The 2018 SciPo Poetry Competition focused on climate change and this pamphlet of 18 poems, includes the winning and commended poems along with poems from guest poets Carrie Etter and Philip Gross. The competition has two categories: adult and under 18s, both judged by Jayne Draycott.
France-Anne King’s “Home Thoughts from the Red Planet”, which gives the pamphlet its title, starts “It was considered weakness to look back” and continues,
“A man described a wheat fields ripening under sun,
the weight and sea-sway of wind-pulled crops.
A woman, haunted by cycles of return, explained
the pattern play of swallows in an autumn sky;
how they forage on the wing, the skim and swoop
of cobalt feathers across the surface of a lake.”
Most compelling are memories of the various shades of blue. The poet doesn’t spell out why and this isn’t a blue pill/red pill set up. Mars, the red planet, has no water. The displaced people remember the various shades of blue because water means survival. “Home Thoughts from the Red Planet” is a subtle poem that makes it point through presenting what readers take for granted as memory, asking them to think about the effects of climate change if wheat fields (food) and swallows (barometers of climate as they migrate from Africa to cooler weather) become nostalgia. It was first prize-winner in the adult competition. Lesley Saunders took second prize, Sue Wood and Chris Pools were joint third.
Imogen Phillips’ “The Hunted” imagines mass extinction already underway,
“Now the antelope’s bones lie
Buried in long forgotten dust.
The water’s edge, just drops of my imagination,
Listing the missing treasures of my world.”
The long vowel sounds of the first two lines slow the rhythm, echoing the sense of regret: the antelope isn’t just dead, but forgotten. The second two lines build cumulative “s” sounds, creating a soft susurrus adding to the sense of shame and loss. The poem ends, “I lie down// One day closer to extinction…” The ellipsis could be ambiguous, either the sense of resignation towards the inevitable or a hint there’s time to stop this. It was first-prize winner in the under 18s category. Daisy Stillborn and Abigail Hawkesworth took second and third prizes respectively.
The theme of blue is picked up in Carrie Etter’s “Karner Blue”, a butterfly,
“Because Nabokov named it.
Because its collection is criminal.
Because it lives in black oak savannahs and pine barrens.
Because it once produced landlocked seas.
Because it has declined ninety per cent in fifteen years.
Because it is.”
Butterflies are short-lived and fragile but also, like most insects, a vital part of the ecosystem. Despite its decline, it clings on. The poem also hints at how human action in avoiding unnecessary killing and not destroying habits can arrest the devastating effects of deforestation and potentially restore populations.
Philip Gross’ “Goners” explores a young child uncertain of language saying, “I’m goning”,
“The water in the wave
goes nowhere, after all.
Like the mob-handed willow
and ash in the garden, plotting spring’s
sweet insurrections, while they can
:goners, all. Listen: the old
song, love song, hissing in the cracked
and wonky record’s grain
Play it. Play it again.”
Although the tone is mournful, it’s final line suggests a note hope if humans can learn to listen again and fall back in love with nature and its cycle of seasons.
Sadly the topics explored in “Haunted by Cycles of Return” are even more relevant than they were last year. Many poems about the climate crisis are good at describing what will be lost and expressions of regret but do little more than elegant hand-wringing and the addition of one more voice to an echo chamber of hopelessness. To their credit, the poems in “Haunted by Cycles of Return” do sound a note of hope and a sense that extinction is not inevitable, alternative paths can still be found, but humans must change their habits.
“Haunted by Cycles of Return” is available from SciPo, St Hilda’s College Oxford.