‘This Tilting Earth’ Jane Lovell
ISBN 978-1-78172-525-2, 32pp, £5
Jane Lovell has won numerous prizes and commendations for her poems and it is no surprise that This Tilting Earth was the winner of the Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Competition. She is a poet steeped in the natural world, whose poems concern not just the interaction between man and animals, but between animals and the Earth itself.
‘Song of the Vogelherd Horse’, with which the pamphlet begins, is a beautiful evocation of the mammoth-ivory carving. Lovell connects its sleek lines with nature (‘I am curved air / or water over stone’) and people (‘one who smoothed my lissom back, / that carried me against her skin’). Whether accidentally or deliberately, the sculpture was damaged in the distant past and is missing its legs. Lovell mends it first with a lovely image: ‘Freed by rain and wind, / the loosening of the earth, // I stand flank-deep in melt’ and then by making a connection with — I assume — the broken body of Christ: ‘I was here before your god. / Cherish my broken form.’
There are other poems about real, dead horses (‘Clemency for the Drayman’, ‘Godolphin’s Stallion’, ‘The Prayer of St. Simon’ and ‘Tapetum Lucidum’), all concerned, like Lovell’s sewing-case ‘Armadillo’, with exploitation in one way or another (the pamphlet’s epigraph is from Milan Kundera: ‘Humanity’s true moral test, its fundamental test … consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals.’) However, three of them end with an upbeat image (‘the spooked horse, / clattering away as if nothing would catch him / but the wind’; ‘the stallion passes, / eyes wild with triumph’; and ‘striping the pitted turf, / flashing over the upturned faces of spectators, / streaming like silk through my bones’). Like the Vogelherd Horse, they are revived by the poet — as it were — giving her imagination free rein.
The scope that pre-history offers for imaginative reconstruction may be what makes it an attractive theme for Lovell. The title poem consists of five vignettes about mammoths, although in this case only one incident involves human agency. ‘This Tilting Earth’ is not so much to do with the climatological tipping point we currently face, as with the theory that some past climatic changes were due to variations in the Earth’s axis of rotation. (Interestingly, the word, ‘tilt’, appears in a number of the poems.)
‘Limousin, Lascaux’, which follows, brings alive the famous cave paintings of cattle:
Coats steam, tails flick, tongues lunge;
a stone sky rests on curled spears of ash, horns
of black manganese.
The poem ends deftly with, ‘We breathe and they may disappear’, referring not only to the paintings’ fragility, but also to the fact that they were created ‘Of charcoal and cinnamon ochre, / umber burnt and blown through bone or reed’. The breath of human beings both made and could unmake the images.
Lovell excels in descriptive writing and the evocation of atmosphere, for example ‘Salt worker, Sečovlje’:
or ‘La Sélune’, which follows the river as ‘She winds her serpent heart through / Ducey and beyond’ to the sea, where:
Earth exhales, the sky rolls in
and there’s a moment built from water, an instant
when there’s nothing but the glide and switch
of tern, lit and lost,
and lit again, above the sound.
I would have welcomed background notes to some of the poems, but the lack of them may be the point. Explanations settle us into preconceived ideas of what a poem is about. Lovell wants us to look with an innocent eye, leaving us to find out more for ourselves, if we want.
Two of the poems (‘Migrants’ and ‘Leaving Hirta’) depend for their effect on parallels drawn between the human and animal worlds. This might suggest that human and animal migrations are simply natural, although rats (‘Our litters fail’) leaving Hirta (the main island of St Kilda), following the evacuation of its human inhabitants (‘Without bread or grain, we grow thin’), carries darker connotations: rats and humans might be equally bad for the ecology of the island. Is it good riddance to both?
The point is made more explicitly in the final poem, ‘Curator’s Decision’, which presents God as a divine curator, inspecting the Earth:
Closer scrutiny, however, reveals a rash
of microscopic life blistering its surface
parasitic in nature and excreting substances
that disrupt the balance of its being.
Fortunately, it is a feature of these organisms
that should ultimately lead to their destruction.
The answer is to create a culture in the laboratory (‘from leaf and shadow, birdcall, rainfall, oxygen’) that will sustain essential species so that ‘These may be returned to the surface // at the appropriate time’. Significantly, the essential species (‘bats and birds, bees, beetles and plankton’) don’t include man, who by then will presumably be extinct.
You don’t have to share this somewhat misanthropic vision of the future to appreciate the power and beauty of these poems, which make their subjects vividly present. A full collection can’t be far away and Jane Lovell is definitely a poet to watch.