A review by Kevan Manwaring
Ecozoa, poetry collection
by Helen Moore (Permanent Publications)
Spoken Idylls: everyday illuminations
by Peter Please (Away Publications)
a novel by Anthony Nanson (Hawthorn Press)
In early 2015 three titles were published, independently, which seem to herald a grassroots resurgence in the long tradition of the literature of the environment: a novel, a collection of poems, and a nature-writing memoir. On the surface they might not seem like they share many commonalities, but each is linked by a deep awareness of time, place, and planet.
Collectively I see them spearheading a new form of landscape radicalism, deconstructing notions of the ‘rural idyll’, benign ‘nature’, and environmental apathy. They offer provocative interventions to the hidden discourses of the mainstream – both in their form and content: small press productions with big messages, they punch above their weight in many ways.
Does the world need another poetry collection? Well, in the exception of Helen Moore’s Ecozoa I would say whole-heartedly, Yes! This is an important cri-de-coeur from, unusually, a permaculture publisher, Permanent Publications. Amid their practical manuals for a more sustainable life, Moore’s poetry reminds us that we need soul as much as soil, that a Transition future will be an arid one without culture to remind us of our flawed humanity. Unlike much modern poetry it takes the risky gambit of actually daring to say something – with intelligence, with authenticity, and with wit. Helen’s poems are no mere word-games, cryptic crossword clues that we must aspire to decode in homage to the poet’s cleverness. Not that there isn’t sophistication and subtlety here. These poems, dense with topical and classical allusion, that warrant re-reading – yet their heartfelt message comes across loud and clear. The prevailing rhetoric is one of a defiant Gaia-consciousness squaring up to a rapacious planet-destroying Capitalism – resulting in an excoriating critique of business-as-usual consensus reality, which markets the latest disposable must-have gadget using the iconography of nature (Apple; Blackberry; Orange, etc). Such an approach could easily become overly didactic and tediously tub-thumping, but time and time again Moore leavens this with her verbal dexterity, her playfulness with language, and her 360 degree awareness of the bigger picture. The microcosmic illustrates the macro – as in her poem ‘The Pocket’s Circumference’:
‘If Earth were a first balled up and thrust in a pocket, the atmosphere would be as thick as that cotton fabric.’ She doesn’t avoid pulling punches, as in her powerful ‘Kali Exorcism’:
‘Come, dark goddess,
tear off veils of rhetoric that conceal/war-mongering deeds in cloaks of respectability;
help us/hear deeper than the pre-emptive strikes, the collateral damage.’
She celebrates the humdrum, the little wonders of nature, even the urban – and, always, man’s impact on the natural, as in her poem, ‘Egford Brook, with Scum’. Moore plays with forms – using concrete poetry, proem, refrain, Beat-rap, mantra, liturgy, eulogy… constantly pushing the envelope. This is not cosy tea-time poetry for Radio 4 listeners. Yet there is beauty and life-affirming delight here in a paean for human-nature biodiversity and abundance. The collection is structured on William Blake’s four Zoas, and ultimately offers a rebalancing of the Earth’s humours in a holistic template for sustainable life. It is a celebration of the locally distinctive (‘Our Daily Bread’; ‘Apple Company, West Country’) and the long view (‘glory be to Gaia’; ‘Bio tapestry restored by citizens around the world’). Her unfailing attention to the quotidian miracles of creation is a call-to-adventure – to plunge into life and defend it to our dying breath.
Moore’s uncompromising voice could not be more different from our next writer, but they share a similar ecosystem of pre-occupations, (Moore spent a year recording the minute variations in her neighbourhood, in Changing Nature) but with very different results.
