Glance, Vivienne and Elio Novello, editors. Letters to Our Home: creative reflections on the climate crisis. Kalgoorlie: Mulla Mulla Press, 2020. RRP: $15.00, 50pp, ISBN: 9780648833000.
When Simon Armitage, the current British poet laureate, says recently that ‘nature has come back to the centre of poetry’ (Flood), he is not suggesting that nature had lost its appeal to poets till climate change activists started hitting the streets. He is reflecting on a new artistic energy and approach motivated by a new understanding of the global climate crisis. Armitage and the two previous British poets laureate, Sir Andrew Motion and Carol Ann Duffy, have collaborated with The Guardian to publish ‘original poems by various authors on the theme of climate change’ in anthologies published by The Guardian in 2009 and 2015. These inaugural collections have inspired new climate poetry anthologies in Australia and Canada since 2017. Letters to Our Home: creative reflections on the climate crisis (2020) is Western Australia’s latest contribution to the emerging genre of climate change poetry.
The ecological concerns in Letters to Our Home reflect what we see in media reports about the climate crisis. We see eco-apocalyptic warnings in Geraldine Ingram’s ‘The End’ (16). Veronica Lake and Colin Young empathise with threatened species in ‘South Beach July 2019’ (5) and ‘Song of the Penguins’ (14) respectively. Peter O’Shaughnessy bemoans rising global temperatures and desertification in ‘Salmon Run’ (25) and Jan Napier depicts the alarming cases of flashfloods across the globe in ‘Same Same’ (35). These are concerns that previous climate change anthologies also articulate but this anthology does something new. Most of the contributions connect private moments (familiar encounters and personal experiences) to the global climate situation, in the process presenting a personal story out of a global problem. Flora Smith’s ‘The Journey’ (24), for instance, invites us to share the lyric persona’s pathos for a stranded ‘flock of sheep’ waiting in vain around ‘empty dams’ for water. We share in the tragic moment of these lines:
Once we had to stop
To stop and look again at a flock of sheep:
An empty dam
silent sheep the same dull brown
there would be no water
for a very long time
The persona’s moment of pathos for this thirsty flock induces in the reader climate change anxieties about Australia’s worsening drought seasons.
The artistic drawback for poems that pursue activist agendas, such as climate change, is that aesthetic originality is sometimes abandoned. Armitage warns against this when he states that ‘the subject matter isn’t the be all and end all, I’m interested in the quality of writing that comes with it’ (Flood). We certainly cannot say this for some earlier climate poetry anthologies as we see superfluous recycling of climate change clichés (Griffiths 2-4). Refreshingly, this is not the case with Letters to our Home. Contributors in this anthology present passionate campaigns for urgent climate action but they also maintain fidelity to poetic aesthetics.
The aesthetic approaches are as diverse as the wide assortment of poets Glance and Novello have put together. Through the technique of a lyrical anecdote, Laurie Smith draws on his zoological experience to attack Monsanto’s hazardous chemicals in ‘Industrial Blight’ (32). Lisa Collyer deploys the female body as a metaphor for earth in ‘The Waters are Rising’ (10) to demonstrate a similarity in the defilement that both bodies regularly suffer from groping hands. Glen Phillips’ ‘Coming Ready or Not’ (26) is a joy to read indeed. We follow the lyric speaker on a meditative journey through cosmic space and return abruptly to the earth to ponder the paradoxical vistas of the picturesque and the shadowy. He warns that the human footprint on earth and sky ‘looks harmless […] until close-up’.
For those who insist that climate change should be seen through a larger geological time scale with the human footprint as only a minute incident of the Holocene (Griffiths 2-4), Natalie D-Napoleon’s ‘Ash’ encourages a rethink. Drawing on the familiar imagery of kitchen smoke and the stage, D-Napoleon’s mixed metaphors make a connection between the quotidian and the epochal dimensions of the climate conundrum. Ellen Vigus’ ‘The World Rewound’ experiments with structure, dispensing with the white-space/line-break convention for lineated lines. The contrived line-breaks ‘rewound’ for the reader a vision of a world running in cataclysmic rhythm ‘into a burning future’ (15). Climate change apologists will find solidarity in these poems and aesthetic purists will relish the deftness of imaginative writing in the anthology.
One cannot miss the echoes of how-dare-you in the contribution of the twelve-year-old Tara Hurst. By including Hurst’s prose missive, ‘Dear Future Generation’, (18) the editors have shown us the importance of young voices in the climate conversation, as we owe it to them to pass on a healthy planet. The rebuke (or rather, wakeup call) from young climate activist voices, such as Hurst, evokes the Indigenous American adage that ‘we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children’. Like Greta Thunberg, Hurst is alarmed at the state of the planet we have borrowed from the unborn. She records some magnificent landscapes in Western Australia that she wants the future generation to know and expect in their time without which they should demand an accounting from the present generation. How dare anyone despoil these pristine places for the future generation, she muses!
Despite the dark mood and tone in many of the poems, there are also contributions that pay homage to the splendour and resilience of landscapes that have survived anthropocentric pressures. We do not know for how long though. But this anthology is, no doubt, inspiring us to preserve the remaining unspoiled landscapes and join the fight to salvage the places that are already burning. This volume thrills us with good quality writing, but it also makes us think about the worsening global climate.
Flood, Alison. ‘Simon Armitage: Nature has Come Back to the Centre of Poetry.’ The Guardian, 21 November 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/nov/21/simon-armitage-nature-has-come-back-to-the-centre-of-poetry
‘Keep it in the Ground: a Poem a Day’ The Guardian, 20 November 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/series/keep-it-in-the-ground-a-poem-a-day
Griffiths, Matthew. The New Poetics of Climate Change: Modernist Aesthetics for a Warming World. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017, pp 2 – 4.
Jerome Masamaka is a poet and a creative writing PhD candidate at Murdoch University.