Poetry Review: Slant Light by Sarah Westcott

Book - Slant LightSlant Light is a slim-lined poetry collection which hides a wealth of natural wonder between its covers. Sarah Westcott writes on behalf of nature – giving a voice to the creatures of the wild, and providing a new take on our understanding of the world around us. Her language is fresh, raw and earthy, with a strong ecological message.   

Here is the beginning of a poem describing a slug:

“Your silent ripple of wet hem over slate,
rubber necked in the greening growth –
globular lunar snouter of dark ways,”

It is repulsive yet glorious, and feels as if you could reach out and (almost) touch it. This tangibility appears in several of the poems, along with a feeling of having got to the very core of nature. ‘Sculpting a Mole’ has a similar sense of understanding the essence of what a mole is for, whilst also proving what a strange creature it is:

“wriggler, digger,

part shoveller, part saviour,
aerator, blind architect,”

I particularly enjoyed reading the poems which are written in first person, entirely from the perspective of the creatures themselves. These poems have a stronger voice to them, as if they are given, for one moment, a chance to tell their side of the story. ‘Wawona Tunnel Tree’ gives a voice to the Giant Sequoia in California which was cut open at the base to create a tourist attraction (with a tunnel through the poem itself):

“slashed and burned                    chunks of me excised
I screamed                                     bled sap, wept
needles and cones                        as they tunnelled
raped me                                        with their passing”

This sense of human responsibility is echoed in many of the poems, most dramatically in ‘The Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ which describes (in an almost tender, loving way) the appalling beauty and horror of human refuse floating across the ocean, as if it has transformed into a new life-form:

“…swirls of wilted condoms,
ribbed and stippled, a shining dummy teat,
slowly turning tyres: the stuff of shucked
and cast-off lives, cresting rills of milky foam,
breeding in long nests of hair.”

Alongside these evocative descriptions of the natural world, there are also a series of poems which root themselves in the past, including the translation of an ancient ‘charm’ from the Anglo Saxon, and poems inspired by plant folklore and superstition. These contrast with the more straightforward voices of nature, and I didn’t enjoy them as much.

I enjoyed reading some of her more experimental poems. ‘Cloud’ is unusual, drawing attention to our perplexing habit of naming technology after natural phenomena. It is beautifully surreal, asking “do angels live there?” and ending with the frightening lines: “this cloud bears so much / heat it burns.”

‘Owls’ is a particularly poignant piece. It shows the poet as carrying the owls with her, taking care of them, and passing them on to her children, a metaphor for preserving the environment, passing it on to the next generation:

“We sit in the road, the owls and I,
lost in the dwining day, the failing
sun a shinicle over the town.”

Some of her poems contain old English dialect words, which are comprehensible yet strange, and otherworldly. They set these poems firmly in the landscape of rural England, whilst also casting an unfamiliar light onto the seemingly familiar world of nature.

Westcott’s style is mixed, and her content is wide-ranging, from the life of the humble bat to the devastation caused by human waste on the other side of the world. Her best poems are those which take ordinary creatures, and reveal them as majestic, incongruous beings. There is a pleasure, in these poems, as we are forced to confront the sheer incredibility of the nature that surrounds us.

Slant Light by Sarah Westcott is published by Liverpool University Press.

Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the author.