Jun 13 2023
Poetry review – WE SAW IT ALL HAPPEN; Sue Wallace-Shaddad finds a strong and convincing thread running through this collection of eco-poetry by Julian Bishop
We Saw It All Happen Julian Bishop Fly on the Wall Press www.flyonthewallpress.co.uk ISBN 978-1-913211-91-2 114pp £9.99
Julian Bishop writes with a very fresh voice. He has an excellent mastery of language and form that is displayed throughout this noteworthy collection. The poems are organised in three sections: “A Taster”, “Mains” and “Afters”. This is a clever way of capturing the progress – or rather, lack of progress – in tackling climate issues. The first poem in the collection, “For Starters” sets the scene: ‘record-breaking heat turning the sea into consommé’.
I particularly enjoyed the poems in this first section. The prose poem “Lobster” imagines the life of a lobster and is a searing indictment of Pepsi bottles floating in the sea. The lobster is
cradled in a cot of cans, suckled on bottles, sleeping on a seabed littered with plastic toys […]
In the next poem “Poached Salmon”, the salmon ‘flounders/ in parboiled water, unable to spawn’. The reader is told ‘the climate starts to sharpen its knife’. Clearly, there can be no doubt about the strength of feeling behind these poems. “The Pirates Scuttled The Ship” has a very effective rhyme scheme and swashbuckling rhythm. Phrases and words that stood out for me included ‘slabber and shiver’, ‘Oh they squabbled and nickered’ and ‘hornswaggled’. Bishop weaves in a range of cultural references: ‘full fathom five’ and ‘yo-ho-ho’. Repetition is used at the end of each stanza with variations of ‘we’d keelhauled the lot to give us more space’.
“Pangolin” is an acrostic poem and this creature is not, I imagine, the easiest subject to tackle when using this form. A range of other animals features in the rest of this section; hippos, Sulawesi Warty Pigs (in a mirror poem), a giraffe, snow leopard, eagles and different kinds of beetles. This variety is a real strength. Bishop considers the threat posed to an orangutang by men chopping down trees in”‘Highlights of Mining for Gold in Indonesia”. The repetitive action of chainsaws and the looping of ‘lovely rings, a gold chain, your piercing’ are enhanced by the circularity of the villanelle form.
Everyone at some time will have killed an insect. This is the theme of “To All The Insects I Ever Squished” where Bishop apologises profusely but ends ‘it was simply the congenital human urge to eliminate’, certainly giving this reader food for thought. The next poem, “Insectageddon” sees the battle from the insects’ point of view. They are subjected to ‘weaponised tractors’, ‘merciless rain’ until their legs are ‘upended in surrender’ and there is ‘golden silence’. This section of the collection ends with a very domestic scene — a family watching television — which becomes increasingly fraught as they see walruses fall to their death, ‘blubber tumbling / through salty sky’.
The second section, “Mains”, opens with a prose poem “Welcome to Hotel Extinction” which marks the transition to an even worse situation. The next poem “Five Degrees” unpacks the impact of different degrees of global warming. Bishop again uses rhyme and repetition to reinforce the point he wishes to get across, ending ‘Sorry: too late’. In the cleave poem “We Need Another Amazon”, Bishop contrasts the daily commute on the London Underground with the sultry ‘tropical trance’ of the rainforest. The two worlds are conjured up side by side, but the poem’s ending suggests threat:
then a voice in the distance somewhere in the blue cries Mind The Gap the world is falling through
Bishop uses fragmentation and capitalisation at times in this section which adds power to the narrative voice. In “Four Forms of Denial”, the first poem, “[idle]”, uses slashes and visual caesurae to break the flow of the text. These gaps suggest to me the invisible threat of ‘the few particles’ flowing into the air as the car idles at the school gate.’ “[CARNIVORE]” has strident capital letters. “[PRESIDENTIAL]”, in bold capital letters, has Trumpian overtones: ‘WHAT/ YOU SEE AND READ IS NOT WHAT’S HAPPENING’.
This section is much more focused on the corporate sector, whether considering fracking or the oil industry. In “Alberta’s Story”, ‘[…] It took only one unguarded frack / to contaminate our lifeblood, to turn all our rivers black.’ A hellish scene of burning tyres in a Gulf Emirate is depicted in “Burning Rubber”:
swirling blends of precipitated silica and rubber. Plumes of smoke billow across endless desert: a choking canopy, ghost of a million trees.
At the centre of this section are six Lockdown Sonnets. Several of these provide a reminder of the importance of nature and how an appreciation of nature came to the fore at that time. In “Saffron Green”, Bishop explores ‘the richer world hidden beyond / the front door’ with
paths tickled with white comfrey, finches in trees, just inches away from the A1. […]
There are some lovely, but very poignant, lines in”‘I Found A Bluebell Wood”:
Never were so many bells silent at once: a congregation of flowers at prayer while we prayed for the dying elsewhere,
Bishop includes ‘a poem for Ukraine’, “Celandines and Blue Sky”, which also dwells on nature. He uses these flowers as a powerful extended metaphor:
Rootstock like weathered knuckles, they dig in deep, resilient against bitter easterlies,
In “Changeling”, ‘dust devils danced wildflowers turned to rape / bees supplanted by drones’. This is a poem of ‘slow-building catastrophe’. The poet suggests at the end ‘nothing left but a pyroclastic cloud/ of hex and ash’. “Avocado”, a beautifully crafted concrete poem, then provides a surprisingly lyrical ending to this section.
“Afters”, the final section, is very varied and seemed to me a bit less cohesive, but the poems certainly maintain the strength of passion that imbues the collection. There are some unsettling poems. “Oh Sugar!” describes wedding cake ‘teeming with deceased blister beetles’ and farmers with ‘calamitous crops’. “Fatberg” recounts the dreadful state of sewers, home to
a recumbent stalagmite of discarded wet wipes bringing London’s movements to a halt.
In “Ocean Autopsy”, Bishop bleakly imagines the ocean as a corpse with ‘over-fished ribs’ and ‘gallbladder wracked with tangled weed’. In “Drought Stress”, ribs also feature in the line ‘Bare roots protrude like ribs through skin’. The poet pleads ‘let […] rain swell the veins of the woods again’. The poem “When It Came To Ways Of Saving The Planet” is a depressing account of how much purported listening goes on to no useful effect: ‘So many words lost in labyrinthine whorls, / we couldn’t hear the wood for the trees’.
There is a note of hope at the end of the collection however. In “Guerrilla”, the poet seeks change: ‘these daisies are armed and dangerous / I want a new revolution in the lanes’.”‘Flip The Track” is highly inventive and almost frenetic with its references to disco music, films ‘and ‘the boogie’. The collection ends with a poignant poem “Ash” which suggests that trees could
[…] encase the globe in a protective blanket. A last desperate gasp to save the planet, I want the world to warm to my plan.
In his preface, Bishop remarks on ‘the lack of lyric poetry here, which necessarily centres around the ‘I’. However, interestingly, this final poem ends on the ‘I’, as if the poet wants to ensure he has left his personal stamp of commitment.
This collection deserves to be read by many. Ambitious in its scope, Bishop’s range of poetic techniques and topics means he constantly brings new flavours to the table.