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We Have To Leave The Earth

Carolyn Jess-Cooke
Publication Date: 
Monday, October 18, 2021
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Carolyn Jess-Cooke’s new poetry collection is both keenly political and deeply personal. The opening poem ‘now’ features a seemingly peaceful domestic scene of a family lounging at home as the starting point for meditation on history, time, mortality and the fate of the planet: I think of what tomorrow asks and what is yet/ to be done and undone, how many nows make up a life/ and what is living. There are hints of a struggle with depression stemming from a difficult childhood. There is a cherished child diagnosed with autism. There are two sequences: Songs for the Arctic, inspired by field work done for the Arctic at the Thought Foundation, poems that are vividly descriptive of an extreme landscape, aware of the fraught history of exploration and sensitive to the way changes in the pack ice are the most significant indicators of man-made global warming. The other sequence, The House of Rest, is a history in nine poems of Josephine Butler (1828-1906), who pioneered feminist activism, and helped to repeal the Contagious Diseases Act 1869, which facilitated sexual violence in the name of disease prevention. Jess-Cooke is unafraid of dark material but is also ultimately hopeful and full of creative strategies to meet challenging times. 

“Heartwrenching. They flinch and unflinch like Northern Lights – fierce and very beautiful – these flexings of the human spirit above a raw and changing world.” Jen Hadfield

“Carolyn Jess-Cooke, whose gifts were apparent in her previous two collections, is at her best in We Have To Leave The Earth. Four distinct projects are constructed with imagination, clarity, tenderness, melody and skill. The poet’s deeply curious mind resists hierarchy: the personal is political, historical, environmental and cosmic. The Arctic sequence has the distilled imagistic sensibility of Lorine Niedecker; and is, for those of us who will never journey there, a means of travel and comprehension. Whether her subject is feminism, ecology, star systems, parenthood or disability, Jess-Cooke offers a kind of ‘translation’ or ekphrasis that she - with her generous perceptions and crystalline writing - is uniquely equipped for.”  – Kathryn Maris


Watch Carolyn reading from the book alongside Jen Hadfield and Liz Berry at the online launch



Review in The Poetry Review

Friday, October 14, 2022

“This collection is both highly personal and preoccupied with global issues. Environmentalism is a key theme, and many poems veer between anger and anxiety. The intriguing opening sequence 'Songs of the Arctic' brings together different topics and voices, from Viking burials to early twentieth-century explorers, to represent a continent under threat... A key question in the collection is how a parent could prepare their children for the world they are bequeathed... While often considering disaster on a global scale, the collection also offers compelling meditations on mental illness... The raw and direct ‘Sagittarius A*’ uses the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way as a very effective metaphor for depression and the struggle to express what it is to suffer from it... This is not a cheerful collection, but it nevertheless seeks to offer solace. Comfort is to be found in human connection, particularly that of motherhood, even if it is often fringed with grief and anxiety.” – Chris Cusack


Review by Beth McDonough, Dundee University Review of the Arts

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Originally from Belfast, Carolyn Jess-Cooke now is very much part of Glasgow’s vibrant literary scene; she comes to We Have to Leave the Earth with a considerable backdrop of lived, researched and written experience. Pleasingly, her website describes her as being ‘not really bothered about genre’. That’s useful as the evidence of her ability to work beyond boundaries is clear.

There are four distinct sections in this book (although the themes invade one another). Each section seems far bigger, far more important than the page count suggests; every section has the assurance of a full project, fit to make a free-standing pamphlet or collection. Short, yes, but completely realised.

There’s something very courageous about prefacing the first part, ‘Songs for the Arctic’ with the poem ‘Now’. In the deceptive ease of a domestic setting where

my daughter sleeps by the dog, and I write of them only
because the folding away of light gives a voice
to what cannot be stilled [.]

Immediately, the poet meshes the globally catastrophic with the intensely personal, recognising fears and identifying responsibilities.

