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.

Kristen Lang: SkinNotes; The Weight of Light

SkinNotes, North Hobart, Walleah Press, 2017, 116pp.
The Weight of Light, Parkville: Five Islands Press, 2017, 90pp.

Kristen Lang is an unusual poet in that her first two full-length books have appeared in the same year. For an outsider it’s difficult to know what the relationship between them is: it could be that SkinNotes contains poems that are earlier than those of The Weight of Light or it might be that a large group of existing poems of varying ages was simply subdivided into two manuscripts, perhaps along generally thematic lines. Whatever the case there are powerful continuities between the books just as there are significant differences.

The poems of SkinNotes are organised into clear thematic groups. “Blood Harmonies”, the first section, is made up of poems which all devote themselves to the issue of genetic connections within the family, a specific site for looking at the body/mind distinction that is so much a part of both books and which I’ll have something to say about later on. It’s opening poem, “The Knit”, is as clear as can be but is worth quoting because it introduces ideas, approaches and even words which will reappear throughout these two books:

How to unpack the fibres so entangled
in each small knot of thought that falls between us
that they belong, in the end, to none of us, webbed
under words, across rooms, between years.
You do not arrive in me. As I arrived.
You have been here from the beginning, your hands
in the measure of my own, your inflections
in the muscle of my tongue. And much
has changed. Time
shifting the play as well as our bodies. But still,
you can never be all the others. We are older now,
and the days, stacked and skewed,
merging with each other, carry us
in their hold of what we know – stepping away
we are still inside each other. Meaning only
this. The knit and fray in the honeycomb
of our cells. The touch
we cannot choose to extinguish.

I think this is a fine poem though it is nowhere as ambitious as many of those in The Weight of Light. The material (our genetic debt to our parents) is quite conventional and a topos of contemporary poetry, and the language consistently at an elevated imaginative level (a kind of “upper-middle-style”). But we can detect beneath it a poetic mind which is rather different to the ones that usually produce this sort of poem in that it seems to operate under the pressure of thought – to be more “philosophical” to put it crudely. The emphasis is rather on the mind and its thoughts than on the body: there are no references to eye-colour or nose-shape here, no cosy affirmations of continuity. And in focussing on thought it is able to speak of something that belongs, in the end, “to none of us”, a kind of genetic version of cyberspace. This raises the issue – to be explored in other poems – of absence and leaving, and the way these might need to be redefined.

The second section of SkinNotes, transparently titled “The Fragile Mind”, deals with the mind by focussing on it at moments of vulnerability and extremis. Although some of the poems are clearly personal, enough of them seem to refer to the experiences of others to prevent this being a confessional zone. In fact the other unnamed men and women who form the cast make this more of an anatomy of disfunction rather than a harping on personal dis-ease. And not only are the characters varied, the metaphors are as well. The first poem, “Glass” uses drought as the correlative of a woman’s inner state but the poem’s end concentrates on the frustration of her friends at their inability to break this drought:

. . . . .
We tell her none of us 
are angels, all of us moving stones
to quench the need for water.
. . . . 
And we wait. And we forget. In the vines
of our own weather.

At other points the mind is a small house, the land of black dogs, a cliff face, and, in “Mild Amnesia” a set of cogwheels into which a spanner has been dropped. The failure of mind to connect “properly” to the outside world is put most schematically in the two towns of “Seasonal”:

The bridge between the blue,
thrown-together, flood-prone city of the mind
and the red city, somewhere outside the mind,
is down . . .

This section is also noteworthy for “Fish”, a poem that introduces both a recurring symbol – the fish – and recurring themes – that of the interpenetration of different existences and the issue of visitations. The fish, swimming inside its element, appears twelve times out of the underwater shadows to the poet but has nothing to say despite her pleading. This poem, unlike others about fish, emphasises the pain of both the silence and the impossibility of any kind of interpenetration between mind and outer world – “And with this he has gone. / Filled with the river, and cold, / I am suddenly weeping” – accounting for its placement in the second rather than third section of SkinNotes.

