‘Natural Histories’ by Emily Hasler
-Reviewed by Charles Whalley–
Emily Hasler’s Natural Histories is ‘No. 9’ in the rather special Salt Modern Voices pamphlet series. (You can read the first five poems, including ‘Lubbock’s Box’ and ‘Maldives’, here.) Whilst the subject matter of much of the pamphlet is familiar ground – poets like birds – which, I confess, made the ‘Contents’ page disheartening on first approach, the eighteen tightly formed poems within show the work of a subtle and talented writer, and are striking above all for their art. Hasler’s technical abilities, in the simple process of putting together a poem, are beyond many of her peers.
Natural Histories is full of memorable lines and phrases. For example, from ‘Familiar Things’, when talking of a road in the rain: “The tarmac looks like wet paint on a child’s picture.” Or from ‘The Safe Harbour’, when Bonnie Prince Charlie is awoken: “For a moment he is forgotten / and then he finds his feet, where he had / neglected to take them off, in his haste.” Besides their sound and imagery, much of this memorable quality comes from Hasler’s unerring and judicious word choice, such as in ‘Belle Isle’, when flying finches are described as “flippant between sky and foliage”. In being applied to the darting flight of small birds, ‘flippant’ is pushed towards its original, obsolete sense of ‘nimble’ – the OED appropriately gives its first usage as “It is a bird of the flippantst wing” – which suggests the almost onomatopoeic joy of ‘flip’, whilst retaining its modern colouring. The phrase “miscellaneous cells” from ‘The Safe Harbour’, which describes the detritus in a well-used bed, is another example of cunning word choice, as to see “cell” buried inside “miscellaneous” is to become aware of the letters to be shed around it. The more one reads these poems, the more of these clever little touches one finds.
Hasler is also sufficiently attuned to the subtlety of sentence structure to exploit it to say more than one thing at once. In ‘Lubbock’s Box’, for instance, the speaker says of the “bird specimens”: “There’s / not enough space for them all, / in a cabinet, in Kent.” Adding “in Kent” to the end of the sentence opens up the meaning, as it gives two potential readings: (1) ‘There’s not enough space for them all in a cabinet which happens to be in Kent’; (2) ‘There’s not enough space for them all in a cabinet, and there’s not even enough space for them all in Kent’. The first reading is to see the two clauses in series, as the second is to see them in parallel. The ambiguity causes the meaning to sit somewhere between these two extremes, and condenses a lot of ideas. This sort of artful efficiency finds its peak in what, for me, is the best poem of the pamphlet, ‘Maldives’:
‘It was there you first had Bacardi,
and now it takes you back.
That first sip is the sun on your face.
The last is your foot in the road; unsteady.
The rains brought the toads.
They must have always been there,
but now they made your path
a creaking, slippery bone-mash.
Big Kev hated that, his weight being
an inglorious, crunching death to toads.
One day he painted each amphibian
white, so they showed in the dark.
A kindness. Unable to bear, like the little
glinting bodies, the knowledge drawn from
the sole of the shoe, foot, and its
connected parts’ cumulative pressure.
The lacquer, or something in it, killed them.
They littered the street like crumpled tissues.
No crunch. As though their clockwork
had wound down, they stayed stopped.’
It is not enough for a poem to display scattered cleverness, as some of the weaker poems of Natural Histories rely on. ‘Maldives’ is threaded together as part of a single structure, with the climax in the fourth stanza. The simplicity of the poem lures the reader into the ambiguities of these four lines, unexpectedly opening up various interpretations (and giving a glimpse of submerged mass). Is it the painting of the frogs that is a “kindness”? Is it the kindness that is “[u]nable to bear”? Who is unable to bear this kindness? Is it the speaker, meaning that it is irresistibly affecting, because the act is both unexpectedly tender and child-like for someone called “Big Kev”, but also strangely tragic, as it involves the death of all the frogs? The next clause, “like the little / glinting bodies”, suggests the surreal and vulnerable sight of the white frogs. Is the kindness unable to bear for the frogs, because the paint kills them? “Unable to bear” also suggests being crushed, as the stanza works the phrases’ literal or metaphorical ambivalence, so is the “kindness” referring to frogs being trod on, or at least, since painting also results in the frogs’ death, is the painting being equated with being trod on? What is “the knowledge drawn from / the sole of the shoe”? Is that what is unable to bear, and for whom? When one treads on something that one very strongly doesn’t want to crush, one tries quickly and awkwardly to take the weight onto the other foot, and so, like the “unsteady” drinker, the leg which held the “connected parts’ cumulative pressure” is suddenly unable to bear one’s body (like staggering after treading on an upturned plug); is the knowledge (if it is knowledge of having trodden on a frog), then, literally unable to bear for the speaker? and so the ambiguities in this stanza continue, involving all of the poem’s threads to form its emotional nexus.
Hopefully (although it has possibly been rather dull for some readers for me to get here) it should be clear that Hasler is a remarkably skilful and incisive poet, able to produce vibrant and powerful poems out of deceptively simple parts, which is an achievement only made possible by her attention to subtle, finely-crafted detail. It is an impressive debut pamphlet and an introduction to a very gifted poet.
Emily Hasler has been featured on Michelle McGrane’s Peony Moon. There are five poems by Emily, including ‘The Paragliders’ from natural histories, on the Days of Roses blog. The poem ‘Wet Season’ for which she came second in the Edwin Morgan Poetry Competition in 2009 can be read here. & here, finally, is a video of her reading two poems about herbs.