The sequence of poems following this engage with ‘the serrated wastes, wolf-winter,/ flukkra incessant as loneliness,/light pared to a foil[.]’  (‘Confrontation’).The experience of that topography is conveyed directly, from the typographic shaping of the poems, many in uncompromising double-spacing where whitespace dominates the textual layers. It’s impossible not to feel the arduous nature of arctic exploration in these lines, which contrast with the compacted layout of a neighbouring poem expressing hopes, sailing in the safety of a fjord, or in the elegantly controlled symmetry of ‘The Queen Aboard the Oseberg.’ Vistas are cinematic, the details precise, and the languages used throughout are as cutting as they are musical. The research (both historical and drawn from contemporary studies on global warming) lays down the gauntlet without compromise. Bravely again, the poet draws from the personal in the global in the final poem of this extraordinary sequence.

The second grouping charts the parental experience of the emergence of autism, and its attendant diagnostic process. She maps the repeated suppression of those worst fears, the impossibility of burying them, the medical confirmation and the subsequent self-interrogation and fruitless examination of the family tree. Jess-Cooke tells it truly.

The fears you believe in – know – are
coiling around your heart, your lungs
building up a muscle
you don’t realise you have.
                                               (‘Things Will Work Out’)

These are far from graphic outspillings, and the poet’s formal care is as great as is it is in any other section of the book. However, as one who knows that territory well, my reaction was visceral. If a reader ever wants to understand how that time feels, they’ll find it described accurately in these startlingly beautiful poems.

The penultimate section’s nine poems, ‘The House of Rest’, celebrates the heroism of Josephine Butler. In a remarkable reaction to the accidental death of her own young daughter, Butler ‘threw herself into overturning the Contagious Diseases Act of 1869, which allowed any girl over the age of 13 to be forcibly subjected to a horrific medical examination of her cervix, and interned for up to a year, on mere suspicion of possessing venereal disease.’ (Notes). It’s a powerful read and ‘the only time/ the children are counted as treasure’ (Liverpool, 25th February, 1866), has prescient echoes as the US examines, or does not examine, its collective conscience on gun controls.

That final part pulls together strands, leaving that opening quotation entirely fulfilled. I cannot say enough about this significant collection. I can only urge you to read it.

That June, birdsong cleaved me
as rain splits drought, [.]
                                     (‘Birdsong for a Breakdown’)

Review by Isobel Roach, Wales Arts Review

Thursday, March 24, 2022

The personal and political convene in Carolyn Jess-Cooke’s latest poetry collection, We Have to Leave the Earth. An exploration of climate change, motherhood, and feminism told in four distinct parts, this work of poetry is far reaching in its scope and beautiful in its eloquence. Jess-Cooke guides the reader through the unforgiving depths of the Artic, into the tumultuous landscape of her own mind, and back in time to the world of Victorian feminist activist Josephine Butler. A sense of love and justice pervades every poem in We Have to Leave the Earth, uniting an otherwise disparate array of voices, stories, and settings. Jess-Cooke manages this feat of unification by continuously looking inwards; the collection begins with ‘Now’, a neat introductory piece that allows a reader to enter the author’s private, intimate world. Insular and domestic, this initial poem is followed by the impressive sequence ‘Songs for the Arctic’, branching out from the personal to the realm of the sublime and natural.

It is in ‘Songs for the Arctic’ that Jess-Cooke’s writing is at its best. Formally inventive and linguistically rich, this sequence describes the wild and extreme landscape of the Arctic with a sense of foreboding. Climate change is a spectre that haunts this series of poems; the Arctic world is simultaneously awe-inspiring and painfully transient with its ‘Bone sky’ and ‘oil-dark’ ocean. But nature is capable of fighting back against mankind too, as in ‘Confrontation’, which does not shy away from the brutality of this unforgiving setting. Human bodies are vulnerable to the violence of nature, and Jess-Cooke writes hauntingly of ‘snow-thistled beards, frost-black digits, teeth split open by cold’. Just as the natural world can be unforgiving and perilous for mankind, so too can we injure and gore the landscapes of our planet. Ice, Jess-Cooke writes, is ‘not a substance but an organism’. Her poetry works to personify this frozen world, to give it a body and a soul. It is capable of ‘holding onto each drop of rain like a love letter or a kiss’, and its resilience makes it a ‘museum of existence’ – a repository of human history. The poems in ‘Songs of the Arctic’ make reference to the ancient Viking world and their resilient efforts of survival. The author warns that we must remember this way of life ‘in these apocalyptic times’.

