[Review] Of Sea by Elizabeth-Jane Burnett — Connor Harrison

In his essay on the current state of nature writing, Richard Smyth writes of the preponderance of ego: ‘It’s another way of striking a pose. Strike a pose with a forest or a field for a backcloth and see if you can hold it for 200-odd pages – that’s how too much modern nature writing gets written.’[1] The natural world might be the oldest – the original – literary tradition, but does it necessarily have to become the oldest prop?

In the case of Elizabeth-Jane Burnett’s Of Sea (Penned in the Margins: 2021), the opposite couldn’t be more true. After the first poem of the collection, ‘Prickly Cockle,’ Burnett the poet slips mostly out of view, along with much of the human world. ‘I would/no more touch than break/you. I would no more break/than touch you’ she writes, and moves forward with this lightest of touches. Even in the titles, Burnett rarely interferes, each introducing a creature as character, and every character has free range of space. It is as if she learned to write of invertebrates as we are taught to handle them: loose. In ‘Great Green Bush Cricket’, the words hop both physically and sonically across two pages. In ‘White-tailed Bumble Bee’, the stanzas bob along in compact units, until they land.

do you ever go
to sea just pack
up & leave all flowers
at the shore?

This is not nature as allegory, but nature as observed. Burnett is writing of the millipede and the ragworm as a historian; out of frame but entirely in control of the scene.

Equally important – if not more so – to the use of form and white space in Of Sea, is sound. In regard to the sea and the fauna, sound inclines movement, voice, experience. Often, there is little to differentiate Burnett’s poetry from song. ‘A hop, a skip, a dancer’ she writes in ‘Sand Flea’: ‘A leap, a lindy, an aviator./Originating in Harlem,/in Dawlish, in the early rap/lyrics of the high-tide mark.’ It is a poetry of sound and aesthetics. Language is less interesting for its message and more for its impression – the music becomes the meaning. The page acts as a sea, or a beach, over which the wildlife finds its rhythm. The printed words brush your eye as an insect might, hovering over sand.

By worm, by wagon, by wheel,
by wiggle, by wing of skin.
Molt five times before settling.
No eel, no deer, no mole,
no seal, no goat’s grip or hide.
Fleece Bird. Strip Wind. Bark Blow.
Flay Feather. Cut Flight. Kite.

In the section, ‘Intermission: Call of the Sea’, there is a complete music. Pieces are titled ‘A Chord of the Sea’, and ‘A Chord of Sands’, and the words, some English, some Kiembu and Kikuyu, drift across the page in repetitions. Another, ‘Song of the Sea’, is literally a songsheet, written in the same voice. This is when Burnett re-enters the frame, or at least, the human voice intervenes. As the sea becomes song, a narration of the song emerges: ‘There is a lullaby in all of us./A call of sea, a song of earth […] There is a lullaby in all of us,/a language of sea, a fathomless trust.’ In making herself and the human connection the intermission to Of Sea, Burnett demonstrates a fantastic respect for her subject matter.

Outside of the intermission, the only significant reminder of human life is ‘Common Blue’, a type of found poem. ‘Pages from my journal, an article on the effects of microplastics on invertebrates, and an exercise for monitoring water pollution […] are plaited into my hair & transcribed after swimming.’ The result is something of a curiosity, but ultimately feels out of place, since the best of Burnett’s work is in its control masquerading as naturally occurring, not the other way around; poems like ‘Ground Beetle’ and ‘Squat Furrow Bee’, and ‘Ruddy Darter.’

  To throw
yourself against an arrow
     or tide
to startle or stitter
   sharpen, glitter
as mackerel
   leap sudden

Of Sea is not nature poetry written as Romantic, though there is a deep spiritual component to each ‘song’, but something much closer to D. H. Lawrence’s Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923). The poet might still be there, hanging at the periphery, dropping in and out (much less delicately in Lawrence’s case), but the natural world is kept in full focus: ‘The almond-tree,/December’s bare iron hooks sticking out of earth.’ In his collection, pre-awareness of the anthropocene, Lawrence wrote us an erotics of nature. In hers, Burnett has written what might soon be a mourning song. ‘Look for us,’ she writes in ‘Barrel Jellyfish’, ‘even after we are gone. With eight arms/there’s a chance one may keep, wrongly filed under/weapons.’

Notes

[1] Richard Smyth, ‘The State of Nature’, The Fence, 6 (Winter 2020), 24–27.

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Connor Harrison is a British writer based in Montreal. His work has appeared at Lit Hub, The Moth Magazine, Hinterland, New Critique, and Review31, among others.