BOOK REVIEW: Jackie Wills’ A Friable Earth

A Friable Earth: Amazon.co.uk: Wills, Jackie: 9781911469940: Books

Jackie Wills’ beautiful ode to ageing womanhood is strangely relatable in a world smothered by Coronavirus

Originally Published by: Arc, 2019

Ageing womanhood is still a taboo in Western society. Frequently misrepresented and oftentimes ignored, the perspectives of women over 60 should be another bolt in the educational foundations of life.

As a woman in that demographic, legendary British poet Jackie Wills is succinctly placed to dictate the mental and physical realisations of that stage in life. But A Friable Earth casts its net wide, and like all the best poets, she teases those realities – sometimes beautiful, often excruciating – out of both big societal discussions and matters that seem pedestrian in comparison.

There’s also plenty here that’s relevant to many of our current realities. The places her mind wanders, the uncertainty about the future and constantly evolving approach to time are all easily accessible to those currently living in a lockdown. But almost all the poems here, whether they ooze quiet humour or real despondency, take Wills’ identity and transcend it to something that needs to be perceived.

The Natural World Can Help Us

There’s a hefty helping of ecological love in A Friable Earth. For example, in Watering she manages to encapsulate facets of love and missed opportunities via the outline of humanity’s relationship with nature:

‘the city’s staggered roofs house chicks who mew like cats, how earth sends back the sounds of rakes and spades, that you and me can blur somewhere in between’

In the staggering Road From the North she expertly uses spaciousness and contrasting language to reflect the beauty of nature, its relationship to humans, a deep spiritual connection with it and racial apartheid. Tortoise is an ode to looking for/finding purpose in the later stages of life. The obvious connotations of its title aside, this collection ultimately seeks recovery in the beauty of the natural world.

Are we more akin with Tortoises than we think? Image credit: Chris Parker Flickr.

Life Through an Experienced Lens

It being A Friable Earths default purview, there are essences of ageing on almost every page. Where they really stand out is when they’re used to highlight universal prejudices. In Glamour she wonders whether women who refuse to pluck their bodily hairs are the truly glamourous ones, taking a hammer to the Hollywood-affirmed definition of beauty.

Wandering womb is a beautiful discussion of womanhood’s purpose after having children, when shallow, misogynistic attitudes can no longer physically apply:

‘compared to a womb, which is now joined in its ambling by a kidney, eye, spleen, all of them nomads seeking relief from a 24-hour contract to remain in the same’

Vho Mjedzi – one of many poems where Wills conveys her South African experience – wonderfully explores the relatability of women across cultures, but also the ways in which femininity excels in those cultures – and they’re often ways that ours doesn’t.

South African & nature are almost constant muses for Wills. Image credit: Water Alternatives Photos

Pocket St. Anthony is an almost maudlin take on ageing, before Silver Inkwell counteracts it brilliantly, playing on the ‘you decide what to do with your time’ motif.

There are myriad other strains and resonances – revolving around death, racial prejudice and motherhood – that I’ve barely touched on here. But throughout A Friable Earth, Wills has a graceful nuance that whether in short or long-form verse, she executes with real beauty. It’s a touching and strangely relatable snapshot of a moment in life.

You can buy A Friable Earth here.

World Book History #4: Inside Voices, Outside Light

Image credit: Jen Flickr

Iceland is often perceived as one of the world’s most mysterious countries. Exposed in the far north, miles from any mainland, it’s sometimes depicted as a lonely, cut-off place, with harsh winters but one of the planet’s most breath-taking landscapes.

Yet, just like its fellow Scandinavian countries, it has an incredibly rich and historic literary culture. Sigurdur Palsson, whose repertoire includes plays, poetry and prose is one of Iceland’s most renowned exports. Inside Voices, Outside Light was translated by long-time collaborator Martin S. Regal and published in 2014 and features poems from almost 40 years of Palsson’s work.

There are a number of ways in which Palsson’s poetry can both reflect and educate humanity. Just like much Icelandic poetry, Palsson constantly references Icelanders’ deep relationship with land and the power of nature. It takes all of Iceland’s previously discussed idiosyncrasies – particularly its landscape and geographical nuance – and turns them into a beautiful component of national pride, one which is shared by pretty much all Icelanders.

As Regal writes in his forward for Inside Voices, Outside Light: ‘Even the most complex of Palsson’s images or meditations are outward looking, not products of a dramatized or analysed self; they are offerings to the reader rather than insights into the writer’s mind’. Palsson’s vivid and gorgeous vision works in tandem with the wider implications of global warming. The systematic protection and upkeep we, as humans, need to devote to the planet is absolutely our responsibility – and we’ve been neglecting it.  

This has been part of the very fibre of his work right from the earliest collections. In ‘Nocturne for Saturn’ (1980) the title planet is depicted as a ghostly, wraith-like presence full of ‘blonde tears’ and silence; not worlds away from the potential future of Earth in 2019. By contrast, the final contribution, ‘By River and Ocean’ (2012), draws on Greek mythology and tracks the beauty and growth of Earth through the millenia, indulging in mankind’s consistent misunderstanding of nature.

But there are also lessons in how to emphasise the power of natural beauty in writing. ‘Plywood’ (one of the poems Palsson specifically asked Regal to translate) references the ‘nature vs industrialism’ debate that has been engulfing Iceland for decades. Ultimately though, it asserts that Iceland owes all its beauty, pliability and growth to both the elements and mankind working in conjunction.

Image credit: Chris Yunker flickr

In ‘The Art of Poetry’ he suggests that his writing is entirely dictated by the actions and patterns of snow blizzards, and in ‘The Black Land’ he asserts that without its freezing backdrops and icy/snowy measures Iceland feels like a paralysed, alien world. The dense winter snows make vast swathes of the country impassable, but in Palsson’s view they open up the potential for real, raw beauty.

Inside Voices, Outside Light doesn’t preach – in fact, it seems as though social consciousness was never at the top of Palsson’s writing agenda. But his connection with nature, so clearly persistent here, should be a point of inspiration.

In Part three of ‘Poem Energy Need’ (2009), he writes that we are ‘throwing stones from glass houses, or glass from stone houses, depends on the mood’. We, as humans, have a duty to save the planet. In 2019, it is only us that can do so, and only us that can condemn it to death. Inside Voices, Outside Light presents the message we should have been aware of all along.

If you want to explore more of Palsson’s intoxicating relationship with nature, then pick up a copy of Inside Voices, Outside Light today.