Natural Phenomena took a long time to write. I’d reached an impasse – several, in fact – and didn’t know how to get out.
For a start, there was the city. It was my home, but it seemed to manifest everything wrong with my modern life: too fast, too loud, too crowded, too abrasive, too polluted, too littered, too much. And every day it brought me face-to-face with what we were doing to the environment: the muck-pink film of haze over the horizon, the squirrel turning a still-wrapped Kit Kat between its paws, the burger wrappers caught in the hedge. Because of love and work, I had to find a way to keep living there, but I didn’t know how.
Secondly, there was the impasse I’d reached with writing. Every time the ‘I’ appeared in my poems, I cringed. It was too needy, too grabby, had too many designs and intentions. Who on earth did ‘I’ think it was? It seemed to address the reader as if it was the Oracle. Even grammatical structure seemed suspect at this point: the minute I connected one word to another, my ambition for the poem seemed to charge in, like the stereotypical pushy parent on sports day.
Then one of my closest friends died; suddenly and too early.
A very personal, very thorough kind of impasse, this grieving was. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t even – much – talk. But I could walk. And so I walked, for hours and hours, in the park and by the roundabout, along the edge of the rec and through the small wood at the end of our street, beside the pond and around the tea hut, over and over in loops and circles, one foot and then another until hunger or thirst or tiredness made me head home.
And as I walked, my fellow inhabitants of the world – the birds and animals and plants and people, the built things and the grown things, the still things and the moving things; all the things that persisted despite the fact that Tara had died, despite the fact that they too, like me, like us all, would end – started to catch my attention.
I found myself one day crouched over a plant jutting from the wall of a boarded-up house. I knew this plant, I saw it everywhere. What was it? I looked it up on the internet: green alkanet. A weed, with a name you could trace back to Old Arabic. Once I knew what it was, I saw the stuff everywhere; blatant in plain sight, a retort to the rule of tarmac and brick and concrete.
I started paying attention. I learnt more plant names – tansy, marsh pennywort, herb robert – and watched more closely the creatures I saw on my walks. I watched feral pigeons drinking from puddles, speckled wood butterflies tumble-duel, flying ants swarm around pavement cracks. I started writing down what I noticed. I didn’t worry any more about the ‘I’, or whether intention was leaning too heavily upon a poem. I didn’t need to: all I had were these fragments which I slowly pieced together, not thinking too strategically or rationally, just letting kinship between their sounds guide me.
Then I realised I’d found a way to stay in the city. My walking had uncovered those quiet, in-between spaces I’d been looking for, where I could step out of the rush and noise – but in fact, I didn’t need to shut that rush and noise out any more. The talk that felt so suffocating before as it swirled around me in cafés and on escalators began to fascinate me. Here were more beautiful fragments; traces from entire secret worlds belonging to other humans who were angry or afraid or sad like me, enmeshed in language just as I was.
I’m with Michael Haslam (A Cure for Woodness, 2010, Arc): ‘Nature’ is everything – and that includes the city. It’s blocked drains and street-wide puddles, black mould on windowsills, TB, asthma, scabies. It’s raised voices and vomit on the platform, the dark mice at Holborn with the half-tails. It’s parakeets and blackbirds, the howl of planes and the bone-drilling imperatives of power saws. It’s feral, which means it doesn’t wholly submit to human regulation, but which also means it’s changed and harmed by what we do, by our coffee cup lids and carrier bags, by the times we hop into the car instead of taking the bus, by the towers we build and the spaces we pave over and the way we don’t listen to what’s around us – especially each other.
Natural Phenomena tries to think about all that. It tries to be with nature and the city, noise and quiet, life and death at the same time. Because we are natural phenomena too, and brief.