Tuesday 5 September 2023

Review by Colin Dardis of "Sensitive to Temperature" by Serena Alagappan

Sensitive to Temperature is one of the latest releases from New Poets List, an imprint of The Poetry Business which fosters new poetry by writers between the ages of 17 and 24. Within, Alagappan finds correlations between our landscapes and ourselves, using the fragility of both the human body and human relationships to highlight environmental concerns. We see wind erosion as a stand-in for human contact ("will you make time for me? || the steep lee of those aeolian landforms") and a skyscape reimagined as part of the digestive, respiratory and circulatory systems:

           expels birds like a throat swallows stones,
           like a stomach stills a swarm of butterflies.
           The sky wheezes with its wind, loses its
           breath, belches thunder, hearts beats shocks
           of electricity

The imagery and metaphors go beyond mere anthropomorphism, to suggest that really humanity and earth need to be thought of as one. In "Aurora," a laceration and the resulting blood flow is compared to a sunrise ("a gash in the sky"). "White Bows" transforms wind turbines into "waving hands ... white bows in cerulean hair." "The Body Keeps the Score" compels the reader to "Stick a fist in the || earth and find dust on your palms." Just as a landscape leaves an impression on the mind, and exploring it takes a physical toil on the body, humanity leaves indelible impressions on the earth too. All these juxtapositions and parallels help remind us that we are undivorcable from the world, that one is dependent on the other.

We are, however, reminded that life persists: "how after nuclear disaster, mushrooms grow on reactor walls" ("After the Mushroom at the End of the World"). The poem goes on to tell us of "a kind of love" that is "unequal between two parties," guiltily condemning us for being guilty perhaps of not loving the world enough. We also have the idea of a mushroom cloud like air waltzing with "open legs and a rising skirt." Alagapan peppers the poems with these delightful curios of contrast: how a grab machine full of prizes can be "like Christmas morning,"  the source of the River Thames as "a mountain crush into liquid matter" or a tornado "tastes cars then hurls them back," reminiscent of the sky belching thunder from earlier.

Elsewhere, we are met with Alagappan's reverence for the world: "Holy" lists instances of awe-inspiring natural occurrences, from the growth of a potato to a volcano, balancing the tricky dual reality of nature as destroyer as well as creator. We find intertextuality in the use of negative space in architecture ("Nostalgia Architects") and the space in an empty lunch box ("Tiffin"), but also in the in the space between humanity and God in "Red Moon," addressed in an ill-fitting metaphor of a hand across the eyes. The poem speaks of "your pain" and "when your heart | broke," odd abstracts that stand out against a collection that is usual exact and original in its language.

As with any eco-poems, or indeed any poems with a strong message, the danger is that the poetry with take second place behind the arguments. However, there is plenty on offer here to assure us that Alagappan is a thoughtful and skilled poet, never slipping into diatribe or grandstanding, and conjuring up original situations and contexts in which to explore her intentions.

About the Reviewer
Colin Dardis is a neurodivergent writer, editor and sound artist from Northern Ireland. His most recent book is What We Look Like in the Future (Red Wolf Editions, 2023). His work, largely influenced by his experiences with depression and Asperger's, has been published widely throughout Ireland, the UK and USA. 

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