Yvonne Reddick

ISBN 978-1-78037-645-5  Bloodaxe  £10.99

reviewed by Alan Dent

Thirty-seven poems, mostly left-justified and in stanzas, no rhyme or strict form. 

The back cover blurb says Reddick’s understanding of climate change is “uniquely personal”. Her father worked in the oil industry and several members of her family worked with fossil fuels. The book is touted as being about climate change. David Morely says the poems are “calls to action”. If so, the calls are pretty muted.  

The Flower That Breaks Rocks is about saxifrage and taking to the hills with her dad and sibling(s). The flower’s name, from the Latin, means rock-breaker, hence: 

Dainty Alpinist, chinking her roots into fissures
And fractures, like crampons in toe-holds.

The name probably derives from the plant’s medicinal use in the treatment of bladder or kidney stones. It doesn’t break rock on hillsides. The end of the poem evokes the plant’s need to grow higher up the mountains “until all that remains for them is cloud”. A reference to warming, sure enough, but hardly anything angry or serious enough to impel people to take on the corporate oil industry. Climate change is a political issue. What drives it is the corporate pursuit of profit. From their point of view, what they do is rational. Climate change is what they sweetly call an “externality”. The politics of climate change, the simple fact that if we are to avoid disaster, we will have to wrench control of the economy from the hands of a tiny minority who are concerned only with short-term gain, is absent from this book. Take a look at the Wall St Journal which for years denied global warming. It’s hard to imagine its editors or owners would be even marginally troubled by Reddick’s collection. Indeed, they might welcome her Wordsworthian slant on nature and her refusal to call out the guilty.  

There’s much reference to the natural world here. In the first few poems the lexis gives us: pines, logs, forest, moor, bracken, blaeberry, ants, moth, heath, hillside, heather, wind, spring, riverside, bloom, North Star, roots,  pearlworts, cloud. Interestingly, there’s a fair amount of urban vocabulary too, because the book is heavily about her dad so there’s wellheads, fire-trenches, planes. oil-well, blowout, petroleum, rig, fuel lines, jet-lagged, engine, gasoline refinery. It’s clear, however, Reddick isn’t an urban writer. She sites herself in nature. Were it not for her dad’s employment, it’s likely there’d be little reference to the urban. She belongs to the No Tarmac School (though there is one mention of the black stuff). 

Her dad died in a hiking accident and the poems are substantially about that loss. Grief is a common experience, but there’s a slight sense of intruding on something personal, or perhaps that the grief is a little too advertised. In Oils, which draws on the first Gulf War  but has nothing to say about how on 1st August Saddam was a US ally and on 2nd a bitter enemy, ends “And I can’t write any more. Don’t ask me to write more.” But she does. There are ten or so more poems about, or which refer to, her father including the  title poem, a vision or dream of her father six years dead, raking the autumn leaves and burning them, as he too is finally burnt:  

I try to throw my arms round his neck.
Three times, I’m hugged by smoke. 

The conceit works and the poem is carefully constructed but it’s a little too pat: “Dad called from the Emirates”, “Dad standing under the conker tree”, “Dad clipping Oleanders”. As with Heaney’s Mid-Term Break, it’s hard to criticise a poem which is so rooted in personal tragedy, but the foot for every year of that piece is questionable. A little too close to manipulating the reader. Something similar could be levelled at the collection itself, the slightly uncomfortable feeling that it plays too readily with grief and tragedy for artistic effect.  

Imagines was commissioned by Duffy for an anthology about the disappearance of insects. There’s an online video of Reddick reading in Manchester (where she lives). She speaks to “David” in the audience who she describes as a “superstar” as he too was selected by the Dame of Didsbury. What have “superstars”to do with poetry? Most poets live and die in obscurity. “Superstars” belong to pop culture, which is part of the propaganda system: distraction and titillation to keep the masses ignorant. Also, if he is a “superstar” for having been selected, isn’t she? Reddick works at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston and used to be involved with the local poets, Terry Quinn and The Damson bunch. It’s customary, of course, for poets to kick away the small press ladder which got them climbing once they start to slide up the poetic greasy pole. Back in the 1980s there was a group in Preston known as the Black Horse Poets. Jim Burns was of their number and was described at the time by the lad who later became Henry Normal as a “superstar of the small presses.”  Medium-sized stars will become red giants It’s the lesser ones that burn for trillions of years.  

The poem is about eclosion, hatching but it has intrusions from the Gulf War, which are the points at which it becomes more interesting: 

North of the border, the local dictator unleashed
Nerve-gas trialled on insects.. 

Nature poetry is always about our relation to nature, which makes it about ourselves. That’s as true of eco-poetry, which is nature poetry with an edge of understanding about the deep trouble we are in, as it was of John Clare. As a species, nothing interests us as much as ourselves, hence when this poem starts to speak of a dictator, Nighthawks and Tornados, its intensity rises. Reddick doesn’t want to follow where this points. 

