Neilsen, Philip. Wildlife of Berlin. Crawley, Western Australia: UWA Publishing, 2018. RRP $22.99. 108pp. ISBN 9781742589619
Wildlife of Berlin is Philip Neilsen’s sixth solo poetry collection. Neilsen is adjunct professor of creative writing at Queensland University of Technology and teaches poetry and poetics at the University of Queensland. His mastery of poetics is clear throughout this collection.
The difference between Wildlife of Berlin and Neilsen’s other works is the level to which subjectivity is invoked within the poems. In Neilsen’s previous works, he has avoided revealing too much about his own life. Wildlife of Berlin looks at ex-lovers (12-13), an affair with a married woman (43) and the miscarriage of a child (66), whether real or imagined is up to the reader.
Neilsen has published widely as an arts therapist who has sought to assist people living with mental health issues, and this has given him empathy for those who struggle to pull meaning from life. Depression comes up repeatedly in the collection. In ‘Crow’ (30), the crow itself is a symbol for depression, latching on to its victim, remaining there clever, dark and insidious. ‘Suicide’ (26) recounts a tale of a university tutor committing suicide in the middle of a tutorial:
Or did the conjuror’s trick
of daily coping,
making magic from the clamour of pain,
carry him out into the sunlight. (26)
Wildlife of Berlin touches on topics that readers will know well or are very familiar with in their own lives, as well as bringing fresh, new ideas to other themes. The bringing together of seemingly unrelated ideas is a common trope of Neilsen’s work, and one that Wildlife of Berlin does not lack. In ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (20), we see an unconventional perspective on the titular princess’s side of the story. Neilsen references literary and historical figures throughout the collection, in part to offer uncommon perspectives on the characters while also to pay homage to them. In ‘Cane Toad’ (16), the toad is represented as the classic underdog, who has experienced some hardships but keeps on going. Nature features heavily throughout Wildlife in Berlin, similarly to Without an Alibi (2008), and ties in with his themes of death, meaning of life and the destruction of our planet.
Neilsen often questions the path humanity is on and implores us all to see the true importance in life. He urges us to look to the animals around us to understand the dire situation in which we are in (32). Part II of the collection gives beautiful and somewhat tragic depictions of Australian birds. The poem ‘Auspices’ reads:
If only a million wings could filter
the sun, cool the ocean currents,
soothe the space dome,
that mad cracked cap. (32)
Neilsen highlights the inevitability of death, bringing us back to it in almost every chapter, and reminds us to make the time we do have count. Ultimately, many of the poems are written as warnings that we, humanity, are on the verge of a grand collapse:
Listen, there is no magic in this prophecy:
when the rhino is gone
and clumsy birds mop the plains
you will see there your own remains. (94)
These are the themes that wind their way through Neilsen’s entire collection, at times only subtly appearing, while in other poems it is the main topic.
Neilsen takes the reader through a wide range of emotions from sadness and despair to the uplifting and humourous. His use of satire and wit ranges from subtle to obvious. Neilsen projects his voice throughout the collection where we can almost hear his teeth clench with irritation or tremble in heartache. The poetic perspectives ranges from that of a young man, in poems inspired by Neilsen’s youth, to a wise father-figure, knowing and understanding things that most do not. The poems are at times deeply personal, and have the power to affect all readers in their profoundness.
I had the opportunity to hear Neilsen launch Wildlife of Berlin at Avid Reader in March. He described himself as a perfectionist who often did twenty drafts of a single poem before he was happy with it. He chose a small handful of his favourites to read to us. At times, the audience clutched their stomachs in laughter, while in other moments remained completely silent and absorbed in his words. It appears Neilsen is still in the prime of his poetry career.
Lucy Walding is a Queensland-based writer. She holds a Bachelor of Arts (Creative and Professional Writing) from the Queensland University of Technology.