Thinking about extinctions: ‘This Tilting Earth’, by Jane Lovell

This article is reblogged from my post in The Wider Web, published on the Write out Loud website

The other day, I came across an interview with the poet Kim Moore in which she says in response to the question: What does poetry mean to you?

“This is a hard question! I’ve just had a baby, so my relationship with poetry has changed a little, in that it has been squashed into the edges of my life at the moment.  But I guess poetry is my way of making sense of the world, of finding out what I really think, a way of making connections and these are all things I couldn’t live without doing. Poetry to me is those solitary moments of writing, when there is nobody to see or care whether it is any good or not, but it is also those solitary moments of reading, when you read a poem and put the book down because the poem is so good, because it has articulated something you didn’t know you felt.”

I’ll leave that with you for a while.

When I started to write a poetry blog I thought about how I wanted it to work. I thought it needed to have a reliable style/structure. What did that mean? For instance, I could rely on Roy Marshall’s poetry blog offering advice on the business of writing and compiling; I expected that Kim Moore would tell me what she’d been doing the previous week, before sharing a poem from someone she was currently excited about. Anthony Wilson would share a ‘lifesaving poem’ by doing a close reading in the context of its place in the narrative of his own life. And so on. So I couldn’t be doing any of that. It was already being done, and better than I could aspire to.

Instead of looking at blogs, I looked to journalism, and settled on the late AA Gill’s restaurant reviews in The Times colour magazine. What I always liked about Gill, apart from his acerbic prose, was the way he would come at the actual review obliquely, (say, musing on the manners of the English, or the hairstyles of Peckham, or whatever). I realised that for me it would also be a way of getting into the writing, so that by the time I got to the poetry I wanted to share, I’d have found some sort of rhythm, and a hook or a theme that put the poetry in context. I grew up with radio journalism/storytelling. Sometimes it works. But the plain fact is that I can’t just get straight into the poetry … I have to think my way towards it. You’ve been warned.

I grew up (or older) with radio, which had its own version of blogging in the form of, say, Alistair Cooke’s weekly Letter from America; perfectly constructed, 15-minute pieces as elegant and apparently effortless as Fred Astaire’s dancing. He would approach his topic obliquely, too. As would the wonderful Garrison Keillor who would invariably begin It has been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon. It’s got to start the same way. As he says in my favourite episode you can’t disappoint them, but you have to surprise them. Once upon a time there was a poor woodcutter/three brothers …The expected has got to spring a surprise. But the bottom line is the expected.

It has been a quiet week here in Lake Wobegon. It snowed three feet on Tuesday …” That’s how my favourite episode begins, in which we learn that a three-foot snowfall isn’t anything to write home about; this takes us to legendary snowfalls that have their own stories and thus to the tellers of the stories. And to Kenny, who’s “a chubby guy” who lives in a beat-up house on the outskirts. We can see him through his window (because we’ve taken a walk through town in the snowy night), and he’s telling a story to his kids. It’s Hansel and Gretel, and he’s vaguely uncomfortable about telling this story, and more about getting it wrong. We get to learn a lot about Kenny, his wife, the father he is alienated from and who is at this moment dying ; and also about the rules and uses of narrative. There’s a letter on the table which Kenny hasn’t opened. It’s from his dad who is trying to explain what cannot be explained. Kenny’s wife Joanne is on her way home from choir practice. The kids should be in bed. The house is in a mess. Whatever will she say when she sees it?

It has been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon. And here the governance of the nation is in chaos; the President of the United States has casually signed a death warrant on tens of thousands of Kurds (who unaccountably weren’t at Omaha Beach); our elected politicians are, at enormous expense and with our money, subverting the very purposes of language; and the streets of London have been brought to a standstill by young people and Extinction Rebellion.

