and shard

     browned by cold, our birds

     breast a homing departure; on wings press

     to correct earth’s sure tilt into darkness

 

                        ‘Nicholas Ferrer’ (Lupercal)

 

 

I spent a couple of hours yesterday trying to track it down. I’ve not consciously read this poem in 30 years. Why did that phrase stick? Why does it keep on popping up in poems as I write them? It comes uninvited, as in this from a poem of mine called ‘Viewpoint’.

 

Here, punctually, the earth rim tips up;

the sun’s disc eclipsed,

 

or this

 

     A moon is strange as it comes

     beyond the dark weight of hills

     and it is not rising

 

     but the huge world is toppling

     O so slow towards the moon

     in the dark ocean of the sky

 

For me it’s become an emblem of the accidents of our place in space and time, and simpler to hold in my mind than those that create our ideas of constellations like Orion or the Plough. The stability of that tilt relies on the gravity of the moon, which comes close and grows distant over huge spans of time. Our balance is so fragile. This tilting Earth; that word tilt is so exact, so layered. It seemed to me the perfect title.

What next: it was the range, archaeological, geographical, historical, of the poem’s titles that sent me googling. These poems will takes you to the mammoth burial sites of Siberia and North America ..the Laplev Sea, Lugoskoe, Waco; to the bay of Mont Saint-Michel and estuary of La Sélune; to the salt pans of Sečovlje in Slovenia; to the Hebridean ghost-crofts of Hirta; to Sithylemenkat Lake in the bowl of a gigantic meteor strike in the Yukon, and to Beringia that was the land bridge between Russia and America. You have no need to worry about the ‘facts’ behind the places. The poems tell you all you need to know about small significant extinctions; the thing is that they are precisely located, and this is important.

So much for names and titles. What about the moments that memorise themselves as you read? The collection is packed with them. As a whistlestop tour will show. How about the painted horses of the Lascaux caves, threatened by the very breath of visitors? "They watch us with their oilbloom eyes. / We breathe and they may disappear." Jane Lovell does brilliant opening lines, too, like these:

        

     They all ended up the same way, of course,

     deep in the silt and swirl of the Thames,

 

I love the insouciance of this, the crafty pronoun that starts it. And this, too: "He remembers, briefly, plummeting,/ tilting slowly like a tree."

Think about the way those two verbs apparently work against each other until you visualise a man falling from a height, and realise how exact it really is.

She has a wonderful eye for the moment, for the image, as in that of the carts in the salt pans “with their drapery of halite”Drapery. Precise and true, as is her observation of

            

                  quiet pans of algae, gypsum, clay

     where egrets pick their way

     through cubes of sky

 

The moments aren’t just visual. There’s a memorable line in the salt pan poem that captures the idea that the suspension of sound is so profound that the salt worker "is listening to the voice / of the salt, the tinkering of the sea".

“Tinkering”. One of those moments when I said ‘YES’ on the tram. One of the delights of these poems is her easy use of a huge vocabulary that’s always being used for its rightness. And not just for their rightness, but for their textures: grume, squirl, laggy, skilly, candlenut, cinnabar. These are poems that demand to be read aloud and tasted. There are poets whose knowledge and erudition become exclusive. Jane Lovell’s not one of them. There may be arcane bits of information but the meaning’s always supplied by the context. Every living thing in these poems is brought to mind , enchanted, in Macfarlane’s sense, with a concrete textured clarity that becomes a praise poem for living things, and a reminder that like Blake she fervently believes that everything that lives is holy. I’m tempted to go on and on quoting. My review copy’s studded with underlinings and post-its. But you should have got the picture by now. I’d like to work my way through the poems. But one of the bits of advice I was given about doing a reading was that you should ‘leave them wanting more’. This Tilting Earth does precisely that, and so will I.

 

You can read the full review by John Foggin at www.writeoutloud.net.

Review by Rachel Carney, Created to Read

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

There is a strong sense of time passing, in This Tilting Earth, a pamphlet of poems by Jane Lovell (the winning entry from last year’s Mslexia pamphlet competition). It begins with ‘Song of the Vogelherd Horse’, an elegy which takes us back to the Ice Age, giving voice to the artefact itself, conjuring up the ghosts of those who ‘smoothed my lissom back’ and ‘buried me in soil’. This introduces the pamphlet’s main theme – an exploration of mankind’s complex relationship with animals over the centuries.  

The collection begins with poems inspired by cave paintings and archaeological finds, but I preferred the later poems, many of which present a human event from the perspective of the natural world in which it takes place.

