Isobel Roach reviews We Have to Leave the Earth, a poetry collection by Carolyn Jess-Cooke which delves into both the political and the personal.
The personal and political convene in Carolyn Jess-Cooke’s latest poetry collection, We Have to Leave the Earth. An exploration of climate change, motherhood, and feminism told in four distinct parts, this work of poetry is far reaching in its scope and beautiful in its eloquence. Jess-Cooke guides the reader through the unforgiving depths of the Artic, into the tumultuous landscape of her own mind, and back in time to the world of Victorian feminist activist Josephine Butler. A sense of love and justice pervades every poem in We Have to Leave the Earth, uniting an otherwise disparate array of voices, stories, and settings. Jess-Cooke manages this feat of unification by continuously looking inwards; the collection begins with ‘Now’, a neat introductory piece that allows a reader to enter the author’s private, intimate world. Insular and domestic, this initial poem is followed by the impressive sequence ‘Songs for the Arctic’, branching out from the personal to the realm of the sublime and natural.
It is in ‘Songs for the Arctic’ that Jess-Cooke’s writing is at its best. Formally inventive and linguistically rich, this sequence describes the wild and extreme landscape of the Arctic with a sense of foreboding. Climate change is a spectre that haunts this series of poems; the Arctic world is simultaneously awe-inspiring and painfully transient with its ‘Bone sky’ and ‘oil-dark’ ocean. But nature is capable of fighting back against mankind too, as in ‘Confrontation’, which does not shy away from the brutality of this unforgiving setting. Human bodies are vulnerable to the violence of nature, and Jess-Cooke writes hauntingly of ‘snow-thistled beards, frost-black digits, teeth split open by cold’. Just as the natural world can be unforgiving and perilous for mankind, so too can we injure and gore the landscapes of our planet. Ice, Jess-Cooke writes, is ‘not a substance but an organism’. Her poetry works to personify this frozen world, to give it a body and a soul. It is capable of ‘holding onto each drop of rain like a love letter or a kiss’, and its resilience makes it a ‘museum of existence’ – a repository of human history. The poems in ‘Songs of the Arctic’ make reference to the ancient Viking world and their resilient efforts of survival. The author warns that we must remember this way of life ‘in these apocalyptic times’.
An awareness of history and heritage also plays a central role in Jess-Cooke’s more personal poetry. The titular poem is powerful in its evocation of the Holocaust, and evem more poingant in the rallying call of its concluding lines; ‘We have to leave the earth because we know too many ways to destroy her, we have to write these things we have to tell them to the forest and the watchful snows’. Jess-Cooke is equally eloquent when writing about her own struggles with mental health and motherhood. ‘Sagittarius A✭’ is a standout poem, speaking beautifully of internal struggles using the lexis of the cosmos. Motherhood and the complexities of raising an autistic child are central to the collection, and Jess-Cooke writes with tenderness about the bond between herself and her children and is open about the fears that come with raising the next generation in a world stricken with climate change. The vengeful natural world seen in the collection’s earlier Arctic poems begins to invade the domestic space in ‘Homeschooling’ and lingers until the collection reaches its conclusion – the fate of our planet is inescapable.
We Have to Leave the Earth’s exploration of both motherhood and womanhood leads to another poetic sequence. ‘The House of Rest’ is a history of the early women’s rights activist Josephine Butler told in nine poems. This fascinating departure from the poet’s own lived experiences can be, at first, a little jolting. Yet as the reader delves deeper into this poetic reimaging of Butler’s life, the similarities between this speaker and the poet herself become increasingly apparent. A figure very much ahead of her time, Butler campaigned for the Contagious Diseases Act 1869 to be repealed and fought to improve conditions for sex workers. Beyond her activism, Butler is an interesting poetic figure in Jess-Cooke’s collection because of her relationship to motherhood. Tragically losing a child, Butler’s inner world is presented with sensitivity and startling honesty (‘my mind floods with Eva, each woman’s face a palimpsest of hers in reefs of shade’). Butler’s story is concluded with the bold and resilient declaration, ‘I speak for the womanhood of the world’. With an eye to the next generation and duty of care we owe them, We Have to Leave the Earth is a collection that speaks for the fate of the world through the lens of womanhood.
We Have to Leave the Earth by Carolyn Jess-Cooke is available via Seven Books.