She appears to have a liking for fire. There are consecutive poems about arson: Firesetter and Kindling. In both, fire is used as an act of revenge. They sit a little proud as most of the poems blend author and poetic persona, but, presumably, Reddick hasn’t set fire to houses with people inside: 

You left me a two-word note. Lying
Under our bed was your forgotten lighter.
I ran to the forest and held its flame to a fir-cone.. 

“Lying” is nicely split between anticipation and retrospection but the poem, like its sibling, is disturbing: 

so I bolted downstairs, triple-clicked the locks,
and gave that pair and the house a gasoline shower.. 

In the voices of the arsonists, intent on murder, these poems leave unclear whether they concur or condemn. Are they pointing to the murderous impulses which lurks within us all? Certainly, they seem to clash a little with the apparent love of nature elsewhere. They bring to mind Maupassant’s famous and excellent story La Femme Sauvage, but in his case it’s clear the old woman has been driven insane by grief and is no longer capable of moral reasoning.  

Reddick is descended from the Stephensons. There’s a poem about the Rocket in which she encounters the famous bronze of Robert in Euston Square, as if it’s a surprise. The statue has been there, more or less permanently, since the late nineteenth century. 

One of my father’s folk, but no more like me
Than beetle-browed Darwin. 

Why Darwin? Robert Stephenson was a good Victorian capitalist who left an estate of some £400,000 (about £40 million today) and contributed significantly to global warming. He died before Arrhenius did his laborious calculations to establish a link between C02 and global warming. Still, he and his contemporaries were driven by the desire for lucre which has been the propellant of the climate crisis.  

There are one or two infelicities: 

“If you could descend into strata, their
underground storeys” 

somewhat tautological. 

“Their eye-pupils gaped..” 

Pupils would be enough. 

“You can make out a mineshaft, deep as a cathedral..” 

You can see what she means, but cathedrals are high rather than deep. 

“It was his car that they spotted first, without him in

The relative pronoun does no work and the last two words are redundant.

Reddick cleaves  to the typical style of contemporary poetry. She drips with prizes, usually a bad sign. Prizes enforce conformism as entrants have to appeal to the judges, which engenders a Please The Teacher School of literature. Had there been a Booker in 1922, Joyce wouldn’t have got  near it. What’s making new in literature is unlikely to appeal to competition setters.  

Is this collection eco-poetry? If so, it’s close to fraudulent. One of the best environmentalists is Vaclav Smil. What makes him good is maths. Whether he spends time contemplating plants on hillsides or out-staring hares, his writing doesn’t say; but he understands climate change is a matter of numbers. The Cambridge economist John Eatwell published a study some years ago in which he showed that between 1970 and the early 1990s the proportions of global capital invested for the long-term or used for speculation had flipped: in 1970 about 90% of capital was invested, by the later date, 90% was speculative. That’s a disaster for the planet because if we are to avoid the catastrophe of making the planet uninhabitable for most of us, with its implication of billions being wiped out, we have to think in terms of centuries. If capital is in the hands of gamblers who, like the punter in the bookies putting a tenner on a horse and hoping to walk out with thirty, five minutes later, we are sure to push on to devastating levels of warming. There is nothing about this here. Reddick doesn’t say what has to be said about global warming because if you do, you get abuse and death threats. This is poetry too tame, prim and comme il faut to take on the corporate forces which are driving us to a terrible reckoning. Vaclav Smil gives us the numbers. For example, there are 25,000 planes in the global commercial fleet. None is green. The COP 26 target is a reduction of 50% in C02 emissions by 2030. That gives us six years to build 12,500 green jumbo jets. We won’t build one because we don’t have the technology. The air companies talk of biofuels, lighter planes, leaner engines, but that implies no increase in kilometres flown and is there any commercial air company not going to try to increase its business? The only way to hit the target is to cut flights by 50%. Who’s talking about that? The drive for profit is too blinding. Smil’s numbers are indispensable, but he doesn’t tell us how to organize and bring change. That’s where the real problem lies. To save the planet the interests of the common folk have to be put ahead of those of the rich and that hasn’t happened for a very long time.  

One of the best ways to diminish global warming is to live in a city (as Reddick does) in a well-insulted house or flat, powered by renewables, get around on public transport, by bike and on foot and stay off planes. The members of the Countryside Alliance are not good environmentalists. Living in the sticks and driving your Range Rover fifteen miles for a pint of milk is no way to cut C02. Yet would CA members find any challenge here?  

On the evidence of this collection, Reddick is too intent on making her way to overturn any apple carts. The powerful corporates which may be our undoing have no reason to be upset by nature poetry. They like nothing more than communing when the business week is done. But they are what Adam Smith called “the masters of mankind” and their “vile maxim” as it was in his day remains: “everything for ourselves, nothing for anyone else.” That is what we have to break if we are going to save ourselves from utter disaster and that is, therefore, what a serious eco-literature must embrace.