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Review – Of Sea by Elizabeth-Jane Burnett, and Thinking With Trees by Jason Allen-Paisant 

What is the language of the invertebrate? What form might the invertebrate provide the poet? Elizabeth-Jane Burnett’s Of Sea traces the light shed by bodies alternatively-structured: A ‘Prickly Cockle’ ‘start[s] light’, the coat of an aphid ‘dusts light’ in ‘Lupin Aphid’, a ‘Murky-legged Legionnaire Fly’ provides a ‘blurt of sun’. A note at the start of the collection indicates that the book charts encounters with invertebrates while swimming – ‘I am learning / / through the body’ Burnett wrote in Swims, her previous book of poetry – and in exploring what more might be discovered in or by water, Of Sea continues the fluid perspective of an intriguing poetic project.  

The collection presents a bestiary, largely composed of poems titled with the name of an invertebrate, followed by a poetic portrait of the creature in question. Of Sea brings to mind Isabel Galleymore’s portraits of marine creatures in Significant Other. The collections are natural companions in that sense, though they diverge in focus. Personal relationships, and how they are reflected by the state of the natural world, are the draw of Significant Other. Any such relationships in Of Sea lie below the surface. A range of pronoun perspectives voice Of Sea’s portraits; the speaker might be the invertebrate or, indeed, the poet. Burnett’s immersion blurs boundaries. ‘I don’t know what more to do than strike / / out into what I love, over & under & over & out into’ a voice says in ‘Dusky Sallow’. It is the plunge into remarkable surveys of language that is the attraction here. The repeated phrase – the bit, the skip, the part which stands for the whole – this rhythm is a current through Of Sea. In ‘Silver Stiletto Fly’, Burnett writes ‘Of moon, of sea, of hair / of colour, of tongue, of scale’; in ‘Gold Swift’, she writes ‘Was it air, was it sea, was it land, / was it words …’ The word invertebrate stems from the Latin verb vertere, meaning ‘to turn’, and with each iteration – with each description the poet attempts, with the ‘over & under’ of each dive – a new, striking perspective is arrived at.   

The characteristics of the collection’s mostly small subjects are mirrored in its language. In poems to butterflies or beetles, words fly or scatter across the page; large spaces are rendered down, so sea becomes ‘Sea-olet’, field becomes ‘Fieldet’. In ‘Earwig’, Burnett follows the turns of words morphing into each other:  

By worm, by wagon, by wheel, 
by wiggle, by wing of skin. 
Molt five times before settling. 

Each word transfigures into the next, just as the earwig moves through forms. The turns reveal how much watery movement is enacted through the phonetic properties of the w sound in English, how the fluidity of w – its voiceless articulation allowing for air to flow freely from the lungs through the mouth, akin to ‘water’, ‘wing’ swims, ‘wave’, wade – implies movement (‘Great Green Bush Cricket’). Of Sea’s study of the physicality of invertebrates leads to a similarly intricate study into the physicality of words. The invertebrate’s unspoken language is a shifting one and it is generative for the poet interested in how sounds are shaped and shed by words. The ground beetle, that creates sound by rubbing parts of its body together, is given voice:  

 I want to pluck out my teeth & pLA 
LA LA LAnt them // under your // pilla-o-a // under your pillo-a-so you know
I’m talking // […] 

(‘Ground Beetle’) 

Movements are translated into acoustics. Words are remade: by segmenting, capitalisation and hyphenation, the poet looks to find a new structure of language for the invertebrate. The beetle’s sounds are heard through human communication, ‘so you know I’m talking’. The bestiary becomes a book of translation.  

With their interest in rhythm and sound, the portraits might be better described as solos. Indeed, ‘Ground Beetle’, a note tells the reader, is to ‘be sung’. The central section of Of Sea, titled ‘Intermission: Call of the Sea’, emphasises the musical quality of what has come before, and what will come after. Music provides another form for the poet. Burnett conducts studies through music in order to look beyond boundaries, to ‘return you to what you have always been. / A body without end’ (‘Seannet’). The intermission’s final poem, ‘Song of the Sea’, is set to a musical score. Lines from previous poems become lyrics.  

In a trio of poems (‘A Chord of Sea’, ‘A Chord of Sands’, ‘A Chord of Earth’) the form of the chord allows Burnett to mirror the sound of languages simultaneously heard. In ‘A Chord of Sea’, Burnett layers English and Kikuyu in describing the call of a landscape:  

                                                                come                                          come inside                         come in
                                ũka                      ũka thiini                                ũka thiini                              ũka thiini
light                    light                    light luminous                   luminescence                     bioluminscence

The chord sounds a common note across inside/thiini/luminescence: Burnett finds a pathway, a chime, across the ‘in’ of these words. The simultaneity of a chord also relates to the composition of translation. It is not only meaning that translation works to convey (ũka thiini in Kikuyu means to ‘come in’): translation might also communicate the sounds of the language one is translating from. Movements are translated to acoustics and acoustics become a kind of illumination. 