The title of the third section, “Being Here” suggests that this might be a compendium of pieces about social, even political, life – commentaries on the everyday world. And, in the last few poems (which include “Five Justifications for Environmentalism”) there is some evidence for this; though even they are as far from commentary pieces as one could imagine. “Being Here” is taken in its rather richer, philosophical sense and it is no accident that the first poem is about whether or not angelic presences are “here”. Just as there were encounters with non-communicating but visiting fish, so here, in “Horse”, the yearning for intimations of the transcendent is butted up against the solid physicality of a horse in a field:

. . . . . 
                                                                    The presence
or absence of angels – how their songs
dissipate in the slanting gaze of our search and we cannot
guess what we would know of them.
The horse pushes the softness of her nose
into our hips and hands
for the carrot we cannot offer and did not
think to bring to her, then moves away . . .

This can be read in two rather different ways. Firstly, that those searching for visitations fail to communicate with the beings of the world (fish, cows, horses) who would, themselves, prove to be visitors if some kind of interpenetration of the species were possible. And secondly, that the horse represents the humans, dumbly seeking a gift (a carrot) that the visitors haven’t thought to provide.

Another poem, “On Being in the Ocean” – with a nicely ambiguous title whereby “being”, first read as a participle, can also be a noun – reminds us that being here is going, inevitably, to depend on the relationship between body and mind:

The sea’s blue rolls its rough-tongued abrasion
through your hair, into your skin, floating you in its torn
fringe of sky. Stay, says the mind, until the waves
enter every cell and the body is wide, wide in the salt swell,
drifting into the weather.

But the eyes – reaching into the air – catch again on the shoreline.
And the limbs say they remember, striding
through the waves for their rope-heavy vision of the land – their
chance: small paths uncurling in the gaps left
between the dunes, the roadworks, and the houses.

Irrelevant as it probably is, this seems to me another poem deriving however tangentially from Slessor, affirming his place as a kind of progenitor of Australian poetry in the last hundred years. The number of poems recalling “The Night-ride” is enormous and this is one of many which, consciously or not, allude to “Out of Time” though I suspect that Tasmanian waters are a lot less conducive to underwater meditation than those of the Pacific near Sydney. It’s also important to register that the summons of the sea here isn’t towards an experience in a bubble out of time but a call to a kind of dissolution and expansion that will come from an element penetrating the body completely: perhaps, in the long run, it’s more Paul Dombey than Kenneth Slessor.

The final section, “The Heart” seems reserved for more personal poems and perhaps even traces the path of the end of one relationship and the beginning of another, more permanent one. But one wouldn’t want to imply that there is anything simply confessional about these. “Clowning the Trust” imagines a clown balancing “a small book on the art of living” on top of a pole while riding around the circus on a unicycle. On top of the book is a glass sphere holding the remote possibility that the relationship between two lovers might be successful. In other words it’s a fully developed, surreal scenario, as is the first poem of this group, “To Say I Believe in You”, and “Dylan and Picasso” where the music of Bob Dylan accompanies the discovery of three Picassos each of which describes a progressively deeper exploration of sex: a sea to sink into; a nude, simultaneously man and woman; and finally a set of cubist views of a landscape – “a dozen / ways through and the ways / revealing gaps, places / on the rumpled page / no-one has been to”. One poem, “Nathan and the Sparkle of Chains” stands out as being about people other than the poet but it is possible that the situation – lovers sharing a drug-induced high – may be nothing more than a symbol for sex generally.

I’ve worked through the four sections of SkinNotes descriptively and in the order in which they are arranged because it’s the kind of book whose organisation suggests to you that it wants to be read that way. The Weight of Light is a quite different sort of book and it’s possible to approach it rather more freely. There are stylistic developments that need to be registered and, since so much of the book is an exploration and extension of images that appear in SkinNotes, there is a lot that needs to be said about stones, paths, in- and ex-halation, ascents, fish, fibres and a whole lot else.

To begin with stylistic matters, The Weight of Light has poems which make the generally discursive manner of most of the poems in SkinNotes more pronounced so that they have a developed essayistic quality or a very formal narrative quality. “Twister” is an example of the former, imagining that Descartes’ ideas of vortices in ether-filled space is a more accurate rendition of the state of someone’s psychic state. It’s a poem about dissolution and expansion, the desire to have “star birth / at his fingers, quasars at his tongue, intergalactic tide marks / on his arms” while being harnessed to such quotidian items as the city and his dog. But I want to emphasise the essayistic tone which makes the poem as much a tour through the history of the science of cosmology as about the problem of an individual reconciling the expansion of the self with the ordinary. The first stanza will show what I mean:

The French after Newton found themselves
still in the swirling sway of the night sky’s
ether, where dear Descartes had placed them. This thing
called gravity – an invisible tug – too absurd. Their giant,
outer-space tornado sweeping the known planets
through the constellations – this, they could feel. . .