It’s worth remembering that there have been five major extinctions in the long history of the Earth, the least catastrophic of which destroyed 75% of all living organisms, and the worst which accounted for 95%. Some happened relatively fast, like the one caused by a gigantic meteor strike. Some happened slowly over millennia, from an excess of carbon dioxide, from a scarcity of the same, from too much oxygen, or from not enough. The fossil record tells us all this. We are probably at the beginning of a sixth which is being accelerated by human agency. It’s little comfort to note that the Earth adjusted (though it’s tempting to say ‘recovered from’) to the last five and that it will probably do so again. It’s just that we’re unlikely to be around afterwards though other things will be. To put in perspective, today, extinctions are occurring hundreds of times faster than they would naturally. If all species currently designated as critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable go extinct in the next century, and if that rate of extinction continues without slowing down, we could approach the level of a mass extinction in as soon as 240 to 540 years. The astonishing, wonderful, accidental concatenation of what we call life on earth doesn’t care for us at all. Which is no reason for us not to care for it, and for ourselves.

embedded image from entry 95926

And finally, this brings us in roundabout ways to Jane Lovell’s remarkable pamphlet, This Tilting Eartha pamphlet lit by her fascination with the fossil record and also with historical ones, and by biophilia (the title of one of the poems). I didn’t know the word. It means the urge to affiliate with other forms of life. I’m glad to have learned it. I took a chance on ‘reviewing’ this pamphlet, responding to a plea on Facebook. I’m so glad that I did. I read it first on the Supertram in Sheffield on my way to a Poetry Business Writing Day. It’s a good job the tram was almost empty. I found myself punching the air, and saying (under my breath, I hope, but I can’t be sure) YES!! YES!! I go on about Clive James’ dictum about ‘the moment that gets you in’. This slim pamphlet is packed with them. It does what Kim Moore said in that interview about “those solitary moments of reading, when you read a poem and put the book down because the poem is so good, because it has articulated something you didn’t know you felt”.

Let me tell you about all the things that hauled me in, and then I’ll share a couple of the poems before insisting that you go out, at once, and buy the book.

First thing: the title. This Tilting Earth. I suppose this is personal. I seem to have been fascinated by the fact of the Earth’s tilted axis, without which we would have no seasons, for decades. I think it started with Ted Hughes:

     Brought to bare trees, to spike and shard

     browned by cold, our birds

     breast a homing departure; on wings press

     to correct earth’s sure tilt into darkness

                        ‘Nicholas Ferrer’ (Lupercal)

I spent a couple of hours yesterday trying to track it down. I’ve not consciously read this poem in 30 years. Why did that phrase stick? Why does it keep on popping up in poems as I write them? It comes uninvited, as in this from a poem of mine called ‘Viewpoint’.

Here, punctually, the earth rim tips up;

the sun’s disc eclipsed,

or this

     A moon is strange as it comes

     beyond the dark weight of hills

     and it is not rising

     but the huge world is toppling

     O so slow towards the moon

     in the dark ocean of the sky

For me it’s become an emblem of the accidents of our place in space and time, and simpler to hold in my mind than those that create our ideas of constellations like Orion or the Plough. The stability of that tilt relies on the gravity of the moon, which comes close and grows distant over huge spans of time. Our balance is so fragile. This tilting Earth; that word tilt is so exact, so layered. It seemed to me the perfect title.

embedded image from entry 95927

What next: it was the range, archaeological, geographical, historical, of the poem’s titles that sent me googling. These poems will takes you to the mammoth burial sites of Siberia and North America ..the Laplev Sea, Lugoskoe, Waco; to the bay of Mont Saint-Michel and estuary of La Sélune; to the salt pans of Sečovlje in Slovenia; to the Hebridean ghost-crofts of Hirta; to Sithylemenkat Lake in the bowl of a gigantic meteor strike in the Yukon, and to Beringia that was the land bridge between Russia and America. You have no need to worry about the ‘facts’ behind the places. The poems tell you all you need to know about small significant extinctions; the thing is that they are precisely located, and this is important.

