Leaf by Anne Elvey, Liquid Amber Press, 2022
Opening his chapter titled ‘In the Key of green’ in The Language of Plants: Science, Philosophy, Literature (2017),1 John Charles Ryan reaches back to Sampson Reed’s Observations on the Growth of the Mind (1826), for a passage that seems more pressing now, than ever:
Everything which is, whether animal or vegetable, is full of the expression of that use for which it is designed, … Let [us] respect the smallest blade which grows, and permit it to speak for itself. Then may there be poetry, which may not be written perhaps, but which may be felt as a part of our being.
Anne Elvey’s latest volume of poetry, Leaf, pulses with such respect, and enacts a material poetics that both spotlights and seeks to dialogue with vegetal language. It is a collection that offers up striking images and formal play on first pass and continues to reward more deeply on re-reading.
Leaf is Elvey’s sixth full length poetry collection and takes seriously John Charles Ryan’s provocation ‘how might we imagine plants?’, for it is this work of empathic imagining, and decentring of the human, that will offer us any chance of a future in the current age of species collapse and climate catastrophe.
There is impactful and varied use of white space across the collection—both in the more experimental poems and within traditional forms—materialising vegetal presence, absence, questions of grief and attention. This, in addition to the attentive sonics throughout serves what is perhaps the primary goal of the collection:
saying what can only be
said in leaf
In 5 sections, the sequencing across the collection is well balanced, moving the reader artfully through a range of approaches to affective relation with the vegetal world. From leaf-human interactions, to vegetal losses, to a central section consisting of a sequence of poems about Banksias local to the poet which traverses a range of approaches to form—from the sonnet to the villanelle, to more experimental concrete poems, performative of entropy. The specificity of this section, and the local focus, with each poem naming a species of Banksia or other native coastal flora, keeps the collection grounded in the realities of the watershed, with the eye attuned to diversity and its shadow—the particulars of loss we are facing if we do not pay attention.
In section 4 we shift into the most overtly elegiac section of the book to poems that consider the pandemic in the context of climate change, and the enduring traumas of colonisation. It is in these poems, placed so deliberately just past the fulcrum of the collection that the work provides its deepest synthesis. In a world in which we all understand loss a little more, what might we broaden that understanding to encompass? ‘Regeneration’, for example serves to spotlight the vulnerability of us all— human, non-human—‘bark thin and brittle’ (43), jostling together and suffering our multitudinous losses. In this way the collection reimagines grief in the pandemic Anthropocene. The well titled ‘The world you thought you knew’ opens:
Grieve. How it begins in this cool
Carriage of lumber….
The use of couplets in this poem and many others throughout the collection is a moving reminder of our dyadic entanglement with the non-human world. A relationship also brought sharply into focus in the concrete poem ‘Artefact’, about an old wooden dining table bearing the scars of domestic family life:
our lives …..…..tattooed in the flesh
…..of trees …..long dead
Section 5 draws the themes of the collection together with a sequence of ecopoems unafraid to direct the gaze at the issues at the heart of the collection, a reminder ‘not to spoil the well’, and a decentring of the human. Asking, as in the final poem ‘This glint’:
……………..it takes in the
to be a visitor …..who is carefully …..at leaf
Many of these poems work to shift from ‘interpretation’—our constant human parsing of the non-human world—to presencing; perhaps toward what Rilke called ‘inseeing’, as leaf and branch come in to focus in their ‘leafness’.
There is a fitting tactility to the whole volume. The B5 format and bright white pages with a slight lustre keep materiality at the forefront of the mind while reading and make the most of the illustrations woven throughout. In addition to illustrated section dividers, each section opens with a sequence of visual poems comprised of sketches of various leaf shapes bordered by poetic fragments and observations from Elvey’s notes on their nomenclature. These sequences perform the material poetics of ‘leaf’; the abundance of shapes that are both form and function in the plant world. The sheer variety of leaf shapes that stitch this volume together is itself an insistent whispering across the human-non-human divide. I found myself marvelling (anew) at the diversity and profound meaning to be found the shapes of leaves. That is, in their own material language. Each visual poem also has a title that names or labels each shape in the scientific discourse of botany—‘Lanceolate’, ‘Linear’, ‘Labed’, ‘Orbicula’, ‘Reniform’, ‘Rhomboid’—reminding us of the roots of human language in the biological. This approach to polyphony—a diversity of voices that might be representative of a complex ecosystem—is representative of what Skinner called a Tropological approach to ecopoetics and I found the jostling of languages in these sequences both moving and powerful.
Though we might expect no less from the founding editor of Australia’s foremost journal of ecopoetics, what struck me was the affective texture of this work and the well-pitched emotional arc of the collection as a whole. These sensitively attuned poems both transform and transcend their theoretical provocation to arrive at a deeply felt poetics of the more-than-human world.
1 Edited by Monica Gagliano, et al., University of Minnesota Press.
– Willo Drummond
Dr Willo Drummond is a Sydney poet, researcher, sessional lecturer and supervisor in creative writing. With interests spanning the ecological and cognitive humanities, she writes about creativity, human and non-human animals, gender, disenfranchised grief, and the fragile landscapes of identity. She has been the recipient of a Career Development Grant (poetry) from the Australia Council for the Arts (2020), shortlisted for the Val Vallis Award (2022) and runner up in the Tom Collins Poetry Prize (2021). Her doctoral research in creative writing (2019) was awarded a Vice Chancellor’s Commendation for Academic Excellence. Previously an executive committee member for the Australasian Association of Writing Programs, Willo’s critical writing is published in Text, Axon, Mascara Literary Review, and Plumwood Mountain Journal of Ecopoetry and Ecopoetics. She teaches creative writing at Macquarie University and her debut poetry collection Moon Wrasse, is out now with Puncher & Wattmann.
Leaf is available from https://liquidamberpress.com.au/shop/