An awareness of history and heritage also plays a central role in Jess-Cooke’s more personal poetry. The titular poem is powerful in its evocation of the Holocaust, and evem more poingant in the rallying call of its concluding lines; ‘We have to leave the earth because we know too many ways to destroy her, we have to write these things we have to tell them to the forest and the watchful snows’. Jess-Cooke is equally eloquent when writing about her own struggles with mental health and motherhood. ‘Sagittarius A✭’ is a standout poem, speaking beautifully of internal struggles using the lexis of the cosmos. Motherhood and the complexities of raising an autistic child are central to the collection, and Jess-Cooke writes with tenderness about the bond between herself and her children and is open about the fears that come with raising the next generation in a world stricken with climate change. The vengeful natural world seen in the collection’s earlier Arctic poems begins to invade the domestic space in ‘Homeschooling’ and lingers until the collection reaches its conclusion – the fate of our planet is inescapable. 

We Have to Leave the Earth’s exploration of both motherhood and womanhood leads to another poetic sequence. ‘The House of Rest’ is a history of the early women’s rights activist Josephine Butler told in nine poems. This fascinating departure from the poet’s own lived experiences can be, at first, a little jolting. Yet as the reader delves deeper into this poetic reimaging of Butler’s life, the similarities between this speaker and the poet herself become increasingly apparent. A figure very much ahead of her time, Butler campaigned for the Contagious Diseases Act 1869 to be repealed and fought to improve conditions for sex workers. Beyond her activism, Butler is an interesting poetic figure in Jess-Cooke’s collection because of her relationship to motherhood. Tragically losing a child, Butler’s inner world is presented with sensitivity and startling honesty (‘my mind floods with Eva, each woman’s face a palimpsest of hers in reefs of shade’). Butler’s story is concluded with the bold and resilient declaration, ‘I speak for the womanhood of the world’. With an eye to the next generation and duty of care we owe them, We Have to Leave the Earth is a collection that speaks for the fate of the world through the lens of womanhood.

Review by Julie Hogg, London Grip

Thursday, March 3, 2022

Carolyn Jess-Cooke is a consummate author. Her writing, which has won numerous awards, has been published in twenty-three languages. We Have To Leave The Earth, Jess-Cooke’s third collection, epitomizes the innate skills within her poetry: vital energy, tenacity and verve.

This collection shakes a reader insistently by the shoulders, tenderly and with eloquent persistence. The introductory poem, ‘Now’, forces simultaneous focus on complete acknowledgement of the very moment of reading the poem, together with the poem’s conversational voice describing a familial scene. Carolyn Jess-Cooke’s poetry is masterly and never more so than when dealing with the universality of motherhood:

     Now is the moment I sit in bed on one hip,
     turned to the round mirror and the back of our daughter who now
     climbs into bed, pulling the covers haphazardly across us and
     the dog who snores lightly, …

This first poem creates a powerful hush, complete attentiveness and readiness for the journey. The first sequence, ‘Songs for the Arctic’, charts the northernmost region on Earth; inspired by the author’s own fieldwork there. Delicate white spacing in form is chosen for most poems here, evoking silence, isolation, snow and ice. The poet’s homage to the magnificence of this part of our planet begins with wonder and an air of trepidation:

     December. Bone sky.

     Ocean’s oil-dark

     cloth unsettled

     by a new burden: boat

     skirted with white

     mountains of many quarries

     and quiffs. We watch for

                    green sky-rivers

                    arrows of geese

                    water-scythes of whales

                                                        [‘We too flicker briefly’]

Natural beauty is clearly and adroitly wound like a silvery thread throughout the sequence, both in the lexis of a unique voice and tone which is curious and courageous. In the poem, ‘Confrontation,’ the poet asks with immediacy in the first line, ‘Why did you come?’ drawing a reader into what has gone before for explorers Amundsen and Shackleton, acknowledging with controlled defiance, ‘Death hides ¬¬– /but here I’m in the shiv/of his stare and he/in mine’

The poet’s physical outer journey and inner journey converge effortlessly in these poems. ‘Hammerfest Storm’ is sparse and sparing, each chosen word as precise as a shard of ice. ‘Risøyhamn’ (a poem whose title is the name of a village located on the southern part of the island of Andøya) chronicles a peaceful voyage:

     We sail, snail-slow, beneath
     a bridge knitting islands,
     its grey echo
     in the fjord
     unstitched as we pass,
     suturing in our wake.

