Bristow, Tom, The Anthropocene Lyric: an Affective Geography of Poetry, Person, Place

Tom Bristow, The Anthropocene Lyric: an Affective Geography of Poetry, Person, Place (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2015) ix + 139 pp., £45.00 Hb. ISBN: 978-1-137-36474-6

‘The making of place as a dynamic of couplings,
as if love and trust are omens, odds in your favour.’

             John Kinsella, Jam Tree Gully

The passage above, taken from ‘Arrival: First Lines Typed at Jam Tree Gully’ is by no means an attempt at ingratiation; the poem is in fact deceptive and highlights the hyperseparation that has occurred between the human and the environment. The human enters into an environment in which (based on historical events) his/ her presence is unwelcome. The desire to connect is underlined by the wrongness of this act which leads to the decalibration of an ecosystem that would otherwise be stable. The conflict between benefiting nature and wronging it is present throughout  Jam Tree Gully and is a key issue of the Anthropocene for writers as well as Environmental Humanities scholars. Passages in Bristow’s chapter on this collection such as ‘The World of the Jam Tree’ stimulate a shift in perspective which is not only necessary but also welcome.

Following the poem in the ‘Prologue’ with one entitled ‘Arrival: First Lines Typed at Jam Tree Gully’ is important in signalling the initial reaction to place, and this immediacy is necessary in order to observe the first palimpsestic layer of the landscape; the following poems peel off layers one by one, and through this immersion it is the human that is left barren and not the landscape; nature ultimately has the power of restoring itself of regrowth even under extreme circumstances but human consciousness once depleted cannot regrow easily.

In this study, Bristow takes an in-depth look at the aforementioned collection alongside Burnside’s Gift Songs and Oswald’s A Sleepwalk on the Severn, comparing and contrasting these works both to each other and to others, in order to place the first stepping stones across this ‘new ground for Anthropocene scholarship’ (4), which has important implications for humanities research. Jam Tree Gully is an activist inquiry into the meaning of the landscape, attentive to the impact of European colonisation and indigenous practices of the Noongar people. According to Hughes d’Aeth, the collection engages ‘in a more radical process of deconstruction and reconstruction, one which changes the terms by which we are to understand the natural.’1

Despite the fact that the term radical is being used more and more often in Anthropocene research in order to highlight processes, actions and the state of things, Bristow uses it with care, only a handful of times in The Anthropocene Lyric. The landscape is perceived horizontally as an expansion whose pulse fluctuates from being conquered to being free, from being healthy to being damaged and so on. Kinsella’s verticality extends past the trees and flying creatures (including eagles and bees) to the moon, in a similar way to Alice Oswald’s poetry collection Dart, which ‘ranges free’,2 its light ‘so fierce’3 blending into a ‘phosphorescent darkness’4 in ‘Insomnia at Jam Tree Gully’, a key poem towards the end of the collection.

From the very beginning Bristow outlines ‘three anchor points’ (2) to his study, these being ‘“place perception”, “more-than-human worlds” and “Anthropocene emotion”’ (2). They are all a part of the poems explored and linked to each other but they are explored individually.  The three collections covered are carefully chosen and each outlines an essential area: the pastoral (radical), the urban and the uncountry. The three poets have set themselves a difficult task: to try and capture environments which are divided between human and more-than-human hands, between cultural and actual geographies, the former only comprehensible to the human, the actual geographies often ignored by the latter.

The second collection examined, John Burnside’s Gift Songs is approached by drawing on Heidegger’s non-hierarchical views of the human and animal, and Rilke’s distancing of the human from home or origin through ‘a disorientating consciousness of time’ (70). Bristow refers to Burnside’s ‘artificiality of the poem’(74) which remains ‘tethered to religious lexis that indicates an event of the embodied soul, an advent of interconnection and the more-than-human in terms of physis‘ (74) in a Heideggerian sense. Drawing on Husserl, Bristow’s take on Gift Songs outlines human connectedness to various places as opposed to a singular one, in which ‘place is configured by the foregrounding (17). The world is erlebt. What does it mean for the world to be erlebt n the Anthropocene, and by whom? Bristow moves on to outline the ‘Five Animals‘ in Burnside’s collection which all live in and experience the world in a different way to the human. Compared to Burnside’s previous collection The Light Trap, Gift Songs lacks the ‘desire in any of the four quartets [of Burnside’s collection] to communicate a deep connection with biological life’ (76). Burnside’s theology is rooted in the present and does not look to the future; it is this unconcern that links his work to the Anthropocene, according to Bristow (68).

Alice Oswald’s Sleepwalk on the Severn, featured alongside her previous collection Dart, is the third and last collection in The Anthropocene Lyric. The journey undertaken is perhaps felt the strongest in Oswald’s two works, and the voices that are collated such as: the walker, the naturalist, the fisherman, the canoeist, the swimmer, the oyster gatherers, the boatman, the ferryman, and many more who are in one way or another connected to the Dart take turns to tell their story, and their voices are coming together as if the river itself is speaking and ‘mapping a collated human experience’ (10). One of the interesting aspects of the book is the repeating pattern of the conclusions to each of the three chapters. The first conclusion to the discussion of Kinsella’s Jam Tree Gully, is a ‘salutary’ one to a ‘golden age fallen and irretrievable’ (45).  The second, concluding the discussion of Burnside’s Gift Songs, is ‘sanguine’, drawing upon Merleau-Ponty’s ‘momentary law of the Anthropocene lyric that entails a body in space’ (76). The third, wrapping up the discussion of Oswald’s Sleepwalk, is ‘provisional’, it being read by Bristow as ‘an incomplete dialogic interaction between human and estuary as a total sum of separate, dispersed and unfixed agencies’ (106).

The Anthropocene Lyric has the feel of a much longer book due to the fact that each passage is significant, with a fluent narrative even though the topics discussed are by no means lightweight. The term ‘Anthropocene’ has become common parlance in the Environmental Humanities and is not easily replaced by any other. It is a trigger for various kinds of related poetry: ecopoetry, radical landscape poetry, nature poetry etc. but there is an underlying sense that we are running out of time; this seems to weave its way through the altered landscapes featured in all three collections. Through a careful selection of writers and texts, The Anthropocene Lyric is a useful tool that can be used to explore the relationship between the human and more-than-human world within the context of the Anthropocene, where poetry has a firm foothold.

Veronica Fibisan, University of Sheffield


1 Tony Hughes d’Aeth, ‘The Fissured Future: John Kinsella’s Jam Tree Gully’, English Academy Review 31(2) 2014, pp 138-155.

2 John Kinsella, ‘Lichen Grows in the Moonlight’, Jam Tree Gully (New York & London: Norton 2012) p 51.

3 Ibid

4 John Kinsella, ‘Insomnia at Jam Tree Gully’, Jam Tree Gully (New York & London: Norton 2012) p151.