Crisp, Louise. Glide. Waratah: Puncher & Wattman, 2021. RRP: $25.00, 96pp, ISBN 9781925780857.
If you have ever walked under the canopy of an old-growth forest, then Louise Crisp’s Glide will take you there once again. Her words will immerse you in the intricacies and the threats of these unique habitats.
However, Crisp’s work goes far beyond romantic sensibility. She is loud in her condemnation of the destruction she sees taking place from logging, mining and land clearing. Her soft-spoken laments come from a genuine relationship with the forest, and from her active participation in the fight for their survival. The collection is art as activism; poetry as protest. It is an act of bearing witness, or, as Crisp writes, ‘an unknown prayer for all the forest species daily destroyed nightly we / revisit to encounter’ (18). In one way, it is eco-poetry that attempts to bring the more-than-human experience into our consciousness. In another, it is scientific research, observing, recording, naming. Crisp uses poetry as both a salve for her anxiety over our collective future, and as a plea for us to pay attention to what is happening.
The collection is arranged into four parts, each with a particular environmental focus, followed by a fifth part, ‘Notes & Sources’, consisting of extensive background material and references. The cumulative effect is to inspire, engage and educate the reader.
Part one, ‘Glide’, gives the book its title and takes up half of the collection. Named after the various gliders that Crisp has encountered, her poems expose how these marsupials are specifically adapted to feed, live and breed within certain tree species. The opening series of poems, titled ‘Phenology (Mt Alfred State Forest, East Gippsland)’, details how gliders drink the sweet nectar from the flowers of species like ironbark, and then carry the trees’ pollen to fertilise other trees. These poems lull us into a sense of wonder at the intricacy of nature, its abundancies, its grace.
But that state of grace is short-lived. The language becomes more visceral, with relentless imagery that shows how human actions are threatening the delicate natural balance of the forests. And Crisp is clear about the villain of the piece: VicForests, a state-owned business that harvests, sells and re-grows timber from Victoria’s state forests on behalf of the state government. The second poem in part one, ‘Woodcut’, juxtaposes short portraits of habitats on one side of the page whilst noting the locations of these places on the opposite side. Many are given their technocratic name, such as Coupe 735-518-008 and SPZ 821 planned burn. The contrast is startling:
Three hundred year-old tree Coupe 892-502-0012
generations (off Mustard Tk)
have fed upon
Grey Gum standing
beside the headwaters
of Bendoc River
under the conical hill
scheduled for logging (15)
The book’s second part, ‘Brolga’, consists of one long poem comprised of fifteen sections, in which we are introduced to the brolga, a large, long-legged bird once abundant in the south-west of Victoria. Crisp uses a different tone here, bringing in the history of settlement in that part of the state:
We often passed flocks of
that most truly elegant bird
the native companion—
I have watched them, at sunset,
in a most graceful way,
gently waving their wings (48)
The closely observed behaviours and interactions of the brolgas in their habitat create a sense of seeing these places through the poet’s eyes, and the desperate plight of the brolga is emphasised concisely and starkly with the final line of the final stanza of the poem: ‘in memorium: Brolgas’ (55).
Part three, ‘Gibson’s Folly’, brings the clash of the landscape and human actions into full view. This series of short poems respond to the environment around the site of the Benambra Mine, the leaky tailings dam that was left behind when an abandoned mine was filled with toxic waste. Focusing on the rare and endangered plants inhabiting this area, as well as animal and insect life, these poems are filled with a sense of absence:
43 species of orchids were discovered in the area including Purple Waxlip
Glossodia major which forms no roots and depends upon mycorrizal [sic] fungi
I run up the bare clay spur to the helipad with a view beyond the failed
Into rugged country from Mt Tambo to the Nunniong escarpment (60)
Crisp knows intimately the places she inhabits, and she uses sparse language to bring her message home.
Part four, ‘Remnants’, consists of short prose poems, each named after a specific area of remnant bushland. Old Red Gums, called ‘last of the locals’ (68), lean over from the side of the road; ‘a boundary fringe of trees’ (70) is all that’s left of a forest; ‘Bracken from a history of hot burns’ (69) speaks of irreversible damage. One poem in particular brings this contrast between natural and human presence into sharp focus:
XIII. Maffra Cemetery
Where: ‘the unmown grass between two tombstones’? Neatly
partitioned into quadrants belonging to their church, the dead take
precedence over the living. The rare grassland that had survived 180
years of European occupation in a narrow strip beyond the protected
vegetation signs has been slashed down to dirt and the earth
scraped smooth as a granite tomb. (69)
The final part of Glide returns us to verse. A series of poems, each titled with Roman numerals, accumulate as a long lament. They sum up what can only be described as the violence of colonisation, both to the environment and to the First Nations people who inhabited the area.
Many of these poems take us to a place that has been more than observed; it has been inhabited in the fullest sense of the word, experienced in multiple ways, and loved deeply. That would be sufficient for many readers. However, when the collection is read alongside the comprehensive notes in part five, a different reading becomes possible: we move from a sentimental engagement to an understanding of the systemic issues that have led us to destruction and loss in the Gippsland Forests.
Juxtaposing logical and analytical references to experiential language can be tricky. At times, the passion and intensity of bearing witness means that the necessary information alongside it can feel overwhelming. Furthermore, the scale of destruction we encounter through these poems is relentless. Nonetheless, Crisp succeeds in her ecopoetic endeavour to speak her truth through poetry and activism. Glide offers a unity of place and a timely urgency; it records what has been lost and appeals to our better nature, asking us to rethink our relationship to ancient landscapes and their many more-than-human inhabitants.
A passionate environmentalist and activist, Vivienne brings art and activism together through her creative practice and workshops. She writes poems, plays and prose and contributed an audio-visual poem to Voices of Nature 2020, part of the Australian Earth Laws Alliance (AELA) biannual exhibition. Her novel manuscript The Story Shall be Changed was shortlisted for the Green Stories adult novel international competition in 2020. Bruised, her play on climate change and migration, was developed in 2022 by Playwrights’ Realm in New York, with director Reena Dutt. Vivienne holds a PhD in Creative Writing from University of Western Australia, where she is currently an Honorary Research Fellow. She received UWA’s Matilda Award for Cultural Excellence in 2011.