In ‘The Last Leap of Sam Patch’ we witness the dramatic death of Sam Patch, who was known for his daring waterfall jumps in the 19th century, but the poem continues, describing the passage of time after the event, putting this man’s final act into a larger perspective:

Years pass. Bridges span the skyline.
Cockroach cars with blatty lights ferry strangers to and fro.
Nightmare faces gaze across the river, stitching nets
across the falls.

And in the final few lines we hear about the fate of the pet bear, which Sam Patch took with him over the falls: ‘The bear, snarled in his chain, was soon forgotten; / his carcass, bitten white as willow, never found’.

I really enjoyed reading ‘Migrants’, a poem in two parts which describes the strange, intoxicating world of silk making, dating back to the time of the Huguenots:

He tilts and strains the boiled cocoons,
wipes the rime of glue that lips the pan,
spends long hours unravelling and reeling

teasing loose each warp thread from its windings
with his tongue…

The silk workers are so aligned with the natural world that ‘their trill and chatter fill the streets’ like birds.

The further you read, the more surreal these poems become, creating an unsettling sense of alignment between humans and animals, which comes across particularly in ‘Portraits, Samoa 1853’, a beautiful portrait of women described from the perspective of the artist, who seems to view them as part of the landscape in which they live:

They come, warm skin strung with beads
and feathers, meandering tidelines of salt,
kneel in the sand, teach me old tales:

that birds carry a piece of the land you miss
as a song, notes held in their mouths
on their sharp-leaf tongues.

Many of the poems include half-rhymes and a strong emphasis on the sound of individual words, giving them a visceral quality that is enjoyable to read.

‘Galapagos’ is the most unnerving poem, as it portrays the destruction of humanity upon the natural world:

a mound of seals, fur stiff as parchment
cracking in the heat, a floating mink that nobody
has registered, a fleet of sightless sea cows
filmed with salt, the final pair of twisted auks

This is made all the more vivid in the final stanza, which describes ‘Stuffed skins in glass cabinets’ and admits that ‘We are all in this together’.

‘Aigrettes, Spring 1893’ is told from the perspective of a white egret, a bird whose feather adorned the headdresses of wealthy ladies during the late 1800s, and ‘Armadillo’ describes the ‘quizzical nose stitched to tail / to form a handle, / the carapace lined with old calico / a basket for needles and silks’.

There is something disturbing about these poems. They are mesmerising, and yet they also turn things around in ways you don’t expect, highlighting the strange, unfathomable similarities between humanity and the natural world. Many of these poems are rooted in the past, and yet they feel current, at a time when climate change is so often in the headlines.

Review by Pauline Rowe, Burning Bright

Monday, October 7, 2019

The axial tilt of the earth ensures seasonal change. The ‘tilt’ examined in Jane Lovell’s poetry suggests other kinds of change – the contest between humanity and Nature and the ever-present danger of the fall. This Tilting Earth is an ethical call for the recognition of realised and threatened extinctions and the darkness of human neglect. In the closing lines of the first poem in the collection, ‘Song of the Vogelherd Horse’ we are offered a warning that combines command and lament:

I was here before your god.
Cherish my broken form.

This voice, of an ancient artefact that emerges from the earth at the behest of the elements, calls for serious attention to human and geological history and evidence. This opening poem also recognises the ethics and necessity of art and human making, for

the one who smoothed my lissome back,
that carried me against her skin;

serves as a contrast with

another who buried me in soil,                                      
stamped it down.

These 21 poems engage with evidence of loss in many forms. In the title poem (p.8) Lovell surveys the earth’s vulnerability through osteological remains from specific places (Sithylemenkat Lake, Lugovskoe, Waco, Beringia) and through them finds the devastations of famine, hunting/killing, drownings, the Ice Age. Here is archaeological evidence that echoes ‘two worlds’; the overwhelming chaos of ice in the earth’s history and the current threat of climate change. Destruction comes in moments, days, as well as epochs. It is personal, down to the level of each cell. Of the strange Ice Age mammals who were ‘still grazing’

Some say a howling darkness hurled them, bracing,
ice invading every cell and atom, to extinction;
the final gleam of frozen eyes ... (p.9)

The subjects of Lovell’s poems include the Victorian ethnographic artist who scrutinizes native Samoans;  the curiosities of Galapagos and the driven taxonomy and killing of living creatures. She shows us the tragedy of human scientific desire to understand and control, a desire that leaves the sought-after creatures extinct, their remains shut in exhibition cases:

see me everywhere you turn remember as you lift                                                
your glass, my tiny skull (p.19)

