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 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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