Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit
Wildlife of Berlin is Philip Neilsen’s sixth collection of poetry and his veteran experience shows in these superbly-crafted poems about the human / animal interface. Ecopoetics can tend towards the didactic, the maudlin, or the elegiac in response to what seems a dire future. Neilsen’s poems, however, offer redemptive hope for humankind if only we act on the knowledge that our destiny is inextricably bound together with nature’s fate.
In an extended sequence of poems about birds, Neilsen seems to accept that the human gaze is ineluctable so the poems are necessarily, and unapologetically, anthropomorphic. As these poems appear to be intended to convince rather than alienate the reader, it makes sense for Neilsen to adopt a human perspective. He does, however, remind us that the feathered dinosaurs of his verse pre-existed humankind and surely will outlive us. These are readerly poems, the anthropomorphisms seemingly designed to compel readers to examine their own behaviour and attitudes.
In “Crow,” for example, the descriptions of the birds at first could also fit people but then they quickly become exclusively about the human – a certain type of person who might be considered crow-like in their demeanour. Thus, the poem begins: “Crows are clever. / They use sticks as tools, / speak non-idiomatic French, / Start but do not finish cryptic crosswords” (30). Wryly humorous observations such as “Crows were the first to wear black to book launches, / to peck at wine while avoiding a rival” give way to an insidious tone, as the speaker warns us that “A crow is watching you now” and “Here comes the pain, so bite on it, / the crow in your veins. / You’re not going anywhere alone” (30). If we see ourselves in these poems, it is not a comfortable recognition.
Likewise, in “Noisy Miner,” we are confronted with a vision of ourselves as the “Anthropocentric miner” with “vulgar manners” who “always insists on the right of way” (38). Here, Neilsen puns on the idea of the right of way when driving and the conceited notion that we are always right: a mindset of “it’s my way or the highway.” Of the miner bird, the poet says, “Colonisation is its pulse.” Human civilisation has mined the landscape ruthlessly for materials (a pun on “myna bird” and “miner”) and, as well as colonising other countries, we have invaded natural habitats. The noisy miner “trusts in belligerence to bully death” but, as we know, death cannot be bullied. Nevertheless, in our vanity we persist in our delusion that the death of our species is not inevitable.
While poems such as “Crow” and “Noisy Miner” make the avian human, “Snowy Owl” grounds the omniscience of the Christian God firmly in nature, reminding us of how we have shirked our duties as stewards of creation. The opening lines, “You know everything / White face of the world” (31), at once refer to the superior vision of the snowy owl in flight and the white western world’s intellectual superiority complex which has led to so much environmental destruction. “You think you know everything but where is your God in that?” the bird might cock its head to inquire.
The absence of the Christian God is felt further in “Auspices,” a splendid poem containing such wonderful metaphors as “a voltage of stars” and “try to knit patterns of escape” (32). In Ancient Rome, the speaker reminds us, “bird-diviners” predicted the future accurately but now when we look to the sky, we only “glance up as heaven slips away.” Indeed, everything seems to be slipping from our grasp; all of the old certainties crumble and fall into the ocean like giant slabs of icebergs. But what can poetry do about the destruction that we continue to wreak?
Neilsen echoes W.H. Auden’s famous line “Poetry makes nothing happen” when he writes, in “Butcherbird,” “I am one flight ahead of the thought / that music without applause / solves nothing at all / yet in the end is everything” (33). Music, poetry, literature… these art forms make nothing happen, solve nothing, but in the end they are our consolations even if they remain unacknowledged or “without applause.” It seems to be Neilsen’s fervent wish that his poetry willmake something happen. And perhaps it can. From little things, big things grow so that even the smallest shift in perspective can make a difference to our treatment of the natural environment.
Wildlife of Berlin contains a wider variety of verse than this review might suggest. There are highly-accomplished confessional poems and astutely-observed character studies in these pages, each of which shows a deft handling of tone and mood, but which I have not had the space to discuss. Nevertheless, the sequence of poems about birds represents one important facet of the collection as a whole: Neilsen’s concern that the connection between the human and the animal is much closer than we might pretend. Like the butcherbird, this collection sings. Unlike the butcherbird, it does not steal its song from others. Wildlife of Berlinis that truly unusual spectacle to behold: a highly-original work. Each poem sings its own tune so that somehow cacophony is avoided and harmony is reached. Neilsen’s poetry is mesmerising, beautiful, and urgent: speaking, as it must, to the now.