There are various subjects considered in This Tilting Earth about human behaviour, including how we disfigure and kill the wonderful (‘Armadillo’ p.20), how we make museum pieces of the remains of astonishing creatures (‘The Prayer of St Simon’ p.25). The ancient cave drawings of Limousin become symbols of our current tentative and poor stewardship of the natural world:

They watch us with oilbloom eyes.                                  
We breathe and they may disappear. (p.10)

This is poetry of the lost and disappeared that acknowledges nature as the ultimate force, above human endeavour and art, whether in ‘The Last Leap of Sam Patch’ (p.12) or ‘Clemency for the Drayman’, a poem that gives us a palpable sense of the creaturely, in spite of the ‘painted eye’:

It’s the lion we remember. Watch him catch the sun, the glint upon the river, the glint in his painted eye as the tide turns. (p.11)

In the conclusion to The Song of the Earth (Harvard University Press, 2000) Jonathon Bates presents Wallace Stevens’ poem ‘The Planet on The Table’ as a means of considering “whether you can accept that a poem is not only a making of a self and a making of the world, but also a response to the world and a respecting of the earth.”

Jane Lovell’s poems can be considered poems of this sort. This is a language of lament and ultimately of protest – an eco-poetry that seeks justice for the silent and wounded world.

These are fine, perceptive poems, carefully constructed – they invite return and deep consideration.

Review by Kayleigh Campbell, kayleighcampbell.co.uk

Monday, September 30, 2019

Jane Lovell is a prolific, award-winning writer who, rightly so, was the winner of the Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet competition in 2018. This Tilting Earth allows the reader to immerse themselves within a wild world of nature and history, consistently depicted in Lovell’s striking voice. From ‘charcoal and cinnamon ochre’ in 'Limousin, Lascaux' to a ‘fleet of sightless sea cows’ in 'Galápagos', you lose yourself amongst this otherworldly realm of the elements, anthropology and the cycles of life. What I particularly like is the frequent references to bones and salt, ‘he is listening to the voice of the salt, the tinkering of the sea as it abandons its minerals at his feet’, highlighting the rawness of human life and also the close connection we have to nature. In this collection, Lovell cleverly not only presents this connection, but also shows the alternating power balance between human life and nature. In 'Leaving Hirta' we are ‘drawn to roar of sea and shingle’, presenting the shear power and pull of the earth, whilst in 'Portraits, Samoa 1853' we see how ‘great nets blow with the day’s catch; lupe, knots of finch, the last few still fluttering’ represent the damaging effect of humans coexisting with nature. Lovell’s use of language is simply beautiful, wonderfully disturbing and captivating. Anyone reading this is sure to close their eyes and find themselves on a beach, aware of the fragility and transience of the human body, losing themselves to the howl of the sea.

Review by Rennie Halstead, The Poetry Shed

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Jane Lovell’s latest pamphlet has an elegiac quality. She looks at a past studded with cruelty and sadness, documenting Man’s inhumanity and lack of care for their fellow creatures. Her words are carefully chosen, creating spare, clear and highly visual images of the scenes she describes and the people and animals she portrays, leading our imaginations to engage with a past made vivid and real.

From the outset, Lovell asks us to reflect on Man’s place in the universe. In 'The Song of the Vogelherd Horse' she takes us back to the creation of a beautiful artefact from 30,000 years ago. She imagines the early men who:

[…] smoothed my lissome back
that carried me against her skin;

another who buried me in soil,
em>stamped it down.
 
and reflecting on the passing centuries observes:
The gilding sun calls skies and hillsides
to my mind’s dark eye,
my spirit bones.

I was here before your god.
Cherish my broken form.

A similar preoccupation runs through 'Limousin, Lascaux' which focuses on the finds at the famous French cave, now closed to the public to protect its 17000 year old paintings. Lovell celebrates their creation:

Of charcoal, and cinnamon ochre,
umber burnt and blown through bone or reed,
they balance on mist, unwilling to tear the ghost-silk.

Lovell brings the vitality of the paintings to life:
Coats steam, tails flick, tongues lunge;
a stone sky rests on curled spears of ash, horns
of black manganese.
 

She finishes the poem with the irony that the beauty of the cave and its wonders attracted the visitors who would have marked its destruction:

We breathe and they may disappear.
 