So much for names and titles. What about the moments that memorise themselves as you read? The collection is packed with them. As a whistlestop tour will show. How about the painted horses of the Lascaux caves, threatened by the very breath of visitors? “They watch us with their oilbloom eyes. / We breathe and they may disappear.” Jane Lovell does brilliant opening lines, too, like these:

     They all ended up the same way, of course,

     deep in the silt and swirl of the Thames,

I love the insouciance of this, the crafty pronoun that starts it. And this, too: “He remembers, briefly, plummeting,/ tilting slowly like a tree.”

Think about the way those two verbs apparently work against each other until you visualise a man falling from a height, and realise how exact it really is.

She has a wonderful eye for the moment, for the image, as in that of the carts in the salt pans “with their drapery of halite”Drapery. Precise and true, as is her observation of

     quiet pans of algae, gypsum, clay

     where egrets pick their way

     through cubes of sky

The moments aren’t just visual. There’s a memorable line in the salt pan poem that captures the idea that the suspension of sound is so profound that the salt worker “is listening to the voice / of the salt, the tinkering of the sea”.

“Tinkering”. One of those moments when I said ‘YES’ on the tram. One of the delights of these poems is her easy use of a huge vocabulary that’s always being used for its rightness. And not just for their rightness, but for their textures: grume, squirl, laggy, skilly, candlenut, cinnabar. These are poems that demand to be read aloud and tasted. There are poets whose knowledge and erudition become exclusive. Jane Lovell’s not one of them. There may be arcane bits of information but the meaning’s always supplied by the context. Every living thing in these poems is brought to mind , enchanted, in Macfarlane’s sense, with a concrete textured clarity that becomes a praise poem for living things, and a reminder that like Blake she fervently believes that everything that lives is holy.I’m tempted to go on and on quoting. My review copy’s studded with underlinings and post-its. But you should have got the picture by now. I’d like to work my way through the poems. But one of the bits of advice I was given about doing a reading was that you should ‘leave them wanting more’. This Tilting Earth does precisely that, and so will I. I’ll provide this link to another review which throws some light on more poems, and then finish up with a couple of poems and a bit of commentary.Here’s the link first 

embedded image from entry 95924

It’s not easy to pick just two poems that foreground the qualities of this lovely pamphlet. I could pick the narrative swagger of ‘The last leap of Sam Patch’ or the pathos/drama of creatures and people drowning  like the young mammoths, or the 16th century drayman whose cart overturns into the Thames (unlike Robert Frost’s ending of the world , it’s not fire or ice, but water that threatens); equally the poems commemorating a flayed saint or a flayed horse (there are a lot of horses as well birds and water in the collection). But I’ve chosen two quieter, more intimate ones.

The first homes in on one apparently inconsiderable outcome of the depopulation of a Hebridean isalnd. When the last St Kildans were evacuated in 1930, the St Kilda house mouse (Mus musculus muralis) very quickly became extinct. The St Kilda field mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus hirtensis) is still present.

     Leaving Hirta

     We remain cautious, haunting crannies in low walls

     scabbed with moss and lichen,

     sloughed roofs smouldering soot and mildew.

     Without bread or grain, we grow thin.

     Our litters fail.

     Drawn to roar of sea and shingle,

     we skeddle down past sallow blooms of roseroot, sorrel,

     skirt the last remaining footprints brimming sky;

     alert for skirl of skua, hook-clawed kestrel,

     seek out sprat and crab between the rocks and kelp,

     tats of shell at cliff foot caught in gravel, lifting, falling.

     We have an instinct for water,

     Our bellies rimpled films of skin,

     bones hollow flutes funnelling the winds.

     We grow thin; our litters fail.

     Stiff with salt, the waves wash us away.

embedded image from entry 95925

There are no footnotes in the pamphlet, and reading the poem without knowing who the ‘we’ of the first line might be draws the reader in. Who remains cautious? Why? It makes the reader work, but you should pick up on the curious opposition of ‘leaving’ and ‘remain’ between the title and the first line, and then recognise that the stress in the first line falls on ‘we’.

