This Tilting Earth Jane Lovell Winner of the Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Competition (Mslexia/SEREN, 2019)
The axial tilt of the earth ensures seasonal change. The ‘tilt’ examined in Jane Lovell’s poetry suggests other kinds of change – the contest between humanity and Nature and the ever-present danger of the fall. This Tilting Earth is an ethical call for the recognition of realized and threatened extinctions and the darkness of human neglect. In the closing lines of the first poem in the collection, ‘Song of the Vogelherd Horse’ we are offered a warning that combines command and lament:
I was here before your god. Cherish my broken form.
This voice, of an ancient artefact that emerges from the earth at the behest of the elements, calls for serious attention to human and geological history and evidence. This opening poem also recognizes the ethics and necessity of art and human making, for
the one who smoothed my lissome back, that carried me against her skin;
serves as a contrast with
another who buried me in soil, stamped it down.
These 21 poems engage with evidence of loss in many forms. In the title poem (p.8) Lovell surveys the earth’s vulnerability through osteological remains from specific places (Sithylemenkat Lake, Lugovskoe, Waco, Beringia) and through them finds the devastations of famine, hunting/killing, drownings, the Ice Age. Here is archaeological evidence that echoes ‘two worlds’; the overwhelming chaos of ice in the earth’s history and the current threat of climate change. Destruction comes in moments, days, as well as epochs. It is personal, down to the level of each cell. Of the strange Ice Age mammals who were ‘still grazing’
Some say a howling darkness hurled them, bracing, ice invading every cell and atom, to extinction; the final gleam of frozen eyes ... (p.9)
The subjects of Lovell’s poems include the Victorian ethnographic artist who scrutinizes native Samoans; the curiosities of Galapagos and the driven taxonomy and killing of living creatures. She shows us the tragedy of human scientific desire to understand and control, a desire that leaves the sought-after creatures extinct, their remains shut in exhibition cases:
see me everywhere you turn remember as you lift your glass, my tiny skull (p.19)
There are various subjects considered in This Tilting Earth about human behaviour, including how we disfigure and kill the wonderful (‘Armadillo’ p.20), how we make museum pieces of the remains of astonishing creatures (‘The Prayer of St Simon’ p.25). The ancient cave drawings of Limousin become symbols of our current tentative and poor stewardship of the natural world:
They watch us with oilbloom eyes. We breathe and they may disappear. (p.10)
This is poetry of the lost and disappeared that acknowledges nature as the ultimate force, above human endeavour and art, whether in ‘The Last Leap of Sam Patch’ (p.12) or ‘Clemency for the Drayman’, a poem that gives us a palpable sense of the creaturely, in spite of the ‘painted eye’:
It’s the lion we remember. Watch him catch the sun, the glint upon the river, the glint in his painted eye as the tide turns. (p.11)
In the conclusion to The Song of the Earth (Harvard University Press, 2000) Jonathon Bates presents Wallace Stevens’ poem ‘The Planet on The Table’ as a means of considering “whether you can accept that a poem is not only a making of a self and a making of the world, but also a response to the world and a respecting of the earth.”
Jane Lovell’s poems can be considered poems of this sort. This is a language of lament and ultimately of protest – an eco-poetry that seeks justice for the silent and wounded world.
These are fine, perceptive poems, carefully constructed – they invite return and deep consideration.