Watching news stories about environmental catastrophe, I feel something like anger, panic, despair, and underneath that something terrible and unfamiliar that leads me to silence. Naming that feeling – that is, finding an emotional vocabulary for what we are witnesses to – may become the dominant preoccupation of poetry in the coming years. Julian Bishop’s collection We Saw It All Happen is a step towards that emotional vocabulary.
Through verse rooted in the natural world, Bishop’s poetry embraces the global and the tiny, the present and the absent. His scope is vast: agriculture, climate, ethics, extinction, plastics, pollution, technology, waste. At times, Bishop’s feelings are drawn delicately in verse that is alive with sardonic humour, lamenting with the world’s insects for his own ‘addiction to squish, for its satisfying / half-rhyme with delicious.’ Elsewhere, his frustration subverts the poetic form in the same way anger chokes our ability to talk, raging on a ‘gob of atoll / slice of paradise / diced / into scum and phlegm / coughed up by firestorm / froth of surge / churned to a fury.’ At the heart of this frustration are the human behaviours that in some ways may live at the heart of our emotional confusion. With pithy clarity, he relates that ‘to protect the world from a threatened cat / the marksman only took one shot / to protect the threatened cat from the world / we only had one shot.’
But as Bishop declares from his preface, his intent is not fatalist. Rather, it is a cry for change. This is the call that prevents our currents of contradictory emotion from lowering us into paralysis. We may find that in expressing these contradictions, as Bishop achieves in We Saw It All Happen, we create a structure of feeling wherein those emotions no longer silence us, but call us to speak.
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