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Review of Lucy Burnett's Leaf Graffiti - Harriet Tarlo, Green Letters, 2013
Lucy Burnett’s first collection is beyond promising . Here is a poet who has waited to publish until she has explored poetic technique enough to find her own way and who also has much on her mind. Considerations of matters of place, culture and environment are foremost in her work and will be of particular interest to readers of this journal. I shall talk less here about the ways in which her formal explorations overlap with reflections on gender, romance and the body, but she is equally challenging and, at times, original in this.
Leaf Graffiti opens with the impressive sequence ‘Variations on an Urban Monotone’, forty-four 17-line poems, carefully punctuated with space and framed within two reflective, repetitive pieces that lay out the territory of the work. Each poem draws on the last to create an intricate and delicate network. The protagonist/speaker who addresses us in these poems is an observer-participator, the latter being important as Burnett is never a preachy poet, but very much present, and indeed complicit, in the world, even as she is at times cynical and angry in the face of what she finds there. The ‘I’ here (and in many of Burnett’s poems) is not then an autobiographical lyric ‘I’ in any obvious way but shifts in and out of various singular and collective positions, as her shifting pronouns, here (and throughout the collection), demonstrate.
Cities are unstable here, as the poems are teetering in their awkward spaces. Like the poet Zoe Skoulding, Burnett often references the urban with ‘natural’ language and images and vice versa, thus challenging our still so common binary and simplistic notions about environment. In fact, the separation between image and (literal) object is not obvious in Burnett’s work, as in many poets working in the modernist tradition, and it is the better for it. In ‘triangle’, she palimpsests rural background and urban present, ‘these three streets of leaves’, and asks: ‘can you smell the moss and conkers rotting bracken’ (31). Throughout the sequence, she constantly reminds us of the trees, the geese, the dandelion parachutes that live alongside the commuters and inhabitants of the cities she attends to. Relations between these elements are not always in harmony however – snow brings wet feet and slush like ‘porridge brain’ and there is a near-apocalyptic sense of ‘mourning clouds’ and snow ‘fallen like human ashes’ (27).
Here, Burnett references the environmental or ecocritical concern with the relation between human and non-human, but never too obviously. There are little moments when the human body seems to merge into the non-human world in a mammalian way:
as bodies leaning
in and out of mountains
curve their skeletons
to contour lines
embodied into white. (53)
We are never quite allowed to sink comfortably into such moments however – there is a stanza-sized space and three short lines that return us to the confusion of walking in a white-out, to the tentative quality of the work:
But mostly blizzards
interfere the silence
and the slowness of mist. (53)
This is environmental poetry, then, in the sense that it references environmental philosophy and concerns (including pollution and climate change). But perhaps ecopoetics would be a better word to use, since Burnett is always questioning and subtle, rather than engaging in a polemic approach, and is technically challenging too, much of the time. Yet, the environmental approach is deep- rooted within the work, particularly in the description that is so often relational at every level, micro and macro. Catching a bus, ‘I grasp my buzzing / ticket and its whiteness paints me beige’ (26). It is within this relational context that Burnett alludes to human love, romance and, occasionally, sex. Notions of ‘home’, which recur throughout the collection, are shifting but persistent. They too chime with this relational approach, panning from painfully local and specific to global (sometimes all in one line, as in ‘my home was a dot of dust’). So we are reminded of the derivation of ‘eco’ from ‘home’. There is something self-conscious about the way in which Burnett does this. I enjoy it, though not all readers will necessarily, but it seems also to do an important job of shifting towards a greater equality between the elements considered. The simple poem which calls upon us (or on lovers perhaps) to grow as an oak tree grows, points to the unrealistic nature of this call, and to the shortcomings of we short-lived human beings. Such work seems to me a delicate edging away from the anthropomorphism and personification even as it plays with these tendencies, so common on more traditional poetry of place.
I like this work best where the language is fresh and relatively simple on the surface, whilst also being suggestive and often multiple in meaning – words such as ‘leaves’, for instance, often resonate with both meanings, thus referencing both human and non-human spheres simultaneously. Occasionally, a rather more pompous and poetic tone creeps in, which is less successful – see, for instance, the piece ‘Decidua’ with its lament language and familiar references to seasonality and ‘falling off’. There is also a vein of surreality and humour here, which contributes to the pleasure we take in the work.
The final section of this volume looks forward to Burnett’s ambitious current project on Icarus, Through the Weather Glass. Readers of Green Letters should look out for this forthcoming book. here, she engages in further experimentation within poetry and genres beyond, including fiction and travel writing, and explores hubris as a central conceit for our relationship with our world, particularly in relation to climate change.
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