The invertebrate and musical forms gathered by Of Sea lead to diverse poetic explorations and prospects. ‘[T]here are so many forms of being, if tired, why not try another’, Burnett writes in ‘Orange Ladybird’. This poetry is full of life and wonder, awash with music, not to be missed. 

‘Swimming is continuous, only the rivers are intermittent’, goes a refrain in Swims, and the relationship between what is steady and what is interrupted is echoed in Jason Allen-Paisant’s Thinking With Trees. As in Of Sea, the landscape of the collection is a natural one: Thinking With Trees is a record of walks taken in woodlands, in parks. On one of his regular walks near Leeds, Allen-Paisant reflects on growing up in a village in Jamaica where life was ‘un- / pastoral’, the woods ‘not for living in […] going for walks / or thinking’ (‘Walking With the Word “Tree”’) – Wordsworth’s paths were taught but not followed:  

ours was not the same kind of time 
our wandering never so accidental
so entire so free 

(‘Those Who Can Afford Time’)

The relationship between walking and freedom is a central theme of the collection, where walking is contextualized against the historical and contemporary violence done to black bodies. Allen-Paisant’s walks in England are interrupted by encounters with dogs, reminders that his ‘ancestors / were property / less than these animals’ (‘Essay on Dog Walking (II)’). The legacy of this history, Allen-Paisant suggests, creates a resistance to inattention – ‘People who live in the wake of slavery and plantation, we know we must always be on guard’ (‘Leisure (II)’). The collection includes a rumination on the recent, widely-shared video of a white woman threatening to call the police to report a danger to her life after a black man asks her to put her dog on a leash in Central Park. What becomes clear, if not already known, is that ‘[w]e’re not walking with the same codes […] are we’ (‘Essay on Dog Walking (I)’).  

The book is brought to lingering stops and troubling reminders: ‘The park too is a death zone’ (‘On Property’). And yet, there is a sense of ongoing movement across the collection. The book wanders the paths between the solitary and plural, and the private and public. The poems are largely unpunctuated, except by space. The speech of the dog owners is reproduced but there is no direct reply from the walker, apart from a single instance. The poems are the responses. Walking is a response: 

Is walking a reclamation 
a moving slowly enough to say 
this is a land you can take your time with 

these peaks are safe     I won’t need to run 

(‘Black Walking’) 

In its intimacy of voice, Thinking With Trees is a journal of what is stirred and disturbed for the wandering poet. The journal is a place to think, in its own time, away from demands and mindful of lives that have been foreclosed. The pace of the book, therefore, is determinedly gentle. What one does with leisurely time – free time – becomes a political act.  

Allen-Paisant’s collection speaks to a space that is overlooked by the contemporary focus on the destruction of the natural environment by humans. The legacy of other kinds of human destruction that have taken place in the quarters of the natural are recorded in these unforgettable meditations on walking and race. Looking at a stone frieze that is engraved with the figures of black people carrying the trunk of a tree, Allen-Paisant considers how plantation work provided the capital for the growth of Leeds, where he now lives and works. The collection’s title centres the tree, and trees are records – ‘logs of dying // logs / of erasures’ (‘Logwood’). The tree is not only witness to what has taken place in natural environments, but is also itself a casualty of an economy reliant on the subjection of black populations. To think with trees is thus to think about, and address, these records.  

While the experiences and resonances of walking are distressing, the collection also articulates how walking and trees might be restorative for the walker, as well as the writer. There is an openness in the collection to what might be discovered, rather than exposed, in one’s surroundings. Allen-Paisant wants ‘to connect with this land’ (‘Naming’). There is a greater language of trees, their inner words, that he desires. A dying tree is looked upon with envy:  

I mean    I know we are still there in reality 
when we go under 
But the tree    oh the tree 
it keeps on    so visibly so unendingly 
Consider this beech 
its life already begins to multiply 

(‘Fallen Beech’)  

The tree gathers life, lives on. In contrast to histories of stolen time and dispossession, the tree takes its time. It dies in the place where it grew. The pauses in Allen-Paisant’s lines are miniature echoes of that sustained time, tree-time. For the human and for the poet looking for new viewpoints, the tree becomes an alternative form: its visibility is celebrated in contrast to poems that have shown how visibility causes restrictions in freedom. In the landscape of other walkers and their dogs, freedom and peace come with not being seen, or rather, not being made conspicuous.  

With a steady pace, Thinking With Trees presents a much needed destabilizing and recalibration of perspective. Allen-Paisant’s collection challenges what has been ascribed to the natural, ‘…to hear // a different sound / from the word // daffodil’ (‘Daffodils’). The walk is extraordinary. 

Of Sea by Elizabeth-Jane Burnett. You can buy the book here.

And Thinking with Trees by Jason Allen-Paisant. You can buy the book here.

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