Kristen Lang: Earth Dwellers

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2021, 90pp.

This century has seen the human race enter a condition not previously experienced. Cyclic spells of natural disaster, warfare and horror have always been a part of our existence but I think it is the first time that we have ever felt the fragility of the natural world. It is quite remarkable how a few years ago we might have seen the Amazon basin, for example, as a stupendous and daunting natural phenomenon, a fit setting for danger, adventure and discovery. Now it seems an endangered and delicate ecosystem. And the same could be said of things like the oceans, “smaller” things like the Great Barrier Reef, even smaller things like individual species down to a host of microscopic phenomena. There will be those of course who claim, and have claimed, that this is just politically motivated fear-tactics designed to help a smug middle-class push its agenda in a culture war. A quarter of a century ago this might have been a poor, but at least a tenable, position but it certainly isn’t now. The mongols aren’t just a vague rumour from the East: they really are coming.

From the altogether narrower perspective of poetry – both its writing and reading – one wants to know what effect this will have. It’s important because it isn’t simply a matter of a new theme to be merrily added to the existing ones: it involves a new way of experiencing the world. In other words, it must effect a change at the very heart of how most poetry – poetry which operates where inner self meets the outer world through language, rather than focussing on language or poetry alone – conceives itself. If reality becomes less a solid block of existence and more of a fragile and unravelling web, then poetry might be one of the first activities to register this. It may be going too far to see poetry as a sort of hyper-sensitive marker, a human equivalent of the green tree frog or, more morbidly, the canary in the miner’s cage – I doubt that poetry can any longer claim that sort of social relevance. But we certainly expect poetry to make some kind of change as human sensibilities change. It will also, although this isn’t strictly relevant to a review of a new book, affect the way we think about the poetry of the past which dealt with the natural world. Wordsworth’s sense of Nature as a powerful force which educates (in the original sense of “drawing out”) the individual’s soul relied on a sense of the solidity of the natural world embodied in the mountains of the Lake Country.

Kristen Lang’s Earth Dwellers is one work which focusses on the human response to this new situation and this alone should make it intriguing. It isn’t a book of poems of case studies and it doesn’t play the contemporary game of blame or adopt the contemporary tone of outrage. Instead, its poems try to explore what the new sensation of the fragility of the natural world actually feels like. One of the keywords here is “entanglement”, a word made more familiar in the very different science of quantum mechanics – though there may turn out to be analogies between the quantum world and the physical world which are more than merely metaphoric. The book’s dedication – “For the wombats and the slime moulds . . . And for all who work to protect the entanglement, the network of lives, billions of years in the making, by which the Earth is more than stone” – is our first meeting with the word but it isn’t the last. The notion of “entanglement” – non-unravellable interconnection – doesn’t in itself herald a new sensitivity since it is an intellectual concept rather than an emotional one but many of Lang’s poems want to explore it. In fact, in a sense, she has always been exploring it. The first poem of her first book, SkinNotes, contains the word in its first line and you can’t get more emphatic than that even if the entanglements focussed on there are those of genetic history. And entanglements, closer in kind to those of Earth Dwellers, figure prominently in her second book, The Weight of Light.

“Wading with Horseshoe Crabs” is a more expository piece than most of the poems of Earth Dwellers – I’ll talk about the variety of modes of these poems later. It begins with the inconceivably long pre-human existence of life on earth:

. . . . .
there are spiders – four hundred million years of occupation.
Beside them: diatoms, turtles and sea jellies. Bristleworms
and sundews. Skinks and ants and . . . not ourselves. Not nearly.

There are butterflies. Bandicoots and geckos. Eucalypts.
Wood moths and quolls. And when humans do emerge.
we’re inside the entanglement. Earth-lines in every cell . . .

I read it as a poem not content with the truisms of human evolution but an attempt to make us confront the emotional, behavioural and social consequences of it. Two poems before “Wading with Horseshoe Crabs” is “The Roar of It”, a less expository and more visceral recreation of someone’s sense of the endless changes that surround us from the subatomic level to the human level “Sand sucked out of rivers / into more New Yorks, more Bangkoks, more / Luandas”. In a sense the roar is the roar of entanglement in action. Interestingly a little lyric piece is placed between these two ambitious poems. “A Small Child Finds a Ladybird” recounts a child’s fascination, her identification with the natural world, and the adults’ response of disappointment that they have lost this minute example of recognising entanglement through identification:

. . . . .
           She is
bug-eyed. We
are behind her,
wanting even
of her gaze.