We meet the narrative counterpart of this in “Snow After Fire (Parsons Track)”, a poem worth looking at in some detail as it contains many of the images that recur in both these books. It begins:

We arrive on the plateau, climbing from the walls of rock, the coloured
          gums, the mountain shrubs,
      to where the only thing not blackened by the long summer’s fires,
          perched in the Rorschach

of receding snow, is the sign, the naming that compels us surviving
          through the heat’s choke and crackle. So we learn
     we have entered what our hearts have read since the beginning -
          the forest we have scaled, the hazy

sky, the chill, the day itself – yet here it is, this boundary, the sign
          telling us all we have crossed
     into the Heritage of the World, the old planks looking new
          in this ransacked terrain.

Every leaf has gone, each blackened branch windswept
          free of dust, smooth, almost polished – ink-drawn,
     weighing nothing. Stone after stone . . .

and so on in this stately way for two and a half pages. Ultimately the climb – one of many in these two books – has an allegorical point signalled by the phrase, deliberately surprising in its context, “the falling in love”. To put it crudely, the desolated landscape preceding an emergence out into unburned heights, is a symbol of life before love. It a bit obvious but it’s a subtler poem than that makes it sound. The burned landscape is an abstracted, black and white one which shows the shape of the underlying stone better. The descent finds the couple meeting the descendants of those who first cut the track, suggesting generations and the sense of life “spilling us forward” which in turn reminds us of the repeated image in these two books of the path which is erased behind (“the stillness of the path / once we have gone” as an earlier poem says) – there is only one way and that is forward.

These long-breathed, discursive poems are in complete contrast to a set of a dozen or so, spread throughout the book, which try to operate more allusively. At their most extreme they look like a series of haiku, loosely connected to a central subject. You can see that what is happening is an attempt to loosen the power of (prose) logical, discursive movement and allow some suggestion in. Perhaps it comes about from a dissatisfaction with the surreal scenarios of some of the poems of the first book. These stretch the imaginative possibilities but Lang may have felt that she had exhausted what they had to offer. At any rate, “Between Arrivals” will serve as an example:

in the forest
over stones and roots – the way
emerging behind us

until it lands – each
at the fence -
breaking out / breaking

the light
reaching us where we stand – we keep
standing . . . the new light

at the beach
trace-lines – beetle, crab, petrel – the wind
lifting the sand

we run – by chance a dragonfly
older than all of us drops
into the sky beside us – the same air

we are using
we keep pace – not
where we are going

mid-step -

It’s a tricky form to carry off because it can look precious in contrast to the discursive poems which, at worst, always look important. But these poems in The Weight of Light are buttressed by the way in which their themes are present in other poems. “Arrivals”, for example, is clearly about life as a forward-moving process, as it is in “Snow After Fire (Parsons Track)” and those poems like “The Cloud Years” and “The Conductor Leaves Behind” which are about the progressive shaping of the self. “The way / emerging behind us” is the path that only becomes a path once the bodies have moved on and each step is one which is taken into the unknown. In a sense this aligns with the first poem of the book, “The Letter”, which is a poem about poetry in which the poem travels to an address that can’t be specified – it is posted “To Whom It May Concern” to “her neighbours – /across the road, across the country, // on the other side of the world” and is responded to in a similar way.

As I said initially, it isn’t possible for an outsider to be confident of the relationship between these two books which have appeared so unusually closely together. (By way of contrast the two books which I have reviewed previously on this site were each separated from their predecessors by ten years!) Each of Lang’s two books mentions in its biography a self-published chapbook of 2008 called Let Me Show You a Ripple but I haven’t had a chance to see it. It’s possible it might hold the key to understanding whether the poems of SkinNotes and The Weight of Light were written contemporaneously and then divided into two manuscripts or whether The Weight of Light contains poems written after the other. Based on the explorative quality of The Weight of Light when it comes to manner as well as the way its imagery is based on the poems of SkinNotes, my guess would be the latter. At any rate Kristen Lang is a terrific addition to the cast of Australian poets, someone in whose poems we can feel the pressure of complex thought and who is craft-sophisticated enough to explore the best ways of making poems out of embodying these ideas.