You understand that the crofters left, so who or what remains? What relies on grain? What lives in crannies? What fears the skua and the kestrel? What’s small enough to skirt a footprint, and what moves so quick under the sky? I love that word “skeddles”. All this is played out to the soundtrack of breaking surf, and the riddled scratch of shell fragments. This small extinction is contained in one understated and beautifully observed sequence. What struck me was its filmic quality.

I was delighted to learn the factual backstory that reminds us of the reflexive relationships in ecosystems. Animals, some animals, need us as much as we need them.

The next one is more mysterious. The narrator of this poem is clearly at home with a process that is both mundane and numinous. It’s a routine and a ritual the purposes of which (it seems to me) are so normal as to be implicit, and need no explanation, despite the apparent horror of the opening image.

     Tallow

     Her eyes bleach the colour

     of milk, head coming up blind

     and turning.

     Once the fat is risen

     we syphon the cooling tallow

     into flagons, set them in line,

     add beeswax and lye,

     stand back from its boiling and hissing,

     do not breathe until it stills.

     I pour the soap into moulds,

     scatter over cranesbill, nibs of lavender

     and marigold,

     wrap the cooled cakes

     in scraps of vellum, stack them

     in the drystore.

     It’s warm there

     and dark enough for owls.

     Above shelves of pickled fruit

     and bottled juice,

     cowls of gut hang like vines.

     It is light tonight, cloudless.

    We carry her flesh to fire, break bread,

     sing her name.

     Tomorrow the women will roast the bones,

     use the crushed chalk to make buttons

     and beads.

     No one speaks of the old days.

     We light candles but no one prays.

     Each moon has its feast.

     She was our chosen one, our beauty.

Some creature, or someone, has been rendered down to soap. It’s all domestic and simple and normal. It’s done with care and something approaching reverence. In the manner of the native Americans, nothing will be wasted: “Tomorrow the women will roast the bones, / use the crushed chalk to make buttons / and beads.”

As a reader, I’m fascinated to be put in the position of a stranger, someone stumbling upon a lost way of life, to be given a guide who explains a routine without ever explaining it, without telling us why No one speaks of the old days.

She’s an artful poet, Jane Lovell; one who engages all your senses and sympathies. What a great collection this is.

Jane Lovell is the Poetry Society Stanza rep for Mid Kent. She has had work published in Agenda, Earthlines, Poetry Wales, Magma, The North, the Honest Ulsterman, Dark Mountain, The Lonely Crowd, Ink Sweat & Tears, Zoomorphic and Elementum, and in various anthologies including One for the Road from Smith Doorstop.She was awarded the Flambard prize in 2015, and has won the South Downs poetry competition 2017 and the Wealden literary festival 2018 writing competition.  In 2018 she won the Wigtown poetry competition, and was also joint winner of the Coast to Coast to Coast pamphlet competition. 

Jane Lovell’s pamphlet Metastatic is published by Against the Grain [2018]. 

This Tilting Earth is published by Seren  [2019] 

8 thoughts on “Thinking about extinctions: ‘This Tilting Earth’, by Jane Lovell

    1. Wow! I tend to think that I’m writing into a void, so when echoes come back, I’m amazingly cheered up. Especially when the echo’s the doyen of poetry bloggers. Coincidentally, I’ve made a decision to give up the weekly blog, and the Write out Loud blog particularly. I’ve got blog exhaustion. Which means, probably, I haven’t an idea in my head. The Orson Welles film comes to mind. Taste of Evil…where the Dietrich character tells the Welles character ‘you ain’t got no future, boy; your future’s all used up’. Tom Russell nicked that line for a song. After Christmas I’m off on a virtual sabbatical. I’ll spend the time catching up with my own poetry, and I’ll redesign the cobweb; give it a fresh look and a fresh purpose. I guess you know exactly what it feels like. Thanks for reading. And especially for knowing that Keillor story. I used it for years in PGCE teacher training to illuminate the ways we construct and engage with narrative, and to explain precisely why a rumbustious diet of folk tale, myth and nursery rhyme and folk rhyme is essential to the business of becoming a reader. It makes me realise how much I miss all that. xxxx