When the poems of Earth Dwellers want to focus on the response to entanglement they introduce other recurrent key concepts which might be summed up as penetration and porosity. We continually meet a speaker in the process of registering great natural patterns as they move through him or her. The first poem, “Arrival”, concludes with “The day rolls, / the world tumbles through me. In the wave of its momentum”. It’s a way of reminding both poet and reader that our tendency to see sunrise as an event followed by noon and sunset is a human-centred perspective. In fact, the process is a continual rolling as the earth turns and we just happen to be stationary objects that it rolls over and through. As “The Turning” says, “How the dawn does not end but travels, / always arriving”. This seems to be a kind of touchstone – there are innumerable experiences of the “sulphur roar of the sun” in these poems – a way of resetting one’s perspective on the self and the natural world.

Another image which relates to entanglement is the idea of “stitching” though it differs slightly because it is an intentional act (on someone’s or something’s part) rather than a passive response. We meet it in poems I have already referred to such as “The Turning” which concludes “stitch marks / through us all” and in “The Roar of It” which has a passage dealing with entanglement at the sub-atomic scale:

. . . . .
                              In her gaze -
        a fusion, so entangled there cannot be names
     or borders. She is stitched into molecules
        up quarks    muons    the tremors of time
  in the strange-fleet     puckerings    she calls the hours
      she calls the years     millennia     aeons . . .

But stitching also operates at a less literal level. A pre-dawn meteor shower over the Himalayas is described as a “needle-point burst / mending the sky like a tailor, / his thread invisible” and “Headland” is an amusing poem where the processes of dissolving the boundaries between self and world – “the sun’s warmth / woven through my marrow” – involve skinny-dipping. When the couple are disturbed by the arrival of visitors,

We dress each other, stitching into our clothes the rock-
rhythms, the pull of water, the tattered lines of the shells . . .

All of this sets up in the reader a kind of sensitivity to such images so that, when we read in “Postcard From the Island” – a description of connections largely underwater – of the seabirds “bombing the waves in the distance” we are quite ready for the assertion that this is another stitching image like the meteors: “The rush // of their beaks, the muffled thwok sewing him / into the hug of the undertow . . .”

Many of the poems, beginning with the second, “Learning the World”, and then spaced throughout the book, involve the experience of being in a cave with the lights extinguished. This isn’t so much an experience of entanglement as a chance to reboot one’s responses: as “Touching the Dark” says, “you remove distance / by turning off the eyes”. But it’s also an experience of actually entering stone and, as a result of the porosity of the self, taking some of that stone into oneself. The “status” of stone is something I am not clear about in Earth Dwellers. Are we entangled with it? Does the book want us to see stone as a different order to the multiform varieties of life that humans are part of? We may take it into ourselves but is it part of us? I like stone and, in another life, would probably rather be a geologist than a biologist so I’m keen to see whether the poems of Earth Dwellers (and, for that matter, poems like “These Mountains – What the Body Cannot Keep” from The Weight of Light) think there is an absolute break between the inanimate world and the animate one. Of course, it may all be there and it’s only my misreadings which are causing me to be unsure about it. There isn’t much doubt that the other great division of reality – the one between non-conscious life-forms and conscious ones – is one that these poems aren’t very interested in sustaining. In that sense it is an anti-conventional-humanist book seeing connection with the world of life-forms as more important than the free-standing, incipiently solipsist emphasis on that mysterious state, consciousness. But then, of course, slime moulds don’t write poems and probably don’t worry about whether or not they are entangled with wombats.

One of the technical problems of Earth Dwellers is a result of one of its virtues. At no point does this seem to be a mere “project” book of poems, the kind of thing which, in proposal form, can be bowled up to a body issuing grants or a board accepting enrolments. It is far too varied in its modes for that, moving from expository pieces like “Wading with Horseshoe Crabs” to extended narratives like “Mount Duncan” or “The Woman and the Blue Sky” which recreate the Romantic mode whereby experience of the natural world is best done in poetry by taking a reader slowly through it. And then there are lyric pieces like “Blue Light” or “The Vanishing” as well as “The Mountain – Eighteen Views” where the brief images are put together to make a larger, multi-perspectival whole: not an original form but a good one. The problem, as I see it, is that this mix of styles involves awkward decisions about how the poet herself is to appear. Even the shift from first person to third between poems takes a bit of adjustment for a reader but here we get a gamut of experiencing selves from “I” to “she” to “the woman”, not to mention “we”, “he”, “the man” and “they”. We could rationalise this by saying that this variety prevents the poetic ego being emphasised so that the dominant theme – experience of the interconnectedness of the world – is not, ultimately, subordinated to the overriding importance of the poet’s consciousness: that would be an irritating paradox indeed. In other words, the perceived awkwardness of moving from one kind of poetic participant to another is a necessary de-centering of the self. But I’m afraid that that would look like what it is: a rationalisation. Somehow the multiple modes, which work so well to provide different perspectives, don’t work so well when the question of how the writer is to be fitted into these poems is raised. I don’t know what the solution to this problem is. A poet can scarcely write “hard” lyrics, leaving the self out entirely but conveying that self’s perspective when the subject matter is exactly the issue of personal response. Readers will have to wait for Lang’s next book to see how she approaches this issue.