Poetry Review: This Tilting Earth by Jane Lovell

This Tilting Earth by Jane LovellThere is a strong sense of time passing, in This Tilting Earth, a pamphlet of poems by Jane Lovell (the winning entry from last year’s Mslexia pamphlet competition). It begins with ‘Song of the Vogelherd Horse’, an elegy which takes us back to the Ice Age, giving voice to the artefact itself, conjuring up the ghosts of those who ‘smoothed my lissom back’ and ‘buried me in soil’. This introduces the pamphlet’s main theme – an exploration of mankind’s complex relationship with animals over the centuries.  

The collection begins with poems inspired by cave paintings and archaeological finds, but I preferred the later poems, many of which present a human event from the perspective of the natural world in which it takes place.

In ‘The Last Leap of Sam Patch’ we witness the dramatic death of Sam Patch, who was known for his daring waterfall jumps in the 19th century, but the poem continues, describing the passage of time after the event, putting this man’s final act into a larger perspective:

Years pass. Bridges span the skyline.
Cockroach cars with blatty lights ferry strangers to and fro.
Nightmare faces gaze across the river, stitching nets
across the falls.

And in the final few lines we hear about the fate of the pet bear, which Sam Patch took with him over the falls: ‘The bear, snarled in his chain, was soon forgotten; / his carcass, bitten white as willow, never found’.

I really enjoyed reading ‘Migrants’, a poem in two parts which describes the strange, intoxicating world of silk making, dating back to the time of the Huguenots:

He tilts and strains the boiled cocoons,
wipes the rime of glue that lips the pan,
spends long hours unravelling and reeling

teasing loose each warp thread from its windings
with his tongue…

The silk workers are so aligned with the natural world that ‘their trill and chatter fill the streets’ like birds.

The further you read, the more surreal these poems become, creating an unsettling sense of alignment between humans and animals, which comes across particularly in ‘Portraits, Samoa 1853’, a beautiful portrait of women described from the perspective of the artist, who seems to view them as part of the landscape in which they live:

They come, warm skin strung with beads
and feathers, meandering tidelines of salt,
kneel in the sand, teach me old tales:

that birds carry a piece of the land you miss
as a song, notes held in their mouths
on their sharp-leaf tongues.

Many of the poems include half-rhymes and a strong emphasis on the sound of individual words, giving them a visceral quality that is enjoyable to read.

‘Galapagos’ is the most unnerving poem, as it portrays the destruction of humanity upon the natural world:

a mound of seals, fur stiff as parchment
cracking in the heat, a floating mink that nobody
has registered, a fleet of sightless sea cows
filmed with salt, the final pair of twisted auks

This is made all the more vivid in the final stanza, which describes ‘Stuffed skins in glass cabinets’ and admits that ‘We are all in this together’.

‘Aigrettes, Spring 1893’ is told from the perspective of a white egret, a bird whose feather adorned the headdresses of wealthy ladies during the late 1800s, and ‘Armadillo’ describes the ‘quizzical nose stitched to tail / to form a handle, / the carapace lined with old calico / a basket for needles and silks’.

There is something disturbing about these poems. They are mesmerising, and yet they also turn things around in ways you don’t expect, highlighting the strange, unfathomable similarities between humanity and the natural world. Many of these poems are rooted in the past, and yet they feel current, at a time when climate change is so often in the headlines.

This Tilting Earth by Jane Lovell is published by Seren Books.

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

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