But the calm before the storm is fiercely called out as a plea, almost a howl into an abyss:

     O that all rifts
     could be so healed.
     O that these seas
     never warm and rise but keep cool
     wind prised between
     bridge and tide.

Jess-Cooke is unafraid to name the realities of the climate crisis; her poetry directly and fearlessly confronts this in ‘Troms Vigil’:

     Mountain’s thousand
              flayed angles keep
     vigil for our dying earth,
              breaking her heart
     each winter, …

Political truths are recognised, too. ‘What We Found in the Arctic, or, the Geopolitics of New Natural Resources Uncovered by Melted Ice,’ is a list poem detailing explicitly the contents of its title, amongst them, ‘Rubber ducks’ ‘Three Incan children, sacrificed’ ‘1700 species of plants’ ‘The albedo effect, claimed by no one’ and:

     Polar bears, starving
     Disputations concerning territorial waters
     45,000 Russian troops
     3,400 Russian military vehicles

This section of the book moves on to a poem entitled ‘The Edge of the Known World,’ where the poet asks:

                                        …What hunger
     will drive us yet, when I turn back
     to the world of Brexit, nuclear arms,
     Trump, islands of plastic, storms
     beyond record? How will we measure
     the cold? How will we see
     in the dark?

The final poem of the sequence pulls away from a darkly lit universe, old and new world orders and into the micro; the subject of this work being a tardigrade, a micro-animal with a macro reach which inhabits every part of the Earth’s biosphere. It is a pioneer species which fits into the sense of constant evolution that runs throughout this collection.

The next section contains a suite of deeply personal and deeply affecting pieces. The urgent title poem of the collection appears first and is astounding; an honest and forthright precis of why ‘We Have To Leave the Earth’. It demands to be read on the page in its entirety. Here, also, is a poem which recalls the poet’s grandmother-in-law’s horrific lived experience during the Brno Death March in 1945. There are also poems which sensitively navigate and soothe the desolate landscape of depression, ‘Sagittarius A*’ ‘Birdsong for a Breakdown’ and ‘Things Will Work Out.’ ‘Peeling the skin’ recollects sunburned family holidays:

     The confetti of my childhood lies in corners
     of Connemara, the sands of
     Donegal, bearing traces of fingers
     that picked me to riddance. I’d hear
     the sellotape-tear
     of strips they’d peel from my back
     and I felt like something being primed for the spit,
     or dressed for the rite.

Other poems include a beloved daughter’s diagnosis, each specific emotional twist and turn written with love and precision, ‘Pool’:

     You tell yourself that the facts are clear:
     autism is caused by genetics, or environment, and
     even if you were to travel back in time you
     could not have done anything, anything
     at all to prevent this –

‘At Sports Day’ prophetically details how the bond of love pulses into life-blood for the future and ‘Willow’s Leelo & Dave’ is a unique, stunningly beautiful poem:

     At school she’s started a craze
     for imaginary fish. All her friends suddenly
     have imaginary fish. This time last year
     the paediatrician said Willow didn’t engage
     in imaginary play, …

‘1 day old, 6.03am’ describes specifically this life-changing event. I cried when I first met this poem in a literary journal, and I cried upon reading again.

Jess-Cooke devotes and dedicates the next sequence of nine poems, ‘The House of Rest,’ to the memory of Josephine Butler; chronicling and honouring her life and work. My daughter completed her undergraduate years at Josephine Butler College; however, I knew little about Butler’s feminism and successful social reform in the Victorian era.

Boland once quoted Woolf: ‘For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.’ Jess-Cooke flips the reality of this upside down in acknowledgement of the fact; by breathing life, breathtakingly, into Butler’s history. Rather like colourising black and white or sepia photographs, the poet’s words revive Josephine Butler’s experiences and extraordinary pioneering, fleshing them out once again. This is history made strangely, often unnervingly, contemporary; in my opinion this sequence provides the pinnacle of this collection and is superb. Here is part of ‘Picking Oakum’:

              … But then my mind floods with Eva, each
      woman’s face a palimpsest of hers in reefs
     of shade, and the true purpose of my visit unfolds: if born

     under a different star my daughter might have found her way
     into this shed, into these lives, these pathways,
     these tendrils of too-used rope…

Poems in the final section bring us up to the present day. ‘Homeschooling’:

     Do I want to tell them their home is built
     on blood and bones? Do I want their
     childhood garden filled with teargas,
     Mace, a knee on the neck?

