Oct 25 2023
Poetry Review – ICE CREAM ‘N’ TAR: Amelia Walker recommends careful reading of JV Birch’s powerful poetry about the climate crisis
On a panel at London’s Southbank Centre on July 9th 2023, James Miller, Chloe Aridjis, Jay Griffiths, and Xiaolu Guo spoke in conversation about the climate crisis and why literature has a vital capacity to promote understanding, action, and change. For me, the take-home was that people change their minds more readily in the dark far than in the light of day, meaning that private spaces of quiet reflection help people feel safer contemplating difficult ideas and realities like the environmental devastation current ways of life cause. Self-interrogation involves a set of acts that can bring vulnerability, as does revaluating one’s previous stance and shifting towards new ways of thinking. Literature’s power is reaching people in the dark—in the spaces of calm introspection the act of reading affords. While science crucially presents facts and makes them shine under bright lights, creative arts let people sense and feel what all of it really means, why it matters, and why we must care enough to undertake the hard work change demands.
The 2022 winner of the prestigious James Tate poetry prize, JV Birch’s ice cream ‘n’ tar is a book that will change minds in the dark. The opening poem, “2049”, drops us into a not-too-distant future where a parent tries to explain to their child what bees were and that snow was once more than ‘something / the freezer does when you don’t close the door’. The poem then describes drastically risen sea levels and scorching sun. But most terrifying, for me, are lines reporting that ‘Gloves are displayed in museums like aliens’ and ‘Ice cream shares have shot through the roof’. The morbid humour sardonically suggests that, even with the world almost completely underwater, the machines of profit will grind on and on, just as they do today, while overwhelmed individuals observe with baffled detachment, unsure what to do.
The mood and motifs that “2049” establish persist throughout the collection, which jumps between future, past, present, and moments that transcend all three. “Snow” extends the idea that ‘One day, not far from now, children will ask what snow is’, ending on the poignant image ‘These days, there is barely a sprinkle. It glitters, as if / to help us remember.’ While not all poems mention climate change explicitly, each one resonates with ecological themes and reminders of existence’s fragile preciousness. For instance, the title poem, “ice cream ‘n’ tar”, reminisces:
– how fast the summers go / they used to seem endless / when the ice cream van with its music-box music brought us running, our pockets full o f pence, handing them over in sweaty fists to cool palms with ice lollies / when we knocked on doors to ask friends out to play, tag-chasing, bike-racing, anything to spend the energy we had…
Read alone, these might seem a suite of nostalgic reflections. But in juxtaposition to “2049” and “Snow”, they bear grim testimony to how much things have already changed, how quickly: we are already living in what would have seemed, from the vantage of a not-too-distant past, a starkly dystopian future. The dystopian nature of our now is further emphasised in pieces such as “A burning world”—a cut-up poem sourced entirely from reportage on Australian bushfires published in 2020—and “Barrier Reef (Formerly Great)”, a prose poem which illuminates the links between environmental devastation and colonial violence when it ends by asking ‘What is the language here? How many Aboriginal ones are still spoken? Falling on closed ears. In a place that’s screaming.’
Yet ice cream ‘n’ tar also contains many poems emphasising how much beauty still persists—an important reminder, for it discourages giving up, and compels care. For instance, “Ladybirds” depicts ‘a delicate / sea of red, lifting their skirts for any promise of breeze’, and “Silver spoons” describes planting succulents from cuttings:
like my nan taught me, as long as you leave enough and the cut’s alive she said. She loved her plants, took my arm to show me what’s new, what’s thriving, what needs a little help…
The importance of caring also shines in the poem “Every second counts”, though differently: the poem’s speaker buys a takeaway coffee ‘as another species disappears’, but seems focused only on the fact that ‘It’s overfull, burns my fingers’. Subsequent stanzas of the poem all juxtapose the realities of surrounding ecological catastrophes—like forest fires, ocean plastics, and melting ice caps—with the speaker’s banal reveries about the cat and checking weather on their phone. As with the opening poem “2049”, it’s a grim reminder of humanity’s prolific capacity for careless detachment. But it is also, paradoxically, a poem of hope, for in each stanza a different decision could clearly be taken, which prompts readers to seek and take those decisions in our own lives.
Indeed, the book ends with ‘a promise of hope’—the final phrase in an epilogue titled “Rot”, about food wastage, wherein the poem’s speaker ponders why people with overabundant fruit trees don’t ‘…save the fruit / and leave it for others to enjoy?’ Its epilogue position leads me to read “Rot” as an analogy for the overall crisis ice cream ‘n’ tar confronts, and a reminder we can do more than stand by watching things keep wasting. This is why ice cream ‘n’ tar has the power to change minds in the dark. I recommend it be read widely, closely, and thoughtfully, with openness to the difficult truths it shares. And I hope those of us who do so can muster bravery to bring the changes that happen in the dark out into the light for sharing: every second really does count after all.