“I’m making this up as they go along.”
Bear with me: you might blanche at the idea of a fifty page poem on the life-cycle – what little we know of it – of the European Eel, but it is fascinating. Not just steeped, as it is in a wide variety of sciences, but with an obvious care to the language. It is very clearly and unapologetically a poem, a fine, fine poem.
The story-poem and life-cycle starts and ends in the Sargasso Sea – “a bright lens of brine” – drifts across the Atlantic, from where it can wander randomly up any one of a multitude of river systems, in this case we follow the Humber “where they hide from the light in the dredgings of Empire”, and into the flatlands of South Yorkshire / Lincolnshire, “…the kingdom / of the Amazon Fulfilment Centre…” with its “devastation of investment, jobs and growth“, eventually, into a fish tank and all the way back again. To the climax.
“…The embryos float / in the Miocene water like dust motes / caught in a shaft of light, and ascending / through the photo cline, join the thermonuclear / microplankton of the drifting epipelagic.”
“…the Gulf Stream, a roaring silt river / hurtling north on the edge of the American / continental shelf, its estuaries of blight: / oestrogen-saturated sewage, methamphetamine / neurotoxins, chromosome-warping / neonicotinoid run-off.“
Bits of history and local lore are noted in passing, as are the unavoidable ‘physicalities’ “...rat smells / trout smells, effluent from the Landrace piggery / stinks of dead pigeon, pheasant and crow.“
The “underslung hook-jaw” is sacrificed in the startling metamorphosis and extraordinary self-consuming effort of the return journey. Over the course of the “Eight months and six thousand fasting miles” she “reduces herself“, “every non-essential body-part – eyes and bones, / digestive tract…“, “…of the flesh of her gourmet body” recycled, in the cause. It is hard to do justice to the creative effort that has gone into imagining this stage of the eels’ lives and I guess this is where the poetry lives, taking the scant facts, filling in the gaps, and portraying one possible version of the generally unimaginable.
Yes, you will (probably) need access to a dictionary, Google or the like, but that doesn’t have to slow you down. Savour the feel and sound of the strange words the first time, roll them around on your tongue, enjoy the musicality of the piece, then come back later and do your research.
Containing art work by PR Ruby, the book is handsomely presented and available from Longbarrow Press: https://longbarrowpress.com/current-publications/