I feel privileged to have reviewed this collection. Should a paper label adorn this book, it would instruct us to read me, read me again and understand.


Review by Judy Darley, SkyLightRain

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Book Balm recommendation: Read to immerse yourself in wonder.

The contents page of Carolyn Jess-Cooke‘s third collection offers a clear indication of the skill at play here. Poem titles are mini-masterworks, with each offering sense of perilous climatic times we live in couple with an awe for the world we inhabit.

Section 1, 'Songs for the Arctic', illuminates scenes by scattering words across the whiteness of the page. in 'We Flicker too briefly', you can roll the flavour of the lines over your tongue: “Bone sky./Ocean’s oil-dark/cloth unsettled” and “green sky-rivers/ arrows of geese/ water scythes of whales.”

Section 2 opens with the title poem, which sets the tone for a sequence about beauty and strength in fragility. In 'Birdsong for a Breakdown', we’re introduced to the extremity of sensations experienced through the rawness of mental ill-health: “Because sweetness amidst such unnameable dark/ is magnesium, too bright to miss.”

Abutting this, 'Things Will Work Out’ is a resolutely hopeful four stanza poem: “Somewhere/ beyond here, a river is bending to velvety stones/ along the bank, listening to their news.”

In this section, Jess-Cooke also examines her own fears and dreams for her autistic daughter, and the experts who pigeon-holed them both: “who am I but her mother, a witness”. It’s a theme that rings throughout the collection, asking whether it is enough to see and share what we’ve seen with others, when so much must be achieved if life is not to be lost.

Section 3, 'The House of Rest', explores this further. It comprises a series of nine poems capturing the grief, resolve and courage of Josephine Butler (1828-1906) who prevented the traumas of countless hundreds by campaigning for the repeal of a law that allowed the incarceration and violation of any woman suspected of carrying a contagious disease. The telling is heartfelt, forthright and striking, not least in the early poems illuminating the loss of Butler’s daughter: “What small offerings we make/ to the things we cannot keep/ as though we might bid them stay/ a little longer, or fool ourselves/ that love and time can be    tethered.”

Again, the space on the page works in harmony with the words painstakingly crafted to allow room for our own responses to well up.

Section 4 carries us back to anxiety for the state of the world, reflecting deep feelings for nature, family and the responsibility of the latter to the former as the poet attempts to explain the climate crisis to her children: “We let the ice caps powder – /so pile up the neuron stars/ like old office chairs.”

The blend of heavenly and prosaic is glorious and terrifying.

'Thwaites' takes this a swoop further, giving voice to an unnamed power: “imma tell you there’s a hole in me/ yup where my belly used to be/ enough to lift the seas ten feet/ if you don’t drown you’re a refugee.”

Stripping back punctation and leaving you to decide whether this may be the voice of the Earth itself, this is a powerful, visceral warning that wriggles through the collection, and one we surely should heed.

From the personal to the global, Jess-Cooke deftly draws our concerns in line with her own, providing visually-rich word-paintings that tell us not only the facts as she observes them, but cutting us cleanly to the emotional quick. The scope of the writing is humbling and hopeful.

This is a collection full of reverence for our planet, and our humanity – an urging to take stock and take action to do all we can to preserve them.

Review by Caroline Bracken, Nation.Cymru

Sunday, October 31, 2021

We Have to Leave the Earth is Carolyn Jess-Cooke’s third collection and her experience shows. She uses white space on the page like no one else, particularly in the opening sequence ‘Songs for the Arctic’. There’s not a word wasted in this section and each one is allowed a landing place with space around it, echoing the landscape she describes, as in ‘Hammerfest Storm’:

‘Sea working its tools

white hooks

shirring           wind

to a pelt                       the ship akilter’

The second section strikes a more personal note with poems about ancestors, parents, children and two of the best poems I have ever read about depression, ‘Sagittarius A*’ and ‘Birdsong for a Breakdown’: ‘Because I’d swum a thousand miles in tar/ upstream, and tar crept in my ears and ate the memory// of sound’.