Peter Please is an original – a former sub-editor of The Bath Chronicle, he is a gardener-writer-storyteller-sculptor-publisher, exploring his own micro-niche in Bath, Somerset, valley by valley, in a quiet, modest, but diligent manner, rather like the figure from Jean Giono’s The Man Who Planted Trees. Despite winning the Guardian’s ‘Children’s Book Award’ with The Chronicles of the White Horse, he has eschewed the mainstream of commercial success, carving his own furrow in singular works of arresting beauty (notably the Holine Trilogy of psycho-geographical memoir). A habitual journal-writer of exquisite exactitude, he is the master of the vignette, beautifully-crafted and wryly observed palm-of-hand moments from the book of life. The latest iteration of this lifetime project is Spoken Idylls: everyday illuminations (Away 2015), a self-produced limited edition of 55. From its boldly printed card cover, to the dazzling layout of painting, text, sculpture and calligraphy, it is work of almost feverish artistic exuberance. In this hybrid of the painterly and sculptural with the typographic one can discern echoes of William Blake (another self-published artist-wordsmith), David Jones, and Eric Gill. There are traces of Jones’ palimpsest – accretions of iconography, of mythology, of voices, cap-a-pie in the shell-shattered No Man’s Land of his imagination. And Please echoes Gill’s typographical genius in creating his own alphabet, both word and sign (for a previous publications, Clattinger: an alphabet of signs from nature, 2008, but reproduced here) – a lexicon all of his own to articulate the particular (in words such as dootitsi, thinedata, uzactyl, and zipzygo), an ecolectical lingo that would make Macfarlane drool. In his preface, Please explains that: ‘These mixed-media illuminations pay homage to the old limners and their art of illuminating texts’. They offer breathing spaces to the reader’. Divided into eight sections, these idylls are to be idled over. They offer a right-brained incursion into the linear narrative of the day, ideal for mulling over with a mug of coffee. If not ‘cigarette stories’, then E-vapor tales, perhaps. Yet if these are flash fictions, they are more tortoise than hare. Each intriguingly-titled meditation (‘Autumn is a Time of Skeleton and Seeds’; ‘Discard in Beauty’; ‘The Enigma of Arrival’) is a prose-poem that refuses to play by rules other than its own. Each block of prose (birthed as swirling, inscrutable handwritten journal entries) creates its own micro-climate, its own possibilities of being, as ‘In the Material World’, when he writes: ‘The day grows extensions and becomes a container for something new.’ In Please’s own words, they are ‘wayside inspirations’ snatched from the pockets of the day. The author, a compulsive traveller, does his ‘thinking best on foot’. With a gardener’s sharp eye, Please (who has kept month-journals for years) celebrates how ‘nature supports us in every step we take’. And there is a sense of historicity – personal, archaeological. A key tract for this approach could be Idyll 33, ‘Living in the Techno-Stone Age,’ a Janus-like way of experiencing reality (‘Coming up behind could be what is in front of you.’). Foraging epiphanies at numinous places such as Silbury Hill, the enigmatic omphalos of Wiltshire, Please sees visions of ‘ancient futures’. Most excitingly, he depicts this field of vision in extra-ordinary text-scapes of colour, word and line, ‘tuning into the rock’, like petroglyphs discovered on the passage-tombs of West Kennet long barrow and its ilk. Please’s peripatetic meditations, both self-deprecating and profound, dense and ephemeral, are thistle pappus blown on the breeze – in speaking them, with his tongue of ink, he releases: ‘Words made out of air are kissed by lips, are spoken idylls.’
In Deep Time we shift scale from the miniaturist to the maximalist, yet each prose-writer in his way plunges into the micro-climate of their chosen locales, with ‘nature’ being indivisible from narrative, and the anthropocentric footprint so often the fly in the ointment. Yet for Nanson, this trespassing in paradise takes on a macrocosmic significance.
‘I was lost in the heart of the forest.
It’s a long story.’
So Dr Brendan Merlie, time-torn zoologist, summarizes somewhat euphemistically the epic journey into the heart of Africa and the origins of life described by this 700 page novel by storyteller Anthony Nanson. This project has been a long time in gestation, from the initial inspiration in the mid-80s, to the protracted process of research and writing a novel of over 300 thousand words in length. The bulk of the labour of drafting has been done over an entire decade, and for the sheer effort (and sustained skill) of that endeavour Nanson’s tome deserves respect. It is no light holiday read in either sense. In its scope and seriousness of intentions it runs counter to much mainstream commercial fiction, and to the general consensual dumbing down in popular culture.
Essentially the novel is a quest narrative, but one in the tradition of the classics of Travel Literature, the accounts of early explorers, Marco Polo, Livingstone, Nansen (whom the author has portrayed in a storytelling performance). Yet it is perhaps closest to Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle in its zoological and evolutionary concerns. In its exhaustive quest for the origins of life and even the source of time, the novel provides an arena for what have been called ‘God Games’ (Clute; Grant, 1995). The team assembled by Merlie to conduct an ecological survey of a zone threatened by civil war (the ponderous, bookish Portia; the vulnerable, good Christian Vince, the rapacious Alpha-male Curtis, and the sublime, mysterious Salome) slowly get whittled down by the travails of their journey and the perils they face, until an archetypal struggle is enacted by the survivors, one which seems to play out the dynamic of the Garden of Eden: Adam and Eve and the Serpent. It will not be giving too much away to reveal that the team stumble upon a refugium of ‘deep time’ (the various epochs of evolutionary cycles stretching over hundreds of millions of years referred to as palaeomes). As they transect these, they encounter increasingly primitive (or sophisticated in some senses) forms of life, until inevitably they find themselves walking with dinosaurs.
