Camilla Nelson is a performance poet and a language artist who creates installations and events, with a particular interest in trees, especially apple trees.
Apples and Other Languages grew out of Nelson’s PhD research ‘Reading and Writing with a Tree: Practising Nature Writing as Enquiry’ (2009 – 2012).
The book is divided into three sections. The brief ‘Musical Introduction‘ is largely inspired by Bjork’s Biophilia and is made up of the collection’s most accessible poetry including the arresting, memorable and very musical ‘A Purse of Sky‘
give me a coin for the slot machine sky, I said
and she gave me the sun
and the polka dancing stars were sequins on night’s black dress
Apples, the second section of the book (written during the poet’s PhD research) and Other Languages (which, according to Nelson’s afterword to the book, ghosts the thinking of the PhD) are made up of more experimental poems that on the face of it can seem daunting, but which repay re-reading. Nelson has a great ear for thought provoking phrases such as, to give a couple of examples:
‘tinkle-spin-bio-warp yourself weird‘ from Miracle
‘what is the shape of this leaf-drenched feeling‘ from Reader Write a Response
This is the sort of original language that can genuinely make the reader see and think about things differently. I particularly like ‘a curlew threads its needle song throughout‘ from Laugharne – with its suggestion that curlew song holds the landscape together, something that is coming apart as this bird declines drastically across its range (the UK being one of it’s most important breeding sites).
The layout of the words on the page is always important in this collection, with conventional punctuation being replaced by strategically placed blank spaces that serve to emphasise the relationship between words and by implication the relationship between the poet and the world around her. This is particularly well used in Kynance, a very effective, almost concrete evocation of Kynance Cove in Cornwall, where the spacing of words on the page evokes the vertiginous feel of this spectacular beach. The phrase ‘we walk the sandy gums of giant’s teeth‘ is a very apt and accurate description of the immense free standing rocks on the beach.
In Writing Apple, written after observing how writing marked into an apple altered as the apple decayed, Nelson contemplates the wizened apple and considers her own ageing:
decay’s unrepresentable … hard peaks of wrinkled skin … … will I soon become
like this … … my cheeks blush… … brown decay… … what horror
and then moves to a larger contemplation of her interconnectedness with nature (as represented by the apple):
you affecting me affecting you affecting me
This poem also fits neatly in with Nelson’s installation The Same Apple, in which sixteen apples from the same tree were stored to examine how differently they decayed. This piece, along with the artist’s other installations can be seen at www.singingapplepress.com/installation/.
The relationship between the poet and the natural world is threaded through the whole collection and extended into other relationships between the natural world and the human : that between trees and paper and books in Thinking Tree Shapes (‘imprint a page express a tree‘) and that between the patterns found in the growth of lichen and the patterns made by the writing pen in The Lichenous Page (‘these tile tapping keyed up fascinators mark the shape between you and I plant doubt‘). While in (Not Quite) Within Water, Nelson explores the similarities between pond dipping and searching the internet, which made me see both activities in a slightly different light:
and the value incurred in … searching …… whilst sitting at its edge …… and finding
that which is hidden … … … or lost … … … …in the deep dark depths
illicit … … … … illegal … … … deep dark web … … and the fear of drowning
The relationships so carefully explored in this collection are vital to today’s world, a world in which fewer and fewer people feel part of nature. It becomes ever more essential that poetry explores and communicates these connections. However experimental poetry reaches only a small audience – relatively few people read poetry and many who do, are not drawn to experimental poetry or may not even be aware of the existence of such poetry. In addition I feel that the urgency of our current perilous ecological situation requires an urgency in the telling, which is to my reading, lacking in these poems, no matter their beauty, no matter how much they repay re-reading. Perhaps we need a discussion about what and who nature poetry is for in these times? Do we choose to talk to other eco-poets alone or do we choose to write something more accessible that might reach the general public and perhaps change their way of thinking? Not that I believe all poetry should be immediately understandable to anyone with a primary school education, nor do I like political rants that pretend to be poetry, but a good hook for the general reader with a passing interest in poetry would be no bad thing.
Juliet Wilson is an adult education tutor, writer. crafter and conservation volunteer based in Edinburgh. She blogs at http://craftygreenpoet.blogspot.com and tweets as @craftygreenpoet.
Apples and Other Languages is published by Knives Forks and Spoons Press and can be ordered from their website.
An excellent review, makes me hungry to read the work, the caveat of a difficult read not withstanding and duly noted.