Aug 7 2023
Poetry review – LETTER TO ’OUMUAMUA: James Roderick Burns recommends James Norcliffe’s new collection as a stimulating and constructive vade mecum for our times
For a collection that takes a long hard look at human foibles and limitations, often from a high, almost detached perspective (perhaps the icy gaze of the passing interstellar object referred to in the title), Letter to ’Oumuamua is substantial, in-depth, penetrating – all of which is to be expected. What isn’t, perhaps, is a consistent stance – perhaps even a theme – of introspection and self-referentiality, and the fact that this glancing postmodern aspect hides the most serious of concerns.
That concern is what should be the most pressing concern for us all – climate change and the possible end of life on earth. The motif of a comet’s eye view is useful in underlining how things look from up high, where time works differently, and seemingly nothing cares about the extinction of one species on a small wet rock. But Norcliffe is indefatigable in showing us both the beauty and fragility of life, often in strikingly beautiful ways. ‘Kotuku’, for instance, contains this simple but profound sighting of two herons:
Then a corner, then the curve of the road, a dark ellipse beside the sea, and standing ankle-deep two white herons together stabbing at the water. How white they are in a grey world
Though the world is grey – and cynical, and lucrative, in its homogeneous mushy sameness – still nature stands out, vital and piercing, against it. In ‘The Museum of Unnatural History’, its lines crisp and elegiac, we see a world lost to memory, struggling to recreate itself:
Ice falls from the trees like white petals and the great, bare branches reach up struggling with the memory of birds
Yet at all points through 90 pages, the struggle is not just implicitly but explicitly shown to be worth it. Norcliffe is not a protest poet, but a poet protesting. In the opening, ironic ‘lost notes on civilisation’ title poem, he observes from the passing comet’s perspective that “a kind farmer allowed this willow to live, give shelter to his cattle/as they wait for the abattoir”. Or in ‘Duck Mousse for Breakfast’, where in a parody of happy-go-lucky, frolic through nature poems, the poet spreads pate on toast (itself a condemnation of profligate food waste and air miles traversing the globe)
while the ducklings in a line follow their mother across the lawn, down to the old mulberry tree where they pick at berries staining their little beaks red
It is a bracing theme – an impassioned, subtly communicated call to re-examine our lives and their location in (and exploitation of) the natural world that surrounds us. Such poetry is usually stout, forthright, intentional in its call, and rarely counterpointed by theoretical concerns that might undercut its message.
Yet this collection is shot through with self-referentiality, in-jokes, postmodern asides and all the self-aware scaffolding of a completely different sort of aesthetic. It is an intriguing, and perplexing, mix.
Take ‘Life After the Diamond Harbour Ferry’, for instance, which closes out the book with a semi-serious portrait of the whole world warning against falling into literary tropes (though not yet self-referentiality):
All at once the Diamond Harbour ferry burps, an eructation that sparks panic. Others have noticed. But the Diamond Harbour ferry does not apologise. You take my hand and try to comfort me. We must not allow out lives to be dominated by personification, you whisper. The jetty seems a little closer. Two black backed seagulls are perched on the railing. She is quite right, one screeches. Listen to her.
It is unclear whether the slightly arch, humorous tone is intended to solidify or counterpoint the climate change messaging of many of the poems, and in particular the nature-heavy final third of the book. It is neatly mirrored by the title poem, which opens the book and proclaims “I’m not saying come back, dear ’Oumuamua, we do know what/we’re doing. We’re not all bad. We just can’t help ourselves.” But its deft, unpindownable tone runs through many other poems – such as ‘Penguin Modern Classics’, where the well-thumbed dead arise from the pages to help fashion a perfect life, or ‘Green Finches and Wax-eyes Among the Figs’, which takes the form of a mock-lament against nature strip-mining a garden.
But if a single poem could be said to embody, and reveal, this tendency, it is ‘Pink Aspirin for the Heart’. The poem begins by acknowledging its own parameters: “this being an unfunny pharmaceutical/joke, an exercise in metonymy,/synecdoche, one or the other, or both”. It is almost conceding defeat before the poem has begun, but the poet isn’t done by a long shot. He then develops an extended metaphor on natural properties and the thickness of water:
It should flow like a gazelle through graceful grass, like cursive script across the smoothness of bond paper It should, but it doesn’t: Mine doesn’t always. It sticks, stodges, clogs, and needs this irony of pink aspirin to free it up
Without missing a beat, he goes on to describe the way the world actually is, up close and in your face: fear, war, bloody scrapping, the claret flowing, endless and unstaunchable. It is a necessarily nasty conclusion, one we feel might lie beyond any possible solution through the written word. But then, inevitably, the poem loops back through blood, congealants and paper, to its own opening:
consider pen and sword; that blood should not flood arenas and mosques; that there should be another pill for that.
We are driven back both to the impossibility of literature, in the face of carnage, and our reliance on its prescriptions anyway. We know, he seems to say, that everything equates merely to the snake that eats itself (in the case of pharmaceuticals and poems, for profit and understanding that loops endlessly into itself) – and yet, we are reading this, in conjunction with many equally fine poems that understand nature in the face of exploitative threats always ending in blood.
It is, perhaps, not for the reviewer to close this circle. A stark, postmodern aesthetic invades well-crafted, subtle warning songs of our fate in this fragile paradise. What to do with it? Get hold of a copy and see for yourself.