Landscaping for recreational purposes – this, says Martin Noutch, could be a metaphor for the way that Michael McKimm’s new collection makes poetry out of geology

Fossil_Sunshine96Fossil Sunshine
Michael McKimm
Worple Press
ISBN: 978 1 905208 20 3
28 pp   £7

The cover photograph of Fossil Sunshine presents a surprising view of a landscape – a cliff or scarp edge against a deep sky – but the fringe of grass annd stripe of air only occupy a minute portion of the picture. The photograph, like this collection, presents a perspective that remains resolutely focused on the overlooked textures and colours of the rock underfoot. McKimm particularly delights in inclusions – the combinations of different rock classes in one place, often near the sea – and has found in the esoteric jargon of geology a wealth of subtle metaphors for his poetry.

We take a sample from the buried cliff:
Raised beach shingle, chalk, the Skipsea Till,
Coarse and imbricated gravels. We lift
small cupfuls to the microscope…

Looking at the world with this detail gives rise to entirely new subjects – why not write a speculation about the people awoken by a geologically significant landslide? It serves as a route into a visually charged world of dream and vision in which the violent advance of cracks daggering cliffs and a moon in the window entirely ajar.   Why not revisit childhood beaches with the new eyes of educated geology which reinterpret the walk-on-nails / tough for the child basalt in new ways, juxtaposing the child’s vision with the man’s: A thick burnt red / running through like a layer of jam: interbasaltic / laterite, the field guide says’? Why not turn the route of an oil pipeline into something like a song-and-dance?

The list poem is a symptom of the disease we know as the love of words, and when McKimm traces the path of an unloved and secretive pipeline from the Alberta sands to the terminal in Illinois, it seems that the music of names, together with the thrill of keeping a sentence alive across three pages, is enough to imbue this poem with a strange power. The pipeline is never mentioned explicitly, existing as the shadowy subject of a rattling line of participles, zig-zagging, flexing and thinking, southering, not even possessing a concrete reference until the eleventh line, by which time it’s into Saskatchewan, lending the reader that persepctive that could well believe it’s surely-just-cables. The subtlety of this delivery means that we can choose between hostile suspicion and technological thrill – but either at a distance, as we merely glimpse something that is much bigger than we realise.

Playing with scale is surely natural when writing about such varying timescales as 85Ma chalk right foot / 55Ma pebble beds and the straight A10 / a new ploughed field in ‘Carbon Capture and Storage’. There is no simplistic ‘green’ message here, just a cool, geological look at the change man is bringing to the world. The various voices that speak in several pieces named ‘Abstract from a conference’ each have a scientific distance that make a surprising contrast with their poetry. In the final of these, the last in the collection, a voice suggests global-scale interventions to alter climatic impacts in a way that seems ridiculous.

Or we might want
To start a nuclear winter –

We’d do this by releasing
Particles of soot –

This is actually the cheaper
option, and less messy.

 The lineation and broken rhythms reinforce the strangeness of these ideas, if we are to take them seriously, and that forces us to concentrate simply on comprehending what we’re being told. After all, one of poetry’s great powers is to make things we take for granted seem new – the power of estrangement – and it seems to be McKimm’s point that any decisions about how we reconcile our use of fossil sunshine with our need to continue inhabiting the planet have a surprisingly vast scale to relate to. The lessons of rocks are not simple, but subtle. Relating his visit to an onshore extraction site in ‘Oil Field’, the poet finds the quiet and beauty at odds with his expectations. The three nodding donkeys, the three beam pumps, are working with a rhythm / you would never think so peaceful or so clean. Perhaps with his eyes attuned to see beauty in the inorganic, McKimm has learnt to see past a polarised view of the ‘exploitation’ of the earth. Perhaps he suggests that we should, too?

But there is another dichotomy that appears within these poems, an intensely private, but joyful, revelation about our need for things buried in the earth. The hidden rhythm in the chalk that the poet describes in one of a series of ‘Field Notes’ is nothing more than the record of cretaceous cycles, yet in wondering whether we should note these and use them to guide our understanding of the planet, the poet finds himself calling these frequencies a pace-maker for change. He is fascinated to realise that inorganic violence, roughness and geological aeons of time can create the conditions for life; and connections between the surprising fertility of the rocks are hidden in every poem. Fossils in ‘Laosciadia Planus’ reveal ancient sponges and create an image of a sea electric with reptiles. An oak tree can have no metaphor of suitable scale except a monolith, and amongst the rhythmic list of all the classifications in ‘Abstract from a Conference 4’ is found landscaping for recreational purposes – perhaps the best metaphor for McKimm’s pleasure in the ground itself.