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Review – Wilder by Jemma Borg

Searching for Wild Connections

‘Poems are records of true risks […] taken by the soul of the speaker,’ writes Jorie Graham[1], but what if a poem speaks with a voice that is not always human, plant or animal, but something broader and wider in scope. How do we recognise that soul? What are the connections that bind us together?

As a recipient of the inaugural Ginkgo Prize, The Rialto/RSPB Nature and Place Competition and most recently winning third place in the 2022 Laurel Prize, as a zoologist, evolutionary geneticist and working in science communications, Jemma Borg’s writing is firmly placed within an excellent pedigree of ecopoetry. Shortlisted for this year’s best new poetry collection in the T. S. Eliot Prize, Wilder, her second collection, pushes beyond boundaries, challenging a reader’s assumptions and preconceptions about the division between the human and the natural world.

Wilder is split into five untitled sections, three of them containing multiple poems. The first section views the world in a holistic way, particularly noticeable through Borg’s employment of grammar, using the omniscient point of view (page eight is the first appearance of a personal pronoun); the second section engages with concepts of the centre, borders and edges, ‘— am I lost in the labyrinth of a sentence?’ asks the poem ‘On sleep’ where, through the form of a long prose poem, a sentence becomes a forest; the third section is more elusive, but also paradoxically engaged with the personal, encapsulated in the opening poem’s title ‘My son in his ancient world is swallowing dreams’. The final two sections each contain singular poems. ‘San Pedro and the bee’ follows the epic and ballad traditions as a kind of spell or incantation – a transformation – across five pages and the final, shorter poem, ‘Unripe’, uses words (‘pine’, ‘bloom’, ‘membrane’) from previous poems that resonate with a desire for connection across the collection, and asks larger than life questions: ‘But what are we building, if it’s not a future?’

Throughout Wilder, Borg traverses both the scientific and the poetic. The collection varies through different poetic traditions and forms, but rarely lingers too long from the precision and exactness of the language of science. ‘Complexity seems incomplete, he said, if its wing is not pinned / just so’ (‘An anecdote for September’). But she also enlarges space: to think about connections between people, between humans and nature, what happens in the world around us. In the first few poems alone, we meet a marsh thistle, Odysseus Elytis, Joaquín Rodrigo, St. Thomas Aquinas and Claude Monet. These associations crack the poems open, allowing the reader to travel both to their own associations and to the overtones Borg points us towards.

Engaging with this idea of connectivity, Borg implicitly asks the question – what is a soul and how can we measure its value? Poems such as ‘Marsh thistle’ and ‘Broadwater Warren’ consider this from the point of view of nature. The latter poem opens:

Brute, smudged earth, bristle, ditches,
conifer stumps: the razed forest
is the triumph of bias: that light is superior

to darkness, that the evergreen has no soul
by which is meant ‘value’,
by which is meant ‘native’

The poem acknowledges the role of biodiversity where a non-native forest could be destroyed for the greater good of the ecosystem, but it also grapples with how to save what we are destroying. The omniscient, directive point of view continued throughout this first section implicates us all in this dilemma. As such, Borg complicates and redefines human interactions with nature; this is more than us versus them. In the poem ‘Thaw’, ‘The northern bear is losing its clear white mind’ but there is also the ‘discovery / of zinc, uranium, gold’; how to get the balance right?

And balance is a key consideration in this book, which zooms in and out between the minute observations and the larger questions that form part of our ecology. The poems then, are emblems of attention within a wider view – to language, sound and to the act of paying attention itself. Humans are active and reactive parts of nature, rather than distinct players with short-term consequences. Wilder would have us remember this, as itrepositions traditional trajectories of time – identifying the kind of lineage and history that is beyond one human’s lifespan, ‘where the drooling sap was cooked in the forest fire / and yet the sequoia lives’ in ‘The tall, gaping mouth of the redwood’, or how ‘Standing stones’ become ‘agents of the calendar’ in ‘Simmer din’. Here, time adopts a role outside boundaries as in ‘Shadows and warriors’: ‘Freshwater or salt- / – which is the ancestor of the other?’ – we are urged to consider the role of the other, where their voice might be, in our connections with nature.

The act of listening and the importance of sound are key touchstones to Wilder; Borg engages the repetition of words. In the opening poem of section three, the son becomes ‘a wound in flower’, a significant moment as the poem’s final line. Yet a page before, in the closing of section two, ‘What would you give up in order to live? The wound.’ The word is repeated, and its meaning recalibrated across the collection not just as a part of the body yet to heal, but something grander, operating on a cosmic scale of pain and grief, stretching long time, Christian symbolism and the destruction of parts of nature as ‘Mortally wounded spines’ in ‘Broadwater Warren’. Repetition also characterises our ongoing encounters with the word wilder throughout, as we negotiate concepts of wilding and rewilding. ‘[T]he last wilderness’ in ‘Three storms’ renders the word a site of grief, ‘it wilders’ in ‘Forest of the suicides’ and in the title poem the word is employed as an act of transformation:

and the curved world catches you

like a lost word

                                                then the word is won.

In a recent interview, Borg notes, that ‘there’s also a sense in which we can recognize ourselves in other beings, in the things growing around us, not to anthropomorphise those things but to recognize that what we often think of as uniquely human qualities such as intelligence and language are already present or inherent in the world around us’. These are poems that ask us to interrogate on a macro and micro scale, to balance the overarching questions whilst also paying attention to the minutiae of that biosystem – to the world we engage with, its language and our place in that – to the small but consequential moments that we are happening within.

This collection considers not just the human impact on nature, nor the static observation of nature, nor even the post-human speakers of rocks or moss, but rather combines all these voices and points of view, and more, considers something inter-relational, to imagine all these elements coalescing and in conversation within a broader, holistic space. Between the joy of its noticings and the risks of its linguistic foraging, Wilder guides us through networks connecting and reconnecting to each other like root systems – a model for thinking perhaps, towards what we are still searching for.

[1]    Graham, ‘Some Notes on Silence’ in19 new American poets of the Golden Gate, ed. Philip Dow (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984)

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