Nov 3 2023
Poetry review – THE HUMAN PORTION: Wendy Kyle reviews a new chapbook by Nicola Warwick
With our planet in distress, there’s a certain anxiety-driven hope with every new collection that engages with the natural world. Nicola Warwick’s The Human Portion is titled with a promise of delving into the anthropogenic realm of poetry – searching for innovative ways for poetry to reveal something new about the human experience as it relates to nature.
Warwick’s “I” often feels interchangeable with the poet herself, catching a tonal echo from the subjectivity of the Romantics. She does have a sensibility to the sublime, stepping into a liminal space that is both apart from and partnered with nature. There is no attempt to over-complicate the poet’s belief in the mysteriously profound wisdom of the planet. Warwick is unapologetically straightforward at times. She seeks observable comfort that what is living in the world persistently survives suffering. She is interested in the human instinct for interconnectedness with the world; how we attach metaphorical significance to the external. She goes further: what “portion” of the universe (physically and conceptually) does the individual human body signify?
In “Husk,” a poem of grief, where objects of nature are ‘filled with nothing/but empty parlours,’ Warwick transfers the melancholy of humanity into objects of dehumanisation. Her work is a masterclass of hypallage. Her precise imagery transfers what she cannot bear to articulate, choosing to exist in the distancing and mist of metaphor. Ordinary language is inadequate:
All I’m doing is wrecking The long-abandoned chambers Where phrases used to hide. And at the heart, nothing –
Warwick’s poetry presents a corner of the mind that feels like a mysteriously spectral space. She implies that we need a way to feel universal affinity.
“Colony Collapse Syndrome” takes us unexpectedly through a narrative, pitching through phases of developing scenes – stanzas like stills from a film. The “She” character who ‘stopped paying the bills, /wrapped herself in moth-chewed layers’ has stopped functioning. Her depression manifests as nocturnal creatures are drawn over her body:
She lay on a mattress on the floor, Allowed them to worship her
The loss of her own “colony” – her family – initiates a swallowing biological pathology, pulling her into shadowy bodily demise, as dehumanised as a derelict building: ‘The house opened like a cave.’
These embodied poems jolt in juxtaposition to her mudflats and seas. She makes a body a moving part of nature – animal or landscape – and shows the body abandoned to nature, detached, and disowned. In “Mammalian Dive Reflex”, the body transforms out of personhood, ‘Between my fingers, webs of skin / My feet fuse to a tail. ‘Such poems consistently use nature to question the human experience and Warwick arrives at scenes that she fears are unknowable: ‘my breathing stops as if I’ve forgotten / how to do it.’ Warwick collects questions about the connection from one human being to another in an imaginative space that can only be mystery, left hanging in the balance of nature, asking the earth for answers: ‘How long will my breath hold, /I do not know.’
There is an attempt to balance the internal life organs of human biology with the presence of an innate, albeit unexplainable, human capacity for coalescence with the natural world. Without this, we struggle with disembodiment and dehumanisation. The imagery of the body is probed in “Casting Off” where the reader is egged on to ‘Step out of yourself//Shed those weights and that keep you grounded.’ The speaker asks us to ‘flaunt the glisten of your lymphatic system’ and ‘Leave it all to the sea.’
Yet it is the poems where we return to the ordinariness of human relationships, which ground us. In “Garden Cross Spiders”, she observes spiders and hopes that insects are caught in their webs:
tight as an invalid – like my father in his hospital bed, side-rails in place
In the poem “When I hear your voice,” from the first line, the released essence or ghost of a human voice moves inside an unknown space: ‘I hear your voice in the moorland grasses.’ Warwick creates a particular fearful lurching rhythm in this poem. Her curt monosyllabic line starts make tense, shivering couplets. There’s a wild searching quality trailing after a detached voice into dark terrain, as grief does, lost in ‘the heavy-hanging/morning mist’. Warwick, with the poem’s opening quote, links the speaker’s experience to the hauntedness of Jane Eyre, and this light intertextual reference sensitively layers the tone of this poem. This space is one of tension and uncertainty or, as Keats would have it, a poetic voice must dwell in “negative capability,” sit inside what remains to us, mysterious and transcendental.
In the endlessly multi-layered poem, “The Courteous Farmer,” despite the bodily pain of ageing, finds a pregnant hare among the roadkill that ‘remind him of the children they will not have.’ In this difficult emotional space – as he is “Turning butcher” his thoughts are of love. When the living newborn is birthed from its dead mother, he ‘holds it to his chest, a second heart.’ Such poems deserve a second reading.
The Human Portion complicates the instinct to connect our human relationships with a higher consciousness – one that nature mysteriously occupies. Her poems are moments of unsettling tension between the symmetry we see of ourselves in nature, and our oblivious disconnect. Warwick’s subtle glimpses of the individuals in her poems are unpredictably moving. Warwick shows us trying to bring the universe closer. Going to sleep, we still hope the birds outside call us to join our portion to the whole, as: ‘I watch them from the window for their exodus, / Count them out, count them all back in’.
Wendy Kyle is poet and reviewer, widely published, as in: Mslexia, The Tangerine. Blackbox Manifold anthroposcene, Alternative Field Anthology, Alchemy Spoon. She has been shortlisted and recognised in many international prizes including the The Bridport, National Poetry Competition and runner up in Mslexia Women’s Poetry Prize.