As a primer in palaeontology the ‘novel’ could be very useful; and it is a rattling yarn in the manner of classic adventure stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, H. Rider Haggard and the like. If one embraces this apparent oppositional duality then the novel straddles the creative-critical divide in an interesting way, a K-T boundary which the reader must be bold enough to cross back and forth.
With the author being an experienced storyteller, a sense of orality informs the prose, giving it often a toothsome suppleness, most palpably in the action sequences, which are vivid and visceral. This storytelling quality emerges in different ways: on a macro level, the very name of the viewpoint character, Brendan, alludes to the immrama tradition, the wonder voyages of Celtic saints which this is a sophisticated riff on. On a micro level, this manifests in a sequence around a tribal campfire (a scene which Nanson performed from memory at the launch in Stroud, thus returning it, in effect, to the oral tradition); in the indigenous folklore; and in the Campbell-esque ‘Road Back’, when the surviving member of the expedition uses the knowledge acquired to ease their passage. As in countless tales, the return is a way of reminding the audience of key scenes and motifs, culmination combined with acceleration – that which first was struggled through is whizzed through in ‘fast-forward’, creating a sense of euphoric relief. The effortful becomes effortless. With the map of life in hand the soul can flourish. Hard-won wisdom becomes graceful skill. The protagonists are changed fundamentally by their experiences, and so, hopefully is the reader – Nanson returns us to the world with a cleansed perception and an imperative to save the planet’s remaining resources.
Within these pages there is a profound, life-affirming humanity and a deep sensuality – not only the exotic but the natural is eroticised. Nanson channels elements of DH Lawrence in his protracted descriptions of the physical – an ‘earthiness’ in both senses – and he captures the crackle of sexual current between the sexes well. The novel’s structure is multi-climactic – in epiphanic waves of sensation it appropriately ends on the shores of the primordial ocean, and the female, as the source of life, is honoured and emancipated from any prescriptive role man might give her. Similarly the tricky depiction of indigenous cultures is handled with sensitivity and skill, circumventing the quicksand of Colonialist rhetoric often embedded in Portal-quest (Mendlesohn, 2008) narratives.
Ultimately, the novel’s gaze of longing is turned towards the ineffable, as veiled by the fastness of the rainforest and the vastness of time. Nanson’s protagonists walk into its mystery, taking up from where JG Ballard’s The Drowned World ends – with man stepping into the depthless jungle, relinquishing control and all trappings of civilisation to its green mind. Deep Time is a paean to Creation and to whatever sung it into being (the nature of which the author wisely leaves to the reader to decide). Its huge ambition is admirable, and it should be regarded as an important work of eco-literature from a masterful storyteller, a novelist I hope to see more from – a voice in the wilderness, but a vital one nevertheless.
And so we see in these three singular voices the birth of a movement? Perhaps that would be too much to expect in this age of perpetual world-wide white noise, the narcissistic self-promotion of social media, obfuscation of the internet, and clamour of amateur comment. Neither Moore, Nanson nor Please would claim to be avant-gardists, but part of a long tradition of which they are profoundly aware (e.g. Please cites WH Hudson, the ‘great traveller in little things’). Although Nanson has articulated a conscious agenda along with fellow members of his storytelling-troupe, Fire Springs (An Ecobardic Manifesto, Awen 2008), each is singular in their approach, and distinctive in the articles of their ‘faith.’ Yet in the biodiverse individuality is their resilience. Undoubtedly there are many other similar practitioners out there, busily digging in, below the radar, but it is perhaps in these non-hierarchical Rhizomatic structures (which takes their self-organisational principles from nature), as advocated by Deleuze and Gattari (A Thousand Plateaus, 1980) that will enable this radicalism to flourish, circumventing the critical or commercial consensus which so often proves to be the gatekeeper of the status quo.
Kevan Manwaring is a writer based in Stroud, Gloucestershire. He is currently undertaking a Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leicester. He is a Hawthornden Fellow and an Eccles Centre Postgraduate Fellow in North American Studies at the British Library. He teaches creative writing for the Open University. www.kevanmanwaring.co.uk