Of earth, water, air and fire, Nicholas Murray

The Melos Press, 2019     £5.00

The transience of beauty

These deceptively simple poems celebrate the world’s wildlife. They use lively images which burst with wit, sharp observation and nods to folklore and other belief systems.

These qualities are balanced by the narrator’s awareness of life’s brevity. As reflected in the pamphlet title, elemental forces are at work and every creature is vulnerable. Many of these energised — and sometimes not entirely flattering — poems end darkly. ‘Kingfisher’ cites the river Styx: ‘The tourist boat’, it says, ‘glides softly on the Styx’. ‘Lambs’ hints at the newborn’s limited life span:

deceiving sun
soon making way for cold
as the flame leaps in the grate.

The wonder of the ‘Orang-Utan’ is admired through cage bars. One of our closest relative, its eyes ‘plead’ as might ours in the same situation. I immediately sensed the push-pull of survival against outside influences.

‘Vole’ is a quirky piece, the creature twitching, ‘fine whiskers pricked’, a tasty meal for the first predator to hunt it down, this time, an owl. 

The pieces continue in the same vein: celebration of a range of living things, promptly followed by a remembrance of mortality through accident, design or natural selection. For example, in ‘Bear’ the captive is chained: ‘Someone must suffer: let it be the bear.’

There are observations on ancient creatures too. ‘Tortoises’ move along the Athenian ‘ancient way’: ‘A wrinkled neck peeps out / from armour plating’. ‘Eel’ contemplates the instinct to reach the Sargasso Sea as

the call of reproduction
(with concomitant dying) starts

‘Ibis’, ‘the eater of snakes in the old beast-books’, is a dark poem about how humans view the bird as a ‘diner on flesh.’

The pamphlet is unsentimental, wry and surprising in its powerful vocabulary on the beauty of mortality.

Maggie Mackay