London Grip Poetry Review – Carolyn Jess-Cooke

Poetry review – WE HAVE TO LEAVE THE EARTH: Julie Hogg admires a powerful new collection by Carolyn Jess-Cooke

We Have To Leave The Earth
Carolyn Jess-Cooke
Seren Books

Carolyn Jess-Cooke is a consummate author. Her writing, which has won numerous awards, has been published in twenty-three languages. We Have To Leave The Earth, Jess-Cooke’s third collection, epitomizes the innate skills within her poetry: vital energy, tenacity and verve.

This collection shakes a reader insistently by the shoulders, tenderly and with eloquent persistence. The introductory poem, ‘Now’, forces simultaneous focus on complete acknowledgement of the very moment of reading the poem, together with the poem’s conversational voice describing a familial scene. Carolyn Jess-Cooke’s poetry is masterly and never more so than when dealing with the universality of motherhood:

Now is the moment I sit in bed on one hip, turned
to the round mirror and the back of our daughter who now
climbs into bed, pulling the covers haphazardly across us and
the dog who snores lightly, …

This first poem creates a powerful hush, complete attentiveness and readiness for the journey. The first sequence, ‘Songs for the Arctic’, charts the northernmost region on Earth; inspired by the author’s own fieldwork there. Delicate white spacing in form is chosen for most poems here, evoking silence, isolation, snow and ice. The poet’s homage to the magnificence of this part of our planet begins with wonder and an air of trepidation

December. Bone sky.

Ocean’s oil-dark

cloth unsettled

by a new burden: boat

skirted with white

mountains of many quarries

and quiffs. We watch for

               green sky-rivers

               arrows of geese

               water-scythes of whales
                                                      [‘We too flicker briefly’]

Natural beauty is clearly and adroitly wound like a silvery thread throughout the sequence, both in the lexis of a unique voice and tone which is curious and courageous. In the poem, ‘Confrontation,’ the poet asks with immediacy in the first line, ‘Why did you come?’ drawing a reader into what has gone before for explorers Amundsen and Shackleton, acknowledging with controlled defiance, ‘Death hides ¬¬– /but here I’m in the shiv/of his stare and he/in mine’

The poet’s physical outer journey and inner journey converge effortlessly in these poems. ‘Hammerfest Storm’ is sparse and sparing, each chosen word as precise as a shard of ice. ‘Risøyhamn’ (a poem whose title is the name of a village located on the southern part of the island of Andøya) chronicles a peaceful voyage:

We sail, snail-slow, beneath
a bridge knitting islands,
its grey echo
in the fjord
unstitched as we pass,
suturing in our wake. 

But the calm before the storm is fiercely called out as a plea, almost a howl into an abyss:

O that all
rifts could be
so healed. O that these seas
never warm and rise but keep cool
wind prised between
bridge and tide.  

Jess-Cooke is unafraid to name the realities of the climate crisis; her poetry directly and fearlessly confronts this in‘Troms Vigil’:

    Mountain’s thousand
             flayed angles keep
    vigil for our dying earth,
             breaking her heart
each winter, …  

Political truths are recognised, too. ‘What We Found in the Arctic, or, the Geopolitics of New Natural Resources Uncovered by Melted Ice,’ is a list poem detailing explicitly the contents of its title, amongst them, ‘Rubber ducks’ ‘Three Incan children, sacrificed’ ‘1700 species of plants’ ‘The albedo effect, claimed by no one’ and:


Polar bears, starving
Disputations concerning territorial waters
45,000 Russian troops
3,400 Russian military vehicles

This section of the book moves on to a poem entitled ‘The Edge of the Known World,’ where the poet asks:

                                    …What hunger
will drive us yet, when I turn back 
to the world of Brexit, nuclear arms,
Trump, islands of plastic, storms
beyond record? How will we measure 
the cold? How will we see
in the dark?

The final poem of the sequence pulls away from a darkly lit universe, old and new world orders and into the micro; the subject of this work being a tardigrade, a micro-animal with a macro reach which inhabits every part of the Earth’s biosphere. It is a pioneer species which fits into the sense of constant evolution that runs throughout this collection.

The next section contains a suite of deeply personal and deeply affecting pieces. The urgent title poem of the collection appears first and is astounding; an honest and forthright precis of why ‘We Have To Leave the Earth’. It demands to be read on the page in its entirety. Here, also, is a poem which recalls the poet’s grandmother-in-law’s horrific lived experience during the Brno Death March in 1945. There are also poems which sensitively navigate and soothe the desolate landscape of depression, ‘Sagittarius A*’ ‘Birdsong for a Breakdown’ and ‘Things Will Work Out.’ ‘Peeling the skin’ recollects sunburned family holidays:

The confetti of my childhood lies in corners
of Connemara, the sands of
Donegal, bearing traces of fingers
that picked me to riddance. I’d hear
the sellotape-tear
of strips they’d peel from my back
and I felt like something being primed for the spit,
or dressed for the rite. 

Other poems include a beloved daughter’s diagnosis, each specific emotional twist and turn written with love and precision, ‘Pool’:

You tell yourself that the facts are clear:
autism is caused by genetics, or environment, and
even if you were to travel back in time you
could not have done anything, anything
at all to prevent this – 

‘At Sports Day’ prophetically details how the bond of love pulses into life-blood for the future and ‘Willow’s Leelo & Dave’ is a unique, stunningly beautiful poem:

At school she’s started a craze
for imaginary fish. All her friends suddenly
have imaginary fish. This time last year
the paediatrician said Willow didn’t engage
in imaginary play, …

‘1 day old, 6.03am’ describes specifically this life-changing event. I cried when I first met this poem in a literary journal, and I cried upon reading again.

Jess-Cooke devotes and dedicates the next sequence of nine poems, ‘The House of Rest,’ to the memory of Josephine Butler; chronicling and honouring her life and work. My daughter completed her undergraduate years at Josephine Butler College; however, I knew little about Butler’s feminism and successful social reform in the Victorian era.

Boland once quoted Woolf: ‘For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.’ Jess-Cooke flips the reality of this upside down in acknowledgement of the fact; by breathing life, breathtakingly, into Butler’s history. Rather like colourising black and white or sepia photographs, the poet’s words revive Josephine Butler’s experiences and extraordinary pioneering, fleshing them out once again. This is history made strangely, often unnervingly, contemporary; in my opinion this sequence provides the pinnacle of this collection and is superb. Here is part of ‘Picking Oakum’:

                   … But then my mind floods with Eva, each
           woman’s face a palimpsest of hers in reefs
          of shade, and the true purpose of my visit unfolds: if born

           under a different star my daughter might have found her way
           into this shed, into these lives, these pathways,
           these tendrils of too-used rope…

Poems in the final section bring us up to the present day. ‘Homeschooling’:

Do I want to tell them their home is built
on blood and bones? Do I want their
childhood garden filled with teargas,
Mace, a knee on the neck?

I feel privileged to have reviewed this collection. Should a paper label adorn this book, it would instruct us to read me, read me again and understand.