by Matt Howard
Matt Howard lives in Norwich, where he works for the RSPB. Matt is also a steering group member of New Networks for Nature, an eco-organisation that asserts the central importance of landscape and nature in our cultural life. His first full collection, Gall, was published by The Rialto in 2018 and was winner of the 2018 East Anglian Book Award for Poetry, shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre First Collection Prize in 2019 and longlisted for the inaugural Laurel Prize.
The first is a female:
I am eleven or twelve years old and Mum has just popped up the road to the local shop. I go to my older brother’s room and take out the .22 air rifle on loan from our uncle, along with a new tin of pellets. I’ve never asked to use the rifle on my own before so I don’t know if this is in or out of bounds.
I line up some old toy cars at the bottom of the back garden and start firing, though I struggle to hit them. The blackbird must have somehow caught my stillness between pot-shots while I’m re-loading, as I look up she’s just there on the lawn between me and my range of cars. So I fire at her, she jumps, though I must have missed as she’s still standing there. I load and fire again and she leaps with a tumble of feathers and the first showings of blood on her right wing that she still holds next to her body. Now I can see consequences and her pain and I’m crying, so I re-load and fire again to end all of it, but she doesn’t die, she keeps jumping and jumping and there’s endless feathers and more blood and I’m trying to catch her, to pick her up and now she’s by the back door which opens and I’m crying so hard and suddenly there’s Mum, all wild-eyed and she grabs me by the shoulders shouting ‘WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?’.
Almost twenty years later and a different back garden. The second is a male:
It is a late, drowsy dusk, just past the longest day. It is humid and starting to cloud-over. I am sat in the lounge and tired, though only from reading. The patio doors are open and I don’t have any lights on. I want the dusk and cooler air to come into the room. As it is almost July, any day now could be the last of blackbird song for the season. He lands as he has done these many weeks, first on the left-side neighbour’s shed, then flits to the middle post of our fence, then on to the gable-end of the next neighbour’s garage. With each landing he stretches down into his middle to lift tail and head, then points his territory with song, and in particular two touchstone phrases all of his own making. It’s to these that he returns again and again, though each time with a different interval between. I could only whistle the roughest approximation, but I can say that there’s a sense of him in it – his mind and syrinx working – his feeling, responding into and with further feeling.
Thoughts about these two blackbirds returned to me today when I came again to Edward Thomas’ ‘Adlestrop’. The poem preserves the moments of its writing from over a hundred years ago. Whilst those moments are not overtly concerned with deep time they are nevertheless thinking beyond any restricted notion of the self, working far deeper than the self’s own three score-and-ten. It always astonishes me for its wonderful, culminating ecological thought:
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
I read this as an inevitable poem, one that was compelled by a simple encounter with the more-than-human world. With this blackbird Thomas opens the idea of the individual and the local, and then broadens with those singing territories to a place within the interconnectedness of all life. It is a poem of encounter that seriously listens and observes.
Ecopoems present a repository of what nature means to us. Through them we yield more of ourselves: grief, love, wonder, hope and so on. Every encounter mediated into poetry forms a different kind of ecological network, (as John Clare stated: ‘I found the poems in the fields, and only wrote them down’). Where those poems accumulate, first with the poet and then as they go on to meet listeners or readers, they in turn extend how we feel and think about the more-than-human-world and therefore how we have acted, or might come to act.
There is nevertheless a risk when writing poems that point towards an ‘issue’ that a received or embedded position is too roughly corralled into stanzas. Potentially the writing arrives at a kind of poetry by numbers. The writing of poems always requires commitment to language, to form and craft, to the poem itself. Yet when the person drafting the poem is engaged in some way with places and their constituent species, there can instead be a poetry ‘of’ and ‘for’ numbers. One of the ways of opening to an equal-footing for the eco and the poem is through writing from our encounters with the more-than-human world, wherever we can find it or indeed its relative absence. In this way poetry always has the potential to contribute to ecological work.
The multitudinous ways we consume and live our lives, putting more and more pressure on the systems of life on the planet points to the fact that collectively, we have imagined ourselves as somehow outside of nature. As I write this, 4 days after the announcement of the UN IPBES report in May 2019, this position has never been clearer. That the arts and poetry represent the very best of how we can feel and think points to how essential they are for working the habitats of hearts and minds. Given where we are right now, our own hearts and minds could be seen to be the most crucial habitats of all.