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Symbiont: 50 Sonnets by Dominic Hand (Veer Books)

Symbiont: 50 Sonnets by Dominic Hand (Veer Books)

The emphasis in the environmental sciences nowadays is less on Darwinian competitiveness than on how organisms interact synergically in complex systems. Meantime old concepts of nature have steadily been eroded, both by posthumanism and the recognition of the Anthropocene. Changes have consequently been due in nature writing, which can often still be structured around the human, personal and agonistic. Since language itself is structured that way – subjects and accusatives, persons and possessives – it’s no easy project, but one which innovative poetries – more willing than the mainstream to radically disrupt conventions – have so far had most success in undertaking.

Dominic Hand’s ecopoetics is particularly inventive and visually dramatic. His sonnets’ full justification, small font, lower case and lack of punctuation mean they appear as striated squares, like something blockily manufactured. The same features make them a dizzying and dense read: each poem a single sentence whose clausal links are participles, prepositions or relative pronouns rather than conjunctions. The formalism evokes the connectedness of each poem’s ecosystem, while I guess the phrasal stacking enacts the complexity of entanglement and permeability within it:

tumbling like motes in an eye’s cold prism
the multi-dimensional non-motile drifts
of diatoms jinking through benthic plasm
constellate fragments of starlight in rifts
as subdued as the night sky’s deep and atlantean
gravities corralling dust clouds to maps
of compassless pyrenoids sequestering carbon
in scattershot nebulas of jet-propelled salps
where larvae of herrings and urchins revolve
in orbit around the ghost nets and nurdles
disjected from dead zones to gloam or dissolve
like space-junk a blank cyclorama encircles
with mass-shifting clusters of radiolarians
secreting  dark  silicas  crushed  down  to  aeons

The poems share a focused present tense and a vocabulary rich in scientific Graecisms, among diverse rhythms and novel part-rhymes (‘lily pad […] helipad’ was among my favourites). Their global metaphor is symbiosis: trees and fungi, oxpeckers and impalas, cleaner fish and eels, with the cognizance that humans are most often a parasitic part of the arrangements. Among much wordplay, the language of finance often infiltrates, a reminder that Donna Haraway and others prefer the term Capitalocene to Anthropocene. Allusions to Marvell, Hopkins, Dickinson and so on ‘versify’, I suppose, the ecological process of succession. Great titles like ‘In a Landskip’ and ‘To a Hyperobject’ made me smile (albeit bitterly). I also learned lots about botany, animal navigation, plankton (see above), fracking, bacteria, factory farming, plastiglomerates, polymers… Whew.

The main emotion I experienced, besides wonder or horror at what’s depicted, was admiration veering to reverence as to its creation. The posthumanist turn with its vanished narrator does risk, ironically enough, restoring deific qualities to writers as, appropriating the internet’s omniscience, they stride across the specialist lexicons of genetics, geology, water engineering and computer networking with their name on the cover still signposting a distinct locus of origin and control. In whatever case this collection hardly needs me as a commensual symbiont; it and its young author have already won several deserved prizes, and the back-page blurbs are from J.H. Prynne and Peter Larkin. But I’ll say it anyway: it’s just fabulous.

Guy Russell 25th May 2022

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