A poetry of the climate crisis has been growing most noticeably over the last ten years, and it is a poetry of frustration. While individual poems and sequences have done this well elsewhere, Claire Crowther’s new collection, Solar Cruise, is a brilliant complete journal of the anger felt by those of us staring the heat-death of the planet in the face while the markets busy themselves elsewhere. Set within the love story between a poet and a physicist who specialises in solar technology, Crowther’s book is an increasingly blinding statement of hard facts and deep feeling.
The speaker’s frustration flares out in a number of ways, leading at times to rage, sometimes the transcendent, and occasionally a combination of the two, as in ‘Marriage, a Sunbeat’:
Don’t we feel the natural sound of sun
beating inside itself as any human body beats?
Don’t our atoms measure disruption
into unexpected lines or graphs as we float on?
Surely the sun gives us our physic.
The reference, in the first line, to the Cymbeline song ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’ is wonderfully inverted in this. Crowther frequently creates moments like that last line when we fall through the fear and anger, and glimpse the beauty of what is being destroyed and what will destroy us, and renders it wondrous both in its power and consequence.
In this collection, there is a diversity of form long-present in Crowther’s work, but ideally suited to this book’s subject. The poems dart in and out of formal and rhythmic patterns, and shift in a manner not unlike, yes, the shifting of light and shadow through a day. There are pieces in which that old trick of the italicised verse responding to questions carries a particularly potent blend of the scientific proposition and the interrogations of love, as in ‘My Raver’:
How did my physicist find out
quantum wells could change
working solar cells […]
colleagues thought he must be raving.
Still, some minds were changed eventually.
Still, the problem of prematurity in physicists
The continual splits and breaks – of revelation, of particle, of opinion – that populate this book and kaleidoscope it wonderfully are not simply the ‘rational’ mind of a scientist contrasting or aligning with the ‘romantic’ mind of a poet – what a dull book that would be. Instead, they are often Crowther’s seemingly split-internal reflections on another’s thought and the very nature of how difference feeds and defines attraction. It’s not simply a series of questions and answers that this reader takes from the exchanges, but rather a bacterially splitting series of reflections on the nature of supposition and opposition, inquiry and report. One question never seems to be enough not to further examine an interior aspect of its own request.
The imagery of the wind, the sail, the vessel either in uncharted – or heading for dangerous – waters is a constant. The sense of the Cassandra-like fate of the climate scientists finds a sudden (and, for a world coerced by James Cameron into a predominantly romantic perception of a complex mid-Atlantic disaster of 1912, jolting) parallel in an historic reflection, in this excerpt from ‘What We Know’:
One midnight we pass
one hundred and fifty miles east of the Titanic.
She lies in deep waters.
Good Captain Roston steamed his ship Carpathia
through an iceberg field to find survivors.
The designer and the owner of unsinkability
saved no-one. Nor did Jack the telegrapher,
who ignored warnings of ice fields.
Other boats knew.
Ten seconds from touch, that huge ship filled with water.
Other boats knew
and were not listened to.
James Ismay has been touched on before (best by Derek Mahon) as a familiar scapegoat both then and now for that disaster, but this is to my knowledge the first (fair) accusation of the otherwise sainted Jack Phillips. Crowther’s poems steer their accusations to these two professionals of the new century – the wireless operator and the engineer-shipbuilder. As the poem points out, Philips and Ismay had all the information: the former had the up-to-the-hour warnings of icebergs which the ship was racing through and towards, the latter knew in the design phase that the tanks designed to hold alien water gotten into the boat were a danger to each other. This poem, then, cuts across time as a way of pointing out that the climate-liars (as we must start calling the ‘deniers’) are not just the ignorant or apathetic. They are also intelligent people who choose to stay silent or, worse – once paid –, knowingly mislead or distract. It is a high-risk strategy to take; attacking them through the lens of this story that has come to be so domesticated in the past few decades (the band playing on and Kate never letting go), but it is one at which Crowther completely succeeds.
Solar Cruise is not a love story, nor is it a record of research. These are not just two people living together, but two understandings cohabiting. In this exchange between a scientist and a poet, it is the latter who provides the fuel and transmission device to enliven the findings of the former. We begin with two people and end with a helix, informed vitally by the truth that our words are our life, and that life begins and will end with the sun. Crowther is perhaps the first climate poet to demonstrate, in a book-length execution, that the poetry needed is not simply a recasting of the pastoral and natural, but a pulsing, vivid writing of knowledge, with poetry and science codependent and coexpressive. Fusion, in a word, which will save us both here and beyond, if enough people speak like this.
Patrick Davidson Roberts was born in 1987 and grew up in Sunderland and Durham. He was editor of The Next Review magazine 2013-2017, and co-founded Offord Road Books press in 2017. His debut collection is The Mains (Vanguard Editions, 2018).
Image: Solar Cruise by Claire Crowther (Shearsman)