Thaw, Charles Bennett

Fair Acre Press, 2018     £5.99

Implicated in nature

Climate change and green politics have made Romantic environmental writing seem incredibly outdated. 

In the old days, a succession of artists and poets drew an impasse between humans and practically everything else. Nature writing almost invariably imagined man cowed by natural wonder, or indeed, natural wonder overcome by man. 

Today, we feel we live in concert with the environment rather than separate, and this intriguing collection of poems by Charles Bennett is mindful of this. Bennett’s personae are entwined in the landscape, but are by no means dominant. Instead, Thaw is focused on untidy exchanges across porous boundaries. In ‘Water Avens,’ the scent of a flower lingers in a gardener’s cuts. Elsewhere, an insect is engulfed by a sweet-tasting plant in ‘Death of a wasp.’ 

At its core, Thaw is an argument on how to write about nature. Bennett distances himself from voyeuristic landscape writing and places onus on material encounters with the environment instead.

The key point here is that we are implicated in natural systems, and that our engagement with them has persistent and transformative effect. The first lines of ‘Man Rescued from Sinking Iceberg’ enact this:

Out of the frost-heave waves,
out of the freeze-marrow sea brimful,
with flotsam in bobbing archipelagos,
they pluck me sodden with shivers.

Here, Bennett resists shifting his language at the point of rescue, instead allowing wet and cold words — ‘sodden’, ‘shivers’ — to linger stubbornly. This jarring protraction, coupled with the use of the passive voice, deprives the human actors of agency, suggesting that the encounter with nature persists in physical sensation and memory. Though the setting is cinematic, Bennett’s point is tactile. The poet is implicated in nature, and any attempt to write about it must parse this messy relationship.

So far as form is concerned, Thaw plays it pretty safe, and Bennett’s sometimes ostentatious style might make his nature writing seem derivative to some readers. However, within these structures is a fluid and playful work that explores our role in nature in curious ways. I enjoyed the material sensibilities of this collection and the green, interdependent worldview it hinted at.

Matthew Hacke