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      1. Dear John. Thank you so much for this wonderful reply. The void is exactly what it feels like to me as well. No one has called me the doyen of anything ever and in a particularly difficult day that is a beautiful thing to hear. Thank you. I shall miss what you say. I do know what it is like, and completely understand the need to take time off. A redesign can be a good thing, if it energises you. It had not occurred to me to use Hansel in my programme, but now I will, to make your point, which I will steal. With grateful thanks again, Anthony

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      2. Dear John,

        Well, I’ll miss the Great Fogginzo’s Cobweb and your Write Out Loud blog!! I’m still reading and re-reading posts and I’ve been learning so much from them, been entertained by your clear take on things and moved in equal measure. So many inspiring poems, so much well-digested detail and comment and rich references, no wonder you need a rest! All the best with a future re-freshed version.

        Regina x

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  1. Anthony….use the the Hansel and Gretel, and with my blessings. The bit that always sticks with me is the bit about the cottage with a roof of pepperoni pizzas. The way he says that the next time you tell the story it can’t be jam tarts or teacakes, or whatever. You’ve got to surprise them but you can’t disappoint them. And that line that he takes the minutest pause for. ‘Stories are real’. The idea that they have a coherent organic life, that narrative is rule-bound and inventive simultaneously.
    Because I’m in my 70s, the examples I used have almost no resonance with todays Post Grads. I realised just before I retired that when I talked about the Famous Five, I may as well have been talking about Milton or Goldsmith. No mileage left in the fact that to be a Famous Five story the first sentence has to be something like “it was the first day of the summer holidays”. Their mother has to say (improbably) ‘there’s a letter for you Famous Five’, and Julian (who was quite like an adult) has to say ”It’s from Uncle Quentin….perhaps he’s inviting us to stay on Kirrin Island. P’raps we’ll have an adventure, like last time” and Anne will say she hopes not, and George will say “Don’t be a goose, Anne” and Timmy the dog will wag his feathery tail. The formula is unbreakable. No idea what today’s equivalent would be. Scooby Doo? Jeez, I’m out of date.

    Anyway, that was my link up to the national literacy project and its defined entitlement of kinds of text from thepredicatable to the challenging, and its categories that gave due place to nursery rhymes, ballads, folk tales, myth. I had a sort of sliding scale which looked at linguistic and structural challenges, and moral challenge, too. I could do the whole business using picture books. Ones that relied on children’s emerging grasp of intertextuality. “Once upon a time “ especially. All Phileppe Dupasuier’s stuff. John Burningham’s adaptaions of folk tale motifs. And thematic subversions, like “The paper bag princess”. Gosh, I envy you. The ability to subvert the narrow intentions of government dictat by using exactly the texts they insisted on. Bastards.
    All power to your elbow xxxx

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  2. Regina! It’s lovely to hear from you, and I’m really touched by you comments. I’ll not be giving up for good….just taking time out to recharge the batteries and to read (especially) and write (hopefully). I’ll keep on blogging on Write Out Loud to the end of the year, and there are already 4 posts in draft, so I don’t feel panicky about it. I realise it’s going to be Armistice day very soon, and I’m writing about my grandfather, my grandmother….and all the other grandmothers and sisters and daughters and sons (like my mum and my aunts and uncles who lost their father when they were small children. The unsung heroes. We’ll have a biota David Constantine, too, who wrote the poem we all wish we could have written. Look forward to seeing you at the Poetry Business one of these fine days. And maybe at the Puzzle, provided we find a new home xxxx

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