Rebecca Watts, The Met Office Advises Caution (Carcanet, £9.99), reviewed by Lucy Winrow.
The delicate cover illustration of The Met Office Advises Caution features a tiny figure outside a burning house, clinging to another figure as it floats away. The scene is arranged in a circular pattern of wispy flowers and birds that – depending on their position – appear to be flying or falling. It well reflects the ambivalence and fragility of human experience that Rebecca Watts explores in her debut collection: the life-death cycle and the relationship between the human and natural world. Watts has described being drawn to animals: “their un-self consciousness and their (in the main) indifference to me is liberating.” It seems that against the backdrop of the natural world, Watts finds the freedom to probe unsettling thoughts and emotions.
In ‘Two Bats,’ a bat enters a couple’s home on two separate occasions. The first incident takes place “four floors up” in an urban location: “though it hadn’t meant to come, its two short flights / cast suspicion on the room, before it joined us, trembling.” To negate its disconcerting presence, the speaker anthropomorphises the bat as “a baby” and ascribes it with human emotions: “no bigger than a thumb; a pulse. Humbled, / it held still as we slid the pint glass under / then raised it slowly to the moon.” When this happens again, this time in a rural setting, the interaction is altogether different: “the second was sent. Full-grown, / it knew its way around the landscape better than I / who’d thrown the sash down early to inhale the moors.” The speaker’s composure stalls in unfamiliar surroundings; fear is evident in the irrational notion that the bat was “sent” and is “issuing a challenge”:
it flung itself back and forth above our heads,
a glove, issuing a challenge over and over.
No instincts rose. Perhaps we were too familiar;
perhaps we already knew that if it settled
we’d be repulsed by black eyes, membranous skin,
bared teeth like a little man’s.
The observation “perhaps we were too familiar” is delivered with a jolt after the caesura, altering the course of the poem. Just as the bat’s ‘breach’ disrupts the humanly-constructed divide between humans and other animals, it unearths discontent in the couple’s relationship. The first-person plural narration which described a nurturing mutual response in the first stanza, now communicates shared dread. The animal’s body, grimly detailed despite their averted eyes, evokes a suppressed problem. With a hint of shame, “someone else / nobler with a tea towel” is left to deal with the bat, as unresolved thoughts persist: “though we were left to sleep, / something hung on in the dark between us.”
Other encounters with animals prompt ruminations on mortality in the poems. ‘The Hare’ focuses on a hare’s final moments after being hit by a car, and the slowed-down horror of its struggle to cling to life: “like a hot baby in the act of waking, / coming round to the sense of a mother / somewhere, to justify its reaching.” This paradoxical image simulates the moment between life and death where the animal teeters, assimilating the speaker’s futile urge to protect it. The unflinching focus intensifies in the final lines, closing in on the animal’s face:
shaping a soundless cry to the morning
and its big black eyes gaping
as though looking for an exit.
With an open mouth and “gaping” eyes, the hare appears ‘speechless’ with shock; this also creates the sensation of being swallowed, enveloping the reader in thoughts of their own mortality. The speaker stares with morbid fascination into the hare’s cavernous eyes, likewise unable to escape the situation. The public, exposed nature of death in the wild allows Watts to contemplate death and the dying body in a way that might feel too direct or repellent with a human subject. This can similarly be seen in ‘The Molecatcher’s Warning’:
Ten miles from the nearest anywhere
the landscape was a disbanded library
Only the moles remained,
strung on a barbed wire fence,
a dozen antiquated books forced open.
Contrary to the opening line, the scene asks a question of the viewer. Described as a “disbanded library,” the order and meaning it once conveyed has dwindled over time, just as the moles’ bodies have decayed: “not a scrap hanging on / inside the stretched skins, / their spines disintegrating.” Viewed afresh through a stranger’s eyes, the scene is interpreted as a warning: “Read in me / they wanted to declare / how it all ends,” but the aim is questionable if “their kin / can’t read anything / but earth.” Ultimately, these bodies – “forced open” and displayed by human hands – bear a message only humans can understand as, unlike moles who seem immersed in living, they are constantly aware of their transience on earth.
Conventional notions of romantic coupling are defamiliarised in ‘On Marriage,’ as the intuitive anglerfish (“ambivalence impossible / they fuse – symbiotic / so never let go”) is juxtaposed with contrived human attempts at intimacy: “On land, though, / before that bold witness, the sun / how does she lure him?” Mimicking the nature documentary voice-over, the tone highlights the behavioural differences between humans and other animals. The dilemma of human connection is frustrated by doubt and a lack of predetermined, external guidance:
to hook him on a scented thing?
a self no better than himself
(her blood circulating in her body)
(his blood circulating in his body)
The un-traversable distance between the bodies is emphasised by closed brackets; isolated from one another, they must construct their own bonding process:
like a bite on the belly
marine snow makes
The act of biting feels foolish and arbitrary, and while it presumably leaves a mark in a vulnerable area, this is temporary and will heal over. The final two lines, which refer to biological debris falling through the ocean, echo the poem’s earlier sentiment that what occurs naturally in water must be manufactured on land.
Over the course of the collection, a subtle shift in perspective takes place. In the opening poem ‘Realism,’ the speaker remarks matter-of-factly that a tree is “a prop / for the sagging sky” and concludes: “I believe the tree / and note it down as the answer / to its own question.” However, this assured tone falters mid-way through the book in ‘Insomniac,’ where the sleepless speaker (“walking the towpath / cheeks pale / I am dissolving”) seems crave order in the natural world as if to stave off a dissipating sense-of-self: “all I want / is everything to slot into / its proper place: / flat sky, round moon, straight path, dark river.” This suggests that the two are deeply connected but as other poems have shown, this is not within our control. The penultimate poem ‘Christmas Day’ revisits the subject of marriage as the speaker – “Home, yes / unmarried, yes” – senses their failure to comply with a familial or social expectation which, as previously established, feels absurd. To avoid the situation, the speaker goes walking and once again, encounters with nature seem to provoke more questions that it offers answers:
like disciples, arms thrown up
or surrender, or
whatever they hold themselves
There is no full stop to the final line, no concrete answer. The speaker seems to have arrived at a point where coming to terms with human existence is seen as a process of being observant, open and questioning, shunning neat conclusions – however tempting – and facing the uncertainties.