Level, unsentimental, and persistent: Nicole Rain Sellers reviews ‘Glide’ by Louise Crisp

Glide by Louise Crisp Puncher and Wattmann, 2021.

In this multi-layered collection, poet and activist Louise Crisp details threatened species in the East Gippsland region of Victoria, and in doing so addresses the global environmental crisis. With uncanny clarity, tree gliders, brolgas, and other local creatures draw us into a network of ecological losses. The titular gliders are our first lens on a poignant wake-up call: we, like them, cannot survive the Anthropocene, and our only hope of ending this era of extinction is to adapt our interaction with our ecosystems.

Nectar, honeydew, manna –
succession
becomes unreliable
Large gaps open
as the forest is felled
patchiness is exacerbated
Seasonal elements
entice the eucalypts
to flower
In response
the provocation blossoms
as months of hunger

 – ‘Patchiness’

Crisp weaves simple threads into a complex fabric, showing us the direct effects of a weakened environment on animal habitat, diet, and reproduction. The descriptive, neutral tone of her writing is perhaps its greatest strength, allowing readers to make their own conclusions, and to see the land’s beauty as well as its devastation.

Glide continues Crisp’s quest “to develop a radical ecopoetic form” and “enact an alternative inhabitation of the land.” (Yuiquimbiang, Cordite Books, 2019, Preface) Like its predecessor Yuiquimbiang, Glide features field-note-style poems, prose and visual forms, sampled historical texts, and meticulously researched endnotes. As Crisp documents the consequences of damming, logging, and farming, an unequivocal picture emerges. Throughout, juxtaposition of English, First Nation Gunaikurnai, botanical, and zoological language highlights their uneasy relationships. Crisp understates her own human presence in the landscape and reflectively presents it with images and questions:

A few low trees planted by the Red Gum Plains Recovery Project have survived the rabbits. I look down into a still pool. A white intermediate egret stalks the reeds. At the junction of Tom’s Creek and Emu Creek dark green trees of heaven have spread to the edge of the bank above a cumbungi waterhole. Further west over the curve of bare paddocks, two white headstones from colonial times catch the afternoon light. The sign at Emu Creek ford acknowledges Good Neighbours.

 – ‘VI. Tom’s Creek Reserve’

Among Australian ecopoetic voices, Crisp’s stands out as level, unsentimental, and persistent. Dedication to witnessing the historical and physical degradation of local environments characterises her work. Crisp’s poetry is “subjective, but without any ego-centrism” (Rachael Mead, 2016, The Sixth Creek (thesis), University of Adelaide), which sharpens the bite in its ironic flashes.

under dam waters Sphagnum cristatum and manifold springs along the
….creek bed

the dam leaks
down through rock,
another 7 million tonnes
to be dumped, vertigo
in

………….Lake St Barbara:
………….by her name
………….poisonous waters
………….are rendered innocuous¹

A prominent technique in Glide is shifting point of view. Crisp takes a single nonhuman subject (glider, brolga, creek, or wetland) and examines it from a specific angle (history, location, life cycle, or industry) in order to demonstrate, again and again, the unavoidable reality of ecological interdependence and the results of undermining the natural world. She avoids anthropomorphising her subjects by preferencing fact above emotion and switching with deft sensitivity between human and animal point of view so that interspecies voices mix, as they do in nature.

On the shore
of the lake
looking up
pterosaurs
but more gentle
such long legs

A slow spiralling into clouds
three Brolgas
flying so high
they would see
any green soak surfacing
in the brown expense of drought lands

An aerial map
of floating lagoons and marshes
now almost completely
erased by a scarified grid
of cropland road and farmland
living memory encounters as barren vacancy

The book is divided into five parts. The gliders of Part One are yellow-bellied, greater, sugar, feathertail, and squirrel, each with their own poems. Part Two is an innovative long-form poem on the plight of brolgas that samples historical diaries, newspapers, and Victorian Government texts. Part Three is a long, historical riff on the human habitation of the area, featuring cutting political insights on colonial damage. Part Four, Remnants, describes Crisp’s visits to particular local places. Part Five consists of comprehensive notes and sources that elucidate the poems.

Diverse native and non-native flora and fauna dot the pages of Glide: brumby, owl, possum, firefly, sheep, cow, boxwood, peppermint, saw banksia, apple box, black wattle, stringy bark. Some poems are concrete, some ekphrastic, and some respond to historical, industrial or government documents. Crisp’s masterful neutrality in narrating bleak subject matter alternates colonial-Indigenous and animal-industry violence with glimpses of hope. Many poems have powerfully contrasted endings, some beautiful, others grim:

On the northern boundary, three red gums look out over cleared land moving with kangaroos. At dusk the unspoken knowledge is the thump of a swamp wallaby hit by a car in the gully as it crosses the road to the only adjacent bush.

At first glance, Crisp’s informative style seems dry, but emotion runs like a spring in Glide’s underlying territory. Loose wording and lack of rhythm are occasional flaws in my opinion, but may reflect the practical emphasis on meaning. Toggling between poems and notes slows the reader down, but ecological prose poems require time to contemplate and understand. Glide rewards effort with a gentle invitation to know and act. While geographically specific, the book will educate and inspire widespread readers engaging with their own environment.

& in the absence of
nocturnal auditory
encounters
Does the paucity of
vernacular names
written in English
skin-to-skin
disavow
the arboreal fauna
that persist with us?

Perplexing problems are expressed as questions so that themes of sound, language, words, and story are raised without moralising. Reliance on, lack of, and longing for communication link all cultures: human, animal, and vegetal. Glide challenges settler land ownership, butting it up against more-than-human perspectives so that that we cannot “glide” on in blissful ignorance, complicit in further destruction. Crisp must hope that such truth-telling will hasten change, but she deposits us in the landscape and takes us no further. Where we choose to go next is up to us.

¹ Gibson’s Folly notes (pp. 90-91) reveal that after destroying “90% of the largest and most unique example of a rare montane swamp… the dam was re-named Lake St. Barbara, after the patron saint of miners. It is still leaking polluted water containing cadmium, copper and zinc.”

 – Nicole Rain Sellers

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Nicole Rain Sellers lives on Awabakal land near Newcastle, NSW. She co-authored the book Fossilised Lightning (Girls on Key Poetry, 2021, with Rebecca Trowbridge). Her writing appears in anthologies and journals and has been awarded or listed in several prizes. She is currently researching contemporary Australian eco-spiritual poetry at the University of Newcastle. www.nicolerainsellers.com

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Glide is available from https://puncherandwattmann.com/product/glide/

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