“Planet in Peril” edited by Isabelle Kenyon (Fly on the Wall) – book review

Planet in Peril book coverAn anthology of poetry and photography on climate change featured poets include Helen Mort, Myra Schneider, Katrina Porteous, Jane Burn, Christopher Hopkins, Anne Casey, Sujana Upadhyay and a selection of young writers aged from 8 to 17. It’s an ambitious project and sectioned into Earth’s Ecosystems, The Arctic/Our Oceans, Human Impact, A not so dystopian future and Our Future – the young writers. Interspersed among the poems are facts, such as “a square kilometre of forest may be home to more than 1000 species. Yet forests are disappearing at an alarming rate – 18.7 million acres of forests are lost annually”, and wildlife photographs and illustrations.

From the first section, Myra Schneider’s “Returning” ends,

“I breathe in the sweet extravagance,
dream I’ll come back as grass or blossom
until a voice in my head mocks with lists
of droughts, names of extinct species. I think
of vanished sparrows and how often the stream
in the park is dry-lipped, the earth pocked
with cracks. And it yawns before me: the possibility
of fescue, flowers, leaves not returning.”

The idea of grief is picked up in Sue Proffitt’s “Kittiwakes” which ends “leaves me bereft -// so few of you left.” Phil Coleman’s abecedary “Red List” is merely a list, “Eastern Hare Wallaby. Eutrophication. Erosion. Extinct. Eleven years./ Falkland Islands wolf. Flooding. Fragmentation. Finning”. Technically has no faults but doesn’t really say anything.

In the section section, The Arctic/Our Oceans, Katrina Porteous’ “Invisible Mending” carries a much needed hint of hope,

“Here is the place where ocean and glacier meet.
Bedrock and grounding line. Sediment, Grit.
The green glaze mineral sheen of life, small tools to fix

Troubles so immense, they can’t be seen or spoken,
Bit by invisible bit.”

The earth may repair itself, but human life may not survive. Dr Craig Santos Perez in “Echolocation” draws a parallel between an orca and human parent,

“We drive our daughter to pre-school,
to the hospitals for vaccinations.
You carry your decomposing girl
a thousand nautical miles
until every wave is an elegy,
until our planet is an open casket.

What is mourning
but our shared echolocation?”

The idea that both humans and nature are sharing in the climate emergency, albeit nature seems to have the worse end of the deal, is a reminder of what’s at stake and also a demonstration that we’re not so different. We mourn, we care for our young, but we’re still living in parallel rather than sharing.

From the third section, Anne Casey’s “where once she danced” is set on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

“she is drowning in a sea awash with cobalt
deadly metals fill the channels where she breathes

her lovely limbs are shackled down with plastics
her lungs are laced with deadly manganese
a crown of thorns to pierce her pretty head
a bed of sludge to lull her in her dreams”

Despite the devastation, the coral is still trying to survive. Like Katrina Porteous’ poem, there’s a hint of hope that it might just survive.

The fourth section, “Do I tell her?” by Leslie Thomas is a sequence on rising CO₂ levels (the publication uses CO2) from the 1800s to the future,

“2019: 415 ppm CO2

“A level unknown to Homo sapiens. Following my family’s
greasy tread, I grown organic potatoes and sell charter time
on private jets, to pay for natural gas.

In 2070, between 500 to 900 ppm carbon dioxide is predicted.

My great-great-granddaughter finds this poem, fading
inside a 100-year-old book telling of global warming.
Do I tell her? Stay on the grid and in the grind. What I know.”

It points to how humans carry out contradictory actions: the organic potato grower also sells flights to survive and put food on the table. Individual actions don’t seem to carry much weight, especially when compared with the actions of corporations and employers, but each action does make a small contribution.

The young writers take a bleaker view. “Animals reversed” by Niamh Hughes (aged 14) considers animals taking revenge, locks are locks of hair in this context.

“My locks are being used to make the kangaroo’s socks.

Mother, mother why have they done so?
Because not long ago
We took their homes, families and fur
And that’s not fair.”

Freya Wilson (aged 10) ends “Don’t Forget” with “Don’t forget that we are the first generation to know that our world is under threat and the last who can stop it” and Amélie Nixon (aged 16) observes in “sleepwalking” that “sleep is the crack between breath and burial,/ the barren gap where mumbles of our insignificance lull us into plastic-coated disbelief.” Ethan Antony (aged 12) has “The Tale of Two Lime Trees”, “The trees were felled, a new pavement arose”. They remind us is it their generation who feel they are carrying the brunt of this.

Overall there are some wonderful poems in “Planet in Peril”, showing the effects of climate change and man made devastation. The poems from experienced and young poets don’t shy away from the effects and the need for humans to change their ways, to halt the damage done and start to repair and adapt before it is too late. What’s missing is how. Yes, poets and other writers need to keep telling these stories, keep reminding humans what’s at stake. However, eloquent hectoring doesn’t always bring about change. There is no easy solution: Leslie Thomas’ potato grower can’t feed his family if he stops selling flights and if he stops, someone else takes on the job. It will take a cultural and behavioural shift. “Planet in Peril” isn’t quite ready to suggest how that could happen, although some of the poems do contain hopeful hints that nature will repair itself even if humans don’t survive.

“Plant in Peril” is available from Fly On the Wall Press.