There is a prophecy: blue grasses flown in from
the sunset, sweet and high, floundering for some
other earth. I can’t breathe but it’s worth it
So opens Pratyusha’s breathless Prophecy, the first poem in a new anthology Weird Folds: everyday poems from the anthropocene. Published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe and edited by Glasgow-based poets Maria Sledmere and Rhian Williams, the collection features previously unpublished works by thirty-three contributors across almost three hundred (surely recycled?) pages. The writers include established and award-winning poets such as Rebecca Tamás, Vahni Capildeo and Daisy Lafarge (also known to MAP readers, among many other accomplishments, as an erstwhile MAP editor, as was, until just recently, fellow contributor Rosie Roberts) and some lesser-known (to me) but equally welcome voices, such as Jay G Ying, Max Parnell, Alice Tarbuck, Jane Hartshorn and Iain Morrison.
But before we even get to the poems themselves, the book begins with a brilliant and frightening foreword by renowned eco philosopher Timothy Morton (author of works such as Ecology without Nature, 2007 and Dark Ecology, 2016). The introduction by Sledmere and Williams is likewise as ‘dynamic and disarming’ as many of the poems they have gathered together. Their discussion of the Anthropocene, and how poets might respond to this contemporary sublime, elucidates without hectoring, offering rich, reflective definitions and frames of reference for what is often dismissed as a theoretical buzzword. If the sheer scale and ubiquity of the everyday ‘renders it overwhelming, even invisible’, the same is true of the Anthropocene: ‘its span is too wide, its significance not bearable’. The writers of this collection have attempted, following Donna Haraway, to ‘stay with the trouble’, to be attentive to the forms and modes of writing about something so crucial, yet so evasive.
In an anthology of this size, readers will undoubtedly find some poems far more resonant and affective than others, but what makes all the works here seem remarkable is either their (pandemic) prescience or their precision timing. Illness, disease and breathlessness are prominent, as are non-human animals, oceans, weather. Much is made of banal, quotidian stuff, the mindless accumulation of detritus, as though the world’s population had set out to restage Dieter Roth’s Flat Waste. In terms of form, the poets use dissonance, cacophony and the use of plosive, fricative sounds to generate unease and discordance. Kenning is deployed alongside references to contemporary culture to condense epochs. For Morton, these ‘poems are the future sliding against the past’. From ancient tombs, whale roads, king’s robes, the sun and moon to Trump’s hair, bus apps, Extinction Rebellion, drones, Alexa and audio guides: how did we get from there to here so quickly? Lots of the words, even if they are not, seem onomatopoeic, as though to engender a visceral response. Many are ekphrastic encounters with hyper-objects. And though there is humour, compassion, kinship and hope, the tone tends towards unease, alarm, a creeping sense of ‘weird realism’ we have to live in and with. Personification, so common within nature poems, is almost pre-apocalyptic here, more folk horror than new nature writing. In Katy Lewis Hood and Therese Keogh’s words:
The water rushed the colour of metal it carried
once and more along
It gathered grit and breathed out
not without effort
but a rapsy exhale and a dead fish
the hollow bag of waters
The book’s jacket is acid-green, the ‘never seen in nature’ hue of effluvial build-up and contaminated water, therefore: often seen in nature, because nature is culture and vice versa. On the back cover, US poet CA Conrad’s endorsement describes the poets in Weird Folds as ‘war correspondents’, ‘voices for a war that the planet is having with itself through its human bodies’. In this account, the poems are dispatches from the frontline, where the frontline is located here,in what we do, what we are and what surrounds us.
Susannah Thompson is a writer, critic and art historian based in Glasgow. She is Head of Doctoral Studies at Glasgow School of Art