‘The House of Rest’ is a sequence of poems based on the life of Josephine Butler, a feminist activist in the 19th century. These are deeply affecting poems which evoke the dreadful conditions for women at the time:

‘The matron shoves me into one of the ramshackle huts
outwith the workhouse,
her hands trembling as she turns the key in the lock.’ (Picking Oakum)

and ‘The Quiet Girls’:

‘children and women are forcibly subjected
to a brutal examination – bound, gagged, feet
in stirrups, metal speculum – in the name of
controlling venereal disease. Many have died;’

Butler was instrumental in overturning the Contagious Diseases Act of 1869 which allowed such barbaric examinations to take place and Carolyn Jess-Cooke’s poems bring Butler back into the light where she belongs.

Review by Mab Jones, Buzz Magazine

Thursday, October 28, 2021

We Have To Leave The Earth (Seren) begins with an epigraph that sets the tone of the book: “Will you tell us the stories that make us uncomfortable but not complicit?” (Ada Limón). From the beginning, there is no shying away by this poet as she bears witness to our ravaging of the Arctic and of each other, and various forms of violence. Amidst the brutality, however, there is beauty, and the grisly and grim are very often transmuted to something more refined, even rather spiritual, through the writer’s fine, lucid language. She may, for example, inhabit a “bloodied birthing pool” within a poem, but this is tempered by the tender image of a child “anchored to you / by a sky-blue rope”.

Jess-Cooke performs a similar ‘birthing’ feat in many of these pieces, creating something new, fresh, and wondrous from darkly disconsolate scenes. In other pieces, the poet inhabits particular voices, perhaps most obviously in her sequence evoking early feminist activist Josephine Butler. In these, gruesome facts are embedded within the poems and expressed with candour and clarity, the tone never tipping over into the melodramatic or overwrought, which I find to be the tendency when writing of such terrible human rights abuses; rather, the poet manages to remain always clear-headed. The result is poems that are strong, yet empathic; steely, but compassionate. It’s an extremely powerful admixture and I urge you to read it.

Review by Ruth Stacey

Monday, October 18, 2021

Carolyn Jess-Cooke’s new poetry collection, We have to Leave the Earth (Seren), is a skillful collection that suggests the reader be present in the moment and vividly experience our world as it is now, both domestic and political. The poems are those moments in dreams where the dreamer becomes lucid and sees things as they really are, like the slap of ice-cold air in the Arctic poems awakens the reader and defines the whole collection.

In this collection Jess-Cooke is intrepid in her descriptions and choices of subjects, like an archivist piecing together fragmented remains to find clarity and understanding.
Jess-Cooke conjures (and there is a sense of enchantment or spellcasting present in the sensual figurative language utilised) precise, evocative imagery to discuss wide-ranging subjects, such as disability, feminism, the environment and motherhood, and creates a sense of travelling through experiences and environments. There is an explorer at work here, one who views the world, in all its vast complexities, as no different to a child needing nurture from its caregivers.

Jess-Cooke opens with an enveloping poem that combines both stillness and movement, about that most intimate of places, the family bed. Filled with folds of fabric, a sleeping child and a, ‘fox-red in the lunar TV light’ snoozing dog, Jess-Cooke layers images as tenderly and quietly as snow falling and builds a drift of thoughts to consider this precise moment that is being observed, now, reflecting on, ‘ how many nows make up a life.’ This philosophical poem is crafted as a stream of thoughts and images, without a solid pause until the end point, an appropriate form to examine life as a series of fluid fragments pinned together, and made sense of, by love. Placing this poem at the beginning of the collection indicates a poet at a point of mastery over their own work, as the thematic work that follows seems askance at first to this domestic setting, being the radiant-white landscapes of the arctic and Viking history, however, as Jess-Cooke moves from the interior space to exterior enormity she retains this sense of closeness, of being tenderly present in the ‘now’ of our current world, a poetic and persistent mindfulness that does not flinch from raw truths.

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