Lovell examines a more recent loss to the animal world in Godolphin’s Stallion, the famous Arabian stud horse that was one of the founders of the modern thoroughbred. The horse is buried on the site of his stables near Cambridge. Lovell writes of:

[…] the sleeping giant, bones white as hazel,
Godolphin’s stallion shifts and twists
with the turning of the Earth […]

She pictures the ghost of the horse:

Late June, early mornings, some say,
they flinch at the thundering hooves, the salt
and stench of champed grass as the stallion passes,
eyes wild with triumph.
 
Lovell also focuses on the little told stories of less well-known people from history. 'The Last Leap of Sam Patch' chronicles the sad or possibly foolhardy end of the man known as The Jersey Jumper who found fame after jumping into the Niagara River at the falls. Patch jumped from a variety of buildings, bridges and platforms, and earning money from the audiences who gathered to watch his exploits. His jump at the Niagara Falls was watched by an audience of 10,000. His final jump, on Friday, November 13th 1829 was a 125 feet jump into the Genosee River with his pet bear. The jump went badly wrong, with Patch failing to make his usual feet first entry. Some bystanders suggested he may have had a little too much to drink. He never surfaced, and his body wasn’t found until the following spring when the frozen river thawed. He was 22. Lovell describes the leap:

He remembers, briefly, plummeting,
tilting slowly like a tree through stinging spray
to land amazed,
the last breath slammed from his lungs […]

Sam is dragged down river:

[…] hidden underwater
from the still-expectant crowd stamping at the frost,
the bitter light, he dreams of breathing.
 
Algae quietly invades his brain, bloom inside his bones.
 
The bear meets a similar fate:

Rats tumble past, bloated gourds of fur and cunning,
bellies full of bear-meat,
carrying in their eye-gleam the flash of the great canines
as the head lifted, rolled, then sank upon the flooded chest.
 
Lovell takes us through the daredevil madness of Sam Patch, and creates a vivid picture of what it must be like to drown in a bitterly cold river, describing how:

Winter stills the edge of the Genosee,
permeates his clothes, remaining skin, distending
every cavity, bursting every organ and capilliary.
 
He stares out through the long, cold water, eyes of a pike.
 
Lovell comments that Sam Patch’s epitaph reads:

“Here lies Sam Patch, the Yankee leaper
brave and mad and drowned.”

But the bear:

[…] snarled in his chain, was soon forgotten;
his carcass, bitten white as willow, never found.

Salt worker, Sečovlje remembers the generations of salt workers who have harvested salt from the lagoons in Slovenia for a millennium. Lovell puts us alongside a salt worker from the past, working the lagoons by hand. She creates a vivid image of the landscape:

                                            […] a land
brimming sea and salt blooms
above carpets of petola,
quiet pans of algae, gypsum, clay
where egrets pick their way
through cubes of sky.
 
Lovell describes the timeless continuum of salt production through generations of workers:

He does not move.
A rime of salt blisters his lips,
gathers in his desiccated bones.
 
Eight centuries of shift and hiss;
he closes his eyes,
balances against the light.

'Tallow' picks up the sense of historic industry with a vivid imagining of the soap making process from the rendering of fallen cattle to the mixing of tallow with the corrosive lye to produce tablets of soap.The poem opens with the boiling of a cow’s carcass:

Her eyes bleach the colour
of milk, head coming up blind
and turning.

Lovell goes on to describe the process: cooling the tallow, adding beeswax and lye:

stand back from its boiling and hissing,
do not breathe until it stills.

The end of the poem celebrates the selection of the animal chosen for rendering as a sacrifice:

It is light tonight, cloudless.
We carry her flesh to fire, break bread,
sing her name.
 
Tomorrow the women will roast the bones,
use the crushed chalk to make buttons
and beads.

and finally:

She was our chosen one, our beauty.

This is an exquisite collection of poems. Lovell brings the past to our attention with a vivid clarity. Every word is chosen with care, in this highly polished award-winning pamphlet.

Review in Poetry Book Society Summer Reading

Friday, June 7, 2019

Winner of this year’s Mslexia and PBS Women’s Pamphlet Competition, judged by Seren’s Poetry Editor Amy Wack, This Tilting Earth presents a sequence of beautifully crafted poems about our out-of-kilter world. Lovell’s poetry is poised between the elements, “I am curved air / or water over stone”, and hinges upon natural “spill-points”. The title poem considers tiny bones, tusks and vertebrae in a “song of lost species” which opens up the collection to wider ecological concerns about the future.

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