Book review: The grain of language

Callie Gardner, Naturally, It Is Not: A Poem in Four Letters, The 87 Press, £10, ISBN 9781916477421
Nat Raha on a queer, experimental ecopoetics

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Based in Glasgow, Callie Gardner is a poet, critic and the editor of the vital small press Zarf editions and magazine. As a poet, they balance linguistic flourish with critical aptitude. Their writing emerges in the context of the UK’s vibrant innovative poetics, combining a studious passion for experimental poet-critics such as Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Carla Harryman, with the articulations of contemporary queer life by writers such as Eileen Myles and Maggie Nelson. Naturally, It Is Not – Gardner’s first book, itself a book-length poem – roots critical and poetic thought from Plato to Roland Barthes, Emily Dickinson to contemporary writers, while playfully bounding off them.

Naturally, It Is Not is one of the first titles to appear from the 87 Press, an independent press based in South London and run by poets Azad Ashim Sharma and Kashif Sharma-Patel. Publishing across poetry, fiction and non-fiction in print and online, the 87 Press has thus far produced half a dozen books of innovative poetry and fiction, many of them debuts and mostly by LGBTQ writers and/or writers of colour.

In the period of history that has named itself the Anthropocene, the news on the state of the planet reads as an unrelenting lament. Our planet’s ecology has been violently altered over five centuries by colonialist, capitalist expropriation and exploitation of land, people, vital resources and rampant industrialisation. This understanding of the world – of a racial capitalocene – makes a strong demand on poetry: poetics can no longer attend without reflexivity to the natural world. Gardner’s book refuses to present nature as primordial and as opposite to culture. Instead, Gardner unfolds a fresh, queer writing of these supposed opposites in lush, verdant poetry that remains attentive to the management of this division.

To pursue the unnatural and dethrone what seems natural opens up possibilities of other perspectives and new orientations to a world otherwise overdetermined by data. Naturally, It Is Not provides new sights and insights, sensations and expressions, senses of embodiment and gender that are avowedly in service of utopia. It is a book that makes the grain of language visible through experimentation and play, and grows towards a different linguistic ecology:

and dreamers work in the multifarious paisley of
night skies, retaining walls against light drying up
                                                                 [17]

A long poem in four letters, Gardner’s book follows the cycle of the seasons, shifting form and shape at each equinox. While this formal structure might play into nature’s structuring, it has a profoundly defamiliarising effect on the reader. For instance, the ‘summerletter’ adopts a constraint of 100-word pages of constructed observations, political and economic encounters, and reflections on language and embodied life. The prose poems of the ‘autumnletter’ often read like sonnets spinning parataxis, rhyme and a humorous deprecation of social scenarios into diaristic and desirous scenes. The epistolary character of the text emerges substantively, at times through self-reflection or intimacy:

even in this bliss-kept,
white-scarfed, hottening endless summer of the letter
whose brush-stroke is found not in the shape or face
but in the movement of the ink-dark,
link-stark, minch-ark sea
                                                                [74]

Italicised citations of other poets and critical theory become aspects of meditations on writing, art, being and desire: for instance, two lines of Sappho give rise to a political vision beyond isolating love:

in sapphonic margins –
would the poet, had she never
read these words – mother i cannot spin
for longing for this one – be less in love?
i can’t spin either.
a studious summary:
let the looms be smashed;
sabotage server farms
crowd out the lonely valleys
                                                                [126]

Gardner’s envisioning of the ‘unnatural’ emerges through mixing a distinctly Scottish dialect for the landscape (“some corries hold snow all years – / and are here with seeded crevices / disbursing toward scree”) with moments of permutation and variance of the natural sciences (“dunes are made in a process of systematic wind / watching hot hills come in from the cold” [69]). Attending to entomological life and cellular processes, while in pursuit of primordial beauty informed by the science fiction novels of Kim Stanley Robinson, the poet unveils specular processes of devolution (to be held up against political discontent). From this imaginary, place becomes an element of play in the decline of seasons,

let glasgow compost: a chance for this black swan or
falling star to return to the earth as wormwood
wormfood. this is no diss; I want to be here til the
last days, getting eaten by the maggots with the best
of us.
                                                                [81]

When addressing the alienation of urban life (“summer in the country / (which is made) / is a commodity / so summer in the city is all that’s left”) and its “violence of simple things”, the poet remains steadfast to creativity and to cultural production that is meaningful. The pursuit of meaningful cultural production detours through Brexit Britain (“missing leaves between covers have been unstuck / to give ideas more false than ever”), hilariously uninteresting poetry readings and writing exercises steeped in caffeine and unengaging movies. Besides urban life, queerness provides another means to challenge the ‘natural’ cycles of renewal, experienced as deviations against the grain of given temporalities. The consciousness of one’s own deviations in time and space emerge into textual pleasure; written through a defamiliarised strangeness of embodiment, also known as genderqueerness: “with language the inn of body // lettering gushing against wise-skin”.

Throughout, this writing is delectable and quietly intimate. The distance between the poet’s eye, ear, tongue, brain and pen is such that the lines and sentences reach the reader surrounded by silence. Intimacy is, however, not the same as directness – it is the careful construction of certain lines, and the music carried within syllables, that brings the reader closer to the poet:

we were larval once
but without exchanging a cell
somewhere in this circumnavigation we became
in the creaking ancient timbers of shipped steel
just worms
                                                                [61]

Naturally, It Is Not is a deeply pleasurable work. It invites the reader to follow the poet to encounters at the peripheries of an undivided rural-urban, between the phantasmatic and concrete, and to attend to ecosystems of linguistic fancy. If our forms of life from the human to the cellular have been shaped, contained and truncated by racial capitalism, this book illuminates senses of being that expand poetry’s necessity for the lives we have and will live.

Nat Raha is a poet, activist and scholar living in Edinburgh. Her third book of poetry is of sirens, body & faultlines (Boiler House Press, 2018). This review was first published in The Poetry Review, 110:1, Spring 2020. © The Poetry Review and the author.