London Grip Poetry Review – Jane Lovell



Poetry review – ON EARTH, AS IT IS: Stephen Claughton finds Jane Lovell’s poems to be set firmly in the natural world and very much in sympathy with nature


On Earth, as it is
Jane Lovell
Hazel Press
ISBN 978-1-7394218-1-6

Jane Lovell is a multi-prizewinning poet who writes mostly about the natural world. Her poems combine scientific understanding with imagination, verbal ingenuity and a fine eye for detail. This well-produced collection from the Hazel Press is her sixth publication and contains 27 poems, including four from her 2019 pamphlet, This Tilting Earth, with no more than minor changes. The title of her new book is taken from The Lord’s Prayer, but without any reference to God’s will, or heaven. These poems are located firmly in the physical world.Death and decay feature largely in her work and a poem called “Mushrooms growing from a dead possum’s claw” sounds almost too good to be true, which indeed it is—a helpful note explaining that it was staged by a mycologist who couldn’t resist arranging the photograph of the claw so that it was ‘offering up a bouquet of mushrooms, in a circle of life moment.’ Lovell rejects such easy comforts (‘It’s just an illusion, this life flourishing / from flesh and rind … composed to give us hope. / Life from death.’) For her, it’s more about the decomposed, concluding with: ‘Death from life. // We are all phantoms on this Earth.’ Similarly, in “Hatchling”, about a ninety-million-year-old baby bird preserved in resin, she speculates that ‘From another planet, a distant universe, we could watch it fall’, then undercuts this theoretical possibility with the impossible, ‘We could catch it, set it safely down, / watch it blinking, rebalancing its head / on that thin-string neck’, exposing the idea as a fantasy.

Lovell is good at finding out-of-the-way sources for her poems, whether it’s preparing the vellum for the Hereford Mappa Mundi, which was drawn on a single calf-skin (“Vitulus”), or Nabokov’s collection of butterfly penises (“Thawpit”), or Conan Doyle’s time aboard an Arctic whaler (“The Unanswered Question”) and the book is supplemented by some helpful notes, though these aren’t overdone. Even when the subject matter is more familiar, as in “Sargasso”, the spawning ground for European eels, she defamiliarizes it by writing from an eel’s point of view (‘Five hundred moons have come / and gone, and still the shiver of the sea / enthrals me’) and with some striking descriptions:

My belly seethes with young
contained in perfect beads:
the startling gimcrack eyes;
the spine, a serrulated filament
strung through glass.

Elsewhere, we have a toucan’s ‘beak bright as paintpots’ (“Fugitive in the Date Palm”), ‘ghosts of rawbone gulls’ (“Ebb”), ‘futtle blade’ and ‘grume’ (“Herring Girls”) and ‘our bellies rimpled films of skin’ (the St Kilda house mice in “Leaving Hirta”).

Two of my favourites here are “Ming”, which won the Ginkgo Prize in 2020, about a five-hundred-year-old clam accidentally killed by researchers when they opened its shell, and “Old Nine Eye, Mister Lamprey” (‘Stone-licker. / Bog-snorkeller. / Bloodsucker’):

His mouth’s a horror, a suction tool
for cleaning drains or mincing meat,

a nightmare showerhead in a dimly-lit
B&B, uncomfortably fleshy.

This and other eco-poems at the end of the collection pitch man against nature. It’s no secret where Lovell’s sympathies lie and in imagining nature triumphant she gives a positive spin to what might otherwise be a very gloomy subject. Lampreys may have been ‘massacred for gluttony’:

But he’ll survive, this lonely beast.
He’ll weave into the roiling dark
and wait

while we – vile parasites – lurch
towards catastrophe.

“Reasons for Sanderlings”, which I also liked, envisages a changed world in which we have also changed:

Their plumage will remind you of snow.
You won’t be able to explain snow
to your children, that silence on waking,
the crump under your feet on a blue day.
Or frost on a window. Or flying above cloud.

Their skies will be clean. Flight, to them,
will mean only bird or blown seed,
the hum of dredgers along the coast
their only knowledge of engines.
From cliff tops, they will worship the wind.

But Jane Lovell isn’t a preachy poet. Our enjoyment of her poems lies in her skilful use of language, her often unusual choice of subjects, the imagination she brings to them and most of all her precise observation—of Earth, as it is.